Villainous, p.8

Villainous, page 8

 

Villainous
 


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  “We’re not getting anywhere as it is,” said Daniel. “If it is Drake and his Nobles, they are staying one step ahead of us. Meanwhile, the mood in this town is getting worse by the day. Everyone’s scared and angry. That’s a bad combo.”

  “See,” said Eric, grinning broadly. “Good plan!”

  “He didn’t say that,” said Michael. “He said we’re just out of other ideas.”

  “So it’s settled,” said Daniel. “OPERATION PLEASE STAY OUT OF TROUBLE, ERIC AND ROHAN, begins Monday.”

  “C’mon, we’ll be fine,” Eric assured him. “I’m on the job!”

  “Is it too late to change my mind?” asked Rohan. Eric gave him a playful punch that nearly knocked him off the bed.

  “Hey,” said Mollie, picking up the paper again. “What else did that article say? That Plunkett Industries had made a generous contribution to the school?”

  “Well, that’s Theo’s side of the family,” said Rohan. “They took control after Herman was declared missing.”

  “You know, it wouldn’t hurt to reach out to Theo,” said Daniel. “See if he knows anything about that place that could be useful.”

  Eric snorted. “Good luck. He’s probably been too busy pursuing his own life of crime to pay attention to anyone else’s.”

  “He only stole his dad’s car,” said Daniel.

  “How many times?” asked Eric.

  “A … few. But he kept it in the family.” Daniel had to admit, when you put it like that, Theo did sound pretty unreliable. But though Theo was powerless just like Daniel, the young man did have one very special asset that could prove quite useful—his name.

  “Look, let’s not argue about Theo,” said Daniel. “And if you guys don’t mind, Mollie and I have a final to study for. We can talk spy stuff later.”

  “I’m telling you guys—don’t worry!” said Eric. “Rohan and I are the dynamic duo.”

  “Barf,” said Mollie.

  “Fine,” said Rohan. “You two have fun hitting the books. Text us if you wrap up early.”

  They said their goodbyes and left—Eric and Michael through the window and Rohan through the front door. Once she and Daniel were alone together, Mollie heaved her history book out of her backpack and made a face.

  “Can’t believe those two,” she said. “They’re walking into that place totally blind, and honestly, I can’t think of two worse spies in the world. Your little brother is sneakier than they are.”

  “Yep,” said Daniel, tapping his chin with his pencil. An idea was brewing. “That’s why I need to talk to Theo. Right away.”

  “Huh?”

  “What are you doing tomorrow after school?”

  “You know very well what I’m doing; I’m studying just like we always— Hey, what are you talking about?”

  Daniel smiled as he picked up his phone and scrolled through his contacts.

  “Thought we might see what Theo’s up to. Maybe take a ride to someplace like … oh, I dunno … the Noble Academy for the Gifted!”

  Chapter Ten

  The Other Plunkett

  As a private institution, the Noble Academy for the Gifted received its funding from a variety of wealthy individuals and corporations. Many patrons opened their wallets. (Who wouldn’t want their name associated with the world’s first school for superhumans?) But one family name in particular was responsible for over two-thirds of the school’s endowment as well as donating the very land on which the academy was built.

  “My dad offered to let Herman have the mansion back, but the old coot just stayed up there at the crazy house. Guess he liked the bingo nights.”

  Herman Plunkett’s grandnephew Theo was sitting behind the wheel of a brand-new night-black Jaguar. From the backseat (Mollie was riding shotgun) Daniel could see the gates of Noble Academy just up ahead. When he’d first climbed into Theo’s car, he’d expected that “new-car smell” everyone talked about, but apparently that new-car smell wasn’t so strong when your upholstery was Italian leather. That was a different smell altogether, and it smelled like money.

  Several times over the past two years Daniel had biked up these very same mountain roads, and each time the trip had been fearful. The land that now belonged to the Noble Academy for the Gifted wasn’t that far from the Old Quarry, which for years had served as the Shroud’s secret lair. Generations before that it had been the site of the St. Alban’s Orphanage, burned to the ground almost a century ago. That night a simple trapper named Johnny Noble rescued the orphans from the deadly fire, but something in the smoke had changed them all. That night long ago was when it all began, here in these very same woods.

