- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
It hung low in the night sky, as if it hardly had the strength to keep itself from falling, and it had the sickly paleness of an invalid. Its luminescence did not so much shimmer as flicker, an aging lightbulb needing replacement. Which was not so very far from the case, of course. The moon that rose above Undertown, Los Angeles, was entirely artificial.
The brainchild of a former city major, the man-made orb had originally been conceived as a crime-prevention measure. Undertown was already sinking into the gutters of lawlessness and fear. Good people were moving out; gangs were moving in. The hovering moon was intended to be a beacon of hope, a shining reminder that the rich and powerful citizens of the city Uptown had not yet forgotten their less fortunate brethren Undertown. The moon's light was supposed to drive away the darkness and keep the streets safe. Cameras were going to be fitted beneath the satellite's skin to cast a benevolent eye on all.
Only the money had run out. The mayor wasn't re-elected. Not a single lens had been installed. The moon's maintenance budget had been sliced to the bone, to the marrow of the bone.
The moon was dying, but it didn't seem to matter much. Undertown was in a much worsestate.
At least, that was the way it seemed to the girl. The streets that she'd known so well, the sidewalks that had tumbled and teemed with life once upon a time, when she'd been small and smiling, were now dark and cold and empty. All right, it was late, past midnight, but the girl could sense dereliction in the air, and decay, and despair, like food left to rot.
And in this tomb of silence, she sensed footsteps behind her, footsteps following her. Three pairs, trying to be stealthy but heavy on the sidewalk. Males. Pursuers.
The girl narrowed her brilliant emerald eyes. She doubted they wanted to ask her directions.
As if afraid to view what might happen next, the moon dimmed, yellowed with jaundice.
The girl heard the footsteps increase their pace. She didn't look back. She'd see their faces soon enough.
Briefly, the moon rallied, blooming a sudden, perfect white. Then there was a rattle, an electronic sigh, and the power failed. The moon was blown out like a candle. It was truly night.
The girl stopped. Her pursuers didn't.
The girl put down her bag. She felt she might need both hands free for this.
"Are you talking to me?" She saw them now as they caught up with her, swaggered around her, admired her lithe figure and the sweep of hair as dark as night. A United Nations of muggers one black; one white, beneath the eruptions of acne; and one Chinese like herself. He was the biggest.
"What are you doing out here all alone ...?"
"... Yeah its late and you look like you should be tucked in your bed."
"Don't you know these streets are dangerous?"
"Is that so? Thanks for telling me. I'll bear it in mind."
"So how's about showing some gratitude, then?" They shuffled into position, in front, behind, to the right, cutting off any escape route. To her left was the wall.
"Your bag, girlie. We want your bag." The tone was threatening now. Their muscles tensing.
"Well," said the girl, "you'd better come and get it, then."
She took the Chinese guy down before he could even flinch-a lightning karate chop. The black guy behind, she'd expertly judged his height, and directed her kick accordingly. The white guy, eyes wide, went for a knife. The girl went for him. Twisted, yanked. Even a knife wouldn't help with a dislocated arm.
With her would-be assailants groaning on the ground, the girl assumed a defensive posture. Though she also assumed she wouldn't need it. She was right.
"Who are you, girlie?" The muggers groped to their feet, kept their distance. "You shouldn't be here, the likes of you." They staggered back down the street, broke into a shambling run. "You don't belong here. You don't belong!" Their final call, and more painful to the girl than anything they could have done physically.
Because she did belong here. Right here.
As the moon clicked into life again, like a happy ending, the girl gazed up at the apartment building alongside her and her green cat eyes filled with tears. She did belong here.
Jennifer Chen had come home.
Lesson Thirteen was In the Restaurant. A very nice restaurant it was, too, al fresco dining under a brightly striped canopy with attractive views of the cobbled street and opposite the ornate baroque buildings. The charming and attentive waitstaff in black vests and bow ties whisked silver trays piled high with food and ice buckets boasting vintage bottles of champagne to the delighted clientele. Location? Eddie's best guess was maybe somewhere in the Balkans.
"So Cally," he said, "what's Serbo-Croat for pastrami on rye and plenty of ketchup with my fries, please?" He scratched his untidy red hair quizzically.
"Oh, Eddie. Just say it," sighed Cally Cross. "You know your Babel chip will translate whatever you say into the appropriate language. And the same with what the waiters say to us. Honestly, Ed. I think when they implanted the chip, they took out your brain."
"Never found a brain, did they, Eddie?" said Lori Angel. "But never mind. We like you just the way you are. Now, what shall I order?" She swept her long blond hair back and focused her sparkling blue eyes on the menu.
