Authors: J. Gabriel Gates
Tags: #Fiction, #fantasy, #magic, #teen martial artists, #government agents, #Chinese kung fu masters, #fallen angels, #maintain peace, #continue their quest
“Hey there, shrimp!” Myka returned cheerfully. “God, Hayleeâyou're strong! What are you, part gorilla?”
“I'm going out to dinner with you and my brother! You don't mind?”
“'Course not!” Myka said, giving a warm, reassuring smile to Emory, who smiled back at her apologetically.
“Emory said you might do some makeup for me!” Haylee said eagerly.
“Sure. Sit down in the chair here. Kate's all finished, right Kate?”
“Indeed I am,” Kate replied in her pert Irish accent. “And my everlastin' thanks to you, Myka.” She turned to Emory's sister and said, “She'll do you up right, lass! Myka's a regular Leonardo da Vinci of makeup!”
“You look beautiful, Kate,” Zhai agreed, and as he spoke, the little girl's gaze fell upon him. Instantly, she went pale and began to back away. She turned and tried to run out the door, but her brother caught her.
“It's him!” she shouted, burying her face in Emory's jacket.
“It's okay,” Emory said, stroking her hair. “He won't try to hurt you again, Haylee. Zhai wasn't himself that night, but he's okay now. Alright?”
Zhai finally understood. This was the little girl he'd tried to kill when he was under the control of the Order of the Black Snake. He felt suddenly sick with shame and remorse.
No wonder Emory, out of all the Flatliners, was the one who still looked at him with distrust. When Zhai had first shown up to help search for Raphael, he'd felt like Emory wanted to kill him. The anger in his eyes had lessened somewhat as the weeks passed and he saw that Zhai truly wanted the best for Raphael and the Flatlinersâbut it hadn't disappeared completely. Emory looked at Zhai again now, and the coldness in his eyes faded.
“It's okay, Haylee. Zhai is . . . a friend,” he said at last.
Zhai came forward. “I'm sorry. I never meant to hurt you. And your brother is rightâI'll never do it again. That's a promise,” he said, and he extended his hand. Haylee moved tentatively out of her brother's embrace and took Zhai's hand for a moment. Everyone in the room smiled.
“Well, I guess we'll call and change our reservation to three,” Emory said.
“Definitely,” Myka agreed brightly, as she led Haylee over to the makeup chair.
“Oh, Dalton,” Emory said. “Nass ran into a little trouble earlier, but I'm sure he'll be here soon. We were watching the apartment demolition andâ”
Dalton raised a hand, waving away his explanation. “Don't tell me,” she said. “I like to hear my excuses direct from the source, thank you very much.”
Everyone laughed, imagining the trouble Nass was going to get into when he showed up late.
“Well, try to take it easy on him,” Emory said.
“Shall we?” Zhai asked Kate. The unspoken truce that he and Emory had forged felt good, but he still didn't want to make Haylee uncomfortable.
“Bye,” everyone called as Zhai and Kate headed out of the room, hand in hand.
Zhai was eager to get goingâhis driver was waiting outside to take them back to Kate's train car home, where Zhai had lots of exciting surprises in store.
* * *
It was night by the time Rick stood at the second-floor window of the Starlite Cinema, his dad's newest downtown acquisition, watching Clarisse make her way across the parking lot.
That's my kind of girl,
Up until this point in his life, the only place he'd really been able to be himself was on the football field. The rest of the world was riddled with all kinds of etiquette, rules he didn't like and didn't care to understand. He was supposed to watch out for people's feelings, help the less fortunate, be polite, and tolerate those who were weaker than him. To him, it was all a bunch of nonsense. The code of selflessness was like Chinese to himâsome complex language he could never hope to understand.
But with Clarisse, everything was simple. Sometimes they desired each other. Sometimes they hated each other. But they were always eager to use each other, and to Rick, that made sense.
As perverse as it would seem to other people, Rick felt like Clarisse, even though she was a dumb Flats rat, was the only person in town who got him. With her, he could be his truest, purest, most animalistic self. She seemed to love itâand he almost loved her for it.
