Chapter 1 – Hunted
His hand on his throwing knife, Dogboy hid in the shadows as a police car cruised down the street.
It was twenty minutes past five on a warm Saturday evening. Dogboy was on his way to Liberty Pier to meet Mr. Horum, his boss at The Old Curiosity Shop as well as his current guardian.
A spotlight hit the wall behind him. He ducked down behind a trash can as the light panned across the bricks.
Dogboy didn’t move, didn’t even breath, as he waited for the car to pass. He saw a sign posted on the wall offering a reward for his capture signed by Mayor Lane. Heck of a way to thank a guy for saving the city, he thought.
The police car continued down the road then crossed the cement bridge connecting the street to the pier then out to the Stratemeyer River.
Dogboy jumped out from behind the trash can—
A police officer stood beside him on the sidewalk. Dogboy froze, hoping if he didn’t move the officer wouldn’t see him. This is it, he thought. After everything he’d gone through the past few weeks this is how it would end. Arrested, identity exposed, then put in an orphanage to rot.
He held up his hands.
“I know you’re asking yourself, ‘Why is this charming, charismatic kid hiding behind a trashcan with a dog mask on?’ Have I got a story for you,” he said.
“I don’t have time to play games, kid. Get outta here.”
Dogboy reached behind his back. Out came a silk flower bouquet, which he shoved under the officer’s nose.
“For the best cop I ever met,” he said.
The officer took the bouquet and considered it. “Why would a kid…?”
“We do all sorts of crazy stuff, sir, but you know that. Our cops are the smartest cops in the country. Right, sir?” Dogboy said.
“Yeah,” the officer said as he sniffed the faux bouquet.
Dogboy bowed, turned tail, and ran away from the officer. Pretty lucky, he thought.
“Hey! Wait! You’re that Dogboy kid,” the officer yelled, running after him.
The masked mutt grabbed onto a drainpipe running up a nearby building, climbing until he reached the neon sign that buzzed twenty feet above the ground.
The officer pulled out his weapon and pointed it at the boy. “I don’t want to shoot you, kid, so you’d better come down here. Mayor Lane said he wants you brought in, but he didn’t say you had to be in ‘mint’ condition.”
“You’ll be lucky to get ‘very fine.’ I’ve always been a little dog-eared. Don’t feel too bad, though. It’s a buyer’s market these days anyway.”
A bus pulled up to the curb in front of the drugstore, dropping off a few kids around Dogboy’s age.
That’ll do the trick, he thought. He imagined a white line running over the sidewalk leading to the bus’s roof. When the moment felt right he launched himself across the sidewalk, tumbling through the air then landing on the bus.
“Give my best to the mayor,” he shouted to the officer as the bus rolled away.
Dogboy rode along for several blocks, holding on to a small vent, until he’d put enough distance between himself and the officer. When the bus made its next stop he hopped off, landing on garbage bags stacked by the curb.
This costume is definitely getting washed tonight, he thought.
Dogboy got up, careful not to pierce the bags with his knife then ducked into an alley. There, he noticed some familiar graffiti on the wall: His mask in white spray paint. He’d seen a few like it the past few days.
A siren screamed in the distance.
Dogboy ripped off his mask and cape, stashing them in his backpack, then waited for the police car to pass.
A little while later it was Bronson Black who walked out from the alley where Dogboy had disappeared moments before. Bronson Black looked like any average 13-year-old, a complete and total nobody (as far as the police knew).
“There is my Bronson” said a voice behind him. Bronson turned around.
A strange man approached, carrying an ice chest and some coiled rope. He dressed like an Omani sultan and walked like he needed practice.
“Hey, Mr. Horum,” Bronson said, “I thought you’d be on the boat already.”
“First rule of high sea? You leaving land, you bring food.” Mr. Horum said. “I make us fresh gyros. Freshest lamb in Colta City.”
“What’s a gyro?” Bronson asked.
“Is lamb. Special sauce. All wrapped up.”
“Oh, a gyro?” Bronson asked. “My mom made those one time.”
“It pronounced gyro, you see? G-Y is yeh, no jai. Yeer-oh. That what you say.”
“My mom said it the other way,” Bronson said. “Where do you get fresh lamb in the middle of a city? I haven’t seen any farms around or anything.”
“Second rule of high sea? Never ask meat questions. Better to not know sometimes,” Mr. Horum said.
“Come on, everybody. File in like good little lemmings.”
A tall man with a head so large his hair could barely contain it held the door to the conference room open as the twenty-or-so people of various ages, sexes, and builds walked through.
A short blond girl lingered in the doorway as the rest took their seats. Her smudged green smock smelled like morning dew with a little fertilizer underneath. She flicked the file folders in her right hand using the long press-on fingernails on her left.
“You need something? My time’s billed at a premium so start talking or pay up,” the man said.
