by Brandon Mull
The Shedder picked up the baseball bat while John pulled out a sleek pistol. John was frowning. He had hoped to avoid doing this the hard way. The darts in the gun were full of a sinister neurotoxin manufactured by his employer. For nearly an hour after the toxin was administered, any muscle contraction would cause a burst of excruciating pain, making movement intolerable.
As the Shedder charged with the bat raised, John tagged him in the chest with a dart. Rolling behind the rock pile as the bat swung, John put a dart into the young Vietnamese woman before she could recover. Muffled by the duct tape, the Shedder was trying to scream. John’s employers knew their business. The effect of the neurotoxin was nearly instantaneous. The woman cried out as well.
“Hold still,” John demanded, staying low, pain searing his jaw as he spoke. “Only movement will hurt. I want to hear you drop that bat.”
Instead he heard more stifled screaming and the sound of a body slapping down against the rocks. The Shedder had tried to keep moving despite the pain, and had passed out. John had never met anyone who could endure that much pain and remain conscious. Anyone besides himself.
The toxin was one of John’s most effective ways to subdue enemies. The pain kept his targets immobile or knocked them unconscious. And since the unconsciousness resulted from movements the targets chose to make, it did not affect John.
But when he moved, John felt pain just as sharply as they did. Muscles protesting in dizzying agony, he walked around the rock pile and retrieved the fallen bat. He had learned to cope with pain through countless injuries, most of them sustained vicariously. Over the years, he had gained the capacity to tolerate just about anything.
The Vietnamese woman glared at him, caged by the prospect of unendurable agony. Her eyes blinked, tears pooling in them.
“Even hurts to blink,” John said. “Sometimes life is unfair.”
John walked around the side of the school bus. All remained dark inside. Teeth grinding together against the anguish in his muscles, John hurled the wooden bat through one of the windows. “Why not come out, Samson?”
“That you, John?” a voice called from inside.
“You know it is,” John said. “And you know you’re cornered. A temporary lair is not going to cut it.”
“Come in and get me.”
John removed a canister of tear gas from his coat, opened it, and tossed it through the window. When his eyes began to sting, he knew that Samson had no emergency gas mask stashed away in there. Tears streamed down John’s cheeks, and he coughed uncontrollably, the spasms triggering waves of agony throughout his body.
Samson stumbled out of the front door of the bus followed by a cloud of caustic fumes. He held a bedspread to his face, which John tore from his grasp. Samson was a thin, veiny man with his head shaved and several tattoos on his bony arms. Blinking away tears, nauseous with pain, John roughly strapped Samson into a straitjacket.
“Why are you doing this, John?” Samson gasped. “Don’t you already have enough enemies?”
“You shouldn’t have come here,” John said. “You forced my hand. You should have known something like this would happen.” John wrapped Samson in the bedspread, lashing it to him with thin, strong cords.
“I should have known some callous lackey for a despicable group of schemers would drag me from my home in the middle of the night?” Although he failed to muster much spittle, Samson spat at John. “How do you live with yourself?”
“One day at a time.” John tightened the cords.
“You’re not the only guy who knows I’m in town,” Samson wheezed. “The other magicians have no great love for me, but they won’t be pleased to learn about this.”
“Maybe they’ll take the hint.”
Samson cackled and coughed. “They don’t run, John. Me, maybe. Them? No way. You ought to be the one running.” He struggled inside of the bedspread burrito.
“Thanks for the concern. Don’t give me any trouble. I’m already in a lot of pain. I’d gladly suffer a bit more.”
Samson grinned. He had two gold teeth. “I know the limits of what you can do to me.”
“Right. Which is why I’ll have a courier deliver you and your sideshow sidekicks to my employers.”
Samson paled. “I’ll give you ten times the money they’re paying you—”
“Fifty times,” he pleaded.
“Friend, you made your bed, I’m just tucking you in.”
The Blue Falcons
Nate sat at the end of a sheetless mattress, bouncing a small rubber ball off the bare wall, keeping count of how many consecutive times he caught it. The ball got away from him and rolled toward the open, empty closet, coming to rest against the base of a cardboard box.
His new room was a little bigger than the old one, but felt unfamiliar and impersonal. Once the boxes were unpacked it would look a lot better.
His mom entered carrying another box with his name printed in blue marker. “You’re not getting much done,” she said.
“I don’t know where to start,” Nate replied.
“Just do this one,” she said, setting the box at the foot of his bed. “After you finish you can go play outside.”
