Villainous, p.19

Villainous, page 19

 

Villainous
 


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  The cop didn’t answer for a moment. Then he said, “Can I see your license?”

  With one hand on the keys, she handed him her license, but when he reached down to take it from her, it slipped from her fingers. Daniel didn’t have time to wonder whether it was an accident or on purpose, because as soon as the officer bent down to catch the falling license, Daniel got a glimpse of a dragon tattoo crawling up the man’s neck.

  “Mom!” Daniel shouted. “Drive!”

  There wasn’t any time for an explanation, but Daniel’s mother didn’t need one. She twisted the key in the ignition, and the car turned over … and nothing happened. She gave it another try and the engine started to come to life, but by this time the tattooed-neck man had reached in through the window and grabbed the key from her hand, yanking it out of the ignition.

  Georgie started crying.

  It’s me he wants, thought Daniel. Herman sent him to get me.

  “Wait,” said Daniel. “I’ll go with you! Just leave my mom and brother alone. Lawrence, please.” Daniel remembered that was tattooed-neck man’s name: Lawrence. Together they’d saved Mr. Madison from the fire. Of course, that had all been a setup. Daniel was willing to bet that Lawrence’s missing partner had started the fire in the first place.

  “Get out of the car, kid,” said Lawrence, and Daniel opened his door.

  “Daniel! No!” said his mom.

  “I’ll be all right, Mom,” Daniel lied, and he stepped out of the car.

  He could hear his little brother crying and saying his name as his mom pleaded with Lawrence to leave them alone, but Daniel knew that wasn’t about to happen. If he would just let Daniel’s mom and brother go, maybe Daniel could find a way to escape. There was always a way.

  He walked around the back of the car. Lawrence was standing outside his mom’s door. One hand held her keys; with the other, he’d drawn his pistol.

  “Give my mom back her keys and let her go,” said Daniel.

  “You’re not in a position to tell me to do anything, kid,” said Lawrence. “Go get in the car.” He gestured to the police car and took a step forward.

  One step, it turned out, was enough, because that put him directly in front of the rear door, where Georgie was crying, hysterical, calling Daniel’s name, and kicking with all his young might. And with Georgie, that was a lot.

  The rear car door popped off like a cork and took Lawrence with it. The keys went in one direction, the gun went in another, and Lawrence and the door went in still another.

  Lawrence landed on the other side of the road, and it took him a few moments to wobble to his feet. Daniel could see that he was trying to wrap his brain around what had just happened, but it simply wasn’t working. He couldn’t process the fact that a four-year-old had just kicked a car door at him.

  By this time Georgie had gotten out of the car. The seat belt hung uselessly over his shoulder, and little bits of white stuffing clung to the straps where he’d torn them from the seat. His face was wet with tears and red with little-boy rage. When he saw Lawrence standing on the other side of the road, he shouted, “You leave Daniel and my mommy alone!” and started reaching for another door.

  “Wait!” called Daniel. “Not mom’s car!”

  Georgie paused; then he stomped over to the police car instead.

  Lawrence seemed either too stunned to see what was about to happen next, or just too stupid. But what was clear was he’d started looking around for his gun. He spotted it lying in the middle of the road just as Georgie reached the police car.

  The first piece of Lawrence’s stolen cop car that nearly hit him was a wheel. Not just a tire, but a whole wheel came tearing through the air and narrowly missed his head by inches. Next came a fender. By the time the rack of police lights went flying, Lawrence was fleeing headlong into the woods.

  The police car was a wreck, but at last Georgie was calming down. Daniel’s mother was whispering soothing words as she approached him.

  “Just relax, honey,” she said. “Everyone’s all right now. Don’t … don’t tear any more cars apart, okay?”

  Well, thought Daniel. Now she knows.

  But there was no time to hang around and help his mother with Georgie. Herman wasn’t going to be satisfied with eliminating Johnny and the Supers tonight. He obviously wanted Daniel out of the way too. Lawrence must’ve been following them, and with a sick, sinking feeling, Daniel wondered what had become of the sleeping cop outside Mr. Madison’s room. He was ready to bet that this car belonged to him.

