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Sneak Peek: Chapter 1 of Ghost Crown (The Tracks, book 2)

May 8, 2012 at 11:01 am

Chapter 1
Raphael Kain’s adversary cartwheeled forward and attacked with
a barrage of flying fists and slashing elbows. Unable to sidestep the attack,
Raphael was forced to block each blow as it came, retreating a few steps
down the narrow brick alleyway. The moment he saw an opening, he
lashed out, counterattacking with a front kick and a host of blazing-fast
punches. He landed a few glancing strikes before his opponent managed
to back-flip away from him, dodging in an acrobatic fury what would
have been a devastating crescent kick.

“Good thing you got out of the way of that one,” Raph taunted. He wasn’t
even out of breath. “You’d have had a headache for a week.”
As his opponent stepped backward down the alley, regrouped and
came forward again, Raphael watched him closely—paying close attention
to his elbows, since he knew they would tell him what sort of strike
was coming next. Raphael read his movements flawlessly and launched
a perfectly timed kick—but his enemy was too fast. He cartwheeled
beneath Raphael’s leg, sprang to his feet, and caught Raphael’s cheek
with a glancing elbow as he shot past. By the time Raph spun around and
struck out with a backfist, his opponent was already safely out of range.
As Raphael prepared for his next onslaught, he felt the mysterious,
soul-tingling magical force his kung fu master called Shen filling him. It
rose through his feet, travelling upward like a shiver, and it shone down
on him from above, too, filling him with its unseen light. Lately, Raphael
was feeling the presence of Shen more frequently, but there was still no
telling when it would appear and when it wouldn’t. But he felt the energy’s presence now, and he used his qigong training to focus it.

“You’re slippery,” Raph conceded. “Try to slip past this!” Squinting
with concentration, he willed the energy to build within him. Instantly,
his chest tightened and his forehead buzzed as that familiar, electric
vibration coursed through him. Then, just as his opponent was charging
him again, he reached a hand out and released the power.
Instantly, his attacker was knocked backward. Stumbling, he slipped
on a crushed soda can and fell hard on the dirty cement. Raph hurried
toward him and extended his hand.

“You all right, Nass?”

With Raphael’s help, Ignacio got to his feet and dusted off his clothes.

“Yeah. I’m good. That was crazy with the Shen, though. You’re gettin’
scary good with that stuff.”

“You’re getting a lot better, too,” Raphael said. “I can’t believe you
dodged my kick like that. How did you see it coming? Did I telegraph it
somehow?”

Ignacio shook his head. “Nah,” he said, “I used the knowing.”

The knowing was something Ignacio was still getting used to. As he
explained it to Raphael, ever since he was a kid he sometimes saw things
before they happened. Sometimes he saw them only in his mind, but
sometimes it felt like they were really happening and he was in the middle
of the action. But no matter how it came to him, he had always been
afraid of his ability. Now he was learning to embrace it.
Raphael nodded. “I think the knowing comes from Shen, too,” he
said. “It’s all connected somehow.”

As they stepped out of the alley onto the sidewalk of downtown Middleburg,
Raphael shivered. Winter was coming. He could feel it in the
sharp bite of the wind, see it in the frosty, pale blue of the sky. He wore
his dad’s old goose-down parka now, over his customary hoodie, and his
best friend Ignacio Torrez, striding down the sidewalk next to him, was
huddled in a frayed old pea coat he’d picked up at the Goodwill. But
despite the chill that numbed his fingers and reddened his nose on that
cold Thursday afternoon, nothing could dispel the warmth Raphael felt
when he thought of the awesome changes that had recently taken place
in his life.

First, everyone in town knew he had rescued Aimee Banfield from
Oberon. Thoughts of that day, and of Oberon, sent a chill down Raphael’s
spine that was worse than anything the weather could cause. In a brief
mind-flash, he saw Oberon as he had looked during their battle: sheathed
in black reptilian skin with sleek, black, feathery wings jutting from his back.
He’d looked like some kind of dark, demented angel—nothing like the
angels in any of Raphael’s Sunday school books. Maybe it was crazy, but
sometimes it was like he could still feel Oberon staring at him with his
one good eye, while the other one—the glass eye—glowed a terrifying
shade of crimson. The image was sobering, to say the least.
But Raphael had defeated Oberon. He had rescued Aimee. And now,
people in town (even some from the ranks of his archenemies, the Toppers)
were starting to show him a grudging respect—although they still
had no idea about Oberon’s real, horrific identity.

