Excerpt for The Magical Prison of Middle Park (New Kent Chronicles: Book Two) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords





The Magical Prison of Middle Park

The New Kent Chronicles: Book Two

by

Mike Jones




The Magical Prison of Middle Park

New Kent Chronicles: Book Two

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2016 by Mike Jones All rights reserved.

Second Edition: October 2017




Smashwords Edition, License Notes




This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.




This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.



Lampposts Attack




Sammy, a twelve-year-old middle school boy with fair skin, brown eyes, and tousled brown hair, wrapped the harness around his puppy's little body. "Hey, Jane. I'm going to take Elizabeth for a walk in the park." He turned the doorknob.


Jane stuck her head out from behind the computer monitor. "Okay, Sammy. Just be back by six. Bob is making chili." She turned back to her screen.


Sammy flew out the door and down the apartment stairs. He and Elizabeth reached the park in no time. They entered at Eighty-Sixth Street and took the winding path toward the skating rink.


Sammy Nichols fed Elizabeth Bennet a bacon treat. "You like the park? Yes, you do because you're a good girl! And you walk so nice, like a good puppy. Come on, let's go a little more, okay?"


The eight-month-old female Yorkshire Terrier puppy excitedly looked up at Sammy then jumped playfully, catching his hand with her sharp teeth.


"No jumping, Elizabeth. We're learning to walk with the leash, remember?" Sammy knew she remembered, but it could be difficult for a puppy to curb her excitement.


Elizabeth let out a squeaky bark. The park was their favorite place to walk. Sammy enjoyed the tranquility of the trees and open spaces. Elizabeth seemed to enjoy the smell of the grass and rolled in it often. Middle Park was well-traveled by many people and animals. Sammy assumed that was why Elizabeth enjoyed it so much. There was always something new to sniff out.


"No rolling in deer poop today, okay? You know, it looks like this is going to be our year, like things are beginning to look up for us. I was so excited when Bob and Jane brought you home. They're nice people. I've lived with other foster parents before, but none of them were ever as nice as Bob and Jane." Sammy allowed Elizabeth to sniff at the foot of a giant spruce tree.


"None of my previous foster parents ever bought me a dog. Some of them were mean too. The Marconis even tried to take my runes from me. They said the runes might be valuable, that they wanted to see how much they could get for them at the swap meet, and if I was going to be part of the family, I had to 'do my part.'"


Sammy ran his finger along the braided leather bracelet that held two metal charms. "I'm glad I hid them. I was afraid I'd lose them, but I'd rather lose them than have the Marconis sell them. We're lucky this park is so big. I buried them deep in the nature preserve, and they were still there when I dug them up last month."


They strolled down a deserted path. "I knew exactly which one was for you—the Wynn rune. I simply had a feeling that you were supposed to wear the Wynn. And I wasn't afraid that Bob and Jane were going to sell them on me. They even drove me to the library and checked out a book on runes so I'd know what they meant. That's how I knew that the Wynn was for you, 'cause you're a happy dog, and you make me happy. Elizabeth, you're a true friend.


"I've never really had a friend before. The other kids in the group homes weren't really friends. They were just the kids I lived with. At first, I thought they were nice, but I realized that just because you spend time with someone, doesn't make them a friend. A friend is someone who gives you the last cookie. They always took my cookies."


Sammy bent down to untangle Elizabeth's leash. He unwrapped the puppy and straightened her harness, admiring the Wynn rune that hung there along with her dog tags. It glimmered in the sunshine.


"Did you clean your rune? It's so shiny. Did Bob or Jane polish it for you?"


Sammy thought it strange that the rune sparkled so much. He remembered her rune to be a dull pewter type of metal, but today, it sparkled like highly polished jewelry.


A glint caught Sammy's eye. He looked down at his own wrist. His two runes also shimmered like new.


"Elizabeth? My runes changed color too. How'd that happen? I never take them off, and I didn't polish them. Did they polish themselves? I probably just imagined that they were dull before. Who knows, maybe the time they spent in the ground did something to them, like a reverse patina. It could just be the bright spring sunshine."


Sammy shrugged. "Whatever. Come on, let's get going. You know we need to walk, or you'll have too much energy at home. I don't want you running in circles when I'm trying to do my chemistry homework. It's getting late too."


They proceeded to stroll through the park's many lanes, over bridges, and through tunnels. Middle Park was a maze of winding paths. One could wander for days through its various lanes and never take the same route twice.


Elizabeth stopped dead in her tracks.


"What? Why are you stopping? Are you afraid of the lampposts? We've passed about a hundred already. What makes these special?"


Sammy and Elizabeth came upon two black lampposts on either side of the path at the top of a lonely hill.


Elizabeth planted herself on the pavement and refused to move. Sammy thought about dragging her, then thought better of it. She was so small, only five pounds or so. He could easily pull her up and make her walk, but he didn't like the idea of forcing his one and only friend into doing something she didn't want to do.


"Come on. They're only light poles like the ones in front of our building. They're not going to hurt you. What if I pick you up? Is that okay?" Sammy bent down and scooped her up into his arms. He cradled her in one arm like a football, bringing his face close to hers. She smelled of oatmeal shampoo.


"It's okay. We're not scared." Sammy carried her past the lampposts.


Elizabeth yelped and howled like she'd never done before.




Intruders




The heavy iron door slammed shut with a deafening thud. The familiar boom reverberated through the tunnel.


So this one's the entrance today? Which will it be tomorrow?


Bart removed a small brown leather-bound book from the breast pocket of his shabby brown jacket and noted the location of the door.


"Tricky, tricky. You're still playing tricks, even after all these years. I'll learn your secrets, you wait."


If there's a pattern, I'll find it. I've been working at it long enough.


Bart looked left, then right, hoping no one had seen him exit through the heavy metal door. As usual, no one had. Once again, he only saw his familiar tunnel lined with so many doors.


