Villainous, p.15

Villainous, page 15

 

Villainous
 


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  So Herman was looking to bargain. He might very well have evidence against Drake. After all, he’d been compiling files on the Supers for years. But he could have a signed confession from Drake and Daniel wouldn’t take it. Not from Herman. Not ever.

  “Nothing happens in this town that I’m not aware of,” said Herman. “You know that.”

  “Uh-huh,” said Daniel. “Yet you don’t know what Johnny and I talked about. Maybe we were talking about you?” Herman’s grin disappeared.

  Yes, thought Daniel. How’s it feel not to have all the answers for once? He’d just given Herman a taste of his own bitter medicine.

  “Are you enjoying yourself?” asked Herman.

  “I’m starting to,” said Daniel. “Especially because I don’t need your help with the vandalism. I know all about the Nobles and what they’re up to.”

  “Nobles?” Herman said. “What are you talking about?”

  Plunkett looked, for the moment, genuinely puzzled. Herman’s feigned surprise was such a bravura performance that Daniel almost clapped. But they were interrupted as Lawrence called back to them.

  “Mr. Plunkett?”

  “Yes, Lawrence,” said Herman irritably. “What is it?”

  “You’d better see for yourself,” said Lawrence.

  With a sigh, Herman stabbed one bony finger at a button on the car door and the window slowly rolled down. They were approaching the entrance to Cedar Drive, the private street that led to the Plunkett estate. The mansion wasn’t visible from the road, but the sky above was black with smoke.

  “My house!” cried Plunkett. “Lawrence, drive!”

  Lawrence turned the limo into Cedar on two wheels, and Daniel was very glad he’d taken Herman’s advice about the seat belt.

  As they sped up the road, Daniel pulled out his phone and dialed 911. He couldn’t care less about Herman’s home, but his friend Theo lived there.

  He’d just finished shouting the address to the 911 operator as she calmly informed him that the fire trucks were already on their way. Lawrence stopped the car at the bottom of the driveway, but the mansion, or what was left of it, was unrecognizable. Its entire lower two floors were an inferno. Flames were licking up to the top floor, and so much smoke was billowing out that the air inside the limo already tasted of it. Nevertheless, Herman hauled himself from the car the minute they’d stopped, not bothering to wait for his man to help him. Daniel slid out the side and followed.

  At once Daniel was beaten back by the wall of heat pouring off the giant mansion. He was amazed at how hot it was this far away, almost unbearable. He could only imagine what the temperatures were inside.

  There was a sudden shattering of glass as a window on the top floor exploded, and a hand wrapped in a towel began waving frantically for help. Someone was alive up there.

  Daniel looked around, as if he could find anything that could help him fight a massive fire like this. Where were those fire trucks?

  “Lawrence!” shouted Herman, grabbing his man by the collar. “Get in there! You have to save them!”

  “I’m not going in there!” said Lawrence. “You crazy?”

  Herman took his cane in his hand like a bat. “My family is in there! My only family!” The old man swung the cane at Lawrence, but the big bodyguard hardly flinched as he was smacked across his broad shoulders. He was not moving.

  Daniel took a few steps forward, but the heat was just too much. There wasn’t anything he or Lawrence could do.

  As he cupped his hands over his stinging eyes, he saw a shape in the grass, halfway between the car and the house. There was a person lying there, unmoving.

  Daniel threw his arms over his face to shield himself as best he could from the heat and ran forward.

  “Lawrence!” Daniel shouted. “Help me!”

  Daniel’s lungs burned as he choked on the smoke and he could hardly see for the tears stinging his eyes, but he kept his head down and made his way to the still figure—a plump man in a fireman’s uniform, his chief’s hat nowhere to be seen. Mr. Madison, the floating fire chief, was lying unconscious in the grass.

  “Mr. Madison, wake up!” shouted Daniel, yet there was no response. His face was blackened with soot, but he was breathing. He had burns on his hands, and Daniel wondered if the floating fire chief hadn’t tried to rescue whoever was still in there before succumbing to the smoke himself.

