He glanced at the signs on the wall and turned left. An orderly behind the nurse’s station desk smiled at him. He walked past her, uninterested in pleasantries.
Room 219. Donald Allen.
Despite his distaste, Bledsoe chuckled to himself and stood in the open doorway, only glancing at the paper flowers and grass taped to the side wall. Near the ceiling on the far wall, a TV showed two announcers, one male and one female. A blue banner across the top of the screen bore the words “BREAKING NEWS” while a red banner across the bottom carried the headline “FBI: Portland Teen Sought In Terrorist Connection.”
Bledsoe nodded with satisfaction and glanced at his watch. 12:02. Right on cue to catch the lunchtime buzz. Half of Portland would be primed to hunt down the Chase brat if he slipped past them. This way, everyone would be glued to the news, waiting to do Bledsoe’s work if he needed them to. Meanwhile, the President’s ever-tightening security efforts would get a public relations boost. Why, of course we need more surveillance and drones. Look at all of the terrorists running around!
A photo of Winston standing in front of a bank teller appeared between the two news anchors.
“We don’t have a name yet,” said the female announcer. “However, the suspect did arrive yesterday afternoon at a Southeast Portland bank, withdrew several items from a safe deposit box, and exchanged thousands of dollars of old U.S. bills for smaller denominations. The old bills were subsequently confirmed by the FBI as counterfeit and the deposit box may have been rented by an individual with ties to the Hezbollah terrorist organization.”
“The FBI notes that the suspect may be armed and is believed to be carrying potentially radioactive explosives,” added the male announcer. He turned to his colleague and shook his head. “Our own youth. This is really serious, Mary.”
“I have a son this age, Ron,” she said. “I’ll be honest. This sort of thing is just terrifying.”
From inside the room, a man let out a strangled yell. A remote control flew through the air and crashed against the wall a good two or three feet below the television, sending bits of plastic, buttons, and batteries flying in every direction.
“I know,” said Bledsoe as he walked into the room. “A terrifying terrorist. Who writes this stuff?”
Bledsoe passed the bathroom corner and sat down on the bed right next to his target’s left arm. The nurse’s report had prepared Bledsoe to expect someone old, but seeing the man up close almost took his breath away. His one-time friend looked exactly how this place smelled: ghostly pale, sagging, spotted, and decaying. If not for the eyes, Bledsoe would have sworn he had the wrong man.
Those eyes took in Bledsoe, seeing his dark hair, the outline of his cheeks, the color and shape of Bledsoe’s own eyes, and grew wide.
“What happened to you, Claude?” Bledsoe asked. “I think your plastic surgeon got a little carried away.”
The oldster opened his mouth, but Bledsoe reached over and clamped his left hand over it. With his right, he brought up the small syringe of amber-colored sedative he’d been keeping in his jacket pocket. Bledsoe pulled off the protective cap with his teeth and jammed the needle into Claude’s neck. He depressed the plunger. Claude’s cry of shock and pain was much quieter than his outrage over the television.
“Where’s the Alpha Machine, Claude?” Bledsoe asked.
After a few seconds, he let up the pressure over the old man’s mouth. Showing impressive restraint, Claude didn’t try to call out. He only furrowed his brow and clenched his jaw in stubborn resistance.
Bledsoe made a tsk-tsk sound as he removed the needle and tossed it in the nearby trashcan. That big male nurse on the payroll here would clean things up.
“No? You don’t remember? Or you just don’t feel like sharing?” asked Bledsoe in his Southern sing-song. He waited a moment for any response, but Claude’s silence wasn’t surprising. “Nothing? That’s too bad. But the good news is that we have a bunch of new scanning and analysis techniques. I don’t fancy all that old fashioned torture stuff. Where’s the learning and science in that? I’ve got newer and better toys to play with. But who knows? We might get lucky and just pick up the boy down at the Central Library—” He checked his watch. “—right about now.”
Claude’s nose flared with a sharp intake of breath, and his eyes grew cold. Good. So there was still a fighter buried somewhere in all that droopy, withered flesh.
“When did you arrive?” Claude asked in a low, sandpaper growl.
Bledsoe cocked his head, wondering if he should keep from volunteering any information, but he decided there was no harm in it.
“You mean when did you and Amanda abandon me? November 7, 1989. Two days before the Berlin Wall fell.”
Claude took a moment to process this. “You didn’t exactly give me time to consider which future to pick…while you were trying to kill me.”
“My friend.” Claude opened his hands in a display of innocence. “I never wanted to kill you. Not back in the ‘40s, anyway. Besides, I think everything happened as it did for a reason. Maybe you picked the best time possible. It gave me more time to smell the roses.”
“Somehow, I doubt that.”