  As long as Daniel stayed near his family, he was putting them in danger too.

  Without saying goodbye, Daniel turned and snuck off into the woods. This was one last hike to the forbidden north face of Mount Noble. One last adventure to save his friends.

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  The Old Quarry

  Daniel had been hiking for about fifteen minutes when he heard a voice cursing somewhere nearby. Daniel hunkered down low near the base of a tree and listened. There were footsteps, followed by another curse, only softer this time.

  Risking a peek around the tree, Daniel spotted a familiar silhouette moving through the brush. Every now and again, Lawrence’s big bald head would smack into a branch and he’d start up a fresh round of curses.

  This was a surprise. Daniel had just assumed that when Lawrence took off into the woods, he was headed back toward town. But here he was, blundering through the forest, apparently intent on the same destination as Daniel—the academy.

  But he was having a harder time of it than Daniel. Lawrence didn’t know these woods, and between the setting sun and all the noise he was making, Daniel could easily have outpaced him without being seen or heard. He’d reach the academy long before Lawrence.

  But why was he here?

  He watched as Lawrence took something out of his pocket. Daniel couldn’t see exactly what it was in the dark, but he did catch a flicker of light, like a tiny flashlight being switched on and off again. Or a cell phone.

  He was using the light of his phone to find his way.

  Daniel decided to follow him. While he was in a hurry to reach the school and warn Johnny, he didn’t want to lose sight of Herman’s thug. Daniel needed to know where he was going.

  They continued through the woods up the mountain, and Daniel kept a safe distance from him. It was easy, because whenever Daniel thought he’d lost Lawrence in the dark, all he needed to do was wait a minute before Lawrence’s cell phone would light up again like a beacon in the woods.

  After a while, Daniel started to get the feeling that they were drifting away from the direction of the academy. The road was no longer visible, and they seemed to be moving laterally instead of vertically up the mountain. They must’ve wandered too far in the wrong direction and passed the academy. It lay somewhere behind them in the woods.

  Daniel chided himself for following the bodyguard in the first place, and was just about to turn back and abandon Lawrence for being lost when he spotted a bit of gravel through the trees. It had to be the Old Quarry Road. That was lucky. If he followed that road, it would wind its way down the mountain and to the academy. But if they’d hiked far enough up the mountain that the Old Quarry Road had turned to actual gravel, then that meant that they were near …

  He hadn’t been back in over half a year, and he’d hoped to never set foot in that place again. The university had established a permanent camp there to study the caves, but Daniel had no interest in their findings. He’d seen it all before, and the memories of what he’d found still haunted him.

  He stepped out onto the lonely stretch of road and peered into the darkness up ahead. He could see the light of Lawrence’s cell phone, a pinhole in the dark. It was the last place Daniel wanted to be right now, but if Lawrence had come all this way, then there had to be a reason. As quietly as he could, Daniel made his way up the road, feeling as if each crunch of gravel echoed beneath his feet. It always seemed unnaturally quiet in the Old Quarry.

>   The pit loomed before him, a great gaping chasm, a dark gash in the side of the mountain. The moon had risen, and gave just enough light for Daniel to see that the scaffolding erected by the archaeological team still stood against the sheer walls, but all signs of the base camp were gone. This place looked as eerily abandoned as when Daniel had first set eyes on it over two years ago. Of course. Herman had control of Plunkett Industries again, and this quarry belonged to him. One of the first things Herman would’ve done after regaining his company would be to cut off the funding for the archaeological project intent on digging up his secrets. He would have done it quietly, and by spreading around a lot of money. Daniel bet that every scientist working here had found himself unexpectedly flush with grant funds and a one-way ticket to a new job far, far away. For many long years the secrets beneath the Old Quarry had belonged to Herman alone, and he wanted them back.

