Authors: Edward Bloor
Orlando Austin New York San Diego Toronto London
Copyright Â© 1999 by Edward Bloor
Reader's guide copyright Â© 2007 by Harcourt, Inc.
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First Harcourt paperback edition 2007
The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:
Bloor, Edward, 1950-
Summary: After a violent virtual reality game arrives at the
mall arcade where she works, fifteen-year-old Roberta finds the
courage to search out the person who murdered her mother.
[1. CourageâFiction. 2. Shopping mallsâFiction.]
ISBN 978-0-15-206314-6 pb
Text set in Minion
Designed by April Ward
H G F E D C B A
Printed in the United States of America
For Pam, Mandi, and Spencer
In loco temporis
I don't usually look in mirrors because I don't need to. I don't style my hair; I don't use makeup. Most days I couldn't tell you what color clothes I have on. Kristin says that's because I don't have a mother to teach me about such things. Kristin is usually right.
I stood in the bathroom staring at my face, studying it, trying to decide if it looked older, when I heard Hawg's booming voice. It was coming from the mall parking lot.
I opened the back door to watch Hawg and Ironman for a moment. What a pair they were. Hawg's burly frame was packed into his red Arkansas T-shirt, the one with the charging pig on it. Ironman was wearing his usual black T-shirt. Either it was two sizes too large or he was two sizes too small. The shirt had a death's-head, a snake, and the word
Hawg was yelling about his one obsession, football. "Whompin' on em, man! We was whompin' on em. Upside their heads and down. No lie. They'd like to have quit at halftime, we whomped em up so good."
I don't know how much of this football talk Ironman understands. He usually just stands there grinning.
I quietly joined them. Hawg and Ironman seemed hard at work with cans of spray paint, red Glidden spray paint. They had our portable TV stand lying on the ground between them,
like a patient on a table. Hawg was leaning backward and squirting at the stand awkwardly, like you'd squirt poison at a big bug. I finally said, "What are you guys doing?"
They both turned in surprise, then exhaled in relief that I wasn't Uncle Frank. Hawg answered, "Your uncle told us to paint the Sony stand. He wants her to be red now."
"Damn if I know." Hawg picked up the stand and flopped it over. Then he held up his hands to show Ironman. They were now streaked bloodred from the paint. I went back inside as Hawg resumed his story, "Second half started, brother, and we dogged em good.
I had no sooner gotten back to the bathroom mirror than I heard the shrill ringing of the bell. I opened the door again and saw the UPS guy standing there in his brown shirt, shorts, and socks. I see this guy at least once a week, but I honestly don't know if he remembers me from one visit to the next. If he does, he doesn't let on. He looked down at his clipboard and told me, "Two packages. Nine hundred ninety-nine dollars COD."
I said, "I'm sorry. What does that mean?"
He looked up. "It means you have to give me a check for that amount, or you don't get your boxes."
"Really? Is this from Arcane?"
He checked his paperwork and confirmed, "ArcaneâThe Virtual Reality ArcadeâAntioch, Illinois. Two packages. COD. Cash on delivery."
I stood there dumbly. I finally said, "We've never had to do that before."
"You would have to take that up with the sender. I either deliver it or I don't deliver it."
Just then the door to the arcade opened and Uncle Frank came in. Uncle Frank used to be an army officer. He still has the
crew cut and the military bearing. The UPS guy practically snapped to attention. He even said, "How are you today, sir?"
I said, "He wants a check for nine hundred ninety-nine dollars."
Uncle Frank sputtered, "What?"
The UPS guy repeated his COD story, but this time he told it like he was on our side.
Uncle Frank told him coldly, "They've been sending packages to me for three years now. Never COD. This is a mistake."
The UPS guy suggested, "Why don't you call this Arcane company in Illinois?"
Uncle Frank stared hard at the UPS guy, who got very uncomfortable. Suddenly we all swiveled at the sound of the register buzzer. My cousin Karl had pressed it from up front. Uncle Frank looked at me. "See what he wants, will you?"
