The Crabapple Gang: The Gift of Dane
By David C. Baxter
Copyright © 2017, David C. Baxter
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No portion of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, digitally, or mechanically without explicit written permission from the author.
Edited by Ann-Marie Trammell
Illustration by Corbin Baxter
For my nieces: Mackenzie, Macy, and Cameron. Thank you for inspiring me to write this novel.
And for my wife. Thank you for your constant support in all my side projects.
The last child joined the others around the door upstairs. The huddled group was enamored with the flickering light behind the cracked door. Penny’s Intruder crept up the stairs without a sound. At the top of the stairs, the Intruder slunk into the master bedroom.
Dane glanced over his shoulder. Shadows thrown from the surging light must’ve played a trick with his mind. He could’ve sworn the door by the staircase had closed. He turned back to the light. What did the room conceal?
Tommy smiled at him, a kind gesture, but the throbbing light twisted Tommy’s face in sinister shadows, like Two-Face’s deformed side.
Dane smelled Tommy’s stale sweat, like leaving his gym clothes in his bag over the weekend.
“I don’t think anyone’s in there,” Tommy whispered.
Dane wasn’t so sure. What’d Penny said outside? The house might really be haunted. It did feel occupied…no, more like alive. Maybe it was the way the light pulsed off the foyer tiles and walls. A darkness clawed at him. It took effort to look back. Yeah, his friends felt the same. Penny looked the worst, her strained face pulling her beauty away.
Dane forced a smile, rubbing the goose bumps on his arm. But, he couldn’t rub away the vision of those fangs and hellish eyes. The monster lurked behind that sadistic strobe. But if they didn’t go in after Mad Murry, who would?
Dane heard nothing but the whoosh of his exhale. “Paul, give me the camera.”
Paul passed it over without a word.
Dane turned on the camera’s light, moved past Tommy, and shouldered the door open. The relenting light refracted off two steel tables. He panned the camera: a flash of light on the wall and a figure behind it. A scream jammed his throat. The light and figure moved.
Dane shook the camera. The light near the wall mimicked the movement. It was the camera’s light reflecting off a closed window and the figure behind it was his.
But something was in here. Something was watching him.
Dane swung the camera to the left, using both hands to steady it. Fear glued his sneakers to the tile floor.
On the far side of the room, the mad-faced-mask of a Modifier glared down at him. He squinted at it on the camera’s monitor. The monster would lurk up on him in the darkness, between the strobes, and devour him. And there was nothing he could do about it.
Clicking behind him: the gnashing of fanged teeth? Dane gulped preparing himself for the feeling of two needles in his neck. Is that what a vampire’s bite would feel like? He’d watched so many movie victims encounter that fate, but he’d never stopped to think what a vampire’s bite would really feel like.
The room ignited in blessed light washing away the night terror.
Dane glanced back. The clicking had been Tommy flipping the light switch.
An arm wrapped around his shoulders with the smell of strawberries.
“We can go get your Yoda nightlight,” Alex said with devious eyes. “You know, if it makes you feel better.”
“Thanks.” Dane scanned the lab from left to right: shelves crammed with books to the left, clear-plastic marker boards covered in black, formulaic scribbles, and the two lengthy tables.
The rest entered and spread throughout the monster-less room.
On the far wall, the face of the Modifier was nothing more than a sun mask. It was what was below the mask that grabbed Dane’s attention.
“Mad Murry built a lab,” Paul said, crossing to the formula boards.
Tommy studied Paul.
“They affectionately call your uncle Mad Murry,” Penny said, blushing. “Actually, my generation did the same. Sorry.”
“It has to be for the portal,” Alex said.
Dane followed Alex between the tables and to the carved hole below the sun mask.
Everyone gravitated to it, except for Tommy who rummaged through papers on one of the tables.
“The hole,” Dane said, “is nothing but cut-away plaster and sheetrock.”
Simone peered in. “I can see the house’s brick wall.”
“They’re like our bracelets,” Paul said, all his fear gone.
Dane zoomed in on one of the round, white stones.
“It’s not possible.” Simone pushed up her glasses. “Do you mind?” she asked Collin.
Collin reached up.
Dane focused on Collin’s hand. It slipped between the hole’s curved frame and the stone.
“Careful not to touch it,” Penny said.
Like a magician showing the absence of wires, Collin’s hand moved between the stone and the hole’s edge.
“Sims,” Dane said, “any of your science magazines have anything about this?”
“Now that you mention it,” Simone’s eyes widened, “I read a blog post about the government trying to levitate a bowling ball.”
Dane handed the camera back to Paul and turned to Tommy. “How are they hovering?”
“My uncle didn’t say,” Tommy said. He didn’t look up from sifting through papers. “I think it has something to do with the drawings.”
“What drawings?” Penny asked.
Tommy’s eyes went to the top of the hole and the stones. He rushed over. “They’re gone!”
Beads of sweat dripped down Tommy’s forehead. The room was cool enough. Dane noticed a vent on the wall behind Tommy.
“They were the answer to opening it,” Tommy said.
Dane lifted his bracelet. “Like this?”
Tommy grabbed his wrist.
“Sorry,” Tommy said, letting go. “It’s just that my uncle’s bracelet had a drawing as well. It was different and so were the ones on the stones.”
“Could you draw them?” Penny asked.
Tommy shook his head. “We were attacked before I got a chance to study them.”
“Let’s just use Dane’s bracelet,” Alex said. “You know, to open a new portal.”
“No.” Tommy ruffled his hair and went back to the splay of papers.
“We know it works,” Dane said.
“It would only bring you back through this one,” Tommy said. “It’s the way back.”
“From where?” Paul asked.
Tommy crossed to the bookshelves. “Don’t know and it doesn’t matter.” He grabbed a hardcover book. “It’s broken.”
“Broken?” Simone asked.
“Before my uncle went through the symbols lit up automatically, in sync with his bracelet.” Tommy dropped the book and started yanking more from the shelves, spilling them to the floor. “He mumbled something and the portal ignited.”
“It’s voice activated,” Simone said.
Tommy kicked a fallen book. It slid across the tile, bouncing off the doorjamb. “The answer is in his journal. We must find it!”
In the spacious living room, Dane eyed Mad Murry’s DVD collection. The rows and rows of DVDs equaled the collection of Simone’s parents. Instead of action flicks and romantic comedies, Murry’s were more of the National Geographic and Discovery Channel variety.
“I’m going to tell Penny,” Alex yelled from the adjacent room, “you’re not following the buddy system.”
Why did Alex want him in the other room? Dane’s insides fluttered. Maybe she wanted to be alone with him?
Before he could make a decision, Alex entered, and asked, “Find anything?”
Ceiling lights highlighted the freckles under her eyes. Dane could write endless poems about those freckles:
Painted drops of beauty
Like endless stars in skies
The opus of a deity
Oceans of time line her eyes—
“You okay?” Alex asked.
“You totally zoned out. I thought you were having a brain aneurism or something.”
“Oh, um…” Dane ran his hand through his hair. “Nothing but nature DVDs in here. What did you find?”
“Ole Mad Murry may be crazy, but he’s got a pretty cozy reading room.”
“What’s in your hand?”
Alex studied the box. “The Chronicles of Narnia. The complete series. No journal though.”
“Lots of shelving and books?” he asked.
“Floor to ceiling. You really want to look behind each one?”
“It’d be a good place to hide a journal.” Dane crossed between the coffee table and television. “At the very least, we’ll know what Murry’s interests are.”
Alex lifted her bracelet hand. “May help us understand what these are all about.”
Dane took the box set, nearly dropping it, its weight surprising him. “Well, at least we know Mad Murry’s into teen fiction.”
“Little old for that.”
Her smile ignited every molecule within him.
“Alex, it’s a classic.” He put the box set on the coffee table. He needed an excuse to look away from that smile.
Keeping his eyes on his sneakers, Dane followed Alex into the library.
“Now this is where I’d hide a journal,” Dane said, looking up. He’d never seen such a variety of books, not in a home at least: colored paperbacks to ancient cracked leather bound. Alex was right; it was cozy. In the middle of the room, a small chandelier bathed dim light on a table. The round table’s petite size was a contrast to the two behemoth mahogany bookshelves which covered two walls floor to ceiling. There was even a ladder attached to a rail. Against the left wall sat a cigar chair and lamp.
“We should start at the bottom,” Alex said, dropping to her knees.
“So we can save pushing one another on the ladder for last?”
“No,” Alex said. “So we don’t block the bottom shelf with books we’ve already removed.”
“Oh, right.” He knelt next to Alex. Unlike Tommy, they took care to stack the books.
They’d emptied one of the bottom shelves when Dane asked, “Did you see how Tommy kept eyeing Penny’s bracelet?”
“He probably thought it was meant for him.” Alex flipped through a Stephen King hardcover. “But how’d he know it was the last one?”
Dane laid a book atop a stack. “You believe him about hiding the bracelets in the shed for safe keeping?”
“Maybe.” Alex grabbed another book. “He knew he was being chased. And that way it wouldn’t be on him if he was caught.”
“He wasn’t surprised when I said we tried my bracelet’s portal.”
“And what about the window in the lab?” Alex closed the book and set it down.
“What about it?”
“It was shut.”
“The Modifiers never broke in,” Dane said. “Tommy said it was two faceless guys, whatever that means.”
“No,” Alex said, pulling out a leather-covered book with both hands. “How did Tommy crawl out?”
“Maybe he came back and shut it.”
“I don’t think so,” Alex said, her eyes studying him. “Did you see how timid he was entering the house? I mean, he followed you into the lab.”
Dane reached for a book. He wanted to conceal his wide, goofy smile. Alex had noticed his bravery. Was that why she’d joked with him in the lab? To cover up the fact that she was impressed? The Men in Black could turn him into a vampire, he could walk the earth for eternity, and he’d still never understand girls.
The book he’d randomly grabbed was unusually thin, like a school workbook his parents made him complete during summer vacations. The book had a familiar illustration—
“Guys! C-c-come feel th-this—”
Dane dropped the book. “Collin?”
Alex’s worried eyes startled him. She stood and headed for the door. Dane followed.
Outside the library, Alex pointed across the living room.
“You knew he’d be in the kitchen, right?” Dane said, trying to lighten the mood. It didn’t work.
They sprinted for the door by the staircase.
Dane pushed through the door harder than he’d meant to. It smacked the wall, rebounding, almost knocking Alex to the floor.
“Open doors much?” she asked.
The kitchen had a table and nook to the right, and a sliding glass door on the far wall. To the left Collin stood behind an island counter top and in front of the fridge.
“You okay?” Dane asked.
“The-the-the j-j-jar.” Collin stared at the incomplete sandwich.
It was nothing but a piece of bread with a slice of ham on it. A knife with a glop of mayonnaise stuck to the slice of meat, as if magically spreading itself.
“What’s wrong, C-man?” Dane frowned. The last time his best friend had stuttered this severely he’d found out Brock and Max had taken Simone’s lunch money. Collin had been so upset he literally couldn’t speak.
Alex shot him a concerned glance.
Dane went to his friend and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I know you like your muscles, but you really don’t need five-thousand calories a day.”
“It w-was already out.”