Bledsoe laughed. He stood, walked to the far corner, and turned off the TV. Then he bent over and grabbed the end of the paper garden in his hand. Slowly, savoring the sound of tearing, he began ripping it away from the wall.
“Funny how the boy ended up befriending you. I always wondered if our little band would get back together somehow.”
“If you hurt Amanda—” Claude began.
“I would never hurt Amanda!” Just like that, his temper snapped like an over-wound spring. One muscle at a time, he forced the smile back to his lips. “You will be amazed how much I won’t hurt her.”
The old man’s eyelids started to droop, and he blinked them several times, trying to rouse himself.
“You never cared much about not hurting people,” he said. “Not toward the end, anyway.”
The male nurse walked into the room, large and imposing, carrying two duffel bags. He nodded at Bledsoe and disconnected their patient from his IV drip.
“I don’t think you really understand me,” Bledsoe said. “I’ve always wanted what’s best for people.”
“Our people,” Bledsoe corrected him. “Our people. Americans. We left right as the Cold War was starting back home, when we still grieved every night for those we’d lost. Then I land here—” He gestured out the room’s small window at the world beyond it. “The Soviet Union fell. We lost our only decent rival in the world.”
“That’s a bad thing?” The old man’s words were sharp, but his head started to wobble a bit, as if he were dizzy.
“You wouldn’t think so,” said Bledsoe. “But it turned out to be the worst disaster in this country’s history.”
“Because we won.”
“Because we stopped being scared and working together. We got fat and lazy. Can you imagine today’s America enduring the rationing and sacrifices we did during the war? People would be flooding the streets and rioting. ‘Oh, God, you can’t take gasoline! How will I ever put the next Disneyland trip on my credit card? You can’t ration coffee — I need my five-dollar latte!’”
The old man gave him a drowsy smirk. “So…what? You’re going to become a motivational speaker?”
Bledsoe sat back down beside the man and leaned in close, speaking quietly, almost like a conspirator sharing a secret. “The Russians exploded their first A-bomb in 1949. We destroyed Hiroshima with sixteen kilotons, but by 1953, when Stalin died, the Soviets were airdropping four hundred kilotons a pop. Just imagine how things might have gone differently if we’d hit them in, say, 1950 or ‘51. Just completely knocked out their military before it was armed and then walked in with QV-enhanced troops immune to the radiation.”
For a moment, the drowsiness evaporated from his former friend’s eyes, and Claude stared agape. “You can’t be serious.”
“Of course not!” Bledsoe gave the old man’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze and felt a pang of both sadness and revulsion at its boniness.
“What would be the point of crushing Russia and setting up an unbeatable master race?” he continued. “That would just leave us where we are now: diabetic and mentally deficient. We need war and fear and challenge, Claude. Challenge is what drives us forward. We need a leader who will supply that.”
Claude’s eyes drooped again, and this time he couldn’t get them to fully open. “I…don’t… You want to be…President?”
Bledsoe hummed a deep sigh. “Nah. Not President. Any actor can play the good guy. I need a challenge, too.” As the old man’s eyes closed for good, Bledsoe added in Russian, “Ya sobirayus' rukovodit' vraga. I’m going to lead the enemy.”
As the black minutes slid by, Winston and Shade gradually passed from stock-still dread to antsy nervousness and finally to slumped boredom. Shade sat cross-legged on the gritty floor, back to the wall. Winston heard him crunching on a granola bar and cringed every time he noisily crumpled the wrapper. Every so often, someone would slide books down the chute over their heads, and a few minutes ago a library worker swapped out the full bin they’d climbed over for an empty one. No one had come around again to investigate their hiding place, but they wouldn’t be safe forever. Winston stood, shifting his weight uncomfortably, wondering if their odds of escape were better in the middle of the night and, if so, what they were going to do about bathroom breaks.
They heard a faint electronic double-chirp, like a calendar reminder, from deep in Shade’s backpack. Both boys paused, waiting to hear if anyone outside came running. No one did.
“My tablet,” whispered Shade. “It’s still on the library Wi-Fi.”
Winston heard Shade undo his backpack’s zipper. “Dude,” he said with equal caution, “this is not the time for YouTube.”
The moment of total silence told Winston that Shade was probably rolling his eyes and looking nonplussed.
After so long in complete darkness, the tablet lighting up was like igniting a flare. The screen illuminated the beaver on Shade’s sweatshirt and cast long shadows up his face. Shade squinted and turned the backlight level way down. He drew a set of ear buds from one pocket, shoved one speaker into his left ear, and held out the other side for Winston.
In the tablet’s glow, Winston examined the ceiling of their small space, trying to make sure that the device wasn’t casting any light outside. Fortunately, the dark walls and thick dust absorbed just about everything, as if they were stuck in a musty black hole.