  As they stopped at the gate, Daniel craned his neck out the window to get a better look. He tried to picture what Eric might be doing here in a few days, doing loop-de-loops in the sky and showing off, maybe racing the other fliers. But all Daniel could see soaring over the school now were a few long-winged hawks, making lazy circles overhead. It looked as if they’d spotted prey somewhere in the woods nearby. Not an encouraging sign.

  The brambles that Daniel had once hidden in, the mountain trails that he’d explored were gone, and in their place was a long field of freshly sodded green grass. Where there had once been dense forest, there was now a cluster of buildings forged from glass and steel, a tiny metropolis built into the side of a mountain.

  A polite security guard checked Theo’s name off a clipboard, and then opened the gate for them to drive through. On the other side, the academy’s walled campus sprawled out before them. The newly laid grass butted up against still-upturned earth, and the air smelled of fresh paint. The glass towers were adorned with gleaming white marble steps and polished walkways circling a giant metal spire in the center that reached taller than the tallest building. It was breathtaking. The mountain’s forbidding north face was now a relic of history; this place was about the future. The symbol of an age where superhumans walked the earth.

  “Wow,” said Daniel.

  “Mm-hm,” answered Theo. “Plunkett Industries sank a big chunk of change into this place. You’ll see our family name just about everywhere. I’m almost surprised they didn’t name it the Plunkett School for the Gifted.”

  “That would have been ironic considering who your uncle really is,” said Mollie.

  “Yeah, but it would have driven Herman just crazy, don’t you think?” said Theo, smirking.

  They parked in a small lot marked VISITOR PARKING, and then set off on foot toward the campus. Waiting for them on the steps outside the front administration building was a smartly dressed young woman wearing blue-tinted glasses and cherry-red lipstick.

  “Mr. Plunkett?” the woman asked, extending her hand.

  “Theo. My dad’s the real Mr. Plunkett.” Theo shook her hand and returned her smile with one of his own, a charming grin that Daniel had come to envy but also distrust—it usually meant Theo was up to something. Although technically today they were all up to something, being here under false pretenses.

  “I was so glad to get your message yesterday,” the woman said, in a voice too chipper to be believable. “Any member of the Plunkett family is welcome here at any time! I’m Mandy Starr, PR liaison for the academy. As I was saying, we are, of course, terribly grateful to your family for their generosity. Why, I was just the other day talking about the last board of trustees meeting, in which I finally met your—”

  “Uh, these are my friends,” interrupted Theo. “They’re really the reason I’m here.”

  “Oh,” said Ms. Starr, blinking. “Pleased to meet you.”

  “Daniel Corrigan,” Daniel said, offering his hand. He wished he could smile like Theo. His own smiles were always closed-mouthed and lopsided, and he realized too late that his hand was clammy.

  “Mollie Lee,” said Mollie with a wave, and immediately Ms. Starr began oohing and aahing over Mollie’s hair, her choice of earrings. It was a real show.

  “What was that about?” Daniel whispered to Theo. “Why’d you cut h
er off like that?”

  “It’s my dad,” whispered Theo back. “He’s this crazy flirt at those trustee things. I didn’t want to hear another story about how he spent the whole meeting chatting up the pretty young PR person. Sorry.”

  Daniel nodded in understanding. No need to embarrass anyone. From what Daniel knew of Theo’s dad, he was gregarious but hardly seemed the type who would flirt with women half his age. The man wore Bermuda shorts and black socks to work, for heaven’s sake.

  Oh well. It was just another example of how you didn’t really know a person until you knew him.

  “So, what brings you all to the academy today?” asked Mandy Starr. “I’m happy to give you the tour, but it might help if I knew what precisely you were interested in. It’s a big campus and hard to take in in one afternoon.”

  “Well,” said Theo, “I’ve always been curious, since it’s so important to my family and all. Daniel’s really just along for the ride, but Mollie here is a prospective student— Ow!”