He turned to the right and walked slowly, counting his steps as he walked, noting the paces as he passed each door.


Twenty paces to the mead hall, thirty to the pagoda. It's changing quicker now and more randomly than before. It's toying with me.


"He's toying with me."


Bart reached the end of the tunnel. The bright sunlight burned his sensitive eyes. "I've got to get out more often, or these old eyes will be useless."


They've aged so much faster than the rest of me. I've kept most of my youth, but at what cost? Sure, I might look like the young person I was so long ago… this blasted place will be the death of me, piece by little piece.


The sunshine warmed his pale, cool skin, and the chill in his bones was fading.


He heard voices, sending him into high alert.


Who the blast was that?


The hills surrounding the tunnel usually blocked most noise, and not many people came very close to the tunnel. Anonymity was part of its charm.


He gathered his wits and snuck farther from the tunnel's opening, feeling somewhat shy of the outside world. He didn't venture out very often, but this was one of the times he had no choice. If someone was able to get so close without being turned away, there were sure to be problems close behind.


The lampposts. They'll never get past the lampposts.


Bart crept out into the open, over the slight rolling hills that surrounded the tunnel. The bright sun shone on his shabby and tattered old brown suit. It looked more like rags than a finely tailored suit fit for a gentleman.


He crested the last hill, and the lampposts came into view. He saw a young man, slightly thin to average build, 160 to 170 centimeters tall, shaggy brown hair, with no obvious signs of the Craft about him. The young man held a small dog.


They walked through the Jacob's Ladder. The electricity leapt from its source at the lampposts and latched onto the dog. Except for the dog's brief fright, the two barely noticed the traveling arch of high-voltage electricity. It finally released its grip once the boy and dog had cleared the posts.


That damned Tesla and his rubbish security devices! How am I supposed to do my job as caretaker when his bloody machines refuse to work?


Bart scurried behind an old hemlock and spied on the curious boy and his puppy. The dog strained toward the tunnel.


The arch lightning's intact. How did they pass through a hundred-thousand-ampere arch unharmed?


The blue electricity climbed up the lampposts as usual. Tesla's security gate appeared to be in normal working order. The dog did not look normal. It wore the unmistakable brilliant-blue aura.


Who are they? And since when do dogs have the Aura of Ether? They must be up to no good.


The sky opened up, and the rain crashed down, but Bart hardly noticed.


Something's wrong.


"Very wrong."





The Puppy Thief




Sammy fretted. He hated to hear Elizabeth cry in pain. "What? What's going on?" He put her down on the ground after clearing the posts. "You okay?" Sammy looked around for German shepherds. She was afraid of shepherds, but there were none; the area was deserted.


Elizabeth smiled at Sammy and barked playfully.


"You can't scare me like that. I thought you hurt your leg again." Sammy got down on one knee and examined Elizabeth from head to toe, making sure all her parts were in good working order. After poking and prodding her and not seeing any sign of pain, they continued on their walk, far from the park's more populated areas.


"Are we lost? Have we been here before?" Sammy stopped and looked back behind him. "This looks like our usual path, but something's different. I don't remember all of those doors in that dark tunnel over that hill."


Why not check it out? We've got nothing better to do.


Elizabeth jerked and strained like an Alaskan sled dog, seemingly determined to continue on their current path. She nearly yanked Sammy's arm from its socket.


"Ouch. Stop pulling. I thought you were leash-trained already." Sammy took a plastic Tupperware container from his pocket and grabbed a bacon treat from it. He showed the treat to Elizabeth. "You get a treat when you heel, remember?"


To his surprise, Elizabeth was not interested in the treat at all. "You don't want it?"


She jerked at the leash in response.


"Elizabeth, stop. You're all excited. Chill out." She didn't chill. She pulled harder.


The sky opened up, and a torrential monsoon assaulted them. "C'mon, let's go home. It's pouring."


The dog continued to yank onward, oblivious of the storm. Usually, she would have been frightened by the loud, booming thunder, but not that day. Instead, she strained like a mini sled dog determined to cross the frozen tundra. The new one-inch nylon leash tore in two, and Elizabeth shot off like a dart.


"Hey, come back." Amazed that the tiny five-pound dog was able to break the nylon leash, Sammy ran after her, chasing her up the hill. But she was faster than him. Sammy panicked. In an instant, he broke out in a drenching sweat. He could barely catch his breath.


Elizabeth was brave but foolish. She had no idea how fragile and vulnerable she was out in the open. Without his protection, anything could have happened. She could be attacked by a rabid animal, or a bird could swoop down and carry her off. She could get hit by a bus.


Sammy, chill out. There're no buses in Middle Park. Breathe.


The dog finally stopped at the top of the hill. Her head and eyes were fixed on the tunnel below. She held one paw up, ready to take that next lightning-fast step. Sammy ran up behind her, hoping to snatch her up before she took off again. He reached for her and felt her soft, straight hair on the tips of his fingers, but she slipped away just before he was able to get a grasp on her little body. She ran down the other side of the hill, straight for the tunnel under the bridge… the tunnel with the doors.


He followed as she disappeared into the dimly lit tunnel. Sammy stopped at the tunnel's entrance. He bent over, out of breath, and rested his hands on his knees. She was twenty or thirty feet inside the tunnel. She was eating something.


"Elizabeth, no! I told you not to eat garbage from the ground."


She paid him no mind. Sammy took a closer look and was shocked at what he saw. The tunnel was lined with strange doors on either side. They looked totally out of place, as if they were brought there from somewhere else. Some were modern clear glass like those in one of the downtown high-rises. Some were made of ancient-looking wood and reminded him of an illustration in the old Hansel and Gretel picture book at the library.


Even stranger, Elizabeth was eating from a sparkling white dinner plate. It sat on the cobblestone pavement, directly in front of a prison cell door that looked like one in the old Count of Monte Cristo movie.


