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By Allen Zadoff
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Copyright © 2013 Allen Zadoff
All rights reserved.
I PICK UP A BASEBALL BAT.
It's a thirty-two-ounce Rawlings composite. I feel the weight in my hands. The balance is slightly off from a dent on the tip.
I grasp the bat on either end and stretch out in the parking lot after the game. Natick vs. Wellesley. My Natick teammates are all around me, high school jocks doing what they do after a win. Celebrating. Big-time.
I celebrate, just like them.
This is what I think to myself:
I am one of you. I am young. I am a winner.
I smile and stretch.
After a moment, I shift my weight onto my back leg and I swing hard. Jack Wu comes up behind me at the same time. The bat misses his head by an inch.
A big man in a black suit tenses nearby. Tenses but doesn't interfere.
This is Jack's bodyguard and driver, a shadow behind Jack whenever he goes out. Jack's dad is rich. Rich and nervous.
Jack hates the bodyguard. He's told me a dozen times. Jack and I are friends, so he tells me these things.
"Watch it with the bat, dude," Jack says, and he punches me on the shoulder. A playful punch.
The Suit steps forward, and Jack spins around, anticipating him.
"Down, Rover," he says, like he's talking to a pit bull.
The Suit grins like he's in on the joke, but I wonder if he wouldn't slap the hell out of Jack if he had the chance. Instead he leans back against the sleek black Mercedes and waits.
"You killed it out there," Jack says. He head-gestures toward the field.
"I do my best," I say.
"Your best kicks ass and takes names," Jack says, and he punches my shoulder again.
This time the big man doesn't move. But the other players are looking at us.
Two punches on the arm. A way of asserting dominance.
Dominance is a threat. It must be dealt with.
I run a checklist in my mind:
I can let him punch me. Choose a lower status.
I can retaliate in equal measure, with equal force.
I can escalate. Assert my dominance.
Which should I choose?
Jack is supposed to be my friend. A teenage friend would punch a buddy the way he punched me. When in doubt, emulate. That's what I've been taught.
So it's option two.
I give Jack a light punch on the shoulder.
"Ow!" he cries in mock pain. "Take it easy on me."
This entire transaction takes no more than two seconds:
I swing the bat.
Jack punches. I punch back.
We both laugh as the Suit looks on.
This is what you'd see if you were watching us now. Two jocks, buddies, teasing each other.
"You want to come back to the bank vault?" Jack says.
The bank vault. That's what Jack calls his house.
"For a little bit," I say.
Jack steps toward the car. The Suit reacts quickly, opening the back door for him.
"My friend is coming with," Jack says to him.
"Yes, sir," he says, and he gestures for me to get into the car.
THE LEATHER IS SOFT IN THE MERCEDES.
It's the kind of leather seat that pulls you in, begs you to relax against it. A seat that says, You are being taken care of. You are being driven where you need to go.
I imagine having a father who can afford things like this. Expensive cars. Expensive bodyguards. Not just afford them, but a father who wants his son to have them. Wants him to be taken care of.
But this is not something I should be thinking about now. Not when there's work to do.
I glance at Jack. He's leaning back with his eyes closed.
"I was thinking," he says.
"That's unusual for you," I say.
"Asshole," he says.
He smiles, his eyes still closed.
"I was thinking about you and me."
"Stop right there," I say. "You're making me nervous."
"Can I be serious for a minute?" Jack says.
"You want to get all heavy for sixty seconds, I'm not going to stop you."
"I was thinking that you're a real friend."
"You've got tons of friends," I say.
"Not guys I invite over to the house. Not guys I trust."
"You trust me?"
"For real," Jack says.
The Suit in the front seat coughs. A warning to Jack? A reminder that he's still here? Or nothing at all. A tickle in the throat.
"If you trust me, can I borrow a hundred bucks?" I say.
"I don't trust you that much," Jack says.
He punches my arm.
I let him do it.
THE SUIT TYPES A CODE INTO THE SECURITY GATE.
The large metal gate slides open to reveal a long driveway, a guard hut set twenty feet in.
We pull up to the hut and the Suit nods to a guard. He lifts two fingers. Two people coming in, Jack and me. The guard marks it down on a clipboard. He's seen me before, and it's not a big deal.
We continue around a hairpin turn, and the house comes into view. Big but not lavish. The Suit stops to let us out.
Jack types a code to gain access to the house.
The front door beeps to announce our entry. Front door open, it says.
It beeps again when the door is closed. Front door closed, the electronic voice says.
Jack's dad wanders by with a beer in his hand. Chen Wu is his name. His friends call him John. He's the CEO of a high-tech firm along Route 128. Lots of government contracts.
Does he need all this security?
I know he likes it. It makes you feel important to have a lot of people with guns around you. It makes you feel safe, and more importantly for him, it makes his wife feel safe. That keeps her from giving him a hard time.
