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Authors: Edward Bloor

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BOOK: Crusader
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I said, "It's Hawg and Ironman."

Karl stared hard through the window. He asked, "Can we pick them up?"

Uncle Frank just said, "No room." When we passed them I could see Hawg talking in an animated way to Ironman, who was grinning.

When we got to my house, the driveway was empty and the
windows were dark. Nobody was home. Kristin said to no one in particular, "So where's Uncle Bob?"

I said, "He'll be here in a minute."

Uncle Frank asked me, "Do you want to come back to the house with us?"

"No. It's okay."

Kristin leaned over and insisted, "Go inside and check all the locks. Then come back and wave to us. We'll wait."

I did just what she said. Then they pulled away.

Inside I got a Coke and opened a can of barbecue Pringles. I noticed that Dad had left a bag from Blockbuster Video on the counter by the door. This was Dad's way of telling me that he wouldn't be back until late.

Dad often stops and gets two or three videos, which he leaves in the same spot by the door. I never open the bags. I don't even know what the videos are. I use the same spot, though, for my own purposes. I put papers that Dad has to sign there, on top of the Blockbuster Video bag. The system works well.

After a short stack of Pringles, I flopped down on the couch and turned on
CNN Headline News.
I watched the thirty-minute roundup. I saw many different people in many different news stories, but they all seemed to be surrounded by the same mob of reporters. "Jackals," my journalism teacher, Mr. Herman, calls them. "The jackals of carrion journalism."

I then flipped to Channel 57, an independent local station. Every Friday and Saturday night at ten o'clock, they have a two-hour show called
The Last Judgment.
It's hosted by Stephen Cross.

Stephen Cross looks like a statue of Jesus, like the ones they have in the Bible Outlet in the mall. He is skinny, and he has long brown hair and a beard. He even wears sandals—black sandals—with black pants and a pure white shirt. His face, though, is lined and weathered, like it was left out in a desert
for forty years. It's a face that has lived a hard life, a face that has sinned.

The choir members and musicians on the show change, but Stephen Cross is always the same. And he always says the same thing. He testifies about his sinful life as a teenager and young man, and he preaches "the gospel of redemption." He talks to troubled teens and young adults—in psychiatric wards, in halfway houses, in boot camps, and in other places where they send bad kids.

Tonight he ended with a familiar quotation. It is the essence of his preaching, and he always says it exactly the same way: "Admit the truth; ask forgiveness; find redemption."

I've been tuning in to watch Stephen Cross every Friday and Saturday night since summer began. Here's why: A few months ago, I had a short, horrible dream. In the dream my dad said to me, "Your mother is in your room." Naturally I went in to look. My mother was indeed in there. She was lying on the bed, just like it was her bed. But she was, without doubt, dead.

I woke up shaking violently, unsure of where I was. I didn't even know if the dream had ended. I turned on the light, half expecting to still see her there. But I was alone.

I dared to crack open the bedroom door. Then I crept out of my room into the living room and turned on all the lights. I sat down on the couch, in that horrible midnight silence. I grasped at the remote and clicked on the TV, just to hear a sound, and I heard Stephen Cross. Then I saw him snap into view. He seemed to be looking directly at me; he seemed to be talking directly to me. When he asked me to kneel down and pray with him, I slid off the couch and onto my knees. I never spoke a word, but after a few minutes I felt like I had been pulled back from that terrifying place.

In the daylight the whole thing seemed kind of silly. When
I told my dad about it, he laughed and said, "Remember, honey, it wasn't real. You should stop watching scary movies."

But I don't watch scary movies. I don't watch any movies. That dream was real enough to me.

SATURDAY, THE 19TH

While waiting for Arcane to open today, I noticed something: The mannequin had moved.

The mannequin sits in the empty storefront across the mallway, in what used to be La Boutique de Paris. It is always leaning to the right, against the wall the now-empty store shares with Isabel's Hallmark. But today the mannequin was leaning forward, its plastic face pressed against the glass, like it was trying to get a better look into the center of the mall.

So, after months of leaning to the right, why did the mannequin suddenly move?