What the... steak frites?


She gobbled down French fries as if it was her last meal. She held the steak down with her two front paws, ferociously gnawing at it, desperately trying to tear off a piece of meat small enough to fit in her tiny mouth.


"Oh no. Elizabeth, stop!" Sammy feared the worst. He had heard of terrible people leaving out tainted food for poor, hungry animals.


He ran toward the dog, hoping she hadn't eaten enough to make her ill, while calculating the time it would take to carry her out of the park and down to the animal hospital on Sixty-First and Second. He finally reached her and snatched her up, kicking away the white plate of steak frites. The plate shattered against the metal, and the steak flew through through the bars to the other side of a shadowy dark cell. Elizabeth writhed and squirmed to free herself from Sammy's arms.


Desperately holding on to the tiny writhing puppy, Sammy was amazed he still held the broken leash. Kneeling down, he placed Elizabeth on the cobblestones, hoping to tie the leash to her harness just in case she wiggled free from his hold.


As he bent to gently place her down on the cobblestones, she leapt from his arms, yelping out a shrill cry as her feet hit the pavement. She hopped back to the cell door and the irresistible steak.


"Oh no." Sammy hated to hear her cry in pain. Hoping she hadn't injured a leg, he ran back toward her and the cell door.


She scratched and pawed at the cell door, trying to squeeze her small body through the metal bars, determined to get to the suspicious steak.


Sammy hurried, relieved that the dog didn't seem to have a broken leg and couldn't get through the bars.


To Sammy's astonishment, a pair of bone-white hands seemingly passed through the solid metal bars. They clasped around Elizabeth's small frame and pulled her though as if they weren't even there. She writhed and bit at the hand Then she was gone.


Sammy reached the cell door and caught a last glimpse of a hooded figure carrying Elizabeth Bennett out of sight.


"Hey!" Sammy screamed. "Stop! Elizabeth!"


The figure in the dark hooded robe was gone, having disappeared into the shadows beyond the cell door. The dim light in the tunnel didn't reach far through the cell door, and Sammy couldn't see farther than a few feet past the bars.


Sammy wrapped his hands around the dirty, cold bars and pulled. He strained and yanked, and for a moment, he actually imagined he might be strong enough to bend the bars. But he wasn't. The bars didn't move. They only taunted him with their silence. He'd never wanted superhuman strength before, but at that moment, a Ring of Ogreish Might would have been perfect.


Sammy flew into a panic. He rubbed the sides of his head as if somehow he could massage his mind into discovering the solution to how to get through the cell door. He paced back and forth, muttering. How had he lost his only friend?


This can't be happening. He searched for a back door, dashing out of the tunnel and scrambling up the side of the hill. Sammy crossed the footpath laid over the hilltop, slid down the opposite side of the hill, and ran back into the tunnel, completing a circuit. "It doesn't make sense!"


After a torturous minute of heart-throbbing anxiety, Sammy came to his senses. He thought about calling the police or the FBI. They'll help, they have keys and resources. They have SWAT and K-9 units. They'll track down Elizabeth and arrest her abductor.


He thought about calling his foster parents but decided against it. He didn't want them to think they'd adopted a troublemaker.


He reached into his pocket, pulled out his phone, and frantically dialed 911.


"911," a woman's droning, robotic voice said. "What's your emergency?"


"Hello? Send the police, quick. They stole Elizabeth."


"Who stole Elizabeth?" asked the operator.


"I don't know who. There was a plate and a steak, and a guy grabbed her through the bars. And there's evidence. Send the CSI."


"Where are you, sir?"


"I'm in Middle Park."


"Where in Middle Park, sir? We need your exact location to send a unit."


"I don't know where. The path kept changing on me. I came in by the museum and walked on the gravel path for a few minutes. I'm by the lampposts."


The woman snorted. "You're by the lampposts?"


Sammy paced back and forth. "You have to hurry. They're getting away."


The phone line crackled. "Sir, we need to know where you are so we can send someone to help."


Sammy's voice squeaked. "Hurry. Use my cell signal to triangulate my location? You're the government. You know this stuff."


She grunted. "Sir, we're doing our best. Now, calm down and retrace your steps. How did you get to your current location?"


"Listen, I entered the park at the Natural History Museum. I took the paved path past the skating rink. I made a left at the rowboats. When I got to the old castle, I took the gravel path toward the amphitheater, but then I made a left on a dirt path over the hills… I think."


The operator's tone perked up. She actually sounded interested. "Over the hills? Sir, we're sending units to your location now. Don't go anywhere. Stay in one place. What's your name?"


Sammy breathed a sigh of relief. "Sammy Nichols."


Sammy heard the scratching sound of pencil on paper. "Elizabeth Nichols, got it."


Sammy shook his head. "No. She's Elizabeth Bennett."


The operator cleared her throat. "I'm putting all this into the alert system. We need to know exactly what she looks like and what she's wearing."


He ran a hand through his unkempt locks. "Her hair is blue and tan. She was wearing a black harness. She's five pounds."


The operator groaned. "Sir, is Elizabeth your sister?"


He palm-slapped his forehead. "No, she's my dog. Just hurry."


The operator spoke to another person, but Sammy couldn't make out what she said. She then blurted rather loudly into the phone, "Animal control will be dispatched to your area. Stay at your location. Their average arrival time is between two and three hours. Dial 911 if you need further assistance." The operator hung up on him.


Sammy slammed the flip phone shut. "What the freak? She hung up on me!"


"Did you call 911?" a gruff voice demanded from behind him.


Sammy jumped out of his skin. He turned and saw the disheveled, middle-aged cop staring at him. His uniform was so faded, it looked purple. An old silver revolver was in a holster that hung low around his hips like a cowboy.


He noticed a different patch on the cop's arm. "You're not a city cop."