Dane was unnerved by the distance in his friend’s voice.
Collin’s eyes jittered from the sandwich to the jar. “Didn’t w-want t-to w-w-waste—”
“You said something about feeling.” Alex said, coming around the other side of the island.
Collin grabbed Dane’s hand and placed it on the jar.
“Yes,” Dane said, “this mayonnaise jar—”
And then it struck him. “It’s cold.”
Collin nodded. “Someone was j-j-just here.”
“Or still is.” Dane’s eyes darted to the sliding glass door and the ominous night beyond it.
Alex rushed to the back door. “Still locked.”
“Upstairs is done!”
Collin’s shoulder tensed under Dane’s hand.
“It’s Paul upstairs.” Alex led them out of the kitchen.
On the second floor, Paul leaned over the banister, his peace sign swinging. “Only a bathroom and two other rooms up here. Mad Murry’s bedroom, which is a pigsty, and a guestroom at the other end. It doesn’t look like its being used. No journal.”
Alex tried the front door. “Locked.” Her brown eyes said it all: Whatever was in the kitchen was still in the house.
Dane looked up at Paul. “We found a jar of mayonnaise.”
“Huh?” Paul said.
Before Dane could explain, Penny and Simone came out of the lab. Penny carried her satchel and Simone had her backpack.
“Good news,” Penny said, passing Paul, “we’re going back to the library.”
Tommy walked out of the lab, standing firmly in the hallway. “I need help finding the journal.”
Penny jogged down the steps. “We’ll be right back.”
The human book depository was lined with tall trees, this pleased Brim. He and Mirk waited in the puny car.
The fledglings’ transport sat dormant further down the street. There were no shops or disgusting mini-malls, nothing but the backside of a multi-dwelling building. This was agreeable, less chance of modifying pesky witnesses. This would have appeased him, if not for the car, this putrid vehicle.
“This is deliberate,” Brim said through gritted fangs. “A human joke of some kind.” He stared out the passenger window, pulling out his gun.
“You said the same thirteen minutes earlier.” Mirk wiped his shades and put them on. He put the key in the Volkswagen’s ignition.
“It is named after an insect,” Brim said. “And the color. A weak, feminine blue. A prank I tell you!”
Mirk’s red lips curled. “I believe humans call it baby blue.”
“Exactly!” Brim snarled. He pointed the gun’s oval barrel out the window. “It is meant to make us fools.”
“The usual transportation is still inoperative. You drove it through a human-food establishment.” Mirk hovered his hand over the dashboard vase and its dried daisy. “We had to modify many patrons at the Dunkin Donuts.”
Brim studied his assigned partner. Was Mirk also making a joke? And what of this fascination with the plant? Nothing on this tilted orb deserved life.
Mirk’s aurora appeared from his fingertips, reflecting orange light in his sunglasses.
From brittle brown the daisy came to life. Its once dead pedals reached for Mirk’s life-force. The pedals returned to their pink color.
Mirk closed his hand, terminating the rays. He studied the vibrant flower, which turned up to him.
“Nonsense!” Brim slashed his hand over the plant: a black web of anti-light, as dark as Mirk’s shades, shot from his fingertips. It strangled the daisy, wilting it back to death.
“It is beyond me,” Brim said, “why you wish things of this planet’s time to live.” He turned to the night, aiming his gun out the window. “It is the one they call Jeffrey. He gave us this baby car.”
“Baby blue,” Mirk corrected.
“It is a trick,” Brim said, tracking with the gun. “A human will not betray me.”
Mirk smiled yellow fangs. “Krimson’s suspicions were correct. The younglings have help.”
Brim steadied the gun’s oval barrel. A cigarette-stained finger rested on the trigger.
Sitting on the curb outside the library, Dane scanned the parking lot. Even though it was well lit, it gave him an uneasy pull on his stomach like finding out his mom made Brussels sprouts for dinner.
Penny thought the parking lot was too conspicuous, so she’d parked on the side street. Across the lot and behind trees, the Blue Beast was hardly visible.
Why hadn’t he stayed in the van? And it wasn’t simply the night unnerving him. Alex, Collin, and Paul were inside the van surely theorizing what special powers they might develop and to what far off galaxies the portal might send them. But, it had felt right to walk Simone and Penny to the door.
Maybe he should’ve let Collin come with him. And leave Alex and Paul alone in the van?
Chin in hands, Dane noticed the plastic bag partially soaked in a puddle from last night’s rain.
He stretched out his bracelet hand, willing the bag to fly away. Nothing happened. He squinted at the gleeful pig graphic. Nothing. Not so much as a rustling crinkle.
“No luck,” Simone said, her glasses edging to the tip of her nose.
“Thought maybe my bracelet worked like Magneto’s from X-Men.”
Simone nudged her glasses up. “That intense emotion would make your power work?”
“No, instead of metal it only worked on plastic.” He stood, brushing his hands on his shorts. “Where’s Penny?”
“Checking out a book,” Simone said, adjusting the stack of magazines in her arms. “You think that’s the same one from earlier?”
The black, two-door BMW was parked in the far corner away from the lamps.
“It’s a pretty popular model,” Dane said. “Alex may know.”
“No one inside but the librarian.”
“Able to afford that car,” Dane said, “maybe I’ll consider being a librarian.”
“Let’s go.” Penny passed at a brisk pace, keys jingling in hand.
He and Simone caught up with her.
The Brussels sprouts-knot tightened his stomach. It didn’t help that Penny seemed just as freaked out.
“Another book on symbols?” Dane asked, glancing at the book Penny carried.
“Something like that.” Penny studied him. “You okay?”
“Got an uneasy feeling,” Dane said, running his hand through his hair.
“No,” Penny said, “did you hurt yourself?”
“She means your limp,” Simone said, lamplight filling her glasses.
Heat radiated Dane’s face. For once, he was thankful for the darkness. He forgot he limped unless someone brought it up. Sometimes he’d catch his reflection off a storefront window and be astonished to see his awkward gait. That couldn’t be his reflection!
“He was born with it,” Simone said, breaking the silence.
Yes, born with it. He traced the face of his bracelet. He was the injured gazelle, the one the herd left behind: the easy prey for the alpha male lion. Or was it the lioness that did all the hunting?
“Sims,” Dane said and clearing his throat. “You mind if I ride shotgun on the way back?”
Simone was trying to squeeze sanitizer from her small bottle.
Dane took the stack of magazines.
“Thanks,” Simone said. She rubbed her hands together. “You want some?”
“I’m good.” The top magazine was a Popular Science.
“I’ve got those subscriptions digitally.” Simone pocketed the bottle. “But with the internet flaking out I figured best to check some out.”
“Light reading or for the cause?”
“Just a hunch.” Simone took the magazines.
Dane made sure he was the first through the line of trees.
All at once, the streetlamps went out.
“The parking lot lamps are out, too,” Penny said, her quivering voice making her sound like a little kid.
Sinister sidewalk shadows crept in dragging nightmares of demonic eyes and neck piercing fangs. Alex and his mom were right. He had to stop reading the horror graphic novels.
The street, a vacuum of space, elicited not a single sound. No crickets chimed, no dogs barked, and no muffled music from the apartment complex across the street. Not a single light came from the three-story building. All dark, like those eyes. There was nothing but the elevated pounding of his heart and Simone’s quick breathing.
Penny’s keys rattled. Her hand trembled.
“It’s only like 9:30, right?” Dane asked not wanting to light up his phone.
“Yeah,” Penny said. “Library closes at 10:00.”
“It’s a holiday weekend,” Simone said. “Parties. Music. Conversations. Stuff should be going on, right?”
Dane’s stomach clinched. Stuff was going on, just not the right stuff.
“In the van, now.” Penny stepped to the driver’s side and opened the door.
Dane walked Simone around the back of the van. He stayed on the outside; shielding her from what…he didn’t know. He was grateful he hadn’t had Brussels sprouts for dinner. There would be no chance of kissing Alex tonight after blowing bits of vegetable greens.
The only other vehicle on the street was a compact car parked too far away to tell if anyone was inside it.
The van’s side door rattled open, echoing down the street and letting who or what in on their position. Dane gulped down bile.
“That was fast,” Paul said, taking the magazines from Simone so she could climb in.
Dane bit into his cheek. What did Paul mean by fast? If Collin hadn’t been with Alex and Paul, what would they’ve been caught doing? Heavy breathing, caressing fingertips, lips tasting—
Stop! Dane closed his eyes on the mental make-out movie and re-opened them on the far off car, possibly a Volkswagen Bug. Were those two silhouettes inside it?
Dane opened the front passenger door. It bellowed, assaulting the stillness. Once more, he studied that lone car. Was the passenger side window rolled down? Lightless fear shoved at him and he couldn’t climb into the van fast enough.
Penny started the engine. The Blue Beast barely chugged to life.
“At least it didn’t back fire this time.” Penny said.
Dane meant to smile back, but Penny’s grin had disappeared. Her eyes looked past him with unfiltered fear.
Someone in the back screamed. It was high pitched so it was either one of the girls or Paul.
Dane tried to shut the door, but it wouldn’t close. Slowly, like a dream, he turned to see what evil blocked his door. The shadowed figure reached for him.
Dane blinked at the hand on his arm and the shadow attached to it. The van’s dome light revealed not some Anne Rice or Stephen King vampire, but a human, a female. She wore a black blazer and had a dimpled chin. Her vibrant blue eyes scanned the inside of the van.
Had she come from the car down the street? How had she snuck up on him?
“I’m Agent Baker. Her British accent was heavy with urgency. “You’re all in serious danger.”
Agent! A real life spy! “I’m Dane.” It seemed a very dumb thing to say.
“I know,” the agent said. Her eyes darted down the street and then back inside the van. “All of you need to exit the vehicle and come with me.”
Her grip was a vice on Dane’s arm.
“I’m the babysitter,” Penny said, sounding unsure.
Penny’s words made Dane feel small, childish.
“Agent Baker, where’s your car?” Alex asked.
The agent pointed at the compact BMW. After a slight pause, she said, “I’ll drive.”
Penny didn’t hesitate moving out of the driver’s seat. She made her way to the back, sitting between Collin and Alex on the rear bench seat.
The agent climbed in.
Air stuck in Dane’s chest. There was a moment of eternity: the agent’s firm legs pressed into his lap. His shorts had bunched up, so the agent’s pants were on his bare thighs.
The low ceiling bent Agent Baker to him. Her hair tickled his face.
She whispered in his ear, “I know you’re enjoying this.”
Her foreign pressure was off Dane before he could reply. He shut the door and was glad the dome light turned off.
Agent Baker settled into the driver’s chair, put the van in gear, and started into a three-point turn.
A flash of red light filled the front of the van, freezing Agent Baker’s shocked face in time. She flew into Dane, knocking him into the door.
The smell of burning flesh invaded his senses. Dane’s eyes found the hole in Agent Baker’s blazer, the singed fabric glowed amber.
The black hole created in the agent’s bicep birthed a horror Dane would never forget: red neon vines wiggled out. Skin and flesh curled back. Not vines but more like worms, the tips, the heads, wrapping around her arm. They pulsated with life and purpose.