Once she'd disappeared from sightâheading, he guessed, back to the Flatsâhe took out his phone and made three calls. The first was to the florist, to send some lame bouquet to Maggie. Even though he had little interest in her these days, she was still head cheerleader and homecoming queen, and he still wanted her on his arm for social functions, so he knew he had to appease her with some sort of pathetic gesture. The second call was to order two large loaded pizzas. He was famished. The third call was to his best friend, Bran Goheen.
“What's up, slick Rick?” Bran answered.
“I'm downtown. Remember, I told you my dad bought the Starlite? Well, I snagged a key. The whole second floor is vacant.”
Rick looked around. The room he was in was a wide-open loft space with ancient wood floors, high ceilings, and exposed brick walls. On the other side of the room, four high windows looked down on Middleburg's main street.
“This place is pretty cool. We should have a party or something. Come downâbring the guys. I already ordered pizza.”
Bran hesitated. “I don't know, man. It's Valentine's Day. I'll come down, but I think most of the guys have dates.”
Rick shook his head, feeling his ever-present anger rising again. What a world! All anyone seemed to care about was hugging and kissing and being fake with one another. He couldn't even understand his own friends sometimes. “Buncha wusses,” he grumbled. “You're coming down though, right?”
“Sure, bro. I was in the car anyway. I'm like a block away. Be right there.”
As Rick stared out the window at the parking lot, he caught sight of something that stirred his feelings even more than Clarisse had.
“All right, see you then. I gotta run,” he said and ended the call.
In the parking lot below, one of the Flatliners, Emory, was getting out of the car with a couple of girlsâprobably heading for the back door of Rosa's Italian restaurant. And, Rick knew, Emory was the one whose apartment building was supposed to have been torn down today. He was the perfect Flatliner to make an example of, Rick thought, and he laughed out loud, hardly able to believe his good luck.
A few months ago, he would have held back, afraid of what Zhai might say if he started trouble, but these days the so-called Topper leader spent half his time hanging out with those Flatliner losers and looking for Raphael Kain. As far as Rick and the other Toppers were concerned, Zhai was a traitorâand most of the guys were now taking orders from Rick. That meant there was nothing to prevent him from going down there and unleashing every delicious drop of his hatred on that little Flats punk Emory. And, Rick thought gleefully, that was exactly what he was going to do.
“Time to earn that extra hundred bucks,” he muttered to himself, and hurried toward the stairs.
* * *
Myka had made an ironic mix of the fifteen cheesiest love songs of all time in honor of Valentine's Day. As Emory pulled his dad's beat-up Subaru station wagon into the parking lot behind Rosa's Trattoria, Myka and Haylee were singing along at the top of their lungs to Celine Dion's “My Heart Will Go On.”
“All right, divas. We're here,” he said as they pulled into the parking space, and he killed the stereo.
They all got out of the car and walked together across the dimly lit alleyway that ran behind Middleburg's main street. As they went, Myka took Emory's hand. Haylee sidled up to him on the other side and gave him a big bear hug around the waist, and they kept on moving. Ever since that traumatic night when Zhai, under the Obies' mind control, had almost killed her, Haylee was like a different person. Her former snotty attitude was gone. She obeyed her parents, and she clung to Emory as she hadn't done since she was a toddler.
“Thanks for being my Valentine, guys,” she said, and Emory and Myka exchanged a smile.
“No problem, kiddo,” Emory said. “You can hang with us any time.”
Just then, a rocket sizzled across the sky and exploded in a brilliant fireworks display of spinners, snakes, and spirals. Haylee stopped and pointed up. “Ohâwow!” was all she said as the dazzling display was reflected in her eyes.
Emory looked up, too, at the scattering of fire sizzling across the heavens, just as a bright green explosion burst above them. It seemed so close that it might shower them in magical emerald embers.
Haylee squealed with delight and giggled.
At that moment, Emory caught movement in his peripheral vision. He glanced to his right to see a nondescript metal door on a building a few doors down drifting shut. Then, he saw a shadowed figure moving toward him. There were no lights in the parking lot, but in the glow cast by the next fireworks explosion he recognized the intruder: it was Rick Banfield.
“Guys, why don't you go inside and get us a table?” he said quickly, trying his best to sound casual. He had no idea why Rick was lurking in an alley after dark, but whatever was going on, Emory had to make sure his sister and Myka didn't get mixed up in it.
“NoâI want to watch the fireworks!” Haylee protested.
Rick was coming closer now, and Myka followed Emory's sight line. A look of fear crossed her face as she saw what Emory saw.