  Though it was too quick to see, Daniel knew that Theo had just gotten a super-fast kick to the shin.

  “Eh, heh. Anyway, as I was saying …” Theo shot Mollie a look. “Mollie is a prospective student, and being a family friend and all, I thought it’d be nice to give her a personal tour.”

  “That’s an excellent idea!” said Mandy with another squeal of fake enthusiasm. Giving tours to new students was probably beneath Mandy Starr’s pay grade.

  “Here,” said Mandy. “If you could wear these visitor name badges while we walk, and I have to ask you to refrain from taking pictures or using recording devices of any kind. Privacy issue, you’ll understand. Now, as you may have heard, the academy serves grades K through twelve. As we go, if you have any questions, please feel free to ask.”

  While they toured the campus, Daniel watched as Mandy Starr switched into autopilot, ticking off the brochure-worthy facts about the new school. The materials used in the construction—reinforced titanium alloys and shatterproof glass—would serve the special needs of their unique student body by preventing any accidental damage to the structures themselves. Every building had built-in sprinkler and foam fire systems, with redundancies in case of power failure. And on and on.

  The first building they stopped at looked like a miniature stadium. A domed roof topped its tall circular base, and it was windowless as far as Daniel could see.

  “Now in addition to providing the standard curriculum you’d find in any top-notch school, we also have a wide range of courses tailored to an array of special talents. What, may I ask, can you do, sweetheart?”

  Mollie looked darkly at Theo, but he gestured toward Mandy Starr. “Well?” he asked.

  “I’m a flier,” said Mollie reluctantly.

  “Oh, then we are at the right place!” chirped Mandy Starr. “And there’s no need to be shy about it. We’re all on the same page here.”

  Then Mandy Starr slid her blue glasses down to the edge of her nose, and for the first time they got a good look at her eyes. They were solid blue—no whites at all—except for the pupils, which were two twinkling red lights. She winked one glowing eye at Mollie and said, “Follow me and stay close.”

  Of course, thought Daniel. It would make sense that everyone who worked here had powers of some sort. Even the public relations lady. He wondered, idly, what she could do with those glowing eyes of hers.

  She swiped the badge clipped to her lapel through a sensor panel next to the stadium door, which opened with a swoosh. It was all very science fiction, Daniel had to give it that.

  Inside, the miniature stadium turned out not to be a stadium at all—it was a classroom.

  Daniel recognized at once why this building had no windows, because they would have all been broken by now by the out-of-control small children hurtling through the air.

  “Basic flight,” said Mandy Starr. “Beginners’ class.”

  Six small children—the oldest couldn’t have been more than eight—were tumbling and flopping through the air as a frantic-looking woman wearing something like a baseball catcher’s gear hovered near them. The kids were laughing as they ricocheted off the walls and ceiling, which had been padded with some kind of rubberized material. They looked like a group of kid-sized bouncy balls.

  “The little ones aren’t ready for open-sky classes—we wouldn’t want them soaring off into the stratosphere now, would we? So we start them off in here until they learn control. We call it the Aviary.”

  Mollie snorted. For a girl who’d been flying since she was six, this was literally kid stuff.

  “Who’s that?” asked Daniel, pointing to the woman in the catcher’s gear. She was trying in vain to slow the momentum of one little girl who was bouncing so fast the girl was turning a worrying shade of green.

  “That’s one of our flight instructors, Mrs. Moore. She ran a day care a few towns over, and lucky for us she woke up the morning of the Blackout Event and remembered she could levitate. Her experience with small children makes her the perfect instructor for this age group.”

  At that moment Mrs. Moore managed to bring the bouncing girl to a halt, but not in time. The little girl threw up all over Mrs. Moore’s catcher’s gear and onto the unfortunate kids who happened to be flying beneath her.

  “Whoops!” said Mandy Starr, her thumbs dancing along her BlackBerry. “Let me send a message to maintenance, and we’ll be on our way.”

  As they exited, Mandy Starr patted Mollie on the shoulder. “Of course, the Aviary isn’t only for the little ones. We use it for fliers of all ages who just need that little bit of extra practice.”