The whole thing had been beyond weird—and he hadn’t quite recovered
from it. He wondered how Zhai—the leader of the Toppers (and his
long-ago best friend)—was doing with it.

Part of the overall weirdness, Raphael thought, was that he hadn’t
told anyone—not even Nass—about everything he’d seen, how hard he’d
had to fight, and the unbelievable otherworldly creatures he’d battled
just to get to Aimee. And none of the Flatliners had discussed what had
happened to them—and to Middleburg—during that fateful Halloween
battle.

As odd as all of it had been, it wasn’t a dream—as much as he’d like
to think it was. The horses in Master Chin’s barnyard and the samurai
helmet that sat in a place of honor on the mantel over the sifu’s fireplace
were proof of that.

After the Halloween battle, it seemed to Raphael that Middleburg
would forever retain the peculiar, disjointed feeling that lingered for a
day or so after Aimee’s rescue, but in less than two weeks, it had settled
into an uneasy calm as the community adjusted to her safe return—and
things went back to normal.

For a Flatliner like Raphael, “back to normal” meant broke and struggling.
Between their non-existent finances and his mom’s pregnancy,
things were as complicated as ever in the Kain household. The only thing
that got Raphael through the day, was knowing he would see Aimee—
even if it was just from a distance. Maybe all they had for now were
anonymous notes and discreet little waves or smiles across the crowded
lunchroom, and a few rare, stolen moments when they could hold on to
each other and hope for better times. But it was more than either of them
had ever had before. They were in love, and with that thought to keep
him warm, winter had might as well give up now.

They reached Lotus Pharmacy, and Ignacio pulled the door open.

“Ladies first,” he said, ushering Raphael inside.

Raph slugged him in the shoulder as he passed. It was a friendly jab,
but it made Ignacio wince all the same.

“Ow!” said Nass, laughing. “How many times I gotta tell you, man—
normal people can hit their friends, joking around. Kung fu masters, not
so much.”

“Sorry.”

By that time they were at the cash register.

“You sure you want to spend this money on a cell phone right now?”
Nass asked. “You don’t know when your mom is going to be working
again.”

True, Raph thought. Since Oberon went all Lucifer-on-steroids, kidnapped
Aimee, fought Raph, then plunged over the edge of that crazy
temple’s rooftop (hopefully to his death), his business interests in Middleburg
had been in a holding pattern. Little Geno’s was still open, but Hot
House strip club where Raph’s mom had worked was closed indefinitely.
Money was tighter than ever. But, Raph considered, when you’ve been running
around battling time-travelling samurai, a gigantic, blood-thirsty lizard
and a conniving, evil man who suddenly sprouts wings—not to mention trying
to keep the Toppers at bay—you kind of have to have a cell phone. You can’t
always count on finding a payphone so you can call for reinforcements.
Instead, he said, “No, man. I need a phone. It’ll have to be one of these
pay-as-you-go things for now, but at least I’ll have it for emergencies or
something.”

“It’s about time,” Nass agreed. “Imagine actually being able to call
each other from anywhere. What a concept.”

“Yeah,” Raphael agreed. “We’ll be almost like regular people now.”
“All right!” Nass said. “Let’s see what kind of top-of-the-line, pay-asyou-
go, loser phone my pizza delivery millions can get me!”

Lydia, the pharmacy clerk who waited on them, had green hair and
an eyebrow ring. She was Beet’s older stepsister, and with her narrow hips
and thin, almost boney frame, there was definitely no family resemblance.
“Wow, cell phones,” she teased. “You’re finally leaving the age of the
dinosaurs. Welcome to the twenty-first century.” She smiled at Raphael
and Nass as she rang them up and told them how to activate their phones.