“I really don’t need to watch your little sister,” Winston said, “and now isn’t the time for—”
Shade cut him off. “My sisters are all at school.” He turned the screen so Winston could see it better, revealing the Shack’s security dashboard app, which in turn displayed a young man in a suit and sunglasses standing next to Shade’s mother on the Tagaloas’ back patio. “This guy is not.”
Their Wi-Fi bandwidth in the library basement’s hidden cubby registered only three bars, so the scene appeared more jerky and pixelated than it should have. Still, the feed from the Shack’s dome camera looked decent. Winston could make out a man of probably no more than thirty, clean-shaven with dark pants, white polo shirt, and a decidedly nervous shifting from one foot to the other. Winston recognized him as Smith, the second agent from this morning’s frantic run. Beside him, Mrs. Tagaloa stood with her cell phone held out at arm’s length. She seemed to be taking a selfie with the guy.
“What on earth is she doing?” whispered Winston.
In reply, Shade tapped an icon, turning on the combined streams from the back yard’s three microphones.
“—thousand thirteen,” said the man. “On behalf of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, I, Vernon Smith, release the Tagaloas from any liability from injury that may result upon my…examination of the property’s yard or tree house.”
“It’s the Shack, doofus, not a tree house,” muttered Shade.
His mom started to lower her phone, then put it back up. “And for the record,” she said, her tone unusually agitated, “there is no way that my son has done anything illegal or terrorist-y. Neither has Winston. They’re good boys.”
“Ma’am,” said Agent Smith wearily. “May I?”
“Fine!” She lowered the camera and faced the man. The top of her head barely reached his chin. “I just don’t know where you get all of these crazy accusations. There’s going to be a perfectly good explanation.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m sure there is. Meanwhile, we have footage of your son aiding and abetting a boy with suspected ties to a wanted terrorist, a boy who is in possession of a radioactive device. Also, that boy fled from two federal agents this morning.”
Winston snickered. “And fled a lot faster than you, boss.”
Shade gave him a quick fist bump.
“Now, may I proceed?” asked Smith.
Mrs. Tagaloa took a step back and gestured at the Shack. “If you want. But I warned you.”
Smith strode from the patio onto the thick summer grass. He took half a dozen confident steps before reaching the red string line pulled taut over the turf, then paused before it, considering.
Shade brought up a menu of controls along the bottom of his screen and carefully rested his fingertips above the glass like a concert pianist preparing to launch into a recital. “All right, Captain Crunch,” he growled. “Let’s dance.”
Glancing from the screen to Shade’s narrowed eyes, Winston asked, “Captain Crunch?”
Smith took a tall step over the red string, but his next step froze in place as a stern, robotic voice called out from the tree house, “Proximity alert detected. Three seconds to password authorize.”
Winston felt the chuckle rumble deep in Shade’s chest.
Smith glanced about, trying to locate the speakers. When that failed, he looked over his shoulder at Mrs. Tagaloa. “What’s the password?” he asked, his voice considerably higher than a moment before.
Mrs. Tagaloa shrugged. “I don’t know, sir. I don’t invade my son’s privacy.”
Turning back toward the Shack, Smith blurted out the default answer of all English-speaking noobs. “Password!”
A flat electronic buzz informed him that this probably wasn’t the correct answer.
“One-two-three-four!” he called, hoping for a simple PIN.
Another buzz of failure.
“This guy thinks I’m a moron,” whispered Shade.
“You should write him a complaint letter,” said Winston. “Tell him you’re offended.”
The FBI agent hunched his shoulders and started to take a step, then reconsidered.
“Time elapsed,” announced the Shack’s security system. “Defenses engaged.”
Shade studied the split screen before him, the map of his arsenal on the left and the dome camera’s live view on the right.
“You could let the system handle it,” suggested Winston. “It worked when we tested it on your sisters.”
A competitive sneer signaled Shade’s dismissal of the idea.
Smith started to take another step toward the tree house. Shade’s fingers waited over three possible options, waiting for the agent to commit. As if sensing a trap, though, Smith took three quick steps to the left.
“Bravo-2,” said Shade, and his right index finger hit one rectangular red icon.
They heard two shots — pop-pop!
Smith only had time to register the sound coming from the dense willow branches above him, then something struck him in the left shoulder. Half a second later, another something hit his left jaw and exploded. He recoiled, instinctively raising his hands against the stinging pain. Only once he stopped his sideways stumble did he put a hand to his shoulder and discover that he’d been tagged with royal blue paint.
“Ohhh!” rasped Shade, bouncing with glee in the darkness. “Pwned!”
“Are you OK?” called Mrs. Tagaloa. “I’m so sorry. But I did warn you.”
Smith stood there, his breath coming in shallow heaves, his hands clenched shut to hide how badly they were shaking.
“I’m fine,” he said.