It's not just Mr. Wu. All the CEOs are edgy right now. There was some violence a year ago. An important kid got shot during an attempted kidnapping while on spring break in Mexico. The Fortune 500 went security crazy. Now rich kids like Jack need a commando team to take a dump.
"Nice to see you, boys," Jack's dad says.
"What's up, Dad?" Jack says. "Gotta take a squirt. Pardon my French."
He turns to leave.
"Hey, I can't stay too long," I say.
"You gotta go?" Jack says, disappointed.
"Gotta call my mom," I say. "I guess it's morning wherever she is."
"Crap in a bag," Jack says.
He shoots up the stairs.
"You have time for a cold one?" Jack's dad says.
"Beer or soda?"
"How old are you?" he says.
"Soda for you. But it was a nice try."
I shrug like I'm bummed out, and I follow him through the den.
"How was the game?" Jack's dad says.
"Amazing," I say. "You should come sometime."
"High school ball is not really my thing," he says.
But it's his son's thing, so what does it matter?
I see this a lot with the Fortune 500. Mr. Wu is always working. Except Friday nights. His only downtime, and he doesn't want to spend it with his family. He relaxes for the evening, then works again all weekend.
So be it. It's Friday night and he's here. So am I.
That's the important thing.
We head into the kitchen, and the conversation drifts to the Red Sox. We're near Boston, so we have to talk Sox.
I notice an expensive knife block on the counter with one of the knives missing from its slot. A wide slot. This is a knife big enough to be used as a weapon.
I scan the room.
The knife is sitting on a cutting board next to the sink, ten feet away from us. A safe distance away.
I relax and exhale. I sit at the table, and I reach into my backpack and take out a ballpoint pen.
Jack's dad looks at me from the refrigerator, a question on his face.
"You taking notes?"
"When you talk baseball, I listen," I say.
Jack's dad smiles. I smile.
When in doubt, emulate.
I turn the cap until it clicks, exposing the point.
Jack's dad reaches forward to hand me the cold soda.
I push the end of the pen into the meat of his forearm. The action depresses a miniature plunger.
His eyes widen as the drug hits him. His mouth puckers, forming the familiar Wh—.
Maybe it's why he's trying to say.
Maybe it's what, as in What are you doing?
But the drug is fast-acting. Its actual speed depends on age and conditioning, which is bad news for Jack's dad.
He's out of shape.
So it is fast. Faster even than a word can form.
Jack's dad stumbles, and I catch him, place him on the floor by the kitchen table. I don't let him fall, because I don't want Jack running downstairs to see what caused the noise. I don't want anyone else rushing in. Not yet.
I need fifteen seconds.
Six seconds to lay him down, arranging the body, limbs splayed as if from a fall. I use an elbow to knock over the can of beer next to him. The foam hisses.
Five seconds to put away my pen and notebook, zip the backpack where it hangs from the back of a chair.
Four more seconds to play out the chain, let the chemical reaction in Mr. Wu's body take him beyond the point of resuscitation.
I look at the body. The man who was Chen Wu is gone.
A husband is gone.
A father is gone.
"I trust you," Jack said.
That was your mistake, I think.
Twenty seconds have passed. The outside edge of my operational window.
"Oh my god!" I say. "Help!"
I fling open the front door. "Someone!" I shout.
Jack comes running down the stairs, and his face turns white with shock. A sound comes out of him, something between a moan and a scream.
The security people rush in. One look at the body and the first guy knows.
It's all a show after that.
I stand to the side and watch it happen.
Resuscitation attempts, the ambulance, all of it.
I push forward like I want to be in the middle of the action, be near my friend Jack. The Suit from the baseball game stops me.
He puts an arm on my shoulder, gently, like he's my father or something. I want to shrug it off, but I don't.
"Maybe it would be better if you stepped away," he says.
"What about Jack—?"
"It's a family matter," he says.
I relax my shoulders beneath his arm.
"I need my backpack," I say.
He steps into the fray, grabs my backpack, hands it to me, and guides me out the door.
I glance back. My last image is of Jack on the sofa, his back hunched, his head almost to his knees.
A profile of grief.
All because of me.
I WALK PAST THE REVOLVING LIGHTS OF THE AMBULANCE.
Past the security vehicles, the police officers, the chatter of voices over shortwave radios.
"Do you need a ride?" the gate guard says.
"I'm good," I say.
"Tough day," he says.
"Terrible," I say.
"It happened on my watch," he says, shaking his head. "But they can't blame me, right? I'm not God. I don't get to decide when and where."
Not true. You don't have to be God to decide when and where. You only have to take action and be willing to deal with the consequences.
"Take care of yourself," he says.
"I always do," I say.
He opens the gate for me, and I'm out.
I walk down the street slowly, like someone who is traumatized. But I'm not traumatized. I'm already thinking about what comes next. I'm reviewing my exit strategy.