A moment later, they were walking out the door again, onto the sidewalk
of downtown Middleburg.

“Uh-oh,” Ignacio said. “Here comes trouble.”

Instantly Raphael was on guard, ready for a Topper attack. But when
he followed his friend’s gaze, he broke into a wide grin.

Across the street, Dalton was just coming out of Middleburg’s only
upscale, designer dress shop—and best of all, Aimee was with her.
Raph headed toward them, not even looking as he rushed into the
street, not caring about the oncoming cars he had to dodge. He didn’t
care about anything except being close to Aimee.

Laughing happily together, Aimee and Dalton exited Middleburg
Couture. Everyone agreed the name was a little ironic. Although it was
the only place in town to go for good labels (casual or dressy), it was far
from high fashion. To get anything decent, you had to drive over a hundred
miles, but Aimee’s father had proclaimed it good enough for the
homecoming dance this year. Next year, he’d promised, when Aimee had
a better chance of being homecoming queen, they would go shopping in
Topeka.

Aimee was so glad she’d hooked up with Dalton today—funny, outspoken,
fearless Dalton who had stood up for her when it counted. Neither
of them had dates for the homecoming dance yet, but they were both
still hopeful.

Aimee found, to her own amazement, that she was actually looking
forward to Homecoming even though her dad was pushing her to go
with Bran Goheen, one of her brother’s football buddies. Bran (unlike
her jock brother) was actually a nice guy, but Aimee loved Raphael. And
she had no intention of leading Bran on or hurting his feelings.

She might not be able to go with Raphael, but at least she would see
him there and maybe even manage a couple of dances with him, and that
was enough for her. She didn’t need a date—but she still had to get the
perfect dress. She’d found a few that fit, and that actually looked pretty
good, too. Dalton hadn’t been so lucky.

When Aimee saw Raphael and Ignacio crossing the street toward
them, her day got even better. Raphael skidded to a halt in front of her
and Nass stopped in front of Dalton.

“Hey,” they both said at once, and everybody laughed.
When Aimee looked at Raphael, she forgot all her problems. She
wanted nothing more at that moment than to run her fingers through his
long hair, to feel his arms around her and his lips on hers. But of course
that was impossible, except in secret. Raphael was a Flatliner, and Aimee’s
dad had spies everywhere.

As Raph and Aimee moved up the sidewalk together for a little privacy,
Ignacio looked at Dalton and Dalton looked back at him. She had
a playful smile on her lips, and one hand rested on her hip. Just the sight
of her standing there like that—all sexy and sassy—was enough to put
Nass’s dignity in danger.

“What’s up, girl?” He tried to be cool. As much time as he’d spent
with Dalton, there were still moments when he felt completely in awe of
her. She was like the sun: you could hang out in the warm glow all day,
but if you tried to look directly at the light, it would blind you. Dalton
was like that, he thought—not just hot, but scorching.

“Just shopping,” Dalton said, nonchalant.
“Yeah? For what?”

“A dress for homecoming.”

“Oh, yeah?” He tried to sound casual, but now he was worried. Maybe
somebody else had already asked her. No surprise there. He shouldn’t
have waited until the last minute, but every time he tried to ask her he
got nervous and chickened out. He couldn’t imagine anything more terrible
than seeing her dancing with someone else.

“Yeah,” she said, smiling up at him expectantly but giving nothing away.
“You, uh, have a date?”

“Nope,” said Dalton with an exaggerated sigh. “There’s a guy I’d like
to go with, but I think he’s too much of a wuss to ask me.”

Nass laughed in spite of his nerves. It was amazing how she could get
him all twisted up like this. No girl had ever had that effect on him—not
even Clarisse, back in L.A.

Dalton smiled. “Did I say something funny?”

“No. It’s just . . . maybe the poor guy is just biding his time, you
know?” he said. “Waiting for the perfect moment.”
Dalton seemed to consider this, then shook her head. “Nah, he’s had
plenty of chances.”

“Well if you ask me, he sounds like a loser,” Nass said.

She nodded. “I guess so.”
“If he never—you know—steps up to the plate, you could always go
with me,” he offered, a smile playing at his lips.