  While Mandy Starr was looking the other way, Mollie made an “I’m gonna vomit” gesture behind her back. This woman had obviously made the assumption that Mollie was new to her powers, and she mistook Mollie’s sullen quiet for shyness. Watching Mandy Starr try to coax Mollie out of her shell was almost worth the whole trip.

  Next they observed part of a physical science class where the teacher lectured a roomful of bored tweens about the amount of pressure per inch standard household objects could bear. From the look of the reinforced steel desks the students were sitting at (a couple of which were still bent out of shape), Daniel suspected this would be a good class for Georgie someday.

  Then they visited a sort of shooting range where some kids lobbed balls of fire, others ice, at brightly painted metal targets. Next was a swim class inside a humid gymnasium where the students and teacher didn’t come up from the bottom for the whole time Daniel and his friends watched—at least twenty minutes. Eventually, Theo got bored and drifted away to check his email on his phone.

  “Ms. Starr?” asked Daniel.

  “Please, call me Mandy.”

  “Right, Mandy, are those kids all water-breathers?”

  “Well, the teacher is—the town librarian, I think he was—but the rest vary. A few can breathe water, a few don’t need to breathe at all, and at least one of them can turn herself into a fish, among other things. We’re helping her expand her repertoire.”

  Daniel peered closely into the water. Indeed, there was a striped bass dancing in and out among the floating kids near the bottom.

  “Chlorine-free pool, of course,” said Mandy Starr. “No one wants to breathe that stuff!”

  Daniel had to admit, the Noble Academy for the Gifted, at least at first glance, lived up to the hype. Classes were sloppy at times, and more than a few faculty members wore a look of constant panic as they instructed their students in disciplines that had never been studied in the history of humankind. Where else had there been a seminar on reassembling loose particles after personal teleportation?

  Even Mollie came to be impressed in spite of herself.

  They were admiring the view out of one of the common room windows, which had a really excellent perspective on the forest below and a track where super-speeders raced by in blurs of color among the trees, when Mandy Starr’s BlackBerry began to buzz. Excusing herself, she scrolled through a
n email on her device with a look of increasing dread, then, with a real panic that broke through her fake politeness, announced that they’d have to cut the tour short today. Something rather urgent had come up.

  She escorted them as far as the visitors’ parking lot, all the while frantically typing away on her tiny keyboard and trying to jog along the walkways in three-inch heels. When they reached the parking lot, she gave a brief goodbye, and apologized to Theo for ending the tour so abruptly. Theo was gracious and understanding and promised to tell his father just how accommodating she had been. This seemed to lighten her spirits slightly, before she sped back to the main building, her shoes clicking up the marble steps.

  “What got into her?” asked Mollie.

  Theo held up his smartphone. “While you all were admiring the fishpond, I used my dad’s email to send her a message, flagged urgent, about the investors’ dinner. My dad, of course, trusts that all the arrangements have been made and the academy is prepared to host a quiet banquet for twenty donors—tonight.”

  “There’s no such thing, is there?” asked Daniel.

  “Not that I know of,” said Theo. “But Dad’s traveling in Asia with Grandpa right now, so he won’t even check his email till he wakes up tomorrow. I just hope she doesn’t spend too much on the caterers. They’re going to have lots of food left over.”

  “You’re going to get so busted,” said Mollie.

  “But not until after we’ve had a real look around,” said Theo. “C’mon, I’m sick of the brochure tour. Let’s go meet some students.”

  They set off again back toward campus, but this time they veered away from the main path that Mandy had led them down. They passed a few members of the staff along the way, but seeing as Mandy Starr had been in too much of a panic to remember to collect their guest passes, no one questioned their being there. The campus looked about the same wherever they wandered: uniform glass buildings, walkways perfectly adorned with marble planters and benches. The only thing that stood out as unusual was the tall windowless spire Daniel had spotted on their way in. It stood at the center of the courtyard, and something about it bothered Daniel. He stared at it for several seconds before it occurred to him just what it was. There was a clear observation deck up top, but no doorway and no ladder.

 
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