“Play what? Robinson Crusoe?”
“I just saw some kids your age riding bikes.”
“They’re probably idiots.”
“Now, don’t have that attitude,” she sighed. “Since when did you become shy?”
“I don’t want to start all over again in a new place. I miss my old friends.”
“Nate, we’re here, and we’re not leaving. If you make some friends in the neighborhood before school starts, you’ll have a much better time.”
“I’d have a better time if Tyler moved here.”
His mom used a key to hack through the tape sealing the box. “That would be nice, but you’ll have to settle for e-mail. Get to work.” She left the room.
Still seated at the end of the mattress, Nate leaned forward and pulled back the cardboard flaps. The box contained a bunch of his old trophies cocooned in newspaper. He had a lot of trophies for a ten-year-old, having played four years of soccer and three of Little League.
He unwrapped the biggest trophy, earned last year by his first-place soccer team, the Hornets. He had been stuck at fullback all season, and had seen less action than ever. The forwards and halfbacks had generally kept the ball at the other end of the field as the team paraded unchallenged to their undefeated season. The coach, a black guy from Brazil whose son was the star forward, had spent the season yelling at Nate to stand up and stop picking grass. As if he couldn’t just hop to his feet on those rare occasions when the ball visited his side of the field. Picking grass was far more entertaining than watching his teammates score goals off in the distance. They should have equipped him with binoculars instead of shin guards.
Soon the trophies were aligned on a shelf, and the newspapers were wadded on the floor. Beneath the trophies, Nate found a bunch of his books, along with a broad assortment of comics. He loaded them into the bookshelf, then heaped the wadded newspapers back inside the box.
He walked out into the hall, weaving around boxes to get to the bathroom and wash the newspaper ink off his palms. There were even boxes in the bathroom. He lived in a warehouse.
Inspiration struck while he was rinsing his hands. If they saved all the boxes, he could construct an awesome fort. He stood at the sink considering the possibilities, staring into the mirror without seeing anything. It would need a drawbridge, and secret passages, and a rope swing. How many stories tall? Where could he get barbed wire? What if the fort ended up bigger than the house, and his family chose to live there instead? He would have to weatherproof it.
“You all right, Nate?”
He turned to face his dad. “Could I have the boxes when we’re done with them?”
“I’m sure we could spare a few. How come?”
“I want to build a fort.”
br /> “We’ll see.”
“Maybe you can glue milk cartons under it and sail to Hawaii.” This comment came from his older sister, Cheryl, poking her head into the bathroom. She was referring to his failed attempt to assemble a raft out of milk cartons. He had insisted that the family store empty cartons in the garage for months after he had seen a guy on the news piloting a milk-carton barge. Eventually, overwhelmed by the logistics of joining milk cartons to form a seaworthy vessel, he had abandoned the project.
“Maybe you can go polish your braces,” he retorted. “They look rusty.”
His dad stuck out an arm to hold Cheryl back. “None of that,” he said, suppressing a grin. “Nate, why don’t you go outside for a while? I saw some kids playing out there.”
“But I don’t know them.”
“Then go get acquainted. When I was your age, I was friends with whoever happened to be out roaming the neighborhood.”
“Sounds like a good way to get stabbed by a hobo,” Nate grumbled.
“You know what I mean.”
“I guess. Is my bike in the garage?”
“It’s buried in there somewhere. I’ll dig it out for you.”
Summer pedaled furiously up the street on her stupid pink bicycle with the white basket between the handlebars. She could hear Trevor closing in behind her. He always gained a little when they went uphill. At the top of the street, she coasted around the corner, then pumped her legs hard. She would pull farther ahead now that the road was flat, then make the lead embarrassing when they headed back down Monroe.
She rounded the last corner.
“Car!” Trevor screamed from behind her.
She hit her brakes before realizing the warning was a desperate trick. Grunting, she pedaled wildly to recover her lost momentum. Trevor almost pulled alongside her. She glimpsed his front tire out of the corner of her eye. Then it was gone, and she was stretching her lead. A kid standing on a driveway beside a bike watched her race past. The downward slope of the road was working to her advantage. Wind whistled in her ears and made her hair flutter. She passed the mailbox that served as the finish line and coasted to the bottom of the circle.
Glancing back, she saw Trevor reach the mailbox a few seconds behind her. Poor Pigeon had barely passed the kid standing in his driveway. The kid mounted his bike and followed Pigeon down the street. He looked about her age, with reddish-blond hair and a blue T-shirt. His bike looked new.