“Oh, you wouldn’t mind?” Dalton teased, pretending to be surprised.
“But a smooth guy like you—I figured you’d already have a date.”

“Nah,” Nass said. “I’ve been, uh . . . biding my time.”

Dalton finally gave in to laughter. “Okay, okay—I can’t take it anymore.
I’ll go with you—it’s a date!
“Yeah,” Nass agreed, grinning. “It’s a date.”

And he thought, not for the first time, how much he loved their little
games.

Raphael stood a few feet away from Aimee, carefully not looking at
her. They were both pretending to be fascinated by the garments on display
in the window of Middleburg Couture.

Neither of them had to tell the other it would be too dangerous for
them to interact openly in public.

“I missed talking to you last night,” he said.

“I missed you too. Sorry I didn’t get a chance to call. Rick was hovering
all evening.”

Aimee’s brother Rick, that Topper jerk. Just hearing his name took
Raphael back to the night Rick tried to burn him alive in the abandoned
train yard.

Raphael took a deep breath, using his qigong training to center himself.
Forget about revenge, he thought. Think about Aimee. But the anger
was still there. He nodded at the plastic garment bag draped over Aimee’s
arm. “Homecoming dress?”

“Yep. I’ve narrowed it down to three possibilities.”

Raphael smiled sadly. “Whichever one you pick, you’re going to
look gorgeous. Has Bran Goheen asked you yet?” The thought of Aimee
dancing with the Topper jock who was Rick’s buddy sent little lightning
flashes of rage shooting through Raphael, but he managed to control
them.

“No,” Aimee told him. “Rick said he was going to ask me and Dad has
already decreed that I’m to go with him, so they’re all just assuming it’s
going to happen.”

“So, Mister Jack Banfield hasn’t changed his mind and decided I’m
perfect boyfriend material yet?” Raphael asked sarcastically.
Aimee shook her head. “Not at all. I’m afraid you’re still strictly off
limits.”

Raphael sighed. Even though everyone agreed he’d saved Aimee’s
life, in her father’s eyes he still wasn’t good enough for her, and he never
would be. But Raph just couldn’t sit by and watch her go to the dance
with someone else.

“If we go together it’ll be a disaster—and not only because they hate
me,” he said. “There’s actually peace between the Flatliners and the Toppers
now. It would be silly to risk that just for some stupid dance.”

“I know,” she agreed. “Totally. You’re right.”

He took a covert glance at Aimee; she was gazing back at him. They
both smiled and he turned away from the store window, and from her,
to look up and down the block. Downtown Middleburg was, as usual,
mostly deserted. Only a scowling mail carrier going into the pharmacy
and a woman leaving the bank were about, and neither of them was paying
any attention to him and Aimee. He risked turning back to her.

“So . . . are you going with Bran?”

“I don’t want to,” she said.

“That would be kind of hard to take.” Raphael admitted. He was
fully aware that what he was about to do was foolish. Reckless, in fact.
What he had in mind would endanger Aimee, himself, and his Flatliner
brothers. It would probably ignite the gang war all over again. But in that
moment, he felt like he didn’t have a choice.
The chill that had permeated the air before was gone now. Raph felt
sharp currents of emotion coursing through him, heating his blood, and
making his heart race. The words were out of his mouth before he could
stop himself.

“Aimee,” he said quietly. “Will you be my date to the homecoming
dance?”

She glanced at Raphael, surprised, and then gave him a radiant smile.

“I’d love to,” she whispered. “But how?”

“I don’t know yet, but if you’re willing—”

“I’m more than willing,” she said quickly, and her look of raw longing
gave him an almost irresistible urge to sweep her into his arms and
kiss her. As much as he wanted to, and as much as he could see that she
wanted him to, it would have to wait until they could grab a few minutes
alone.
They all walked to the corner together, and then the girls headed
for Hilltop Haven, and Raphael and Nass turned toward the Flats. Nass
noticed that Raphael seemed thoughtful and distant, but he felt like he
was moonwalking in the clouds.