  Daniel spotted Lawrence’s light down near the bottom, and he began to descend the steep, rocky path after him. Daniel couldn’t risk any light of his own for fear of being seen, so he had to rely on the moon to find his way. Was it his imagination, or did the light have an unhealthy tinge to it tonight? Daniel took one last look up at the sky before making the treacherous descent. Was that a sliver of green in the distance or just his imagination? There might not be much time left.

  The way down was harrowing, but not truly as dangerous as Daniel had feared. The scientists had built a switchback road into the side of the quarry to haul their equipment down to the bottom, and it was wide enough that one could walk it and not worry about teetering over the side. Still, there were a few heart-stopping moments when Daniel stumbled on a bit of loose dirt, and he tried to keep from imagining what it would be like to fall over the edge. Was he high enough that the fall would kill him right away, or would he simply break every bone in his body and lie there helpless and alone?

  It was with these comforting thoughts roiling around in his brain that he finally set foot on the bottom. The quarry floor was mostly clear of debris, the ground littered only with the occasional soda can or wrapper left by some careless graduate assistant. Daniel looked for Lawrence, but he’d lost track of him on the way down. The last he’d seen, the bodyguard had been shining his light along the edge of the far wall.

  With no other options, Daniel groped his way through the dark until he found the wall. No Lawrence. And with no light to see by, it was impossible to tell what he had been looking at.

  There. Daniel felt the grainy dirt wall give way to cool rock. An opening there too, maybe three feet wide. The Shroud-Cave.

  Once, this cave had been protected by a heavy rolling door that hid Herman’s secret lair from unwanted guests. Then that door had been broken in two by the Shades when they turned Herman’s lair into his own prison. Now it was gone entirely, and the cave mouth beckoned.

  Daniel had never liked the fact that cave openings were called mouths. Why, then, would anyone in their right mind want to walk into one? But there was no use turning back now.

  He hadn’t gone more than a few feet before it got so dark that he couldn’t see his own hand in front of his face. He’d have to risk a light; otherwise, he’d be stumbling around in the absolute pitch blackness of the cave. So, by the light of his own cell phone, Daniel set out on his third exploration of the Shroud-Cave.

  The cave used to lead to an inner chamber that had glowed with its own green luminescence, but that eerie light had died with the Shroud’s powers. Now the heart of Herman’s old lair looked more like a workroom. There were lengths of tape scattered about the chamber, and small wooden pallets stacked up here and there that had been left by the scientists who’d come back this far to study the cave paintings, but all signs of the Shroud were gone. His mural of lost children, the throne-like chair—gone. Lawrence wasn’t here, so he must’ve continued on deeper into the caves.

  As Daniel stepped gingerly through the chamber, he spared a few seconds to look at those ancient cave paintings again. The Witch Fire Comet could still be seen clearly on the wall—a big, burning ball rendered in whatever passed for paint those centuries ago, threatening the stick figures below. The mural revealed that the comet had visited this mountain once many years before St. Alban’s, and it had brought about the destruction of a whole tribe of people. The few survivors recorded the tragedy here in these caves, which had remained secret for hundreds of years until Herman discovered them.

  History was about to repeat itself if Daniel didn’t hurry.

  Daniel left the chamber behind and followed the tunnel for what seemed like forever before noticing that the rock walls had given way to metal. He’d crossed from a natural cave into a man-made hallway, and the glow of artificial light could be seen up ahead. He powered off his cell phone light, and moved cautiously onward. Eventually, the hallway ended in a spiral staircase of metal, leading up. From above, Daniel could see a bluish fluorescent light spilling down and hear voices.

  As stealthily as he could, Daniel climbed the stairs, which ascended into some kind of underground bunker. The walls were solid concrete, and fresh air was being pumped in through vents somewhere near the ceiling. A metal door was set into one wall, and a computer console was set into another, surrounded by a number of monitor screens showing images of what looked like the academy grounds, as well as a section of the tunnel he’d just come through. With a start, Daniel realized that if anyone had been watching the screens, they would have seen him coming, but it soon became obvious why no one was paying attention to the screens—they were all too busy scolding Lawrence.