The cop mumbled under his breath. "I'm Park Police. You lose a dog?"


Sammy had been through Middle Park many times before, and he'd never come across a park cop. This guy's a cop?


Sammy pointed to the cell door. "She was kidnapped, in there."


The cop adjusted his gun belt, resting his hand on the rusty revolver. "That didn't happen. You can't call 911 for fun. It's a crime to prank the emergency line. If you want to have fun, why don't you go to the courts and play ball like a normal kid?"


Sammy's mouth fell open. He tried to calm himself and focused on talking slower. Cops didn't like when kids got excited. "It did happen. There was a steak. She was eating the steak, and then someone grabbed her through the bars."


The cop chuckled. "Kid, there's nothing behind the doors. It's an installation by the art college. They're not real."


Sammy pointed to the white ceramic shards at their feet. "I know what happened. Someone stole my dog from behind that door. Look, the plate is still on the ground."


The cop's phony smile faded from his face. He took Sammy by the arm and led him out of the tunnel to a golf cart parked at the tunnel's entrance. The cop's large, pale hand guided Sammy into the golf cart. "Sit here."


Sammy sat as the pale man loomed over him.


The park cop took a pencil and notebook from his shirt pocket. "What's your name?"


This wasn't going how Sammy had hoped. This guy wasn't the FBI or the National Guard. He wasn't going to help. Sammy stood, reached into his pocket, pulled out his phone, and dialed 911.


If he's not going to help, I'll find someone who will.


The cop snatched the phone from Sammy's hand. "Kid, look. There's no dog and no door."


Sammy reached for the phone. "Give me my phone back."


The cop wasn't having it. With his free hand, he grabbed Sammy's arm. The man's large fingers bit into Sammy's wrist and squeezed, twisting it in ways it wasn't supposed to move.


Pain shot through his arm, taking his breath away. Sammy fell to one knee. "Ahhhh. Okay, okay."


The cop released him.


Sammy stood, rubbing his wrist. The pressure of the cop's grip had left four distinct red finger marks.


The cop pointed a finger directly at Sammy's face, only millimeters from his nose. Sammy could see only the finger. It was gross and dirty with black lines in the cracked, pale skin. Dried blood was in the area where the nail should have been. It had been clearly chewed away. The finger trembled. "Kid, there's no dog. There's no tunnel and no doors. We're going down to the station. Child Protection Services needs to talk to you after we get you checked out."


Sammy looked away, disgusted by the horrid finger.


The cop grabbed Sammy by the cheeks. "Look at me when I'm talking to you."


Afraid to look into the cop's pale blue eyes, Sammy fixated on the man's wrist. It had a faded indigo tattoo in the shape of the letter F. He'd seen that F before. It was one of the runes in his book.


What's up with that tattoo?


This wasn't how things were supposed to go. Everything was going so well up until today. "I'm sorry. I'll behave." He didn't know what else to say.


The cop released Sammy's cheeks. He pulled a set of silver metal handcuffs from his belt. He twirled them around on his filthy finger and showed them to Sammy. "You don't want to wear these bracelets."


Sammy sat back in the seat, defeated. Having been through the system, he had seen this kind of thing happen a dozen times. He knew what came next. They would check him into the hospital for a few days to be evaluated until they could make sure he wasn't a danger to anyone. Then he would go to Juvenile Detention, and finally, back to the group home. He would probably never see Elizabeth, Bob, or Jane again.


It was good while it lasted.


The cop shoved the notebook back into his shirt pocket and shook his head. "Look, kid. Sometimes you gotta know when you're beat. You can get another dog, but you can't get another life. You understand me? She's ours, and we're on a time limit here. I ain't gonna let some punk kid like you stand in our way. I had enough of these goody-two-shoes making all the rules, telling me what I can't do. We're bringing Durga back, and he'll restore the Herrenvolk to our full glory."


The hair on Sammy's neck stood on end. He leapt from the golf cart and fled at full speed, never looking back. He wasn't going to let that nut-bag catch him. That dumpy cop stole Elizabeth for sure. He ran over the rolling hills as far as he could.


He thought about running home to Bob and Jane but changed his mind. They didn't have any experience with this kind of thing. They didn't know what it was like. They wouldn't be able to help.


That fat old cop wasn't going to catch Sammy in his little go-cart. It wasn't built for speed or forest areas. Sammy made for the nature preserve. The cops wouldn't find him in there.


They're probably too chicken to even try.





The Butcher on High Street





Bart was surrounded, backed up against a brick wall on High Street. The butcher and his two sons flanked him on either side.


"Sir, I really don't want to cause any trouble," thirteen-year-old Bart said. "I'll just be on my way, and we'll forget this whole misunderstanding ever happened." He looked the burliest of the three assailants in the eye. "I wouldn't want you three gentlemen to have any problems with the coppers."


"Coppers? You thieving street scum, you gonna stand there and threaten me with my wife's Sunday meat pie in your hand? You got some nerve." The barrel-chested butcher waved his cleaver inches from Bart's nose. A coal man watched from across the street.


The butcher didn't take kindly to prying eyes and shot the man a glare. "And what are you staring at?"


The coal man gave his pony a tap. "We'll just be on our way then. Come on, Betsy." Bart's only hope of intervention trotted off.


A miniature redheaded version of the butcher pointed his red-stained finger. "That's the one, Father, the one I been telling you about. He been robbing and stealing for months. Come by after the frost, all manner of good turn up missing since he been round."


Bart stepped back on his right foot, ready to bolt. "Surely, you'll listen to reason, sir. I can explain. Nothing here but a misinterpretation of the facts. We can work this all out in a mutually beneficial manner. No need for brutality."


The younger of the butcher's two ginger-haired boys pointed. "There. Look, Dad, on his feet. Tommy Boyle's new lace-ups if I ever seen 'em. Tommy's mum were squiring away every spare coin she got her hands on, going on two year now. She finally take Tommy down to Connor the Cobbler, Tuesday last. Next day, boots gone missing, right from under Tommy's bed while he sleep, dead of night."