Dane pushed Agent Baker away, not to help her, but to distance himself from that alien organism burrowing from her arm.
A distant car door slammed shut.
The driver’s side window had a massive melted hole in it, curling like cellophane cooked in a microwave. In the street, the looming figure strode towards the van.
“We need to move! Now!” Dane screamed.
Agent Baker made a guttural, animal sound. She reversed the van up onto the curb. A dull thud lurched the van forward.
“We hit a branch!” Alex yelled from the back.
Dane looked past the agent. The thing coming for them was darker than all around it, like some Wild West villain. The monster raised its gun.
Dane couldn’t look away from the gun pointed at him. In his dreams, the end of the red-lit barrel was in his front yard and in daylight.
“Fl-fl-floor it!” Collin commanded.
The Blue Beast completed the turn and hit thirty-seven miles per hour faster than ever before.
Another red laser exploded into one of the back doors, crunching metal.
“Buckle up,” Agent Baker ordered, her voice weak with pain.
Dane didn’t reach for his belt. Terror tethered him. In his side mirror: the Volkswagen’s lights blazed, sharpening the monster’s black figure and wide hat, like some creature from ancient times.
Dane grabbed the oh-crap handle above the door. The Blue Beast slid through the intersection, fishtailing into a right turn.
“A laser just skimmed the back,” Penny said, “and caught a tree on fire!”
Agent Baker gunned the van. The library blurred by.
“This fast enough for you, Alex!” Dane yelled.
“Not really,” Alex yelled back. “They’re gaining on us.”
In his side mirror, the Volkswagen’s lights approached. “Oh, Miss Bond—”
“It’s Agent Baker,” she said, slamming what appeared to be a cell phone onto the windshield.
“Holy Hellraiser,” Dane said. “How’s it sticking on?”
“Agent Baker reporting.” She winced, staring at her glowing bicep.
The phone’s screen lit a blue wave, which modulated with its male voice, “How may I be of service, Agent Baker?”
“Totally tech-rageous,” Simone said, leaning forward.
Simone’s face was almost level with Dane’s. The phone’s light gleamed in her teeth.
Dane understood her excitement. He’d watched the spy franchise with his dad. His favorite actor portraying the iconic character was the current one. But his Dad’s favorite was Sean Connery and the phone’s voice was a spot on match.
“I need the nearest safe house,” Agent Baker said. “Map right.”
Simone gasped in Dane’s ear: the phone projected a map across his side of the windshield. He could make out a pin light projecting from the phone’s side.
“You’re my co-pilot,” the agent smiled.
Dane smiled back. But he knew time was crucial. It meant everything.
“They’re getting closer!” Penny yelled from the back.
The phone calculated: maps flashed at dizzying speeds. Dane had to look away. Between his sneakers sat Simone’s backpack.
“I suck at directions,” Dane said. “Sims, switch with me.”
“Thanks, Dane,” Simone said, unbuckling.
He shrugged. “You’ll enjoy the spy phone more.”
Dane grabbed the backpack. He had to use both hands. Simone’s pack was more like a hiker’s. Kids at school called her The Homeless Hobo, except for when Collin was around.
Dane climbed over the console. “You got any gadgets in here?”
Simone squeezed by him. “It’s an extra music video if you break anything.”
“Sure thing.” Dane moved passed Paul, his finger traced his medallion, as if in a trance. “Alex, you’ve got the best sense of direction out of all of us. Sit next to Paul. I have a plan.”
Alex rose, her eyes shining with excitement.
The van’s tight aisle pressed them together.
Alex’s cheek brushed his. Dane did his best to concentrate on the back window and the incoming headlights. Alex’s heat left him.
Dane sat between Collin and Penny. He did his best to ignore Penny’s knowing gaze.
The phone stopped on a map. “The nearest safe house is 412 Campion Street.”
“That’s in our neighborhood,” Alex said.
Paul eyed Alex. “Didn’t your mom say suspicious stuff was going on there?”
Simone maneuvered the map on the windshield by touch. “It must have motion sensors.”
“Do you need medical attention, Agent Baker?” The phone asked. “Your vitals are—”
“No,” Baker replied.
“Wow,” Paul said, “he’s way more attentive than my phone.”
“Tell me about it,” Agent Baker said. “Where’re we going, Simone?”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Simone asked.
Even from the back seat, Dane could make out the palpitating red web on her arm. It reflected off the driver side window. If, instead of a lightsaber, Darth Vader had Spider-Man’s web shooting ability, the red vines on Agent Baker’s arm would be what shot out of Vader’s wrist.
“I’ll make it,” Agent Baker said. “Just tell me where to go. I don’t always trust his directions.”
“I disagree, Agent Baker,” the phone said. “Right turn in six, five—”
Simone pointed at the map trying to figure out if it was the best route. The blue arrow that represented their location was the size of a large cockroach.
“Simone, sweetie.” Agent Baker gripped the steering wheel.
“Yes, that’s right.”
There might’ve been a slight I-told-you-so-edge in the phone’s Scottish voice.
“Hold on!” Agent Baker jerked the steering wheel.
Dane clutched the seat.
Tires screeched. The left half of the van popped up on the curb taking out a cardboard garage sale sign before leveling back to the street.
With the van once again in control, Agent Baker asked, “Paul, why the library?”
Dane unzipped and searched blindly through the backpack’s countless internal pockets. How had the agent known Paul’s name?
“Oh, no,” Collin breathed.
Passing streetlamps revealed the horror. The creature with the hat rose from the VW Bug’s sunroof. It was holding a long rifle-like weapon. The end of the gun barrel blazed red.
Unable to look away, Dane’s fingers blindly searched the backpack’s pockets. He must’ve imagined the weapon’s low hum, some wicked déjà vu dream.
Dane found what he needed. His plan seemed childish, but he couldn’t think of anything else.
Dane pulled the miniature helicopter and its remote controller from Simone’s backpack. “Hey, Sims! You got any firecrackers or cherry bombs in here? Never mind, I found some black cats. Any matches?”
“Outer small pocket,” Simone called back from the passenger seat.
Dane unzipped the front pocket. “C-man, you mind opening the back doors for me?”
“Are you insane?” Penny asked. She gnawed on her bottom lip.
Before Dane could reply, Collin shoved his and Penny’s heads down.
A red light filled the back. A deafening explosion. The van’s frame rattled.
Ears ringing, Dane lurched forward, grabbing Alex’s chair to stay upright. His stomach flipped. The van teetered forward.
“The back wheels are off the ground!” Penny screamed.
Dane looked back. The night stars twinkled down at him. Both backdoors had been blown off or disintegrated. Gravity brought the van back down: the stars blurred, a well-lit gas station rose into view, and the van crashed back to the street with teeth chattering velocity.
The weight of Simone’s backpack kept Dane from hitting the van’s roof. How had Agent Baker managed to keep them on the road?
“Is everyone okay?” Agent Baker yelled.
“Paulie, the back of your chair is on fire,” Penny said. “Give me the fire extinguisher.”
Blue fabric rose in orange embers.
Paul unlatched the fire extinguisher from the side panel by his feet and passed it over.
“If it doesn’t work, I’ll get the other one,” Paul said.
Dane pulled out the matches. “Wait, you have a second fire extinguisher?”
“My dad was a Cub Scout,” Penny said, pulling the fire extinguisher’s safety tab.
“Eagle Scout,” Paul corrected.
“Whatever.” Penny fired the extinguisher.
The white chemicals snuffed out the small blaze.
Dane smiled, wind from the open back rustling his hair. Maybe his plan would work.
“They’re g-g-gainnig.” Collin said.
“Thanks for opening the doors for me,” Dane said, watching the street blur by.
“Any-t-t-time,” Collin didn’t take his eyes off the VW’s headlights.
“Turn left!” Alex shouted.
Agent Baker pumped the brakes, screeching tires. The Blue Beast took the turn at a sickening speed.
“We turned early,” Simone said. “Going straight was faster.”
“You’re taking us through the woods?” Dane asked.
“The ole Blue Beast,” Alex said, “has a better chance to make it through than a VW Bug.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Penny said.
“Ye have little faith, Penny.” Dane tied the string of firecrackers to the skid of the toy helicopter. “Take a left at the fork—”
“I know,” Alex said. “The dried-up creek bed.”
“Good idea.” Simone traced the phone’s projected path.
“Vamps missed th-the turn,” Collin said.
“Good,” Agent Baker said, “finally a break in our favor.”
“She sounds like she’s in a lot of pain,” Penny whispered.
The red glowing vines on the window’s reflection had covered the agent’s entire bicep.
“Penny, why the library?” Agent Baker asked. Her blue eyes nothing but gray shadows in the rearview mirror.
Dane leaned forward. “Well, we have these bracelets on—”
“I know,” Agent Baker said, “and you broke into Dr. Muraoka’s house and—”
“Actually, we walked in the front door,” Paul said. “His nephew Tommy—”
The agent’s eyes shifted to Paul. “Nephew? I don’t know anything about that.” Her eyes back on the road, the agent asked again, “Did Dr. Muraoka send you to the library?”
Penny glanced at Dane.
Agent Baker had saved their lives, for now, she was trustworthy. “Mad Murry went through the portal,” Dane said.
“He’s not helping you?” A passing streetlamp highlighted the agent’s wide eyes.
“No,” Penny said, “Simone and I think we’ve figured out how to enter the portal.”
“Good work,” Agent Baker said. “I’m proud of you both.”
“Where does it lead?” Simone asked.
“I don’t know,” Agent Baker said. “You must enter soon. There is no time. The professor must have left you clues.”
“Clues?” Paul said.
“How do you know?” Dane asked.
“Because there is more at work than you could possibly know,” Agent Baker said. “All of humanity is at risk of annihilation.”
Dane nearly dropped the toy helicopter. He forgot he was holding it. Annihilation? He opened his mouth to ask why his bracelet had symbols. But the phone’s screen lit up with a blue waveform.
“A compact car is approaching at a high speed.”
Dane glanced out the open back. The Bug’s headlights grew larger.
“The road is ending,” Agent Baker said.
The van’s headlights spotlighted trees at the end of the alleyway.
“Keep going straight,” Simone said. “Follow the dirt road.”
The van took the curb easily enough, sparks flying from the back bumper.
Dane eyed the matches in his hand. “You think the Blue Beast will hold?”
“Doubtful,” Penny said, the word trembling from the vibrating van.
“Everyone d-down!” Collin yelled.
Dane ducked. A red blaze, an electrical buzz, a hole in the front windshield, and underbrush on fire at the fork in the road.
“You’d never see it coming,” Dane whispered. “Just a flash of red death.”
“L-l-like a b-bullet,” Collin said.
Had the laser’s electrical charge made all the hairs on his arms stand up? Dane didn’t think so.
“Well, that was awfully close,” the phone said with its sarcastic Scottish accent. The hole was inches beneath the phone.
“Map off,” Agent Baker said. “Disengage.”
The projector turned off and the phone released from the windshield. Agent Baker caught
the phone and passed it to Simone. “Simone, Alex, do you both know the way?”
Simone simply stared at the phone in her hand.
“Take a left at the burning bush,” Alex said.
“It’s so light,” Simone said. “Is the casing titanium?”
