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Chapter One: RUMBLE!
"He's always come through for us and he will now!" Riff yelled.
A burst of music rang through the air.
Onstage, one of the big musical numbers in the summer stock production of West Side Story was just about to begin. Backstage, my brother Frank had just been stabbed in the stomach.
"Frank!" I cried, trying to keep my voice down.
With all the actors either onstage or in one of the dressing rooms upstairs and the stage manager nowhere to be found it was just Frank and me against DJ and Big T, two of the nastiest lowlifes I'd ever met.
Frank and I had been sent to investigate a drag-racing ring. We'd never expected it to lead us to a theater with a play in mid-performance! DJ and Big T were two of the main criminals in the racing ring. They stole from anyone and anything to finance their expensive automotive habit.
DJ stood over Frank, who slumped on the floor holding his stomach. His mouth was open in a silent O of pain and disbelief.
Like most brothers, Frank and I have our differences. He's got no sense of humor; I've got a great one. He spends way too much time looking things up on the Internet library reference sites; I spend way too much time playing games on my Xbox. And most recently, that mysterious attraction he holds for girls made it impossible for me to get noticed by Angela Mendes.
But I really didn't want him to get stabbed. Not even a little. I could barely believe my eyes. I mean, we've escaped a million life-threatening situations on our missions for American Teens Against Crime, or ATAC for short. How could Frank get stabbed by some degenerate at the Croton-on-Hudson Theater? These losers were trying to steal the box office money the summer stock company was raising for the When Wishes Come True Foundation.
Guys like that shouldn't be able to stab my brother.
DJ a small, wiry creep with long greasy hair and an even greasier smile glanced at me over Frank's crumpled body. DJ had the chipped teeth of a fighter. He grabbed the metal lockbox the money was in and headed for the exit.
But the only way out was onto the stage.
DJ yanked aside the curtain only to find twenty or thirty fake gang members dancing across the stage.
I shook my head, trying to clear it. Right after Frank took the knife, everything seemed to slow down to molasses pace, like someone hit the SLOW button on a remote.
I had to get to Frank. But I'd been in the middle of a fight. I turned to face Big T, a beefy guy with cropped hair and the typical tough-guy tattoo around his bicep.
I'd meant to turn back to Big T. Instead, I turned back to his fist.
Coming right at me.
And someone had hit the PLAY button again, because his fist was coming in fast.
I've taken a lot of punches on my ATAC missions, and I know that big guys usually throw these roundhouse punches. All the way around their bodies, leading with their shoulder. No matter how fast they move, there is always time to step toward them and get inside the arc of their fist.
So that's what I did.
As fast as possible, I moved close to Big T to get my head out of the way. Then I bent my knees and sidestepped out of range.
I had to get to Frank, who was still lying on the floor. And making a weird gesture with his hand.
What was he doing?
He pointed up and then at the wall. Then he did it again.
Maybe he was just in so much pain that he was having spasms.
DJ decided not to run out on stage. I guess disrupting the show in front of a packed audience would call too much attention to him and Big T. He whirled away from the curtain and took off for the ladder leading to the catwalk that ran across the top of the stage. I started after him.
But I couldn't move. Big T had grabbed the back of my jacket.
No problem. I wriggled out of it and took a few steps toward Frank.
He kept making those weird gestures. And his eyes were unmistakably saying, "Pay attention, bonehead."
Then I got it. He was signaling me.
See, as I mentioned before, I had a thing for Angela, the actress who was playing Maria in West Side Story. She was totally gorgeous, and she was only in town for the summer. So I had come to more rehearsals than I could count. I knew all the words to all the songs, all the steps to all the dances, and all the props and sets that moved on and off the stage. And so did Frank. Because the only way I could get Angela to come over and talk to me was to bring Frank with me. He's like a force of nature girls love him. The problem is, he's so shy with them that he turns into a big dork when they're around. But for some reason they all like him. Including Angela.
Frank and I were there the day the summer stock director in a fit of his self-proclaimed genius got his carpentry team to rig up a special effect for the play. At just the right time in "When You're a Jet," the gang leader Riff kicks a trash can for emphasis. The can is supposed to fly off the stage and I mean fly.
To get this effect, the can was connected by a nylon fishing wire threaded through a pulley system to a heavy sandbag. When the stage manager got the right cue, he'd make the sandbag drop to the floor backstage, pulling the trash can up and through the air.
I glanced up. The sandbag dangled ten feet above and just a few feet to the right of Big T's gigantic melon of a head.
I looked back at Frank. He was still lying on the ground, but he was close to the rope that needed to be untied to trigger the bag. So I turned on Big T with my fiercest look.
He laughed at me.
All I had to do was get him to step under the bag. I knew I couldn't get close to him. He was too big and too dangerous. And I knew he wasn't afraid of me, so he wouldn't run. But I also knew that Big T was not too bright we're talking ten-, maybe twenty-watt bulb here. All I had to do was let him think he was going to win.
So I let him come to me. I sidestepped so he had to move under the bag.
The entire time I listened for the cue from the stage. No sense in ruining the show just because we were having a fight. The actor playing Riff was supposed to say, "I'm only gonna challenge him," and then kick the can. That was the cue for the sandbag to drop.
Frank was gesturing frantically for me to get Big T under the bag. But Angela would be so upset if the show got ruined by a special effect going off at the wrong time.
I needed to wait for just a few more lines, so I circled again. Big T continued to follow me, stepping after me as if connected by a leash.
