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Authors: Matt Solomon

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BOOK: The Giant Smugglers
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“Of course, Mr. Pulvermacher. Once again, my apologies.” Fitzgibbons slid the window up. Barton, the armpits of his shirt now dark half-moons of sweat, took the cue to hit the gas and drive away.

Hank watched the van pull off and slapped his thigh twice. Powder followed as he hobbled toward the trailer. He reached into his pocket, withdrew the detonator, toggled the main switch up, and pressed the red button.

Across the quarry at the ridge, a small puff of dust jumped from the rock face. Then a series of thundering explosions ripped through the pit. Tons of rock dutifully and dreadfully crashed to the ground, sending a chalky cloud into the air.

Inside the van, Barton jumped in his seat at the sound of the detonation. He checked the rearview mirror and hit the gas. A maelstrom of dust showered down on the vehicle. “Did he just try to bury us?” exclaimed Barton.

“It doesn't matter. The visit was a success, and we're on our way.”

“You're satisfied with soil samples? Gourmand won't be, and you know it.”

“No, we didn't find a giant,” Fitzgibbons said, reaching into his jacket and pulling out the fingernail sample he'd collected in the silo. “But we didn't come up empty.”

“What the heck is that?” asked Barton, sneaking a sideways look while maneuvering the van through the cloud of dust and back onto the main road.

“This,” said Fitzgibbons, “might just be the break we need.”

 

4

The last thing Charlie wanted to do was unload moving boxes, but his mom had insisted. He'd woken up early to sneak across the street and get some answers to the questions that had rattled around his skull all night long, but she'd gotten up earlier and cornered him before he could slip away. Now he had to wait. If only the giant had a phone!

Charlie kicked the carton marked
Tim
in fat marker. His mom had dragged the box of his brother's stuff around to the last three apartments, always stowing it in Charlie's room. She wouldn't throw it out.

To make matters worse, it was time again for the Richland County Fair, which meant his older brother would roll back into Charlie's life for a few days. Tim had dropped out of high school a few years back and joined Tip Top Shows, a traveling carnival that set up at county fairgrounds all over the country. He'd left home just into his senior year, leaving behind a note that essentially said, “Sorry. I have to do this.” It took his mom a couple of years, but she was sort of over the whole thing now. Charlie, not so much. He was still plenty ticked at Tim for abandoning them, right on the heels of their dad leaving for some woman he met on a sales trip. And now Charlie was stuffing Tim's box of crap into a closet that was already way too small for his own things.

The box was heavy with an old-school film projector and a bunch of other useless garbage: an empty black liquor flask with the initials
TL
engraved in gold; a silver, refillable lighter (no fluid, no wick); random poker chips; a pen featuring a girl in a bikini that got naked when you turned it upside down; a miniature Swiss Army knife with the toothpick missing; and an old pair of field glasses. Pressed up against the side of the box were old-timey film reels, ancient kung fu movies with corny names like
Game of Death
and
Enter the Dragon.

Charlie couldn't figure out why Tim kept the old junk. “It's not old, Charlie,” he'd argue. “It's vintage.”

Whatever.

Then Charlie saw something under the film reels that sparked an idea: a pair of oversize walkie-talkies. They looked like they still worked. He grabbed the walkies and stuffed them in his backpack. With school starting in forty minutes and a long bike ride still ahead of him, he was nearly out of time to visit the giant. He had to get across the street, like now. Charlie hustled out to the kitchen just as his mom opened the oven door, filling the room with stifling heat.

“Finished already?”

He hesitated. “Nearly. Almost. I'll finish after school, okay? If I don't get going, I'll be late.” Charlie knew the excuse was golden—he'd received a couple tardies already by finishing
Total Turbo
races when he should have been biking off to school.

“You better not be. If I get another call from the school…” Rita Lawson let the threat linger in the air as the oven timer went off. She pulled her famous rhubarb crisp out of the oven and set the hot pan on top of the stove.