“A new super steel alloy,” Agent Baker said.
“No way.” Simone pushed up her glasses.
“You’ll want to turn left now,” Alex said.
The van took the sharp turn, throwing Alex hard against the van’s sliding door.
“You okay?” Paul asked.
Alex rubbed her head. “Yeah.”
“Agent Baker,” Dane said, “I need you to slow down. We want them to get right up on our tail.”
Both Penny and Collin looked at him as if he was in desperate need of a straightjacket and a well-padded room. His plan could be considered slightly insane.
“Paul, where’s the other fire extinguisher?” Dane asked.
“It’s right here,” Alex bent down and came up with the second extinguisher.
“C-man, take it.”
Collin did so without question.
“At this speed,” Alex said, “it’s less than thirty seconds.”
“Count down from ten when it’s time,” Dane said.
The van slowed.
“Agent Baker is unconscious!” Simone reached for the steering wheel.
The agent’s body was slumped over it.
The van veered right. Loud screeches: underbrush and tree limbs scraped the van’s side.
“Alex, Paul, I need your help!” Simone tugged on the agent’s body.
Alex crawled in between the front seats, straddling the console.
It was probably fear that kept Paul in his chair.
The van hit a large pothole. Agent Baker flopped. She released a groan.
A loud smack: a limb knocked off the passenger side mirror.
Alex grabbed the wheel and redirected the van back onto the path. The dangling side mirror banged against the van.
Dane lit the black cats hanging from one of the chopper’s skids. The end of the short fuse fizzled to life. He turned on the copter’s remote control.
The VW Bug slammed into the back of the van.
There was a tremendous tearing of metal.
The CL-27 Launcher was typically one of Brim’s most reliable weapons. If targeted correctly, it could disintegrate an armored vehicle in a single fire. But, obviously, Jeffrey had not only given them a horrible off-road vehicle—Brim was fairly certain a part of the baby car’s undercarriage had disengaged—apparently, Jeffrey had also tampered with their weapons.
“Engaging the launcher would be wise,” Mirk said from the driver chair.
“It is still energizing,” Brim said. He glared at the barrel’s side indicator lights. The closest of the six red lights had not yet ignited.
Brim aimed the launcher at the head of the smallest human in the back of the vehicle, the one with a weak leg. The boy lit a flame, making him an easier target.
The final indicator light activated. Brim felt its red glow on his face. He snarled. Brim enjoyed being the legend of childhood nightmares across all of time. With the boy’s head targeted, Brim pressed the trigger. The weapon droned as the electronic current ionized.
The minuscule car slammed into the van. Brim lurched forward. The sunroof frame took the air from him. His hold on the launcher loosened. It fired. A direct hit into the baby car’s hood. The recoil rocketed it out of his hand. His trigger finger bent awkwardly back.
His finger pointed in the wrong direction. He snapped it back into place: intense, electric pain.
Brim’s shriek shot birds from trees.
“At least the engine is in the back,” Mirk yelled up, “Or you would be incinerated.”
Brim grinned. “Jeffrey will die a slow, torturous death.” He let the darkness take him.
Mirk accelerated the car. It was not his fault the CL-27 Launcher had fired into the front of the car. True, the van had slowed more suddenly than expected. Most likely, the female agent had died from the burrow blast. The plasma organism would drain her life force.
“Brim, are you dead again?”
No answer but a loud tearing screech. Not Brim, but possibly some unknown wild beast. Memory modification did not work on animals or plants, which made them quite interesting.
Another scream. The car’s hood lifted slightly. The noise wasn’t an animal but the automobile’s hood disengaging.
Why were cars so poorly made in this human age? He had driven into battle in this planet’s 1920s with automobiles that would slice this car in half. He did, however, like this car’s modern features and the daisy was an agreeable decoration.
The hood released, severely cracking the windshield. It flew up out of view with a bone-crushing thud. In the passenger chair, Brim’s legs sagged even more, his body twisting back.
“Brim, are you still whole?”
In the rearview, Brim’s hat rolled off the back windshield, becoming lost somewhere in the tall grass. Drat! They would have to find it. Brim would want his precious hat.
“Brim,” Mirk called up, “at least your head was not in it.”
Mirk pulled off his shades. His acute eyes saw an airborne weapon flying toward the car. It was similar to a miniature version of their helicopter: Audras.
Mirk did not concern himself with the airborne weapon. Eons of time had passed since he had last seen an aura like the lead boy’s, which was surprising given the child’s lame leg. Purples and oranges swirled and pulsed in unison around the child. The relic band, the talisman, had chosen wisely.
When Dane saw the red light at the end of the long laser gun, he knew that’s what his dream had been about. But the cars crashing together had crushed the thought. Instead of his head, the VW Bug’s hood had been blown off, providing the perfect cover.
Dane leaned over the back of the sofa and set the helicopter on the cargo space’s floor. He powered the controller and pulled back one of its joysticks.
“You’re just going to piss them off,” Penny said.
“He-he-he can d-do it,” Collin said. “He’s flown RC’s since he was a k-k-kid.”
Penny’s hands flew up. “He is a kid!”
“Listen,” Dane said, watching the copter fly between the two cars, “with the one vamp out there’s only two holes in this plan.”
“Two!” Penny yelled over the tires crunching on dirt.
“Yeah,” Dane said, “wind blowing out the black cats, which doesn’t appear to be happening.”
Collin pointed at the helicopter. “I see-see the line of smoke!”
“And what’s the other thing that’s going to get us killed?” Penny asked.
“Timing,” Dane said.
Before Penny could reply, Alex started counting down. “Ten…nine…”
Dane tracked the helicopter. It hovered where the VW’s hood should’ve been.
“Get ready,” Dane said. He’d already told them what to do.
Collin aimed a fire extinguisher at the driver’s side windshield.
Penny aimed for the now hatless vamp, which appeared to be stirring back from Na Na Land.
Dane shook his head. “For all things Jane Eyre!”
“What’s wrong?” Penny asked.
“The black cats are going to go off early.”
The van’s taillights washed the night in red. The spark was just visible, rapidly climbing the fuse. The string of fireworks would go any second.
The vampire driving pulled off its shades. Blind, white eyes stared at Dane. The other vampire, slumped over the car’s roof, stirred. The creature swiped at the helicopter with Spidey-like agility.
“Hold on!” Alex yelled from the front. “We’re going down into the creek.”
Dane nosedived the helicopter. It was hopeless, but he stuck to the plan. What choice did they have? “Now!”
Both fire extinguishers hissed in stereo next to him.
The van careened down the slope. Dane struggled to stay on the sofa.
“Your idea’s working!” Penny’s extinguisher’s chemical spray blinded the vamp hanging out of the sunroof, covering its entire face.
Collin sprayed the Bug’s driver’s side window, blinding the other vamp’s view.
Dane squinted, losing sight of the helicopter. There it was! It spun past and to the right of its mark: the open sunroof.
The Blue Beast hit the creek bed hard and fast. Seatbelts undone, so they could face the back, bouncing gravity pulled Dane, Penny, and Collin off the back bench.
Dane pulled back on the controller’s joystick, giving the helicopter a negative pitch. The toy climbed into the air. He didn’t need it to complete the loop.
With the helicopter pointed straight up, Dane jerked the other joystick. The toy fell to the left.
But, there was no way it was going to make it with the car speeding down the embankment. He’d failed his friends. Dane slid to the edge of the seat clutching the back to stay up. Both monsters blindly clawed at Simone’s expensive RC helicopter.
This had been such a bad idea. The helicopter bounced off the top of the car’s frame. Through a tangle of grasping hands, the toy tumbled through the sunroof and into the car.
The van bucked in and out of a hole.
Dane fell, the back of his head slamming onto the carpeted floor. Was that the fireworks popping or just the ringing in his head? Everything went black.
“Lookout!” Paul screamed into Dane’s endless void.
Dane’s last coherent thought was of Alex: the vision of the van crashing, her flying through the windshield, and those black-clothed bloodsuckers lapping blood from her split skull.
Dane woke to his friends’ screams. The vampires were in the van! He’d failed them all. A surge of adrenaline fluttered his eyes open. Vibrating floor beneath him, the shadow covered ceiling materialized too slowly.
“Dane, you did it!” Penny yelled.
He opened his mouth to say he was sorry, but strong hands snatched the words from him. Which vampire had him? His mind swirled.
Dane blinked. Collin came into focus. His friend, and not a monster, had lifted him up. And Penny wasn’t in the grip of terror. Her teeth glimmered a smile.
The world tilted. For a moment, Dane thought it was his swimming head, but it was the van rising up the other embankment. The angle out the door-less back gave a clear view of the creek bed. He could only see one of the VW Bug’s headlights.
The van pinnacled the embankment. The engine whined, tires spun finding traction on level ground.
“They hit a big rock,” Penny said. “Thanks to your plan.”
“And Alex’s driving,” Paul said. “It’s a miracle we didn’t hit it.”
“What’s wrong?” Penny asked. “It worked.”
“Lost the helicopter.” Dane turned off the RC controller. “Pen, you want to sing backup for my extra video?”
Penny laughed and said, “I’ll pass.”
Between the front seats, Alex’s silhouette turned to them. “Agent Baker is waking up!”
“What happen?” Agent Baker asked.
Alex released the steering wheel to the agent. “We got away from the vamps.”
In Simone’s hand the phone said, “I’ve engaged the garage door.”
Dane looked back at tree shadows. There was no sign of the Men in Black vampires.
“The safe house is directly across from the alleyway,” the phone said. “There are more humans inside than what is on the official log.”
Agent Baker didn’t let up on the gas. The van actually gained speed.
“Slow down!” Alex yelled, struggling for the wheel.
Dark trees blurred by. Leaves and limbs slapped and scraped the van. The Blue Beast flew out of the patch of woods, lumbering over the curb. On either side, fences and the back of homes were bleak smears.
“Oh, God,” Simone whimpered.
Dane could do nothing to help.
After everything they’d been through tonight, they were going to crash straight through some family’s home.
At the end of the alleyway, the house’s garage door began to rise.
“We’re not going to make it.” Paul said, closing his eyes.
Dane climbed into the empty chair next to Paul and fastened his seatbelt.
The van’s undercarriage grinded up the driveway, tremors vibrated Dane’s sneakers.
The garage door was almost up.
“What’s that noise?” Simone yelled.
A deep mechanical hum from within the garage.
The van’s lights revealed a car-less garage. The van’s roof scraped the still rising garage door. The far wall was imminent.
Dane clutched the chair’s armrests.
“Holy Sunday Driver,” Alex said in awe.
Instead of crashing into the garage’s far wall, the van dipped down into the earth. The garage’s floor sloped into a hidden tunnel.
“Now we know what the hum was,” Simone said.
Agent Baker finally pumped the brakes, slumping over the steering wheel. The van skidded down the cement ramp and into a lengthy, dim tunnel.
The van sparked against the narrow tunnel’s stonewalls.
“She’s unconscious,” Alex yelled. “I can’t reach the brake.”
Simone helped Alex turn the wheel. Scraping metal howled through the opening in the back. The van eased off the wall.
Dane’s seatbelt cut into his waist.