Frank scrambled up to his feet. Big T stopped, surprised that Frank was moving so fast. Come to think of it, so was I. But I had no more time to wonder about it because...
"I'm only gonna challenge him," Riff sneered. He kicked the can.
Frank released the rope.
The sandbag came down on cue right on Big T's head. No one on stage or in the audience was any the wiser. And certainly Big T wouldn't be either. He was out cold on the floor.
I ran over to Frank.
"Are you okay?" I whispered, reaching to steady him. But he didn't need my help.
"I'm fine, Joe." He handed me the gleaming knife. "It's one of the stage knives. Retractable blades."
I pressed the point of the knife against the upturned palm of my hand. Sure enough, it slid back into the handle like it was supposed to.
"I pulled it on that loser and let him think he took it from me." Frank shook his hand in the air, sending tiny droplets of blood flying. "I cut myself on his stupid ring, though."
"It's a good thing Big T isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer." I stabbed Frank in the shoulder with the fake blade. He didn't think my joke was funny. He never thinks my jokes are funny. Of course, I didn't think his pretending to be stabbed in the stomach was funny either.
Frank pointed at DJ, who was climbing down from the catwalk on the other side of the stage right now. With the metal cash box in one hand, the ladder was slow going, but he was still getting away. With all the money.
"We have to go after him." Frank started toward the ladder.
But I knew it was hopeless. We didn't have time to get all the way across the length of the stage. It would take too long to maneuver through all the props and sets stored backstage.
Luckily, I had a Plan B.
"Hey, Frank, can I have this dance?" I pointed at the stage.
The Jets were just going into another of the director's bright ideas. The gang members start on our side of the stage and do this weird step-step-raise-your-knee-snap-with-your-arms-by-your-sides thing a few times across the stage. They looked like idiots every time they did it. But it got them across the stage pretty fast. We grabbed a couple of extra period hats and ran to the back of the line.
Suddenly we were out in the bright lights with the actors. Being onstage wasn't what I expected. You can barely see the audience at all. Just the first few rows and then darkness. It was a little like being alone, with just the other performers.
Except that off to the side of the first row, peering in from one of the exit doors, was Angela! Oh, man. Was she there to watch the scenes she wasn't in?
Well, not anymore. Now she was watching Frank. And so was I.
He stepped. Then stepped again. Then raised his knee and saw Angela looking right at him.
Uh-oh, I thought.
My pumpkinhead of a brother stopped. Right there in the middle of the stage. He stood frozen, blushing from head to toe. I rolled my eyes. Frank can do anything except deal with cute girls.
I sped over to his side and poked him in the ribs.
Frank jumped back into action. We skipped the snap and just ran with our arms by our sides. We stayed behind the rest of the guys and caught up by the time we started stepping again.
Once we hit the other side, we ducked offstage, with no one the wiser. Well, except Angela, that is, and probably some of the guys onstage. But the show must go on, right?
We ran back into the darkness just as DJ was getting to the bottom of the ladder. It took a few seconds for our eyes to adjust after the bright lights of the stage. When they did, I saw DJ trying to get his eyes to adjust to the fact that Frank was up and around instead of lying there with a knife in his stomach.
DJ ran toward the back exit, with Frank and me in hot pursuit. "We can't let him get out the door," I cried in a stage whisper.
If DJ got through that door, he'd be able to get to his hot rod. Our awesome, state-of-the-art motorcycles could catch his car, no problem. Only our bikes were in the front parking lot, all the way around the building.
If he got out the door, we'd lose him. And the money for the When Wishes Come True kids.
And we couldn't yell out for help, because then the show would come to a screeching halt and people might want their money back.
Besides, Frank and I always catch the bad guy. We've never been on a mission we couldn't handle.
Then I remembered. The stage manager had told me they stored tall scenery pieces under the stage. They lowered them down through a long trapdoor in the stage three feet wide by fifteen feet long.
The crank to open the trapdoor was on this side of the stage.
"Make sure he doesn't get past that yellow painted area," I told Frank. He'd been so busy stammering and trying to avoid Angela whenever we were here that he'd never heard about the trapdoor. "And you stay out of it."
I ran to the side wall, where the crank was hidden behind the spiral staircase that led up to the dressing rooms. I'd have to do this quickly and just like the stage manager had showed me. There was some trick to get the crank going.
Too bad I couldn't remember what it was.
DJ ran into the yellow area, approaching the door. He glanced over his shoulder.
Frank threw the knife at him.
DJ dodged sideways and stayed in the yellow area.
"DJ," Frank said loud enough to hear, but quiet enough not to disturb the play. "How dumb are you? It's a fake knife."
The taunt stopped DJ just long enough for my brain to kick into gear. I remembered the trick. I wedged myself on the other side of the crank, with my back to the wall next to it, and put my left leg onto the handle. I pushed with all my strength.
The trapdoor opened.
And DJ disappeared as the floor vanished from underneath him.
Well, almost. At the last second he grabbed onto the edge of the floor.
He held on, dangling. And it was a long drop. Frank leaned over. "Here. Take my hand."
DJ looked at Frank's hand, then at the money box he'd have to drop if he did. His indecision cost him. His hand slipped and down he fell.
I knew he'd be okay, but it was going to leave a mark.
I walked up next to Frank. "Greed is a heavy burden," I joked.
Frank just looked at me and shook his head.
Copyright © 2005 by Simon & Schuster