  “Let me,” shouted a voice behind Daniel, and then Lawrence was at his side, trying to haul the chief’s limp body onto his shoulders.

  “He’s heavy,” said Lawrence. “Give me a hand.”

  In the end, Daniel wasn’t sure he’d actually helped at all, but the two of them managed to get Mr. Madison atop Lawrence’s back and run.

  Clear of the worst of the smoke, they toppled together at Herman’s feet, gasping for breath.

  “Who cares about him?” said Plunkett, eyeing the fire chief with disgust. “Who’ll save my family?”

  Daniel looked back at the burning house, at the broken window on the top floor. But it was now empty. Whoever was up there had stopped waving.

  Then Daniel’s ears rang with a different sound, a familiar thunderclap, and while he watched, a hole exploded in the top floor of the house, sending flaming debris onto the grass below. Something had flown into the mansion, tearing a door-sized hole in the front.

  It was as if the mansion had been hit with cannon fire. Seconds passed before another object hit the side of the house, shaking the already tremulous flaming timbers. Then a man came flying out of the house with a person cradled in his arms.

  Johnny landed on the lawn next to Daniel and gently laid Theo’s mother on the grass. She was coughing, filthy with soot, but alive. Tiny flames licked the edges of Johnny’s suit coat, although he barely seemed to notice.

  Eric burst out through another wall, carrying Theo. The young man was in worse shape than his mother, and he held a blistered hand to his chest, but when Eric tried to set him down, he grabbed Eric by the collar and pulled him close. Through hacking coughs and tears of pain, he whispered something into Eric’s ear.

  In an instant, Eric was flying back to the house, smashing his way once more into the raging inferno. Johnny started to follow, but Eric quickly reappeared carrying a shaggy, slobbery dog in his arms. Someone had wrapped a wet towel around the dog’s head to help protect him from the smoke.

  Theo threw his uninjured arm around the dog and in a hoarse voice said, “Good boy, Bernard. Good boy.”

  The fire trucks were coming up the drive just as the mansion started to collapse in on itself. It sent a shower of sparks into the sky, and they looked for a moment like a thousand fireflies taking flight.

  “What’s happened to Mr. Madison?” asked Johnny, bending down over the chief.

  “I don’t know,” said Daniel. “I think he was first on the scene and tried to help.”

  The chief opened his eyes in between ragged coughs and struggled to speak. “Arson …,” he said. “Saw him running …”

  He couldn’t continue. Just breathing looked like an agony.

  “The burns aren’t serious but he’s inhaled a lot of smoke,” said Johnny. He gently scooped the fire chief up in his arms, lifting him as easily as if the heavy man were a baby. “I need to get him to a hospital.”

  “Can’t you help him?” asked Daniel. He remembered last year when Johnny had used his power to heal Daniel’s injured fingers—fingers he’d broken against Johnny’s marble-like face.

  “I … He’s too badly hurt. I can only heal small things, remember?”

  They were interrupted by the roaring of an engine coming to life, and they turned to see Herman sitting inside his limousine, one hand on the open back door. For a moment, Herman and Johnny locked eyes, and something inexplicable passed between them. Daniel wondered when was the last time they’d seen each other. Was it when they’d fought, over half a century ago?

  Who knew what the two men were thinking now?

  Without a word
, Herman slammed the door and Lawrence steered the car away from the ruined house and out of sight.

  “I have to go,” said Johnny, and Daniel followed his gaze to see that news vans were right behind the fire trucks, and camera crews were unloading their equipment in a hurry.

  Johnny sprang into the air with Mr. Madison in his arms, and then he was gone.

  Daniel turned to Eric. “That was amazing.”

  “We were in detention when all of a sudden Rohan jumped up from his desk,” said Eric. His clothes were ruined and his face blackened, but he appeared unhurt. “He’d heard the trucks, and he said that someone was calling for help. Johnny didn’t even hesitate. He told me to follow him and took off into the sky. Right out the window—it was awesome!”

  “This is bad,” said Daniel, looking back at the mansion in flames. The firefighters were doing their best, aiming their hoses at the blaze, but the house was lost. “People almost died. Theo, his mom. Good thing his grandpa is overseas with his dad.”