“The emergency brake pedal!” Penny yelled.
Alex shoved the agent against the door and leaned for the pedal.
The van stopped stubbornly coming to rest with both fenders touching either side of the tunnel.
Dane unfastened his seatbelt. “Penny, the Blue Beast is going to need a new paint job.”
“I’ll add it to the list.”
A few yards up the tunnel, a side door opened, spilling light into the subterranean passageway. A group of men filed out. They wore solid black uniforms. An older man with a crew cut was in the lead. He was the only one without a machine gun.
“Collin?” Dane asked.
Collin’s reply was unintelligible.
“Same guys from the library?” Dane said. He hated saying it for his friend, but time was of the essence.
Dane understood why Collin could hardly get a word out. Worry hollowed out Dane’s stomach, and it wasn’t just the machine guns, the soldiers were stoic, fearless figures.
Alex stumbled back, into Dane’s lap. In the past, Alex this close would equally excite and terrify him. But given the circumstances, he didn’t give it a second thought.
Paul glanced at him. Was that fear contorting his friend’s face or something else?
“Paulie,” Penny whispered, “quick, pass me the book and magazines.”
Paul picked up the book and sprawled magazines at his feet. He passed them without taking his eyes off the leader.
Agent Baker groaned, struggling to keep her head, she tracked the leader.
The man walked in front of the headlights. His wrinkled face and the knowledge in his eyes set him apart from the others. He swung his legs over the wall-stuck bumper and strode to the driver side window.
“John Jameson,” Dane whispered.
“What?” Alex asked.
“He looks like Peter Parker’s boss.”
Agent Baker eyed the phone in Simone’s hand.
The agent whispered something Dane couldn’t make out.
Simone shook her head, “I don’t under—”
The buzz-cut leader pointed at the window. A soldier used the butt of his gun to smash in the window. Bits of glass shimmered on Agent Baker’s blazer.
The man studied the agent’s glowing red arm. “Son, give me that fire extinguisher.”
Paul picked it up off the floor and passed it to him.
He pointed the nozzle and fired chemicals at the pulsating vine on Agent Baker’s arm.
Air stuck in Dane’s lungs and Alex’s pressure on him tensed.
The glowing neon turned grey. The alien worm-thing died.
“Mason, Connors,” the leader commanded, “get her to the infirmary immediately.”
Two soldiers ran over. Agent Baker’s groggy eyes met Simone’s. She whispered something.
Dane leaned forward to listen, Alex’s weight pressing further into his thighs.
“What?” Simone whispered.
Agent Baker said something, which sounded like potty fuss.
“Does she need to use the bathroom?” Dane asked.
“What?” Alex glanced back, her cheek brushing against his nose.
Dane cleared his throat. “Did you catch what she said?”
Alex shook her head, her ponytail tickling his face.
The two soldiers opened the door and drug Agent Baker’s limp body from the van. The leader was nowhere in sight.
The van’s sliding door rolled open. The crew-cut headed leader towered over them with squinting eyes. All he needed was a cigar to chew on.
Indeed fowl, stagnant tobacco wavered across Dane’s face when the man growled, “Put these meddling kids in The Break Room.” His eyes shifted down.
Dane covered his bracelet. Had the guy seen it? Dane hoped not. One thing was for sure, he didn’t like the sound of The Break Room, not one bit.
Dane and his friends were herded from the tunnel through the same door the soldiers had entered. The steel door led into a sterile hallway, buzzing with florescent lights.
“Well this is odd,” Alex said next to him.
Dane rubbed his eyes, blinking. “It looks like a cross between my Dad’s office building and X-Mansion’s subbasement.”
“X-Mansion?” Penny asked behind them.
“Xavier’s estate from X-Men,” Paul answered.
“You know it’s not real right?” Penny’s exasperation reverberated off the slick walls.
All the doors on either side were closed, some of which had square windows. Dane tried looking in one of them, but they were moving too fast. He saw nothing but white light and walls, matching the hallway.
They came to an intersecting hallway. Alex elbowed him. Two soldiers carried Agent Baker into a room. Green light washed over the soldiers, not from the room they were entering but from a door across the hall. The light peeked through the door’s square window. As suddenly as it appeared, it was gone. Had he imagined it?
Alex’s wide eyes met his. She’d seen it too.
The buzz-cut leader stopped at the last door, fumbling for the keycard around his neck.
Dane ran his hand through his hair. So this was The Break Room. Beyond the wired glass it wasn’t an underground torture chamber where secrets bled from victims. No, the Break Room was nothing more than an office break room, complete with tables, chairs, cabinets, microwave, and refrigerator. A red-lit soda vending machine was in the far corner.
The door unlocked with a buzz.
A gun barrel jabbed Dane’s back. “Hey!”
The soldiers didn’t follow him and his friends inside.
The door shut: the mechanical deadbolt activated with a quick whine and heavy click.
“They l-l-locked us in,” Collin said, trying the handle.
“Well that’s breaking all kinds of fire hazards,” Dane said. No one laughed. His attempt at lightening the mood fell flat and heavy. His friends’ collective worry settled on his shoulders, causing him to slump.
Alex’s concerned face made her look old enough for high school, somehow making her even prettier.
Penny and Paul hugged.
Dane’s heart thundered. He turned to Collin and Simone who were still inspecting the door.
“Guys, check the drawers and cabinets for a knife, scissors, or screwdriver,” Dane said, examining the keycard reader. “Anything I can use to pry this open.”
Dane thought it looked similar to a hotel room’s magnetic key slot. “Maybe a magnet could fry it.”
Simone pushed up her glasses. “If I can open the panel, I could rewire it and possibly activate it.”
“Let me give it a try.” Dane put his bracelet hand out, inches from the doorknob, and closed his eyes. He envisioned the deadbolt sliding open. Nothing happened. He tried again. Nothing.
“I think the wind moved the ball and not me.” Dane leaned his back to the door. “Sims, don’t you have something that’ll open it up?”
“My pack is in the van. Oh no! They’ll search the van and take all my gear.”
“No they won’t,” Penny said, opening cabinet drawers with Alex. “I put the stuff from the library and your backpack in my dad’s homemade boxes under the bench. Trust me, they’re well hidden.”
“Of course,” Paul said, “the boxes raise up into the back seat. They’ll never see them. Nice thinking, Pen Pen.”
“I can’t remember the last time you called me that,” Penny said.
“That’s sweet,” Alex said without any hint of sarcasm. “Nothing in here. They’re completely bare.”
“That’s strange,” Dane said. “Why wouldn’t there be food and supplies?”
Paul closed the refrigerator door. “Nothing in there either. Maybe whatever this place is, it’s no longer in use.”
“That would explain not seeing anyone but the soldiers,” Alex said.
Paul stared at the soda machine. “Anyone have change?”
“Just try it,” Dane said. “At my dad’s office sodas are free.”
Paul pressed one of the buttons and a can rattled into the dispenser. “Well, we have all the sodas we want. I guess that’s something.”
“Paul, you’re a genius,” Simone said, crossing to the soda machine.
“Mom says he is,” Penny said. “But he was twenty points off on the IQ test.”
“Seventeen,” Paul said. He opened the soda and took a long gulp.
“If we open the key slot,” Simone said. “I can use the refrigerator fan’s motor to fry it and the deadbolt will automatically open.”
“Or stay locked up for good,” Paul said.
Alex picked up the nearest chair. “Let’s just bust the window.”
“It has a double pane,” Dane said, “and wire in between.”
Collin walked up to Simone. “Your bracelet is lit up.”
“Do you hear that?” Simone said, staring at the soda machine’s logo front. She turned her back to it, beads of sweat on her forehead. She gave the universal sign for video camera.
They were being watched. Dane motioned everyone to a table closest to the door and furthest from the hidden camera. Once seated everyone leaned toward him. He spoke low and urgent, “They left us alone so we’d talk. Give them something.”
“They’ve most likely seen our bracelets,” Penny whispered.
Collin frowned. “I t-t-told Simone hers l-l-lit up.”
Dane put his hand on Collin’s shoulder and said, “No worries. I tried unlocking the door with mine before that.”
“Maybe they didn’t see them,” Alex said. “Let’s try to keep them hidden.”
“Right,” Dane said. “Sims, what did Agent Baker say to you before she was taken? I couldn’t make it out.”
Simone took her glasses off and rubbed her eyes. “Two things. One like a riddle and the other sentence nothing but gibberish.” She put her glasses back on.
“Hurry,” Collin said carefully. “Protocol is to separate and t-t-torture us.”
“If they’re after the bracelets,” Dane said, “they may simply cut off our wrists.”
Paul and Penny covered their bracelets.
Simone spoke quickly, quietly, “Okay. Agent Baker looked at the spy phone—”
“You still have it?” Alex asked.
“In my pocket.” Simone slipped her hand under the table checking to make sure. “But, at some point, it shut off and I can’t get it to power on. I think that’s what the clue is for.”
“Well, what did she say?” Alex asked.
Simone’s brow wrinkled. “Agent Baker said: With…three…his…creator…activates… him.”
Dane was glad no one repeated it. The room was probably bugged, maybe beneath this very table. They should be using their secret language. But Penny wouldn’t understand. “What was the gibberish?”
“Did it have to do with the phone?” Paul asked.
Simone shook her head. “Baker had been eyeing the lead soldier guy. But she was way out of it, delirious.”
Penny placed her hand on Simone’s. “Just tell us what she said.”
Simone opened her mouth—
A large bang caused everyone to jerk back.
The lead soldier stormed into the break room. Two soldiers followed with machine guns.
But Dane couldn’t take his eyes off what the lead guy was carrying. It turned the office break room back into The Break Room.
Large electric sparks flew from the end of the rod-like weapon.
The door closed and locked behind the three. One of the soldiers turned off the lights so that there was nothing but the red glow of the vending machine. Its light washed over the lead soldier. The reflection of the electric blue sparks danced on his face. Freddy, Jason, Myers, and Leatherface had nothing on this guy.
Dane followed Collin’s gaze. The two soldiers walked around the table stopping in front of the soda machine.
Under the table, Dane grabbed his thighs unable to keep his legs from trembling. Whatever this mad man was about to do to them, he didn’t want it seen by the soda machine’s hidden camera.
Blue sparks intensified the leader’s crazed eyes.
“Sir Jeffrey will pay.” Brim picked up his hat, dusted it free of this planet’s grime, and fit it onto his head. White smears from the diminutive humans’ chemical weapon covered his duster.
Mirk kicked the twisted casing of the CL-27 Launcher, its indicator lights going dark.
Brim knelt. His long jacket draped around filth. His yellow fingernail punched in the code.
“The car’s particle annihilation sequence was successful,” Mirk said.
“That is all that seems to be functioning accurately.” Brim rose. “The Watchers are helping the younglings.”
“Yes,” Mirk said. “The Watchers must believe the fledglings are the chosen as well.” His shades reflected the launcher rising slightly off the ground.
“We will be relegated to another dimension if we do not succeed,” Brim said. “Implausibly, there are worse destinations than this desecrated rock.”
“Krimson will assist us,” Mirk said.
Brim tried to brush chemical flecks from his jacket, only smearing them further. “That is not desirable.”
