Read an Excerpt
Danger in the Dark
The city street was dark and deserted. The only sign of life was the pretty dark-haired girl hurrying along the sidewalk, huddled into her jacket.
Then she paused and looked back. What was that? Had she just heard footsteps behind her?
She listened for a second. Nothing.
Sucking in a nervous breath, she started moving again. When she reached the corner, she glanced both ways.
No traffic. No pedestrians. Nothing but the sleeping city behind her. The shadowy expanse of the park loomed on the far side of the street.
She scurried across and ducked into the park. Once again she stopped short, straining her ears.
This time she knew she’d heard footsteps. But when she looked back, there was no one there.
As she kept walking, she could feel someone watching her. She rushed down the twisting path, heading deeper into the park. She dashed from one streetlight’s comforting glow to the next.
Footsteps crunched on the path behind her.
They were close. Way too close.
This time she didn’t dare look back. She just walked faster, her breath coming in panicky gasps.
Suddenly the streetlight overhead blinked out, plunging the path into darkness. The girl let out a squeak of terror and scurried forward into the next puddle of light.
That light went dark too!
The girl froze, her eyes huge in the faint glow of the moon far overhead. A second later rough hands grabbed her, and someone clamped a hand over her mouth—
A short man in his fifties with a neatly trimmed beard beamed at the girl as her “attacker” moved away. “Nice job, Anya.” There was a smattering of applause from the onlookers huddled behind the movie cameras.
The girl smiled and shrugged off her jacket, which was way too heavy for the warm evening. “Thanks, Jaan. That was kind of fun.”
Meanwhile I let out the breath I’d been holding. “Wow,” I said to my brother, Joe. “That was a pretty cool scene.”
“Yeah,” Joe agreed. “Now I get why Jaan was so stubborn about filming it all in one long take. It definitely feels scarier and more intense.”
I nodded, glancing around the location set. That was what the movie people called it, anyway.
It was really just a stretch of New York City ranging from Fifth Avenue to a few yards into Central Park. Some guards had roped it off from the public, and a handful of NYPD officers were standing outside to keep back gawkers.
Even so, there seemed to be at least as many people inside the ropes as outside them: the actress Anya Archer, director Jaan St. John, various production assistants, camera operators, sound techs, makeup artists, bodyguards, extras, and even the film’s producer.
And, of course, Joe and me.
By now you’re probably wondering what the two of us were doing inside those ropes. We’re ATAC agents, not actors. ATAC—American Teens Against Crime—sends its teenage agents undercover to places where an adult agent would stand out like a polar bear at the equator. Places like a high school party. Or a skateboarding rally.
Or a movie set where most of the lead actors are under twenty years old.
This set fit the bill. The movie they were shooting was Deathstalker. It was based on the popular comic book series about an ordinary teenage girl who gets turned into a superhero when an alien spaceship crashes into her house and she’s injected with a scorpion’s poisonous venom.
Okay, so the story didn’t make much sense to me. Then again, I stopped reading comic books when I was ten.
But Joe? He was totally geeked about it. With the emphasis on “geek.”
Anyway, it was kind of cool getting to hang around the set. The Deathstalker movie was really big budget. There had even been a nationwide talent search for the perfect actress to play the title role.
That was how they’d found Anya. She’d never acted before the day her friends dragged her to the audition.
“Anya’s doing great today,” Joe said. “You’d never know she’s not that experienced. It’s hard to believe that someone wants her off this film so badly.”
“Someone else besides Myles, you mean?” I grimaced. “Yeah. But the cops are sure he’s telling the truth about what he did and didn’t do.”
Myles was a Deathstalker superfan. We’d met him at a science fiction and comics convention in New Jersey. It turned out he hated that Anya was cast as Deathstalker and was trying to make trouble for her.
But we’d learned that he wasn’t the only one.
“So he pulled most of the stunts at the convention,” Joe went on. “But he didn’t set the fires.”
“Or rig that microphone to electrocute her,” I added.
Joe nodded. “Or send most of the text messages. So who did?”
“If we knew that, we wouldn’t still be here.” I shot a look at Anya, who was talking to Jaan nearby. Who was trying to get rid of her?
We’d been called in to find out. And it wasn’t turning out to be easy.