“Come on, Haylee. We have to go in,” she said quickly, grabbing Haylee's arm and leading her toward the back door of Rosa's.
“But . . . but . . .” Haylee objected, but Myka was stronger than she looked. She dragged Haylee all the way to the door and shoved her gently but firmly into the dimly lit hallway.
As Rosa's door opened, Emory saw the burgundy carpeting inside, and smelled the comforting aromas of garlic and tomatoes and melted cheese. He heard the clink of dinnerware, the bustle of the kitchen, the soft, lilting melody of a strain of classical music. He saw Myka, silhouetted in the doorway, her slender figure framed in illumination. The features of her pale, beautiful face were rendered invisible by the backlight, but he knew exactly the look of love and concern she'd be wearing as she turned back to look at him.
They had grown close since his family got evicted. At first he imagined that she would dump him, that she'd want no part of dating some loser who was basically homelessâespecially when she had a decent job working after school at Morningstar, Inc., and all he had was a paper route. But she'd stood by him. And at this moment, for the first time ever, he admitted to himself that he was in love with her. What he wanted now, more than anything in the world, was to be walking into that restaurant with her, holding her hand and listening to Haylee's stupid knock-knock jokes over a plate of steaming lasagna.
But before he could take a step toward the door, Rick emerged from the shadows, only a few feet away from him now.
“What's up, Flatliner? I hear you've been signing petitions,” Rick said darkly. He cracked his knuckles. Suddenly, Emory was overcome with a feeling of blinding, electrifying rage. It was because of Rick and people like himâToppersâthat Emory's family had to live in a garage. It was because of them that they'd had to huddle together in the cold all winter while his sister cried herself to sleep at night. It was because of them that Emory had lost the only home he'd ever known. Everything bad in his life was because of them. And here Rick was, king of the Toppers, ready to make fun of him for it.
“It's time for you to learn that little rats like you shouldn't be sticking their noses in places where they don't belong,
Emory and Rick were eye to eye now, although Emory had to stand on his tiptoes to do it. He wanted to say something back, something clever, but the rage and adrenaline coursing through his body were too strong to allow him to speak. His hands were trembling, his whole body shivering. He didn't trust his voice not to quaver if he tried to talk.
“Emory, come on,” Myka called from the doorway. Emory glanced over at her. Thank God, at least Haylee was hidden behind the big, solid wood door, unable to see the confrontation.
“Yeah, Emory,” Rick whispered. “Go on inside with your skinny-ass Flats bitch and your little brat sister. Just don't forget that the next time you meddle in my dad's affairs, I'm going to take both of them andâ”
“Go inside,” Emory shouted to Myka, and then his eyes flicked back to Rick's.
“Emory, no! Come on,” Myka said, her voice rising.
“GO INSIDE!” Emory yelled. “Take Haylee and shut the door!”
This time, he was so commanding that Myka obeyed immediately. The door clapped shut, and the light and the sounds of the restaurant disappeared, leaving Emory alone in the darkness with Rick. Another rocket burst overhead, painting the shadows with an eerie red light.
“Well, well,” Rick said. “You're a man after all. All that eyeliner and those black-painted nails of yours, I thought you were girl for sure.” He shook his head in disgust. “You people are always making things harder for my family, you know that? I can't even stand the sight of you.”
Once again, Emory wanted to speakâa dozen retorts came to his mindâbut he couldn't. His body convulsed once more with adrenaline, and without another word he snarled and threw the first punch. It caught Rick in the eye and made him stumble back a few steps, but an instant later the Topper regrouped and was on the attack.
Emory managed to get his hands up in front of his face to block the first few blows, using the kung fu techniques that Raph had taught him. He even clipped Rick's cheek with another punch and caught him with a good kick to the thigh. But Rick's fists were as huge and heavy as sledge hammers, and with the next blow Emory tried to block, he felt a terrible pain in his forearm and knew instantly that it was broken. Before he could back up, Rick's other fist blasted him directly in the face. He was aware of being in mid-air, then landing hard on the ground, the back of his head cracking against blacktop. He must have blacked out for a second, because the next thing he knew he was on his back on the grimy pavement of the alley, moving all his limbs in a desperate but futile attempt to scramble away, like he was doing a backstroke on the pavement.