The launcher vibrated, shimmering with blue light. Molecules broke away and faded from this time and space.
“We will modify the miniscule inconveniences and retrieve the talismans.” Brim crushed the white substance between his thumb and finger. “We will not be re-allocated.”
“My abilities,” Mirk said, “are uncommonly inconsistent.”
“As are mine,” Brim said. “Simply The Watchers intruding.”
“I am not so sure,” Mirk said. “It is common for the talismans’ chosen to develop abilities.”
Brim wiped his hand on an unstained portion of his duster. “But I sense the young have yet to return to the dwelling of this time’s portal.”
“They are vulnerable,” Mirk said. “Krimson will be pleased to know the boy with the weak leg has a favorable aura.”
“Extremely.” Brim sneered. “I know the floral plant is pink again and inside your pocket.”
“Strictly research,” Mirk said. “The better we know this planet’s current time, the easier to bend it to our designs.”
The launcher shimmered a peak of blue before evaporating from this dimension’s plane.
Dane couldn’t take his eyes off the blue sparks, the only light visible in The Break Room. Under the table, he wiped his palms on his shorts.
The mad man crept closer in. Wielding his overcharged cattle prod. The man belted a menacing laugh. The two soldiers by the vending machine found this amusing.
The mad leader grabbed Dane’s chair and whirled it around. Its metal feet screeched the scream lodged in his throat.
The mad man’s free hand squeezed into Dane’s shoulder. Fingers penetrated between flesh and bone.
Pain surged along Dane’s arm. He clinched his jaw, somehow keeping a yelp at bay. Sparks danced inches from his face, the sound of electric current filled his ears. He wanted to go home. He wanted his mommy.
Dane fought off the childish yearning. It would bring on tears if he let it go further. He slipped his hand over his bracelet.
Sparks jumped and pulsed between him and those insane eyes. Psychotic, trained killers surrounded him and his friends. He had to concentrate to keep his bladder from releasing. It didn’t help that one of the soldiers moved from the vending machine to the door. Dane followed his laughter, unable to take his eyes from the weapon.
The room’s lights came on and the lead soldier released Dane’s shoulder.
Dane fought the urge to rub it. He didn’t want to reveal his bracelet.
The sparks ceased and the leader laid the torture prod down on the floor. He pulled out a chair and casually sat down.
Dane ground his teeth together. It had been nothing but a joke. Fury clinched in his fists.
His friends sat in stunned silence.
The leader brought the ID keycard to his mouth. His tongue sprouted between dentures, licking the keycard.
Dane simply stared while the man treated the keycard like an ice cream cone. Next to him, Simone gagged.
Finally the man dropped it. His jittery eyes met Dane’s. “You can call me Sarge,” his voice grated with tobacco and alcohol.
Dane dug his fingernail into his wrist to keep from screaming.
“Which of you,” Sarge commanded, “can tell me why there’s a WWL agent recovering in my infirmary from a wound like nothing my team has ever seen?”
No one spoke. At least his friends had their bracelets concealed under the table. Dane kept his hand over his bracelet. He glanced at Collin with a quick raise of his eyebrows. No secret language needed, Collin gave him a sudden headshake. So Collin had never heard of WWL. If Collin didn’t know of the agency it had to be super top secret.
“How is she?” Penny asked, breaking the silence.
Smart of Penny not to use Baker’s name.
“Recovering,” Sarge said, caressing the keycard.
Dane shifted in his chair. If Sarge licked the card again he’d scream. In his peripheral, he checked if Simone was crying. She was deep in thought. She didn’t even appear to be aware of the terror. Maybe he should try that yoga meditation stuff after all.
Sarge’s eyes studied each of them. “I need someone to tell me who wounded that agent.”
“You’re not going to believe us,” Dane said, surprised he could speak.
Sarge leaned forward.
Dane could smell the man’s sweat oozing testosterone like gym locker stench.
“They’re like Men in Black meet Dracula,” Dane said. “Long black jackets. The one with blind eyes wears shades, even at night. The other one wears a wide hat like Zorro’s and has black eyes with red slits for pupils. They’re hideous.”
“Dear, God. They do exist.” Sarge’s bewilderment brought sanity back to his eyes. “Boy, you need to tell me how you’re still alive.”
Dane laughed, startling Sarge and his friends. “Why does everyone keep saying that?” He laughed even louder, sounding mad to his own ears. He quickly said, “P-man, ados, lots.”
“What did you say?” Sarge leaned in, mere inches from Dane.
The guy’s stink was palpable. Dane opened his mouth for some stupid made up reply—
“Excuse me, sir,” Paul said, waiving his hand, like he was in Mr. Thompson’s science class. Thankfully, he’d remembered to use his non-bracelet hand. “Can I have a soda? This one’s empty.”
Dane fought off a grin. Paul had understood. P-man, ados, slot meant: Paul, soda, lots.
“You see, Sir,” Paul said, his voice wavering, “it’s been a wild night…”
Paul rambled on something about how long since he’d eaten, smartly covering his bracelet when he stood. The two soldiers let him by.
“What does everyone want?” Paul shouted too forcefully.
Dane glanced back at Alex and then in the direction of Sarge.
Alex caught his meaning and asked, “So, what are these Modifiers anyway?”
“I’ll take an Orange Crush,” Penny said.
“Don’t have it.” Paul hit the logoed buttons. “I’ll just get one of each.”
Dane didn’t want a soda, but what he did want was the noise of the cans rumbling down the machine. While Sarge studied Alex, most likely contemplating how much information he should give them, Dane whispered to Simone, “Nophe. Em. Won.” Phone. Me. Now.
Sarge was saying something about real Men in Black.
“I’ll take a Mr. Pibb.” Dane stood. “You’ll probably need help.”
Paul tossed him a Mr. Pibb. Dane missed it. The can thudded and rolled toward their table.
“I’ll get that.” Simone stood and walked over.
“You guys want anything?” Paul asked distracting the soldiers. “It’s free.”
Simone knelt perfectly, blocking the Sarge’s sightline.
“I got it.” Dane knelt as well
Simone passed the phone into Dane’s open hand. He quickly tucked it into his pocket and grabbed the can with his other hand.
Simone whispered in his ear, “The gibberish Agent Baker said while looking at Sarge was naughty rust. She said it in our way.”
He and Simone stood in unison.
“What the hell!” Sarge shot from his chair.
Dane’s muscles tightened. Crap-on-a-cone! Sarge had seen the pass off.
But Simone’s eyes told him it was much worse. She was staring at his wrist.
He had used his bracelet hand to pick up the can.
Sarge was on them in three strides. His liver-spotted hand clamped down on Dane’s forearm just below the bracelet.
The can fell, denting when it hit the floor.
“Stop trying to hide this!” Sarge’s face approached Red Skull’s shade. “You’re being foolish.” He yanked Dane’s arm up inspecting the bracelet. “Why does yours have a symbol?”
Dane couldn’t speak. A swell of embarrassment blurred his vision. Sarge had been toying with them. He’d seen his bracelet back in the van.
Sarge leaned in. He had a piece of earwax stuck in a plentiful amount of ear hair. He whispered so Simone couldn’t hear, “Why do you think I’ve overtaken the safe house closest to your living quarters? I already knew you had these.” His nails pinched into Dane’s arm.
Dane cried out, unable to stop himself.
“Stop it!” Alex yelled. “You’re hurting him!”
“Take it off.” Sarge released Dane’s wrist.
Dane rubbed his forearm. “I can’t.”
“I’m sure we can find a way.” Sarge smiled.
Dear, God! This mad man really was going to cut off their hands.
Sarge whirled around and pointed at Collin. “Take this one,” he swung his finger to Penny, “this one,” he swung back and looked at Dane, but finally nodded at Simone, “and this one above.”
“Don’t let them out of your sight.” Sarge glared at the soldiers. “I need to have a word with the scientist.”
One of the guards grabbed Simone so suddenly her glasses nearly fell off.
“Hey, easy!” Dane yelled.
“Three, dog tarts,” Simone whispered. “And naughty rust.”
Collin had been right. Sarge’s next move was torture. What demented ideas would he think of to remove their bracelets? What did these cursed things do?
Collin was thankful to step out of the claustrophobic elevator. It opened upstairs into, of all things, a hall closet. The two soldiers guided Simone, Penny and him with their machine guns down the hallway. With the lights off it was hard to say for sure but the photos on the wall appeared to be a family of three with a boy their age. They entered a living room and were shoved down onto what appeared to be a green couch. It was most likely a light blue. The cantaloupe colored streetlamp outside the large window provided the only light. The room was foreboding.
The soldiers walked over to the window. Collin had to look away from the fear on Simone’s face. He took in the room: to the left a kitchen. The refrigerator door was open slightly but its internal bulb wasn’t on. The hallway before the kitchen, where they’d entered, might be a possible escape. On the right was a fireplace with an andiron set, possible weapons. And an old tube television, even in the darkness, he could see its plug on the floor. Past the television, level with the soldiers, was a side door. It most likely led to the garage. The easiest escape was directly across the room: the front door. How could they get past the soldiers?
The two men’s gear was military issue—from their all-terrain boots to their dangling earpieces—but it was their AR-15 assault rifles that gave Collin the most trouble. Sarge wouldn’t need them alive to take their bracelets. Also, those guns weren’t military grade. This was a rogue unit, possibly working for a shadow government agency or a private investor.
“Modifiers!” said the soldier on the right. “Can you believe it?”
The one on the left put a piece of gum in his mouth, dropping the wrapper on the floor. “Never heard of them.”
The whites of Mr. Right’s eyes reflected orange light. “They’re the original Men in Black.”
“Shut up,” Mr. Left said, chewing vigorously.
“Seriously,” Mr. Right said, “they were nicknamed Modifiers—something about modifying the balance of world order or something. Once they became a part of the Bureau—”
“Do you know another?” Mr. Right’s excitement made his words easier to decipher. “Once a handful of them joined the FBI, they were referred to as Modifiers In Bureau. In the 1940’s some conspirator…I think his name was Bender…saw the abbreviation MIB and made up Men in Black.” Mr. Right paused for dramatic effect.
On either side of Collin, Simone and Penny sat like slacked-jaw statues. He didn’t flex a muscle fiber either. He stared at the two haloed silhouettes, willing Mr. Right to continue spilling information.
Mr. Right didn’t lose his enthusiasm or volume. “Thing is they may wear black, maybe to fit with the folklore, some ode to the legend, who knows, but they definitely aren’t men.”
Smacking his gum, Mr. Left methodically chewed this in.
Collin thought he’d never ask the question.
“Well, what are they?”
Mr. Right looked over, shifting his gun strap. “That’s the thing, no one knows for sure. No one has ever lived to tell about meeting one or at least remembered seeing one. Some say they’re an experiment gone awry: the spawn of a human and demon creature. Some rumors say they’re an alien species from another dimension that our government made a deal with, and they’re why we have an FBI.”
Mr. Left leaned against the window. “Yeah, and they’re time travelers from the future.”
“So, you’ve read the book too?” Mr. Right rubbed the top of his crew cut.
Mr. Left chose to chew instead of reply.
“Well, the strangest part,” Mr. Right said, “is the kid’s description.”