  Herman was standing a few feet away from the console, leaning heavily on his cane and flanked by his bodyguards. Daniel was pleased to see that the dreadlocked bodyguard’s hair had been burnt down to charred stubs, and one side of his face was covered in angry-looking blisters. It appeared that setting the mansion fire hadn’t gone quite as planned, probably because of Mr. Madison’s unexpected arrival.

  Lawrence stood before Plunkett with his head down like a puppy being threatened with a rolled-up newspaper.

  “… not only did you set off every alarm, stumbling through the tunnel like that,” Herman was saying, “but you didn’t even manage to get the boy?”

  “I told you,” said Lawrence pathetically. “It was the little brother. He’s one of them! Tore apart a car and nearly took my head off!”

  “It would have been your most expendable asset,” said Herman. “Now keep your voice down.” Herman turned back to the bank of screens. One showed the bottom of the stairs, where Daniel had been climbing oblivious to the hidden cameras just moments ago. “I see you neglected to shut the doors behind you as well.”

  “I get claustrophobic,” said Lawrence.

  Herman sighed. “It doesn’t matter. It’s nearly time for you two to go anyway, and I’ll deal with Daniel Corrigan later. Come morning, he won’t be a problem.”

  “But how are you going to do it without us?” asked Lawrence. “I told you, that little brother is tough, and you’re not … well … I mean—”

  “What?” said Herman. “You mean I’m feeble? Too old and weak to deal with a boy and his family?”

  “Let me handle it,” said the one with the burned face. “I’ll torch the house. They’ll be ashes by morning.”

  Herman seemed to be considering the offer while Daniel held his breath. He couldn’t let them set fire to his house. If that was the plan, then Daniel would have to give himself up just to keep his family safe.

  “No,” said Herman, and Daniel let out a quiet sigh of relief. “No need for that. Get back to the safe house, the both of you, and wait for further instructions.”

  The bodyguards turned and started walking, not toward the far door but back toward the stairwell. Daniel was caught between them and the tunnel. He could try to back down the stairs, but then he’d be walking right in front of Herman’s cameras. If he stayed crouched on the stairs, the bodyguards would literally stumble over him.

  Although he was t
rapped, that didn’t mean he needed to be caught. He just hoped that Mollie had gotten his messages. It was up to her now to warn Johnny. Daniel’s answers, he knew, lay in this room.

  Standing tall, he stepped away from his hiding place on the stairs just as the rubber sole of his sneaker squeaked against the concrete floor.

  Real heroic entrance, thought Daniel. Might as well be wearing clown shoes.

  Herman spun around in his chair, and for an instant, the look of complete shock on the bodyguards’ faces was enough for Daniel.

  But Herman, at least, quickly recovered, even as his two thugs stood there with their mouths hanging open.

  “I really should have known,” said Herman, grinning. “Well, don’t just stand there in the shadows, my boy. Come out into the light, and let’s finish this chess match once and for all.”

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Knight Takes Pawn

  When the two bodyguards did finally come to their senses, they grabbed Daniel roughly by the arms and hauled him forward.

  “No need for that, gentlemen,” said Herman. “Really, two of you to hold a scrawny kid?”

  Lawrence, in particular, seemed reluctant to let Daniel go, and he added a little shove as he did it.

  “So you followed Lawrence, did you?” asked Herman.

  “No way,” said Lawrence. “I would’ve seen him!”

  “Lawrence,” said Herman. “This will go easier if you keep your voice down and don’t interrupt me.”

  “No money is worth this,” Lawrence mumbled, scowling at both of them.

  “Yes, I followed your man,” said Daniel, “but I should’ve known to look for you here.”

  “Is that so?” asked Herman.

  “I’m guessing we are directly under the school, right? You built a tunnel from your old cave to your new hideout—the academy itself.”

  “Bravo.”

  Daniel tried glancing around the bunker without looking like he was glancing around the bunker. If they were underneath the academy, then the door must lead up. Herman probably had some kind of hidden passage into the school. If Daniel could reach that door, he was fairly sure he was quick enough to outpace Herman’s bodyguards. They looked tough, but not particularly nimble.

 
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