Ninja Girl: The Nine Wiles by S.W. White

In the final evening of the ordinary portion of Ashley Prue's life, she danced.

The ballet studio was filled with hopefuls, all sixteen, all waiting their turn for their final test. Sixteen was when you were tested, if you had the moxy to try. If you passed, the studio would take you on as an apprentice and you had a shot at becoming a true ballerina. If you failed, then ballet became your hobby, something you messed with on Tuesday and Thursday nights and gave up before you graduated high school, like piano lessons.
Ninja Girl: The Nine Wiles
Ninja Girl: The Nine Wiles by S.W. White
Ash knew she was strong, and she knew she was fast. She was light, poised and sylphlike. She went en pointe again and again, showing off how comfortable she was on the tips of her toes. Her black leotard and pink tights blurred under the studio lights as she locked her eyes on the instructor, Miss Claudine, and whirled through all thirty-two fouettés en tournant that were required at the end of Swan Lake. "You are drifting, Miss Ashley." Ash winced for a split second. She had to keep her place during fouettés and not float around the room. "Thank you, Miss Ashley, that's enough." Ash stopped, and with a set of petit jetés, approached Miss Claudine at the barre. Miss Claudine smiled down at her, and in her smile there was something sad. "You have studied ballet since?" Ash grounded herself, feeling the floor pressing her heels, and with a breath, lifted her carriage. "Since I was three." Miss Claudine sighed. "You are my strongest student. And when you try, quite graceful. And yet..." Ash waited, setting her restless feet in the third position, heel of one touching the inside arch of the other. Her carriage slipped a bit, but she was too anxious to care. "How tall are you?" Miss Claudine asked. The words were a knife in Ash's heart. "Miss Claudine, I'm still growing." "How tall?" A hard lump appeared in Ash's throat. "Five feet." Miss Claudine's sad smile vanished and her face became hard. "You are perhaps four eleven. Now I admit, you are wonderfully proportioned. Quite beautiful. Your weight is?" Ash swallowed. "Ninety pounds." "Yes, perfect. But perfect miniature. Look at the girls out there." Ash turned, but she didn't look. Her eyes traced the sheen of the studio lights reflected in the floor. She knew what the other girls looked like. The reflected lights slowly blurred, and she blinked to clear tears from her eyes. "Five foot six," Miss Claudine said. "Some of them, five eight. A ballerina must be slim, but also tall." "Miss Claudine–" "You are welcome to attend class, of course. But you are not our ballerina." Miss Claudine lifted her head to the line of girls. "Next!" # It was well past dark and the air outside the studio was cold. Ash flipped up the collar of her coat and waited for her friend, Mule Danneker, to walk her home. His real name was Samuel, but his folks started calling him Mule when he was a baby. He weighed ten pounds when he was born, and his parents figured, at the rate he was growing, that he'd be a linebacker by the time he was six. Ash knew the story, because Mule loved telling it. All but the linebacker part. Mule had tried out for the high school football team last year, and he made it. Then quarter grades had come out, and the coach cut him. He was big enough to tackle a mail truck. But his GPA was too low. Maybe that was why Ash liked having Mule around. She felt safe around him on late nights like this, because he was so big that no one would dare mess with him. But also, like her, he couldn't have what he really wanted. Ash checked her watch. She had left the auditions early, and he wouldn't be here for another twenty minutes. She stood outside the studio doors, with nothing to do but look in at the other girls, the ones who still had a chance. After a few minutes of that, she could feel her insides ripping themselves up. She decided to walk home alone. She would have called Mule's latest cell phone, but he'd lost it yesterday. It had lasted four days – a record. The walk wasn't far. She could cut across the high school campus and be at her house in a half hour. Mule would figure it out and meet her there, or she'd bump into him on the way, so he could still get his tutoring in English from her. Mule was awful at English – Huckleberry Finn was killing him – and she'd been tutoring him a lot this semester. Last semester, it was math. Ash crossed the parking lot and continued down the street. The air was biting cold and heavy with mist – spring in Seattle – and as she walked under each streetlight she could hear its sad yellow hum. She turned up the steps of Magnolia High School, dark and quiet at this hour. There were no lights here, and the noise of street traffic was dulled by the buildings. Ash stopped among the lunch tables in the quad, her hands in her coat pockets, imagining how bright and noisy this place would be tomorrow morning. She liked it better this way. It was peaceful. There was a noise behind her. She didn't turn. She just listened. It was probably a squirrel or a crow or something. All the animals they saw during the day had to still be around at night, right? The noise stopped, and all was silence. That unnerved her. She started walking. At the far end of the quad she had the overwhelming feeling that someone was behind her. She turned, listening. Nothing. Not a sound, and nothing to see but gray concrete and black shadows. Could it be Mule sneaking up on her, trying to scare her? No. Mule might try something like that, but he wasn't this good at being sneaky. Ash kept walking, faster now. She reached the other side of campus, where two rows of portable classrooms sat on concrete blocks. She disappeared into the shadows between them. Past them, all she had to do was cross the field to the street, then two more blocks and home. Her ears were freezing, and she could feel her pulse rapid-fire in her earlobes. She heard the sound of three quick steps, shoes on concrete, and it occurred to her that the apparent safety of being out-of-sight between the portables suddenly seemed confined, a trap. "Mule?" she called, out of hope and nothing else. Someone stepped from behind a portable and rushed at her. Ash saw a lot in a split second, even in these shadows: he wore a knit cap on his head and a bandanna tied across the lower part of his face, like an Old West bandit. The shadows ate all colors, and he seemed dressed in black and gray, dull and featureless except for the sharpness of his outline and the gleam of the switchblade he held low in his right hand. 2 He slashed at her stomach. She hopped back and the blade cut the air in front of her. Terror welled inside her like a flood. Her body tried to scream and run at the same time and the signals seemed to get confused – she just stumbled backward and shrieked a little, not very loud. He slashed at her again, and missed her by an inch. A tremendous dark shape appeared behind him, coming around the corner of a portable. "Ash?" asked Mule in his monstrous baritone. Something let go inside her, and now Ash screamed. The attacker turned and saw Mule. Rather than run away or go after him, he turned back to Ash and jabbed at her heart. She sidestepped and felt the blade scrape her coat at her shoulder. Mule came up behind him in a few large steps. He grabbed the attacker by the throat and flung him sprawling against a portable wall. He was up and slashing at Mule's face a second later, and the blade caught Mule's chin. "Ow!" Mule roared. "Dude, seriously?" Ash wanted to run but she couldn't leave Mule. "Get out of here!" she screamed at the attacker. Then something odd happened. For an instant, a shadow appeared on the roof of the portable behind Mule. It fell into the space between them, an inky blur, and disappeared. Ash saw a black flicker on the roof of the next portable, then nothing. Mule and the attacker didn't seem to notice anything. Except now, the attacker's switchblade was gone. He stared at his own empty hand, his five fingers silhouetted against the dim gray of a portable wall. Mule wound up and hit him, and the sound was the sickening impact of knuckles against yielding flesh and bone. The attacker fell flat out. He rolled over and belly-crawled away from Mule, then got up and ran behind a portable. Mule lumbered after him. "Hey," Ash said. "Let's just get away, huh?" They ran together across the field to the street, and kept going until they reached Ash's house. # Ash knew that when her father, Henry Prue, heard the story, he would call the cops. When she saw the blood seeping down Mule's shirt from the cut on his chin as they stood under the porch light, she was ready to call them herself. While they waited for the Seattle PD to show up, Dad broke out the first aid kit and bandaged Mule's chin as he sat at the kitchen table. "This could need stitches," Dad said. "I could run you to the ER." "No, it's cool." "It will probably scar." "Nice." Mule smiled, and winced. "I'll take a scar." Ash put a hand on his shoulder as Dad tried to press tape to Mule's neck. "You don't need to be any scarier, Mule." "Heh, heh – ow. It's all good." The cops were there in six minutes, a man and a woman in blue and black. They all sat in the living room, and Ash and Mule told the story as best they could. Ash wasn't sure what to say about the attacker's disappearing knife, but it turned out not to matter, since Mule jumped to the part where he hit the guy. Dad stood and paced as he listened. Ash could see him sweating. He stopped to wipe his glasses every few minutes. She wished he would leave – she knew the story must be tearing him up. He had always protected Ash, always tried to do his best as a single dad, ever since mom left when Ash was eleven and never came back. The memories were still sharp. Mom and Dad were never a good fit. Dad was an actuary for an insurance company, and he acted like it. Always computing the odds and playing it safe. Mom was reckless, a free spirit and an outdoor nut, who disappeared into the Olympic Mountains for days at a time, and came back muddy and sunburned and giddy. Mom had been fun sometimes, and Dad was always so serious – how they had fought! – but if Ash had been forced to choose between them, she would have chosen Dad. It had broken Dad's heart, though. He had never gotten over it. The police talked to Dad after that, while Ash and Mule sipped orange juice in the kitchen and Ash tried to steady her nerves. She was still shaky, and had to hold the glass with both hands. The police left, and Dad joined them in the kitchen. He threw his arms around his daughter. Then he pushed her away to look at her, holding her shoulders. "You're sure you're all right?" She was home safe, and he was still trying to protect her. She couldn't help but smile. "Fine, Dad. Mule saved me." Dad turned to him. "Samuel, thank you. Thank you for protecting my daughter." Mule blinked. "Um... sure." He shrugged, smiled, and winced. Dad whipped back to face Ash, tightening his grip on her. "What were you thinking, exactly?" Ash's breath stopped in her throat. "What?" "Walking home, alone, at night, in the dark?" Dad shook her, and she wobbled. "Look at him! He was bleeding! You could have been killed!" "Dad, I'm okay–" "I don't want you walking home after dark alone ever again. You wait for Samuel or you call me. Is that clear?" "That's not fair." Ash pulled free of her dad's grip. "Dad, I'm not a child." "Doesn't matter," Dad snapped. Mule stood by the refrigerator, trying to look invisible. Ash pointed her thumb at him. "What about him? He's going to walk out our front door, all the way home tonight, alone, in the dark." Dad sighed. "Ashley, please." She felt a little silly saying it. Mule weighed two hundred thirty pounds and was taller than Dad. Mule chimed in. "Ash, yeah. It's not the same." "You need to be more careful," Dad said, in his reasonable voice. "There are certain things that girls – women – shouldn't do. Walking home alone late at night is one of them." Ash glared at her dad, unable to find words. "Don't go all psycho on us," Mule said. "It's just that, look at you, a breeze would blow you over, you're so tiny. Just be careful." Coming from anyone else, it would have just made her angry, but these were her favorite two people in the world. It wasn't her fault that she was small. It wasn't her fault that she was a girl. It wasn't her fault... she could feel her body trembling. Dad's face changed, as if she was melting in front of him. "Listen... its been a hell of a night. We can talk about it more tomorrow." Mule nodded. "You're still going to tutor me, right? Because, you know. Test Friday." "I guess," Ash said. "Hey," Mule perked up. "I forgot! The audition. How did it go?" # School changed for Ash after that night. By lunch the next day, she was "the girl who got attacked" to all the other students, and the teachers' eyes seemed to linger on her, as if looking her over to be sure she was all right. The school paper ran a blitz of articles about the attack, about student safety, about campus security, and on and on. Everyone seemed to relish it, in a way – it was something exciting to talk about. Everyone but Ash, who just wanted to be left alone. The only big news at Magnolia High before the attack was the start of the school's new principal, Mr. Alexander, two weeks ago, and he was turning out to be professional, evenhanded, and bland. The old principal, Mr. Graham, now he was a character. He would dress up in Magnolia High's mascot costume and run up and down the basketball court, yelling "Go Falcons!" and flapping his wings. That was, until a month ago, when the school nurse found heroin in her office and the cops traced it back to him. He had been hiding his stash in her medicine cabinet. After that, Mr. Graham went away. On the Thursday of the week following Ash's attack, as the last minutes of lunch ticked down and Ash pulled her history book from her locker so she'd be ready for class, someone approached the locker beside hers. That locker had been empty since its owner, a cheerleader named Kat Purnell, had transferred out. Whoever it was had slipped up quietly, and Ash was too little to see over her locker door. They must have given Kat's locker to a new student. Ash fit her book into her backpack and slammed her locker shut. A blond boy scowled at the locker's little black wheel, trying to get the combination right. He was tall – but not really, more like average height but slender, in black jeans and a leather jacket that fit so perfectly it seemed to cling to him. He stopped turning the wheel and looked at her. His eyes were blue. And there was something familiar about him. He didn't say anything – he just looked at her, taking her in. "It's me," Ash said, "the girl who got attacked." Maybe she was getting used to it. "Ashley Prue," he said. His voice was light and delicate, and she wondered if he could sing. "You can call me Ash," she said. "Everyone does." He was still staring at her – grimly, she thought. The scowl was still there, as if he was deciding she was bad news. Why would he look at her like that? Then she recognized him. She'd seen his picture in the school paper, a low-resolution, stretched image, in an article about the new principal. "You're him," she said. "The principal's son." He didn't seem happy to be recognized. Maybe being the principal's son was sort of like being the girl who got attacked. "Drake," he finally said, as if he didn't want to give up his name. "Right," Ash remembered. "Drake Alexander. Hey, is that short for something?" He sighed. "Just Drake." What was his problem, she wondered. "Hey, I'm just asking. Right-left-right, by the way." "What?" "The locker." "Oh." His fingers touched the wheel as if he was going to give it a try, but his hand stopped. His scowl deepened, and he seemed to spend a long angry moment working something out. "Whatever," he snapped. He slapped his palm on the locker door and walked away. Ash stared at him, shocked, until he turned a corner and disappeared. 3 After school, Ash met Mule in the campus library. It was a broad, split-level room with central tables and a long half-circle of about thirty bookshelves. Nothing special. Old-fashioned, actually, with musty carpet and rusty spots on the shelf brackets. It was all due to be renovated, and a sign over the door read, "Closing Soon – Return Your Books Now." Mule's Huckleberry Finn test was tomorrow, thus the crash course. She had him reviewing chapter five – silently, and she took the moment to think. Maybe there was something wrong with her. She was cursed, perhaps. That was why she was doomed never to be an apprentice ballerina, why the new boy at school looked at her as if she was a virus, and why masked lunatics came at her with knives. She didn't deserve any of it. There was ballet practice tonight with Miss Claudine, and Ash couldn't decide if she wanted to go. What was ballet to her, now that she had failed? How badly did she love it? Well, she loved it a lot. Maybe it wasn't all about fame and glory, maybe it was just about the dance. She could still– A curly-haired boy in a striped shirt sat down at their table. "Ashley?" Mule looked up, exhausted and surly, his concentration broken. He glared at the boy, and the fresh pink scar on his chin made him look even more dangerous. "I'm Spencer Marsh, with the Friday Falcon. May I ask you a couple of questions?" He smiled innocently. He had the youthful, plump build of a freshman, with baby fat still in his cheeks. Ash had talked to a lot of people from the paper, but not him. "Not now, Spencer." Ash was talked out, and ready to put her fifteen minutes of fame behind her. She longed for obscurity. Spencer didn't give up. "I just wanted to ask if you've heard of Mr. Alexander's plan, and whether you think it will help." Ash hadn't heard anything about it. Mule hadn't either, judging by the way his glare held. Spencer kept on talking. "Security cameras. Everywhere. Thirty thousand dollars' worth, with motion-triggered activation and around-the-clock operation." Spencer set a notepad on the desk, and the tip of his pen hovered over it. "Tell me, will that improve student safety, or is it an affront to our civil liberties?" Ugh. Ash rested her head on the table. "Spencer... I'm sorry. Could you go away please?" "Of course," Spencer said. "In just a moment. I just want to ask you if–" A low growl crept from Mule's throat. Spencer froze, his eyebrows high, watching Mule as if he'd missed a Beware of Dog sign somewhere. But the freshman reporter didn't give up. "If I could just..." Mule reached, ever so slowly, for the collar of Spencer's shirt. Spencer's eyes nearly bugged out of his head as those enormous fingers spread and got closer and closer. Spencer jumped out of his chair before Mule could touch him. "I guess this isn't a good time." Mule pushed back his own chair, its legs scraping the old brown carpet, as if he was about to rise. "Bye!" Spencer ran for the library doors. Mule scooted his chair forward and settled back into the chapter. "Thank you," Ash said. Mule shrugged, and his fingers probed his new scar thoughtfully. "Pretty much what I do." His eyes returned to the page. "Okay, so help me out – who is this hairy guy?" Ash peered over. "That's Huck's dad." Mule grinned, showing big teeth. "What a loser." Ash grinned too. "Hey, that reminds me. Guess who I met today." "Who?" "The principal's son." "Yeah? Boy, having the principal for a dad must suck rocks. What's the word on him?" "Total jerk." Mule arched a heavy eyebrow. "Really?" Ash wiggled her fingers like claws. "He glowered at me. Grr. Then he just stomped away." "Glowered?" Ash nodded. "Like you and Spencer just now." Mule looked impressed. "Yikes." "I have no idea what his problem is. Do I smell? Is that it?" Mule leaned over and inhaled deeply. "You smell fine. Like a girl, in fact." "Thanks." That was at least one benefit to being a girl. No boy-stink. Ash frowned and fell silent. She remembered Drake's stare, and the disgust in those icy blue eyes. Almost horror. "I wish..." She stopped. "What?" She wished a lot of things. She wished those cold eyes would look at her in another way. She wished she could run into Drake again – she was bound to, with neighboring lockers – but when she did, would that awful contempt still be there? Mule was looking at her, waiting. "I wish he would deal with his neurological issue," she said. # After tutoring Mule, Ash pulled her ballet clothes and pointe shoes from her locker, feeling a little sick to her stomach as she stuffed them in her bag. She couldn't imagine herself at practice. Her fingers stopped on the bag's zipper as she tried to decide, hating the idea of going and hating the idea of skipping. She wanted to shut her locker and see Drake standing behind it. He could smile at her and apologize, laughing at his earlier behavior. He could offer to make it up to her. What did Drake look like when he laughed? She stood quietly in front of her locker, not moving. Enough. She took a deep breath and slammed the locker shut. Drake wasn't standing there. She started the walk to the ballet studio. The sun had set and the gray of the sky grew darker, and cars lit her with their headlights as they drove by. Ash walked past an alley with a dumpster, and was seized by the notion that the switchblade man hid behind it. Her heart seemed to stop, and she froze, afraid to move. He could be back there. The police hadn't caught him, and this alley was only a few blocks from the campus, where he had attacked her before. He could be anywhere. Ash got a grip on her fear and pushed it down. After taking a few breaths, she walked on, faster now... but the fear caught her again, tried to take her over. It settled into her heart and dug in, making a new home for itself. Ash's eyes darted from shadow to shadow, and she raced along just short of a jog. This was another way the switchblade man had hurt her, she thought. He had cursed her with this fear. Was this what walking alone at night would be like for her now? Her father's voice came back to her. There are certain things that girls – women – shouldn't do. He was right. She felt her face tighten, her molars pressing together with anger. She reached the ballet studio's intersection and could see the building across the street. She waited for the light to change and watched the sky fading from twilight gray to city-lit amber, and felt the fickle breeze tug her dark hair. White light poured from the studio's glass doors. Inside, Ash knew, Miss Claudine was waiting. In another minute, the other girls would be towering over her, reaching for the ceiling, tall as willowy trees, and she... she was just a sapling. And it just didn't matter how well the sapling could dance. Across the street, the walk signal finally beckoned. Time to go be the littlest ballet dancer. Thumbelina. Ash didn't step from the curb. The lights of the intersection blurred, and she wiped tears from her eyes. She just couldn't do it. The light changed and the glowing red hand returned to forbid her crossing. She would not step through those glass doors. Not anymore. She turned on her heel and began the somber walk home, sad and afraid, making a broad circle around the high school campus, where there were no lights. # Ash turned the corner onto her street, and saw the warm glow of her house's porch light. She imagined Dad inside, alone, waiting for her, worrying. She turned her house key and pushed open the front door. "Dad, I'm home!" She dropped her backpack on the armchair and headed for the stairs. She froze when she saw the woman sitting on the couch. The woman wore faded jeans and a green sweater and sat with her legs crossed, her fingers interlaced peacefully on her knee. She was slender, with dark hair pinned up, and the lamp on the end table lit her from the side, giving her a mysterious look. She watched Ash without surprise, her head tipped and her chin slightly elevated, her eyes taking Ash in over rimless, almost invisible eyeglasses. Ash didn't know her, but the woman held a warm presence about her, and something about that presence was familiar. Dad came in from the kitchen, holding two glasses of ice water. "Ash, welcome home... no ballet practice?" Ash let out an unsteady breath. How could he ask that? "I... I decided not to... who is this?" "This is your Aunt Elsbeth. She's your mother's sister." 4 Elsbeth extended her hand to Ash. Her grip was gentle, but formal. "Nice to finally meet you, Ashley." "Most people call me Ash." She and her dad sat down opposite the strange woman. "Ash." Elsbeth considered the ceiling. "After a fire... that which remains." She smiled. "I like it." Ash couldn't tell Elsbeth's age, and tried not to stare. She might have been a mature thirty-year-old or youthful and fifty. The weird thing was, Ash never knew Mom had a sister. Mom had never spoken much about her family, and hadn't stayed in touch with them. An old five-by-seven photograph of Ash, Dad, and Mom sat on the mantle. They were picnicking on the grass at Gasworks Park. In the picture, Ash was about ten. Ash quietly compared Elsbeth's face to her mother's. Their eyes were the same, playful but observant. "Elsbeth is going to be staying," Dad said, "in the guest room for a few days. She's looking for your mother." "Really?" Ash asked. "Mom walked out years ago. Why are you here now?" "Ashley," Dad said, his tone disapproving. Ash pressed her lips together. She didn't mean to be rude, but she had to wonder what was really going on. Mom had walked away from her and Dad and never even sent a postcard. She must not have loved Dad the way he loved her, and if she never came back, that was okay with Ash. But Dad still pined away for her. He kept that picture on the mantle, and Ash could see it in his eyes even now as he looked at Elsbeth. Hope. For a clue, a trace, a glimpse of Mom. Elsbeth smiled disarmingly. "At the moment, I'm afraid I don't have anywhere else to go. I lost my job and my house was foreclosed on. I had to move out. Your mother and I grew up in that house. It belonged to our parents. And while I was clearing everything out, I found that." Elsbeth nodded to a steamer trunk in the hall. It looked a hundred years old, covered with scratches and stains. "I'm trying to find her, to see if she wants any of that stuff. And it would be nice to know if she's all right. Nobody in the family has seen her for almost a year. Oh! I just remembered..." She floated from the couch and crossed the room with a grace that told Ash she might be a dancer, too. Elsbeth threw the clasps on the trunk and lifted the lid. She drew out a small oblong box, wrapped in pink and black, and closed the lid carefully. "Now, Ash... this is just a little something from me to you. To celebrate our getting to know each other." She handed the box to Ash, leaned in close, and whispered, "Open it when you're alone." Ash felt her face flush hot and wondered if Dad had heard. That was an awkward thing to say. What the hell was it? Underwear? Elsbeth sat down in her previous spot, by the lamp on the end table. Ash held the box in her lap and cleared her throat nervously. Whatever was in the box, it wasn't underwear. It was too heavy. The house line rang. Dad skipped up to answer it, all spritely energy. "Yes, she is," he said into the phone. "Just a minute." Ash perked up. Mule wouldn't call on the house line. Who could it be? "Ashley?" Dad wiggled the cordless receiver at her. "Somebody named Drake." A hot buzz of energy ran from her scalp to her knees... followed by an icy surge of fear. Why would he call? To apologize? Yeah, right – as if he could read her mind. Was he just calling to be mean again? Settle down, Ash thought. She set the box on the coffee table and snatched the phone from her dad. "I'll take this upstairs." She raced up the steps two at a time, holding the phone in both hands, and slammed the door of her room behind her. It was an impolite exit, but she didn't care. She flopped on her bed and pressed the phone to her ear. No sound. She swallowed. "Hello?" "Hey, Ash?" It was him. That voice! "This is me." Lying on her stomach made her feel like her heart was about to explode. She rolled over and sat up. "Hey," he said. There was a long pause. "How are you doing?" "Great." Breathe, she told herself. "Listen... I got your number from the student directory. I hope you don't mind me calling." "That's fine." It was a crime that such a voice should belong to such a jerk. If only she could lower her guard and lose herself in that sound… but no, she wouldn’t. She’d rather endure this torture. What did he want? Ash got up and stood at her window. "What's up, Drake?" "Well... I just called to say thanks. For helping me with my locker. I got it. After I left. Later on, I mean." Was that it? Ash drew in a long breath, held it, and let it out slowly. There had to be more. "No problem." "Yeah, okay. Hey... are you busy tomorrow night?" Ash nearly dropped the phone. Her legs started wobbling, and she staggered to her desk to sit down. "Tomorrow night?" she squeaked. "Yeah. You know that field south of the Seattle Center? Sort of near the Space Needle." "I think so." "They have free concerts there on Fridays. You just sit on the grass. Anyhow, Kithkin is playing there. Want to go? I mean, meet me there?" This can't be happening. "Yes. I would. I mean... yes, Drake." That's enough, she thought. Shut up. "Cool. At seven. Meet me at the outside tables." "Yeah. See you then." "Okay," Drake said. "Well... good night." The words sent a thrill through Ash's body. "Bye. I mean... good night." But the line was already dead. Ash lay back on her bed and stared at the ceiling, her mind swimming, her body numb. What had just happened? All she could do was hear his voice in her mind. Good night. # Ash kept her cool during dinner. On any other night, she might have gushed to Dad about the phone call, but Elsbeth was there. So instead, she made polite conversation about nothing. Elsbeth was quiet too, although Ash was aware throughout the evening that Elsbeth was watching her, glancing her way nonchalantly through those barely visible eyeglasses. Ash went to bed early, and slept little. The next day, Friday, Ash met Mule in the library after school. They chose a table in the corner opposite the entrance, where an old guy in coveralls was bolting a metal bracket to a wall. It would hold a video camera in a few more days, along with dozens of others all over campus. Ash was not looking forward to that. It would be like going to school in a fish bowl. Mule grinned at her as she sat down. He didn't grin like that very often, and it spoiled his usual rugged, dangerous look. His teeth were a bit too big for such a smile, and it made him look goofy. So Ash couldn't help but smile back. "My, my. We're happy today, aren't we?" Mule nodded enthusiastically. "We are. No tutoring this time. I just wanted to show you this." He slid a stapled packet of white paper across the table to her. Huckleberry Finn Exam, it said, and the score was 23/25. Mule raised his hands to the ceiling in triumph. "I killed Huck Finn! I killed him!" She picked up the test. The English teacher, Mrs. Cavanough, had drawn a little happy face on it. "Mule, this is fantastic," Ash said. "Congratulations!" "I rock!" Mule held his fist toward her. "Fist bump!" Fist bumping Mule was like fist bumping concrete, but Ash was too excited to mind. She massaged her knuckles while he carefully slipped the test into his bag, as if it was a precious document. "Thanks, Ash," Mule said. "I owe you." Ash shrugged demurely, trying to keep from beaming. "Oh... I didn't do anything." "I would have crashed and burned without you. You're a genius." Ash giggled. "Could be." Okay, enough of that. Time to change the subject. "You won't believe who showed up on our doorstep last night," she said. "Who?" Ash told the story of meeting Elsbeth. "Wait, wait," Mule said. "So this long-lost aunt shows up with a crate of your mom's things, asks for room and board, and your dad says sure, no problem?" "Pretty much. Dad's weird about Mom, so it's not surprising, in a way. Elsbeth is nice, I guess. She's just... oh, my God!" Ash remembered the pink and black package – Elsbeth's gift. "What?" "She gave me a present." Ash pressed her hands to her face. "I completely forgot!" "What was it?" "I never opened it. I never said thank you. I'm so rude! I just left it on the coffee table." Mule frowned. "That's weird." "I was about to, but I got a phone call..." Ash stopped. She felt a surprising pin-prick of anxiety, and wondered if she should tell Mule about her date with Drake. What if he...? Mule leaned forward. "From who?" Ash thought for a moment. What if he... what? Mule was her friend. She couldn't withhold this from him. "Well..." Ash took a deep breath. "From Drake." 