“I’ve got a buddy taking care of his dad, too expensive to put him in a home. Poor guy is in his eighties now. But, he was once top-level classification. My buddy says his dad has these horrific night terrors. Usually wakes up screaming two names: Brim and Mirk.”
“So?” Mr. Left said.
“The kid’s description! One Modifier with a brimmed hat and one with white eyes.”
Mr. Left stuck his wad of gum on the window. “You need to stop reading conspiracy sites.”
Collin leaned back on the couch. Brim and Mirk were aliens or demons working for our government? It couldn’t be.
Two flickering shadows broke the orange light between the soldiers. It happened so fast it could’ve been a trick of the eyes. The soldiers hadn’t noticed. Should he warn them? How long would it take for him to say it?
The side door flung open. A third soldier strode in. “The van is clean. I parked it in the garage.” He tossed the keys into the air meaning to catch them. He didn’t.
Silent, blinding, red light blew the door into the soldier. He and the door sailed into the air. Body and wood crashed into kitchen cabinets.
Collin lunged back, tipping the couch. Splinters pelted his face.
Two vibrating thuds and the sound of cracking: Mr. Right and Mr. Left thrown into the window.
Like staring into some other world’s giant sun for too long, Collin saw nothing but red. He was pinned between the wall and overturned couch. He squinted through the red world. A shadow towered over him. It wore a wide hat.
The door closed, locking shut. Sarge led Collin, Simone, Penny, and the two soldiers down the hall and out of view.
Dane saw the break room through a messy blur. All the embarrassment and humiliation he’d suppressed rose up. Sarge had singled him out, picked on him because he was the weakest and crippled. He wiped his eyes. Alex and Paul simply stared at him. The two of them were always together lately.
Dane jabbed a finger at the closed door, his words welling with emotion, “He is nothing but a bully!” He turned his back to Alex and Paul unable to stop the tears.
“Then the best thing right now,” Paul said, “is to get out of here.”
Dane turned and saw Paul fighting his own emotions.
Bottom lip quivering, Paul said, “We have to save Pen Pen and our friends.”
Dane wiped his eyes with his arm and took in a long breath. “Simone said Agent—” he stopped not wanting to say her name. “She told Simone naughty rust while looking at Sarge.”
“Did you hit your head that hard?” Alex asked.
“Naughty rust,” Dane said again. “Not to trust.”
“She knows our secret language?” Alex said, hands on her hips.
Paul tugged on his medallion. “So how long have we been spied on?”
Alex busied herself by trying the door. “It’s locked.” She stopped abruptly, Converse squeaking on tiles. “How did they forget that?”
On the floor laid Sarge’s modified cattle-prod weapon. None of them moved for it.
Dane sat back down at the table. Alex and Paul joined him. They sat bunched together, backs to the soda machine, facing the wired window.
“I think there’s a way out,” Dane whispered.
“What do you mean?” Paul asked.
Dane ran his hand through his hair looking up. “It’s just a feeling. But maybe this will help.” He pulled out the phone, making sure to conceal it with his body from the hidden camera.
Alex pocketed her phone. “Mine won’t even turn on.”
“Probably some sort of jamming mechanism they have here,” Paul said. “Simone would know.”
Alex shrugged. “Or the battery is dead.”
“I think I know the code,” Dane said, keeping his voice low. He hit the phone’s side button. Its touch screen lit up with a keypad, pretty much like any password-protected phone, except the keypad had both letters and numbers. Alex and Paul tightened in on either side of him.
Dane typed in the password. A three-letter word: god.
“That should’ve worked,” Dane said. “Maybe it’s a capital G.”
“Wait!” Alex grabbed his hand. “We only have six more tries.”
“She’s right,” Paul said, pointing at a number in the upper right corner of the screen.
It was so tiny Dane had missed it.
“It was a seven before you typed in god,” Paul said, “and now it’s a six.”
“I just want to get out of here,” Dane said. He felt really tired all of a sudden.
“Why did you try god?” Alex asked.
“When Simone passed the phone to me, she whispered: Three dog tarts. Three god starts.”
“Well, before the soldiers busted in,” Paul looked up in thought, “Sim’s said: With three his creator activates him.”
“You and your uncanny recall,” Alex said. She reached across, placing her hand on Paul’s. Her thumb traced a circle on his skin.
“Any ideas?” Dane asked. He received nothing but blank stares. “Paul, you’re like a walking Wikipedia! And, Alex, you make straight A’s and your homework is done before the bus gets to Crabapple—”
A crash from above shook particle dust from the ceiling tiles.
Dane jumped up, kicking his chair across the floor.
“Pen Pen!” Paul cried out.
Alex’s whisper equaled the terror in Paul’s voice, “You think it’s the two creatures?”
Dane watched the ceiling tiles settle. They had to figure out the phone’s password. It was their only chance of escape and saving their friends. He hoped it wasn’t already too late.
Collin had instinctively closed his eyes moments before the red blast, so his vision came back first. It was Simone’s hopeless whimper, however, that set him in motion. He opened his eyes and the pain dissolved away with the fading red vision. The creature with the hat, Brim, stood over the two soldiers with its back to him. Collin couldn’t see the soldiers. It must be making sure they were unconscious or dead.
In the street lamp glow, Mirk walked in front of Brim and into the kitchen. The white-haired, shade-wearing Modifier pointed a long, barreled gun at the kitchen tile. The gun crackled like something from Mr. Thompson’s lesson on electrical current.
A blue flash erupted from the gun, sending a tremor through the couch. Kitchen tiles simply dissolved to nothing, leaving a large hole. The creature dropped into the underground area.
Collin groaned. The creature was going after his friends.
A flicker of movement.
Collin blinked and Brim was once again standing over him. The creature raised a laser gun directly at his face. The end of the oval barrel glowed red, the gun hummed. Collin had watched enough Sci-fi movies with Dane and Alex to know the gun was charging.
Brim hit the side of the gun. The final indicator light turned red. The creature turned the gun back on Collin with a fanged smile. It was all things wicked.
Brim pressed the trigger but the gun didn’t fire.
Because of the tight space between the couch arm and wall, Penny rolled awkwardly off the couch.
The creature’s shark eyes tracked Penny.
Collin twisted his body, scissoring his feet. One sneaker struck the back of the creature’s hand, while the other hit the side of the gun’s barrel. The gun’s glow peaked. It fired, death flashed by with red-hot heat, and white stuffing exploded into the air. A throw pillow blazed where Penny’s head had just been.
The handgun clattered on the tile floor.
Brim strode to Penny or his weapon or both.
Penny crawled into the kitchen.
Collin had to help her. If she couldn’t see, Penny would fall straight through the hole. He gently shoved Simone, through the couch’s other opening. “Move or we die.” Pride tightened his throat. Simone blindly crawled away from the couch and, more importantly, the creature. She headed for the television and fireplace.
The voice in Penny’s head yelled louder than the searing red pain: You’re the oldest! These kids are your responsibility!
She moaned, blind to the world. Penny, lover of all things chocolate and sleeping in on rainy mornings, wanted nothing more than the pain to end, even if that meant death. But the voice was unrelentingly annoying.
Your baby brother, the only blood family you have, is going to die if you don’t move right now! And you call yourself a babysitter.
Penny had taken in the full blunt of the blast. She’d been eyeing the soldier tossing her keys. Even as the couch had tipped over, she’d seen her keys slide to a stop under the open refrigerator door. They had glinted red as the flash took hold of the room.
It was the voice in her head that got her moving, the voice that wasn’t hers.
Off the couch and crawling, Penny’s hands went from carpet to cool tile. She must be close to the keys.
Something clamped viciously onto her ankle. Even through her jeans the hand felt cold, alien. She was yanked backwards, hard. Her chin smacked the tile. She screamed, lurching forward, hands flailing for purchase, for keys, for anything. Her right hand found metal. She gripped down on the keys, their teeth biting her hand. Her left hand found something else metal, larger. She held on to it as she was jerked back. Carpet burned her face, elbows, and stomach where her shirt had come up.
The alien monster would devour her.
From somewhere in the sublevel, soldiers started shouting out orders.
Dane backed away from the window. “It’s the Men in Black!”
“Sis,” Paul whispered.
They all stared at the break room’s ceiling panels.
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Alex said. She stroked Paul’s curly hair.
Dane realized he was biting into his tongue filling his mouth with a metallic taste. His teeth released his own flesh.
“Paulie, look at me,” Alex said.
Paulie? Since when did she call Paul Paulie?
Paul looked at Alex. Silent tears fell.
“The only way to save your sis is to activate the phone.”
Her voice had never sounded so soothing. Dane studied the phone.
Paul wiped his eyes and without missing a beat said, “FBI.”
The two of them turned to Dane. Alex’s arm was around Paul’s waist.
“Well, try it,” Alex said.
The firmness in her voice brought Dane to his senses. “Fine.” He typed FBI on the phone’s keypad.
Alex and Paul walked around to look. They stayed hip to hip.
He hit enter. The six dropped to a five.
“Crudola,” Paul said. “Sorry.”
“CIA?” Alex asked.
Dane typed it in and hit enter. “Five to four.”
More distant yelling followed by repetitive pops.
“Firecrackers?” Alex asked.
“I think they’re using gun silencers,” Dane said.
“So,” Alex said, “no one on the streets above will come to our rescue?”
“As far down as we are,” Paul said, eyeing the ceiling, “I don’t think someone standing right in front of the house would hear anything from down here.”
“It’s Memorial Day weekend,” Dane said. “Even if they did hear popping or even an explosion, they’d think firecrackers.”
A barrage of commotion erupted on the lower level. Apparently, Sarge had given the order to retaliate. The sound of running boots followed desperate shouted commands. They watched in silence as three soldiers sprinted the length of the wired window and out of view. Their footfalls faded.
“No need to whisper anymore,” Dane said.
“Yeah,” Alex said, “I don’t think we’re the main priority any longer.”
“Hopefully, they’ll help my sis,” Paul said, tugging on his medallion.
“And our friends,” Dane said.
Alex gestured to the phone, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “Some super spy phone this is. It’s not created by the CIA or the FBI.”
“Alex, you’re a genius,” Dane said. “We’re going at this all wrong—”
An explosion so close, the window’s glass rattled. A soldier’s shouts were near enough to understand, “The Modifier has breached the lower level!”
Erratic puffs of gunfire echoed throughout the hallway. Soldiers cried out, silenced by bone-crushing thuds.
“It’s coming for us,” Alex said.
“What were you saying?” Paul asked.
Dane did his best to ignore the soldier hurled the length of the hallway. He inhaled all the courage he could summon. Was he leading his friends down the correct train of thought? Only one way to know for sure.
“We’ve been thinking of a real life spy,” Dane said. “This phone’s voice sounds like Sean Connery, who played a character.”
Before Alex or Paul could reply or object, Dane typed 007 and hit enter. His insides dropped with the number on the phone’s screen. “Sorry. I thought for sure that was it. We’ve only got three more tries.”
“Why didn’t Agent Baker just tell Simone the stupid password?” Alex asked.
“Because Sarge was there,” Paul said. “And obviously, if the phone will work with the password for us, it would for him.”