Bart grasped at straws. "Sir, I can assure you, these boots are my own, given by the good father down at Saint Michael's only yesterday. You see, my previous ones were in a frightful state of disrepair, and the father took pity on me. If you would accompany me, the father will surely testify to my innocence and bear witness."


The butcher grabbed Bart by the collar of his oversized shirt, the cleaver resting on Bart's ear. "You little thief, you gonna drudge Father Maloney's good name through this here? You gonna dirty a good man with your evils?"


In a flash, Bart slipped out of his oversized dingy grayed pullover and sped off too fast for the butchers to react. He ran through the street at full speed, knocking over several petticoat-clad ladies who were window-shopping at the haberdashery.


"Begging your pardon, my lady," shrieked the butcher, only steps behind.


Bart caught the reflection of his own grime-streaked cheeks and emaciated torso in a shop window. His collarbone and ribs protruded through his chest. This life wasn't for him. It was no way to live. He broke left into an alley, out the other end, then right down Parson's Street. I'll lose them on the roof. Fallon won't appreciate guests.


He sprinted the two blocks, his boney chest heaving and burning. He was almost there. Finally, he reached the tenement building, ran through the front door and up the stairs to the roof. The butcher's screams of rage echoed through the hall. It was a long jump to the adjacent roof. Bart made the landing but lost his breath on impact. His cracked rib hadn't healed yet.


The butcher screamed from across the gap. "Get back here, street rat!"


Fighting through the pain, Bart found the door to the stairs and bounded down to the first floor. He reached the safety of apartment one. The door was unlocked. He barged in, latching the bolt behind him.


The apartment was empty except for the broken mirror on the wall. "Fallon! Fallon! Where are you?" Fallon was gone. It was all gone, everything he'd worked for over the last two months. Fallon had made off with the whole of their loot. The butcher's booming footfalls echoed through the hall. The doorknob jiggled, and the rotted wooden door trembled and bowed under the pressure of the butcher's weight. Dust fell from what was left of the crumbling ceiling.


Bart tried the windows. They were nailed shut, evidence of Fallon's paranoid security measures. He was trapped. He hid in the closet. The apartment door flew from its hinges and crashed against the mottled floorboards. He peered through the crack between the door and its frame.


The butcher pointed his stained cleaver at the closet, and his two boys grinned ear to ear. "Come out, little street rat. We've got something for you. Don't be afraid. I won't break all your bones. You got enough to spare though. I saw 'em all, you without your shirt. You ain't had a proper meal, have you? That's all right. I'll leave my missus' pie when I go. You're gonna need it. But I tell you what, I'm taking Tommy's lace-ups with me and your high-water trousers too—a penance for good measure."


Bart opened the closet door and stepped out. "All right, I'll take my lumps. Be quick about it then." No use drawing it out.




The Market of Priceless Treasures




Ten-year-old Sammy Nichols saw a strange flea market on the way back from middle school. It was in a previously vacant lot, surrounded by a high chain-link fence with a small opening. Above the opening was an archway made of dried branches and vines. Over the archway was a sign. It read "Market of Priceless Treasures and Bargains." He couldn't see through the links in the fence. His view was obscured by the many vines that had grown through the links. It was strange that the vines had grown there so quickly. They hadn't been there when he'd walked past the day before. Curiosity got the best of him. Sure, he was supposed to go straight back to the group home after school, but nobody would care if he was a little late. Tardiness was the least of their problems at the group home. Sammy walked through the opening in the chain-link fence.


The flea market was like none he'd seen before. Dozens of tables filled the space, holding many various items comprised mostly of secondhand housewares and clothing. Behind each table stood a man or woman whom Sammy assumed to be homeless. All of the vendors wore some variant of a shabby robe. Some had a more modern look about them while others seemed well-worn. The shoppers seemed normal enough, browsing and haggling, many speaking in accents Sammy didn't recognize.


This place is weird.


Sammy approached the first table.


The dark-haired, olive-skinned proprietor welcomed him. "Ah, young man. How are you today?"


Sammy shrugged. "Hello. I'm okay. How are you?"


The man smiled and nodded. "Very good. Very good. I'm Amal. Welcome to my shop."


Sammy thought Amal was strange for referring to a broken-down table in a lot as a shop. "Thank you."


"I see you're confused. Is it your first time to the market?"


Sammy cocked his head to one side. "Yeah. I've walked past here before but have never seen it."


"We move quite often," Amal said. "Don't worry. You'll find us again."


Sammy was unsure if he wanted to find the place again. "Great."


"Do you like what you see?"


Sammy looked down at the table and saw about twenty dirty old bronze containers, most of which looked like strange gravy boats. "I'm really not looking for containers."


Amal shot Sammy a stern sideways glance but then burst into laughter. "Okay, boy, let me show you something else." He reached under the table and produced a small carpet. Then he unrolled it, laying it out over the brass and bronze gravy boats. "You see, the finest Persian rug money can buy." Amal ran a grimy hand over the rug.


Sammy also ran his small hand over the fibers. It felt soft and warm on the cool winter day. A warm breeze blew across the back of his neck. "It's very nice."


Amal looked Sammy directly in the eye, holding his gaze. "Yes, it is. What's your name?"


"Sammy Nichols, and my dad is a professional wrestler. He's tough. He beat Ivan the Bone Crusher last week at the Forum. Just saying." In case you're a kid-grabber.


Amal broke his gaze and laughed. "Well, congratulations to you both. Now, Sammy Nichols, are you interested in my Persian rug? I'll give you a good price."


"I like your rug, but I wouldn't have anywhere to put it. I'm only ten years old, and my family… we move around a lot." No place for a rug in the group home.