5 Ash watched him for his reaction. Mule still leaned forward, his square jaw hanging open slightly, waiting for more. "He asked me out," Ash continued. "On a date." "Wait, wait." Mule leaned back and shook his head, his eyes squeezed shut. "Neurological-issue guy? The principal's son?" Ash took a breath. "Yeah." He peered at her suspiciously. "But he's a jerk. You said." Ash shrugged. "I know! But–" "I was thinking about pounding him." "Don't do that," Ash said. "Listen, he called, and... he was nice. It was weird." "He apologized?" Mule asked. "Well, no. Not exactly." "Then..." Ash opened her mouth and no words came out. Finally, "Maybe you're right. Maybe I'm crazy." Mule frowned thoughtfully at her, probing the scar on his chin. "You're going?" Ash straightened and placed her palms on the table. "Yep." Mule nodded slowly. His eyes settled onto the grain of the table's wood. A long moment passed. Ash watched him. "Hey. You okay?" Mule snapped out of it. "Who, me? Sure." He let out a long sigh. "It's you I'm worried about." # Spencer Marsh sat at his desk in the broom closet, typing. The tiny room hadn't held brooms for over two years, although the scent of ammonia still lingered, especially whenever Spencer first stepped in and shut the door behind him to write the next article for the Falcon. The cleaning supplies had been cleared out to provide office space in the main building for the newspaper staff – a dazzling coup for the Journalism Club, and something the seniors still bragged about. Of course, the seniors didn't actually do any work in here. It was just a broom closet. It stank. And it was hot. And the air vent near the ceiling piped in distracting noise from every other room in the building, especially Principal Alexander's office next door. Spencer didn't care about any of that. He just loved that he had his own office, even though he was only a freshman. He spent his breaks and lunches here, and stopped by before and after school sometimes, too. He did some of his best writing here. But today wasn't one of his better days. Distant voices creeped out of the vent, tinny and weak, toying with his imagination. His mind tried to make sense of the words, dragging his attention to them, breaking his concentration. "Yes sir. Yes sir, everything is right on schedule." That was Principal Alexander, on the phone again. His voice was deep and rumbling, but soothing and even, a hypnotic sort of monotone. "The renovation is on schedule. The library closes a week from Friday. Yes, a great victory. I understand your concern. No, I don't anticipate any delays of that nature." The renovation – same old thing the principal always talked about. Spencer tried to tune the words out, to concentrate on his own paragraphs on the screen – a brilliant editorial about the pathetic nutritional value of the school lunches. "How long has it been since our efforts have been so rewarded? No one's found a page since the one in Austria, 1915. We'll be... what? Yes, of course. Of course we are watching for her. That's true, but for now, it's all we can do. Listen, I have certain rules I have to follow – I can't just... " Blah, blah, blah. Spencer really needed some headphones. No use now. His time was about up. He saved his work and powered down the laptop. "I understand all of that. That's what the cameras are for. She wouldn't dare. She can't. And if she did, we'd... the girl? She's just sixteen, not old enough to be a concern. I'm aware of that. I'm aware of that, too. All right, if you must know, I have a particular plan for her – she's something of a special project of mine..." Spencer's reporter antennae twitched. Who was the principal talking about? A student, obviously. He shouldn't be eavesdropping... but that just made him want to listen all the more. Could there be a story here? No, the principal yammered on about this student or that student all day long. The schoolwide bell rang, marking the end of lunch. The broom closet amplified the sound as it did every other noise, turning it into a clamor that rattled every thought out of Spencer's head. He had to remember to get out of this room before that bell went off. Now, he'd have a headache the rest of the day. He stumbled into the office hallway, wincing, and shut the broom closet door behind him. He straightened the door's picture of the winged, scowling Falcon, and raced off to class so he wouldn't be late. # After school, Ash found Elsbeth's gift still on the coffee table. She carried it up to her room. Open it when you're alone. Pink, with a black ribbon and a black bow. Ash hesitated. What if her father came in? She'd open it later. She was already preoccupied about what to wear tonight. What did she have that looked decent but could hold up to sitting on grass all evening? She settled on her good-not-great jeans and white blouse, with her tan double-breasted coat with the belt. She frowned at her reflection in the mirror on the back of her bedroom door. There wasn't any more time. "Ash?" Dad called from downstairs. "Ready?" Dad had insisted on picking her up at nine, whether the concert was over or not. All Ash could do was be grateful for the ride and look forward to Driver's Ed next semester. On the ride downtown in her dad's blue Nissan Altima, Ash's heart hammered away while Dad fired question after question. As Dad drove, the Space Needle shone into the evening sky, beckoning. "When did you meet this boy?" "This week. At school." "You have his cell?" "Yes." "Write it on the ledger. In the glove box." Ash did. "Why didn't you invite any girl friends?" "I don't have any girl friends." "Why didn't you invite Samuel?" "Dad!" "Okay, okay. What kind of a name is Drake, anyhow?" "Dad?" "Hmph. His parents' address?" "His father is the principal. Jeez." He nodded, looking thoughtful. "Good." "Ugh." "Listen, young lady. You're lucky to be going at all. I shouldn't even let you out of my sight." "It's not my fault I was attacked! You can't hold it against me for the rest of my life!" "Oh, yes I can." His fingers drummed on the steering wheel, then he gripped it, turning his knuckles white. "I'm sorry. I know you're sixteen. I know... I need to let go. It's not easy." "I'll be in public. I'll be with Drake. I'll call." The car pulled up to the curb on Mercer, near the Space Needle and the Experience Music Project. "So... what band is this?" Ash sighed. "Dad..." "I'll be right here at nine. You will too. If I have to hunt you down, you can say goodbye to these little outings." Ash looked solemn for his sake. "Yes, Dad." She jumped out of the car and waved as he slowly pulled away. Free! Ash strolled under the old monorail track and turned right at the base of the Space Needle. As the day's twilight faded, light from the Needle's windows lit the asphalt like white moonglow. She was right on time. Drake could be waiting for her already. What would she say to him? Hi, Drake. Thanks for inviting me. No, that was letting him get away with how he had treated her at her locker. Hey, loser. Tempting. Good evening, Drake. Too formal. She would have to come up with something. She could hear the band tuning their instruments. A joke, maybe. Something that would make him smile. She would love to see that. Ash came to the grassy field between the Seattle Center and the science museum. On a permanent stage at one end, four men in black fiddled with instruments and stage lights, casting eerie and out-of-place tones to the people sprawled on the grass. The audience sat in groups, chatting, an even mix of young men and young women, dressed in dark clothes, but sitting on bright beach towels and blankets. Some people sitting near the stage shouted advice to the band. She turned to the bistro-style iron tables and chairs on the patio outside the Seattle Center's Starbucks and scanned surreptitiously for Drake's blond hair and blue eyes. Every chair was occupied... but none by Drake. Where was he? He had to be up to something. She turned a casual three-sixty, pretending to watch the band tune up, searching every face. Nothing. The band was about to start. Ash strolled diagonally across the field, stepping carefully around pillows and coolers, watching for him and being visible, hoping he would call to her. At the far side she circled back around, past the trees at the field's edge, and returned to the Starbucks tables. He wasn't here. "You looking for me?" Wrong voice. Not Drake, Ash knew before she turned. It was some old guy, maybe twenty-two, leaning back in an iron chair, his legs kicked wide apart, his hair long and dyed black. "You get stood up?" Three other guys at his table snickered. They looked like him, more or less. Ash turned away from them as rage charged through her arms and legs, and her face flushed uncomfortably warm. "Hey, wait! Cute little girl. You're really tiny. That's hot. Come talk to us." "Dude," one of his friends said. "She's twelve, asshole." "No, she's not. She's just... you know. I'm gonna go talk to her." Oh, please no. Panicked, Ash glanced back at them. The guy was walking her way. He wasn't Mule's size, but he was big enough to be scary. She bolted in purposeful strides just short of a jog, along the street that ran beside the field. Lots of people wandered here, and Ash weaved between them. "Hey, wait. Wait, cute little girl!" Ash wanted to puke. Now, Drake, she thought. The lead singer of the band stepped up to the microphone and his voice echoed across the field. Ash didn't catch his words and didn't care. She scanned for a security guard as she slipped between a couple holding hands, racing to put distance between her and the creep. The band started their first song, some ethereal, slowly-building rock. By the time Ash had reached the far side of the field, she'd lost him. She stood at the elbow of a chubby security guard who hadn't noticed her, ready to tap him if the creep showed up. The music pounded through her, making her angrier and angrier. Where was Drake? She'd kill him for this. She dialed his number, but it routed to voicemail. "Hey, this is the Drake Alexander," he said in his perfect voice. "Leave a message." Hearing him seemed to empty her out, leave her with nothing but longing. She fought to find words, then hung up. She couldn't breathe – every muscle in her body wanted to throttle him. Was she stupid? Was he playing her? What was happening? Tears washed her eyes, doing phantasmal things to the stage lights. Ash cried as quietly as she could, not wanting the security guard to hear. By the third song, she was breathing better. She sniffed. Maybe Drake had arrived. She craned her neck but couldn't see the bistro tables from here. Ash doubled back along the field's edge, slinking from shadow to shadow among the trees. She leaned on the trunk of the last tree, and from the darkness, watched the creep and his friends bobbing their heads to the rhythm. In her tan coat, she was far from invisible. They might see her if they looked this way. Should have worn black, she thought absently. After two more songs, Drake still hadn't come. There was no more point to this. What a waste. She ducked behind the tree and pulled her phone from her pocket. "Dad? It's me." "Hey, sweetheart. You okay?" No. "Yeah." "What's going on?" "Could you come get me?" "Now? Sure, if you want. I just pulled in the driveway. What's wrong?" Ash couldn't say it. "Honey? What is it?" Her voice broke. "He's not even here, Dad!" # Ash slouched in the back seat on the way home, her forehead against the cold window. Thankfully, Dad didn't pry. And once she was in the house, he didn't try to stop her from retreating up the stairs to her room. In her room, she stared at her eyes, puffy and bloodshot, in the mirror on the back of her door and worked to get a hold of herself. Drake was a psycho. It was over. Not that it had ever started. She wouldn't talk to him, wouldn't look at him. If he showed up at her locker, she'd ignore him, and if he pushed his luck, she'd call Mule. Loser, scumbag, jerk. Why did his eyes have to be so perfectly blue? She pressed her fists to her temples, hating herself for the thought. She had to get her mind off this evening's disaster. Elsbeth's gift sat on the dresser. The oblong box in pink wrap and black ribbon, too heavy to be underwear, the gift she'd never said thank you for. Too big to be a jewelry box, too small to be anything else. She picked it up, pulled off the ribbon, and tore the paper. When she lifted the lid, she wasn't sure at first what the thing was – nothing but a slender black handle with chrome trim and a shining button. Switchblade. She'd seen it before. The memory came back strong and fast, a descending shadow, and the five fingers of the attacker's empty hand silhouetted against the wall... right before Mule hit him. Coincidence. Had to be. Ash swallowed and touched the black handle. Her fingers dug into the box's velvet and lifted the switchblade out. It felt cold and awkward in her small hand. Her thumb brushed the button– The blade flipped out and locked into place with a quiet snick. Its sheen turned to dull brown at the blade's tip. Something had clung to the steel and dried there. Mule's blood. This is impossible. Ash's hands trembled, and the soft light of her bedroom lamp made the blade glitter. Someone knocked on her door. "Ash, it's me," Elsbeth said quietly. Ash took a deep breath and opened the door. Elsbeth stepped in silently and closed it behind her. Ash instinctively pointed the switchblade at her. "I heard the wrapping paper tear," Elsbeth said softly. "I've been waiting." Ash couldn't think. "How can you...?" Under Elsbeth's patient stare, she stopped. Ash set the blade carefully on the dresser, and sat on the bed. "It's yours," Elsbeth said. "It was mine as proper spoils, and I give it to you." "You were with us," Ash said. "Mule and me. When I was attacked. You..." "Disarmed him for you, yes." "I barely saw you." Elsbeth folded her arms and leaned against the door, smiling. "I'm not as fast as I was at your age. You shouldn't have seen me at all." Ash's voice was a whisper. "You jumped, like, ten feet." "Ash," Elsbeth's smile fell away. "There are things you need to know. That's why I'm here. That attack was not random." Ash could still feel her hands trembling. She drew her knees to her chest and hugged them, and suddenly wished she hadn't opened the box after all. "Are you really my aunt? Who are you?" Elsbeth sat on the bed beside her. "I'm going to tell you who I am. Then I'm going to tell you who you are." 6 Elsbeth spoke slowly and softly. "The man with that switchblade was assessing you. Testing your development, to see if you are a threat. They have noticed you." "Why me?" Ash shivered. "I'm just some girl. I'm nobody." "Because of me. Because of your mother. Because of your heritage. A lot of people are interested in you, Ash. Including us. Which is why I must warn you – at the end of this conversation, there will be a test." Ash couldn't believe it. She shook her head. "What, like an essay?" "No." Elsbeth's voice was cold. "Not like an essay." This was all too much. Ash stood up. "Nobody's interested in me. I have no heritage. You need to start making some sense." "You know more than you think." Elsbeth sighed. "I am your aunt. Your mother was one of us, once. We are looking for her... although I suspect she is dead. That trunk is full of her things, and they will be handed down to you. When you are ready." Ash's thoughts scattered like startled pigeons. Mom had to be camping on a mountaintop or lounging on a beach somewhere. Not dead. And what could be in that trunk? Elsbeth stood and drew a tissue from the box on Ash's nightstand. She carefully rubbed Mule's blood from the switchblade. "We guard a secret, Ash. For centuries, now. A secret so terrible, a power so dangerous, that if it were revealed, nations would fall. Civilizations would crumble. The world would be cast into a thousand years of darkness." She inspected the blade, and it glinted in the bedroom's lamp light. "We fight those who would steal the secret for themselves. We fight using secrets of our own. And you will fight with us. If you can." "No, I won't." Ash folded her arms and scowled. "You people are crazy. I don't want any part of this. You're just a cat-burglar on speed or something." Elsbeth paused, grinning. "I've never heard that one before." She closed the switchblade and set it on the dresser. "What we are is an eight-hundred-year-old underground society. We have no name. No historian knows of us. Our reach is global, our quest is eternal, our invisibility undisturbed..." Her eyes locked on Ash. "Except once, when a clan was briefly uncovered by outsiders, six hundred years ago in Japan." The memory of that dark shadow came to Ash again, dropping between Mule and the attacker. Then a dark outline on the portable's roof. Then nothing. Cat burglars on speed. "Oh... you guys are, like, ninjas. Is that it?" Elsbeth nodded slowly. Ash giggled. "Seriously? Guys running around in black pajamas, stabbing people? Mule likes those kinds of movies." "We don't kill," Elsbeth said. "Unless we must, to keep the secret. And there's something else you need to understand." Ash didn't feel that she understood any of it. Was she supposed to believe that her mother was some sort of ninja? Or did Elsbeth just have a hyperactive imagination? Maybe Ash was the center of some awkwardly unfolding practical joke. "What about the guy with the switchblade? He wasn't part of your little team?" Elsbeth shook her head. "You aren't quite hearing me. Words are not working with you. Let me show you something." She drew up the blinds and opened the window. "Turn off the light," she whispered. Ash hesitated. Cool night air poured into the room. She flicked off the room light. The trees across the street, lit amber by the streetlights, became the only thing visible. Elsbeth, silhouetted in the window, worked the screen loose and set it on the floor. She hopped on the sill. "Follow." She crawled out and disappeared. Ash's room was on the second floor, and there was no escape route that way – no trellis or balcony, as much as Ash had always longed for one. She raced to the window and checked the lawn below. Elsbeth was gone. "Up here." Ash craned her neck and saw Elsbeth on the roof, smiling and peering down from the eave, her hair hanging and framing her face. "How did...?" Ash began. Elsbeth tilted her head toward the pipe that ran from the rain gutter down the corner of the house to the rosebushes. Ash couldn't count how many times she had dreamed as a little girl of shimmying down that pipe and running away – but she had never tried it. It was too far from the window. "I can't reach that!" "I did." "I'm too small!" Elsbeth huffed and disappeared. Ash was suddenly alone, leaning out her bedroom window. She could hear the traffic of Fifteenth Avenue, and a yippy dog barking on the next block over. Ash carefully set her feet on the window's metal sliding track and crouched on the sill. She gripped the frame and let a leg dangle out. Long way down. Her hands sweated, and her heart started thumping uncomfortably. She stretched one arm and probed along the wall, testing the distance. She'd tried this many times in her imagination, and it had always seemed too far. And it was too far now. Then how had Elsbeth done it? She was taller, of course. Longer reach. Ash's fingernails scratched at the house paint. "I can't." "Let go of the window. Just lean and fall," Elsbeth said from above. "You can grab it." "You mean jump?" Ash could reach the pipe that way, but if the pipe pulled loose, she'd land in the rosebushes fifteen feet below. "Sometimes," Elsbeth said, "being small has advantages." Ash frowned... getting it. The pipe would hold her. She could do it. And that sent a chill through her. Now, she thought, before you freeze up permanently. Ash let go of the window frame and pushed off the sill with her leg. She snatched at the pipe and held on as her body swung over. The aluminum creaked, but held. Pain jabbed through her desperate fingers until her big toes found a hold on each side of a bracket that bolted the pipe to the wall. Her fingers weren't very strong, but her toes were. So she used her legs to climb. The worst part was getting around the eave and onto the roof. Ash caught Elsbeth's extended hand, and Elsbeth pulled her up. A cold breeze chilled her as they stood together on the tar shingles. Up here, above the streetlights, the houses along the street became a row of roofs with dark treetops to each side. The city-lit sky seemed to hang lower, and Elsbeth stood out against yellow-gray clouds. It was beautiful, although Ash didn't know what she was doing up here. She worked her sore fingers and shivered. "Nice." "Isn't it?" Elsbeth ran a finger daintily behind each ear, fixing her eyeglasses in place. "Now... follow me." Ash glanced around – there was no where to go. "Where?" Elsbeth raced up to the spine of the roof and down the other side. Ash took a few teetering steps, feeling the slope as her shoes gripped the rough shingles. As Ash reached the top, Elsbeth had reached the eave at the opposite end of the house. She leaped the space between, landed catlike on the neighbor's house without a sound, and kept going. Ash stared, unmoving, at the receding figure. Elsbeth showed no hesitation. No fear. She leaped to the next house, and the next. Ash couldn't believe what she was seeing. Ninjas were real. But the thing that gripped Ash and held her transfixed on the roof of her house, unable to blink, was the way Elsbeth moved. Ash absorbed it all with her ballet dancer's eye – precision, elegance, aplomb, the way the set of Elsbeth's body preserved her balance. Perfect grace. She floated over the abyss between houses with ballon, the elusive quality of weightlessness every dancer strove for. Beautiful. Ash had to remind herself that she was not witnessing ballet, but she had the eerie thought that perhaps, in Elsbeth's movement, she was witnessing the thing that ballet had always tried to be. I need this, she thought. And she had never felt so certain about anything in her life. Ash set her feet, lifted her carriage, and raced down the roof, sprinting like a gymnast. She flew to the next house easily – she had performed jetés farther than that in the studio – and landed on the other side. Whump! Ash was loud. She pounded her way over the neighbor's house and leaped to the next. She focused on her knees and toes, and her steps grew softer. Six houses later, she reached the corner and found Elsbeth waiting for her. Every muscle in Ash's body ached, and she drew in the cold night air with huge gasps. "Why..." she began. "My niece." Elsbeth smiled sadly. "You move like an intoxicated moose." Ash caught her breath. "Why... didn't you tell me?" "You needed to see for yourself." "It makes sense. Ninjas, I mean. Small... fast. Graceful, nimble." Ash nodded. "Girls. I never thought about it before." "We have always been a sisterhood," Elsbeth said. "That is knowledge you must guard, because if it became known that the ninja have always been women, we would find it much more difficult to hide. Stealth, Ash. Speed, deception, seduction. These are our weapons." The last word caught in Ash's ear. She swallowed, and felt herself flush. "Did you say–" Elsbeth shook her head. "When you are ready. You don't know any of the Wiles yet." "The Wiles?" "The Nine Wiles of the Ninja. The wisdom that lets us do what we do." Ash had only heard that word in one sense before. "You mean like... feminine wiles?" "Exactly," Elsbeth said. 7 "The Nine Wiles," Elsbeth said, "contain more than just wisdom. They will clear your mind of the shackles that hold you back. They will unchain you." Ash felt her mind floating, struggling to deal with what she was hearing, like she was still in mid-air above all those side yards. Her sense of balance wavered, and the shingles creaked under her feet. "Take my hand." Elsbeth's warm grip stabilized her. "It's time you heard the first Wile. Ready?" Ash locked her eyes on Elsbeth's. "I'm ready." "Choose," Elsbeth said. Ash waited for more. "Choose... what?" "Choose everything." Ash frowned. It almost meant something, but– "Centuries ago," continued Elsbeth, "there was a village at the edge of a forest. One morning, a wild boar wandered into the village square." "What does this have to do with–" "Shh. The first woman to see it cried out a warning and hid. Her brother had been killed by a boar when she was a child, and she was terrified of them. Another woman walked carefully up to the boar and scratched its back, feeling its bristles. Her father had been a pig farmer, and she had grown up around pigs. The boar reminded her of her days on the farm. As she scratched the boar's back, a third woman struck the boar dead with an axe. Her family had not eaten in two days, and she thought only of the boar's meat." Elsbeth gently squeezed Ash's hand. "Now... why did these women react the way they did?" "Oh, I see. Because they each had different–" "Clearly," Elsbeth interrupted, raising a hand to cut Ash off, "because a wild boar had wandered into the village." She winked. Ash nodded slowly as the pieces locked into place in her mind. The point wasn't that the women had different backgrounds that made them behave differently. The point was that they didn't know it. And that was careless, like going through life on autopilot. Elsbeth pulled Ash's hand. "Remember. You must choose, every moment, how to react. What to think, what to believe, what to do. It's your responsibility. Never, never blame the boar." "I get it." Ash squeezed back. "I think. But... that's it?" "It's more than you realize." Elsbeth released her hand and stepped away from Ash, gliding backward over the roof. She glanced casually across the street. "You remember I said there would be a test?" "Yeah," Ash said slowly. She felt her heart sink a little. "Good. Here, then, is your boar for the evening." Elsbeth set her feet wide and crouched low on the sloping roof, her fists pressed together. "Follow," she said. There was a flick of motion and a snapping sound, and Elsbeth was gone. Two broken shingles lay where her feet had been. Ash whirled, searching, finding nothing but quiet night, and streetlights, and soft breeze moving the treetops. She heard a faint snap on the roof of the house across the street. Elsbeth came out of a shoulder roll and crouched there, half-turned to face Ash. One hand pressed flat on the roof and the other, with two fingers, beckoned. Ash couldn't move. Then she remembered to breathe, and looked to the broken shingles beside her, and back to Elsbeth. Sixty feet, maybe more. Impossible impossible impossible– Choose. But it wasn't fair! Ash was strong, and fast, but she wasn't superhuman. Nobody could do that... Except Elsbeth. Ash fought panic, shifting her weight from toes to heels, heels to toes, grounding herself. She was a great jumper. Maybe she could do this. But her breath hitched in and out of her lungs, drying out her throat, and her eyes filled with tears. Because as soon as she decided to try, all she could see in her imagination was what would happen if she wasn't perfect. If she tried, and she didn't make it. If she tried, and somehow, not all of this was true. She was going to hit the asphalt. Her body would break. She was going to try this. And die. "Elsbeth," she whispered. And the sobs came. Ash couldn't stop them. She sat down on the roof. A moment later, Elsbeth appeared beside her. She knelt and put her arm around Ash's shoulder. They were quiet for a time. "I failed," Ash said. She felt Elsbeth shrug. "Everyone does." # It rained the next morning, and everything outside seemed gray and dripping wet. Elsbeth offered to walk Ash to school. They bundled against the cold and started from the house, Elsbeth holding Ash's pink umbrella over them both. "It will come," Elsbeth said. "You don't need to force it." Ash listened to the gloomy sound of her boots on the wet sidewalk and said nothing. At the far side of the school's field, Elsbeth stopped. "This is as far as I can go." Ash turned to her. "Why?" Elsbeth gazed intently at the school buildings beyond the fence. "This school is... everything." Ash had to grin. It wasn't the word she would have used. "Elsbeth, what are you talking about?" Elsbeth turned her back to the school and faced Ash, stepping close. "Built in 1910, originally called William Howard Taft High School," she said quickly. "Damaged in the quake of 1926, rebuilt and renamed Magnolia High. The school's library was originally housed in what is now the main office, but a new building was built for the library in 1935." "How can you know all that?" "You remember the secret I mentioned last night? The secret that we guard?" Ash felt a chill. A thousand years of darkness. "I remember." "The secret is a book. It has a lot of names. The Mutus Liber, the Silent Book, the Book Without Words. We scattered the book's pages and hid them around the world. One page is hidden," Elsbeth tilted her head. "In that library." Ash leaned, peering past Elsbeth's shoulder at the somber gray bricks of the library building. "How can a book not have words?" "The book contains a formula." "A formula for what?" "When you are ready. Each page is guarded by us. This page was guarded by your mother. And we think that those who seek the book have identified this library as its resting place." "That's the real reason you're here, isn't it?" Elsbeth nodded. "To protect the page from the enemy." "Who is this enemy you keep talking about?" Elsbeth was silent. "When you're–" "I know, I know, when I'm ready." Ash turned the problem over in her mind. "Maybe I can help. How about if I get the page out of there for you? We can hide it someplace else." "Too dangerous. We never move the pages unless we have no other choice. This page has been here for seventy years." Ash would have risked it. She felt strangely empty after her failure last night, and wanted to make it up to Elsbeth. She wanted another chance. A group of boys strolled toward the middle of the field, tossing a football back and forth despite the drizzle, talking and laughing. One boy was larger than the others. Mule. Elsbeth turned to see where Ash was looking. "Ah. Your fearless friend. Ash... do something for me." "Sure." "As a student, you can go where I can't. If you notice anything peculiar at the school, let me know." Mule saw them and started walking over. "This is all so peculiar," Ash said. "What would I be looking for?" Elsbeth passed the umbrella to her. "I'll leave you now. It's better if we are not seen together too often. Just look out for anything unusual, especially at the library. And let me know..." Elsbeth hesitated. Ash felt a strange foreboding. "What?" "Let me know if you notice anyone watching you." Elsbeth squeezed Ash's hand and departed. 8 The cuffs of Mule's jeans were wet from the grass, and his damp t-shirt clung to his broad shoulders. "Hey, Ash. Who was that?" Ash tried to clear her head of Elsbeth's haunting words. "That was my aunt." Mule grunted approvingly. "The stranger who came to town... she's kind of hot." "Spare me." Ash checked the time on her phone. She had a few minutes before her first class. She could answer a question that had been nagging at her since last night. "Want to come to the library with me? I want to look something up." "Oh," Mule said. "Research. Ol' Mr. Maunder's history report?" "No. Guinness Book of World Records." "Cool." "Hey, you're a sporty guy. Maybe you know. What's the record for a standing long jump?" Mule laughed, a deep and powerful sound. "Are you giving up ballet for track?" "No, not exactly." Not exactly track, she thought. Mule shrugged. "Beats me. I'm not much of a jumper. I tend to go through stuff, rather than over it." "Let's go look, then." They crossed the field to the buildings and weaved between the clumps of students that congregated by the lockers and at the lunch tables. Mule's heavy brow looked troubled. "What’s wrong?" Ash asked, as they pushed through the library's outer doors. The nip of outdoor breeze on Ash’s cheeks was soothed by indoor warmth. "Huh?” Mule said. “Nothing." "Sure? You're thinking about something." They passed through the book detectors and under the banner that proclaimed Closing Soon – Return Your Books Now. "I am a man of deep thoughts." Ash giggled. Mule paused by the book return slot. "I guess I was just wondering." Ash lowered her tone so she wouldn't draw the librarian's attention. "What?" Mule didn't answer. As they stood by the entrance, her eyes wandered over the tables and the stacks – the page was here, somewhere. And it had rested here for years, under everyone's nose. During all those hours of tutoring Mule, the page had been here, maybe just a few feet away. "Well..." Mule examined the ancient carpet. Where could it be? Ash wondered. The librarian's desk? The trophy case? Hidden inside one of the books? In the reference section, maybe, where the books couldn't be checked out? And what was Mule's problem? Ash folded her arms, waiting. "So..." Mule muttered, library-level. "How did your date with the principal's son go?" Ash groaned. Had that only been last night? So much had happened since then. Mule had just ripped off a emotional scab she'd forgotten about, and Ash took a second to deal with the pain. "That bad, huh?" Mule asked. He looked hopeful. Ash forced the words out. "He didn't even show up." Mule smiled. "That's lame. What a turd." Why was he so happy? Ash glared at Mule suspiciously... and noticed, over his shoulder, one of the new security video cameras bolted to the ceiling, watching the library entrance where they stood. Recording them. Let me know if you notice anyone watching you. Every muscle in Ash's body went into a holding pattern, freezing her. She didn't dare move – any move she made would be seen, caught, stored forever. The cameras! All over the school! But they were for safety. Because everyone was so upset about the attack on campus – the switchblade attack on her, that Elsbeth said was the enemy testing her skills, to see if she was a threat. But what if the cameras weren't a response? What if they were part of the plan? Could these people, whoever they were, be that sneaky? And that powerful? They would have to be running the school, to be able to put cameras everywhere. But if it was them, there was no way Elsbeth could get the page out of the library now. They would see her. Ash felt her body slump. She put her face in her hands. "Ash?" Mule said. "Wow, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have brought it up. I didn't know." What was Mule talking about? "No, no," she said. "It's not you, it's... let's get out of here, okay?" Mule frowned. "But... we just got here. Standing long jump?" Ash pulled at his elbow with both hands. "Never mind. There's somebody I want to talk to." # They found Spencer Marsh at his locker, with only a minute to spare before the passing bell. He smiled when he saw Ash approaching, but the smile vanished when he saw Mule behind her. "Hi, Spencer," Ash said. "Can I talk to you for a sec?" "Hi, Ash." Spencer never took his eyes off Mule, and creeped backward until he was pressed against his locker. "Spencer," Ash began. "Everybody knows you're an expert at what's really going on at this school. You write about it all the time in the paper." Spencer smiled nervously at her, and looked back to Mule. "I try to stay informed." "That's so great. So, these new cameras..." Ash glanced around and spotted another camera at the far end of the row of lockers, pointed their way. "They record everything, huh?" "Sure. They're motion activated, so as long as people are walking around in front of them, they record twelve frames per second." "Sound?" "Sound? No, no microphones." "Uh-huh. And... they're everywhere?" "Pretty much. Mostly doorways and stairwells, entrances and exits. The administration won't tell where every camera is located, even though the Friday Falcon has demanded to know. But students are catching on. They're looking for blind spots, you know, so they can smoke and make out and stuff." Spencer said all this to Mule. Mule seemed to enjoy the attention – he puffed himself up so he was truly huge, folded his arms and grinned serenely at the freshman. Spencer looked like he really needed to pee. Ash stepped closer, to bring herself into Spencer's field of vision. "So whose idea was it? All the cameras, I mean." "Well... the school board's." "Who proposed it to the school board?" Spencer gulped. "I don't know." Ash thought for a moment. "What about the money? Who paid for them?" The passing bell rang. Spencer perked up. "Time for class." "Sure," Ash said. "The money?" "We don't want to be late," Spencer suggested. Mule sighed. "Okay, okay," Spencer said. "The school got a grant from the Safe School Initiative. That's a joint project of the Department of Education and the Secret Service. The application was fast-tracked, and the money came in right away. It surprised everybody." That didn't sound good to Ash at all. "Weird." "Yeah," Spencer said. "Federal money. Not like the library renovation, which the school is paying for by scraping cash out of the district fund." His words echoed in her head, triggering something. Not like the library renovation... The page was in the library. "Spencer..." Ash began. "The library. What are they going to do in there, exactly?" Spencer frowned. "Don't you ever read the Falcon?" "I'm going to start." "Well, the place is old. They'll replace moldy drywall. There might be asbestos in the ceiling, nobody knows. New tables, new shelves, new carpet. What aren't they going to do? That's the question." "What about the books?" "There's no money for new books. I checked." Ash shook her head. "I mean, what will they do with the old books?" "Oh," Spencer said. "They'll box everything up and move it to a warehouse. When the library's done, they'll move it all back." Ash frowned. Sure they will, she thought. Minus one page. They would have all the time and privacy they needed. They could leaf through everything, x-ray everything, whatever. They would find the page of the Book Without Words, and no one would suspect them, because the library really was old. What a perfect cover. It was a brilliant, insidious, creepy plan. "What warehouse?" Ash demanded. "Where?" "How should I know?" Spencer asked. "Who cares? Hey, what is it with you two, anyway? What is this really about?" Ash suddenly realized that if Spencer got curious, he might start asking questions, and then never stop. And if he asked enough people, it could get dangerous – for her and for him. Ash stepped back and smiled demurely. "Just curious." She cleared her throat. "You don't want to be late for class." Spencer hesitated. "I can go?" Ash nodded. "Thanks. You've been great. Sorry to keep you." Mule leaned in, grinning, and jabbed a tremendous finger at him. "You're awesome, little dude." Spencer scrambled to get away from him, sliding along the lockers and breaking into a sprint. Mule chuckled, and they both watched him go. "Good question," Mule said. Ash watched Spencer disappear around the corner. "What's that?" Mule's grin faded. "What's this really about?" Of course – Mule had to be wondering what had come over her. And what could she say? It all started when I found out my aunt is a ninja. He would just think she was crazy. No, it was worse than that. After all the years they had been friends, Ash knew him too well. If she told him everything, he would believe her. And that would bring him into all this, and that would be dangerous for him. Too dangerous, even for big bad Mule. Ash turned to him. "I can't tell you." That hurt more to say than she could have guessed. She almost winced. Mule raised a skeptical eyebrow. "At least," Ash added. "Not right now." Mule smiled. "That's cool. Hell, this was the most fun I've had all week." 9 School felt different that day. The worst part was walking between the buildings on her way to her next class. Under the cameras. At the day's end, Ash watched for cameras as she crossed campus to her locker. From the quad tables, she saw Drake at his locker. She stopped. If she got any closer, he would see her. If he saw her, she'd have to say something, to chew him out for how he treated her. Part of her was game for that, but another part hurt too much and wanted to shrink from him. Why did he have to be such a jerk? She didn't need that in her life now – it would be easier to just let him go. All she had to do was wait a few moments... Drake finished at his locker, slammed it shut, and started down the row, under the overhang along the edge of the building. Ash felt a flood of relief as he left. Rage at herself came hot on its heels. How could she cower from him like this? No, she wouldn't stand for that. Ash settled her backpack on her shoulder and strode after Drake. His legs were longer than hers, and he was fast. Ash struggled to keep up, feeling her molars grinding together. She didn't know what she would say to him, but it was going to be good. She should smack him one. Yeah. If she could only catch him! Drake disappeared into the noisy crowds at the curb of the student parking lot. Ash scanned for his black leather jacket, but couldn't find him. After a minute of searching, she gave up. He'd reached his car by now. He'd gotten away. Ash sighed, and shook off the chilling feeling that other students were staring at her. She glanced around. They weren't, but still – she'd been pretty much stalking Drake for a minute there. How did he make her so crazy? Ash stopped by her locker and started the walk home, trying to clear her head of him. She had to