  “What do you think happened?” asked Eric.

  “You heard the chief. He said it was arson.”

  “Yeah.”

  “It was Drake, Eric!” said Daniel. “It had to have been, and he’s gone way too far this time.”

  Eric blinked at him for a second and then said, “But, Daniel, didn’t you hear what I just said? I came from detention. With the Nobles. Every last one of them. There’s no way they could have done this.”

  Daniel had forgotten. The Nobles were serving detention together with Eric and Rohan. But if Drake’s Nobles didn’t set this fire, then who did?

  Theo and his mother were sitting inside an ambulance, being administered oxygen from a tank. Bernard had his head in Theo’s lap, and his tail was still wagging, despite the fact that he was now missing a few patches of fur. A TV helicopter was slowly circling the scene, capturing images of the destruction for the evening broadcast.

  Then Daniel and Eric were surrounded by reporters shoving microphones into their faces, and they were trapped in the glare of lights as a phalanx of cameras descended upon them. It looked like they were about to become news.

  Chapter Eighteen

  Headlines

  What amazed Daniel was not what was being said about the Supers, but how quickly the things being said had changed. On the six o’clock news, the Supers were being hailed as heroes. Every station broadcast images of Kid Noble (as they were calling Eric) and an as yet unidentified sidekick (that would be Daniel) who had saved the respectable Plunkett family from perishing in a fire. Although Eric and Daniel had declined to comment, there were enough dramatic images of the destruction that people started to create their own narrative—the town’s most prominent family is threatened by a terrible fire, only to be rescued by two young people with remarkable gifts. It was a human interest story. Warm and fuzzy—an inspirational tale. It was, in short, exactly the kind of story that people were sick of.

  By the time the ten o’clock news came on, the story had already begun to morph into something else. New details were emerging about the fire, and it was rumored that the floating fire chief was in intensive care after having spotted an arsonist at the scene. And at least one station was running with a story provided by an “inside source” who claimed that the fire had been the work of teenage delinquents, even though the chief hadn’t gotten a good enough look at the perpetrator to identify his or her age. Nobody was accusing anyone of anything yet, but lots of questions were being asked.

  By morning, the headline in the paper said it all. On one side of the page was a picture of Mr. Madison lying in his hospital bed, attached to tubes and his hands bandaged. (Daniel wondered how the reporters had gotten that particular shot.) On the opposite side was a grainy black-and-white picture of Eric and Daniel standing in front of the burning mansion. Across the top of the page was the banner headline:

  SUPER-FRIENDS OR FOES?

  Less than twenty-four hours, that was all it took for them to go from lauded heroes to suspected villains. That was all the time it took for a town to turn on its own. Daniel saw it firsthand at his own breakfast table. Last night his parents had been worried about their son, but also proud of him. Never mind that Daniel’s story was full of holes (he told them he’d decided to stop by to visit his friend Theo, skipping the part about how he actually got there). And it didn’t matter when he pointed out that Johnny and Eric had actually saved the Plunketts from the fire. When they said good night to Daniel, it had been with kisses of pride and tearful admonitions that he be more careful next time—he wasn’t indestructible like his friend Eric, you know.

  By morning they’d read the papers and called the editors to complain that their son wasn’t one of those kids (there was that phrase again) and would they please stop using his image in their stories about them. It wasn’t long before his parents were musing out loud if Eric might get Daniel hurt one of these days. The town had changed so quickly, and no one was really comfortable with that much power in the hands of people so young. Maybe Daniel should at least consider making friends more like him. Powerless.

  It was easier, Daniel supposed, to defend their son by damning his friends. Parents always overestimated the influence peers had on their kids—as if they’d raised ciphers incapable of making up their own minds, of taking responsibility for their actions. Daniel had seen it so many times before, how someone’s child, who was a complete angel, had “fallen in with the wrong crowd.” Daniel thought it much more likely that their fallen angel hadn’t fallen in with the wrong crowd; he’d just found the crowd that suited him best. He’d discovered his own.