Aside from a few location shots like this one, most of the filming had taken place on a totally closed set with guards posted at the gates 24/7. Some of the incidents had even taken place inside those gates. For instance, someone left a creepy cut-up photo of Anya in her dressing room and then set her trailer on fire.
There was other stuff too. She’d received threatening text messages. Plus, a lot of scary stuff had happened at the convention. Like I said, Myles had confessed to some of it.
But not all of it. Which left us exactly where we’d started.
I checked my watch. “It’s been more than twenty-four hours since we got back from the convention,” I said. “And we haven’t found out anything useful all day.”
“All we can do is keep working on it, bro,” Joe said. “Talk to people, see what turns up.”
Typical Joe response. He’s a go-with-the-flow kind of guy.
Me? Well, Joe would probably call me an overachiever. Let’s just say I don’t like spinning my wheels and getting nowhere. And that was the feeling I was getting right now.
Just then I noticed a woman in her sixties with a tidy gray bun stepping toward us. Uh-oh, time to stop discussing the mission. Like I said, we were undercover. Only Jaan and Anya knew why we were really there.
“You must be so proud of Anya, Frank,” the older woman said, giving me a pat on the arm. “I can tell that was difficult for her, but she pushed through and did it. You’d better give her a big hug and kiss for that.”
I did my best not to blush. See, that was part of our cover story. I was posing as Anya’s boyfriend from back home in Minnesota. Joe was supposed to be my friend who’d landed a job as an extra on the film.
Let’s just say he was a lot more comfortable with his role than I was with mine.
Joe would say that’s because I’m hopeless with girls. Don’t tell him, but he’s sort of right. What can I say? I’ll face down a crazed criminal with a gun any day of the week. But trying to come up with something witty and interesting to say to a cute girl? Now that’s scary.
“Um, sure, I guess,” I told the woman, Vivian Van Houten.
She was an agent for actors, though she wasn’t Anya’s. We hadn’t even met Anya’s agent, who’d been in L.A. since we’d arrived.
Vivian represented Harmony Caldwell, a popular young TV actress who was playing Deathstalker’s best friend, Susie Q. Harmony had finished her scenes earlier in the day and left, but Vivian was still hanging around. I guess she wanted to be moral support for Anya. The grandmotherly woman seemed to have taken the inexperienced actress under her wing.
“Yeah, he’s totally proud.” Joe smirked slightly, then raised his voice. “Hey, Anya!” he called. “Come on over so your boyfriend can congratulate you on doing such a great job!”
Anya heard him and rushed over. “Thanks!” she exclaimed, flinging both arms around me.
Gulp. Okay, lung function zero. I told myself it was because she was squeezing me so tightly it was physically impossible for me to breathe properly.
Yeah, that had to be it.
“I really did it that time, didn’t I?” Anya said happily, still squeezing. “It’s all thanks to Jaan and Zolo—they’ve been helping me so much.”
“Zolo?” Joe sounded a little surprised. Zolo Watson was another teen actor on the film. He was playing Asp, Deathstalker’s alien sidekick. The role suited him. He was weird enough to be from outer space.
I knew why Joe was surprised. We didn’t know Zolo and Anya were friends. Zolo mostly seemed to keep to himself.
But I wasn’t really focused on that at the moment. I had my hands full—literally. Anya was still clinging to me, and I wasn’t quite sure where to put my hands.
After a second she pulled back and smiled sheepishly. “Of course, it would have been nice if I got it on the first take instead of the . . .” She let her voice trail off. “How many was it, Anson?”
She glanced at a young man standing nearby. I hadn’t really noticed him before. He had sandy-brown hair and an anxious expression on his freckled face. He was one of the production assistants, I guessed.
Anson checked his clipboard. “That was take twenty-six,” he said.
“Don’t remind me. I thought we’d be here all night.”
I didn’t have to look to tell who’d spoken this time. It was Stan Redmond, the producer of the film. When I glanced at him, his droopy jowls were practically quivering with impatience. The guy was pretty tightly wound. I couldn’t blame him. Trying to keep a nutty creative genius type like Jaan St. John on any kind of schedule or budget had to be a challenge.
Anya’s face fell. “Sorry, Stan,” she said. “I was trying my best, I really was.”
Stan’s grumpy expression softened. A little.