tell Elsbeth about the cameras and the library's renovation – she wondered what Elsbeth would say. As she reached the far side of the field, where she had stopped with Elsbeth that morning, a silver Audi convertible sped by, its young driver's blond hair blowing. He didn't look back. Drake! It was as if he was taunting her – she couldn't get away from him. Never, never blame the boar. Elsbeth's words pressed on her like a weight. Ash suddenly knew that she had chosen her reaction to Drake's behavior... and she hadn't even realized it until now. Drake wasn't making her crazy at all. She had done that to herself. Her heart sank. She felt like an idiot. Now what? Choose again. Ash thought of the three women in the village, in the story of the first Wile. She could... never speak to him again. Wash her hands of him forever. She could... ask Mule to pound him to pulp. She could... talk to him. Demand to know what had happened at the concert. Ash chose, and her guilt and embarrassment fell away. A solemn calm came over her. Drake's car receded, its engine revving, half a block ahead. Its brake lights glowed red as it slowed at an intersection's stop sign. Ash took a step, and her heartbeat sounded, slow and powerful, in her ears. The breezy shifting of the branches in the trees grew still, and the birds fell silent. Something's different, Ash thought. Her heart slowed more, and its beat came steady, like waves crashing on a beach. A blue jay fled the tree nearest her. She watched each feather on the underside of its wing turn in the wind. Its flight reminded her of a sailboat cruising in a line against the gray sky. In time, it disappeared into a tree across the street. Ahead, Drake's car began its acceleration through the intersection. Ash slipped her free arm through the hanging strap of her backpack and broke into a run in Drake's direction. It was not like any running she'd experienced before. The air clung to her and she had to push through it. With each stride, she waited for her foot to sink until it slapped the sidewalk hard, then she pushed off and dragged her other leg forward. It felt like running on the bottom of a swimming pool, and she strained at the effort. Her backpack, rather than thumping against the small of her back with each step, dragged steadily at her shoulders. Her hair tie loosened, then pulled free and disappeared, and the heavy air tugged painfully at her hair. After a few more steps, Ash found some rhythm. She narrowed her eyes against the gale-force wind in her face, and got used to the long wait between one foot pushing off and the next foot coming down. She spent most of her time airborne, and passed two parked cars with each stride. Each step carried Ash a little higher, and soon she was ducking to avoid the lower branches of the trees. Drake's car had barely moved. Ash reached the curb and jumped the intersection, her momentum carrying her over the asphalt. She stopped herself feet first on the Audi's bumper, skipped delicately over the trunk, and floated into the passenger seat, her butt thumping the headrest on the way down. The car lurched forward, molasses-style, from her landing on the bumper, and Drake's head jerked back slowly, awkwardly. Ash's wave-crashing heart quieted. Birds raced among the trees. Whatever had happened to her, it stopped. Drake's Audi was doing thirty-five. He saw her and slammed on the brakes, and the car skidded to a diagonal stop in the middle of the road. "What... how did...?" Ash's body burned and tingled. The skin of her arms had flushed bright red. Her dark hair felt blown dry, and her jeans had split at both knees. She had lost her tennies when she jumped the intersection, and she dug her toes into the Audi's plush gray carpet. Sharp pains shot up her ankles to her hips, like she'd pulled every muscle from the waist down. She savored the look on Drake's face. His jaw hung slack, his baby blues shocked wide. Ash had no idea how she had done what she did, but this wasn't the time to worry about that. "Hey, loser," she said. # As the Audi sat in the middle of the road, Drake's face settled into its usual half-cool, half-grouchy expression, while Ash's mind set aside the endless loop of Holy crap, I'm a ninja. "You always jump into moving cars?" Drake asked. "You always drive like a grandma?" Ash snapped back. He almost sputtered, but he caught himself. "That sounds like a challenge. Buckle up." He gunned the engine and the car took off. Ash slipped off her backpack, dropped it at her feet, and yanked the seatbelt across herself. Her body rocked as Drake slalomed around the parked cars. She clicked the seatbelt home and watched him drive. "What do you have to say for yourself?" Drake scowled at the road. He glanced at her. "Nice do." Ash ran her fingers through her tornado-swept hair. "That's not what I mean. What happened at the concert?" Drake didn't answer. He swung onto Dravus, then left onto Fifteenth, cranking the wheel in the turns. In the straightaways, he drove with one hand on the wheel, one hand on the stick. "It's complicated." "Complicated? You–" Ash had to stop. Drake's profile was scrambling her brain. He looked so angry and powerful, as perfect as a model in a European car commercial. They should have been on twisting mountain roads, rather than weaving through Seattle's rush hour. She couldn't talk and watch him drive at the same time, so she looked outside. The Audi roared northbound on Fifteenth. "Hey... where are you taking me?" "I know a place." "A place?" "Mochas." Ash laughed. She couldn't imagine Drake sipping a mocha. "You think you can just wheel me wherever you–" "You jumped in my car. Just hang on." # Spencer Marsh stood at the edge of the field, still running through his head the things he'd just seen. He mentally ticked them off: The world's biggest jerk, Drake Alexander, racing by in the silver convertible his daddy had bought for him. Drake had been alone in the car. Spencer was sure of that. That weird girl, Ashley Prue, on the sidewalk, presumably walking home. She was also alone – that gargantuan mook she hung out with was not around. Spencer was definitely sure of that. Drake passed her in his car, and... Now, Spencer reasoned, they had been about a hundred feet up the street. And Spencer had been looking through the chain link fence, which could have obscured his vision. And he hadn't noticed any other witnesses. And the sky was overcast, creating imperfect lighting conditions. But he'd been watching Ashley walk. Who wouldn't? It was Ashley Prue, after all. Spencer was a red-blooded American male, and while Ashley was no Emma Greene, she was still smoking hot. Plus, Ashley was small, and Spencer was small... and a guy can dream, can't he? Spencer refocused. Drake had passed Ashley and kept driving... then he slammed on the brakes – Spencer had heard the squeal – and Ashley was in the car. They sped away together. So he must have picked her up. No, he hadn't. She was already in the car when he stopped. And Spencer had been watching her walk... and saw her blur into nothing. After running it carefully through his mind, Spencer did what he always did. He sat cross-legged in the grass and wrote it all down in his journal. 10 Drake had parked the Audi in the grocery store's lot, beside the white-and-green coffee shack called Brewed Awakenings. Ash sat at the shack's single picnic table, its wood uneven, knotted, and freshly painted pine green. Drake carried over two tall mochas in paper cups. "You cold?" It hadn't rained since that morning, but the sky looked like it could let loose any moment. Icy gusts blew in random directions, and chilled Ash's knees through the new holes in her jeans. "A little." She missed her shoes. Her feet pressed together, her socks too thin. She accepted the mocha and held it near her mouth. Knees together and shoulders hunched, she tried to curl her body around its warmth. Drake passed her his jacket. It was all zippers and shining black leather, and made Ash think of motorcycles. She folded her legs Indian-style and draped it over them as Drake sat down beside her. "I don't get it at all," Ash said. "I know," Drake agreed quietly. "You called me. You made a date. You stood me up. You buy me a mocha. Are you... I mean, is your brain all right?" "Nice. Charming." "Then explain it to me." Drake sighed and contemplated the table's gnarled green wood. His delicate fingers clung to the paper cup. "I had to get away." "You what?" Drake scowled and shook his head. "No, let me start over. You ever met my old man?" "The principal? No. I've seen him around. His picture was in the paper." "You're lucky." "I see." Ash didn't buy this explanation, not yet. "This is about him?" Drake watched the table, eyes narrowed. "I get the whole progeny thing. He brought me into this world, and I'm his legacy. But I'm not his clone, and I'm not his slave." Ash frowned. "This is about him." Drake looked at her. "You get along with your dad?" Ash felt his piercing stare in every cell of her body. Everything inside her seemed to stop when he looked at her like that. "My dad?" She turned her face from him, and sipped. Her dad's words came back to her. There are certain things that girls – women – shouldn't do. The anger was still there, hidden above her stomach, dormant, but alive and suddenly hot. "No. I do not get along with my dad." Drake set his elbows on the table and sipped, gazing across the parking lot. "Yeah. So I had to get out." "You know," Ash said. "That's just not good enough. You can't take your crappy relationship with your dad out on me. I'm like... an innocent bystander." Drake nodded. "You're right. Not cool on my part. I'm sorry." "And what the hell? Why can't you get out with me?" Ash thought of Drake running to her, escaping with her, and her heart started pounding. "Can I not be in on that?" Drake stared into the distance. Ash waited... and gave up. "You're not a big talker, are you?" "No." "Drake... why did you even call me?" Ash flushed and her heart hammered away. She wasn't sure if she wanted to hear the answer, and that wasn't even the real question. The real question was Do you even like me, or not? "Sometimes," Drake said, "I get this feeling, like nothing in my life works, and nothing in the world is worth it. And I can't stand it. I can't be around anyone. I mean anyone. And I have to get out. I have to go climb a mountain, or live on an island, or something. Although... usually I just drive. I don't know. Maybe it's a guy thing, or maybe I'm just a freak." "It's not a guy thing." Ash left it at that, and almost grinned. Freak. "Isolation. It's like a drug for me." He hadn't answered her question. And Ash wouldn't ask again, wouldn't let herself sound that needy, wouldn't let herself lose control. "Breaking news, Mr. Isolation: you can't take that out on me. If you and I are going to... whatever, then you have to keep your promises. If you can't do that, then there can't be a you and me, and you can have all the drugs you want." What was she saying? Drake watched her. Ash did her best to hold herself steady under his gaze. His jacket had slipped, and she pulled it over her thighs. She sipped her mocha. "You're..." he said, "sort of cryptic." "I'm sort of cryptic?" What was going on here? Why was it so impossible to hold a normal conversation with him? We're a real pair, Ash thought. "You're fast, too," Drake said. "Am not," she snapped, and regretted it. Smooth, ninja. Stealthy. Ash tried again. "Well, it's a ballet thing. You know that, right? All dancers are strong. People underestimate us." Drake's face was unyielding – like stone, revealing nothing. "You want a ride home?" What was the alternative? To be stranded at the supermarket? Actually, Ash was fine with another trip in the Audi, Drake's pinball-machine driving technique notwithstanding. "Yes, please." The trip home didn't take long, not with Drake behind the wheel. Ash just called out the turns and held on, and soon they pulled into the narrow driveway of the Prue residence. "I owe you," Drake said. "Let me make it up to you." "Hm. What did you have in mind?" "I don't know. But let's do something this weekend." Ash saw potential for disaster... but she couldn't turn him down. She hesitated. "I'll pick you up here," Drake said. "That way, if I don't show, you're home. Convenient. But I will show." Ash wanted to thank him, wanted to linger in his car... but she didn't let herself. He wasn't off the hook yet. She got out, shut the door, and leaned on it. "Okay. Let me know when." For the first time since she had jumped in his car, Drake smiled. "I will." He shifted into reverse, and Ash stepped back. "See you later, kid." Drake pulled into the street and sped off. Ash stood in the driveway, watching him go, suddenly uneasy. Kid? Kid? # Ash wanted to tell Elsbeth what she had learned that morning, and more importantly, what she'd done that afternoon. But dinner came first. Elsbeth cooked again, a dish Dad described as "fish and a lot of other stuff" and Elsbeth called kulambu. "It's Indian," Elsbeth said. "But I first tried it in Malaysia." "Really?" Dad asked. "What were you doing in Malaysia?" "Traveling," Elsbeth said. The food was fantastic. Ash could tell that Dad liked it too. If Elsbeth kept cooking, Ash figured that Dad would let her stay indefinitely. Ash could barely enjoy the meal, though. She had to get Elsbeth alone. "Henry," Elsbeth said as they finished. "Would you mind cleaning up? I think Ash and I will take a walk." Elsbeth had read her mind. How had she done that? Dad's mouth was still full. He swallowed. "Oh. Where?" Elsbeth smiled innocently. "Just around the block." "Sure,” Dad said. “You cooked, I'll clean. Be careful, you two. Take a cell phone." Outside, night had fallen. Ash and Elsbeth started down the narrow sidewalk, under the branches of overhanging trees, still damp from the day's showers. After meandering past a few houses, Ash asked, "How did you know I needed to talk to you?" "It was written on your face. And an evening stroll is a good habit. It will give us a chance to talk. We are going to need that." "Dad really likes your cooking." Elsbeth raised her eyebrows. "He does, doesn't he?" "Is that part of your plan?" "My plan?" "To stay here." "Of course. I need to be here, you know that. And so I will remain in your father's good graces." Elsbeth shrugged. "But I'm also just being polite." "He likes you," Ash said. "I mean, I think he likes that there's a woman in the house. For my sake." "That's true. He feels that I'm a good influence on you." Ash giggled. "If he only knew!" "He won't." Elsbeth's tone was flat and serious. "Not ever. Ash... you understand?" "Okay. Classified. Above top secret." Elsbeth persisted. "You and me. No one else. You cannot disturb the Cloak." "The Cloak?" "Ninjas are men. Ninjas are Japanese. Ninjas don't exist. The Cloak." Ash nodded and walked silently. "So," said Elsbeth, smiling. "How was school?" Ash launched into a summary of that morning – the cameras, the renovation. Elsbeth let out a sigh. "The cameras may be a problem. And we'll have to move sooner than–" "And Elsbeth! I ran today. I mean, I ran!" "That's wonderful! Did anyone see you?" Ash was quiet for a moment. "Oh. Well..." "Ash, Ash." "I couldn't help it. It just sort of happened." "It's not an emergency. You're probably harder to see than you think. But you will have to learn prudence. For one thing, daylight is not our time." Elsbeth gazed at the yellow-gray clouds between the tree branches. "The night, however... the night is our guardian." Ash threw up her arms. "Oh, great. Could you please explain that to Dad?" Elsbeth laughed, a musical sound Ash hadn't heard before. "I'm afraid not." "Well, anyhow. I did it. And I'm ready for more. What's next? What's the second Wile?" "Not so fast." "Elsbeth!" "Shhhh." "Elsbeth," Ash whispered, grinning. "I've got super powers. I'm ready." She spotted a rusty El Camino parked in the street, and stepped off the curb to its rear bumper. She blew out a breath and calmed herself, listening for her heartbeat. Elsbeth paused on the sidewalk, watching. Ash lowered her hips, and her fingers felt under the bumper's chrome, settling on a grip. She exhaled and lifted, willing the car to rise. It didn't move. Ash kept pulling. Her arms started to ache. Elsbeth leaned on the car and gazed at her. "Don't feel bad. I couldn't lift this car, either." Ash let go. Her fingers burned. She rolled her shoulders, trying to stretch. "You couldn't?" "It’s not about brute force. Ninjas aren't strong." Ash felt her face heat up. She cleared her throat. "Well," she said softly. "All right then." Elsbeth took Ash's hand and rubbed her fingers gently. "Walk with me a little farther. And I'll teach you something that you can use." 11 After another couple of blocks, Ash and Elsbeth crossed Thirty-Eighth Avenue and passed into the trees at the eastern edge of Discovery Park. The amber glow of the streetlights disappeared behind them, and all was black shadow. Ash clung to Elsbeth's hand, and Elsbeth guided her through. "I can't see," Ash whispered. "How are you doing this? Do you have some kind of secret night vision?" "Yes." Ash stopped mid-step. "Seriously?" Elsbeth squeezed her hand. "Your peripheral vision is more sensitive in darkness. Direct your thoughts, not your eyes. Shift your attention to where you are not looking." Peripheral vision... Ash widened her eyes and tried to take in everything at once. She looked dead ahead, into vague blackness, and suddenly noticed gray roots and stones on the ground. Charcoal-colored tree trunks appeared to the left and right. "I can see!" Ash whispered. She glanced at a tree on the right, and it vanished. She looked away, and it returned. "Wow. But just out of the corner of my eye." "Practice. Here we are." They cleared the trees and entered a field, cut off from the city by woods on all sides. There were no lights, but after the darkness of the trees, it seemed brighter here. The city-lit clouds colored everything a soft yellow. Ash followed Elsbeth to the center of the field. She could hear a breeze shifting the leaves around them, and a soft sprinkle had started, little more than a mist easing down from the clouds. "Take off your coat," Elsbeth said. "It's cold." "It's a nice coat." Elsbeth slipped out of her own jacket, folded it over her elbow, and set it in the grass. "I'd take it off." Ash took it off and set it down. The grass was wet, and her shoes were already damp. She sighed. She'd already lost one pair of shoes today. "Now." Elsbeth faced her. "Breathe." Ash hugged herself against the chill in the air. "I am breathing." Elsbeth shook her head. "Breath is a gateway. It connects two worlds. It occurs unconsciously, like the beating of your heart, but it can be controlled consciously, like the muscles in your arm. It is a link between your mind and body, between the corporeal and the spiritual. In Latin, spirit refers to breath." Ash couldn't help but think about her breathing now. She drew air in through her nose and said, "Okay." "So breathe." Ash sighed. "Still breathing." Elsbeth listened. Ash just breathed and hugged herself, trying not to shiver. She had never been self-conscious about her breathing before. She caught the faint smell of wet grass and pine. "Good sounds," Elsbeth said. "Athletic. I can hear the ballet. Anyway, we can work with it." Ash frowned. "Work with... what?" "With control. Now, we'll change the proportions. I want you to count silently. Inhale to a count of six, hold your breath for ten, then exhale to a count of twelve." "You're kidding." "It doesn't matter how fast you count. It's the proportion that matters. Do it." Ash inhaled, one, two, three, four, five, six. Then she held it for ten seconds. Then she exhaled, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven – her lungs were empty. She had to draw in a breath. "I ran out of air!" How could she screw up something like breathing? "This is not an easy challenge," Elsbeth admitted. "Why don't you take a few minutes and practice breathing and seeing in the dark?" Ash grinned. Sure, like any other homework assignment. "Elsbeth... you're a kick." "I'm waiting." Ash looked at the trees at the edge of the field. In for six. Hold for ten. Out for... twelve? Her lungs were empty and aching at ten, she wheezed out "Eleven," and with no air left, mouthed the word "Twelve." "Don't give up," Elsbeth said. In Ash's peripheral vision, tree trunks and branches stood out in sharp detail, in shades of yellow and gray. From the corner of her eye, she noticed a loop trail among the trees at the field's far side. She looked straight at it and it disappeared. In for six... slowly. She filled her lungs, puffing up her whole body, preparing for that killer exhale. She held for ten – easy. Then exhaled for twelve... She gasped. "I did it!" "More." Six. Ten. Twelve. Ash had it now. Her body felt warmer, and she lowered her arms to her sides. Her vision was sharp enough to see the mist settling in pale masses into the trees. The upper branches, silhouetted against the sky, swayed gently as the breeze played with them. The branches whispered to her as they moved. The world came into focus. I think I'm tripping. Ash almost lost count. She focused her mind back to six, ten, twelve. The whispering of the trees fell silent. Ash listened to the quiet as she counted. The descent of the mist slowed and it hung above the trees like fog. Individual drops, like tiny stars, appeared over her. The air no longer felt cold, but it clung to her, thick and heavy as molasses, dragging at her whenever she moved. Ash looked at her hands, expecting to see it stuck there, puttylike. I know this feeling. Ash suddenly yearned for speed and had an overpowering urge to run. "Good." Elsbeth's voice was a slow, dragging whisper. "Now catch." She drew something from behind her back. Her arm moved slowly... slowly... whatever had taken hold of Ash had hold of Elsbeth as well. Elsbeth flipped something into the air. Ash watched it spin and glitter like a coin, rising, making a lazy arc. Ash stepped back, ready to catch it. As it curved down to her, she saw it was no coin, but a wheel with four silvery blades like shark fins. She winced – it looked deadly – and reached for it, pinching it at its center between thumb and finger and drawing her arm down through the syrupy air to ease its fall, the way she would catch an egg. She let its weight pull her arm, twisting her body, turning her in a full circle. Her feet skipped delicately, carrying her around to face Elsbeth and ending in the fourth ballet position. Her free arm floated gracefully for balance. The grass, while long and green, hadn't bent as she danced over it. Instead, her shoes had mowed it, casting cut blades of grass into the air, where they hung suspended. She scowled at Elsbeth. She could have lost a finger! Elsbeth smiled innocently and opened her hand, beckoning Ash to throw it back. The grass around Ash settled to earth, and her fingers closed gently around one of the shark fins. It felt wickedly sharp, but warm and smooth. She tossed it underhanded toward Elsbeth, her hand and forearm pushing though the air. Her watch band dragged painfully at her wrist. The wheel gleamed and wobbled. Elsbeth caught it and ran. Her body was shockingly fast, flowing and graceful, waves undulating through her hair and blouse. She skidded to a stop at the field's far side, leaving a wake of suspended grass blades behind her. Ash kept her eye on the loop trail, and watched Elsbeth in her peripheral vision. She saw the glint of the wheel as Elsbeth wound up and fired it back. Ash felt a hot rush of panic as the wheel raced to her. So fast! She reached for it and plucked it from the air, pulling her arm back in another cushioning egg catch. She spun her body, winding up as she'd seen Elsbeth do, and flung it at her. Her watch band snapped, and her watch disappeared into the trees. The wheel sailed off course, wobbling high and wide. Elsbeth leapt after it, snatched it mid-somersault, and flung it back to Ash before returning to the ground. Ash was so dazed by the beauty of Elsbeth's move that she almost missed the catch. The wheel was hot to the touch now, heating up from its trips back and forth. Ash assumed some poise, lifted her carriage, and spun her body in a fouetté as she threw the wheel. It went wild again. Elsbeth leapt into the air, caught it and sent it back, her body twisting like an Olympic high diver. This time, she had thrown it too high – it glinted against the amber clouds. She had done it on purpose. Ash set her feet together and jumped. Her body flew straight up. Ash was late – she pointed her legs and toes, knifelike, and stretched, reaching for the wheel. She caught a blade point in her fingertips. Got it! Her body kept rising. She had pushed off too hard. She cleared the treetops and saw the sparkling lights of downtown Seattle and the ferries on their evening routes across Puget Sound. Her body came to rest at the top of its arc and started a slow descent. Deep inside, Ash's heart screamed in terror. Way too high. Her body accelerated. Ash kicked and scrabbled for something to slow herself, but that only threatened to tumble her body out of control. She pointed her toes and held her arms out, and plummeted feet-first to the field. As she dropped below the treetops, Elsbeth leapt to catch her. As Elsbeth's body passed over Ash, Elsbeth grabbed Ash's wrists and yanked upward. Ash's fall didn't stop, but she slowed. Elsbeth let go. Ash landed on her feet – hard. Her legs folded, absorbing the impact. Her knees drove into her chest, and she sprawled on the grass, her breath knocked painfully out of her. Elsbeth landed beside her. Ash curled into the fetal position, every part of her aching. The wind gradually came back to the trees, the grass softened, and the doughy air released its grip. "Ow," she moaned. "You need to be careful," Elsbeth said. "You're fast, but you're fragile." Ash sat up. Her feet hurt. So did her wrist. The skin was tender and marked where her watch band had pulled at it. In the soft skin between her thumb and index finger, the wheel had nicked her. A single drop of blood ran across her palm. Elsbeth picked up the wheel and helped Ash to her feet. "You have amazing form. But a lawn sprinkler has better aim." "We'd better head back. Dad's probably worried." "It hasn't been as long as you think. But yes, that's enough for tonight." Ash would probably never see her watch again. At least she still had her shoes. And at least now she knew how to trigger her speed. That was something. She took a few unsteady steps. Elsbeth put her coat over her shoulders and kept her arm around Ash, to guide her. "Elsbeth," Ash said as they passed into the darkness of the trees at the field's edge. "The breathing... is that the second Wile?" "No. Too basic. Every ninja can breathe." "The wheel, then?" "No. And it's called a star. Handy for all sorts of things. But we'll get to that later." "What's the second Wile?" Elsbeth shook her head. "When you're ready. Which you almost are." Ash sighed and limped along, leaning on Elsbeth. "What about the Book Without Words, then? The secret formula that's supposed to be so scary? What is it?" Elsbeth considered. "It's late. Let's go home. But... why don't you look it up sometime?" 12 Spencer sat at his desk in the office broom closet, his fingers clicking on his laptop's keyboard. Today's masterpiece was an expose of political bias in Ms. Nelson's coverage of the Vietnam War. It could really stir things up, maybe get Spencer in some hot water – it was dangerous to go after faculty – but the controversy could help his career. Creepy sounds echoed from the vent near the ceiling. Not now! He was almost finished! And only five minutes left before the lunch bell blasted the paint off the walls– But a strange, new voice came from Principal Alexander's office. "What I don't get is why you think you can tell me to do this kind of stuff." Someone young, male. A student? And in reply, the smooth rumble of the principal. "You don't seem to grasp the larger picture here. I'm thinking about your future. One day, you'll go farther than I ever did, you'll be more powerful than I ever was, and it will be because of the opportunities that you had today, in your youth. Because of the guidance I gave you!" "I don't want your guidance. I didn't ask–" "Don't take that tone with me. You know the challenges we face. You know who our enemies are. You know who I am, and what I'm capable of, and I don't mean as your father. Don't you?" "Yeah, I know." Spencer sat up straight. It was the world's biggest jerk, Drake Alexander. Getting chewed out by his dad. Excellent. "Excuse me?" "Yeah, I know... sir." "Better. Enough disobedience from you. I tell you to do something – you do it. It doesn't matter what it is. Understand?" "Yes, sir." "You've got a unique set of skills. And your youth. That allows you to do things, allows you to go places, that I can't. I need you. We need you." "Yes, sir." "And you need me. We're so close. If we complete our mission, and do it in your lifetime... you'll be a king. You'll be more powerful than any mortal has ever been. That's my dream for you." What could that possibly mean? Spencer quietly stood and craned his neck, tilting his ear to the vent. "Yes, sir." "Now, get out of here, or you'll be late for class." A few seconds later, Spencer heard the angry slam of the principal's office door and felt its vibration through the walls. After that, silence. # After school, Ash met Mule for tutoring at the school library. They dropped their book bags at a table, and Mule opened his math book and homework folder. The cameras watched their every move. Ash's body felt like a train wreck. The morning's ibuprofen had worn off, and every muscle sang its own song of pain. She couldn't forget the band-aid on the skin between her right thumb and index finger, on the cut that, ironically, hurt less than the rest of her. Her fingers curled around it, picking absently at the band-aid's corner. "Hold on, Mule," Ash said. "I want to look something up first." "Oh, right. Standing long jump." "Not this time." "Hundred yard dash?" Ash hesitated. She didn't want to talk out in the open like this. "Come on." They climbed the steps to the split-level, where a bank of old desktop computers sat in a long row against the windows. Of eight computers, five were unoccupied. There was a single camera at the far side of the floor. Ash hoped that she and Mule would look really small. "I want to look up..." She tried to remember how Elsbeth had pronounced it. "The Mutus Liber," she whispered. She sat at a terminal as far as possible from the other students and wiggled the mouse to wake the computer up. "You always surprise me," Mule said. "I didn't think you went for German techno." She slapped his shoulder, and pain shot up her arm. "It's not a band, you weirdo. Ow. You're just being funny." Mule shrugged. "I'm just being funny. But what is it?" "It's a book," Ash whispered. "The Silent Book. I thought it was top secret, but..." She typed Mutus Liber in the search engine's field. About 127,000 results (0.22 seconds). Obviously not top secret. What in the world was Elsbeth doing, guarding a hidden page from a book that everybody knew about? A Wikipedia entry was the second hit down. Ash clicked on it. "Wow." Ash scanned the rest of the article. There wasn't much here. "It's really real. And it really is a formula, like Elsbeth said." Mule hunched in his chair, squinting thoughtfully at the screen, his chin propped on his massive fist. "This is an Elsbeth thing?" "Yeah. But what the heck is the Philosopher's Stone?" "Well," Mule said. "They were very big in 1677. Every philosopher had to have one." Ash shook her head. "You just make stuff up." "Sometimes." "Whatever the Philosopher's Stone is, it's bad news. Like, end-of-the-world bad." Mule looked impressed. "That bad?" "I shouldn't even be showing this to you." Why hadn't she looked this up when she was alone? She had promised herself to keep Mule out of all this. "What?" he asked. "It's just the Internet. You've got to let me meet your aunt. She sounds completely awesome." "Awesome?" "She's definitely into cool old stuff." "Ugh." "Well?" "Well, what?" "Philosopher's Stone. You going to click the link?" She might as well. She couldn't protect Mule from common knowledge. And she hated the thought of hiding things from him, because then... he couldn't be on her side. And all this was too much for her to handle alone. She clicked. The article ran on and on, and didn't make much sense. Lots more Latin, and plenty of other languages, too. Magnum Opus, and al-iksir, and Cintamani. Ash could tell that the Philosopher's Stone was something that obsessed weirdos had tried to create for centuries and centuries. It was supposed to be beautiful, and heavenly, and wonderful. But what did it do? Three English words appeared repeatedly, and locked in Ash's mind. Lead into gold. Was that what scared Elsbeth so much? Why? If people could use the Philosopher's Stone to turn lead into gold, well... wouldn't everybody be rich? What was so bad about that? And if the formula was so secret, why was it right here on the internet? She clicked back the the Mutus Liber article. A series of mystical illustrations. She clicked back once more, to the page of search results, and clicked the first hit. It was a homemade-looking website about alchemy, and pictures of the fifteen pages of the Mutus Liber were right there, for the whole world to look at. She clicked on them, and they expanded. "Holy crap," said Mule. 13 Ash and Mule stared at the screen, trying to make sense of the pages. They saw two angels holding a tremendous drop of water with a man inside. Women in dresses, working at a table with pots and flasks, boiling, pouring, stirring. Black stones in a field, arranged in a triangular pattern, with cows and sheep standing around them and rays of blue sunlight streaming down. A woman giving a man a bath, pouring water on his head, beside another man sitting in a campfire, his body covered with flames. Mule rubbed the scar on his chin. "And I thought our chemistry book was confusing." "A book without words," Ash said. "But I think the formula is here, it's just... symbols. All this stuff must mean something. But nobody knows what." She closed the browser. "I've got to talk to Elsbeth." "Hey." Mule cleared his throat. "Speaking of confusing. Are we doing the tutoring thing today?" "Ah." Ash smiled sheepishly. "Sure." "Good. Because after yesterday, I was... you know. Wondering." Ash looked into Mule's inscrutable brown eyes. What did he mean? Then it hit her. "Yesterday!" She had missed their tutoring session. "Oh Mule, I'm sorry. I was..." Jumping into Drake's speeding convertible. Ash searched for words. "I... spaced. I've had a lot on my mind lately." Mule nodded. "I know." He sighed, inspecting his fingernails, overly casual. "It's fine." "Aw!" Ash shivered with rage. She had wronged him, and he was practically enjoying himself, the big jerk. "Okay, okay," she said. But what could she tell him? Where could she start? "I..." belong to an ancient sisterhood of cat burglars on speed. "I was... with Drake." Oh, that wasn't the right thing to say at all. What was wrong with her brain? Mule's face turned stony and grim. "Huh," he said quietly. "I thought you said he was a turd." "You said he was a turd." "Was I wrong? Did he deal with his neurological issue?" "He... I don't know." Ash didn't think this conversation was a good idea, but at least they weren't talking about ninjas. But Drake? Ugh. "He called me a kid." "Who cares what he called you?" "You've never called me a kid." "That's because you're not." "Is it because I'm small? Is that what he's saying?" Mule narrowed his eyes at her. "You're sort of obsessed with this guy." "I'm not obsessed!" "He ditches you and calls you names. Why don't you cut him loose?" Ash blinked. "Because... there's nothing to cut." Was there? "Want me to do it for you?" "Mule... no! Stop." Mule didn't stop. His voice was calm, almost cold. "I'm really not liking how he's treating you. I'm just saying. If you want him gone, he's gone. He'll never talk to you again. Just say the word." She knew from his tone that he wasn't joking. What did Mule mean? Only one possibility. Mule was offering to hurt Drake. To lie in wait for him, maybe. To put him in the hospital, maybe. Mule could do it – Drake would be no match for him. The thought of Mule hurting anyone that way was so repugnant, she couldn't stand it. She didn't even know if she could be friends with him after that. It made her feel sick. "Don't you dare hurt him," she whispered. "You sure?" "I mean it. And don't talk like that. It's not a pretty side of you." # After that, they sat at a table on the library's main floor and reviewed for Mule's Algebra test. It was a cold hour, just equations and practice problems. All business. Ash knew that something was no longer right between them, but she couldn't say what. After a tepid goodbye, she walked across campus on the way home. It was almost four o'clock, and everybody had left. The sky was overcast and daylight was starting to fade. Gil the janitor methodically pushed a