Summer stood straddling her bike. Trevor and Pigeon pulled up near her, turning to watch the new kid skid to a stop.
“What are you guys doing?” the kid asked Trevor.
“Playing water polo,” Summer said.
“You’re pretty funny,” the kid said. “You should join the circus.”
Trevor and Pigeon laughed. The kid smiled.
“Are you new here?” Trevor asked.
“My family just moved in from Southern California.”
“What area?” Pigeon asked.
“Mission Viejo. Between San Diego and L.A. My name’s Nate.”
“Like the bird?” Nate asked.
Pigeon shrugged. “Everybody just started calling me that in second grade.” He shot Trevor and Summer a meaningful glance, silently imploring them to keep the rest of the story secret.
“How long have you had that bike?” Summer asked.
“Have you ridden it before?”
“What do you mean?”
“It looks brand-new.”
“I wash it sometimes. I’ll teach you how if you want.”
Pigeon and Trevor chuckled. Summer glanced down at her dirty bicycle frame, groping for a comeback. She had nothing. “What grade are you in?”
“I’m going into fifth.”
“So are we,” Trevor said.
“What’s the school again?”
“Mt. Diablo,” Pigeon said. “It means Devil’s Mountain.”
“Sounds like a roller coaster. Have you guys always lived here?”
“I moved down here from Redding three years ago,” Trevor said. “Summer and Pidge have always lived in Colson.”
“Where are your houses?”
“I’m right there,” Trevor said, twisting and pointing at the last house on the street. “Pigeon lives on the other side of the circle.”
“And I live across the creek,” Summer said.
The bottom curve of Monroe Circle had no houses. Instead there was a paved jogging path, beyond which a brushy slope descended to a creek lined with trees and shrubs. From where they were standing, Summer could see the roof of her home.
“Do you surf?” Pigeon asked.
Summer rolled her eyes. “Just because he’s from Southern California doesn’t make him a surfer.”
“I tried it once,” Nate said. “I kept wiping out. My uncle surfs a lot. What do you guys do for fun besides ride bikes?”
“We’ve got a club,” Pigeon said.
Summer glared at him.
“What kind of club?” Nate asked.
Pigeon squinted uncertainly at Trevor. “We’re still working on that,” Trevor said.
“We started as a detective agency,” Summer explained. “We sent out flyers, but nobody wanted to hire us, except for Pigeon’s mom who sent us to buy groceries. So we became a treasure-hunting society. We didn’t have much success with that either. Now we’re mainly a trespassing club.”
“We sneak into places,” Summer said.
“We broke into a water-processing plant,” Trevor said.
“And a rich guy’s barn,” Pigeon added.
“Do you take stuff?” Nate asked.
“No way!” Summer said. “We don’t harm anything. We just sneak in, check things out, and take off.”
“And keep an eye out for treasure,” Pigeon added.
“That sounds really cool,” Nate said. “How do I join?”
“I don’t know,” Summer said. “We’re pretty selective.”
“Let me guess,” Nate said. “Nobody has ever tried to join.”
“Something like that,” Summer admitted. “We need to figure out the specifics. We can’t just let any random kid become a member. Why don’t you go back to your house for a while and let us talk things over.”
“For how long?” Nate asked.
Summer shrugged. “Come back in fifteen minutes.”
“Back so soon?” his mom asked when Nate entered the kitchen from the garage. She was loading dishes from a box into the dishwasher.
“Did you talk to those kids?”
“They have some club, but they’re not sure if I can join.”
His mom put her hands on her hips. “Do you want me to go talk with them?”
“No!” Nate exclaimed, feeling a surge of genuine alarm. Then he saw that his mom was grinning. She was teasing. “I think they’re trying to make up an initiation.”
“Don’t eat anything unsanitary. What sort of club is it?”
“Mainly bike riding,” Nate said, plopping down in a chair at the kitchen table. He pushed aside a box and began flicking a quarter to spin it, periodically checking the digital clock on the microwave.
“Are the kids nice?” his mom asked, closing the dishwasher.
“I guess. One is called Pigeon. He seems like a wuss. There’s also a kid named Trevor who seems all right, and a girl named Summer who’s a real comedian.”
“Don’t tell me she was giving you competition.” His mom pressed a couple of buttons and started the dishwasher. “So why are you in here?”
“They said they need time. I’m supposed to go back after I give them a few minutes to decide what I need to do to join.”
r /> “Does the club have a name?”