I walked out onto the floor of our family arcade and stood for a moment surveying the hardware. We have twelve different Arcane "experiences" set up in our arcade. The less bloody experiences are placed up front; the more violent and weird ones are in back. Each experience costs $4.95 for two minutes of "nonstop virtual reality excitement."
I spotted a Japanese family. They were wandering my way, right toward Mekong Massacre. This was why Karl had hit the buzzer. We don't let any Asian customers have the Mekong Massacre experience. We don't let Asians have the Halls of Montezuma experience or the Genghis Khan Rides! experience, either. Uncle Frank calls this our Asian Policy. Some Asians take these games so seriously that they get emotionally upset. Then they want their money back. We're instructed to tell all Asians that those three games are "experiencing technical difficulties."
I don't personally believe in the Asian Policy. I don't see any harm in letting a Japanese customer pretend to kill a Viet Cong guerrilla, or a Korean customer pretend to slice up an invading Chinese Mongol. Then again, I can distinguish between Japanese and Vietnamese, and Korean and Chinese, and so on. Uncle Frank can't. That's why we have an Asian Policy.
The family wandered all the way around the arcade in a circle, then left, so I returned to the UPS guy COD scene. Hawg and Ironman were back inside now, listening to Uncle Frank angrily growl, "Forget it," and slam down the phone.
I asked him, "It wasn't a mistake?"
Uncle Frank answered, "Apparently not," and wrote out a check.
The UPS guy tore off a receipt. It looked like he was about to say something else, but Uncle Frank shooed him out the door. Then we all turned and looked, with great interest, at the two cartons that had cost us a thousand bucks. Uncle Frank shook his head in utter disbelief. He turned to Hawg and Ironman, finally acknowledging their presence, and ordered, "Wash that paint off your hands before you touch this. It's worth more than you are." Then he asked me, "What did Karl want?"
I said, "Japanese. Looking at Mekong Massacre."
"Did you head them off?"
Uncle Frank thought for a moment. "Mekong Massacre's been marginal for a long time. What kind of numbers does it have?"
"About twenty-five customers a week."
"Is that all? Maybe we should get rid of it. I hate to, though." Uncle Frank pointed at the two new boxes. "But we have to make room for this one. He'll be right up front. And he comes with a promo display."
"Oh, good. What's he called?"
I walked over to the boxes. Hawg and Ironman, now with
clean hands, followed me and began to extract the pieces of the promotional display. Hawg pulled out a jewel-handled metal sword and held it up to admire. Then he unwrapped a gorgeous metal shield with a coat of arms that bore a lion, a snake, and a chalice. Even Uncle Frank was impressed by that and came over to check it out, too. He reached in and unfurled a white linen tunic with a big red cross sewn on the front. He nodded admiringly. Then he said, "Come out front, Roberta. I need to talk to you."
I followed Uncle Frank up to the front register. Uncle Frank and his two childrenâmy cousins, Karl and Kristinâall work at Arcane. Karl is eighteen, tall, and scary looking. Kristin is seventeen, tall, and gorgeous looking. Uncle Frank asked Karl, "Where's Kristin?"
Karl answered, "I think she's out with Nina."
"Oh? That's good. That Nina's a good girl."
Karl looked over at me, sneakily, and rolled his eyes. I rolled mine back. Nina is not a good girl.
Uncle Frank went behind the counter and pulled a green bank deposit bag from the floor safe. He told me, "Roberta, you're in charge of assembling this new display. I don't want any mistakes."
"Okay, Uncle Frank."
"It could be the last one we get for a while."
I returned to the back room and pushed open the door, expecting to see a mess, but the guys seemed to be handling the assembly okay. The Crusader had no real body. He had an open wire frame shaped like an upside-down cone, so large that a person could fit inside it. And that's where Ironman currently was. He said to Hawg, "There's gotta be a metal bar for the shoulders."
"There ain't no metal bar, Ironman. I told you that already."
"There's gotta be."
"There ain't. Now, don't make me hurt you, boy."