He grabbed a frozen waffle from the freezer, resisting the delicious smell drifting from the pan. Charlie held the entire waffle in his mouth as he grabbed a couple of nine-volt batteries from a kitchen drawer, slipped past his mom, and made for the back door. It stuck, and he forced it open with his hip.

“Don't forget—I want the rest of those boxes unpacked before we go to the fair tonight!”

“Got it,” he managed to say through a mouthful of waffle. He bounced down the wooden stairs and scattered a few colorful butterflies, residents of his mom's monarch way station. She (and often, Charlie) tended to their temporary roost and even glued little tags to their wings so her Save the Monarchs group could track the butterflies' annual migration to Mexico. His mom did stuff like that.

He hauled his old twenty-inch BMX bike from under the stairs, shook the morning dew off, and rode to the intersection. He waited out the morning traffic to cross Church Street. It seemed like there were more cars than ever in town for the fair.

The traffic finally cleared, and Charlie pedaled across the street. He hurried the bike into the alley next to the warehouse, remembering that the old man had said he wouldn't come back when the sun was up. Charlie figured the coast was clear, but he hid his bike away deep in a patch of overgrown weeds just in case. Then he squeezed through the window he'd used to get in the night before.

Charlie dashed down the hallway into the huge room. The giant was lounging in the middle of the floor, grinning. Sprawled out like that, he wouldn't have fit in Charlie's apartment.

“Charlie,” the giant exclaimed, and sprang to his feet. He held out his fist.

The big guy caught on fast. Charlie bumped it. “The old man's not around, right?”

“Gone.”

“Sorry it took me so long to get…”

The giant didn't wait to hear the end of the sentence. He grabbed Charlie and hoisted him up to the high windows, giving them a bird's-eye view of the Richland Center downtown. The giant pointed. “What's that?”

Charlie looked at the tall county courthouse spire, a dull brick structure he'd seen pretty much every day of his life. “It's a clock. Supposed to keep time, but it doesn't even work,” he said. “You don't know what a clock is?”

The giant turned toward Tower Hill and gestured toward the blinking antenna jutting skyward. “That?”

“A tower for sending out radio signals, I think.” Charlie wasn't sure how to begin to explain radio.

The giant's ignorance didn't make him self-conscious about asking questions, which meant Charlie spent the next several minutes trying to explain mundane stuff like paint stores and school buses. It was as if the giant had never even been in a city before. The boy checked his phone and groaned. He had like three minutes left in the warehouse, max, or he'd be late for school—and Principal Dobbs had made it clear that was a big deal. Enough with describing gas stations and mail boxes. He had to get some answers of his own. “What's your name?”

The giant shrugged.

“You don't know your own name?”

The big guy shook his head. “No name.”

“Weird! Do you even know why you're here?”

The giant chewed on his bottom lip. “Secret.”

“You're just stuck in here the whole time? You can't get out and look around?”

“Secret,” the giant repeated, and he didn't look very happy about it.

“That sucks!”

“Sucks?”

“Sucks. That means it's bad. Like you wish things could be different.” Charlie wanted to press further, but he was out of time. “You got to put me down, man. I have to split!”

The giant blinked his eyes. He had no idea what Charlie was talking about.

“That means I have to leave. Got to go.”

“No!”

“I have to! I'm going to be late to school.”

“School?” The giant lowered Charlie to the warehouse floor.

“Be glad you don't have to go. It sucks.”

The giant gestured around the warehouse. “Sucks!”

Charlie felt for the giant, but he just couldn't get away with skipping. “I'll get in trouble,” he explained. “With my mom.”

The giant seemed to get that part. He gave a reluctant nod.

“I'll come back when I'm done,” Charlie said. “But I've got something for you in the meantime.” He dug in his backpack and pulled out the walkie-talkies.

“Phone?”

“Kind of, but not as cool.” Charlie turned one on and handed it to the giant, who gave it a curious sniff. Charlie depressed the Talk switch. “Hey, can you hear me?”

The giant's face lit up, and he nudged his own talk button. “Yep.”

“I just put in fresh batteries. Keep that on, and I'll call at lunch.” Charlie held out his fist. The giant bumped it. “And I'll be back right after school, okay?”