“I’m not blaming you, Anya,” he said. “You’re not the one who insisted on filming that scene in one long take so that each time there was even the smallest mess-up, we had to start shooting from the very beginning.” He glared at Jaan, who had just wandered over to join us.
Jaan seemed unperturbed. “Ah, but it shall all be worth it in the end,” he said. “Now should we finish on a good note and call it a night? We can shoot Parker’s panic scene tomorrow evening.”
“No!” Stan barked out. “We’re ten days behind schedule as it is. Besides, you can’t just go shutting down a major Manhattan intersection anytime you please. That doesn’t just happen, you know. If you’re planning to shoot anything else here, you’d better get it done tonight.”
I could see his point. Getting this setup wasn’t easy. For this scene moviegoers needed to believe that Deathstalker was being followed along the deserted city streets late at night. The truth was a little different. It wasn’t that late—maybe nine o’clock. And the streets were far from deserted. Just beyond the roped-off area, there was tons of traffic. Jaan had explained that the sound people would edit out the blaring taxi horns and squealing brakes.
And just outside the ropes, tons of people had gathered to watch the filming. Some were snapping photos with their cell phones. Others were just gawking.
“All right, if you insist, we’ll keep going.” Jaan shrugged. “But where is Vance?”
The nervous-looking PA, Anson, stepped forward. “I’ve been texting him his revised call time as we go along,” he said. “He should’ve been here, like, fifteen minutes ago.”
Stan rolled his eyes. “Actors!” he muttered. “Hang on, I’ll call him.” The producer pulled out his cell phone.
“Cool,” Joe whispered to me. “Maybe we’ll finally have a chance to talk to Vance. That dude’s harder to pin down than a greased pig. But once we do, it won’t be hard to get him to talk—about himself anyway.”
Vance Bainbridge was another teen actor. He was also one of our suspects. We’d found out that he’d wanted his girlfriend, well-known actress Amy Alvaro, to play the role of Deathstalker.
Did he want that badly enough to try to scare Anya into quitting? We weren’t sure yet. Partly because we hadn’t been able to get him alone all day.
A moment later Stan hung up. “It’s going straight to voice mail,” he said with a frown.
“Then I suppose we’ll have to alert him the old-fashioned way,” Jaan said. “Anson, would you mind dashing back to the set and letting Vance know we’re ready for him now?”
The PA nodded, but before he could move, I stepped forward. “I’ll go get Vance,” I volunteered. “I mean, if it would be helpful.”
“Thank you, my boy.” Jaan smiled at me. “Indeed it would. That way Anson can help us get set up so that no time is wasted once Vance arrives.” Shooting a quick look toward Stan, he added slyly, “And all of us can get back to our hotel rooms that much sooner to sleep off the stresses of today.”
I didn’t stick around to see if Stan responded to that. “Back soon,” I murmured to Joe as I passed him. “See if you can talk to a few more people while I’m gone.”
“I’m on it, bro.”
The main movie set was in another part of the park. When I got there, the guards at the gate recognized me and nodded me through. I headed for the row of trailers where the primary actors had their dressing rooms. Most of the trailers were dark and quiet. Other than Anya and Vance, the main actors were all done for the night.
But a light was on in Vance’s trailer. Good. I knocked on the door and waited. No answer.
Figuring he might be napping or something, I knocked again, but louder this time.
“Maybe he’s listening to music,” I said to myself.
Leaning forward, I pressed my ear against the door and listened. I didn’t hear any music. But I did hear something—a low voice, talking fast.
Was it Vance? I couldn’t tell.
I pressed harder, wishing I had some kind of high-tech ATAC gadget to help me hear through walls. But no such luck. Good thing my hearing’s pretty good.
“. . . so don’t freak out, I’m not going to do anything stupid,” the voice was saying in a low, urgent tone. “But I should warn you, I usually get what I want.”
Okay, that didn’t sound so good. Vance had been on our suspect list all along. But what if he wasn’t the culprit—but another victim? What if someone was in there threatening him right now?
Better safe than sorry. I tested the dressing room door. It was unlocked, so I quietly turned the knob and pushed.
The door swung open, revealing the interior of the trailer. I’d never been inside Vance’s dressing room before. But I didn’t have much time to take it in now.
Because all I could focus on was the long, deadly barrel of a gun.
Pointed straight at me.