broom between the lunch tables, whistling faintly. Her mind was still chewing on her screw-up with Mule. She wanted to kick herself for even bringing up Drake's name. She got the sense that Mule just didn't like that guy, and it ran deeper than Mule wanting to protect her. She shouldn't have blabbed about a guy she liked in front of another guy. Not classy. She stopped. Could Mule possibly have a thing for her? What a thought. It was flattering and weird and terribly inconvenient. He was her best friend – she didn't want to lose him. Ash knew one thing: she would never mention Drake around him again. If Mule was actually driven by some kind of jealousy thing... well, it just made her think of the Incredible Hulk. That would be bad. She turned onto the path behind Building C, where the math and history classrooms were. She felt an inner sigh of relief – there were no cameras here. One set of second-floor windows were propped open – that was Mrs. Wilson's math room, where Mule would be squirming on the morning after next, as he tried to survive the Algebra test. Poor Mule. He had been so nice to her – for years – and now she barely thought of him. She wanted to turn things around. How could she make it up to him? She stopped directly under the windows. Oh. Everybody knew Mrs. Wilson went home at two forty-five each day. Everybody knew that she was as anal retentive as she was humorless, and copies of the Algebra test were printed and ready to go. Probably in her desk drawer. And Ash knew that a second-story window wasn't the obstacle it used to be. But wait. Breaking and entering? Stealing a test? Cheating? That's not who she was... Then again, Ash wouldn't cheat, technically. She didn't have to take that test herself (her math teacher was Mr. Goodwin), and she wouldn't show the test to Mule. She would just look it over and put it back, and give Mule a highly targeted and specific tutoring session. Mule would never know, and couldn't be blamed. And there would be no breaking. Just entering. She'd leave no trace. It was perfect. No, it was crazy. She couldn't. Could she? She thought of the first Wile. She had just been presented with those open windows. Now, how would she react to them? How would someone else react? Choose... Someone else might ignore them, leaving her best friend to fend for himself. Someone else might be too scared of getting in trouble to break the rules for the greater good. Someone else might not be totally clear on the concept that she was a freaking ninja. Ash scanned the wall. No handholds. No problem. She tossed her backpack on top of the lockers around the corner and came back, and as she gazed up at the windows, she breathed. In for six. Hold for ten. Out for twelve. She stepped backward, stopping at the edge of the grass, where a concrete curb marked the edge of the path. In for six. Hold for ten. Out for twelve. She set a foot on the curb and pushed on it, flexing the muscles in her legs, ready to use the curb as a starting block. In for six. Hold for ten... The crows at the lunch tables stopped their calls. The breeze fell still, and the hum of distant traffic faded. Ash's gaze settled on a jetliner paused in the sky, its engine quiet. She waited, taking in the serenity of it all. So peaceful. She knew she could wait as long as she liked – time didn't hold her now. But she had made her decision, and was impatient to get the job done. She bolted across the path, and the air tried to rip her skin off. She winced and pushed herself through it. At the wall, she jumped, and her toes touched the bricks, stepping. In three steps up the wall, she reached the windows, but her momentum kept lifting her. Her feet skidded on the bricks, and she grabbed the rim of the nearest window to keep herself from ending up on the roof. It worked! She eased herself over the rim, past the bar propping up the pane, and into the classroom. The lights were off, the room lit only by light coming in the windows. Dark shadows lurked under the desks and chairs, and the math posters on the walls were vague and somehow ominous. Ash sat on the floor under the window, breathing. The enormous clock on the wall slowly, slowly, began to tick. The teacher's desk was covered with papers. Ash scanned for the math test, but it was too dark to read anything. She glanced a bit to the side – Elsbeth's trick – checking papers with her peripheral vision. That worked. She found the test in the top left drawer, and slipped out a copy. She sat in the teacher's chair and let her eyes rove, reading the left column by looking at the right, and the right column by looking at the left. Sixteen nasty problems. From the hallway came the sound of Gil's whistling. It sounded like he was working his way up the hall, emptying the wastebaskets or whatever. Not much time. Ash tried to commit each problem to memory. She heard Gil leave the neighboring classroom, lock the door, and whistle his way closer to her. She tucked the test back into its stack and closed the desk drawer. At the window, she peered at the concrete path far below. She suddenly remembered that she was not invulnerable, and that gravity was not her friend – and a crucial thought occurred to her. She had neglected the problem of down. 14 All Ash could do was fling herself to the path fifteen feet below. She swallowed. Maybe there was a better way. She could hear Gil the janitor just outside the door. Maybe she could appeal to him. I got lost, Gil. I was looking for the bathroom. Right. Or couldn't she just turn invisible? That would solve everything. She'd have to ask Elsbeth about that. She'd have plenty of time at home for that conversation, being suspended for invading a classroom and all. Hide? Under the desk was no good – Gil would empty the wastebasket right next to it. Ash raced to the file cabinet against the wall. On a hunch, she pulled out the bottom drawer. Empty. Nobody ever used the bottom drawer. But now, she would. But come on, could a person fit in there? Maybe a pint-sized person could. She set one foot in the drawer, and the metal bottom shifted with a popping sound. The cabinet threatened to tip forward. Ash turned and crouched, set her hands on the room’s industrial gray-brown carpet, and brought in her other leg. She folded up like a pillbug, scooted backward, and tucked her head. She was curled up in a duck-and-cover position, and by reaching back with one hand, she could feel the cabinet’s metal frame above her. She pulled, and slowly worked the drawer closed. Gil's key rattled clumsily in the doorlock. Ash's drawer latched shut with a clicking sound right by her ear. It was perfectly dark in the drawer, but only for a moment. Gil turned on the room lights, and they leaked through the cracks. Ash could see cream-painted steel two inches from her nose. She smelled metal and paper and eraser rubber. Her knees pressed hard on her collarbone, her thighs squeezing her lungs. She could only manage shallow breaths, and she tried to keep those quiet. Gil whistled. How had she gotten into this? Her neck started to ache. So did her ankles and knees, where they pressed on the metal bottom of the drawer. She heard the desk wastebasket's contents dumped into Gil's trash-can-on-wheels. Come on, Gil. Keep it moving. It was getting harder to breathe. This had been a very bad idea. The lights clicked off, leaving her in beautiful, exquisite darkness. She heard the classroom door close, and Gil's whistling faded down the hall. Ash groaned in relief and probed blindly at the metal tabs until she got the drawer unlatched. She pulled at the frame, working the drawer open inch by inch. Unfolding her body was harder than she thought. Each movement came with its own unique jab of pain. She was one big cramp, head to toe. But she could breathe, and she savored the sweet air as she oozed one limb at a time onto the floor, pushing so the cabinet wouldn't tip over and flatten her. She lay on the musty carpet, stretched out, playing dead. As she stared at the ceiling panels, she realized she had no recollection whatsoever of the math test. Ugh. Ash opened the desk drawer, slipped out a copy of the test, folded it and put it in her pocket. Mrs. Wilson probably made extra copies and wouldn't miss it. Hopefully. She was still stuck in the room. She could walk out the building's front door if necessary, but she'd be caught on camera. At the window, Ash contemplated the path below, and how much it would hurt. She leaned out a little and craned her neck, looking up. The roof wasn't that far above her. Now, there was an idea. She crawled out and stood on the sill, clinging to the window pane. She stretched, and the edge was almost in reach. Ash took a deep breath, and with a nerve-wracking hop, caught the edge and pulled herself up. The roof of Building C was a vast, flat, dazzling white plain, dotted with vents and pipes, with great humming metal boxes here and there. She jogged in a loop along the edge looking for a tree or a drainage pipe that could be her ticket down. Two boys sat at the roof's far side, watching her, about a hundred feet away. They lounged, sprawled against the short barrier at the building's edge, wearing oversized cotton zip-up jackets and matching baseball caps. An oak tree rose above them, framing them in a sage background. Ash stopped. She'd been caught – what now? She walked toward them. "It's a girl," said one. "A girl," repeated the other. "Or... a mirage." "A girl, I think. But... I can't tell how far away she is." "That's because you're stoned." Ash reached them. They stank of weed, and one held a smoldering joint. The style of their clothing matched each other perfectly, one in white, one in heather gray. She had seen them around before, but didn't know their names. She wondered if they would be trouble. "Hi, guys," she said. "Hey, baby," said the first. He gestured elegantly with the joint. "Want some?" "No, thanks," she said. The second leaned against the first. "'Want some?' It's my weed." "I'm being polite. Don't be stingy. Also... it's a girl." "I can see it's a girl." "You thought it was a mirage," said the first. "That was when she was way over there. Now... hey." The second guy peered at her suspiciously. "How did you get up here? You didn't use the tree." He waved a hand behind him, indicating the oak. Ash hesitated. "Well..." "She came up the wall," said the first. The second made a 'come hither' gesture for the joint, and accepted it. "She had to use the tree. Everybody uses the tree. She did not come up the wall. Nobody comes up the wall." He sucked delicately. "I saw her come up the wall," said the first. "She must be Nobody." "How can you say that?" the second wheezed. "She's clearly Somebody." "Well, if she's Somebody, then she must be... a wall crawler." The second nodded contemplatively. "Sweet." "I used the tree," Ash lied. "I came up here a while ago." "Bullshit," said the first. "Saw you," said the second. Ash smiled innocently. "Okay, guys. You aren't going to... tell anybody, are you?" "Are you kidding?" The second held up the joint. "Look at us." "That's good," she said. "Thanks, guys. I... I don't know your names." The first narrowed his eyes suggestively. "Bond." The second arced an eyebrow. "James Bond." The first broke into a fit of giggling. "I'm Bond. You're James Bond!" "Excellent," the second said. His watery eyes set on Ash. "Who are you?" "I'm..." Ash desperately wanted to say the ninja. "I'm..." Don't say the ninja, don't say the ninja, don't say the ninja... "Moneypenny," she finished. "Oh..." uttered Bond. "That's... perfect." "Epic," said James Bond. "Nice to meet you two," Ash said. "Guess I'll be going." She stepped to the edge, inspecting the oak. "Stay on that side," said Bond. "And the tree will block the cameras. Just put your feet where the bark is worn." Ash could see pale spots on the branches, and as she started down, she used them for handholds and footholds. "Bye." "See ya," said Bond. It was an easy climb. As her feet touched solid concrete, she breathed a sigh of relief, and heard the faint voice of James Bond, above. "Dude... did you... just see a girl?" Ash raced around the building, grabbed her backpack, and started home. # On the way, she dialed Mule's cell. It rang, then cut to voice mail. She left a message suggesting a tutoring session tomorrow – very nonchalant – and wondered if he had lost his cell phone again. As she was speaking, her phone beeped with an incoming call. She checked the screen. Drake. She stuttered through her message to Mule and clicked over. "Hello?" "Hi, Ash," Drake said. "What's new?" She couldn't think of anything to say. She found that it was getting harder and harder to answer that question. "The usual weirdness. You?" "Yeah, same. You busy Saturday?" She felt a sudden thrill, but quashed it. Why? You want to get together and call me kid again? "No plans," she said. "Good. You like movies?" "I do. No aliens or explosions, though." That stopped him. There was a long pause. At last, "Done. Two o'clock? A little matinée? I'll pick you up at your place. Convenience, like I said." "Okay." "See you then." And he was gone, just like that. Ash found she had a new lightness in her stride. She hadn't made up her mind about Drake. At least it would be an interesting weekend. She could picture, with perfect clarity, the curve of his lips when he smiled. And it was even easier to imagine the cold depth his eyes took on when he was scowling. She liked his eyes, and thought about them for the rest of the walk home. 15 During Ash's walk with Elsbeth, the night was cool and dry. "You're swelling like a balloon," Elsbeth said. "Tell me what's on your mind, before you burst." Ash let it out. "I ran up a wall today!" Elsbeth touched her shoulder. "Ash, that's wonderful." She hugged her. "How high?" Ash squeezed her aunt happily. "Two whole floors. Like, fifteen feet!" Elsbeth pulled back to look at her. "Only two?" Ash scowled. "What do you mean, only two? Come on!" "Well... it's a lovely start. Nicely done. No cameras?" "No way." Elsbeth nodded. "If you were seen doing something like that on camera, things would go very badly for us. So... no one saw you?" "Just these two guys on the roof. And they probably won't remember." "Just two..." Elsbeth shook her head. "Ash, Ash." "Don't worry. It'll be fine." "Discretion is your first responsibility. A tiger is fast and strong, but without its stripes to help it blend into the grass, it cannot stalk its prey. You have learned that you are a tiger. Do not forget your stripes." Ash sighed. "Got it. Remember my stripes." The sky had cleared and a few stars twinkled overhead. The tops of the tallest trees had a silver glow – maybe the moon was coming up. Ash wondered if she should tell Elsbeth about sneaking into the classroom and stealing the test. She didn't think Elsbeth would be mad. In fact, she wasn't sure if Elsbeth would care. There were bigger things on Elsbeth's mind. Which reminded her– "Hey," Ash said. "Why didn't you tell me that everybody knows about the Book Without Words?" "Everybody? I see. You refer to the fifteen pages in the Library of Congress." "I thought it was a secret! Guarded for centuries, blah blah blah!" "It is. Ash–" "Have you looked on the internet lately?" "Ash..." Elsbeth stopped on the broad sidewalk of a corner. "The Mutus Liber is nineteen pages." "Okay, but still! Most of it is... oh." "Without all the pages, the formula can't be understood. The final page, especially, is the key. It shows how to make sense of the rest." "Then, which page is in the school library?" "As it happens, page nineteen. The key. Without it, those fifteen pages are merely a historical curiosity. An artifact of an endeavor long abandoned." "Creating the philosopher's stone." "We tried to prevent its publication at the time. But we were still reeling from our failure in Japan. It was a difficult century for us. Luckily, the version Pierre Savouret had was incomplete. Else the world would be a very different place." A random SUV rolled down the street, its headlights falling on them. They watched it as it passed. It turned the corner and receded, leaving them in darkness. When it was gone, Ash said, "And that's another thing. If people can turn lead into gold, so what? We'd all be rich. Maybe you guys ought to lay off. Or better yet, publish the Mutus Liber yourselves." Elsbeth watched Ash with narrowed eyes. "Let's walk." She stepped off the curb, and Ash followed her across the street. They continued past the next row of houses, under the overhanging trees that blocked the streetlights. Elsbeth's form fell into shadow and became indistinct. Ash stayed at Elsbeth's arm and used her night-vision trick, checking her path for obstacles and trying to read Elsbeth's expression, both from the corner of her eye. When Elsbeth finally spoke, her tone was hushed. "You don't appreciate the peace and safety humankind has enjoyed over the past four hundred years, because Savouret's copy was incomplete. Ash..." Ash was about to jump in, but stopped herself when she realized Elsbeth was struggling for words. "Ash, you don't know what the philosopher's stone is. It's a catalyst for changing the laws of nature. Transmutation of the elements – lead into gold, as you said – is only one facet. But try to understand what that power alone would mean. Substances lose their identity. Lead into gold. Gold into diamond. Diamond into flesh. Water into wine. Air into steel." "But... you can't–" "Others have thought as you do. Surely infinite power would mean an end to hardship, to famine, to strife. Savouret was such a fool. And there have been others. The last time someone managed to create a trace of the philosopher's stone was in 1908, in Tunguska, Russia. Luckily, they destroyed themselves before we had to intervene." They came to the next corner. The moon shone full and white, just above the trees, casting its glow on the sidewalk and reflecting in the windshields of cars parked on the street. "Before that," Elsbeth said, "there was the time when the formula was first discovered, a thousand years ago. Before it was decided that it was too dangerous and had to be hidden. Beyond the transmutation of the elements, it was used to create a new element, more pure than any that exist naturally on Earth." Elsbeth reached into her hip pocket and withdrew the star. Its four sharkfin blades caught tonight’s moonlight and played with it, filling Ash's eyes with brilliance it hadn’t possessed before. She drew in a stunned breath. The star's glimmer entranced her, and she forced herself to look away, afraid that she would be lost in it. Elsbeth admired the star, unblinking, fearless. Its glow turned her eyes silver. "They learned to manipulate it. Forge it, weave it – even though they didn't know what it was. Some spoke of earth, air, fire, and water, and decided it had to be a fifth. So one of its names is quintessence." Ash dared to look at the star again, and Elsbeth handed it to her. Ash slowly turned it. Its light seemed more than a reflection – as if it was sister to the moon. "It's... not metal?" "No. It's not metal." Elsbeth took it back. "It's one of the last ones made, about nine hundred years old. We keep things like it to remind ourselves of what the philosopher's stone is capable of, and why we keep the formula hidden." "So if I break it, you aren't going to mix up some more." Elsbeth's eyes turned hard. She crouched, and with one of the star's shining blades, carved letters in the sidewalk. NO "We will never use the stone!" she hissed. "Not until a century comes when humanity is mature enough to handle it." She stood, and her expression softened. "But... I wouldn't worry about breaking the star." Ash frowned at the letters and folded her arms. "That's, like... vandalism." Elsbeth shrugged. "I've done worse." # Thursday afternoon in the library, Ash met Mule for crash-tutoring. She had already reviewed Mrs. Wilson's math test and created a list of practice problems for him. As they worked through them together, Mule's test anxiety faded. When they finished the last problem, he said, "That's it?" Ash nodded. "You're done." "That was only forty-five minutes." "You're a math freak. There's nothing else I can teach you." "Okay. I feel good. I think I can rock this thing tomorrow." "Me too." Ash smiled and breathed a satisfied sigh, letting her brain unwind from the algebra. If Mule aced the test thanks to her, it would make up for her previous blatherings about Drake. She'd be square with her friend. "Cool." Mule eyed the equations on the scratch paper in front of him, as if they weren't quite defeated. "Hey... if it goes good tomorrow, you want to do something Saturday?" Ash felt her stomach plunge unpleasantly, a sudden roller coaster drop. "Like what?" "Something fun. We always hang out at school, but that's it. And the tutoring thing, you know. It gets old." Ash felt her heart pounding. How could he ask her this? Why Saturday? The temperature in the library seemed to drop ten degrees, and Ash felt icy perspiration on the back of her neck. She rubbed her eyes, pretending to be tired, buying a few seconds to think. How could she get out of this without telling him she had a date with Drake? Ash smiled at him and shook her head no. "Listen, you'd better ace this test first. Keep your head in the game." Mule watched her for a long moment, thoughtfully stroking the scar on his chin. "Maybe you're right." 16 On their walk that evening, Ash and Elsbeth doubled back and crept up to the roof of the house. The night was as dry as the night before and almost balmy, and Ash quietly looked forward to some sunny weather this weekend and her time with Drake. Together they leapt house-to-house to the corner. Ash concentrated on her landings and tried to make less noise. She still wasn't good at it, and each time Elsbeth's feet hit shingles with barely a breath, Ash came down with a thump, an awkward sort of echo. They stopped on the house at the corner, where Ash had failed her first test. The pieces of shingle broken by Elsbeth launching herself across the street had been washed by rain to the gutter. Moonlight broke through distant trees, brightening the rooftops. Elsbeth folded her arms and watched Ash serenely, eyes narrowed. In her gaze was – Ash didn't know – appraisal, judgment... pride? "Do you feel ready to hear the second Wile?" A thrill ran through her. "Yes, ma'am. Been waiting." "Then follow." Elsbeth crouched, winding up like a spring, and vanished with a wooden snap. She appeared on the roof across the street, and as she silently beckoned, Ash felt her heart start hammering. She had blown this last time. But this time, it didn't seem nearly as far. She took a deep breath, counting, and held it. She counted some more. As she let it out, the world slowed down. The moonlit roofs brightened from gray to silver, and the night seemed to fill with clarity and contrast. Ash eyed a patch of roof beside Elsbeth, like a predator watching its prey. It was going to hurt when she landed – she hadn't figured out how to handle that. It would be loud, too. But Ash didn't want to think about that now. She wanted the second Wile. She bent her knees, letting her hips drop and feeling the energy building in her legs. In a single effort, she released that energy and launched herself skyward. A powerful wind clawed at her, and she let it press her arms to her sides and extend her legs, streamlining her body. From her new height she could see all the streetlights of Magnolia, and the moon appeared above the trees. She glanced down at Elsbeth, who looked up at her, frozen. At the top of her arc, she hugged her knees and ducked her head, feeling herself spin end over end. She was too dizzy, too high, too airborne to be frightened. Cannonball! she thought. She extended her body, pointing her toes, and came down feet first next to Elsbeth. It hurt. She folded up and tumbled, rattling up the slope of the roof, and came to rest flat on her back. A broad smile stretched her lips. She had done it! And she was fairly sure she hadn't broken anything, but successfully spread the impact over her entire body. She tried to enjoy the twinkling stars as the pain slowly receded. "Ow," she said happily. Elsbeth's hand appeared over her, and helped her up. "I'm sure that drew some attention. Let's move before we have company." Ash rolled her shoulders, flexing, testing her body. "I should have stretched first." Elsbeth crept down to the roof's edge and hopped to the high wooden fence that enclosed the backyard. She walked it like a tightrope, and stepped neatly onto the neighboring roof. Ash followed, grateful for the break from jumping. They stepped over roofs and across fences, working their way back toward home. A few houses down, an enormous tree grew from the center of a backyard, three times taller than the house itself, visible for blocks. Its branches spread wide, overhanging the roof. Elsbeth crept among the branches, disappearing. Ash followed her. The branches cut the moonlight, leaving only silver beams that slanted through an enclosed space on the slope near the roof's edge. Ash immediately liked this little hiding spot. If she had climbed more neighbors' roofs as a kid, this would have been her clubhouse. "The second Wile," Elsbeth said, "is about vision." Ash leaned on a branch so the moon's glare was blocked. She adjusted to the new darkness, and could see Elsbeth clearly from the corner of her eye. "Good. Because I've got the night vision thing down." "Do you know what kind of tree this is?" Ash hesitated. What happened to vision? She didn't know anything about tree-ology. "The big kind?" "It's an ash tree." "Oh! Neat." "The Latin name is Fraxinus, which means spear. The word 'ash' comes from the Old English aesc, which also means spear. Interesting, hm?" "Huh." Ash wasn't sure what to make of that. Elsbeth set her hands on a branch over her head and gave it three quick shakes. A hundred tiny seed pods came loose and fluttered down. She plucked one out of the air and handed it to Ash. "What is it?" Ash held it in a beam of moonlight. It was a hard oval bud the size of a bean, with a single brittle fin coming off, like a dragonfly wing. "It's a helicopter seed." "What else is it?" Ash turned it in her fingers, uncertain. Elsbeth nodded, as if Ash's silence had been an answer. "Excellent jump tonight, Ash. You have gifts. But your gifts will only take you so far, and no farther. To reach all the way to the ninth Wile, you will need discipline. And the key to discipline is vision. So..." Elsbeth gestured to the helicopter seed. "What do you see?" Ash held the seed at the end of her nose, and it was silver in the moonlight. Now wait just a minute, she thought. If vision was the key to discipline, then Elsbeth meant the vision to see the future, the goal, the end of the line, the ninth Wile. If Ash kept the goal in mind, and wanted it badly enough, the discipline part would come easy. She'd learned that much in ballet. But what about the seed? The future, the goal, the end of the line. And it hit her. "I see an ash tree." Elsbeth smiled and squeezed her shoulder. "That's the second Wile. To see the future unborn in the present. To account for the power of time, and know that potential is more important than reality." Elsbeth let go of Ash and shrugged. "Without this vision, you can merely see things as they truly are. And that is a sort of blindness." Ash let the tree branch take her weight as Elsbeth's words settled in. At the ends of each branch were thousands of seeds in bunches, brushing against the roof. Ash saw groves of ash trees, whole forests, and each tree had its own seeds in their thousands. Trees reached forward in time, century after century. The old roof they stood on would decay and be replaced, and the house would age and be bulldozed and built again, and that house would be replaced, and this neighborhood would grow and change as generation after generation of people not yet born lived and raised their children here. "You always talk about the past," she said to Elsbeth, "and say 'we.' Even if it's a thousand years ago. Like you were there." "My people were there. I'm one of them. Look." Elsbeth pointed down into the backyard. The tree's lowest branch reached over the yard like a crooked arm, and two chains hung suspended from it, ending in a swing made from an old wooden plank. "See the chains?" The chains disappeared into the branch, rather than looping around it. Ash thought it was an illusion of the moonlight. She used her night-vision trick and looked hard at the tree trunk, away from the branch. In her peripheral vision, she saw that the chains truly vanished into the wood. They had looped around the branch once upon a time. But the tree had grown and the branch had thickened, enveloping the chain. "The tree has swallowed the chain," said Elsbeth. "It looked the same yesterday, and the day before that. No one saw the chain disappear. But it did, because every day, the tree did its work of growing. In moves too small to see." Ash wondered if the chains had hurt it. She placed a hand gently on a branch above her. "Poor tree." "The tree is no victim," Elsbeth said. "It's too powerful. The wood will be there long after the iron has rusted away." Elsbeth squeezed Ash's shoulder again. "You are going to be like this tree, Ash. You have many small moves ahead of you. Hard work. Invisible results. Are you ready for that?" Elsbeth was so cryptic sometimes. Ash had no idea what she was getting herself into, but she knew one thing: she had no doubts. "I'm totally in." "Good," Elsbeth said. "In the end, you will grow through the chains that bind you. Because now, your training truly begins." 17 Elsbeth wouldn't say anything more that night. The next day was Friday. Ash's body still ached from her landing the night before. She took some ibuprofen before school and packed more in her lunch. As she sat in history class, listening to Mr. Maunder talk about slavery and the Underground Railroad, she knew Mule was tackling his math test two buildings over. Under her desk, she briefly crossed her fingers for him. And she figured Harriet Tubman would have made a pretty good ninja. Maybe she would ask Elsbeth about that. At lunchtime, Mule met her at the tables. "Hey, Professor." "How did it go?" Mule looked thoughtful as he unpacked three sandwiches, an apple, two bananas, two bags of chips, and a twenty-four-ounce water bottle from his lunch bag. "You know, I think I'm getting over not making it on the football team. I might turn over a new leaf." "I see." Ash opened her own lunch bag and found another lunch prepared by Elsbeth, mostly dal bhat – lentils and rice. "Yeah. Maybe I'll go to college and major in mathematics." "Really?" "Sure. I'll need some eyeglasses, though. And a bow tie. And one of those pocket protectors." "Stylish. But I don't know if they make bow ties your size. So... you're saying it went well?" "I'm saying I killed it. I stomped it. I ground it under my cleats." Ash winced. "Okay, then." "I owe you... I don't know. Something." "You don't owe me anything." "Yeah, I do. Name it." "Well..." Ash snatched Mule's apple and bit into it. # After the last bell, while most students had left for the weekend, Spencer Marsh remained on duty. His fingers raced over his laptop's keypad, in the sacred workspace of his personal office. Someone in the hall pounded on the supply closet's door – hard enough to shake it on its hinges. Damn. Spencer clicked ‘save’ and opened the door. It was a wall of muscle in a threadbare t-shirt. Spencer was about eye-level with the solar plexus, and he looked up to see the imposing nostrils of Sam Danneker. The guy so appropriately nicknamed Mule. Spencer felt a shiver of terror – why would Mule come here? What had Spencer written that might have set him off? Mule smiled. "Hey, little dude." Spencer was not reassured. He glanced down the hall, hoping for witnesses. Mule had come alone. "I was hoping you could help me out." Not even the weird girl, Ashley Prue, was with him. "What do you want?" Spencer's ears began to twitch. Journalism was all about favors. Exchanging a favor could get a plucky reporter access, testimony, documents... anything. "I want to find Drake Alexander on Monday. Alone. You can help me do that, right? You know everything about everybody." "Why?" "I just want to talk to him. Set some things straight." "You want his locker number?" "No, no. This needs to be more private." Spencer tried to piece this mystery together, but he couldn't concentrate. The sheer size of Mule was distracting, this close. It was like scuba diving with a blue whale. The principal's son. What could Mule Danneker want with him? "He comes to school early on most Mondays," Spencer began. "Meets with his dad." Mule's heavy brow lowered in concentration. "Early on Mondays..." "About seven thirty. You could catch him in the parking lot. He drives a silver Audi S5." "Yeah. That could work." Mule smiled again. "Thanks, little dude." "Any time... but not really. Listen," Spencer said. "What's this about?" "It's cool. Just a manly conversation between men." "Uh-huh." Mule turned and thumped down the hall. Spencer watched him go. He didn't imagine he'd ever get a return favor from Mule... at least, he sure didn't like the idea of asking. But that was all right. Mule had already done him a favor, by giving Spencer a potential story. A story that would take place at 7:30 AM Monday, in the parking lot. And all Spencer had to do was show up. # Saturday was cold, but sunny – nice weather for Ash's date. By lunchtime, she could feel the butterflies at work in her stomach. She lay on her bed and remembered the first Wile. Never, never blame the boar. Ash had no problem with that. She didn't blame Drake. Okay, yes she did… but she wouldn’t react brainlessly to him and then blame him for her own actions. She would be aware. She would think and she would choose. She just wished like hell that she knew how he felt about her. The guy was a walking mystery, and it made her crazy. So choose, she thought. How would somebody else react to Drake? Payback. When he shows up, be elsewhere. Petty. And passive-aggressive. And it wouldn't get her any answers. Throw herself at him. Catch him off guard, get some honesty. If that worked... it could work really, really well. Ash lost herself in a daydream. When she snapped out of it, she realized that if that plan didn't work, it would be wicked awkward. Ash was too young to die of embarrassment. It wasn't her style, anyway... and she didn't want Drake to think that it was. Okay… Play it cool. Make him work a little. Now, that was her style. Just go, enjoy the date, let things play out. If she only had the patience for it. Maybe that was the lesson here: Be patient. Don't be such a spaz. Come right out and ask him. The butterflies in her stomach suddenly had baby butterflies, who grew up and had pteradactyls. Ash had already rejected death by embarrassment. So she saved this as a worst-case scenario, in the event that her patience gave out. She wondered if she would get the truth. And she wondered if she really wanted to hear it. And what in the world was she going to wear? # Half Ash's wardrobe lay on her bed. She'd chosen a black tank top and her last pair of nice jeans, wedge shoes for a little height, and her dark suede longish coat to set it off. She would look pretty good against Drake's leather. At ten to two, Ash felt the creeping suspicion that he wouldn't show up. That was his pattern, after all. What then? Maybe she'd pull Elsbeth away from Dad and find out what she had meant about the training. What was Ash in for? Wax on, wax off? Elsbeth wasn't in the house, though. So much for that idea. The doorbell rang at two o'clock sharp. Ash sprinted down the stairs and pulled open the front door before her dad could get out of his chair. On her porch stood Drake, wearing khakis and a light blue button-down. His hair was neatly parted, and there wasn't an inch of leather on him. Ash almost didn't recognize him. "Hey, Ash," he said. "Is that you, Drake?" "It's me." "What happened?" Ash's dad came up behind her. "So you're Drake Alexander." "Yes, sir." "I'm Henry Prue." They shook hands. Ash noted Drake's enthusiastic grip and professional eye contact, and felt pieces falling into place. "How do you do," Drake said. "Care to come in?" Dad asked. Ash headed off that train wreck. "Movie to catch, Dad." "Oh," Dad said. "Right." "Sir? About last week, and the concert..." Dad cleared his throat grimly. "Yes, about that. I don't appreciate my daughter being abandoned that way." "I totally understand, sir," Drake said. "I wanted to explain. You see, our dog, Tank, swallowed some fertilizer Mom put in our yard, and we had to run him to the vet. Dad's car was in the shop, so we took mine. I couldn't call because–" "You lost your cell phone?" Dad asked. "No, sir. My dad confiscated it. At school. I was texting." "I see," Dad said. "It sounds like your father keeps you on a pretty short leash." "I'd agree with that, sir." "Got to go, Dad," Ash said. "Right. Back by dinner?" "Back by dinner." Ash gave her dad a quick hug and shut him in the house. She kept quiet until she and Drake were in the Audi, parked on the driveway. Drake checked his mirrors and pulled out gently. Once he reached the corner stop sign, he shifted the convertible into "park." He let out a sigh and scraped at his scalp, mussing his hair. Then he unfastened his seat belt and unbuttoned his shirt. Ash tried not to stare. Where was this going? He wore a black t-shirt underneath. He slipped out of the blue button-down, balled it up and tossed it into the back seat, then he reached back there, grabbed his leather jacket, and shrugged into it. Ash nodded. "There you are." "Here I am." "Nice story back there." "Did you like that? I'm still trying to regain lost ground for being a jerk." "Do you really own a dog?" "The dog is real. The fertilizer bit happened two months ago. Tank is fine, by the way." "And your cell phone?" "I don't text." He gunned the engine and raced through the intersection, pressing Ash into her seat. "Hey, I was thinking," he said. "With weather like this, we should skip the movie and go to the beach." 