"Okay, Sammy Nichols. You don't buy now, but the next time you come to Amal's, come with heavy pockets. You'll be glad to see me then."


Sammy smiled, noting Amal's kind face. Amal returned the gesture.


Sammy waved and walked away from Amal's table, happy that he'd met him. Amal seemed nice. "Okay, Amal, see you next time."


Sammy wandered over to another table with a thin, long-haired woman standing behind it. He was more interested in the woman than the wares. He didn't even see what she was selling. He just wanted to talk to her. She looked nice.


"Hello, I'm Sammy."


She smiled and waved her hand over the objects on the table. "Hello, Sammy, I am Kassandra. Do you like what you see?" Her wide smile reminded him of one of the game show women who introduced the prizes on television. Sammy stared at Kassandra for a moment, then realized he was being rude and looked down to see the wares she was offering.


Dozens of cups, goblets, and all manner of plates and pottery filled the table. Sammy hadn't been the least bit interested in plates or cups but now thought he might like to know about them. "Where are these from?"


"Sammy, these are very old and very special. They're from Trigas. You can see the markings. They're genuine and the very rarest you'll find."


Sammy selected an earthenware cup. There were carvings on it, men with big thighs and fish. "How much is this one?" He didn't have any cash but held up the smallest, plainest earthenware cup anyway.


"We don't trade for money, Sammy. We trade for goods. Is it your first time in the market?"


He was deflated and placed the cup back down onto the rickety plywood table. "I don't have any money anyway." The salty smell of ocean and fish wafted up to his nose.


Kassandra smiled and looked away. "Then come back when you have something to trade."


Sammy felt invisible and thought it best to leave. It seemed that Kassandra wasn't interested in a friendly chat.


He moved on to another table, which held many interesting items. Sammy approached the table and was greeted by a short man with dark, oily hair and a long handlebar mustache.


The man smiled. "Hello and welcome. I am Pierre. Can I interest you in one of my timepieces?"


"Hi, Pierre. I don't have anything to trade. I'm just looking."


Many intricate-looking pocket watches and table clocks sat on the table. Some of the clocks had their back covers open, and Sammy could see their intricate gears and levers. Amazed at the all the tiny moving parts, Sammy wanted to inspect one more closely but was afraid of breaking something.


Pierre carefully selected one of the pocket watches and held it for Sammy to see. "There's no harm in looking. Let me show you what I have. As you can see, the movement is perfect, the most accurate pocket watch you'll ever find. I should know, I have looked. You could go to the end of time and never find a more precise piece. Why, you could go to the end of time, and this piece will not have lost a beat. Clock makers these days with their atomics and their quartz computers, they have no love of the Craft, no respect. Time must be respected; it must be revered." Pierre paused.


"Um, I guess," Sammy said.


Pierre raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. "What would happen if you'd planned to travel on the midnight train to Paris, but you've gotten the timing wrong? You would miss the train, that's what would happen. We don't want to miss our trains, do we?"


Oh boy, here comes the lecture.


"But the subway comes every fifteen minutes, every five minutes during rush hour," Sammy said. "People don't use watches anymore. Every cell phone has a clock on it."


"Yes, but the subway doesn't go to Paris, does it? And what would happen if your subway was in the forest? Could you use your cell phone where there's no charging station? And if your trains were only scheduled to arrive just once during your lifetime? You wouldn't want to miss that train because of a depleted battery, would you?"


"No," Sammy said in a drawn-out tone, like he would have done in school if the teacher had asked an equally silly question about equidistant trains and their arrival times.


"There are some moments that we absolutely cannot miss out on. What if I told you that your one true love would be here or there at precisely three o'clock in the afternoon and no later? Would you not make your best effort to meet your love?"


Sammy stared, hoping the lecture would be over soon.


"Men have gone to war; men have died for a chance to gain their heart's desire."


Sammy was unsure of what to say. He hadn't been in love, and another train always came along in fifteen minutes.


"Think about it, Sammy, and remember my name—Pierre, the master of time. I have to go now. I've a train to catch. I wish you well, and may you always have time on your side."


"Goodbye, Pierre."


Pierre packed his clocks away in wooden boxes filled with straw. Sammy left Pierre and his amazingly precise clocks.


A tall, thin man with long, dark hair and a short black beard caught Sammy's attention. The man eyed Sammy suspiciously from a few tables down the row. Sammy had seen that look before and thought it best to speak to the man before anything happened. Sammy approached the table.


The man's wide mouth grew into a wide smile. "Hello, young traveler. Welcome."


"I'm not going to steal anything," Sammy said. Adults are always so suspicious with their accusing stares.


"Why, of course you aren't," the man said coolly. "That'd be ridiculous."


Sammy placed his book bag on the table. That was what they did at the store. They held his bag so he couldn't smuggle any merchandise in it.


"Pardon my impropriety," the man said. "I was lost in thought. I didn't mean to be rude. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive my transgression."


"Sometimes, before, when I went to a store with the other kids from the foster home, they would steal, and the store owner would think I stole too because I was with them, but I don't steal. You don't need to watch me."


The man bowed low with a knowing grin and a sparkle in his eye. "Again, apologies, young sir. Your face, it reminded me of someone from a far-off time. I meant no offense."


Sammy smiled back. "What are you selling?"


"Why, I trade in all manner of mystical and magical paraphernalia. Should you find yourself in need of a shrinking potion to make you as small as a mouse, I have one here. Should you find yourself lacking the proper ingredients for the perfect humble pie, I also have them here, minus the berries of course. They don't keep well."


Vials were arranged in neat rows on the table, and hard bound books were piled in high stacks. On the left was a wooden tray of dark, moist soil. It reminded Sammy of the trays that held baby tomato plants in springtime, except many different mushrooms sprouted from the soil. On the right, a pretty blue bird was perched in a tall, round bird cage, chirping a cheerful melody.


