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Colorado, U.S.A. | Fall Semester
It’s just after twenty-one hundred hours, and the track and field complex is deserted, but I can’t shake the feeling I’m being followed. Seven months after leaving Ukraine, I’m still not convinced people aren’t after me, but tonight my paranoia feels less irrational. Someone’s out there.
Everyone else at Carlisle Academy should be in the dorms cramming for this week’s midterms, but I’m not alone. The night is pitch black and I can’t see a thing beyond the few lights around the track, so I rely on my other senses. Still running—in case flight is a better option than fight—I tune out the drone of crickets and hear someone moving along the boxwood hedge lining the port side of the track, twenty feet away. Beneath the scent of piñon pines in the hills above campus, I detect the pungent aroma of pizza from Buy-the-Slice. Which is in town, four point three miles from campus.
I stop running and turn toward the hedge, beyond relieved that there isn’t a Ukrainian arms dealer lying in wait behind them.
“Bunker, get out here.”
No one responds but the crickets.
“Bunk, I know it’s you. No one in his right mind would put garlic, gorgonzola, anchovies, and kimchi on a pizza.”
Sure enough, Bunker emerges from behind the bushes, a half-eaten slice in hand. For a guy who’s only five-foot-four, the man can eat. He’s always eating. But it’s understandable. He has a lot of making up to do in the food department. Well, pretty much the whole life-experiences department.
“See,” Bunk says around a mouthful of pizza, “that’s why I can never seem to get the jump on you no matter how stealthy I am.”
“Hate to break it to you, but you’re not all that stealthy,” I tell him. “Why are you here, anyway?”
“I was at the library and thought you might want a ride home. And don’t try to change the subject. There is no way you should have smelled this food from that far away,” Bunker says, stuffing the last of the pizza into his mouth. “Either you’re a dog-boy or a highly trained killing machine or a covert operative, but you are not a mere mortal.”
I try not to let Bunker’s accusations rattle me, and resume my run, hoping the fact that he is the most out-of-shape sixteen-year-old I’ve ever met will keep him from joining me. Until last year, he spent his entire life living in a bunker, hence his nickname. His dad took baby Bunk underground on New Year’s Eve 1999 and waited for the end of the world for everyone without his foresight and provision-hoarding skills. He didn’t want to give space to any gym equipment besides a full set of barbells, convinced jogging in place would be enough. It wasn’t. Bunker’s built like a five-foot-four Mr. Olympia but has the stamina of a toddler.
But he won’t let a lack of oxygen get in the way of continuing his weeklong interrogation. Bunker has been hitting me nonstop with theories about my “true identity” ever since he witnessed me kick the asses of five townies in the alley behind Buy-the-Slice. It was a regrettable display of force—especially for the townies—but necessary. I’ve sworn him to silence about the whole thing, and he’s been true to his word, except when it comes to me.
Despite the whole Joe Cool thing I’ve managed to pull off so far, the truth is, his questions are stressing me out way more than any I’ll find on a midterm exam. I barely made it out of Ukraine with my cover intact after managing to dupe Marchuk Sr. for weeks. I’d hate to have it blown by a guy who learned everything he knows about interrogation from old cop shows.
“So … I’m still not buying that story about your dad teaching you a few defensive moves,” Bunker says, already starting to pant a little. “Taking out five Crestview High football players with only a six-pack of soda for a weapon is not like fending off a mugger in the mall parking lot.”
“You helped. Some.”
“By the time I figured out what the hell was going on, you’d already knocked three of them unconscious.”
It’s October, but unseasonably warm for Colorado. I stop running for a second, peel off my sweat-drenched t-shirt, and search for a dry inch I can use to wipe my glasses, but I only make them worse. I drop the shirt on the ground next to the track and place the glasses on top of it, noticing my hands are shaking just a bit. If Bunker and his questions are making me nervous, I hate to think what kind of mess I’d be if there had been an arms-dealing terrorist behind the hedge.
“Take, for example, those specs,” Bunker says. “You think you’re pulling a Clark Kent, but you’re fooling no one.”
“I’m pulling a what?”
“Superman’s flimsy disguise? Lois Lane might be hotter, but I’m a lot more observant. There is zero prescription in those lenses.”
“Way hotter,” I say, hoping to get his focus off me and onto his favorite subject. When you grow up with only your dad for company, you miss out on a lot. Bunker lost about four years of lusting over real live girls that he will never make up for.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t take the bait.