18 They didn't stop at Golden Gardens, and they didn't stop at Carkeek Park. Too crowded, Drake said. And Ash had to agree. On a Saturday afternoon, with freak sunny weather, they would be shoulder-to-shoulder with crowds on any Seattle beach. "I know a place," Drake said. "I didn't really dress for the beach." "Just leave your shoes in the car. You'll be fine." They continued north to 185th and turned into Richmond Park. Drake weaved the car down the hill and parked in view of the water. It was deep cobalt and seemed to shine. Clouds cruised over it, cottonball-white, all fluff and no rain. Gulls called, cheering their arrival, and beyond that, Ash could hear the rumble and hiss of the surf. They crossed the foot bridge over the train tracks and continued to the sand. Despite the sun, the concrete didn't burn Ash's feet, and the sand felt toasty – just right. The crowds were made up of couples, some with children, and occasional masses of teens. "Come on." Drake led her along the beach, on the strip of sand between the water and the piles of boulders strewn with bone-white driftwood. Ash rolled up her jeans and followed. As they left the parking lot behind, the crowds thinned. The beach got skinnier, the boulders pressing closer to the water. Eventually, the sand ran out, and swells crashed directly on the rocks. "End of the line," Ash said. Drake climbed a set of boulders as if they were stairs, and stepped onto a long piece of driftwood. It stretched thirty feet over the boulders, a full-length tree trunk, and when Ash hopped up beside him, she saw that the beach’s sand continued on the other side. She and Drake would have to cross this log like a foot bridge to get there. He glanced back, daring her. "Ready?" It would be a balancing act – and a slip would mean a tumble onto the rocks – but it was nothing she couldn't handle. "Sure." A train blew its horn. Ash checked behind her. A passenger train chugged gradually toward them. It would pass in a moment. The tracks, and their concrete foundation sprayed with multicolored graffiti, lay just ten feet away. Drake held out his arms and strolled neatly toward the log’s far end. Ash followed, toes out, her feet gripping the smooth wood. The train approached, getting louder, and as it passed them, its rumble drowned out the surf and the gulls. All Ash could hear was the repeating boom-boom of the wheels on the track. She could feel the log vibrating, making her feet itch. Tiny grains of sand danced their way out of crevices in the wood. Her steadiness started to slip and balance got tricky. She set her feet in closed fourth position and demi-pliéd, bending her knees. She fixed herself there, her center of gravity lowered, and held her arms out and rounded, demi-seconde. She felt steady again. Now she just had to wait out the stupid train. It was a Sound Transit passenger train, and some of the faces in the windows seemed to notice the little woman doing ballet on the beach in a long suede coat. Ash felt her face flush. Drake didn't help. He just watched her, grinning, standing on the log with his hands in his jacket pockets. He didn't even bend his knees. He had better balance than she did. The show-off! Eventually, the last car passed them and the vibration stopped. "That was exciting," Drake said. Ash straightened, finishing her plié. "You could have warned me." "I knew you could handle it." "Where did you learn to balance so well?" "I've done this before." At the log's far side, they hopped down to the sand. There was another hundred-foot-long stretch of sandy beach here, interrupted in the middle by a broad trail of river stones leading from a culvert to the ocean. There were no people. Ash and Drake had it all to themselves. They walked together on the firmer sand near the water. "It's perfect here," Ash said. "How did you find this place?" "I'm always looking for places like this. Always trying to get away, one way or another." "Of course." They walked in silence. Ash wished she could say something that would get him talking. But she realized there was so little of her life that she could share now. They crossed the river stones side by side, and Ash felt them shifting under her feet. Drake stopped and picked one up. He tossed it into the water, and it disappeared with a plop. "Thanks for coming with me. I hope you weren't set on a movie." Ash breathed in the sea air. "No. The beach is great." Drake picked up another stone and turned it in his fingers. "Anyhow. I'm glad you came." He stepped to the waterline and flicked the stone. It skipped four times and disappeared. "Really?" "Really." "It's hard to tell sometimes." Drake picked up another stone and looked it over. "Yeah, but that's just me. I'm not warm and fuzzy like some guys." "That's true. You're more... dark and scowly." "Nice. Thanks." He hurled the stone, and it skipped five times. Ash casually inspected the stones around her feet. "And that can make it hard to tell..." She selected a smooth gray one and slowly rubbed sand grains off it, aware that Drake's eyes were on her. Her heart began to pound. "... what you're really thinking." She glanced back to the log they had crossed. "It puts me a little off balance." "For what it's worth, sometimes I feel the same way around you." "No, you don't." "Whatever. You don't have to believe me." Ash hesitated. "Really?" Drake said nothing, and picked up another stone. "Then let me ask you this,” she said. “Now, don't think I've been obsessing over this or anything, because I haven't. It's no big deal. But the last time I saw you, you called me kid." Drake frowned. Then he nodded. "Could be." "So... is that how you see me?" "What?" "As... I don't know. As a little girl?" Drake stared at her, and his head slowly tipped to the side. He grinned, and his grin broke into a smile. "Jesus H. Christ, and all his wacky uncles. You are, sure as shit, not a little girl." Ash's heart hammered against her ribs. A thrill ran through her, so intense – but suddenly gone, crushed by a molten wave of embarrassment. "Well..." She searched her mind for a witty comeback. "All right, then!" That wasn't it. Drake kept up his insufferable grin. "Obsess much?" "No." "You're red as a beet." "So?" "It's cute." "Stop it." Ash turned to the water and squeezed the stone in her grip. As the swells eased in to the sand, she steadied her breathing. Her heart seemed to get itself under control, just a little. She aimed over an incoming swell and threw her stone. It plunked into the water and vanished. Drake coughed into his hand. "Good throw." He turned away, clearing his throat. "Is that funny?" she asked. "Fine. Your turn, pitcher." Drake flicked his stone. Ash counted seven skips. Jerk. She carefully stepped over the stones, patrolling in a tight circle, until she found a perfect reddish-gray disk. It felt smooth and sleek in her hand, and she brushed grains from it and settled it into place along her index finger. A swell rolled in toward her feet, with a wide and shining field of water beyond it. She glanced at Drake. He waited serenely, arms folded. The swell curled on the stones. Ash could feel the tension in each muscle of her body, lingering from Drake's words, and let it go with a long exhale. The world slowed down. The gulls stopped their calling and hung motionless over her, and seawater racing over the stones slowed to a sparkling crawl. Ash inhaled steadily. Her index finger slid under the stone and she pinched it against her thumb, as she had pinched the sharkfin blade of Elsbeth's star. Don't overdo it, she told herself. She lowered her center of gravity and whipped her body around in a full circle, her arm extending and building speed. The air clung to her, pulling at her skin and hair as she moved through it. The hem of her coat flew out, fanlike. Her eyes locked on the blue horizon and she fired the stone at it, hip-high. When it touched the water thirty feet out, it skipped, tossing up a misty cloud of spray, and kept going. The flying hem of Ash's coat slapped hard against her torso. She didn't take her eyes off the stone. It skipped again at sixty feet. At ninety feet, the stone stabbed through a swell with a barely audible puff, and kept going. Somewhere beyond a hundred feet out, it disappeared into the water, too small to see. Drake took a step backward, staring. "Well. All right, then." She might have overdone it. 19 Ash's mouth hung slightly open, her breath pausing in her throat. As the normal world returned and time resumed its proper pace, she felt exposed to Drake, naked in her ninjatude. She pushed her hands in her coat pockets and held her coat around her body. Very stealthy, Ash thought. So smooth. She couldn't even look at him – she was too scared that she would see shock on his face. He was going to run and tell everybody– She dared to glance in his direction. Drake didn't look shocked. He watched the spot where the stone had disappeared with a serene sort of... contemplation. Ash couldn't believe it. Didn't anything shake this guy up? "That was a..." Drake began quietly, as if he were making a difficult judgment, "really good throw." Ash's mind struggled desperately and was suddenly blessed with the perfect lie. "Are you kidding? That throw was awesome!" Ash punched his shoulder. "I can't believe it. I couldn't do that again in a million years!" She stared at the rolling surf for any trace of what she had done. But the ocean had swallowed the stone and forgotten it. "It's like, the stars aligned for me. At least in this lifetime, I got that one perfect throw." She smiled at him. "Wow, I'm glad I had a witness." She searched his face. Was he buying it? His thoughtful look broke into a grin. "Maybe I'm your good luck charm." Relief hit Ash like a quenching flood, and with it, a little thrill at his words. "Maybe you are." She stepped closer to him, the stones shifting under her feet, until she was close enough that he could put his arm around her, if he wanted to. She waited, smiling at him, and wished for something clever to say. The stones warmed her toes nicely, and in brief moments when the ocean breeze was still, she felt the blissful heat of the sun. She turned to the ocean, and together, they watched a sail on the horizon. A thought hit Ash like a speeding truck. Drake was no dummy. She never knew what he was thinking, but he was always thinking something. The wheels in his head turned as well as anybody's, and they turned a lot. So... why had he believed her little story just now? It had been too easy. And a startling scenario opened up to her. Ash didn't know exactly how the principal was connected to the enemies that Elsbeth's sisterhood had resisted for so many centuries, but he had arranged the video cameras all over the school, and arranged the coming renovation of the library as a ploy to find the key page of the Mutus Liber. Ash remembered last year's principal, Mr. Graham, and the heroin they had found in the nurse's office. That had been the end of him. Had Mr. Alexander arranged that, too? What couldn't he arrange? And Drake had started at Magnolia High as a student just as Mr. Alexander had taken over as principal. The cameras were one thing, but what could be better than having his own son report to him? If Mr. Alexander somehow knew about Elsbeth, could he have told Drake to keep an eye on Ash? To try to get close to her? Ash remembered balancing on the log by the train tracks. Could Drake be testing her? To see what she was capable of? "What's the matter?" Drake asked. Ash watched the sail in the distance, not daring to face him, because of what he would read in her eyes. She shivered. It couldn't be true – she was losing her grip on reality. Girl meets boy, girl likes boy, girl goes crazy. Never, never blame the boar. Of course, it had to be her own paranoid brain that invented this stuff. He had been perfectly decent to her today, and she was choosing her reaction – which was to come up with reasons to push him away. Drake was not following his father's orders. That was just nutty. "Nothing at all," she managed to say. It hurt to push the words out. "So, are you going to show me the rest of this beach?" # That afternoon, Ash did her best to drive the junk out of her head and have a good time. By six o'clock, she was exhausted. The only solace was being with Drake himself. They were silent as he drove her home, and Ash could feel their moments together ticking down to an end. She didn't feel relieved – just a haunting guilt that she could accuse him of something so awful, even if only in her mind, and let it grow creepy roots into her thoughts of him. Because it wasn't true. She had to find a way to convince herself of that. She clung to the passenger door handle as Drake wheeled the convertible into her driveway. He shifted into park. "Safe and sound. Not a scratch on you." "Thanks." She didn't want to get out. She wasn't ready for this to be over, not yet. She had left her shoes off, and she rubbed her big toe along the top of her other foot, feeling the scratch of sand grains. "So..." Drake said. "So," she replied. "Great idea. The beach, I mean." "Good." "I mean really." "Glad you had a good time." "Yeah." Her heart was starting to pound something fierce. End of date, she thought, plus boy, plus parked car, equals nervous Ash. "Let me walk you up," he said. Oh, that would be worse. Not the porch! But Drake was around the Audi and opening the door for her. She grabbed her shoes, got out, and they walked to the front door side by side. "Hey," Drake said. "Thanks for running around with me today. That was fun." "Drake?" "Yeah?" She dropped her shoes on the doormat and stared up at him, her hands on her hips. "Are you for real?" He met her eyes and frowned, searching. He took his time answering. "Usually." She shook her head. "Are you real... with me?" His eyes narrowed, showing a trace of scowl. "What's this? A sincerity issue? You don't trust me? I thought we had fun today." Ash didn't budge. "Are you or aren't you?" Anger brought out the ice in the blue of his eyes. His scowl intensified. "I am. Damn it." "Good." She let out a breath and smiled gently at him. And here, she thought, goes nothing. She swallowed. "Prove it." Drake's jaw fell a bit. He stared at her, and Ash's heart let loose with a fresh volley of hammering. She knew she was pushing him, she knew it was outrageous, but the only thing she could think of was to challenge him and see what he did. He put his hands on her cheeks and kissed her hard on the mouth. Ash squeaked in surprise, and his lips muffled it. She felt light-socket intensity in every inch of her – her hair had to be standing on end. She tried to put her arms around him, but couldn't manage it, so she let them hang limp. Her knees went to jelly, so badly that he was holding her up. He broke off the kiss and let her go, and she suddenly had to stand on her own. She wobbled, and looked into the coldest, most beautiful eyes she had ever seen. Without a word, Drake stomped off the porch, turned the corner and disappeared. Ash heard the car's door slam, its engine roar, and a short screech from the tires as he sped away. Her entire body was covered with a fine sheen of sweat. With trembling hands, she got her house key in the lock and let herself in. 20 Ash didn't say a word during dinner. She remembered when she was eleven and her parents got her a desk and chair for her room, so she could do her homework. Dad made sure she had a sensible lamp for plenty of light. But for the first month, with assignments spread out in front of her, all Ash did was sit in the chair and lean back onto two legs, balancing in that delicate spot at the edge of falling backward. One time, she did fall. There had been a stomach-churning instant when she realized she had leaned too far, a moment of floating doom. Then she had sprawled onto the floor. Since Drake had kissed her, her body felt suspended in that moment. She knew Elsbeth would sense that something was up. She tried to hide it anyway. Because when Elsbeth learned of Ash's suspicions about Drake, she could only do one thing. There was only one rational choice. She would ban Ash from seeing Drake. Ash's mind couldn't go there. Her attention fled the subject, and settled on the rice she was chewing. She concentrated on its feel in her mouth, anything to distract her. She swallowed. "Great dinner, Elsbeth." She took another bite, and chewed. # On their after-dinner walk, Elsbeth and Ash turned south, toward downtown Magnolia. Elsbeth had brought a dark blue shoulder tote with her. "Do you want to talk about what's on your mind?" It was the first time Elsbeth had spoken since they had left the house. Ash sighed. "I... really don't." Ash loved these walks. But she couldn't shake the dread, the feeling of hovering over an abyss. "That's all right." They reached downtown – just some shops, a bank or two, and a gas station along a few blocks of McGraw Street. It was a Saturday night with decent weather, and people strolled and biked past them. They turned the corner and passed a burger place. Ash wondered what was on the schedule for tonight. She remembered the second Wile, and the challenge of seeing the potential in things, and of making small, invisible moves. She wished she could clear her head of Drake, just lock her fears in a box for a while, so she could concentrate. "Where are we going?" Elsbeth nodded her head at the shop past the burger place. "Ice cream." "What?" Elsbeth held open the glass door of the ice cream shop for Ash, setting the bells ringing. The inside was brightly lit and lined with a double row of tubs, all colors, under glass. "Have you got a favorite flavor?" Ash was in no mood to mess around. "Chocolate." They each ordered a single cone – Elsbeth got orange sherbet, and she paid by neatly stacking quarters from her shoulder tote on the glass counter. They sat at a black steel-mesh table on the sidewalk outside. Ash pinched off some chocolate with her lips, and everything inside her began to feel better. "Thank you, Auntie," she sighed. They ate their cones in silence. Ash watched people go by and enjoyed the chance for "normal" time with her aunt, in public, with no superhuman activity. It was a new feeling. She glanced at Elsbeth, who watched Ash with her usual expression: an almost-grin, a look of pleasant serenity, with eyes that were alert but steady and calm. Ash crunched down the last of her cone. Elsbeth still nibbled at the edges of hers. "I have something for you." A gift? Ash hesitated. "You're being really nice to me today." "You haven't seen it yet. You've got a lot of advantages, Ash. A lot of physical challenges have been easy for you. That's due to your natural ability, and your training in ballet." Elsbeth leaned forward. "But you have weaknesses." "Yeah." Ash frowned and traced a finger over the table's steel mesh. "I have the aim of a garden sprinkler." "That's one. There are a lot of Wiles ahead, but for now, consider this." Elsbeth pointed at her. "Could you stop a ten-story fall with a single finger?" She made a fist. "Could you punch through a pane of glass?" "But you said..." Ash dropped her voice. "Ninjas aren't strong." “If you mean brute strength, they aren’t. But speed, and especially focus, can masquerade as strength. You are already as physically strong as any ninja, Ash. But your ballet has neglected your hands.” Ash couldn't help it – she looked at her hands. They were small and harmless-looking... like the rest of her, she supposed. "But," she began, and the ballet training kicked in. "Hands are supposed to be graceful and flowing." Elsbeth set her elbows on the table, her forearms crossed, holding her cone daintily in three fingers. A finger of her free hand tapped a rhythm on the table’s steel mesh. Her finger slowed, tapping harder. Then it stopped, and pressed against the mesh. It sank into the table, to Elsbeth's second knuckle. She never even lifted her elbow. She pulled her finger out and wiggled it playfully at Ash, leaving a bent, finger-sized hole in the table's mesh. Ash felt her jaw go slack. "That's... more vandalism." Elsbeth grinned innocently. Then her expression became serious. "I'm going to give you something. It will strengthen your grip, your fingers and nails, and let you strike a more dangerous blow." "Okay. But wait. Punching people... is that in the job description?" "Of course not, Ash. If you ever have to fight, it will be for your life. It may come down to a split-second, and a single hit." Elsbeth reached into her shoulder bag, and drew something out. She set a ping-pong paddle on the table. Ash stared at it, as her brain tried to short-circuit. No, it really was a ping-pong paddle. She looked at Elsbeth's serene face. If this was a joke, Elsbeth wasn't letting on. "Well, sure," Ash said. The giggles hit her, and she put a hand to her mouth. "Because ninjas and ping-pong go together like..." She couldn't think of anything, and that made her giggle more. "Yes, it's a table tennis racquet," Elsbeth said. "Laugh if you like." Ash did. "But you will use it in your own way." Elsbeth picked it up. "First. Hold the handle. Tap the face of the paddle. This will strengthen your fingers." Her finger repeatedly struck the thin layer of red foam rubber. The sound was louder than Ash would have thought, and each tap left a crescent-shaped cut from her nail. "Second. Hold tight, and punch." She held the paddle sideways in front of her and mimicked a slow-motion punch, resting her knuckles against the paddle's face. "You'll strengthen your grip and your punch." She set it back on the table. "When you can hit it hard enough to break the wood without dropping it, we'll move on to something else." At least it had its own cover story, Ash thought. It would be easier to explain than some five-hundred-year old artifact. "Wait a minute. How did ninjas train before ping-pong?" "You don't want to know." Ash picked it up and tapped a finger against the thin foam rubber. She did it again, harder. A small spark of pain shot through her nail. "Ow. Hey, is all this poking and punching going to give me big ugly hands?" Elsbeth rested her hands at the center of the table, displaying them. They were slender and perfect. What could Ash say? “Okay, then!” She felt a pang of jealousy and wondered again how old Elsbeth really was. Ash hooked her finger in the table's hole that Elsbeth had made, and tugged at the unyielding metal. To see the future unborn in the present. She tried to imagine having the power Elsbeth had, and couldn't. But seeing herself doing those things... that was what the second Wile was about. To account for the power of time. Seeing something's potential, as well as its reality. Seeing her own potential... Ash couldn't manage it. She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. "You all right?" Elsbeth asked. "Oh, sure," Ash said. "I'm fine." "Good. Because maybe it's time we spoke about Drake Alexander." 21 Ash felt a chill of dread at her words. What did Elsbeth know? "You haven't told me anything about him," Elsbeth pressed. "You never even mentioned your date today." Of course, Elsbeth knew about the date. She had probably noticed Drake’s car in the driveway. She had to be worried about what Drake might see, might mention offhand to his father... let alone what he might be looking for. Spying for. What would Elsbeth do? She couldn't just let Ash continue to date the enemy, could she? Ash's body had become a bundle of tension, and her breaths came in spasms. "Elsbeth, please." "Ash... we need to talk about this." If Henry Prue had told her that he had a problem with Drake, Ash would just disobey, sneak around, see Drake on the sly. But Elsbeth was different. She wouldn't do that to Elsbeth. Could she defy Elsbeth to be with Drake? "No." Ash put her face in her hands. "You know who his father is. You know where he must stand in this." Elsbeth took Ash's hands away from her face and held them. "Please, Elsbeth. Don't say it." People passing on the sidewalk glanced over, concerned. Ash ignored them. "Don't..." Elsbeth pressed Ash's hands in hers and leaned forward, worried. "Don't say what?" "Don't forbid me from seeing Drake!" "Oh." Elsbeth let her hands go. "I see. Ash, Ash. Listen. Such a rash move would tip our hand. Now, I don't think you should trust him. He must be his father's son. But he is also a teenaged boy... that suggests a distaste for authority. His loyalties may be divided." Elsbeth grinned. "Or at least divisible. Has it occurred to you that he may actually like you?" Ash swallowed and took a deep breath. She let it out and nodded. "Good. He might reveal something useful about his father, even unintentionally. We should keep him close." Elsbeth fixed her stare on Ash. "You will need to be very careful. But if our worst fears are realized, and he is spying on you... your course is clear." Ash felt her strength returning. She sat up straight and met Elsbeth’s gaze. "Spy back." # Monday morning. 7:30 AM. In the student parking lot, Spencer kept his jacket collar up and his knit cap down, to ward off the chill as well as look anonymous. He'd been watching Mule from a safe distance for twenty minutes. Mule had been leaning against a lamp post, waiting for Drake to pull in. The student lot stretched along the entire south side of the campus, with room for a hundred cars. This early, there were only nine cars, all in the rows closest to the main entrance. Mule wore a white t-shirt and jeans, his typical attire. He showed no signs of being cold or bored, and Spencer tried to imagine what might be going though that microscopic mind of his. Not much. A silver Audi convertible, with the top up, pulled into the lot. Mule looked over, but kept leaning on his pole, until the Audi pulled into a spot a few rows from the other cars. Then he started walking toward it. Spencer didn't know if this was going to be good or not. Anything could happen. He pulled his mini video camera from his pocket and started recording. Drake got out of his car, threw a leather backpack over his shoulder, and slammed the door. He started across the lot. Even from here, Spencer could see his carelessly perfect blond hair and his intense brooding look. The principal's son, a grumpy pretty-boy. Drake noticed Mule and stopped. His scowl amplified. "Are you the principal's kid?" Mule asked. There was no love in that immense baritone. "Don't call me that." "You know who I am?" "I've seen you around. You're the big one." "Close enough." Spencer crept among the parked cars, one row over from Drake and Mule. He held his camera close to this body, trying to be discreet, in case they glanced his way. The figures on the camera's screen were disappointingly small, and he could only hope it could pick up their voices. He should have bought that directional microphone. Because it looked like this was going to be good. "What do you want?" Drake asked. Mule stopped about ten feet from him. "Just to talk." "How lucky I am. So talk." "There's this girl, Ash, with the locker next to yours." Drake watched the giant for a long moment, with a nasty look in his eyes. "Yeah?" "Stay out of her way." "Huh. Does that come from her, or did you plan this little intervention all by yourself?" "This is all me," Mule said. "She's too nice for this kind of thing. In fact, she told me not to talk to you. But I am anyway." "Then you're out of line." Mule shrugged. "Maybe. I have been feeling uppity lately. I passed a math test. Then again, you've been a bastard to her. So maybe I'm just doing her a favor." "I see." Contempt oozed from Drake's voice. "She must tell you all about me." "Yup." "You must be her best friend." "Well... pretty much." "And here you are, defending your buddy from me." Drake took a few steps closer to Mule. Spencer could see his face: eyes narrowed, chin jutting. "Here's what I think," Drake said. "You like her. You've got the hots for her. You lie awake nights, thinking about her. Problem is, she's not into you, not like that. Or worse, you haven't had the guts to tell her how you feel. Or most pathetic of all... you're such a dumb macho hulk that you don't even realize you have feelings for her." Mule didn't say anything. But a low rumble came from his throat, barely audible at first, then louder. It shifted tone, up and down, as he breathed. Drake put his hands in his pockets and inspected Mule head to toe. "She tells you everything, huh?" Mule's rumble grew still louder, but didn't form any words. "So she told you about our date Saturday?" Mule's rumble stopped. "Look," Drake said. "I don't know about Ash and me. I think she's incredible... but she doesn't trust me, and that's..." Drake glanced away for a moment. "I don't know. That's hard to take." Mule still made no sound. His fingers trembled and slowly curled into fists. "So you can imagine how thrilled I am by this conversation." Drake shook his head. "Whatever, it's not your business. But if you want to tally up our scorecards at the end of the day... you stupid, drooling ogre... I've got a better shot with her than you do." Mule's roar echoed across the lot like some primal call from eons past. He cleared the distance between them and swung his right fist in a sledgehammer arc at Drake, who stepped out of the way. "Great." Drake pulled his hands from his pockets, pivoted like a karate instructor, and kicked Mule in the stomach. Mule didn't react. It looked like Drake had kicked a tree. Mule swung his other fist and caught nothing but air. Drake danced back, then cut in and launched his heel at Mule's knee. Mule grunted and caught hold of Drake's jacket. He lifted and threw Drake onto the trunk of the Audi. Drake rolled over and lay on the trunk, wincing, as Mule approached. He tucked his legs under his body and stood, towering over Mule, and fired a perfect kick to Mule's nose. Mule's head snapped back when it connected. He teetered on his heels, and Drake hopped down to stand before him and threw a bunch of quick jabs at his chin. Spencer heard the impact of each one. Mule seemed to recover from the kick and slowly notice that he was being punched. He took hold of Drake's jacket again, one-handed, and as Drake tried to pry his fingers loose, Mule socked Drake between the eyes. Drake slumped, and hung by his jacket. Blood fell from his nose. Mule let him go, and he sprawled to the asphalt. Mule gazed at the hand he'd hit Drake with. "That's weird," he said, working his fingers. Drake staggered to his feet and wiped his nose. He wobbled back a few paces and glared at Mule, shaking his head. "Enough of this shit. You win, you big ape." He unlocked his car and climbed in. The fight seemed to have gone out of Mule, and he let Drake go. The Audi's tires squealed as it backed out of the spot. Mule didn't flinch as it raced backwards past him, shifted into gear and accelerated out of the parking lot. At the driveway, it turned left into the street, cutting off a sedan, and sped out of sight. Mule watched it go. He stood alone in the lot as the Audi's engine faded. "See you around," he said to no one. Then he shrugged and started toward campus. Once Mule was gone, Spencer turned the video camera toward himself and held it at arm's length. "A disturbing example of campus violence," he said to the lens. Then he couldn't think of anything more to say, so he stopped recording. He slipped the camera safely into his jacket pocket. What a prize! Teenaged boys fighting was no biggie, but actual violence captured on camera? Pure gold. When people saw this video, they would go crazy. Maybe he could get it to a local news website. Drake might escape disciplinary action – privilege had its privileges, after all. Mule would get suspended for beating on the principal's son. Spencer wished he could be there when Mr. A unloaded on the big oaf. Of course, Mule would be pissed, and probably hunt Spencer down and wring his neck... Maybe this video would fit better in Spencer's private collection. As cars pulled into the lot one by one, filled with students arriving for class, Spencer wondered at the name Mule had mentioned. Ashley Prue... the girl who got attacked, in the center of it all. He watched for Drake's Audi, but it didn't return. Where had he run off to? 22 Ash paced in her bedroom after dinner Monday night. She held her ping-pong paddle (which she had named "Punchy") in her right hand and tapped it with her left index and middle fingers. She had already tapped five hundred times with the fingers of her right hand, and only switched hands when her cuticles began to throb. Five hundred was too many. She didn't have to master this tonight, she reminded herself. She had time. That was what the second Wile was all about. Small moves. She'd be thumping away at Punchy tomorrow and next week, and next month, and someday, she'd have hands of steel. She still wasn't sure how she felt about that. She no longer feared having hands like Mule's – Elsbeth had put that to rest. It was the thought of fighting. Since Elsbeth had come into her life, Ash had fallen in love with being fast and wouldn't trade it for anything. But she had never been in a fight before... at least, not since the second grade, when Becky Pimmelman had kicked her lunchbox. Ash had thrown herself at Becky, but had given up when Becky had given Ash's hair a good yank. Could Ash really do it? Could she protect herself? Could she hurt someone, if she really had to? She didn't know. And that gave her a cold feeling in her stomach. She dropped Punchy on the bed and opened her dresser drawer. Nestled in her socks lay the black box holding the switchblade. She lifted the box's lid and stared at the gleaming handle, thinking of its hidden blade. There were bad people out there. Sooner or later, they would come after her again. Someone knocked on her bedroom door. Dad's knock. Ash shut the drawer. "What?" she called. Henry Prue peered into the room. "I give up. I know you're sixteen, and you need your privacy, but I can't restrain my curiosity any longer. What is that infernal tapping sound I've been hearing for the past hour?" Oops. "What tapping sound?" Dad frowned at her. "You didn't hear it?" She shrugged. "Crows pecking the roof again?" "Hm. I guess..." He spotted the paddle on the bed. "Hello. Ping-pong?" He scooped it up. "Yeah," Ash said. "Some kids play after school." "How about that. Good. Since ballet... well. I'm just glad you're trying something new." She smiled at him, hoping her nervousness didn't show. "It's fun. I'm trying to broaden my horizons, I guess." "Good. Homework done?" She had broadened her horizons, all right. "Yes, Dad." "Did you brush your teeth?" She sighed. "Not yet, Dad." Every night, the same question. Since she was five. He took the hint, and grinning his fatherly grin, passed her the paddle and slipped out the door. Alone again, Ash turned the paddle in her fingers. She gripped its handle in her left hand and thumped her right fist against it. It tried to jump free. Mule had acted funny today. Quiet. Like there was something on his mind. Ash tightened her grip and punched again. Thump. The impact jarred painfully. It was harder on her gripping hand and wrist than on her knuckles. She dreaded what would happen if she punched it as hard as she could. She hadn't seen Drake at all today. He hadn't come to school. In a way, that was a relief; she wasn't sure how to talk to him post-kiss. But still... where was he? The memory of the kiss came back to her, and so did the memory of him speeding away without a word. She wrapped her fingers around the handle and squeezed, holding it just short of arm's length. She wound up her right arm and threw the most savage punch she could, willing the paddle to snap in half. She knocked it to the floor, unbroken, sending a bolt of pain up each arm. "Ow." No more for tonight, or Dad was likely to hear. And she was likely to hurt herself. The second Wile said... that she deserved a break. Because tomorrow would come soon enough. She put Punchy away and felt relief at the thought: Tomorrow... maybe Drake would be back. # But Drake wasn't back. After Tuesday's classes, Ash wandered the stacks in the library, waiting for Mule. It had been three days – almost to the hour – since Drake had kissed her on Saturday afternoon, and she hadn't seen him since. Was he all right? Where could he be? And was it her fault? Had it been her challenge of him on the date that had driven him away? She had practically called him dishonest to his face. She came to the end of the shelves, turned, and let herself disappear into the next row. The key page of the Mutus Liber was hiding here, somewhere. Maybe it was tucked between the pages of an obscure book, never checked out in seventy years. She pulled down a heavy, hardback Doctor Zhivago and with her thumb, spun through the pages. Nothing. The copyright date wasn't old enough anyway. She was just trying to distract herself from thinking about Drake. Just trying to get away from the school cameras. Still, she might blunder across the page. There was a chance. And she could use a little good luck about now. She tried Don Quixote. Nope. It had to be hidden in a really boring book. One with no file in the online catalog, and maybe the page was hidden in it so well that someone could read the book and not know it was there. Hidden behind a dust jacket, maybe. In the quiet of the library, Ash heard heavy feet come down the steps from the entrance to the tables, and the familiar thump of a backpack hitting the floor, dropped from a high-altitude shoulder. She emerged from the stacks. Mule was here. "There's the professor!" he boomed. "Looking for something to read?" "Could you hush? This is a library, you know." Ash sat beside him at the table and slumped, her hands on her cheeks. "Whoa. Tough day?" "Why?" she snapped. She suddenly remembered her promise to herself to not discuss Drake in front of Mule. She'd better perk up. "You seem a little grim." "You seem a little happy." "I am. But you first." "I'm fine." "No, really." Ash breathed in, steeling herself. "I mean it. I'm good. What's new in Mule's world?" He lowered his head, as if he was about to speak to the table. He looked up at Ash, under shaggy eyebrows. "It concerns our buddy Drake, the principal's son," he said with a sly grin. "What?" It was the last thing Ash had expected. She could barely speak. "Wh – wh – what?" "Have you noticed? He hasn't been around the past couple of days." "Mule!" Ash exclaimed. "I... " She still couldn't form words. How could this be happening? Why would Mule bring up Drake? Was he reading her mind? All Ash had wanted was to protect their friendship, to keep Drake out of the conversation. Pointless. She should had known better than to keep things from Mule. Ash sighed and rubbed her temples. "I know he hasn't been around. It's been driving me crazy." Mule nodded. "It's been driving...” He stopped. “Um, wait–" "Mule..." Ash had to do it. "Drake and I went on a date Saturday. We... well, I don't know about we... I'm sorry. I should have told you. But you get really ornery whenever I mention him." Mule stared at her. "You and he...?" "Yeah." "Are you nuts?" "Yeah," she said, without hesitation. "Wow." Mule leaned back. "And I thought he was just yanking my chain." Ash looked him up and down as the wheels in her head went spinning. "What do you mean? You talked to him?" "Yeah." "Since Saturday?" Mule frowned, looking less comfortable. "Yeah." "How?" He cleared his throat. "I sort of ran into him in the parking lot Monday morning. We got to talking. Then he turned around and took off. Maybe to cry to his mama." "Talking... about me?" Mule shrugged and grinned. "What else would we talk about?" So Drake had come to school Monday morning. Just like normal. As if the date, and her ‘are-you-for-real’ line, hadn’t bothered him at all. It hadn't been her. Relief ran over her like warm rain. She sighed. It had been Mule. "What did you say to him?" she demanded. Mule frowned at the table. "Nothing, really." Ash spoke with low intensity. "Mule. Listen to me. What did you say?" "We just talked a little smack. I told him to leave you alone. I wanted to pay you back for helping me with the math test. I thought you didn't like him. I didn't know you were dating the guy!" Ash knew there had to be more. Tough talk wouldn't scare Drake off, even if it came from Mule. "What is it you're not telling me?" He looked doubtful. "Give it up," Ash pressed. "Well..." Mule's fingers caressed the scar on his chin. "I was about to tell you. I have to tell you. But now... you aren't going to like it." "What is it?" He made a sour face. "Seriously? You're dating him?" "Mule!" "Okay." He stopped rubbing his scar and tapped it with his finger. "Remember this?" Ash remembered Mule's blood dripping to the stain on his t-shirt. And the blood, dried and dark, on the switchblade Elsbeth had given her. She remembered that blade slashing at her on that night, shining in the darkness. She didn't answer. Mule went on. "Here goes. The guy who came at us that night, the guy who attacked you... I think it was Drake." 