"Shrinking potion? You have a potion to make me as small as a mouse, like Alice's cake? You've got to be kidding. The other tables are full of old junk, and you're selling magic potions?"


The man chuckled. "Young sir, you'll find no junk at this market."


Sammy gazed over the multitude of trinkets, bottles, and vials on the wooden table. The strangeness of it all intrigued him. He enjoyed nothing more than a new oddity. This was better than the normal flea market, where he only found chipped commemorative plates and old cassette players. "What else do you have?"


The man held up a brown leather necklace with what looked like an old shark tooth pendant. "Take a look at this particularly precious piece. This is a Charm of Never Seeing. One could wear this pendant and walk through the world unnoticed, virtually invisible to those around you."


Sammy's heart jumped. It was the single greatest thing he'd ever heard. "This thing makes you invisible?"


"No, not quite invisible, just unnoticed by most. You'd still be recorded by modern surveillance equipment, and you'd alert any alarm devices."


"So people just won't notice you when you wear it?" Sammy asked.


"Most people, not all. I'd avoid hospitals, night clubs, the Balkans, and of course New Kent City."


Sammy's heart fell. Of course it was too good to be true. "Since we're in New Kent, it's kind of useless, but if most people can't see you when you wear it, what makes those places different?"


"I can see you are new to the arcane crafts. Let me explain something. The universe has a finite amount of magic and materials. When we want to collect some of that magic for ourselves, we need to take it from somewhere else or more precisely, in this case, from someone else. The particular magic in this piece came from the sort of person who wouldn't have given it willingly."


Sammy shot the man a chilling stare. "You mean this thing is stolen? I told you I wasn't into that."


The man pointed to the tooth on the necklace's pendant. "No, no. It's far worse than that. Let's just say these types of baby teeth won't fall out on their own accord." He buried the necklace deep in the folds of his dark-red robe then stepped back, folded his arms across his chest, and took a long, surveying look at Sammy. "Let me show you something more suited for your particular needs."


Sammy examined the trinkets and cases on the table, taking particular notice of a peculiar glass ball that looked a lot like a snow globe. "Sure, I like this weird stuff." He would be late getting back to the group home and would have extra punishment chores, but Sammy didn't care. This was too awesome.


The man took the glass ball from Sammy's hand. "Ah, I see you've found the Compass of Hearts." The glass ball changed immediately. While Sammy held it, the glass was obscure, but now the glass became clear. Inside the globe was an image of a beautiful dark-skinned woman whose brown eyes twinkled with hints of gold. The image changed, showing an old stone building, then it changed again. The globe now contained dark smoke, which gathered to a point near the glass just below its middle, where it was widest.


The man turned the globe every which way. He shook it, causing the smoke to dissipate and gather again. "You see, the smoke inside the globe gathers in the direction of your heart's desire." The dark smoke always gathered in the same area, pointing the way.


Sammy felt like he'd lost a game of magical Three Card Monty. Anyone who'd seen the guys down on Avenue B knew that it was impossible to find the queen. "That's cool. But why did it work for you and not for me?"


"It's not for you just yet. You may be just a bit too young for the compass. Something else, then."


Sammy looked over the table again hoping another of the curious objects would catch his eye. He picked up a black metal ring and placed it on his small finger. It was cold against his skin. Though he hadn't eaten anything since lunch four hours earlier, he tasted the metallic flavor of pennies.


The man's eyes went wide. "Ah, the Ring of Ogreish Might. Please be very careful, my wares are delicate, and you are not used to the strength the ring gives." The man, still smiling, slowly and carefully took Sammy's hand then easily slid the loose ring from his finger and exhaled.


"That ring gave me ogreish might?" Sammy asked. "I didn't feel very strong."


The man hid the ring inside his dark-red robes once again. "Feeling and knowing and being are all different things. I have some other items that might interest you. I'm willing to make a fair trade."


The man opened a small wooden box and removed three small pendants. He handed them to Sammy.


Sammy examined the tarnished metal pendants. "What are these?"


"These were given to me by an old wanderer a long time ago. He said they were very powerful charms of protection, and I'd find them a good home. I haven't been able to trace the source of their power, and as such, they may just be ordinary trinkets. I'll leave you to decide. I feel that trickster may have gotten the better end of the deal. As it is, I'd be glad to clear them from my inventory. Limited space, you know."


"What are the symbols?" Sammy asked.


"This one is the symbol Berkana, this one Wynn, and the third, Algiz. That's the extent of my knowledge on the subject, I'm afraid. "


Sammy examined the small metal charms. The first, the Berkana charm, was small, square, and bronze in color. It felt heavy in the hand. The symbol looked like an uppercase B. The second, Wynn, was a dirty dark pewter of the same shape and size. The Wynn symbol looked like the letter P. The third charm was also small and squarish like the others but was a dingy yellowish color. The symbol Algiz resembled a lowercase T.


"I like them," Sammy said. "I'd like them, but I really don't have anything to trade."


The man smiled a sinister grin. "Everyone has something to trade—your firstborn child, your eternal soul. You see my point?"


Sammy stared at the man blankly. Unsure if the man had crossed a line, Sammy gave him a chance to explain before he bolted. The first rule of being a kid was to stay away from creepy old guys, but somehow the rules seemed different here in the market.


"Don't worry, I'm not going to cheat you out of your soul. These trinkets don't have much value, so I'll trade you for something equally worthless. How about three locks of hair? Does that sound fair?"


Sammy ran a hand up the back of his neck over the top of his head. "You want my hair?" He smoothed his unkempt mop to one side, confused that someone would want something that annoyed him so much. It never stayed where it was supposed to. "I'm growing it out for kids with cancer."


"It's more a token of good faith. I give you something I don't need, and you give me something you don't need. This is how business is done. We may see each other again when you do have something of value to trade. At that time, we'll both know that we can trust each other because we've done business in the past. It's how relationships work. You trust me, and I trust you. When that changes, we won't do business anymore, simple."