And maybe, just for a moment, I'm thinking about Jack.
He was my best friend for four weeks.
But not anymore.
He might not like it much that I killed his father. Not that he'll know. The drug leaves no trace. Jack's dad had a heart attack. That's what the autopsy will show, if there is an autopsy. Strings will be pulled. Or the modern equivalent—computer keys pressed.
If an autopsy is done, it will show nothing at all.
That's my specialty. People die around me, but it never seems like my fault. It seems like bad luck following good.
Good luck: You meet a great new friend at school.
Bad luck: A tragedy befalls your family.
The two don't ever seem connected, but they are.
Jack didn't know that when we became best friends a month ago. I slipped into his life easily, and now I'm slipping out just as easily.
I've broken another guy's heart, changed the course of his life. Lucky for me, I can do it and not feel it.
I don't feel anything.
I feel cold, I feel hungry, I feel the fabric of a new shirt rubbing against my skin, and I feel gravel beneath my feet.
But those are sensations, not feelings.
I had feelings once, too. I think I did. But that was a long time ago.
That was before.
HIS NAME WAS MIKE.
And he was my best friend.
Or so I thought.
He was the new guy in school, but he didn't seem new. The minute he started, it seemed like he'd been there forever.
"What are you into?" he said the first time I talked to him.
"I like to read," I said.
I was twelve then, and I had so many books that my dad had to build a second bookcase in my room.
"You read that vampire stuff?" he said.
"No. Action, adventure. Sci-fi if it's good."
"Cool," he said. "Me, too."
It didn't feel strange when we became instant friends, like when you feel separated at birth. A brother from another mother. That's what they call it.
Within a week, we were inseparable. Within two, he was sleeping over at the house.
We stayed up late, defying my parents, talking about everything under the sun. We exchanged books. We talked about girls.
It was during that year that I noticed girls were wearing bras, and you could see through their shirts if the light was right. Mike taught me you should always let the girl get between you and the window on a sunny day because it improved your viewing options. I thought he was a genius.
Mike and me. Two twelve-year-old kids, laughing and shooting the crap, thrilled to have found a partner in crime in each other.
In hindsight, I should have found it strange that I never saw his house, never met his parents. He said his dad was a corporate lawyer who traveled for business. My dad was a professor and scientist who sometimes went to conferences, so I knew what he meant. Kind of.
His mom got overwhelmed, he said. She didn't like kids around.
My mom got overwhelmed, too. Not with guests, but with my dad. At the time, they'd been fighting for what seemed like months. I didn't know what it was about, but it was one of those fights that was going on even when it wasn't, even when everything was quiet.
It went on for so long it felt like our family was having a nervous breakdown.
I told all this to Mike.
He was my friend. It felt good to tell him, to confide in him.
I didn't know he was going to kill my parents.
THIS HAPPENS SOMETIMES WHEN I FINISH.
Memories come. I don't know why.
They go away eventually if I keep moving.
I'm a mile from Jack's now, walking down the street, moving toward my egress point. If all has gone as planned, I should be clear and on my way out of town.
I sense it a moment before it happens. Something in the air shifts. Everyone has intuition, but not everyone knows how to listen to it. I've been trained to listen, to perceive small changes in the environment around me, to predict outcomes before they happen.
And I've been trained to react.
My intuition tells me something is about to happen.
And then it does.
A dark gray sedan comes around the corner. The car jerks slightly when the driver sees me. It happens in a split second, like when someone spots a pothole at the last moment and pulls the wheel to avoid it.
But there's no pothole. Only me.
It's a natural human reaction. When you spot what you're looking for, your body reacts. In poker they call it a tell, a physical tic that reveals what's going on with the player.
This driver has a tell. That's good.
Because by the time the car pulls to a stop in the middle of the road, I've had a few seconds to prepare.
I rapid-scan the area:
Empty road behind. Stone and gravel surface beneath. A spattering of houses set way back from the road, their views obscured behind thickets of trees.
And the car in front of me, twenty yards away.
I continue for a few steps, and the license comes into view. It's not one of Jack's dad's cars. This car has diplomatic plates.
The doors open. Four Asian men in suits get out. They do it casually, as if the non sequitur of four men in suits stopped in the middle of a suburban street is no big deal.
I could escape into the woods. See how good they are on foot and separated.
Some would say that's the best strategy in this situation, divide power and take it on little by little.
Some say that. I don't.
There's another trick that I learned from the people who trained me. Don't diffuse power; concentrate it. Get it too close together, where its effectiveness is reduced.
That's the trick I will use.
The problem: I never carry a gun, and my weaponized ballpoint pen and other tools were dropped down a sewer. I left my empty backpack in a Dumpster a ways down the road.
So I've got nothing to rely on but my training.
It should be enough.
Excerpted from Boy Nobody by Allen Zadoff. Copyright © 2013 Allen Zadoff. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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