Much more slowly this time, Smith took another step toward the tree house. The bark dust surrounding the structure waited about twenty feet before him. The smartest thing the agent could do would be to make a dash for it.
So he tried. Arm raised against more paint balls, half-hunching, Smith took one long launching step forward, landed, and tripped as his foot sank into the foot-deep hole under the turf. Shade activated Charlie-1 just as the agent’s face hit the ground.
They heard another pair of cracks, sounding over the electronic distance like those little gunpowder-packed Pop-It fireworks that kids throw onto sidewalks. Winston could only make out a pair of small blurs several inches in front of Smith’s head. The agent had barely lifted his face from the grass when both blurs exploded into much larger blurs of green paint that instantly splattered across his face, the side of his head, and down much of his back.
The boys rocked in place and bit their lips. Winston wrapped an arm around Shade’s shoulders and shook him hard enough to nearly dislodge the tablet from his lap.
“Soak it in warm water, then scrub with dishwashing soap!” called Mrs. Tagaloa. “Trust me!”
Smith pushed himself up to his knees and tried to wipe the paint from his eyes with his shoulders, which were equally splattered. He wiped his hands through the turf, trying to clean his fingers, then cleared his eyes.
“That stuff stings, too,” whispered Shade.
Back on his knees, Smith was only ten feet from the bark dust. He stayed in a crawl, moving only a few inches at a time. The agent kept his head down to protect against fire from above and explored the thick grass before him with side-to-side sweeping motions. Sure enough he found booby trap Charlie-5 about a foot before the bark dust. The little green peg barely poked above the dirt, almost completely obscured by the turf. Shade could have simply activated it then and there, but he showed a little mercy.
Winston raised an eyebrow at his friend, who shrugged.
“Those bouncing paint pockets aren’t cheap,” Shade said. “Besides, once this joker finishes, they’re just going to cut power to the property and send in a S.W.A.T. team.”
Winston knew better than to ask where Shade got his tactical data. Ultimately, there was little difference between the Internet, movies, and Shade’s own imagination as an information source.
Smith carefully went around the trap and reached the line of half-buried 2x4 beams that separated the lawn from the bark dusted area under the Shack. Smith huddled an arm’s length away from the rope ladder dangling from the hole in the tree house’s wrap-around deck. The agent stood and took one shaky stride toward the ladder. Nothing happened.
“Pressure pads?” asked Winston.
Shade shook his head. “Disabled them last week, dang it.”
At this point, the dome camera pointed almost directly down on Smith’s head, so Shade switched to the wide angle camera mounted under the eaves over the back patio. This didn’t offer as much detail on Smith, but it would suffice.
Gingerly, the agent reached out and pinched one of the rope rungs between his thumb and index finger. When nothing happened, he gave it a slight tug, unable to keep from cringing.
“When we get out of this mess,” said Shade, “I’m putting this on YouTube and getting like a gazillion ad revenue clicks.”
“After conversion, that’s about fourteen bucks,” said Winston. “Go for it.”
Smith placed one foot on the first rung above the ground and set his weight on it. Shade waited just long enough for the man to think all was clear, then he tapped another icon.
“Psst!” blared a gravelly voice from the dome camera’s speaker. In their hiding spot, Shade mouthed the words along with the audio. “Avast there! It be too late to alter course, mateys. Hold on tight with both hands, if you please. There be squalls ahead!”
Smith once again glanced back at Mrs. Tagaloa. “Isn’t that from the old Pirates of the Caribbean ride?”
“Maybe!” she answered. “Is that the kind of thing friends of terrorists do?”
Winston said, “I love your mom.”
Smith visibly straightened at the rebuke. He put his other foot on the next rung, committing all of his weight. Nothing shot him. Nothing clicked, broke, or blew up.
The agent climbed another rung. The ladder swayed freely as his weight shifted, rocking him back and forth. Another seven or eight rungs remained to the deck.
“Now?” asked Winston.
Shade’s fingertips hovered. His eyes were large and unblinking as he stared at Smith on the screen.
The man reached for the next rung and took another step, clearly gaining confidence. He reached up again, began to lift himself to the next rung, and then Shade tapped the Delta-1 icon.
Smith’s body instantly stiffened. His left foot remained free in the air and twitched. They heard him make a short choking noise. No comical sizzling sound or whiff of smoke from his ears followed. But Smith couldn’t control his muscles. His back arched, and his body quivered as hundreds of amps poured through his palms.
After a couple of seconds, Shade cut off the countermeasure. Smith’s body peeled away from the ladder, hands first. His back hit the bark dust, then his skull bounced off the ground like a rubber ball.
“Infinite pwnage!” crowed Shade.
After a moment, though, the boys fell silent and still as they realized that the agent’s body wasn’t moving.