I walked across the mallway and stood with the back of my head pressed against the glass, just a windowpane away from the mannequin. Now we saw essentially the same thing: Leo, from mall maintenance, had placed his yellow sawhorse, the one with
DANGER
emblazoned on it, on a spot in the dead center of the rotunda, right where the fountain used to be.

I made a note to question Leo about this. The explanation could be a simple one. Leo could clear the whole matter up with a quote like, "Some kid puked." But there might be more to the story. There might be news that I could use for the mall newsletter, or for my portfolio in Journalism II.

I looked back across the mallway to our slot, Slot #32. It's the first one north of the rotunda, right next to the food court. From where I stood I could see my cousin Karl. He was on the other side of the sliding Plexiglas door, polishing the glass vigorously with a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Windex. Behind Karl, I could make out the dark shapes of Hawg and Ironman.

I heard some huffing and puffing, then I saw an old couple power-walking by. These old people are a common sight in the West End Mall. The doors here open every day at seven to allow the residents of Century Towers to come in and power-walk.

Karl seemed to be waving at that old couple. But they took no notice of him.

Thirty seconds later another old guy came along. This time Karl stepped forward and waved something at him. It was a square white card with big black lettering on it. Karl held it up, chest high, to let the old guy read it. It said
YES, WE'RE OPEN
. The old guy seemed to notice it, but he continued walking past.

Karl turned around toward Hawg and Ironman, shaking his head. Then he turned back and scanned the mallway like a sentry. He saw something to his left that made his eyes bulge out. An old lady was approaching. She wasn't power-walking, though. She appeared to be window-shopping, like she was waiting for the stores to open.

She noticed Karl, stopped, and looked up at the Arcane logo with a puzzled expression on her face. Then she seemed to make up her mind. She set off, on a beeline, toward Karl and his sign.

Karl started to gesture frantically, with his free hand flopping behind him, trying to get the attention of the other two guys. The three of them watched as the old lady quickly closed the distance to the entrance and then smashed, face first, into the Plexiglas. The glass bowed slightly and then snapped back, like the invisible barrier to another dimension. The lady's hand shot up to her forehead. She stared for a stunned moment at Karl and his sign. Then she spun around and hurried off back the way she came, her hand to her forehead.

Karl was nearly doubled over now, facing back toward the other guys. His body was convulsing, jackknifing up and down in uncontrollable laughter. I could see that Hawg was laughing, too, but not nearly as merrily. Ironman had on a nervous grin, as he always does.

Then, suddenly, they all reacted to the same sound, and the smiles vanished from their faces. Hawg and Ironman backed away. Karl, clutching the sign tightly to his chest, darted quickly behind the cash register counter.

Uncle Frank emerged from the back. He walked stiffly to the front, like a G.I. Joe action figure. He unlocked the door and slid it along its runner until the three big glass panes were stacked together, like cards in a deck.

I leaned and looked down to the right, trying to spot the lady, but she had disappeared. The mallway was now completely empty. It was the calm before another busy day at the West End Mall.

When I looked back, Karl, Hawg, and Ironman were setting up our new promotional display, the Crusader. Hawg and Ironman knelt before him and billowed out his white robe so that it fell precisely onto the chain-mail boots, while Karl crouched behind him at the floor plug. Suddenly the two piercing blue eyes lit up inside his silver helmet. The three guys got up and stepped backward, into the mallway. The Crusader was indeed a dazzling sight. He was tall, over seven feet tall, and broad shouldered. His tunic was pure white, except for the bloodred cross over his midsection. His jeweled sword jutted out before him, irresistible to any passerby.

Hawg remarked simply, "Damn, I know where I'm spending my minutes tonight."

Hawg and Ironman don't technically work at Arcane. They don't have name tags, and they're not on the payroll. They started out as regular customers. Before long, they were hanging
out here all the time. At first Uncle Frank kicked them out when they didn't have money. Then he realized that they would work for nothing, just to do the Arcane experiences. Now Hawg and Ironman each get five experiences a night, in exchange for about five hours of work. Depending on how you look at it, that's either $4.95 per hour (which is bad) or two minutes per hour (which is worse). Most of what they do is maintenance, like taking out the trash, cleaning the wands, and spraying the helmets for head lice. Head lice are a big problem here.

