Authors: J. Gabriel Gates
Tags: #Fiction, #fantasy, #magic, #teen martial artists, #government agents, #Chinese kung fu masters, #fallen angels, #maintain peace, #continue their quest
Health Communications, Inc.
Deerfield Beach, Florida
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available through the Library of Congress
ISBN-13: 978-0-7573-1739-2 (paperback)
ISBN-10: 0-7573-1739-1 (paperback)
ISBN-13: 978-0-7573-1740-8 (ePub)
ISBN-10: 0-7573-1740-5 (ePub)
Â©2013 J. Gabriel Gates and Charlene Keel
All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher.
HCI, its logos, and marks are trademarks of Health Communications, Inc.
Publisher: Health Communications, Inc.
3201 S.W. 15th Street
Deerfield Beach, FL 33442â8190
Cover design by Dane Wesolko
Interior design by Lawna Patterson Oldfield
Formatting by Dawn Von Strolley Grove
Ignacio stood quietly, staring at the array of demolition vehicles lined up across the street: two bulldozers and a big backhoe. His Flatliner brothers sat on the curb next to him in various postures of defeat. They always walked home from school along this route, and today the sight of big machines revving up for action had made them stop to watch. Beet was slouching and staring down at the pavement beneath his feet. Josh had his head in his hands. Benji kept fidgeting, nervously zipping and unzipping his jacket. But Emory sat perfectly still, staring intensely at the three-story apartment house that stood before him. He and his family had lived in that building since he was a baby. Now, it was about to be destroyed before his eyes.
Ignacio couldn't imagine how bad that must feelâon top of the fact that Emory and his mom, dad, and little sister were still living like refugees in Beet's dad's garage.
“Don't worry, man,” Josh said, putting a hand on Emory's back. “We'll find you a new placeâeventually.”
Emory didn't respond.
“Maybe somebody'll stop it at the last minute, like in the movies,” Benji said hopefully, with a glance at Ignacio. “Right, Nass? Maybe city hall will accept your petition after all.”
“Nah.” Ignacio shook his head. “They rejected it on a technicality. They said the margin on the edge of the page was too big. Jerks. I watched them throw it in the trash. Nobody's going to stop it,” he finished, dejected.
They all stared in silence at the vacant building. The sound of an engine, then another, drifted toward them from across the street as the workmen turned the bulldozers on.
“Gentlemen, start your engines,” Benji said. Nobody laughed.
“If Raph were here, he'd know what to do,” Beet said glumly, and they all breathed a collective sigh.
For the last two and a half months, they'd searched every day for their friend and leader. They felt like they'd turned over every log in the forest and peered behind every tree trunk. They'd gotten flashlights and explored Middleburg's infamous, creepy railroad tunnels, and then traversed the slopes of the mountain through which the tunnels ran. They had hiked around Macomb Lake and ridden their bikes down country roads calling his name. They had even organized Flats residents to do a block-by-block search of the town, including Hilltop Haven. Still, Raphael Kain was nowhere to be found.
The only traces of him that remained were the shards of the treasure he'd held just before that phantom train struck him. With superstitious reverence, each of the Flatlinersâand most of the Toppersâhad picked shards of the broken crystal ring from the spot where the explosion happened. Even though the ring's magical glow disappeared once it broke and the shards became nothing more than translucent glass, they had all wanted a piece of it. Nass knew without asking that his fellow Flatliners each carried a small fragment of that mystical ring with them everywhere they went, just as he did. As he thought of it, his hand slipped into his pocket, his fingers tracing along the jagged edge of the broken bit of crystal.
Maybe the Shen magic contained in the crystal was responsible for Raphael's disappearance, Nass thought with a stirring of hope that felt like a ray of sunlight trying to pierce the cloudbank of his depression. Maybe it had transported Raph to another time or place, and he'd find his way home. Maybe he would come walking back into Middleburg any day now. But the prospect seemed too much to hope for. Raphael was gone. And for all they knew, he wasn't coming back.
For all they knew, he was dead.