23 The quiet in the library seemed to draw itself out, stretching tighter and thinner. "How dare you," Ash whispered. She felt that night as if it was still within her, as if that knife was still slashing at her, so close to cutting her skin. She shivered, and tears filled her eyes. "How could you say something like that? Are you trying to hurt me?" "No, no." Mule reached a hand out to her, but came short of touching her. He let it drop to the table. "I'm sorry. You told me you hated him." "So you made that up to make me feel better?" "No. It's true. At least, I think so. I figured... maybe we should tell the cops." The image of Drake as the principal’s obedient servant had settled on her like an invisible weight, never tolerated in her conscious mind but relentlessly pressing on her anyway. Now, images of the principal, Drake, and the attack on that awful night swirled in her mind, nightmarish connections linking them like tentacles. Ash pointed at him. "If you ever say that to anyone, if you ever mention his name and that night in the same sentence, so help me, I'll never speak to you again." Mule swallowed. "Okay." Ash wiped her eyes. "God, Mule, how could you even think...?" She suddenly felt close to the reason Drake had disappeared. "Wait, did you accuse him of that?" "No." Mule looked at the knuckles of his right hand. "I just..." "What?" "Oh, brother. You're not going to like this. Damn, I wish you weren't dating him." Ash struggled for patience. "What have you done, Mule?" "It's just that…" Mule considered his fist. "Maybe I have sensitive knuckles. Or it's a muscle memory thing. I punch a guy and it's like a fingerprint. I never forget a good hit." "A good... what are you saying?" "Drake and I–" "Fought?" "Sort of a scuffle–" "You hit him? And that makes you think..." "I've hit him before." Ash felt sick, and it was Mule – as if she were allergic to him. "I can't hear this." She raised her hands as if to ward him off, but it was an empty gesture. She had to get away. Shaking her head, she fled the table, out of the library, as fast as she could without running. # In the main building's broom closet, Spencer could still smell the ammonia of years long past. Irritating sounds warbled from the air vent. And since Mule had stopped by, the sheer expectation of someone's heavy-handed knock distracted him from editing his article – a probing interview with Gil the janitor. The air vent's warbling settled into the hypnotic tone of Principal Alexander, having another of his one-sided telephone conversations. "He hasn't reported in. No one knows where he is. I've considered recruiting the local police." Spencer's ears pricked at that final word. He eyed the dull metal slats of the vent, listening. "I know he tends to run off. But now? When we are so close? I suspect the girl. No. No, I've made my decision. We're changing the schedule. We can't delay any more. The library renovation begins tomorrow night." # Ash had to see Drake, and now. The principal's home address in the Bellevue suburbs wasn’t hard to track down. She caught a bus a block away from campus. As it rumbled over the 520 Bridge, she leaned in her window seat and gazed through the foggy glass at the grayish choppy waves on Lake Washington. They blew in all directions, as if they were confused. What was she doing? Going to Mr. Alexander's house? Was she crazy? And would she knock? Ask if Drake was home? If Mr. Alexander knew about her, knew what she knew... she’d disappear without a trace. But Ash had to know if Drake was all right. So she decided that she wouldn't allow herself to be seen. Once off the bus, she wandered downtown Bellevue for a half hour, her memorization of the route tangling in her mind, getting lost. She finally called a cab, paying with the twenty dollars of emergency money she kept in a tiny zippered pocket of her backpack. The taxi dropped her off a block from the address at half past five. The afternoon had gone, and the street of evenly-spaced trees and perfectly-cut grass had lost its color. The time was perfect. The light was soft, but the hour wasn't so late that a wandering teenager would look like she was up to no good. The Alexander residence occupied a corner plot, bigger than its neighbors, surrounded by a six-foot brick wall with a couple of feet of decorative wrought iron on top. A black gate of bars, on an automated track, ran across the driveway. Ash circled around the corner to the side. She tossed her backpack in a bush by the sidewalk, and after a moment's thought, tossed her coat after it. She'd rather be cold than get caught on something or destroy more of her wardrobe from sheer speed. She breathed – in for five, hold for ten, out for twelve. This could go badly. She pushed those thoughts aside and concentrated on Drake. The neighborhood grew still, and the twilight grays and blacks around her took on a certain intensity, their outlines sharpening. She leapt the wall, twirling in a neat somersault as she passed over its wrought iron top. She landed in a bush. She held in her scream, and crunched her way out of its branches. It hadn't really hurt – it just surprised her. Had it been a rose bush, its thorns would have carved her into a bloody mess. Stupid... she quietly swore to never again jump somewhere she couldn't see. The bush had taken it worse than she had. It looked lopsided now, sagging where she had rolled out of it. She slipped between it and the wall, and after hiding out for a few minutes, bent some of the branches back into place. Pretty soon, it looked all right. Good thing she was small, or those branches would have broken rather than bent. The house was a dark behemoth against an overcast sky. Some of the windows were lit on the first floor, but translucent curtains blocked any view inside. Higher, she saw sliding glass doors behind a second-floor deck. No curtains. She could see a sliver of interior ceiling and part of a chandelier. An upstairs living room? A game room? Drake's bedroom? She had to get up there. She ran for the house and pushed off the lawn, sprinting up a support post. She rolled over the deck's wooden railing and plopped safely behind an enormous gas barbecue grill. She balled herself up tiny, hugging her knees, and peered over the propane tank at the glass doors. It was a dining room. Mr. Alexander sat alone at a massive cloth-covered table, set for one. His dark tie was loosened, his white sleeves rolled up, and his downcast eyes focused on the rare steak he sawed into with a glinting knife. Ash held perfectly still, fighting a panic-driven urge to leap into the sky, anywhere, just to get away. Mr. Alexander didn’t notice her, and she realized that he couldn’t see her – the chandelier’s light must be reflecting off the window, making it a mirror for him. She forced herself to relax. It was like a zoo, with the cobra just on the other side of the glass. Ash had never seen him this close. The chandelier put bold light on his features. His hair was dark and neat, traced with silver, and his face was angular and hard. He ate with neutral determination, his mind on something else. This was the enemy. Maybe it was the sight of him at ease, cutting into his meat, as she cowered in cold shadow. But whatever the reason, she felt a pulse-pounding need to move, to escape – to get out of his reach. She heard a low steady noise, like a growl... coming from the far side of the deck. Ash leaned, peeking between the legs of the barbecue. A tan monster of a dog had risen from its bed in the deck's corner. A mastiff, maybe. Its shining eyes looked down on her with profound disapproval from within the soft folds of its face. Its fleshy black lips pulled up, revealing teeth like ivory hooks. Its body was thick and solid as a barrel. The dog had fifty pounds on her, easy. "You must be Tank," Ash whispered. The dog started toward her, its paws thumping on the deck. Ash freaked, gasping in a hard breath... and the world wound down like an old clock. The dog's growl faded to an echo as it slowed mid-stride. A drop of saliva came loose from its lips and sank like a mote of dust. She jumped for it, as hard and high as she could. Her body arced backward over the yard, and she caught a glimpse of its greenery behind her as she sailed over the black iron spikes on the wall. For a brief moment she hung suspended, arms out, the evening skyline of Bellevue spread perfectly upside-down before her eyes. As her body dropped, she curled up, spinning, so she wouldn't hit the street head first. She stretched her legs down and caught the asphalt with her feet, collapsing into a roll. She rolled into a tree across the street, ending up flat on her back with her heels against its trunk. She stood and brushed herself off, probing for injuries, and searching the second floor of the house for any movement. She was sore in places. Maybe a bruise or two. But no blood, no broken bones. She'd torn yet another pair of jeans. At least her shoes were still on her feet. She was pretty sure she hadn't left anything on that deck. Yikes, what a thought. Tank watched her through the wooden slats of the deck's rail. That had been close. And no sign of Drake. But if he wasn't here, where could he be? Ash slipped away to the corner, grabbed her coat and backpack, and walked the streets in darkness. It was soothing, being unseen, and she quieted her footsteps. Eventually, she reached a bus stop in Bellevue and caught a bus to take her homeward. # Dinner had started without her when she opened her front door, and she told Dad she had been with Mule. She swallowed food without tasting or talking. Once she was upstairs and in her room, her mind returned to Drake. She remembered what Mule had said, and she opened the dresser drawer that held Elsbeth's box. The switchblade gleamed inside. Ash removed it, and felt its weight in her palm. She thought of pressing the silver button that would trigger the blade, but she didn't. She didn't want to see it. It was already etched in her memory. Drake... couldn't be the one who attacked her. Had Mule really chased him off Monday morning? She found that, whatever had happened, she couldn't stay mad at Mule. He had tried to protect her, because he thought Drake was trouble. And he only had that impression because she hadn't told him everything. Their last moments in the library came back to her. She had stomped off like a baby– Someone knocked on her bedroom door. The knob turned, and Elsbeth entered. She shut the door gently behind her. "Where have you been this afternoon?" Busted. It figured Elsbeth could smell when Ash lied. And what to say now? Ash couldn't keep her confrontation with the enemy to herself. "Elsbeth," she began. "I–" "Never mind," Elsbeth said. Her tone was quietly intense. "It doesn't matter. There have been developments." Ash put the knife in its box. "What's wrong?" "The school has changed its plan. The library will be emptied tomorrow night." "Tomorrow? Are you sure?" Elsbeth nodded. "The school has rented the trucks. Some supplies arrived on campus this evening." Ash raised her eyebrows. So that was the sort of thing Elsbeth did when Ash wasn't around. Ash was impressed. Elsbeth had ways. "We'll have to move more quickly than I'd hoped," Elsbeth continued. "We're going to the library to get the page. You and I... tonight." "Wait. Tonight?" Elsbeth nodded. "No sleep for you, Ash. Play sick tomorrow, if you like. But we make our move tonight. And there's plenty we need to do in order to prepare." Ash's mind reeled, and she took a moment to settle. "Okay. Tonight. Where do we start?" Elsbeth took a step toward Ash. "You're not ready, but there's no choice." She straightened. "We start with the third Wile." 24 This is it, Ash thought. By morning, everything would be different. From downstairs, Dad's voice echoed up to them. "See you two in a bit!" Ash heard the garage door open and close. "We are going to need the house to ourselves,” Elsbeth said quietly. “I sent your father shopping for a few items for tomorrow’s dinner. Rare items. He'll be gone for a while." "This late?" Elsbeth nodded, a subtle lowering of her chin. "Oh," Ash said meekly. Elsbeth had ways, all right. "Come on." Ash followed Elsbeth to the living room. Elsbeth clicked on the lamp and sat on the couch, in just the spot where she had been sitting when Ash first saw her. Almost by instinct, Ash sat in her old place on the sofa opposite. Elsbeth crossed her legs at the knees and tilted her head slightly, letting the lamp light fall on her face – as she had on her first night in the house. She's beautiful, Ash thought. "The second Wile," Elsbeth began. "Small moves," Ash said. "Got it." Elsbeth smiled. "The ash sleeps within the seed. It's about the journey. About endurance." Ash listened and didn't answer. She flexed her fingers, thinking of Punchy. "But the third Wile is about beginning." Ash nodded, then stopped. "Wait. Why didn't we learn it first?" "Because beginning is more difficult. When we begin – anything – we feel uncertain. But we must understand that this uncertainty is universal, a feature of all beginnings. Would you believe... we had a chance to stop the publication of the Mutus Liber?" The words seemed to hang in the open air of the living room. Discussing ninja stuff here felt forbidden and dangerous, and charged Ash's body with alertness. "Really? Why didn't you?" "We had managed to place someone close to Pierre Savouret. His neighbor's housemaid. She was just a year older than you, but she was wise and cautious. It should have gone well." Ash leaned forward on the sofa. "She had a chance to break into his house and steal the manuscript," Elsbeth went on. "But she feared discovery. She had another chance as the manuscript was transported by horse-drawn cart to La Rochelle, where it was printed. But there were other travelers on the road. She never made her move. If she had just tried, our world might have been very different." "She never even...?" "She hoped for certainty. She should have made a leap of faith." "Is that it? I can do that." Elsbeth caught Ash in her gaze. "Be careful, Ash. The answer does not lie in seeking certainty, in feeling sure of yourself. There are no guarantees in this world. The nature of an iron will is not to feel certain, but to act in spite of uncertainty. To feel terror, and to take a step anyway." Ash broke eye contact, looking at the coffee table. Terror? "Okay. I'll just have to–" "There's no instant enlightenment here. But remember the third Wile tonight, as we move against the library. You may have little warning. You may not be able to afford hesitation. The fool waits for the perfect moment. But you... you will strike when you can." Ash took a deep breath. I will strike when I can. Her exhale was jittery. Elsbeth was freaking her out. "Here." Elsbeth nodded to the old trunk in the hallway. "I have something for you." The trunk! Ash had been wondering what might be in there. She hopped up and raced to the hall... and found herself standing beside the trunk, alone. Elsbeth had gone to the kitchen. She clicked off the kitchen light. She returned to the living room, and turned off the lamp beside her couch. The only light in the hallway fell softly from Ash's bedroom upstairs. Elsbeth met Ash in the hall and eased the trunk open, letting the heavy lid back until its chain went taut. Everything inside was covered by a sheet of dark velvet. "You didn't lock it?" Ash said. "No." "Weren't you afraid... you know." "That your father would look inside?" "Yeah." Elsbeth shook her head. "Your father is a decent man, Ash. He's not a snoop." She was right, Ash had to admit. Ash wished she had known the trunk was unlocked. She could have– "And you assumed it would be locked," Elsbeth said. "So I had nothing to worry about." Ash opened her mouth for a comeback, but didn't have one. Elsbeth reached under the velvet, pulled out a bundle of black, and handed it to Ash. Ash folded her arms around the bundle. It felt like an outfit of silk. "What's this?" "It's yours," Elsbeth said. "And with luck, it will fit." Ash's first impression of Elsbeth came back to her – an inky shadow dropping from a rooftop – and Ash knew what she held. "Oh my God. These are..." "They are." "Wait a minute. You want me to wear... to dress like a..." Elsbeth closed the trunk and gazed into Ash's eyes, inspecting. "You'd rather not?" It wasn't that. Ash just couldn't imagine it. She cradled the bundle and ran her fingers over the fabric. It was cool and soft and very dark. She couldn't resist, couldn't say no. She grinned at Elsbeth. "Maybe I should try them on?" "Do." Ash sprinted up the stairs to her room and flung the bundle so it scattered over her bed. She picked up the biggest piece: a long-sleeved pullover top. She shook it out, bunched it in her fingers, and shook it out again. It was so soft. Not silk, not exactly. Silk couldn't quite manage this. Ash stared at the weave, unable to make it out. She had the strangest sensation that her room lamp wasn't working... but it was. There was something wrong with the fabric. She couldn't really see it. She stood at her full-length mirror and held up the pullover. It was black. What a pathetic word, Ash thought. She had been lied to her entire life, since she had learned her colors as a toddler. Everything her parents told her was black had actually been dark gray, dark blue, dark brown. She had never seen black, not before tonight. It was a new color for her. The other pieces lay on her bedspread like pools of ink. Ash stared at them. She needed a minute, she thought, to review the plan in her head. She and Elsbeth were going to dress all in black, break into the school library, and steal a book. That was the plan. "My life," she muttered. Then she slipped off her shoes and stripped to her underwear. The pullover went on like a light-touch massage, and the leggings were looser than ballet tights, but still clung. The ankle-length slipper socks had a little pocket for the big toe, and the gloves had three holes each – so her thumb, index and middle fingers were exposed. Ash checked herself in the mirror. Her body seemed to swallow the light. It was eerie. But at a glance, she was almost a girl in a black unitard. The mask consisted of two pieces. They were fine, delicate, and as black as the rest. The first was a neck-warmer thing, and the second was a sort of knit cap – but not – that covered her ears and rode low on her forehead. It was instinct: she pulled the cap down to her eyebrows and fit the neck-warmer over her nose, so only her eyes showed through the crescent-like gap. The pieces seemed to settle into place. She stared at herself in the mirror. There was a ninja in her bedroom. There was something offensive about standing like this in a lit room – the outfit seemed to crave darkness. Ash flicked off the room light. For an unsettling moment, she couldn't find her own reflection. Then she noticed her eyes, staring at her from a vague shadow in the shape of her body. She placed her arms over her head, the backs of her hands lightly touching. The clothes gave no resistance at all. She lifted one knee, then the other. Elsbeth appeared in the doorway. "Well... look at you." Ash didn't speak. The light pressure of the fabric on her mouth made her hesitant to try it. More than that, she reveled in silence. Like the dark, it felt right. It felt strong. "The last ninja to wear it," Elsbeth said softly, "was a young woman named Agnes Martin. Before her, Maria Amparo Muñoz y Borbón, and before her, Daini no Sanmi, for whom it was made." "They must have been little. Like me." Speaking turned out to be easy. "Your size was more common in centuries past." "Wait. How old are these?" "Quintessent weave. The material does not age. It can't be cut or torn. When you are old, it will go to someone else. Feel the small of your back." Ash did. The material was layered there. Elsbeth held up the throwing star. "You can fit this in a pocket there. Be sure to have it with you tonight." "Don't you want to carry it?" Ash asked. "It's for you. I'll be carrying one or two other things." 25 Ash lay in bed, lights out, staring at the clock. 2:58 AM. After giving Ash the star, Elsbeth had said they wouldn't move for the library until three in the morning. So Ash might as well get some rest until then. Rest? Sure. She'd changed into her pajamas and climbed under the sheets, and started her alarm clock stare down. 2:59 AM. She felt the nagging of fatigue in her eyes, but that didn't keep her heart from its relentlessly energetic beat. She was going to break into her school. A night-time raid. Past security cameras. She told herself: no problem, piece of cake for a ninja. But that was just the voice in her head, and it didn't sound convincing. 3:00 AM. "It's time," said Elsbeth, her voice coming from somewhere in Ash's bedroom. Ash sat up. Elsbeth wasn't here... but the window was open. "Change," said Elsbeth's voice. "And meet me on the roof." Ash slipped back into her silky black outfit, piece by piece, thinking of her father asleep downstairs. At last, she fit the star into the pocket in the small of her back. She flexed, rolling at the hips, wondering if any of its four points would poke her. They didn't. As she pulled the cool material over her mouth and nose, narrowing the slit for her eyes, her heart kicked into high gear. At the window, her fingers felt jittery as she leaned over and reached for the old rain pipe. She caught it, though, and her body relished burning some energy as she clambered to the roof. Elsbeth crouched here, fully ninjaed out. Ash panicked for a second when she saw this anonymous shadow, without the soft brown hair and eyeglasses. Where was her sweet, bossy auntie? "Look at you," Elsbeth whispered. "How far you've come." Only Elsbeth's eyes and three fingers on each hand were exposed. The rest of her body was a dark, featureless blur that followed the lean outline of Elsbeth's body. She wore something sticklike on her back that jutted above her shoulder. Ash gasped. "Is that a sword?" Elsbeth reached back for the handle and drew it free. She held a blade that shone with the same silvery moonlight as Ash's star. "Wow." Ash could barely breathe. She kneeled in front of Elsbeth for a closer look. "You had this stashed in the hallway trunk all this time, didn't you?" "Listen." Elsbeth ran a fingertip along the flat of the sword, near the edge. "The blade is quintessence. It will cut anything." She touched the long handle, bound tightly in some sort of dark cloth. "This is the grip." She touched the handle's end, opposite the blade. "This is the pommel." She touched the dark ring between the handle and the blade. "This is the guard." Ash nodded. "You're not going to cut anyone's head off with that, are you?" Elsbeth's eyes narrowed. "I hope not." "Can I..." Ash swallowed. "Can I hold it?" "Someday. When you are ready. Tonight, you just need to know that it's among our assets." Elsbeth gripped the sheath on her back with her free hand. "This is the scabbard." She touched the scabbard's end, where the opening was. "This is the throat." She fit the blade in the throat and slipped the sword back into its home. Elsbeth placed her hands on her knees and faced Ash. "Now. Do exactly as I tell you. And do not be seen." She stood. "Follow, please." And she leapt to the house next door. Ash grinned, and felt the cool fabric on her lips. "No problem," she whispered, and walked to the roof's edge. Her new footwear held the shingles as well as the grippiest ballet slippers. She drew in a slow breath and held it, counting. She crouched, coiling like a spring, and let the breath out. The wind fell silent. Ash let her body loose with a snap! and sailed to the next house. As she flew, no wind pulled her hair or tore her clothes, or tried to yank her shoes off. She almost let out a whoop on the way down. She thumped hard on the neighbor's roof. Elsbeth was waiting. "Ash, quietly!" "Elsbeth... the suit!" "What?" "The clothes, the black pajamas, whatever... they're slippery in the air!" "Aerodynamic? Yes." Ash suddenly wondered how fast she really was. "Let's go!" "Hush! Stay with me." Elsbeth leapt house to house at a cool, measured pace. Ash followed, holding herself back. After jumping a few intersections, they came to the house across the street from the front of the school. They had covered a couple of miles without ever touching the ground. Ash leaned against the chimney, exhausted, feeling herself slow down. A grouchy old lady lived here, who griped at students who crossed her lawn. The place got wrapped in toilet paper every Halloween. Elsbeth watched the campus, and Ash followed her gaze. The lights were out, and the concrete facade that proclaimed MAGNOLIA HIGH SCHOOL in brushed steel was unlit. "I was afraid of this," Elsbeth said. "What?" Then Ash spotted the cop car. It sat, lights off, in the faculty parking lot. "The police are here?" "Alexander has ordered some extra security. He must be expecting trouble." "Why would the police help him?" "They use the police, Ash. They can fabricate evidence. If Alexander suspected you, he could invent a crime for you and forge a warrant for your arrest." Ash searched for any police officers, but there was no movement. "What would he say? Be on the lookout for armed and dangerous ninjas?" "Our Cloak makes that impossible. More likely, reports of gang activity. Vandalism. Something believable. Their first weapon is the system. That's what makes them so hard to fight." "That's playing dirty." Ash had a disturbing image of herself behind bars in a juvenile detention facility. "Hey! Mr. Graham, the old principal. He was busted for heroin. Do you think–" "Later, Ash. Now I need your help." Ash cooled it at the thought of Elsbeth needing her. "I'm ready." "The cameras. You have to get us past them." "To the library." Ash nodded. "I can do that." "Not the library." "Huh?" "To the breaker box in the main building. We'll cut power. That should take care of the cameras." Ash grinned. She hadn't thought of that. "Wicked!" It would be easy, too, if they stayed on the rooftops. Ash mimicked Elsbeth's tone: "Follow, please." Then she wound herself up and jumped for the roof of the main building. Airborne, she saw the top of the school's flagpole racing straight at her. She squeaked and curled into a ball, missing it by inches, feeling the swoosh as it went by. She uncurled and landed on all fours on the building's whitetop, snarling. Who puts a flagpole right in the front of...? Elsbeth landed daintily beside her. "You need to watch where you're going, Ash." Ash had to be quiet, so she bit down on her urge to grumble. The breaker box was a set of slate gray metal cabinets in the main office, between the Falcons' trophy case and Journalism's broom closet. They'd have to break in to cut the power. Ash crept to the edge of the whitetop and peeked down. Two police officers, with blue uniforms and mustaches, waited by the entrance... guarding this building, not the library? Why? Because Principal Alexander expected them to try to cut the power. What now? Fight the cops? Police had guns. Guns had bullets. And she couldn't even break Punchy the ping-pong paddle. She wasn't ready! And that left Elsbeth's sword– But they were cops, not bad guys. And even bad guys didn't deserve to get cut to pieces. God, no... Ash would puke. Elsbeth's fingers slipped around the back of Ash's neck and pulled her close. Elsbeth took hold of Ash's face and pressed her forehead to Ash's. Can you hear me? Ash freaked. What the hell? Good. New plan. We go to the library and work around the cameras. The police will never see us. Ash's mouth hung open, against the silky fabric. Wow, it was some kind of ninja telepathy. Or Elsbeth was whispering really, really softly. Ash couldn't tell. Move. Now. Quietly! Ash nodded, and they parted. She crept to the far side of the main office's roof and hopped to the whitetop of the neighboring building. In a moment, she stood where she had met Bond and James Bond. Candy wrappers had gathered in the corner like a snowdrift, and the smell of weed seemed to seep out of the concrete blocks at the roof's edge. She scampered down the tree, using the handholds and footholds they had shown her. And, for the first time since leaving home, Ash touched the ground. This path between the buildings had no cameras, as Bond and James Bond had told her. She circled around the next building, evading two cameras, Elsbeth right behind. They darted down another unmonitored walkway and reached the side of the library building. Getting close. They crept to the corner. Ash eased her way around toward the entrance, but Elsbeth pulled her back and held her. Isn't there a camera on the entrance? Ash shook her head. Not on the outer doors. Just on the inside. Oh, she had done it! She was a mind-reader. How had she managed that? She'd think about it later. Now, she wondered how – once they got past the locked outer doors – they'd sneak by the interior cameras. Using our strengths, that's how. Elsbeth released her. Ash scowled. Hey, keep out of my– But Elsbeth was already slinking up to the library doors. The front doors? Not very stealthy. Ash would have preferred coming down through a skylight... if only the library had skylights. Ash followed. Together, they peered through the glass. It was dark in there. She scanned the room out of the corner of her eye, using her peripheral night-vision... and saw nothing interesting. Empty of people, full of books. Ash checked behind her, scanning the quad for police. All quiet. She looked at Elsbeth, pointed at the locked doors, and shrugged, turning up her palms. Elsbeth crouched, eye-level with the lock. From the small of her back, she withdrew a tiny bundle and unrolled it. Ash saw what looked like dentist's tools, but smaller. Lockpicks? Seriously? Ash sighed, waiting. She wondered if Elsbeth could kick through the glass, or if that sword could cut through a steel door frame. Elsbeth fit a lockpick into the keyhole and probed. Ash leaned in a little, observing. It could be a handy skill to pick up... Elsbeth fit two more picks in the keyhole and wiggled all three simultaneously. The lock turned with a click. She put away her bundle and they slipped inside. "Nice work on the door," Ash whispered. Elsbeth pointed up. They stood directly under the camera. It aimed across the length of the library's main room. If they moved a few feet farther from the doors, it would see them. The library lay under a spell of silence and darkness. Ash had never seen the place like this. Shadows lurked under the tables and between the stacks. She didn't mind the dark the way she used to, but still, this place at night put the creep to her. Slowly, the ticking of the wall clock came to her, like a faint robotic heartbeat. In all her hours here, in the bright light and noise of day, she had never noticed that sound before. Elsbeth hopped onto the librarian's desk, reached up, and with a twist, disconnected the cable from the back of the camera. She hopped down and crossed the main floor like a shadow herself, clinging to dark spaces. Ash could barely keep track of her. At last, she disappeared between the stacks. Ash started after her, not feeling especially stealthy. With the entrance camera disconnected, the only other camera in the library watched the row of computers beyond the last of the bookshelves. If Ash and Elsbeth stayed out of that area, they should be safe. Ash found Elsbeth down low, tracing her finger along the books on the bottom shelf. Her finger stopped, and she pulled out a hardcover about an inch thick. The library was too dark for Ash to read the spine. Elsbeth held the book out to Ash and opened it to the title page. Ash stared, but averted her vision, and made out the title, letter by letter. "Art in Our Warring World." She tried the smaller print below that. "Nineteen-forty. With Eleanor Roosevelt?" Ash looked at Elsbeth. "Not a ninja," Elsbeth whispered. Ash turned back a page. There was no card slot on the inside cover. This book had sat here, uncatalogued, unnoticed, for over seventy years. She took the book from Elsbeth and flipped through it. Text. Some poems. No sign of the page of the Mutus Liber. "Are you sure this is the book?" Elsbeth took it back and flipped through it to about halfway. She tilted it and looked along its bottom edge. Holding it open, she reached into the gap in the book's spine... and pulled out a piece of paper about six inches long, rolled up and flattened. That's it. It looked soft and old. Ash wished Elsbeth would unroll it, but there wasn't enough light to see what it said. Elsbeth slipped the book back into its space on the bottom shelf. The paper disappeared into the pocket at the small of her back. Ash let out a sigh. They had done it. And it had been pretty easy. Now they just had to vanish– Reflected white light danced on the ceiling. Elsbeth belly-crawled to the end of the stack and peeked out. Ash followed beside her. Beyond the glass doors, flashlight beams wobbled, flashing back and forth. The cops. "They heard us," Ash whispered. "They're just patrolling." They walked a slow course along the front of the library, flashlights panning. What if they'd been told to expect trouble at this building specifically? One of the officers stopped at a window. Ash and Elsbeth recoiled as the white circle of his light crawled across the stacks. 