I watched as Karl, Hawg, and Ironman wheeled out our big Sony TV monitor, with its newly painted red stand, and parked it just outside the entranceway. Karl plugged its cord into a floor outlet. The monitor flickered on immediately, and its stereo speakers crackled to life with a five-minute promotional video called "Arcane—The Virtual Reality Arcade."

The video showed heroes battling dragons with spears, and battling pirates with swords, and battling space aliens with light sabers, all in very cool, very spooky virtual environments. The special effects were awesomely realistic, with heads and arms flying off, bloodcurdling screams, and pulsing, creepy music. Then the video showed some happy people taking part in the Arcane experiences. It showed teenagers, parents, grandparents, even some little kids, standing in the black plastic circles, wearing the black plastic helmets, and hacking away with the white plastic wands.

On a good day, like a day when a tourist bus comes in, we might get two hundred paying customers. On a bad day we might get only ten. You can't have too many bad days, or you won't be able to pay your bills. That's what happened to Dad and me with our last arcade franchise.

Seven years ago, after my mom died, we moved from our old location on the Strip into this new one at the West End.
Mall. We used the money from Mom's insurance policy to buy the only arcade franchise in the mall.

Things went okay for the first few years, but it seemed like our receipts got a little smaller every month. The franchisors started to get nervous. Dad told them not to worry about it, that everything was going to be fine, but they didn't see it that way. The day we missed our third monthly payment, they sent two big guys out with a truck and carted away all of our gaming equipment—the tables, the terminals, everything. Dad and I were left sitting here on the floor in an empty store.

That's when Dad called his brother, my uncle Frank. Uncle Frank had just retired from the army as a colonel and was looking for a job up in Washington. Dad talked him into traveling to Atlanta and checking out an Arcane franchise. I guess Uncle Frank liked what he saw. Before the month was over, the two brothers were in business. Legally, Colonel Frank Ritter owns the franchise and pays the franchise fees; Bob Ritter owns the mall slot and pays the rent and the employees' wages.

We've been in business as Arcane for three years now. At first there were a lot of good days. There were even some great days. During one stretch we set records of 240, 255, and 288 customers in one day. Customers were truly "amazed and delighted," as the franchise brochures said they would be. People had never seen anything like the Arcane experiences; they would try four or five of them in a visit.

But then the theme parks picked up on the idea. And then some of the big hotels put Arcane-type experiences in their kids' arcades. We stopped having great days. Still, things were going well enough until the Gold Coast Mall opened just fifteen miles east of here. That has hurt everybody's business. Now it's rare for any store here to have a good day.

I watched the guys finish setting up the displays and go
back inside. It was exactly 10:00, time for me to go to work. I left the mystery of the mannequin in Slot #61 for now and crossed the mallway.

I walked in, went behind the counter, and fished my name tag out of the drawer. The name tags are all we wear to mark us as employees. At our old arcade Mom, Dad, and I used to wear uniforms, matching royal blue smocks with big pockets for holding change. We don't need those here. The Arcane experiences aren't coin operated. We start them like you would run a computer program, and everybody pays at the register.

I picked up the phone and buzzed to the back. Uncle Frank picked up with an abrupt and ugly "What?" like he thought I was Karl.

I said, "It's Roberta, Uncle Frank."

"Oh. Sorry."

"It's dead up here. Do you mind if I go deliver my newsletters?"

"No. Not at all. Go ahead."

"Thanks." I ran back out and hurried down to the mall office. Suzie Quinn, the mall manager, was already there, seated at her desk. She was putting on mascara. My dad was there, too, seated in a chair in front of her. He swiveled around and said, "Hey, honey. Sorry I didn't call this morning. I didn't want to wake you."

"That's okay."

"We got a loaner boat from the Sea Ray salesman. Wound up all the way up in Boca." Dad grinned. "Didn't get the boat back to the marina till dawn."

Dad and Suzie exchanged a secret look. Dad and Suzie seem like a couple. They're both tan, and they both have blond hair. But I don't think Suzie's hair color is real.

BOOK: Crusader
2.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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