His puzzled friends clustered around him. “Marlon, what’s wrong? Are you choking?”
He shook his head, pointed at his throat, and mouthed the words, “I can’t speak!”
Abby glanced around the diner. Everyone was staring, but as she looked toward the counter the tall, slim teenager was hastily turning away—Abby was sure he was trying to hide a grin.
What was that? Did
Nose-ring—who looked like he was on the verge of tears—was quickly led out of the diner by his friends.
The slim boy was sitting at the counter with a half-eaten burger in his hands and a copy of
open in front of him.
Abby kept watch on him as she cleaned up the vacated booth and wiped down the table. The boy seemed to be completely immersed in the magazine: Even after she had seated the next customers and taken their orders he was still on the same page. Either he was a very slow reader or he wasn’t actually reading at all.
She moved around to the far side of the counter, and stopped in front of him on the pretext of washing some glasses. “Interesting article?”
He looked up. “Hmm?”
Abby guessed he was a little older than her. He had a thin build, but large hands and wide shoulders that suggested he wasn’t done growing yet. His hair was close-cropped, and his skin was almost as dark as hers. He had the beginnings of a mustache on his upper lip. Abby realized now that she had seen him at the diner before, many times, and he’d always been alone, always sitting in the same spot and ordering the same food.
“What you’re reading,” Abby said. “Interesting, is it?”
“Oh, yeah. Yeah, it is. If you’re into synthesizers and drum machines.”
“Let me guess. You’ve got a band.” She glanced down at his long fingers. “And you play the keyboard.”
He grinned and shook his head. “Nope.” He raised the magazine. “This is the closest I’ve got to a real musical instrument.”
She nodded in the direction of the corner booth. “Thanks for sticking up for me. But that was strange, wasn’t it?”
He looked around. “What was strange?”
“The way that guy’s voice just cut out. Sudden onset of laryngitis or something.”
The boy shrugged. “Could be the flu. Nearly everyone else has it.”
Abby considered this. “Right.”
Better not push him,
If he did do something to that guy’s voice then he’s not going to admit it.
The boy suddenly sat upright, looked up toward the TV in the corner. The sound was off, but the picture showed the newly constructed power plant twelve miles away.
A line of scrolling text across the bottom of the screen read “. . . superhero Max Dalton believed to be one of the hostages. Police have cordoned off the area and are . . .”
The boy jumped to his feet, tossed a twenty-dollar bill on the counter. “Got to go. Keep the change.”
Before Abby could even respond, he was out the door and running down the street. Mandy appeared next to Abby and made a grab for the twenty. “Oh, big tipper!”
Normally Abby would have snatched the money out of her hand. Instead, she was staring at the TV screen. “What is all this?”
“Oh yeah. It was on the radio. Bunch of terrorists attacked the new power plant. Cops all over the place. And the guy said that Max Dalton got captured or something.”
“Dave’s out back, right?” Abby pulled off her apron and pushed through the double doors. The manager was sitting on the back step sipping out of a mug. “Dave? I’ve got to go home for a couple of hours.”
“Aw, you’re kidding, right? Abby, we’re
! All the kids are coming in tonight because their parents are too sick to make dinner.”
She folded her arms and glared at him. “Swamped? Dave, you’ve been out here for ages, and Mandy only works about twenty minutes out of every hour. I’ve been going for eleven straight hours—I haven’t even had my lunch yet!”
Dave sighed, pushed himself to his feet, and carried his mug back into the kitchen. Over his shoulder, he said, “All right, all right. Be back by . . . nine, OK?”
“I’ll do my best.” She closed the door on him.
Abby looked around to make sure that no one could see her, then made her way to the far side of the yard. An old wooden shed was slowly rotting in the corner, half-hidden among the piles of junk. She pulled open the door and ducked inside. Under a large, paint-spattered plastic sheet was a rusty oil drum with its lid hammered into place so tightly that nothing short of a crowbar would be able to open it.
She popped the lid with her fingers, and one by one removed the items she’d been storing for exactly this sort of situation.
First came the heavy boots she’d bought at the local army surplus store. Next the builders’ gloves. Then the extra-thick black denim jeans and the leather biker’s jacket that the would-be robber had left behind.
She quickly stripped off her uniform and pulled everything on. She’d spent months modifying the jacket and jeans. A visit to the local hardware store and almost a whole week’s tips had provided her with hundreds of steel washers, each about the size of a quarter. A scavenging session at the local dump had yielded a dozen yards of piano wire.
She’d threaded the washers onto the jacket and jeans with the wire to create her own homemade chain mail.
When she zipped up the jacket, Abby took a moment to consider what she was about to do. Her heart was thumping like crazy and she’d already broken out in a sweat.
She was a superhuman. She was stronger and faster than an ordinary person, she had tremendous stamina, and she had some sort of strange ability to manipulate metal—even though she didn’t quite understand that part herself.
I’ve got to do this,
she told herself.
If Max Dalton really has been captured, I might be able to help.
Her hands trembled with anticipation and no small amount of fear as she reached into the oil drum and removed the last two items.
The first was a secondhand full-face motorcycle helmet.
The second had once been a three-foot-long solid steel bar. Abby had spent a week hammering it flat so that its cross section was a narrow ellipse rather than a circle. She’d fashioned a handgrip from a strip of rubber cut from a car tire and bound it to one end of the bar with piano wire. Then she’d sharpened one edge, brought it to a point at the top.