“Okay.”

Charlie busted out of the warehouse and fetched his bike out of the weeds. He pedaled hard out of the alley and down the block, determined to beat the bell. But more traffic for the fair stopped him at an intersection where a group of kids were circled up. Something was going on.

Fight!

Charlie wheeled up to the edge of the mob and waited out the traffic. He saw two guys squaring off in the middle, each waiting for the other to make the first move.

Brent Frawley, a running back on the high school's junior varsity football team, had a stupid grin on his broad, ruddy face. His long-sleeve T-shirt was pushed up around his massive forearms. He took a half-step into the other guy's space so that they were practically nose to nose.

Charlie didn't recognize this new kid, who showed no signs of backing down. Shorter but stockier than Frawley, his red hair was shaved tight down to a bumpy scalp, accentuating his square jaw. Thick crimson eyebrows furrowed into a
V
, creasing a pimpled forehead that shone with oily perspiration. “Say it again,” he snarled.

Charlie heard a girl whisper “Fitz,” and the name clicked in his head:
That's the guy from
Total Turbo
!
He remembered hearing the kid's menacing voice in his headset the night before. Fitz sounded nuts then, and he looked nuts now.

“Say it again.” Fitz didn't appear to be breathing.

The students were dead silent, waiting in anticipation as the threat of violence filled the air.

Frawley smirked to a couple of buddies, wrestler types in vinyl jackets with spark plug insignias that advertised a custom car shop. He leaned in toward Fitz with a grin. “I wish I was blind,” Frawley said, “so I could read the bumps on your face.”

Charlie chuckled out loud, then stopped himself. Nobody else had laughed. He raised his hand to his mouth like he was trying to cover an errant cough, but it was too late for that. The insult echoed in the silence. His heart pounded up into his throat, and his face got hotter than July.

Fitz turned. His eyes narrowed even further, zeroing in on Charlie. Fitz almost seemed to be memorizing him, cataloguing every physical detail for future reference. After what felt like an eternity, Fitz pointed an angry finger at Charlie.

“Big mistake.”

Then Fitz spun around. With unimaginable speed, he landed a devastating upper cut to Frawley's chin that sent the taller boy to the ground. He hit the pavement with a stomach-turning
thunk
. Blood gathered in the corners of his mouth like he'd chomped his tongue in two. Frawley tried to get up, but Fitz planted his right foot hard in the fallen boy's rib cage.

“Got anything else to say?” Fitz asked, punctuating his question with a stomp.

“Stop it!” screamed a pony-tailed girl wearing an orange and black
It's an RC Thing
T-shirt. “What's wrong with you? It was a freaking joke!”

Charlie didn't wait for traffic any longer. He darted out into the busy street, and a car horn blared. He tore across the intersection but couldn't help looking back.

Fitz stood at the edge of the circle of kids. He pointed at Charlie. “I owe you,” Fitz shouted. “You're dead meat!”

 

5

Surveillance cameras atop iron masts glared down as a white van drove past an understated Accelerton sign on a manicured patch of lawn. The grass was pristine despite not having been mowed in a month. The blades of grass (a test product, specifically Accelerlawn #5) were genetically modified to reach a predetermined, perfect height of precisely two inches.

Dr. Fitzgibbons stood outside the main campus building on his phone, negotiating with a junior varsity football coach. His son's misbehavior at the bus stop was costing him precious time. The coach wanted to suspend Jamie for knocking his starting tailback out of the next game. A few calm, well-chosen words kept Jamie on the team for now.

Fitzgibbons put his phone away and stormed inside. He hurried down a long corridor where his fellow scientists were hard at work. Digital signage described research projects such as
Citrus Augmentation Trials
and
Biofuel Crops
. Each lab had a steel door with a rectangular reinforced window that allowed views of the research being conducted inside.

All the labs, except the new one.

Fitzgibbons held his palm to an ID scanner next to the nameless, windowless door at the end of the hall. With a click, the digital lock released, and he entered a research space unlike any other in the Accelerton facility.

BOOK: The Giant Smugglers
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