“Despite the glasses, playing clarinet in the band, that sermon you gave me last weekend about the difference between hacking code and code-hacking, even your mad D&D skills, you are not a geek,” he says, shaking long red curls out of his face. They immediately flop back over his forehead, nearly covering his eyes, like a sheepdog’s. “In fact, your whole cover is a cliché. Nobody is that much of a nerd, even the hipsters trying hard to be nerds because it’s cool now, and I should know. Besides, real geeks don’t usually have biceps like that.”
“Um,” I say, as I point to him and back to me again. He might need one of those spray-on tans, since Bunker’s the whitest white boy I know—due to his only source of ultraviolet light since birth being a battery-operated lamp, and just enough to prevent rickets—but he would blow me away in a bodybuilding contest.
“Yeah, but I’m a freak thanks to fifteen years underground with nothing to entertain me but weights and my dad’s pre-millennium comic book and DVD collection. I’m The Thing from Fantastic Four. You, my friend, look like a boy-bander with a well-used gym membership. Big difference. A guy who looks like you cannot be oblivious that he looks like you.”
Speaking of looks, I give one to Bunker that suggests he’s given way too much thought about mine.
“What?” Bunker asks, looking genuinely surprised by my reaction. “I’m just trying to make the point that you are fooling no one.”
Actually, I’d been fooling everyone, including Bunker, until the Buy-the-Slice alley incident. That was the exact opposite of flying under the radar and a total rookie mistake. But I go into denial mode anyway. You always deny.
“I think you inherited your father’s gift of paranoia, Bunk. Sorry, but no one can live underground for one-point-five decades and not be a little…” I finish the sentence by twirling my index finger next to my head.
“See, that’s what I mean. A regular person would just say fifteen years, or maybe one and a half decades, not ‘one-point-five.’ The way you talk sometimes is so, I don’t know, precise. And you know all those languages.”
“This is Carlisle. Plenty of people here speak multiple languages.”
“You speak five. I’m pretty sure there has never been another student in the whole history of Carlisle, one allegedly born in the United States, who spoke Farsi, Urdu, and Mandarin,” Bunker says, making me wish I’d never divulged my aptitude with foreign languages. Good thing I never told him I actually speak eight. Nine if you include the Tlingit I picked up working a summer job in Alaska, but I’m not really fluent in that, so it probably doesn’t count.
“I mean, when the most pedestrian foreign language you speak is Ukrainian—”
“Stop,” I say, and not only because Bunker’s now wheezing like an old man, or because the word Ukraine is like my Kryptonite. It’s mostly because I know we’re not alone. The shhh sound I just heard didn’t come from either of us.
Bunker bends over, hands on knees, obviously grateful for the break. For the second time tonight, I tune out the crickets, and now Bunker’s raspy wheezing, and listen. The intruder has gone silent, but I know he’s there. It could be another student come to burn off some midterm stress with a late run. Or it could be an assassin dispatched by Pavlo Marchuk. There has been no sign of him since he escaped our capture, and word is one of his clients found him before we could, which would make him very dead if true. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t take out a contract on me before he kicked off, intent on avenging his father from beyond the grave.
Okay, now I’m the one being paranoid. They can’t possibly know I’m here, or who I am. Still … someone is out there, watching me.
I take a defensive stance—imperceptible, at least, to anyone but Bunker—who has regained the ability to breathe.
“What is it?” he asks, looking around us. “Is someone after you?”
I ignore his questions and scan the field beyond the track, looking for points of entry I may have missed.
“Look, Bunk,” I whisper, “if something goes down in the next minute, don’t try to play tough like you did in the alley last week. Just run like hell and get help.”
Bunk looks simultaneously terrified and vindicated. “I knew you weren’t just mild-mannered Peter Smith. Smith. Is that even your real—”
I put my finger to my lips. Still I hear nothing. But the wind stirs, and I detect a familiar scent in the direction of the same hedge Bunker hid behind. Floral, but in a chemical way. Perfume. Girls.
No sooner do I think it than a gang of them jumps from behind the boxwoods, their leader pointing a weapon that I fear almost as much as Japanese shurikens (hate those): her phone.
All I can make out of her is shiny blond hair and long red nails wrapped around the phone as it creates a momentary flash of light.
Five townies seeking revenge, even Ukrainian black ops, I’m prepared to handle. But giggling, camera-wielding girls? What are they doing out here in the dark, anyway—stalking me just to get a picture? I’m not that good-looking, no matter what Bunker says.
I’m thrown off my guard for a few seconds. By the time I regain it, the damage is done. They’ve taken my photo and are already running away toward the dorms, their laughter sounding conspiratorial. They might as well have hurled a ninja star at my heart.
Copyright © 2018 by Kimberly Reid