“I can’t wait until Saturday night,” said Nass. “I’ve got it all planned
out. Okay, I’m at her door to pick her up, and her grandma answers. I’ll
be, like, ‘Good evening, Lily Rose. Thanks for letting me take Dalton to
the dance.’ And I’ll give her a bouquet of flowers, just for being so cool,
you know? First, we’ll go to Rosa’s for a nice Italian feast—I’ve been saving
for a month. We’ll eat, we’ll dance, and we’ll stay out all night. I’ll
take her up to the roof of my building, and we’ll sit up there and look at
the stars, just me and her. It’ll be the most romantic night of her life! I’m
telling you, she’s not gonna know what hit her.”

Nass looked at Raphael for his approval, but all he got was a wan smile.
“Sorry, man.” Ignacio suddenly felt bad for him. “I didn’t mean to
make such a big deal about it.” There was no way Raph could go to the
dance with the girl he liked—it had to be rough for him to see Nass so
excited.

“Don’t worry. I’m good,” Raph told him.

The knowing stirred in the back of Nass’s mind: there was something
Raphael wasn’t telling him. But if his leader wasn’t ready to divulge what
was in his thoughts, Nass wasn’t going to call him out on it. Raphael
always told Nass everything—when he was ready.

Another idea stormed through Nass’s brain. “Oh, I gotta call my
mom,” he said. “Put her on high alert for the tux, the ride, and some new
kicks.”

“Good luck with that,” Raph said with a wry chuckle as Nass punched
in the number.

His mom sounded distracted as she answered.

“Hello?”

“Hey,” Nass said.

“Hey, yourself. Who’s this?”

“What do you mean ‘who’s this?’ It’s your son! Calling from my
brand-new cell phone, I might add. So go ahead and write this number
down in case you need to reach me. Hey, listen, I have some good news.”

“Oh, mijo! So do I!”

“Really? What?”

“It’s a surprise. Come home now and I’ll show you.”
“A surprise?” He shot Raph a big grin. “At least give me a hint.”

“Okay—it’s for the homecoming dance.”

Nass laughed. “All right!” he exclaimed triumphantly. “Be there in
five.”

He snapped the phone shut with a flourish, stuck it back in his pocket,
and turned to Raphael.

“Dude, my mom has some kind of surprise for the homecoming
dance. What do you think it is? I’ll bet she’s got me a tricked-out tux or
something. Maybe she’s going to rent us a limo! Man, how sweet would
that be? Imagine us, cruising through downtown Middleburg in a freaking
limo—like one of those big ones with a hot tub in the back! That
would be ridiculous!”

The longer Nass fantasized about the perfect evening with Dalton,
the more infectious his energy became, until at last Raphael was laughing
and joking along with him. They parted at Raphael’s apartment
building (which, like all the tenements in the Flats, looked more rundown
and decrepit with every passing day). Proudly, Nass held up his
new phone and promised to call Raph as soon as he found out what the
surprise was. Then he jogged the two blocks home, getting more excited
with every step.

Ignacio charged into the living room as the inviting aroma of carne
asada and roasted peppers wafted out to him from the kitchen, along
with the excited tones of happy voices.

“Your favorite son has returned!” Nass shouted, “I’m ready for my
surpri—” the words died as he rounded the corner and looked into the
kitchen.

“Surprise!” Amelia Torrez said, beaming.

She stood at the stove, stirring a skillet full of sizzling meat, onions,
and peppers. But she wasn’t alone. The girl standing next to her was as
tall as Nass, with wavy, raven-black hair, a slender but curvaceous figure,
and dark brown eyes that seemed to brim over with mirth and mischief.

“Well?” the girl asked, a seductive smile crossing her pouty, full ruby
lips. “Are you surprised, ’Nacio?”

Speechless for once in his life, Nass stared at Clarisse. Clarisse from
back home in South Central. The girl he’d just started to get really serious
about when his mom had announced that they were moving to some
little Podunk town in the Midwest. The girl he’d spent hours hanging
with in a parking lot on Crenshaw Boulevard, stealing kisses and watching
the low-riders cruising and car-dancing by. That Clarisse, showing up
in Middleburg. Somehow, it just seemed so wrong.