"Lori," complained Ben Stanton, "the eating isn't important. It's the espionage that matters. We were supposed to meet our contact here-" Ben glanced at the clock with Roman numerals set high into the wall of the house opposite, above an open window-"and he's already late."
"Sexist assumption, Ben," Eddie pointed out. "Our contact could be a she."
"Who cares?" grumbled Jake Daly, slumping back in his chair. "And who cares if he or she isn't quite as obsessed with punctuality as you are, leader man?"
"I care," Ben declared angrily. "You should care. We all should. Death is in the details, how many times have we been told that?"
"You're right, Ben," soothed Lori. "We need to be alert. Jake knows that." Her eyes sought to persuade him to apologize but Jake, arms crossed defensively, seemed oblivious to concession. She knew what was really upsetting him. Five people sat around the table when there should have been six.
Ben returned his own gaze more thoughtfully to the clock. "That window," he considered, "why is it open?"
"I doubt they've heard of air-conditioning in these parts, Ben," said Cally. "From the way they're looking at me, they can't have heard of African-Americans, either. Or maybe it's just my dreads." She shook her beaded dreadlocks for emphasis.
"No, it's the only open window on the whole side of that street." The others saw that Ben was right. "And by coincidence, it's exactly across from us." He frowned. "Something's wrong."
"You can say that again," Eddie observed as several waiters approached, all carrying covered trays. "We haven't even ordered yet, and they're bringing us food. What's Serbo-Croat for sorry, you've got the wrong table?"
"I've got a sinking feeling they haven't," Ben tensed, words of warning in his mouth.
He didn't have time to utter them. At that point the waiters most unprofessionally dropped their trays. Not that it bothered them, because they weren't waiters at all. Their true profession was far deadlier, and the covered trays had concealed not food but weapons.
They shot Eddie first, the impact knocking both him and his chair backward, almost comically. Jake and Cally dived for cover beneath the table. Ben and Lori took more offensive action, wielding their chairs as shields then as bludgeons. Jake and Cally tried to follow suit with the table, upending it and using it to ram their attackers. Good idea in principle, but it left their backs exposed. Laser bolts pulsed into Cally. Jake turned, stared down the barrel of a shock gun. "Jake, move!" He didn't. The waiter shot him.
"Lori, let's get out of here. Now!" Ben hurled his chair at two of the assassins. A third was struggling with Lori, one hand fending off her chair, the other trying to aim a sawed-off pulse gun. Ben seized a discarded tray, flung it like a Frisbee. It nearly took the waiter's head off.
Lori turned toward Ben. She was smiling. There was the crack of a shot from across the street. And then she wasn't.
"Lori!" Ben's eyes flashed to the open window. Now he knew why it had looked odd-snipers couldn't work through glass. For once, it gave Ben no pleasure to be proved right. Not that the feeling would have lasted long, anyway. He saw a second flash from the window and knew what was coming faster than the sound it made.
"Lights on," said Senior Tutor Elmore Grant. He regarded a shamefaced Bond Team as they hunched disconsolately in his study. "It doesn't get any prettier with repeated viewings, does it? Anybody have anything to say?"
"If those waiter guys are expecting a tip, they can forget it."
"Anything worth saying, Eddie." Apparently not. "Because I can't believe that the team whose abject failure on the Spyscape I've just witnessed is the same group of individuals who won the Sherlock Shied only a week ago."
"We're not the same, sir," said Jake bitterly. "We're missing Jennifer." He sat hunched up like a spring, his powerful body tensed, dark eyes glowering from beneath the tangled mop of his black hair.
"Of course. Of course." Grant sighed and ran his hands through his hair. What he'd expected. "I'm well aware of Jennifer's-" he picked his words carefully-"absence. But you're letting it affect your performance, and in our line of work, you can't allow that to happen."
"Jennifer's our teammate, sir," objected Jake while the others winced, Ben in particular. "More than that. She's our friend." And even more than that to me, he thought, or might have been. "How are we supposed to just forget her? How can you forget someone you care about?"
"Discipline, Jake," said Grant firmly, though not entirely unsympathetically. "Focus. Training. You do it because if you intend to continue here at Deveraux Academy, you have to learn to put your personal feelings aside, whatever they are, for the good of the cause. None of us is more important than the mission. To be a successful secret agent, you have to be single-minded."
"I think, sir," Lori felt she ought to speak in Jake's defense, "what Jake means is that it's the uncertainty that's getting us down. We don't know why Jennifer left as suddenly as she did, we don't know where she's gone, and we don't know what's going to happen to her when she's found or to us in the meantime."
"Lori's right, sir," agreed Cally. "Are we going to get a new member, or is Jennifer going to be allowed back?"