Feeling a bit like he was being set up for a long con, Sammy went along anyway. It was only hair, after all. "Sounds good."


A handful of market patrons had stopped by the table to browse. They cleared their throats simultaneously. The vendor also cleared his throat and handed the three charms to Sammy, who placed them in his pocket. The vendor produced a gleaming curved blade from inside of his robe. It was as long as Sammy's forearm. Sammy took the blade.


"Be careful," the man said. "It's a sharp blade."


"I'll be careful." Sammy used the knife, taking three tufts of hair from the top of his head, making sure to only cut away small bunches. He handed them to the vendor after he had cut them away. The cancer kids needed normal hair, not a chopped-up mess.


The vendor carefully placed each of the three locks in separate vials and stopped them up with a cork. When all the hairs were neatly tucked away inside his robe, the man cleared the table. "It was good doing business with you, Sammy. I look forward to trading again."


I didn't tell him my name.


Sammy looked around the market. All the other venders and patrons were looking his way. Some stole quick glances, while others stared outright. Sammy felt uncomfortable. He hated being watched. It made him feel guilty, though he knew he'd done nothing wrong.


"Until next time, young Sam. Goodbye," said the vender with Sammy's hair tucked quietly in his robe.


"Bye. Wait, what's your name?" Sammy asked.


"Oh, how rude. I'm Aja, the Deal Maker. Goodbye once more." Aja managed to pack up his table and trinkets and scurry through the makeshift door in the chain-link fence before Sammy could get in another word.


The staring subsided. Some of the onlookers shook their heads, but everyone went back to their own business. Sammy made his way out of the market, his three new trinkets safely in his pocket.



The Way In




The run to the nature preserve should have taken Sammy ten minutes, but it took twenty. He got turned around and had to double back a few times, but finally, he was safely hidden behind the old oaks. That bloated cop wasn't going to find him in there. Sammy didn't feel as if he could stay hidden much longer. He had to get back and find Elizabeth.


That cop had said something about being on a time limit, so he had to hurry. The goon had said Sammy was beaten and they wouldn't let some kid stand in their way. The cop took Elizabeth. It was him. Sammy's life had never been threatened by the police. Was the guy even a real cop? He doubted it. City cop uniforms were blue, not faded purple as if they'd been sitting out in the sun for years.


He's an imposter. Probably got that uniform in a thrift store.


Sammy had to get back to that tunnel, back to the cell door. There had to be a way in. He would find it even if it took forever.


He stayed hidden behind the trees as he moved until he reached the edge of the nature preserve. The territory was all open fields after that. He would have to be quick and hope the fake cop wasn't looking for him.


Sammy ran most of the way back to the tunnel. He saw no sign of Captain Creepy or his cell phone. Sammy stood at the entrance to the tunnel before walking in. There were so many doors. If he couldn't get in through the cell door, maybe he could get in through one of the others.


He would check the cell door first. Maybe there was some clue as to what the heck was going on.


Sammy stood in front of the cell door with the broken white plate at his feet. He'd seen enough TV detective shows to know that he would have to use all his senses to find every clue he possibly could. The cell door was made of old rusty metal bars and had an ancient-looking lock. He tried forcing the bars apart, but it was no use.


He felt as if there might be a hall beyond the door, but it was so dark that he could barely see two feet past the bars. It was as though the darkness crept out rather than light penetrating in. He'd never seen anything like it before.


Trust your instincts.


Sammy listened, hoping to hear some sound that would give a clue as to how he might get inside. He heard the slightest sound of a howling wind. There had to be a hall beyond the door, and it had to be long, maybe another tunnel. But it wasn't windy that day. The opening on the other end had to be in a high place, really far away.


Sammy inhaled deeply, hoping to catch a whiff of some kind of clue. Sammy smelled beef. It was the most delicious beef he'd ever smelled. His mouth watered, and his nose pulled him closer to the bars. The aroma was irresistible.


His forehead hit the iron bar with a thud, causing him to snap back to reality. He looked for the steak, but it was gone. That must have been why Elizabeth was so crazy to get at that steak. It was no normal steak. Normal steaks didn't smell that impossibly good.


When Sammy had first gotten Elizabeth, the puppy had been so scared, she refused to eat the first whole day. Bob even tried feeding her a piece of steak, but she wasn't interested. That was when Jane read on the Internet that Yorkies didn't have a very good sense of smell compared with other dogs. Elizabeth had eaten the following day when she'd relaxed. There must have been something extra special about that steak in the tunnel that had made her go so mad.


Sammy was running out of senses. He needed to feel something. He ran his hands up and down the bars. They felt like old pipes, cold and hard. He felt around the ancient lock, hoping for a sign, but found nothing. The cobblestone floor was just like downtown, like the streets the city hadn't bothered to pave. It was all cold. The bars were cold, the cobblestones were cold, but it wasn't a cold day. That was a clue. Sammy had no idea how cold bars and stones would be helpful, but it was a start.


He'd learned that it was windy, cold, and weirdly dark behind the cell door.


He would have to find another way in. He didn't have time to stand around all day when they had Elizabeth. He did a one-eighty and looked at the door on the opposite wall.


It was a huge, sturdy wooden door, like a medieval castle door from the movies. It reached all the way up to the ceiling and had a sturdy-looking crossbar with a pull ring. Wait. Crossbars were usually on the inside of a door, not the outside. That was it. He could get in through that door.


Sammy grabbed the ring and pulled. He winced. His wrist still ached where Captain Creepy had twisted it. The crossbar must have been rusted, because it was stuck and didn't budge. Sammy pulled and pulled and pulled. Still nothing. Frustrated, he pounded on the door with his fists, hoping for some miracle. He was exhausted. He'd been pulling with all his strength and had none left.


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