Across the street, a huge backhoe inched across the apartment building's overgrown lawn, raising its big yellow bucket across the cloud-paled, late winter sun.
“I took my first steps in that apartment,” Emory said quietly, speaking for the first time all afternoon. “It's where my sister said her first word. Don't get me wrong, it suckedâbut it was the only home I've ever had.”
Nass looked over at his friend, half expecting to see tears in his eyes, but there were none. Emory's face held no expression, which was worse. He just stared across the street as the backhoe reached slowly toward the roof of the building, as if the sight made him feel nothing at all, as if he were completely numb. Nass guessed that all the Flatliners probably felt that way. He felt numb, too, ever since Raphael disappeared. Numb and empty, except for a subtle, nagging pressure in the pit of his stomach that never seemed to go away.
“I wish I had a trumpet,” Benji lamented. “I'd play taps.” He started humming it, doing an impression of a bugle that would have been funnyâif the occasion wasn't so depressing.
“Well, if it's any consolation, Emory, I'm sure they'll knock down the rest of the Flats soon,” Josh said. “Nass's eviction is scheduled for next week, and my family has to be gone in a month.”
“Thanks,” Emory said sarcastically. “I feel much better now.”
Just as the backhoe was about to crunch into the roof of the building, there came a roar of engines and a squeal of tires, and Nass looked over to see a shiny, black SUV whip around the corner, followed by an identical vehicle.
Reflexively, all the Flatliners scrambled to their feet, and Nass backed up from the curb onto the sidewalk. In Middleburg, only rich Topper brats had shiny, new SUVsâand with Raphael gone, tension with the Flatliners' rivals was higher than ever.
But when the doors to the vehicles opened, it wasn't the Toppers who emerged. It was a bunch of muscular guys in black suits, all of them with military-style haircuts. The man who got out on the passenger side of the first vehicle took the lead, pulling some kind of official-looking badge out of his jacket pocket as he hurried up the lawn toward the apartment building.
“Stop,” he barked, and instantly the heads of all the Shao Construction workers snapped toward him. The backhoe that was about to tear into the roof of the building froze.
“Yeah! City hall! The petition worked!” Benji shouted, and he plunged excitedly across the street, toward the building.
But Nass wasn't so sure that it was city hall they were dealing with. Jack Banfield had local government sewn up pretty tight, so when he wanted something done it usually got done. If he stood to make money by having the Flats torn down, Nass doubted city hall would stand in his way. Besides, the six guys in suits who were swarming toward the building didn't seem like city bureaucrats to himâthey looked more like the secret service agents who guarded the president of the United States. But the other Flatliners were already hurrying across the lawn, so Nass followed.
As soon as they were within earshot, he heard the leader of the suits talking to the Shao Construction foreman. “This property is hereby seized by the federal government. We are placing an injunction on any redevelopment within the city of Middleburg until our investigation here is concluded.”
“Investigation into what?” the foreman asked. He didn't seem upset by this new turn of events, only confused.
“That's classified,” the man said indifferently. “You can direct your questions to your local law-enforcement agency. But I want nothing touched, you understand? No renovation, no demolition until we've gone through every inch of this place.”
The foreman shrugged and glanced at his crew members. “All right, no problem. But, uh, my boss ain't gonna be too pleased. He's going to ask for your name and badge number and stuff.”
“The name is Hackett,” the man said.
Nass noticed that Hackett's fellow black-suits had already pried the front door of the building open and were swarming through it into the vacant apartment house.
“And what agency are you with exactly? My boss'll want to know,” the foreman asked, and Nass could see that he was appropriately intimidated.
“Local law enforcement,” Agent Hackett reminded him. “Direct your questions to them.”
The foreman nodded to his crew members, who shrugged and began retreating toward their trucks. As they went, he pulled out his cell phone.
Calling Jack Banfield or Cheung Shao, no doubt,
Nass thought. Man, he would love to see the look on their faces when they heard that the feds had come in and squashed their little real-estate deal.
“Dude, that was kick
! High-five!” Benji said, and held his hand up for the agent to slap him one.