“Clarisse is going to stay with us for a while, ’Nacio,” his mom said. “I
was telling her mother how much you missed her and all your old friends
back in L.A., and she thought it was a good idea for Clarisse to come and
stay with us, at least for the rest of the school year.”

“More like those mean streets were gettin’ a whole lot meaner.” Clarisse
clarified the situation in her soft, smoky voice. “The old lady wanted
to get me out of harm’s way, you know?”

“Wow,” Nass said. “That’s . . . great.” He managed what he hoped
could pass for a smile. “So you’re . . . staying with us for a while. Great,” he
repeated. He knew he sounded kind of mentally challenged, but he was
having a lot of trouble wrapping his head around the reality of Clarisse,
in the same room with him after all this time.

“Wow.”

She gave him that old familiar, sardonic grin, her eyes burning into
his as they used to when she’d wanted him to kiss her.
Amelia Torrez stirred the carne asada again. “And just in time for your
homecoming dance, mijo. Now you have a date! What about that, huh?
I knew you would be so, so happy about this—that’s why I kept it for a
surprise!”

Surprise. That was the understatement of the year, he thought.
He should be happy. If this had happened three months ago, he would
have been elated. He and Clarisse had known each other for years and
back in L.A. they had been best friends, inseparable amigos, partners in
crime (sometimes literally) even before they’d started going out. But that
was all back in the life he’d left behind. Now, with Dalton on the scene,
everything had changed. And it was going to be a problem. Clarisse was
doggedly territorial, and she wasn’t the type to take no for an answer, no
matter how calmly he explained the situation.

“Now,” Amelia continued. “You’re gonna be sleeping on the couch,
’Nacio, and Clarisse will take your room. I’ll go and clean out my sewing
drawers in the dining room for your shirts and socks and stuff.”

His mom, Nass thought with a new respect, was a genius at squeezing
the maximum space out of their cramped little apartment in the Flats.
She turned to Clarisse and entrusted her with the wooden spoon, and
with a sly wink at Nass, she hurried out of the kitchen.

Slowly, Clarisse stirred the sizzling meat and peppers, turned the
burner down to simmer, carefully placed the spoon in the spoon rest on
the stove, and then walked confidently across the kitchen in her slinky,
tight jeans to stand as close as possible to Ignacio without actually touching
him.

Looking brazenly into his eyes, she asked softly, “So, mi corazóne . . .
miss me much?”

“Uh . . . yeah,” he said. He really had missed her, at first, until he’d met
Dalton.

“Well, I’m thinkin’ you should look a lot happier to see me,” she said,
smiling sweetly and moving closer. Before he could say anything else, Clarisse
was pressed against him, her arms around his neck, and her lips on
his, hot and soft and hungry.

Oh, yeah, Nass thought. I’m in trouble. Big, big trouble.

“I’m serious, man,” Nass said to Raphael the next morning on their
way to school. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“Two girls?” Raphael laughed. “I know a lot of guys who wouldn’t
mind having that problem.”

They were walking along the stretch of railroad tracks that had always,
up until Halloween night, given Raphael the creeps. When he took this
route, he always got the feeling that someone (something) was walking
just a step or two behind him, so close that they (it) could expel an icy
cold breath on the back of his neck at any moment. In the days following
his big battle with the Toppers and Oberon, the feeling had disappeared.
But this morning, it was back—and worse than ever.

“No, man—this is sick. And not in a good way,” Nass insisted. “What
am I gonna tell Dalton? You don’t know how long it took for me to get
up the nerve to ask her and now—”

“Now you tell her the truth,” Raphael advised. “You have a friend
visiting from back home and your mom insisted that she tag along on
your date.”

Ignacio was shaking his head. “Even if Dalton will go along with it, I’ll
be sitting between them—Dalton on one side, Clarisse on the other—
like a hunk of steak between two hungry dogs.”

At that, Raphael cracked up completely. When he finally noticed that
his friend wasn’t laughing, he settled down. “Sorry, man—but you better
not let Dalton hear you say that. Did you tell her what you used to have
going on with Clarisse?”