I said, "It's probably in this other box." I opened the second box and saw the CD-ROM to run Crusader, and the legend card that explained the experience. The card said:
God's champion against medieval evil!
He battles the bloodthirsty infidel
across the scorching sands of Asia Minor,
to reclaim the Holy Land for God.
The shoulder bar was also in the box, as were a pair of chain-mail boots and a pair of chain-mail gloves.
The three of us spent the next half hour putting him all together. He was a magnificent sight to see. Those boots of his attached to the base. They stuck out from under the white-and-red tunic, which stretched upward six feet to the broad shoulder bar. A pair of hollow arms, capped by the chain-mail gloves, curved out of the midsection and met in the front, clasping on to the handle of that jeweled sword. The sword and the shield were both held steady by a wire attached to the base. The Crusader was topped by a heavy metal helmet, through which peered a pair of bright blue battery-operated eyes.
Hawg, Ironman, and I were so impressed by him that we nearly overlooked a final piece, a chain-mail collar that attached to the helmet and circled his neck. A series of black links were embedded in his collar, forming symbols inside the gray links. I pointed out, "Look, the collar says something."
Hawg and Ironman came behind the display. Hawg ran a stubby finger over the black links, tracing their lines. He said aloud, "Deuce volt."
I said, "What does that mean?"
"Damn if I know. Some Spanish or somethin'."
"Well, how do you spell it?"
"D-E-U-S and V-O-L-T."
"Volt?" I asked. "Like an electric volt?"
Hawg nodded. "Must be. Yeah. Like it needs a two-volt battery when his eyes stop blinking."
The door opened behind us, and Kristin strolled in. We all turned to look at her. Kristin is pretty close to perfect. She's blond, and beautiful; she's an A student, and popular, and athletic. Uncle Frank is as proud of her as he is ashamed of Karl.
Kristin usually says hello to me when she arrives, but today she was distracted by the Crusader. "Excellent. Most excellent," she commented. "What's his name?"
I answered, "Crusader."
"Hmm." She checked him out like he was a potential boyfriend.
Kristin headed into the arcade, so I followed. A group of young guys were now gathered around Vampire's Feast, watching another guy flail away with the white plastic wand. One of them spotted Kristin and said to her, "Hey, aren't you from Lourdes Academy?"
Kristin kept walking, but she turned and asked him with mock enthusiasm, "Hey, aren't you from Loser Academy?"
The guy took a step back. His eyes registered hurt and embarrassment, but Kristin didn't care. She's absolutely ruthless when it comes to guys.
Kristin looks a lot like the pictures I've seen of her mother, my aunt Ingrid. Aunt Ingrid lived in Germany when she married Uncle Frank, and when she had Karl and Kristin. And she lives in Germany still.
The Crusader remained in the back for the rest of the evening. Uncle Frank was so pleased with the job Hawg and Ironman had done assembling him that he actually smiled in their general direction.
Unfortunately his good moods never last for long. When I went into the back room with the garbage, Uncle Frank was sitting at his desk, frowning and counting the receipts for the day. He never looked up, but he said to me, "Does your dad know he's covering Sunday?"
"Yes. He knows."
Uncle Frank and my dad are partners in the arcade, uneasy partners. He punched some numbers into a calculator, then continued, "So where is the surfer dude off to today?"
"I think he's out shopping for boats, with Suzie."
This made Uncle Frank frown even more. "So he's out looking at boats while this boat is sinking." He finished his calculations and looked up at me. "Do you need a ride home tonight?"
"No, thanks. I'm going to walk."
"No, you're not. It's dangerous enough crossing that road in the daytime. We'll drop you off."
We finished the closing checklist by nine-fifteen and trekked to Uncle Frank's white Mercedes. Uncle Frank also has a silver Volkswagen, which Kristin drives. Karl has a driver's license, too, but I've never seen him use it. We pulled out of the mall parking lot and crossed Route 27, heading for my duplex in Sawgrass Estates, about a half mile east. I spotted two dark shapes on the right-hand side of the road and knew right away who they were.