The man, Agent Hackett, turned toward him slowly, with an air of threatening calm. He was tall, with a salt-and-pepper crew cut and a pair of aviator sunglasses so dark it was impossible to see his eyes. He chewed a piece of gum slowly, as if, Nass thought, he enjoyed the feeling of smashing things between his teeth. He did not move to give Benji five.
“We're the ones who did the petition,” Benji blurted, obviously thinking that an explanation was in order. The man merely stared at him. “I'm so glad you guys showed up, man. This neighborhood isn't much, but it's all we got, you know?”
“Benji . . . let's go,” Nass said. The
was kicking in, and over the past few months, he'd learned to trust his psychic instincts when that peculiar little feeling came over him. Right now, his instincts were telling him to get out of there. But Benji was still talking.
“It was so cool, manâyou guys riding in to the rescue at the last possible minuteâjust like in the movies!”
Agent Hackett reached up and slowly removed his sunglasses, revealing narrow brown eyes, the folds around them tightly creased like those of a cowboy who spent his days squinting into harsh sunlight and blowing dust. He stared at Benji.
“You're one of Raphael Kain's friends,” he stated. “A Flatliner. Your name is Benjamin Case, isn't it?”
Benji finally got the message that something was off, and he started slowly backing away. “Um, yeah. Yes, sir. Anyway, thanks. I should be heading home . . .” His voice faded into silence.
“I don't think so,” Hackett said tonelessly. “I'm going to need you to answer a few questions about Raphael Kain.”
When Benji tried to take another step back, Hackett reached out to grab his arm. Instinctively, Nass stepped between them, pushing Hackett's hand away.
“I can speak for all of us,” he blurted. “You should talk to me.”
Before he knew what had happened, Nass found himself lying in the grass face-first, his arm twisted painfully behind him. From his awkward vantage, he looked up to see several agents step up next to Agent Hackett.
“Don't ever touch me, boy. Understand?” Hackett said evenly, leaning close to Nass's ear.
“Go! Now!” Nass shouted, and the other Flatliners obediently took off across the street, running as fast as they could.
“You want us to grab them?” one of the other agents asked, but Hackett shook his head.
“No, let them go,” he said quietly, and glanced down at Nass, giving his wrist a final, painful twist. “We can pick them up later if we need to. But I have a feeling this one is going to tell us everything we need to know.”
* * *
Rick Banfield sat in front of his father's broad mahogany desk, tapping his foot impatiently. His dad, who occupied a large leather office chair behind the desk, scowled as he held the phone receiver to his ear. Jack Banfield's lavish office was on the top floor of the tallest building in downtown Middleburg, and its sixth-floor windows provided the best view in town. There was Main Street, with its historic brick buildings, then the blocks of old, well-cared-for houses that surrounded downtown. Beyond it, to the east, Rick could see the rise that led to Hilltop Haven, the beautiful gated community where he and his fellow Toppers lived. Further south there was a second hillâa small mountain, reallyâthrough which Middleburg's railroad tunnels ran. Further to his right, he could see the ragged rooftops of tenement houses in the distance. That was where the trouble was happening, Rick surmised; he'd overheard his father say something about a redevelopment deal getting screwed up, and that's where the work was taking place. Besides, Rick thought, every bad thing that ever happened in Middleburg came from those filthy, lazy slobs who lived south of the tracks. Rick's patience for his Flatliner rivals had long ago disappeared, and he yearned more and more for the day when he could make Middleburg a better place by exterminating them all, like the rats they were.
“You've got to be kidding me,” his dad growled into the phone. “On whose authority? Well, where did it come from? There has to be some . . . uh-huh. Right. Listen, I'll make a couple calls to my friends at city hall and see if I can get to the bottom of this, all right? I'll call you as soon as I know something.”
Jack slammed the phone down and glared at his son. “Yes?” he prompted impatiently. “As you can see, I've got a pretty full plate today. What's on your mind? Spit it out.”
“You were going to leave me some cash this morning,” Rick said. “For Valentine's Day?”