“What? Do I look crazy?”

“And did you tell Clarisse that Dalton’s your date?”

“I’ve been trying to, ever since she got here. But before I can get the
words out, she’s trying to make out with me—that’s why I didn’t call you
last night. I’m running out of excuses not to kiss her.”

“Like I said, amigo . . . such problems. Look, you’re gonna have to
tell her—both of them—sooner or later. But maybe you can get through
homecoming first,” Raph said. An idea was starting to form.

“What do you mean?”

“Okay, look. You know I want to be with Aimee at the dance, right?
But we have to be careful. So this is actually perfect for you and for me.
I’ll go with you to talk to Dalton, and I’ll ask her as a personal favor to me
if we can all go together as a group.”

“The four of us?” Nass looked puzzled. “Won’t that kind of look like a
double date? The Toppers will flip out. And what about Clarisse?”
Raphael explained that Emory was going with Myka who, with her
black-and-red dyed hair, pale skin, and nose ring, was the only kid at
Middleburg High who was more goth than Emory. They were riding
with Beet and Natalie, a Flatliner girl who was as big and boisterous as
Beet and who, Beet never failed to remind them, was a cheerleader—part
of the solid base that supported the pyramid of more petite girls at every
football game.

“If Dalton can get her grandma’s station wagon, Josh and Beth can
go with us,” Raphael said. “Benji’s going solo. We can squeeze him in too,
or he can go in the Beetmobile. With all you guys as camouflage, it’ll be
easier for me get some time with Aimee at the dance, plus it won’t be
weird for Dalton or Clarisse.”

“I don’t know,” Nass hedged. “It’ll still be awkward. What if one of
them tries to hold my hand? Or what if I’m dancing with one of them
and the other one gets mad?”

Raphael shrugged. “We don’t have to go as a group. Just man up and
tell Dalton you have to go with Clarisse.”

“I can’t! I’m crazy about Dalton.”

“Then tell Clarisse you’re going with Dalton.”

“I can’t! Clarisse is crazy. She’ll kill me!” Nass shouted.

Raphael laughed, shaking his head.

“All right,” Nass decided. “We’ll go as a group. It’ll work out somehow—
right?”

It was settled. But it wasn’t going to be easy, Raphael thought.
Between Dalton, Clarisse, and the Toppers, the night was bound be filled
with more danger than romance.

Two men stood high above, on a huge boulder that jutted out from the
side of the mountain that towered over Middleburg. The afternoon sun cast
its rays across the landscape, gilding the little town they gazed on with a
golden glow. Off to their left, the jumbled wreckage of the train graveyard
stretched to a stand of dark trees. Directly below them were the Flats—block
after block of rundown tenement houses with peeling paint and tattered
rooftops. To their right, across the railroad tracks, was downtown Middleburg
and above that, in the distance, was proud, pristine Hilltop Haven.

The younger man inhaled slowly, seeming to taste the air. He was tall
and well formed with broad shoulders, a thick mane of long, black hair
and a strong, square jaw. His pale complexion made his icy blue eyes even
more compelling.

The other man was much thinner and not quite as tall. Bandages
obscured most of his face and a pair of dark glasses covered his eyes. Leaning
forward as if he had no fear of falling from the boulder and tumbling
down the precipice, he was the first to break the silence.

“Middleburg,” he said fondly. “A delightful little conundrum—a box
within a box within a box, so to speak—and this is my favorite one of
them all. From the beginning of time until the end of it, there will never
be a Middleburg more ripe with possibility than this one.”

“It doesn’t look like much,” the younger man observed.

“Appearances can be deceiving.”

“And she is somewhere down there, in that insignificant mess?”

“Ah, yes,” the older man assured him with a deep sigh of satisfaction.
“She is down there. And she is the key to what we seek. She has a light like
no other . . . bright. Pure. You will know her immediately.”

“I’m looking forward to it.”

Oberon Morrow pulled his long, black overcoat more closely about
his shoulders and shivered slightly in the chill wind. “Come, my son,” he
said. “Take me home. We have work to do.”

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