“He could’ve tortured Simone for the answer then,” Alex said.
“Not if she hadn’t figured it out,” Paul said. “Not if it was a clue.”
“And she was delirious at the time,” Dane said. “It was probably the best she could do.”
Alex threw up her arms and stormed away toward the refrigerator.
Another soldier flew by. He disappeared, his screams reverberating off walls.
“It’s definitely Bond, right?” Paul asked.
Dane nodded. “Sean Connery’s performance as Bond is iconic. He changed the way Flemming wrote the character. And the phone sounds just like Connery.”
Alex paced back and said, “Well, Bond was British, right?”
Dane and Paul both nodded.
Alex spoke over more gunfire, “Then he wouldn’t have worked for the FBI or CIA.”
“MI6,” Dane blurted out.
“Since the password is only three characters,” Paul said, “having a number would make it stronger.”
From somewhere down the hall, more soldiers screamed. Three more ran passed the break room, most likely to help their howling comrades.
Alex ran to the window. “Let us out!”
The soldiers didn’t look back.
The high electrical whine of laser blasts.
“It’s getting closer,” Dane said.
“Hurry,” Paul said.
Dane typed in MI6.
Alex paced back and stood next to Paul.
Heart pounding, Dane hit enter. He couldn’t believe it. All he could do was shake his head. “Two more guesses.”
A laser blast blew a hole in the far hallway wall. The floor shook beneath Dane’s sneakers.
“There’s SIS, right?” Dane asked.
Paul and Alex gave him questioning looks.
“It’s another name for MI6,” Dane said. “It stands for Secret Intelligence Service.”
“Army-war stuff isn’t my specialty,” Paul said, “but I’d think it was MI6 if either of the two.”
Dane looked up at the ceiling tiles, his mind churning the clue. “With three his creator activates him.”
Two soldiers retreated into view.
Alex ran to the window and pounded on the glass. “Open the door!”
The soldiers ignored her. They fired at the unseen intruder: the Modifier that had come to kill them.
“Bond,” Dane said. “Written by Flemming played by Connery, Moore, Dalton, and Brosnan.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Nothing. No three letter names.”
A short beam of red hit near the door. The far pane in the double-sided window cracked. Alex and Paul stepped back.
“I’ve got it!” Alex shouted. “Creator!”
“I’ve already thought of the author,” Dane said. “But Flemming is too long.”
“No,” Alex said. “Remember that documentary Simone made us watch on the making of the Bond films!”
“You’re right!” Paul said.
“It was called EON,” Alex said, “because of the production company.”
“Everything or nothing,” Dane finished. He typed in EON and hit enter. “Nope. Sorry.”
“Are you sure you put it in correctly?” Alex asked, reaching for the phone.
Dane pulled it back. “It’s three letters. How could I mess that up?”
A laser blast exploded and one of the soldiers was thrown back into the glass. He rebounded to the floor. He didn’t get up.
Cracks spread out in both panes. It provided an eerie dual shattered web.
“There are two!” Dane said. “A first and a last.”
He knew the phone’s password. It had been so simple. The creator. In three.
Another blast blew the final soldier into the glass web. The front pane shattered, glass fell into the hallway pinging onto the floor. The soldier’s limp body hung momentarily in the wire, fell forward, and then out of view.
Dane typed in the final chance at the three-letter password. If he was wrong, would the phone explode in his hand? Surely not, right? That was a Tom Cruise movie series, after all. He eyed the numeral one in the right corner of the phone’s screen. Without conferring with his friends, he hit enter, and shut his eyes, preparing for his hand to be blown off.
Collin grabbed the other throw pillow, going with the first idea that came to mind, even though he knew it was futile…childish.
Pinned between the wall and couch, Collin watched the creature drag Penny and lift her up by the ankle. Her head bent back. The Brim thing’s inhuman strength twisted Penny onto her back. Something in Penny’s hand reflected the outside light. The gun, the end of its barrel glowed red.
The laser missed Brim wide right, disintegrating the ceiling fan. Its particles dusted the carpet.
Brim kicked the gun out of Penny’s hand.
She screamed out in pain.
Again the gun slid across the kitchen floor, this time dropping down the hole Mirk had created.
Collin swung himself off the couch. With Brim’s back to him, he used the flaming pillow to catch a second one on fire. With one in each hand, embers burning his forearms, Collin leapt. He wrapped his legs around the thing’s waist, slamming the fiery pillows on either side of its face. The creature’s hat fell to the floor.
Simone’s vision returned in time to have her ears violated. The vampire creature screamed a high-pitched, animal sound. It threw Collin into the wall, his head narrowly missing the fireplace mantle. His limp body slid to the floor between the fireplace and the splintered doorframe.
Rage devoured any fear. Simone grabbed the fireplace poker and stood on wobbly legs.
The Brim thing turned with red-slit demon eyes and hissing fangs. The sides of its face smoked. The smell was hideous, like rancid meat re-cooked in a microwave.
Simone swung with all her might.
The creature grabbed the tool easily.
The curl of its red lips made her straining arms shiver.
It yanked the poker from her, tossing it carelessly into the kitchen.
Icy death wrapped around her throat. Simone never saw its hand move, it simply appeared on her. It lifted her, squeezing air from her. Her feet kicked. Unable to reach the monster, she tore at its hand to no avail. Her glasses askew, she gasped for life. Darkness crept in: her vision became a vignette, leaving only the monster’s white, Halloween mask. She was almost grateful for the loss of sight.
Penny rubbed her hand where the creature had kicked it. She was pretty sure it wasn’t broken, but she really didn’t care. The thing had Simone. It was choking her to death. Penny stood and saw a black swirling blur. Its’ other hand clinched her neck. Her feet lost touch with the ground. The cadaver-cold hand squeezed her windpipe. The last thing Penny saw were the unconscious faces of Collin and Simone.
In the darkness, a fowl hiss closed in. It would kill all three of them. She had failed.
Dane opened his eyes. The phone hadn’t exploded and a blue line replaced the keypad screen.
“Hello, Dane Elijah Williams.” The line became a waveform in sync with Sean Connery’s voice. “How may I be of service?”
“How did you know my full name?” Dane asked.
“I have access to your file,” the phone replied.
“I have a file?” Dane asked.
“Yes, quite an extensive one.”
“You hear that?” Dane said. “Extensive.”
Alex dropped the chair she meant to use on the shattered glass. “How did you turn it on?”
“Yeah,” Paul said. “What’s the password?”
“The creator of James Bond 007 was the author Flemming. Ian Flemming.”
“Ian,” Paul said. “Of course, so simple.”
“Did you know Flemming chose Bond’s name,” Dane said, “from some guy because he thought it was the most boring name he’d ever heard? Bond was supposed to be this lame guy.”
“It was James Bond, the American ornithologist,” the phone said.
“An orni-what?” Dane asked.
“Bird expert,” Alex said. “I hate to break up the lovely conversation, but I think we need to get out of here, like now.”
There was a heavy silence. No more gunfire, no more soldiers battling the Modifiers.
Dane eyed the ceiling tiles. Something was deathly wrong above them.
“There is a Modifier less than thirty feet away,” the phone said. “And there is a camera in the soda vending machine.”
“We know that,” Alex said. “We need a way out.”
Sounding somewhat offended the phone replied, “Well, there’s a—”
“The ceiling panels,” Dane said. “That’s the way out. Follow me.” He ran toward the soda machine.
“That’s what I was saying,” the phone said. “There is a crawl space between the house’s foundation and the underground laboratory.”
“This is a lab?” Dane asked, climbing onto the counter next to the vending machine. Hopefully he was staying out of the camera’s view. But he doubted anyone was watching them anymore.
“The subterranean level has an intricate computer system,” the phone said, “and a powerful energy force.”
“That’s what the green light must’ve been.” Dane climbed on top of the vending machine. “Can you show us where it’s coming from?”
“What green light?” Paul asked, climbing onto the counter.
The ceiling panel inches from his face, Dane set the phone down.
“There was a green light—” Alex stared down. She jumped off the counter and ran across the room.
Dane lifted and slid the ceiling square off its metal frame.
“The creature is less than twenty yards from view,” the phone said atop the vending machine.
“I think the ceiling will hold our weight,” Dane said.
“What if you’re wrong,” Paul asked.
“Don’t really have a choice.” Dane lifted himself up. “Don’t forget the phone.”
The crawlspace was what he’d expected: a claustrophobic, muggy darkness. Pipes ran above his head.
“Twelve yards from sightline,” the phone said.
Dane peered down. “You guys coming or what?” He didn’t like being in the crawlspace alone.
“Get up there,” Alex mouthed to Paul. She had the cattle prod weapon in her hand.
Paul crawled on top of the vending machine.
“The creature is eight yards from sight.”
With Paul barely out of the way, Alex hopped on the soda machine. She waved off Dane’s outstretched hands, tucked the weapon in the back of her shorts, and grabbed a pipe. She swung up into the crawlspace.
Paul was sliding the ceiling panel back into place when the phone said, “Five yards from sight.”
“No one grabbed it,” Dane said.
As if to verify its position the phone said, “Three yards now.”
Dane reached down and snatched the phone. At the window’s edge, he saw the Modifier’s long black jacket. He slid the panel into place.
There was a laser blast and loud crash, which must’ve been the door slamming to the floor.
In the stifling darkness, the phone’s monitor was the only light, which had changed to an infrared-heat signature screen. Its camera showed the break room through the ceiling, similar to the ghost hunter shows attempting to prove the existence of an afterlife.
The tall vampire entered the room. Its heat signature not the usual red, like humans, but more of a faded yellow-green, almost blending in with the break room tables and chairs.
“What is that thing?” Alex breathed.
“The walking dead,” Dane whispered.
With no hesitation, the creature strode directly to the soda machine, its yellow-green head looking directly up at them.
Dane stopped breathing.
The yellow-green figure floated up to them, growing larger.
Alex clutched his arm. She was trembling.
The creature had seen him. He’d led it to his friends. But he’d had to retrieve the phone. He’d told Paul not to forget it. They needed to crawl away, but Dane found he was too terrified to move. He could only watch in horror as the creature filled the phone’s screen. Its outstretched hand closed in. They were as good as dead.
Brim tossed the unconscious female fledglings in a heap next to the unconscious male, the one who had singed his face. Brim pulled the blade from his jacket, which appeared to be nothing more than a handle. He activated it. A laser shot out of the handle and looped back down into the base, forming a red electric blade.
Brim stood over the three earthlings. His tongue ceremoniously licked along each of his fangs. If permitted, before a humanoid kill, he liked to fully immerse himself in this dimension’s awkward, cumbersome present.
“Your existence is unneeded,” Brim whispered. The blade would easily slit their useless throats. He would save the boy for last. He leaned toward the putrid heap. He enjoyed how the blade glowed off their helpless faces.
Brim’s whisper was not much more than a hiss, “The time for child’s play is at an end.”
David C. Baxter prefers flip-flops, tennis, an ocean breeze, and being called Dave. Unfortunately, he’s gluten intolerant, but he’s thankful it only took four years to find a gluten free beer that taste like the real thing. My author page.
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Volume Three Coming Soon…
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