26 "Be patient, Ash." said Elsbeth. "We'll wait them out." But they didn't leave. They clicked off their lights and stood by the entrance, facing each other. Gruff conversational tones came softly through the doors, as if the cops were killing time on a dull beat. Ash's heart started to pound. "What if they don't leave until sunrise?" Elsbeth’s eyes narrowed. "I need to reconnect that camera." The minutes dragged by. Ash felt cornered. "Elsbeth...?" "All right," Elsbeth said. "New plan." She crept to the back of the bookshelves and into the narrow space behind them, continuing to the last stack. Ash followed, and together they peeked through the books at the work tables and computers, three steps up and around the corner from the entrance. "Cameras on this side?" Elsbeth asked. "One," Ash said. "In that corner." She pointed toward the far wall, where the camera hung suspended and waiting. There was no way they could get to it without it seeing them. "Does it cover those windows?" The far wall held a row of panes of glass. The buzz among the students was that the second library camera covered the computers and the tables, but came short of covering the far wall. "No," Ash said. "But it covers everything between here and there." "All right. We'll try getting out through a window." "Elsbeth... those don't open." "One thing at a time." "We can't even reach them. The camera will see us." Elsbeth looked up from the gap in the books. "We can get past that camera." "How?" "We'll outrun it." How could you outrun something bolted to the ceiling? Unless... "Wait, wait." "Ash, it's motion sensitive. It's not recording now. If it picked up motion in the room, it would start recording. But there's a delay. We'll use that to get to the glass." Ash swallowed. "How long of a delay?" "About a tenth of a second." Thirty feet in a tenth of a second. Had she ever gone that fast before? "You can do it, Ash." "Here's a thought. You go, you disconnect the camera, and then I go." Elsbeth craned her neck, looking back to the police outside the entrance. "We're wasting time." "Okay, okay." Ash swallowed. There was no way to run across half the library that fast. She'd have to clear it in one quick jump. She could push off the concrete column at the end of the stack. Elsbeth took her hand. "Come on." No choice – Ash drew in a sharp breath and squeezed Elsbeth's fingers. In the silence of that moment, the robotic heartbeat of the clock ticked coldly away, tick, tick, tick, a countdown to her capture by the cops. She let the breath ease out through clenched teeth, tick, and remembered the third Wile, tick. This was it. Her iron will. She released Elsbeth's hand. Ti– Ash sprang for the column and planted her feet against it halfway up. Her body folded against the column until her fingertips brushed the vertical surface, then she pushed with everything she had. Tables and chairs flickered under her as she flew head-first to a column along the far wall. She caught the column and pushed to slow herself – but not hard enough. Her face hit the concrete. She crumpled against the column and dropped, like a sparrow flying into a closed window. –ck. Flat on her back against the thin carpet, Ash lost track of which way was up, and was still figuring it out when Elsbeth landed beside her. The recording light on the camera above them came on, casting a soft red reflection on the windows, capturing nothing but an empty room. Elsbeth gently propped Ash up. "Head first? Really?" Ash wasn't ready to form words yet. She lifted the black fabric over her left eyebrow and probed, feeling jabs of pain, hoping her face wouldn't bruise. "Just lie still for a moment." Still crouched low, Elsbeth drew her sword. It caught the dull yellow light from the windows and seemed to glow. With the flat of her hand against the back of the blade, she guided the tip along the seam of the lowest pane of glass. Once she had cut the pane free, she pulled it inside and propped it against the column. She fit the sword back in its sheath, took Ash's face in her hands, and pulled her close. Are you able do Drake is how love ear? Ash's mind was still fuzzy. What? Elsbeth pressed her forehead to hers. Are you able to make it out of here? Ash blinked. Oh... sure. She crept through the rectangular hole Elsbeth had made, onto the sidewalk. Elsbeth followed, and once outside, she fit the glass neatly back into place, pressing the corners with her palms. It looked good – Ash couldn't tell it had been cut. It might even last until some kid bumped it and it fell over and broke. The police were around the corner. Ash could hear them breathing. Elsbeth started in the opposite direction, but Ash caught her hand. Ash pointed that direction, and put the V of two fingers to her eyes, saying there's a camera that way – no telepathy needed. Elsbeth paused. Ash pointed up. None of the roofs had cameras. Elsbeth nodded and clambered up by clinging to the library's brick facade with her fingertips, soundless and spiderlike. Ash found holds on the edges of the bricks and climbed. Her little black slippers gripped better than ballet shoes... and she found that could support her weight with just a couple of fingers of one hand. That had to be her painful work with Punchy, finally paying off. Once on the roof, Ash gazed at the open night sky and drew in a freeing breath. They had done it! Mr. Alexander could tear the library apart now. No prize for him. She and Elsbeth darted away, and Ash couldn't help but leap a little higher, sail a little farther, and even though her left eye was pounding something fierce, as soon as she was a block away from the campus, she started laughing. # Ash woke to the sound of a knock on her bedroom door. She opened one eye. Her bedroom was still dark. She could have rolled over to see the clock, but she didn't want to know. "Ash?" her dad said. "It's seven fifteen. Why are you still in bed?" Because she had only fallen asleep at six-thirty. She and Elsbeth had crept through her open window, then she had stashed her wicked black pajamas under her bed, climbed under the covers, and lay awake for an hour, too amped to settle herself down. She pulled the sheets off her head. "Time to get up." Dad clicked on the bedroom light, and his eyes grew wide. "What happened to your face?" "Nice, Dad." He had to mean the bruise. Still, it was a hell of a thing to say to a girl, first thing in the morning. "I got up to go to the bathroom and my foot got caught in the blanket. I tripped and hit my head on the dresser." She'd come up with that lie last night. It was better than saying she'd thrown herself into a concrete pillar. She sat up and found her reflection in the dresser mirror. The bruise wasn't just a bruise any more. "Oh, no!" She staggered to the mirror. The dark smudge above her left eyebrow had puffed up, surrounded by swollen red, and the circle of soft skin under her eye had turned a nasty bluish-black. "Let me see." Dad grabbed her head and turned her face back and forth. "Jesus. That's quite a shiner." "Be careful!" Ash cried. "Don't manhandle me." "It looks awful. You've never done that before." It hurt, too. And she would never be able to cover it. "Dad... can I stay home today?" "Skip school?" Dad frowned. "Maybe I should take you to the doctor." "No, no. It's just..." Ash stared at herself in the mirror. "By the end of the day, everyone's going to be calling me Rocky or Champ or something." She shook her head. "Social suicide." "Nope," Dad said. "You go to the doctor or you go to school. Just tell your friends, 'You should see the other guy.'" Ash stared at him, icy. "That's not funny, Dad." Dad grinned. "Mule will love it." "That's not funny, either." Dad sighed. "Tell you what. You can go in late. I'll take you on my way to work." Ash slumped. That meant an hour, no more. "Seriously?" Dad put his arm around her. "Take what you can get, kiddo." # Spencer Marsh had hoped that he'd be able to get some work done this morning, since the press release for the Mule vs. Drake vid wasn’t finished yet. He had arrived at the Falcon's closet three minutes after the main building opened, forty minutes before first period. The campus was still dark this early, and the closet was freezing in the mornings, but it was usually good quiet time. Not today, though. The principal had an enormous bug up his butt about something, and wouldn't get off the phone. Spencer had tried to tune it out... until certain intriguing words piqued his interest. Words like "target." "We don't know the status of the target. It's very possible they acquired it last night. I know. I know!" The principal's voice cranked up an octave. Spencer had never heard the man lose his cool before, but today could be the day. "It's not the disconnected entrance camera. It's the secondary camera system. All hidden, all medium-wave infrared. Our visitors clearly didn't know it was there. Of course it was my idea. Two subjects. Yes, two! One is... of a certain diminutive stature. We'll run biometrics, but let's just say she's already familiar to me. That's right... a student. No. We don't know the other one." Spencer stared at the vent, his work forgotten. A hidden camera system! It was a scandal – an egregious violation of student rights. If word of that got out, it would rock the whole school, the whole community– Wait a minute. A student? Of a certain diminutive stature? That had to be– "Already done. The arrest warrant was issued two hours ago. One of our judges on the east coast. Drug trafficking. The police are on their way to the home. That's right. This should be over very quickly." Spencer's mind was spinning. A hidden-camera scandal was one thing. A student getting arrested was another. That would be footage of the century. And it had to be happening right now, this morning... There was no time to waste. After checking the student directory, Spencer grabbed his video camera and raced out of the building. As he unlocked his bicycle, he tried to guess how many blocks it was to Ashley Prue's house, and whether or not he could get there in time. 27 Ash had dressed, combed her hair over her eye, and was about to go downstairs for some breakfast. She stopped to look out her bedroom window. This time of year, the sun rose late, and now, the sky was just beginning to lighten. The streetlights were still on, and the streets shone with recent rain. The view outside just made her want to climb back in bed, and her fatigue clawed at her muscles that much harder. Downstairs, she sat at the kitchen table with a bowl of cereal. The cereal was far too crunchy. Chewing it made her eye hurt. Elsbeth emerged from her downstairs bedroom, wearing pajama bottoms and a t-shirt. She came straight for Ash and put a hand on her shoulder. "Upstairs. Now." She squeezed. Ash swallowed. Something was up. They marched down the hall, past the faint smell of aftershave coming from Dad's room, and up the stairs. As they crossed into Ash's bedroom, there was a firm knock on the front door. Ash's bedroom window curtains flickered faintly, red and blue, as if there was a rave going on in the street outside. Elsbeth ignored it. "Something's gone wrong, Ash." "Someone's at the door." Elsbeth gripped Ash's arms. "Listen to me. We need to disappear for a while. Right now." Ash snapped awake. "What do you mean?" "Take the page and slip away. I'll find you later." What was Elsbeth talking about? Ash heard the front door open. After a pause, her father said, "Yes?" "Seattle Police," said a gruff man's voice. "We have a warrant for the arrest of Ashley Prue." A bolt of panic shot through her. Elsbeth held Ash close. Calm down. Choose your reaction. Elsbeth opened Ash's underwear drawer and withdrew the box that held the switchblade. Take this. Ash took it and opened it. The page, still folded, was nestled under the knife. Downstairs, Ash's father said, "Is this... is this some kind of joke?" Elsbeth closed the box and pressed Ash's hands around it. Go where you won't be found. Where you've never been. I'll buy you some time. Ash couldn't let Elsbeth go. You have to come with me! Elsbeth pried herself from Ash's arms and threw back the window curtains. Red and blue lights flashed on the ceiling. Elsbeth stepped up, her bare feet on the sill for a moment, then she leapt into the morning gloom. Ash dropped the box and raced to the window. Elsbeth was gone. There were four police cars in the street. In the dull, shadowless twilight, their lights colored the trees blue and red. Three officers in dark blue stood nearby, one behind an open driver's side door, talking into a radio receiver. Ash's heart went into overdrive and felt like it would explode. She couldn't breath. The police! In a panic, she regretted every bad thing she had ever done in her life. She had jaywalked on the way to school. She had pocketed a candy bar – she'd put it back before she left the convenience store, but she was going to steal it. I broke into my school. And now I'm going to jail. She had to calm down, or she would pass out. She drew in a breath and held it, counting. Again: in for five, hold for ten, out for twelve. She felt herself settling, almost detaching– Outside, a streetlight blew out, raining shattered glass to the curb two houses down. All the officers spun toward the sound. Ash knew it had to be Elsbeth. She searched the street for her, and as she breathed, time did that thing it did, stretching like a rubber band. The last of the streetlight's falling shards glittered red and blue as they sank like dust motes. They struck the asphalt and scattered, spreading, slow as fog, the noise softening and fading. The officers stared, frozen. Ash saw Elsbeth vaulting over the hood of a police car, her body inverted, her bare feet reaching. As the officers watched the falling glass, she leapt by one of them and snatched the nightstick he had tucked under his arm. Elsbeth's feet came down briefly on the curb, and she somersaulted over the second police car. In mid-air, she swung the nightstick – a black baton with a cross-handle – down on the car's windshield. The windshield shivered for a microsecond and became a spider's web of white fragments, still clinging to the frame but misshapen, sagging in the middle. The officer slowly looked down at his elbow, where the nightstick had been. Elsbeth's fingers touched the spinning red lights on the car's roof, guiding her body's arc. She landed on the car's trunk like a gymnast, knees bending, and flung herself to the third car. As she sailed over it, she smashed its windshield with the nightstick. The officers were turning... still turning... to the sound of the first windshield. All except one. Standing at the open driver's door of the fourth police car, an officer – the only woman – stared narrow-eyed at the space behind Elsbeth, as if trying hard to see a ghost. Barely three feet from the woman, Elsbeth destroyed the windshield of the final car. Elsbeth floated over the car's lights and skidded to a stop on the car's trunk... ... and stared across the street, at the landscaped bushes of a neighboring front yard. Elsbeth froze that way, eyes locked on something in the distance. What was she staring at? Half a second went by. The officers turned to the fourth car, and two started toward it. The officer closest to Elsbeth, her hair in a tight bun, her face locked in an expression of angry shock, reared back her own nightstick, took two jerky steps toward Elsbeth, and slammed it on Elsbeth's thigh. Elsbeth rolled off the car and fell into the street. Ash choked back a scream. Whatever spell had been cast onto time shattered, and the sound of broken glass echoed in Ash's ears. The officers swarmed over Elsbeth. They picked her up and pressed her to the trunk of the final police car, and Ash could see that her leg dangled, knee bent, her toes not touching the ground. She couldn't stand on her own. Not after that baton blow to her leg. Ninjas aren't strong. Ash had to do something. She set a foot on the window sill, ready to launch herself at the crowd around Elsbeth. But she hesitated. The officers pinned Elsbeth's hands behind her back and locked her wrists in handcuffs. They spoke to her and to each other, their voices overlapping, muddling. "What the hell just happened?" "Just stay there, miss." "I don't know." "Don't move." "Jesus, look at the cruisers." "I saw it, but I don't believe it." Elsbeth turned her head, her cheek pressed against powder-blue metal, and gazed at Ash. Her eyes held pain, shining in the flashing lights. Ash had thought that her third Wile test had been in the library, last night. She had been wrong. It was right now. Her mentor needed her. And she dared not wait for the perfect moment. Ash leaned out the window, searching for the right place to attack. Throw herself into the crowd of officers? Disable the one remaining police car? Cause a distraction, as Elsbeth had with the streetlight? She couldn't think of anything that wouldn't get her arrested... or dead. How could she get Elsbeth out of there? The star. It lay under the bed with her black pajamas. She could throw it from the window, and– What? Kill somebody? She couldn't let them take Elsbeth. There had to be a way... but what? The electric charge in Ash's body, the energizing need to act, intensified to panic. She didn't know what to do! Officers on either side of Elsbeth carried her by the shoulders to the first, undamaged police car, and placed her carefully in the back seat. She didn't resist them. I'm missing my chance, Ash thought. It's all falling apart, right now– Motion across the street caught her eye. In the growing light of dawn, she saw a boy slinking through the bushes of the neighboring yard. Elsbeth must have seen him, Ash thought. That's why she hesitated. That's why the police caught her. Who was he? What was he doing? An authoritative voice came from downstairs. "We're taking your sister-in-law in, Mr. Prue. And you can look over the warrant all you want. Your daughter is coming with us, too." Ash had no more time to think. She picked up the box that held the switchblade and the page and dropped it into her open backpack. She zipped the pack shut and crept into the hall. Downstairs, two officers stood at the front door with her father. He was silent, one hand pressed to his forehead. Ash crept into the bathroom. She stood on the toilet, opened the window, and pushed on the screen until it popped out. She grabbed its edge, worked it back inside and dropped it on the bathroom rug. The view outside was of the narrow side yard and the house next door. Ash heard the crackling voice of a radio coming from the back yard. "Confirmed damage to three vehicles. Backup is on the way." The police had the house surrounded. The window was only about ten inches wide. Ash stuffed her backpack through and hung onto it as she climbed out. Pretty tight. She sat on the sill, her legs inside the bathroom and the track pinching her thighs, and slipped the backpack on. She managed to pull her legs through one at a time and crouch on the sill. She released her grip, and before she could fall, she launched herself with her legs to the roof of the neighboring house. She crept over the shingles until she could see the street. Elsbeth still sat in the back of the police car, as if locked in a vault. Two more police cars pulled up. The officers got out and stared at the damage. Ash's heart sank even lower. Elsbeth might as well be locked away on the moon. I'm so sorry, Auntie. But this isn't my moment. Ash searched up the street for the boy. He had slithered to a different bush. Ash recognized him. Spencer Marsh. He held a tiny video camera in front of his nose, pointed at the police cars. That's what distracted Elsbeth? Behind her, the first rays of the sun broke over the houses on the next block. Ash crept over the roof and hopped to the next house, where some taller trees with overhanging branches would give her cover to cross the street. 28 Spencer's brain felt like boiling stew in his skull. What in the world had just happened? Things had quieted down since the police had loaded the woman in the car. Broken glass littered the street. Plenty of radios squawked. A middle-aged man in a nice shirt and tie had been standing in the front doorway of the Prue residence for what seemed like forever, talking – not quite arguing – with two officers. He looked like he was having a really bad day. Two more police cars parked in the middle of the street, cutting off his view of the damage. He slipped across the yard to hide behind another bush, but this view was no better. He stopped recording and played back what he had. One the little screen, three cop car windshields exploded in a row, and a woman appeared on the last car. Who the hell was she? Spencer played it again... and paused, freezing the second windshield halfway in its transformation from smooth darkness to fragmented white spiderwebbing. The woman... was in the air. Twisting over the cop car like an Olympic gymnast. This was so much weirder than a mere student's arrest. He didn't care if they brought Ashley Prue out of the house now. This frame alone could be his Pulitzer– Suddenly the camera was gone. Instead of the frame, Spencer found himself staring at his empty fingers. Ashley Prue stood beside him. She held the camera, staring at the image on the screen. She was dressed for school, backpack and all, as if this had a chance of being a normal day. But her eyes were filling with tears, her lips pulling back from her teeth, like she was seeing a video of a puppy being killed or something. She had combed her short dark hair over part of her face... trying to hide a nasty-looking black eye. "She knew she'd been recorded." Her eyes locked on Spencer, and she was shaking. "Another second, and she would have killed you." Spencer's antennae were twitching like crazy. This girl was fast. He already knew that; he'd seen her jump into Drake's convertible. It was the same kind of blinding speed he'd seen this morning. "What is it with you people?" he asked. "Do you know what you've done?" she hissed. "I should kill you myself!" She turned away from him and drew her arm back, twisting her body like she was about to hurl his camera into the stratosphere. He reached for it. "Don't!" She stopped. She stood with her back to him, her head down, her shoulders rounded. She held the camera close to her and cried quietly. What, exactly, had Spencer done? What was really going on? "You're..." he began, "not a drug dealer." She turned to him. Tears had wetted the purple skin under her eye. "Right?" he asked. She looked at the camera and sighed. Her thumb began pressing buttons. "Hey, wait!" Spencer grabbed for the camera. But she was too fast. Of course. He glimpsed the "trash can" image on the screen, and she handed the camera back to him. He snatched it from her and checked the menu... Deleted. There went his Pulitzer. "Thanks a lot," he muttered. "Spencer..." Her voice was dead. "Aren't you late for class?" "Don't brush me off. What's going on here? Who is that in the police car? Who are you?" She didn't answer. She just looked past him, at something behind him. He turned, and saw the car with the woman inside pull away. Ashley put her hand to her mouth and closed her eyes, as if the sight had caused her physical pain. At last she spoke, barely choking out the words. "You have no idea what danger you're in, being around me. Just stay away, okay? Forget this happened." She turned and started walking, her back to him, the house, and the police. "Nope. Something weird is happening, and I'm going to find out what." He was about to follow her, but hesitated. She was walking openly on the sidewalk. The cops could spot her. He checked to see if any were looking this way, but no – they all watched the tow truck turning the corner, approaching from the far end of the street. Spencer figured the coast was clear and started after Ashley. But she wasn't on the sidewalk. She had vanished without a trace. # Ash sat on cold gray-white steel. The breeze was strong, this high, and chilled her. That was fine, she thought, as she shivered. Her world felt pretty much frozen over, anyway. The water tower in Magnolia felt like it was a hundred feet high, a fat flying saucer on ten pipe-like legs. It was tall enough and broad enough that no one on the ground could see the top, so Ash had plenty of privacy. Assuming no one had seen her climb up here. Hopping the black seven-foot fence at Thirty-Eighth and Prosper had been easy. The ladder running up one of the legs was surrounded by steel rings, like safety rails. Climbing it would have been like climbing inside a tube. But the ladder was blocked off at the bottom. So Ash climbed the steel rings on the outside. Working her way across the underside of the flying saucer had made her throat dry and her palms sweat. She might have fallen to a quick, crunchy death. No big deal. She had to get a hold of herself. Yes, they had caught Elsbeth, but Ash still had the page. There were options, there were choices... Ash just didn't know what they were. She had a fair view of her home about a mile to the north. She had watched the flashing yellow lights on the tow trucks as they hauled away the police cars one at a time. After a couple of hours, there were no more lights on the street. Her cell phone buzzed. It was Dad. She considered ignoring it. But how could she? "Hi, Dad." "Ash, are you all right?" His voice sounded weak. There was a tremor in it, like in the voices of really old people. It was so startling to hear that Ash couldn't speak right away. "I'm okay." The wind howled over the curve of the tower and seemed to carry away her voice. "Where are you?" "Dad... are you okay?" "I'm sick, Ash. I've been talking with police for two hours. I had to excuse myself to go to the bathroom and throw up. Twice. Do you know what they are saying about you? Do you know how much trouble you're in?" "None of it's true, Dad." Ash stopped. A lump had formed in her throat, and she tried to swallow it away. "None of it." "The worst day of my life, sweetheart. Worse than when your mother left. But that's not the issue now. Where are you?" The lump was back, and tears threatened. "I never meant for any of this to happen." "Ashley–" "I don't want to say where I am. I'm safe. Pretty much." Ash stopped. They could track the location of her cell phone. Oops. Better keep this short and turn the thing off. "Are you running, Ash? Is that it?" "Dad..." "Listen to me. I've already made some calls to find a lawyer. If you haven't done anything wrong, you have to come home. I know it's scary, but... you can't run from the police, Ash. You and I can face this thing head on. It will be okay. But you have to come home now." Ash wished she could tell him everything. I can't come home, Dad, because it isn't about me or you or even Elsbeth. It's about the piece of really old paper in my backpack. That's what they want, and they'll use the police and the lawyers and the courts like chess pawns to get it, and make you and me and Elsbeth just quietly disappear. "Dad," Ash began. "I can't talk any more. I'll see you soon... one way or another. I love you. Bye." She pressed the red "end" button. After a moment, she shuffled on the cold steel until she was facing south. The gray light of late-morning overcast colored the buildings of downtown Seattle, and two ferries motored their way across Puget Sound. Ash had never felt so alone. She wasn't sure if it was a good idea, but she decided to risk one more phone call. "Mule... this is Ash. I hope you know where your phone is, so you actually get this. If you do, meet me at that place off campus, where I tutored you for the first time. Remember? After school today. I... I just need somebody to talk to." She ended the call. Her phone buzzed again. It was Dad calling her back. Her phone was a liability. She turned it off and tossed it away. It slid down the water tower's curve, speeding up as it rounded the slope of the dome, out of sight. Ash could hear the cell phone sliding on the steel faster and faster, heard it rattle off the catwalk at the flying saucer's edge, then a wide space of silence as it dropped a hundred feet. Then a distant crash as it shattered on the concrete. 29 In Magnolia's public library, Ash passed under the rows of dark wooden beams along the ceiling and the high windows on either side to the little study room. She grabbed a few random books off the shelves and spread them on the study room's table, disguising herself to the librarians as hard at work, and waited for Mule. If he didn't show, she wasn't sure what she would do. The room was cramped and deathly silent, so at least she could be alone with her thoughts. Maybe she could formulate a plan. Or maybe she'd just wallow in the sudden misery of her life. Her backpack lay on the corner of the table, beside the random books. Her fingers tapped the shoulder strap anxiously. She could barely make herself let go of the pack, given what was inside. If Elsbeth could get a message to her, could tell her anything, Ash knew what it would be. Keep the page safe. Mule appeared in the narrow window by the study room's door. He opened it cautiously, stepped in, and closed it behind him. He didn't release the door knob. "Hey," he said. "Hey." Ash couldn't help but smile. The study room was small. But with Mule here, it seemed comically tiny, as if the architects had made a mistake. Mule stayed by the door. "So..." Ash wasn't sure how fast the rumor mill at school had churned out stories about her. "Did you hear anything about me today?" "No." She should have known. Mule wasn't really the type to catch gossip. "That's good. You will by tomorrow." Mule sighed uncomfortably, his back still against the door. "Are you mad at me?" "No! I'm..." "Because the last time we talked, you pretty much couldn't stand me." Mule and Drake. Fighting. Drake's disappearance. The pain of that came back suddenly. Had she forgotten? No, she'd just pushed it down. Now that Elsbeth had been taken, it hurt that much more. Everybody's disappearing, she thought. Even me. Mule looked like he was dreading her answer. "Oh, Mule," she said. "I'm not mad at you! I need you. Sit down." Mule blinked, grinned, and sat down. "Good. I don't like it when you're mad at me. It makes my teeth hurt." He stopped and leaned forward. "Your eye..." Ash sighed. "You should see the other guy." "That's a joke, right?" "Yeah." She wished she had a mask. A paper bag, maybe. "The other guy was made of concrete." Mule grunted. "So... there's nobody I need to kill?" "Definitely not." He frowned, contemplating her face. "Good color. Nice shape to it. I declare that a righteous shiner." Not surprising. "I figured you'd like it." "Seriously. Something like that would make me look tough. But on a girl your size, no offense, the effect is total badass." That actually made her feel a little better. "So," Mule said. "Ditched school today, huh?" Ash took a deep breath. Here goes. "This morning... my Aunt Elsbeth was arrested." "Wow. What for?" "Assault, probably. Damaging city property, I don't know. I don't think it's going to matter. As soon as they realize who they've got, they'll make up something more serious." Mule grunted thoughtfully. "Sounds intense. Actually, sounds paranoid. What do you mean, who they've got?" "Elsbeth and I are... well, we're up to something. And there's a secret organization out to stop us. And they can use the police against us." Mule nodded. "I knew something was going on." Ash stared at him. "You believe me?" "I've been trying to work it out on my own. You know, in my spare time." Mule stroked the scar on his chin. "Your Aunt Elsbeth. She's CIA, right? Something like that?" Ash smiled. "Mule, have I ever told you that you're sort of adorable?" Mule blushed. He glanced at the narrow window and cleared his throat. "Hm. So..." Ash shouldn't have said that. Things were still delicate between them. "She's not CIA. But that might be close enough for now." "That's awesome." Mule nodded slowly. "It sounds like you're thinking about busting her out." Ash hadn't the slightest idea of what she might do. She had spent the day just trying to hold herself together. But the moment Mule uttered the words, they locked into her mind like exactly the right puzzle pieces. "Yeah, I suppose so. A rescue. That might be what I have to do." "Cool." "Will you help me?" Mule watched her for a long moment, his eyes gradually narrowing. "Ash... I don't know how to say this." Ash shrugged. "We're past that now, aren't we?" "Maybe we are. People don't really... bust other people out of prison, you know? It doesn't actually happen. Ever." He was right. But he didn't have to say it. "So why'd you mention it?" she asked. "Were you just kidding?" "I don't kid much. I just talk without paying attention to what I'm saying." Ash sighed. She couldn't shake images of armed guards and iron gates from her mind. It wasn't a plan. It was just crazy. None of this was fair. Mr. Alexander and his people could just whip up a fake warrant and poof: cop cars in her driveway. Ash couldn't take on the whole justice system. If only she could get at Mr. Alexander more directly. Catch him with his pants down. Not a nice image. And then the answer came to her, as sly and quiet as any good idea. "Drake," she said. "Huh?" "That's Mr. Alexander's weak link." Spy back... but Ash had never gotten the chance. "Probably. But I thought we were talking about your Aunt Elsbeth." "We are. Mr. Alexander, he's... well, he's a bad guy. He might be the bad guy." Mule's jaw dropped. "The principal?" "Yeah." "That's perfect. I should have guessed." A strange energy coursed through her. It felt good. "I can get to Elsbeth through the principal. And I can get to the principal through Drake. That's it!" Mule had a cautious look. "Could be. There's the problem of nobody knowing where the hell he is." Ash pressed her lips together. "That's true." "Although I still think he ran home to his mama." Ash arched an eyebrow. His mama? Mr. Alexander had been alone in that house. Where was Drake's mother? Mule's cell phone rang. He stood, and as he fished it out of his jeans pocket, Ash saw that it was not another cheapo flip-phone, but a broad, flat smartphone. He had chained it to a belt loop. Mule tugged the chain and grinned sheepishly. "My dad's idea." Ash nodded. "Good thinking." Mule unclipped the smartphone, frowned at the number on the screen, and muttered, "Who's this?" He swiped a finger across the screen and put the phone to his ear. "Yo!" he barked. His idea of hello, Ash knew. He paused, listening. "You've got to be kidding me." He paused some more. "Maybe. What's it to you?" Another pause. "Well... maybe she doesn't want to talk to you." Ash felt a bolt of panic. She leapt from her chair, stood on the table, and snatched the phone away from him. She pressed it to her ear. "Who is this?" "Ashley?" said the voice on the phone. "Is that you? It's Spencer Marsh." "Oh." Her heart sank. She realized that for a split second, she thought it might be Drake. But her life was not destined to be so easy. "Listen," he said. "I've spent the whole day digging into your case. I found the Jane Doe listed as arrested at your address this morning. I've seen the police report. Crazy stuff keeps appearing in her file – every time I refresh the page, there's something new. She's at Seattle City Corrections now, but the day after tomorrow, at seven AM, she's scheduled to be transferred. To Supermax. Do you know what that is?" "Spencer," Ash began. He cut her off. "It's an ultra-high security prison in Colorado. They keep the Unabomber there. And Terry Nichols, and some of the guys who planned Nine Eleven. Somebody thinks your Jane Doe is one evil chick!" So the enemy knew who they had captured. And had already set up Elsbeth's disappearance. Ash didn't have much time. Mule stared at her face. "Holy crap," he said. "What's wrong?" Ash thought fast. "Spencer–" "Now look," Spencer said. "The way I see it, you need me. Your only chance is the press. You have to get your story out to the world. I've got the connections you need. I can help you. I want you to meet me for an interview. Right now. Can you do that?" "Principal Alexander," Ash said. "He's divorced, isn't he?" "What?" Spencer nearly exploded. "Who?" "Focus, Spencer. The Principal. He's no longer married to Drake Alexander's mother." "Well, no. But–" "Do you have her name and address?" # A minute later, as Mule hooked his phone back on its chain, Ash threw the backpack on her shoulder and hurried out of the study room, toward the library’s exit. “Slow down,” Mule called, thumping after her. “I’m coming too, you know.” She pushed through the outer doors and down the path to the sidewalk, and he stayed right behind. A part of her knew he could help and wanted him along, but no – it was a bad idea. On the sidewalk, by the driveway into the library’s parking lot, she turned to him. “Mule, you can’t come.” “I can be your backup. It’ll be awesome.” “I wish. But you and Drake shouldn’t be within a mile of each other.” He scowled. “What if you find him? What if he tries something?” Ash slipped her free arm through the strap of the backpack, securing it, and her fists settled on her hips. “No, Mule. I’m going alone.” “Aw!” He lifted his hands in frustration. “I think you need me.” Why didn’t he see that this was all her fault? “I need you to stay out of this.” She wouldn’t let him get hurt – no way. “You want to help?” “Yeah!” “Then wait for me. Trust me.” She pointed at the smartphone in his pocket. “If I need you… I’ll call you.” She remembered her phone sliding away from her and the distant sound of it shattering, and a chill fell on her heart. “Yeah, I’ll call you.” Mule was silent, and his eyes watched her bitterly. “Well… if all you do is talk to his mom, I guess that’s okay. That thing about your aunt, though. Promise me you won’t mess with the cops.” Ash smiled. “I promise,” she said without a thought, and raced away, faster than Mule could possibly follow, but not so fast as to truly startle anyone. 