  But in Daniel’s case, his own were good, decent kids, and now the town was trying to make them all out to be budding criminals. A match had been lit in the public’s collective imagination, and their opinion of these super-kids was burning as fast as Plunkett’s mansion. This “inside source” that everyone was quoting was just stoking the flames.

  “It’s Herman,” said Daniel. “I know it.”

  It had been two days since the fire, and the charred timbers of Plunkett’s ruined mansion cooled but emotions didn’t. The papers were filled with dueling editorials, not about the guilt or innocence of the town’s super-teens (that verdict had apparently come in) but what should now be done with them. Most argued that the early curfews weren’t enough, a special school wasn’t enough, and that the parents of these children needed to be more responsible for the actions of their kids.

  There were more strident voices, who said that the parents of these super-teens were obviously overwhelmed, and that a small town like Noble’s Green was not equipped to deal with superpowered criminals, regardless of their age. Lives had nearly been lost and the government had a responsibility to keep the law-abiding citizens of this town safe. Curfews weren’t enough; a school wasn’t enough. The Supers needed to go. Noble’s Green didn’t want them anymore.

  Daniel was sitting with Mollie, Eric, and Rohan in the shadow of the Tangle Creek Bridge. Johnny seemed to be turning a blind eye to Eric and Rohan’s little excursions off campus, but neither one of them wanted to press their luck. So they’d agreed to a short meeting at the swimming hole to compare notes. It was a throwback to simpler times.

  Eric and Rohan had taken off their ties and tossed their sport coats into the grass. Neither of them seemed particularly worried about getting their uniforms dirty these days. Mollie sat on a rock and stared at the water. She wouldn’t talk about the history final, and though they wouldn’t know the results for a few days yet, Daniel felt like they both feared what the outcome would be. It made him angry, just as the ridiculous lies being printed in the paper made him angry. Angry and worried. This wasn’t supposed to be the way this new world operated. Daniel had worked so hard to make it a place safe for his friends, and now they were practically fugitives in the eyes of the press. He wanted someone to blame it on, and there was one villain who fit the bill.

  “I’m telling you, Herman is the one talking,” said Dani
el. “He’s whispering to the papers, in the ears of his friends on the town council, probably the mayor too.”

  “Maybe,” said Eric. “But that still doesn’t explain who torched his mansion. There must be someone else out there, someone no one knows about. Some kind of psychopath?”

  “I just assumed that the laughing girl I heard that day was Skye,” said Daniel. “But it could have been someone else. Someone we haven’t seen yet, maybe.”

  “So you definitely think all these attacks are related,” said Rohan. “I mean, maybe the Nobles did some of them, and maybe this fire was someone else.”

  “I dunno,” said Mollie. “Seems awfully coincidental.”

  “Well, whoever it is,” said Daniel, “the whole town is turning against all Supers, and fast.”

  “Plus, everyone now thinks you’re my sidekick,” said Eric. “How does the name Lil’ Noble strike you?”

  “Shut up.”

  “Or how about Super Junior?”

  “This is serious, Eric!” said Daniel.

  “I know it’s serious, but we aren’t helping ourselves by sitting here moaning about it.” Eric stood up and began pacing back and forth, only he was pacing on the water. Daniel didn’t know if his friend realized it or not, but he was floating several inches above the surface of the creek. Sometimes Daniel’s friends took for granted the amazing things they could do. But not Daniel. Not ever.

  “Then we should be out there,” said Daniel, “looking for the person behind these attacks. If we’re sure Drake and his Nobles couldn’t have set fire to the mansion, then we need to look elsewhere. I’m still betting it’s one of the academy kids. There are hardly any Supers left who aren’t academy kids. Michael and Mollie, Louisa and Rose. That’s it.

  “Have you seen anything?” asked Daniel. “Anything even remotely suspicious?”

  “Johnny’s getting worked up about all the bad press,” said Rohan. “He lectured the whole school on how important it is that we hold ourselves to a higher standard and blah, blah, blah. But if you mean anything criminal, no.”

 
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