"She can't be allowed back, can she, sir?" Ben asked, earning a resentful glare from Jake. "Leaving the school without permission, I mean, just running off, I thought the rules were clear on that mind-wipe and expulsion."
Lori saw Jake's fists clench. Ben was correct, but she wished he hadn't sounded so eager. And she wished that Jennifer hadn't forced this situation to arise.
"Technically, the rules are clear," allowed Grant. "Mind-wipe and expulsion. But the thing about rules, Ben, even the regulations at Spy High, is that there are always possible exceptions. Now I'm not saying that Jennifer's case is one. I'm not really in a position to tell you anything more than what you already know. Mr. Deveraux has been appraised of the situation and will decide what is to be done in due course."
"But ..." Jake wasn't satisfied.
"It's out of your hands, Bond Team. It's out of mine." Grant shook his head regretfully. "That Jennifer's actions will have consequences is certain, but one of them must not be to distract you from your studies. Any more disasters like today, and Mr. Deveraux might start to wonder whether there aren't five further candidates for mind-wiping. Think about it."
Bond Team didn't need to be told. It weighed on their minds like lead as they trudged to the girls? room and shut themselves away inside. Nobody sat on Jennifer's bed. Nobody even went close. It remained untouched, unused, like a shrine.
But Jake stared at it. Apart from the removal of the sheets, nobody had touched anything of Jennifer's in the week since her disappearance, and yet something was missing, Jake sensed, something important. If he could think what it was, he'd know what to do. Stanton was pacing up and down, moaning drearily about their prospects to anyone who'd listen. Jake didn't. Stanton had never liked Jennifer, not really. He'd tolerated her because they were in the same team, but he'd also condescended toward her in his usual arrogant blond-haired and blue-eyed rich-kid-of-the-month way. Jennifer had always been too volatile for Ben to handle, too much her own person. But then, had he, Jake, understood her any better? If he had, how come she'd pulled the biggest vanishing trick of all time without even saying good-bye?
All she'd left was a note. Not addressed to him but addressed to Cally and Lori. He'd memorized every word.
Dear Cally and Lori, I'm sorry I've had to leave like this, but one day perhaps you'll understand. There's something I have to do. Something I've always known I'd have to do, and now it's time. Don't think too badly of me. They'll find someone else to fill my place. I'm not important. Say good-bye to the others for me. Say good-bye to Jake. Tell him I'm sorry. Tell him to forget all about me and to look ahead. You've all got a future. I've only ever had a past. Good luck. Jen.
Jennifer's past. A past she'd kept buried, as a body in a coffin. Jake knew nothing about her life before Spy High, except what her brother and parents looked like, preserved in that photograph she always kept on her bedside table.
The photograph that was gone. That was what was missing. Suddenly, Jake understood.
"And what about you, Daly?" Ben was still criticizing. "You just stood there, inviting the assassin to pick his target, like you couldn't be bothered."
"I couldn't be bothered. Go sell noticed," said Jake. "I've got more important things on my mind than playing a spy. Like finding Jennifer. And I think I know where we need to look." The others turned to Jake. "She took the photo of her family with her. With what she said in the letter about the past, it can mean only one thing-she's gone home, wherever that is. Jennifer's gone home."
"Even if you're right, Jake, that's not much help," Lori pointed out. "None of us know where Jen's home is."
"But we can find out. We can access her personal file."
"Oh, no," Ben spluttered. "Don't even go there, Daly. Student files are confidential. Access is strictly forbidden to anyone but Deveraux and Grant. It's in the rules."
Jake grinned conspiratorially. "And what did Grant just say? About there always being possible exceptions? Who votes we make this one?"
The hallways seemed narrower than before. They were certainly darker, but Jennifer had never been afraid of the dark. There didn't appear to be any power in the building, though perhaps she shouldn't be surprised. There didn't appear to be any tenants, either. All gone. All left. Maybe all dead. There were ugly words scarring the walls.
She climbed the stairs to the first floor, slowly, carefully. She'd sat on these stairs once and chattered with Kim. They'd played with their dolls and decided who they'd marry when they were big girls. Nobody would want to sit on these stairs now. The filth of dereliction was everywhere.
At the landing, Jennifer turned left. Past the apartment where old Mrs. Koerner used to live, with her ancient radio and even more ancient car. Past the apartment where the young couple could have been heard making strange noises at odd times of the afternoon and Mom always said, "Shocking. Some people have no shame." The noises would certainly be audible now. The apartment no longer had a door.
Excerpted from Spy High Mission Three: The Serpent Scenario by AJ Butcher Copyright © 2003 by Atom Books. Excerpted by permission.
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