“I wanted to thank you for giving me such an opportunity. I’ve done some performance art but never anything this… ambitious, ya’ know? Must’ve been a real smart guy who came up with this thing. Who did it, ya’ think?”
“Your dermatologist. Who do you think? The guy signing the checks. Trust me, honey, it’s best if you don’t ask too many questions.”
She opened the folder and handed the man some 8×10s showing her in various costumes. “Well, if you’re a guy who don’t like questions here’s a stack of answers. Make sure the man in charge sees ’em, would ya’, sweetie?”
She slid into her seat, glancing around as several men in the room took notice. The man next to her tossed a stick of chewing gum on the table.
“You’re welcome,” he said, popping another stick in his mouth.
“I didn’t ask ya’ for nothing,” she said, sliding the gift back over to the giver’s side of the table.
“Geez, lady, just trying to break the ice. Let’s see if I ask you out for dinner now.”
“Oh, honey,” she said, looking at him like a teacher correcting her pupil, “I don’t care if you give me a whole pack and some mouthwash. Ain’t gonna happen. First rule of show business: Don’t date the competition.”
“Alright, folks, I ain’t running a speed dating service here. We’ve got work to do.” The man with the thinning hair opened a large box with a few dozen thick plastic bags inside. Each one had a small blue note card with a number stapled to it.
The man tapped the shoulder of a woman sitting next to him. “You. Think you can handle passing these out?” He pointed at her name tag. “See, you’re number three. That means you get—” He dug through the box and produced a bag with a “3” tag. “This one. Simple enough, right? Any dummy could do it.”
The woman passed out the bags to the appropriate people until one bag was left.
The man with the thinning hair turned out toward the group.
“Thank you for being good little boys and girls and arriving on time. I’m Applebottom and I’m putting this sock hop together. Everybody should have a package in front of them. Go ahead. Look inside.”
The sound of rustling plastic bounced around the room as the group investigated their bags.
“Man, all I got is a hoody,” said one man toward the back.
“Hey! No blabbing,” Applebottom said. “But, yes, some of you have pretty costumes. A few of you might have some props too. The important thing is this little document right here.”
He pulled a piece of blue paper from his suit jacket’s inner pocket, unfolding it then holding it out to show the group.
“On the left side is contact info for the folks you’ll need to coordinate with. It’s not your little black book, fellas, so don’t get any ideas. On the right you’ll see directions. This will tell you where you gotta be and when you gotta be there, then just follow the directions. You only get paid if you follow ’em. Now—”
The door opened. A man stepped in, nodded to Applebottom, then took an empty seat right by the door.
“I’m sorry. They had some paperwork upstairs,” the man said. Applebottom patted his back.
“Better late than never right, buddy? Now your number…?” He looked at the man’s nametag. “Number seventeen. Here, you got the last bag, friend,” Applebottom said, tossing the bag on the table.
“So… Yeah. The most important thing here is we don’t want to leave a paper trail. Memorize the sheet, then grab a torch and burn it. Don’t throw it in the trash. Don’t use it to line Polly’s birdcage. Burn it. That’s good advice in general. A paper trail is bad ju-ju. Why one time this girl I was seeing…”
An older man raised his hand.
“Yeah,” Applebottom said, gesturing for him to stand.
“Uh, excuse me. And don’t think I’m not grateful for paying work, but nobody told me we’d have to memorize anything.”
“Nobody told you? Nobody told you? They told you how much we’re paying you, right? Wah! They didn’t tell me I’d have to remember stuff. Durr! Get out!”
The older gentleman gasped. “No, it’s fine. I’m happy. No complaints here. Happy to be working for you, boss.”
“I said get out,” Applebottom said, grabbing the man’s arm, leading him across the room, then pushing him out the door.
“Anybody else want to complain about the homework?” he asked the group.
The room fell so silent you could hear the hands on Applebottom’s watch tick as the seconds passed, each tick taking longer than the last.
“Good,” Applebottom said, “now one last thing before I let you go. You will see this in the paper tomorrow. Guaranteed. Part of what we’re paying for here is your silence. Don’t talk. I don’t care if you want to look hip for your homeboys. I don’t care if the cops show up at your front door. You didn’t know nobody who knew nothing about nothing. Keep it quiet. Trust me. Our benefactor can pull the money back after you pick it up if you don’t keep your traps shut. We have guys for that.”
The late arrival rummaged through his bag.
“You got a problem, buddy? Please. I’m itching to send another one of you jerks to the unemployment line,” Applebottom said.
“I wasn’t expecting to get this… assignment, but I guess I need the money so—”
“See?” Applebottom said, patting the man on the back. “This guy knows what he wants and he goes for it. And he don’t ask questions.”
Applebottom opened the door, leaning against it to hold it open. “Go on, get out. You can pick up your personal belongings at the front desk. You know what you gotta do. Read the directions, dress the part, and get there on time. Stick to the plan, and don’t pay too much attention. Or else.”