She slung the heavy sword into the specially made sheath on the back of her jacket, then pulled on her helmet.
She opened the door to the shed, peeked out to make sure that there was still no one watching, then closed the door behind her.
The back wall was seven feet high. Abby vaulted over it, landed lightly on her feet in the alley, and ran.
Lance McKendrick knocked on the door of his parents’ bedroom and pushed it open.
His mother was asleep, the blankets pulled right up to her neck. His father was hunched over on the side of the bed in his pajamas and the thick dressing gown he’d stolen from a hotel, blowing his nose on a tissue.
“How are you doing, Dad?”
Albert McKendrick turned dark-rimmed, bloodshot eyes toward his son and shrugged. “Lousy. Feel like I’ve been run over by a truck delivering bowling balls.” He sniffed. “Back’s killing me, and when I try to stand up I get dizzy. Half the time I’m freezing; the other half I’m soaked with sweat.” He wiped his mouth with a fresh tissue. It shredded on his two-day stubble and left his chin and upper lip covered with tiny particles of paper. “Where’s Cody?”
“Training. He should be back in about an hour. Will you guys be OK on your own until then?”
His father nodded, then sneezed. “God, I
Lance returned to his own room and pulled the small briefcase out from under the bed. It had been locked, but that had been easily sorted out with his homemade tension wrench and half-diamond pick.
He was disappointed to discover that the briefcase was almost empty. All it contained was two sheets of paper filled with dense columns of numbers and a small envelope holding an electronic keycard. The envelope had a local address written on the front, and a seven-digit phone number on the back.
Lance had spent the past couple of hours wondering what to do next. He was almost certain that the briefcase was what Paragon had been looking for.
But why? Who was the guy driving the car?
I should hand this stuff over to the cops. But if I do that now, they’ll want to know why I didn’t do it earlier. And if they guess I picked the locks, I’ll be in real trouble.
I could say I just found it. I went back to Jade Avenue and I spotted the briefcase in the Sternhams’ hedge.
But he knew that wouldn’t work: The police would have thoroughly searched the area.
He went downstairs, grabbed the local phone directory, and brought it back to his room. The back cover folded out into a map: Lance found the address in the middle of the business park. He knew the area quite well—he’d run a couple of scams on some of the businesses there.
From the direction the car had been heading, the driver must have been leaving the park when Paragon spotted him.
Does that mean that Paragon didn’t know where the place is? Would the guy have told him by now?
Lance realized that deep down he’d already decided what he was going to do. He put the empty briefcase back under the bed, stuffed the pages into his backpack, then put the keycard and the envelope into his jacket pocket.
It was an easy ten-minute cycle to the business park. As Lance passed through the entrance, he told himself,
I’m just going to go past and look at the building. The place could be swarming with cops.
The building was on a narrow side road. Lance pedaled past it and risked a quick glance. There was no sign of life.
It was a two-story office that looked just like dozens of others surrounding it, with the exception that there was no company name on the front, not even a brass plaque beside the door.
He went around the block three times before he worked up the courage to steer into the building’s four-car parking lot. There was still no one around.
The electronic lock on the door bore the same manufacturer’s stamp as the keycard. There was no buzzer or any other obvious way for a caller to get the attention of whoever might be inside, so he simply knocked on the door and waited. He decided that, if anyone answered, he’d pretend he was looking for Complete Office Solutions. That was a company on the far side of the business park.
There was no answer. He knocked again, louder this time. The only response was the echo of his knock.
Lance hesitated for a moment, then thought,
What the heck. Let’s see what’s in there.
He swiped the keycard through the lock, and the door clicked open. He quickly stepped through and used his elbow to push the door closed—he didn’t want to leave any fingerprints. In his backpack he had a pair of latex gloves he’d stolen during his last visit to the dentist, but he was reluctant to use them just yet—all of his “Wait, this isn’t what it looks like!” excuses would fall apart if it was obvious that he’d come prepared.
The small lobby was dark and bare, and the air smelled dry and stale. There was a single desk facing the door, but its light coating of dust told Lance that it had been a long time since anyone had used it.
Beyond the desk was an ordinary wooden door, and Lance was just about to open it when he spotted a small red flashing light on the side of the desk: an alarm box with a keypad.
Oh man. . . . Does that mean I’ve already triggered the alarm? No, can’t be that. Anyone who’s supposed to be here will need time to enter the code.
He bit his lip. The alarm box wasn’t a model he recognized.
the code? And how much time do I have?
He shifted closer to the alarm box to see whether any of the keys showed signs of wear, but they all looked the same.
No good. Get out. Bad idea from the start.
Lance was halfway to the door when he remembered the seven-digit number on the back of the envelope.
a phone number.
He dashed back to the alarm box, pulled the envelope out of his pocket, and keyed in the number using the knuckle on his index finger—the cops could pull fingerprints from almost anything.
The red light stopped flashing, and there was a soft
from the wooden door.
Lance pushed the door open with his shoulder, and stepped through into a wide, windowless storage room. The overhead fluorescent lights were on, giving him enough light to see a wide garage door at the far end, shelving units on each side, and twin workbenches—each the size of a Ping-Pong table—in the middle of the room.
On the nearest workbench was a large, curved metal box that very much resembled something he’d seen earlier that day: Paragon’s jetpack.