30 In another hour, Ash was sitting alone on a King County Metro bus bound for Bothell, north of Seattle. The address was in a sketchy neighborhood near Lake Washington. Ash hugged her backpack to her lap. She leaned the un-bruised side of her forehead against the vibrating window as the bus's engine ground away. The bus? Seriously? She needed a ninjamobile. She focused her mind on the coming confrontation. Drake Alexander's mother was named Gayle Hill. They had divorced three years ago, when Drake was thirteen. He had stayed with his father. He and Ash had that in common. She wondered if it had been his choice, or some kind of court-order thing. She couldn't imagine having Principal Alexander as a father. And that gave her confidence about this meeting. If Mr. A was her dad, she'd visit her mom a lot, too… well, not her own mom – that was impossible. Anyhow, she hoped Gayle Hill had seen her son, or knew where he was, or knew some of his hangouts. She hoped Gayle Hill wasn't involved in the same pursuits as Mr. Alexander. She even hoped that Drake would be there when she arrived. Because she only had until the day after tomorrow, at seven AM. Ash got off at the stop nearest the address, and still had a half-mile to walk. With her backpack settled over one shoulder, she passed a lumber yard on the corner, then crossed into some residential side streets. The houses needed paint, and some of the lawns were overdue for a mow. The street was nothing like the Bellevue home where Drake's father lived. Gayle Hill seemed to be having a tough time. Mr. Alexander was not looking after his ex-wife. Good. That could work in Ash's favor. Ash came to a house whose spotted brass numbers tacked to the eave matched the ones Spencer had given her. A brown Dodge Duster sat in the sloping driveway. Ash searched up and down the street for Drake's silver Audi. No trace. She hesitated, considering the best approach. The roof? An upstairs window? After a moment, she gathered herself and knocked on the front door. A woman answered. She had a tired but pleasant look about her, and wore dark slacks and a pink blouse. She wiped her hands on the blue-and-white striped apron she was holding. Gayle Hill, I presume. But Ash didn't say that. "Hi. Is Drake here?" The direct approach. It could work, if it didn't backfire. The woman's eyes locked on hers. "Sweetheart, are you all right?" Ash felt a chill of uncertainty. Was something wrong with her? "Huh?" "Your eye." The eye. Of course. "It's not as bad as it looks." "Do you want some ice?" "No, thank you." Ash felt herself blushing under the lady's gaze, and cleared her throat. "Drake?" "I'm sorry," she said. "You just missed him." Ash's heart skipped a beat. She'd been right! "Do you happen to know where he went?" The woman sighed. "Afraid not. Not that boy. He goes where he likes." Ash couldn't give up now, not empty-handed. She needed something, a clue, anything. "Are you his mom?" "That's right. I'm Gayle." She extended a limp hand. Ash took it. "I'm Ashley." She watched Gayle for a reaction to her name. None. "Nice to meet you, Ashley. I'll tell him you came by." "No!" "Pardon?" "I mean... when will he be back?" There was something strange about this woman. Ash couldn't place it. Her hair was cut short and starting to gray, and she was a bit overweight, with rounded shoulders. She was ordinary. Maybe that was it. Given Drake and his father, Ash had been expecting someone... unusual. But Gayle wasn't. "I can't say. He only visits here from time to time. Do you know him from school?" Ash smiled girlishly. "That's right." "Well, Drake lives with his father. You might try there." This wasn't going well. "I already did. Does Drake have a favorite hangout? Someplace he might be now?" Gayle shook her head and put the apron over her shoulder. "I never know what that boy is up to. He doesn't tell me anything." Ash frowned. "But you're his mom." Gayle's face went blank. "Some boys are closer to their fathers. And Drake, especially so. I've learned to accept that." Ash felt like she was close to a hook, close to getting this woman talking about Drake. But she wasn't sure how to set her off. "Really? I thought he didn't like his dad so much." She smiled skeptically. "Did he say that?" "Yeah, he did." Gayle's eyes went distant, gazing sightlessly past Ash's shoulder. "Well. You should have seen them together when he was younger. They were inseparable. Two of a kind. Big and Little Alexander. Seeing them run around together, we thought Drake was in training to become his father." Gayle's words cut into Ash's heart – two of a kind? – but she pressed on. "In training?" "Oh... yes, I suppose that sounds odd." Gayle touched her fingers to her lips, thinking. "Why don't I just show you? Would you like to come in?" Ash felt a nervous rush. "Yes, please." Gayle turned and Ash followed her into the entryway. Ash caught the smell of cigarette smoke, and behind that, something baking. The eggshell-colored walls of the central hallway were lined with pictures. Along one side, the pictures were of Gayle and a young girl. Along the other were pictures of Drake and Mr. Alexander. Ash stepped close. Father and son, in image after image. Drake at an archery range, releasing the string, the arrow frozen in the air in front of him. His father behind him, guiding. Tandem skydiving together, arms and legs splayed against white clouds. A karate tournament. Drake dressed in white, delivering a barefooted kick to another boy. His father in the front row of the audience, cheering. Each image brought a particular pain to Ash. Each time she looked, it was as if someone pressed another pin into a voodoo doll of her. Gayle stood right behind her, and Ash struggled to keep from revealing anything. Father and son in brightly colored racing jumpsuits, standing on an asphalt track, each with a round helmet under his arm. Cars or motorcycles, Ash wasn't sure. At a shooting range, Drake holding a paper target, a black silhouette of a head and shoulders, its center peppered with tiny holes. His father beside him, holding a rifle. Ash closed her eyes. Drake seemed hidden from her on the other side of an impassable wall, built by Mr. Alexander. How could she convince Drake to help her? How could Drake ever be with her? She had to keep herself together, here. She couldn't give up. Elsbeth needed her. There was work to do. "What did Mr. Alexander do," Ash asked as she looked at the pictures, "before he became the principal of our school?" "Oh... government work," Gayle said vaguely. Ash turned to face her. "Something in education?" "I suppose so. The Bureau of Intelligence and Research sounds educational, doesn't it? Drake's father didn't like to talk about what he did. Something to do with the State Department." "The State Department to high school principal? That's a switch." Gayle smiled. "He said he was looking for something different." Ash heard the revving of a distant engine – a car out front – and Drake's Audi came to her mind in a flash. At the sound, Gayle glanced at the front door. "Oh! Rachel's home." She looked at Ash. "That's Drake's sister." 31 Ash thanked Gayle and excused herself, and found Rachel in the driveway, behind the wheel of an old Chevy Impala. It was a vague dark green, hard to tell in the deepening evening. Ash tried to see through the driver's side window. "Are you Rachel?" The window rolled down. "That's me." Rachel was older than Drake – maybe twenty or twenty-two – blonde, with a strikingly beautiful smile. She leaned out a little, on her elbow. "Who are you?" "I'm Ash." "Ash? Really?" "Yeah. Do you know where your brother is?" "Maybe. What's it to you?" Hope coursed through Ash's body, giving her a charge of energy that she could have used to throttle this woman. Patience. Little moves, Ash thought, and she would get there. That idea had its own Wile. And if Rachel didn't talk, then Ash would patiently beat it out of her. "I need to talk to him." Rachel smiled again. "Right." "It's important." "It always is." "What?" "You're not the first broken-hearted waif to wander by. That's what the boy does, sister." Ash was stopped by the sudden image of hordes of girls pining away for Drake, wandering after him, showing up here at all hours. Drake was handsome enough. It could be true. Ash's eyes narrowed. "That's not what this is about." "No?" "No." Rachel raised a perfectly sculpted eyebrow. "Tell me this. Is he the one that socked you?" The eye again. How could Rachel possibly think Drake was capable? "No. Of course not." Ash had barely uttered the words, though, before she thought of the switchblade in her backpack, and what Mule had insisted was true. Rachel fixed a stony gaze on her, judging. "It wouldn't be his style. Then again, the boy's a walking time bomb." Rachel tilted her head, indicating the Impala's passenger-side door. "Get in. Then we can talk a little easier." Ash circled the car and climbed in beside Rachel, resting her backpack on her knees. The car's interior smelled heavily of air freshener. In the dim light of the bulb over the rear-view mirror, Ash got her first clear look at Rachel. Her blonde hair fell past her shoulders, and she wore a white blouse and dark skirt. A receptionist somewhere, maybe. She was skinny, and her long legs and long arms stretched before her, her wrists resting casually on the steering wheel. She was gorgeously tall, supermodel tall. Ash felt herself bristle with jealousy... then she pushed the feeling down. "What do you mean, a time bomb?" The light over the rear-view mirror winked out, casting the car in darkness. Rachel's chin and mouth were just a silhouette against the light from streetlights coming in through the window. "Listen," Rachel said softly, as if she was afraid someone would overhear. "The boy lives for one thing, and that's his father's approval. He needs it, like food. He starves without it. If you're between him and that approval... look out." Ash felt her hope slipping away, out of reach. "Why? Why is he like that?" "Beats me. Boys, you know? But here's the thing. Now and then, the old man pushes Drake too hard. Sometimes Drake fights back. Usually he just runs. It's like there's a light switch inside him. On, and he's the dutiful son. Off, and he's an unknown quantity. The first time he disappeared, he was eleven. Father came home from one of their camping trips. Drake came home four days later. Just walked in the door, eleven years old! Mom had a fit. She was ready to call the police, but Father stopped her. He was fine with it." Rachel stared out the windshield at the closed garage door, her mind somewhere else. "I could never have gotten away with that. But Drake... Father just loved him more." Her eyes turned to Ash. "What about you?" Ash raised her eyebrows. "What about me?" A twinge of pain shot through her bruise. "Do you love him?" Ash's heart fired up a crazy drum beat, and her throat went dry. She remembered Drake holding her as they stood on her front porch. She took a deep breath, and swallowed. "No." Rachel watched her silently. "Liar." "Look! I just need to talk to him, and I don't have a lot of time. Would you please tell me where he is?" Ash gripped the backpack restlessly, her fingers probing the material, feeling the box within that held the switchblade and the page of the Silent Book. Rachel let out a long, easy sigh. "Once, I followed him. He has a favorite hangout at Snoqualmie Falls. Across the river from the big hotel, just west of the power plant. There's a little patch of woods right next to the cliff. Nobody's allowed in there, but that never stopped Drake." "Snoqualmie Falls? That's, like, thirty miles from here." "Yeah." Ash felt trapped. What now, another bus? No, the metro system didn't run that far. "Rachel... could you drive me?" "You mean now? Tonight?" Rachel shook her head. "He'll be back in a day or two." "I can't wait." "Girl, you've got it bad." "I'm serious! And... I've got nowhere else to go. Please." "I just got home from work. I'm too tired to play matchmaker for my little brother." Rachel's voice softened. "Here's an idea. Go home. Have some ice cream. Write about it in your diary." Hot rage burned in Ash's muscles. "Rachel, this is not about me. Please!" Rachel opened the car door and stepped out. She shut the door and peered at Ash through the still-open driver's side window. "He is not worth getting hung up on. You will never mean anything to him. He doesn't work like that. And God help you if you get in his way. You'd be better off finding someone else, maybe..." In the gloom, Rachel's eyes flicked down Ash's body. "Maybe someone more your size." Ash reeled from the blow, speechless, as Rachel turned and crossed the drive to the front door, her shoes clicking on the concrete. Ash heard the front door open... and close. She waited alone in the car. After a minute, she shook off Rachel's words. It was time for a new plan. But Ash had no ideas. She could find the place that Rachel mentioned, but how could she get there? She didn't have enough money for a cab. She climbed out of the car, settling her backpack onto her shoulder. The sky was fully dark now. At the end of the driveway, she stopped. Across the street, a gray Volvo sat parked that hadn't been there when Ash had walked up to the house. Someone home late from work, obviously. But Ash noticed dark motion inside the car. She couldn't see details, but someone in there was shifting now, as if in reaction to her standing on the curb and watching. She glanced at the front and rear bumpers, concentrating on seeing in the car's windows with her peripheral vision – Elsbeth's night vision trick. She saw a single person in there, climbing rapidly into the driver's seat. Ash started across the street. The Volvo's engine started up. Oh, no you don't. She sprinted the last few steps, hopped onto the car's hood, grabbed hold of a windshield wiper in case the driver took off, and cast an evil stare through the windshield. Spencer Marsh cowered behind the wheel. "You've got to be kidding me!" Ash snarled. He waved his hands at her, shooing her away... then he rolled down his window. "Could you get off, please? It's my uncle's car. I don't want to have to explain footprints." She hopped down and stopped at the driver's side door. "Are you driving this thing?" Spencer swallowed. "Maybe." "You're fourteen. Are you crazy?" "I'm almost fifteen." "That's illegal!" Spencer scowled. "Get over it, already. You think I'm such a goody-goody. I don't know why." Ash blinked. "You're following me." "You think I'm going to just give you this address and then not follow up?" Spencer raised a finger and declared, "Something is seriously going on, and I'm here to find out what." Ash could feel the wheels in her brain spinning like mad. It was okay that Spencer had followed her. In fact, it was perfect. But she sensed a flaw. "What happens if you get pulled over while you're wheeling around in your uncle's car?" Spencer grinned and raised a smug eyebrow. He wiggled in the driver's seat as he pulled a wallet from his hip pocket. He opened it and pulled out a driver's license. "Take a look at that baby." Ash took it and held it close, angling it so it caught the glare from a streetlight. "According to this, you're seventeen." "My uncle used to be a bouncer. He knows people." Ash felt envy like an ache in her stomach. She was still a semester away from Driver's Ed. "Your uncle is trouble." "My uncle believes in me." He snatched back the license. "Unlike some people." Ash squeezed her molars together. "Okay, Spencer. I'd like to show you that I believe in you, too. So... let's make a deal." 32 The Volvo cruised eastbound on I-90. As the turnoff for Snoqualmie Falls approached, Ash watched Spencer signal, then check his mirror, then check his blind spot, then change lanes to the right. She could see there was no chance he would be pulled over. He was the safest driver on the planet. Since leaving Seattle, they had passed Lake Washington and miles of forest, and the pines towered blackly into the night sky. The reddish bark of their trunks caught the Volvo's headlights. After a few more miles and a few more turns, the car passed a sign, "Welcome to Salish Lodge." Spencer pulled into the parking lot. Ash sat up and searched the parked cars. "Drive around." In the second-to-last row, she found it: Drake's Audi, with the top up. "Stop!" "Okay, okay." Spencer parked beside it. Ash hopped out, slipped on her backpack, and headed toward the lodge, following the roar of the falls. Spencer locked the Volvo and raced after her. "So... what now?" "Thanks for the ride." "That's it? You don't say a word for the whole trip, and all I get is thanks for the ride?" Ash turned to him. "Don't follow me." "I know Mr. Alexander, Drake, you, and that woman are all connected in some way. Why don't you tell me how?" "It's too dangerous, Spencer." Across the river from the big hotel, Ash remembered, just west of the power plant. She passed the lodge entrance and continued down a concrete path. Bushes hid the falls. Spencer was right behind her. "Come on, I love danger." "No you don't. Mule almost made you pee your pants." Ash came to a break in the bushes. Beyond the rail at the sidewalk's edge was a vast dark chasm. The falls shone white as milk, illuminated by spotlights. Clouds of mist drifted up through the spotlight beams, sprinkling her face with icy, tingling drops. The roar was ever-present, steady and forgettable. Spencer came to the rail beside her. "I also know that woman is wicked fast. So fast it makes me think that's part of this." In the darkness to the left, on their side of the river, Salish Lodge stood on the cliff, a few of its windows glowing yellow. To the right, on the river's opposite side and upstream, sat a cluster of buildings, made of white brick and rusting metal. The power plant. The slope beside the buildings was dense with black pines. That was the place. "I also know," Spencer went on, "that you are pretty fast yourself." "Spencer..." Ash didn't know what to say. He had brought her this far, given her this chance. But she couldn't tell him anything. And if she found Drake, she had no idea what would happen. "I'll tell you this. The woman they arrested this morning was my Aunt Elsbeth. She didn't do anything wrong – other than mess up those police cars. She doesn't deserve to be sent to some secret prison. I'm trying to help her." Spencer watched her intently. "By coming here?" "By coming here." "Why? What's here?" Ash sighed. "A long shot." Upstream from the falls and behind the lodge, a foot bridge crossed the river. It was just a slender gray line above the mist, and the only way to the other side that Ash could see. She glanced at Spencer. "I'm sorry. I have to go." She headed back to the parking lot. Spencer stayed with her as she circled around the lodge and came to the treed asphalt path that led to the foot bridge. "I'm sorry too," Spencer said. "Because I'm not going anywhere." The bridge was blocked by a chain link fence. A padlock hung from the gate. The bridge looked more like an industrial catwalk than anything else, apparently not meant for tourists or tenants of the lodge, but rather for staff at the power plant. The chain link fence ran along both sides of the bridge, all the way across. Ash couldn't get to it. Okay, then. The fence extended along the riverbank, blocking the way to the water. Ash gripped the cold chain links and scampered up and over. Her feet landed in the soft earth on the other side. Spencer stared at her through the fence. "What are you doing?" Ash shrugged. "Thanks, Spencer. This is where we part ways." Spencer grabbed the fence and set the toe of a sneaker in the links, ready to hoist himself up. "Before you do that," Ash said, lifting a finger, "you'd better watch this." She side-stepped down the slope until she was under the bridge, just a few feet above the rushing water. Here, unlike the milky falls, it was eerily black, reflecting traces of light from the windows of the lodge like oil. It flowed relentlessly toward the drop, and looked cold and bottomless. She looked up to the fence that ran along the side of the bridge. Its steel links ran all the way across to the power plant – maybe a hundred feet. She reached out over the water, grabbed the links, and let her body swing. She heard Spencer gasp. Her feet dangled over the water, but she concentrated on her hands. Left, right, left, right. The floor of the bridge was about eye level. The steel wires felt like they were cutting into her fingers. She resisted the urge to kick her feet randomly as her body swung back and forth. It was no way to cross a bridge, really. What if her fingers gave out? The lodge towered to her right, and she wondered if anyone had noticed her. From up there, the view of her body would be blocked by the bridge. And unlike the falls, this part of the river wasn't lit at all. So this was actually pretty stealthy. Sort of. She glanced back. Spencer stared at her like she'd stolen his homework. But he didn't try following. Halfway. The pain in her fingers really set in, a dull, clawlike ache. She stopped to rest. But hanging there didn't feel like resting. It only made her think of an invisible clock that counted down the time until she became too exhausted to hold on. She hung her head and watched the black water racing below her feet. Under the bridge, she saw crossbars that ran sideways every foot or so. She lowered herself and grabbed one. Much better! She began working her way hand over hand, the straps of her backpack pressed to her earlobes. This backpack had been a nuisance all night. She had to keep it with her – there was no question about that. But as black swells passed beneath her, a sick feeling set in. Elsbeth had entrusted her with the Mutus Liber's page. And tucking it in with the switchblade... well, that was just Elsbeth being Elsbeth. The spoils of victory. Both the switchblade and the page had been won in battle, or something like that. She had pushed Mule's words about the switchblade from her mind. What else could she do? But now, as the far side of the bridge came closer and closer, she found herself slowing down. No, it couldn't be true. She picked up her pace. But still... was it really so smart to have the page on her person when she confronted Drake? God, what if it was true? She stopped again, hanging like a monkey over the river. If this night went badly... if her worst fears about Drake were true... he could steal the page from her. Ash couldn't go on. The next crossbar beckoned, shadowy, inches away, but she couldn't will herself to grab it. Her arms were really starting to kill her. She let go with one arm and shook the backpack's strap off that shoulder. Then she got a grip on a crossbar and let go with the other. She put the shoulder strap in her teeth and felt for the waist strap that always dangled pointlessly from the pack's bottom. Growling with frustration, she finally got the waist strap clipped around the crossbar. There. The pack hung free, upside-down, under the bridge. Nobody could see it, let alone reach it. Steal that, Drake. And hang on, little strap. Ash swung hand over hand, leaving the pack behind, until her feet found the wet boulders of the river's far shore. She sat on a rock and rested her hands, palms up, on her thighs. Her fingers were stiff and hooked. She flexed them gently, trying to bring them back to life. The roar of the falls came to her. She'd been hearing it all this time, but she'd lost track of the sound. It was loud, but soft and formless, oddly soothing. She wanted to sit here and listen to it for a bit longer, smelling the damp, earthy forest. But she had to find Drake. And clouds of mist were settling on her. If she stayed any longer she'd be soaked. She picked her way over the boulders to a path that ran along another chain link fence. Beyond it, a creepy white brick building, with rust-spotted steel beams, stood in the darkness. It looked like it had been built a hundred years ago – part of the old power plant. So she was close. She worked her way past the falls. The rushing water at the shore dropped away, leaving a cliff with a vast empty space beyond. Ash climbed one last chain link fence and faced a dense forest of pines. The ground sloped sharply toward the chasm, and there was no warning, no fence, nothing before the drop. She looked back to the bridge and the Salish Lodge. All was quiet over there. She couldn't even see Spencer any more. She turned and waded into the tall grass, disappearing among the trees. 33 It was pitch black in here. The thick grass snared Ash's feet, and the ground sloped so steeply toward the cliff that Ash leaned on the trees for assurance, feeling the rough, wet bark pressing on her hands. Her eyes adjusted. Downhill and between the trees, swelling clouds of mist rose into the spotlights and turned brilliantly white, erasing the lodge beyond. It messed up her night vision. Over the roar, a voice came out of the darkness. "Well, well." Drake! Ash spun, searching, but the sound had echoed off the trees and she couldn't tell the direction. She had a sinking feeling that he could be anywhere and that, somehow, he had sensed her approach. She steadied her nerves. "Hi," she said, into the darkness. "How is my sister doing?" "She's fine." Ash kept searching, knowing Drake had already deduced how she had found him. "Why are you hiding from me?" She heard Drake's directionless laugh, then the crisp sound of footsteps in the grass behind her. She turned. There he stood, just a silhouette at first. Then light from the mist softly fell on him. He had set aside his black leather jacket for camping attire. "I'm not hiding." It was really him. Ash felt a flood of relief, and fought the urge to throw her arms around him. "Right. If you knew what I went though to find you–" "What are you doing here, Ash?" Ash searched for the right words, and the events of the last twenty-four hours rushed back to her. Fatigue and helplessness swelled in her. She took a breath and pushed them down. "I need your help." Drake watched her, unmoving, as the sound of the falls rolled over them. At last, he nodded. "Gutsy. What if I say no?" "You don't even know what I'm going to say!" "I might be able to guess. But go ahead, then." Ash had no choice now but to reveal her secrets, to tip her hand. But that was why she had come here. He was her last chance. "My Aunt Elsbeth is in jail, and your father is going to have her sent to some maximum security fortress where I'll never see her again." "You think my father is involved?" "I do." "He's just a high school principal." Ash bristled. "Let's not talk like that." "Okay." Drake ran his fingers through his hair, slicking it back, spreading the countless tiny drops of mist that had settled there. "Let's play a game. I'll tell you something I know. Then you tell me something you know." Ash felt a chill. Such a game could get out of control – there was so much she didn't dare reveal. But Drake could be holding a secret that could help Elsbeth. "You start," she said. "Hey, you came to me." "It's your game." "Okay, then. I know your Aunt Elsbeth is a ninja." Ash's mind swam, and her foot slipped on the wet grass. She caught herself before she fell down the slope. Did Drake know everything? Was he really working for his father? "Your turn," he prodded. "I know your father is looking for the Mutus Liber." "Right. The Book Without Words. That's the big prize." He took a careful step closer to her. "I know that your aunt must have told you that a page of that book is in the school library." Then I know something you don't know. Drake had been out of touch for a few days. If Ash was careful, this game could go her way. "I know... that the page is no longer there." In the dim light, Ash saw Drake's eyebrows arch just a bit. She had surprised him. "Someone's been busy," he said. "Who got it?" Ash shook her head. "It's your turn." "I know that you're not going to see Elsbeth again." "That's not true." How could he say that? Ash had to free her. Ash would! Drake was just trying to throw her off. "Ash," he continued, "These people beyond ruthless." This wasn't helping. Ash felt her body stressing, desperation welling up, and pressed a hand to her mouth. "I need you to help me." "They'll kill you, Ash. Or vanish you without a trace." Ash shook her head. "Drake, please. I know..." Was she still playing the game? Maybe she was. "I know that you're Mr. Alexander's son. I know that's the world you were born into, but I know you aren't his servant. You think for yourself. That's why you're out here. Because you can't stand being someone else's pawn." Drake took another step closer to her. If he wanted, he could reach out and touch her. And that would be all right, Ash thought. It would be all right if he held her close, here in the dark, beside the roar of the falls. The mist in the air had chilled her skin, and now she could almost feel his warmth, this close. Almost. If he held her, they could set aside all the hellishness around them, just for a moment– "You don't know me," Drake said coldly. Ash blinked. "You know why they're so dangerous?" Drake asked. "Because they believe in what they are doing. If they can get all the pages of the Mutus Liber and create the philosopher's stone, they can change the world." She shook her head. "Into what?" "Into something better. My father... is a great man." Ash couldn't believe it. She felt her heart sinking. Drake continued. "Is it my turn? Good. Ash... I know you're not a ninja. I've seen ninjas before. I've studied them. You might be trying, and you might have some skills, but you're not cut out for it. It isn't for you." If he had wanted to hurt her, he should have just slapped her face. She could feel the muscles in her throat tightening, cutting off her air. Her bruised eye pulsed with hopeless rage, and warm tears tickled her cheeks. "How can you... say that...?" To talk, she needed to breathe, and she couldn't breathe. "Get out of the game while you can. Take a long vacation in Canada. Just run. It's the safest thing." Ash struggled to swallow the lump that had hardened in her throat. "You don't know who or what I am." "Ash, please." "Did you study me, too? Is that it? It that what I am to you? An assignment?" Her voice grew louder, sharper. "That night at the school, the attack – that really was you, wasn't it? Testing me? By coming at me with a switchblade?" Drake held up a hand, placating. "Ash–" "You attack girls with knives, do you, Drake?" "Ash!" His hands settled on her arms, just above her elbows, as if to contain her, to keep her from exploding. "Don't touch me!" Drake's grip on her upper arms turned to iron, and he pushed her sideways. The sudden pain shocked her into her altered state – the roar of the falls faded, the slow current of mist through the trees came to a standstill. Ash hung there, off balance, floating, her awareness revved to maximum. But it was all too late. Drake had already dragged her a couple of feet to her right, as if positioning her where he wanted her. She remembered, too late, that he had held up only one hand a moment ago. The other had been in the pocket of his coat. As he clung to her arms, she could feel that hidden hand at her elbow. Drake held something in his fingers. She noticed, too late, that a chain link fence loomed beside her, invisible in the darkness as it ran through the trees, marking the boundary of the power plant. Drake pinned her right arm against it. She heard a zipping sound, low and close. She pulled, but he already had a hold of her right wrist. Ninjas aren't strong. Drake released her, his fingers open and easing away. She lunged for him, ready to throttle him, but the fence clung to her right hand and wouldn’t let go. A slender band of plastic circled that wrist. He had zip-tied her to the fence. What kind of idiotic strategy was that? He was still standing in front of her, looking at her zip-tied hand, too slow to react. Ash made a fist with her left and belted him one, a jab straight to his nose. Ash hadn't punched anybody since that mean girl had kicked her lunchbox in the first grade. The moment stretched out, Drake's face shifting under her knuckles until they settled against the hard bone of his skull, and a shock of pain ran through her fingers. He reeled back, and kept reeling... His body settled into the grass. What had she done? "Drake!" As she spoke, her time sense shifted back to normal. Drake lay on his back. He put his hands to his face and groaned, and his body slipped on the wet grass, sliding downslope. Ash stomped the cuff of his trousers with her heel, stopping him. It stretched her out, and the zip-tie cut into her wrist. He probably would have stopped himself – grabbed a tree trunk – before going over the cliff. But she pressed her heel into the grass, just the same. "Ow," he said. "Drake?" He put out his arms to stabilize himself. Ash let him go, and he carefully got to his feet. He felt his nose. "I'm always getting hit." "You're... okay?" "I've had worse." Ash tugged at the zip-tie, shaking water drops off the fence. "What's with this?" "Cheaper than handcuffs. Concealable. Multi-purpose. Handy when camping." Drake cleared his throat. "Sorry. But if you won't go to Canada, maybe at least you'll stay here for a while." "Wait... what?" "Because what would you do? Try some crazy rescue attempt to free your aunt? I don't want to see you riddled with bullet holes, Ash. Trust me. This is safer." "Drake..." She yanked again. It was just a strip of plastic, but with her little wrist, it might have been steel. "Please..." He shook his head. "I've got to go now." "You what?" Ash reached with her left hand and grabbed the zippered lining of his waterproof coat. He made no move to break free. "I saw you clip your backpack to the underside of the bridge. I've been wondering why you would do that. But then, if the page is no longer in the library... maybe I have the answer." Ash froze. The strength seeped from her fingers. "If I'm right," Drake continued, "then you snatched it from the library right under my father's nose. That's pretty incredible." He took a step back, stretching Ash's body. She held on, refusing to let him go. He took another step, and she howled in pain as he pulled free. She grabbed for him, her fingers catching nothing but air. "How long do you think it would take for them to figure out that you have it?" he asked. "How long do you think you would live?" Panic bolted through her, making her shiver. "Drake, no. You can't." "You're going to hate me. But you'll be safe. And I need you to be safe, Ash." He watched her for a long moment. "More than you know." "Drake! Don't do this!" "The sun will be up in a few hours. It hits this slope first thing. Just holler, and the lodge staff will find you." "Please!" "I wish..." He fell perfectly silent. "Never mind. Forget it." He turned and walked away, in the direction of the power plant. His footsteps in the grass faded against the roar of the falls, and he disappeared into the mist. 34 The dampness in the air settled into Ash's skin and clothes. Her legs had lost their strength, and she half-sat, half-crouched, hanging from the fence by her pinned arm. There were no words to express the magnitude of her failure. She'd blown everything, and lost everything. Some dark, hidden part of her insides could no longer feel pain, and felt dead. She stood for the third time and pulled savagely at the zip-tie. It cut into her wrist. Pain burned through her flesh, but she didn't care. She pulled harder. The narrow strip of plastic held. She pried at it with the fingers of her free hand, trying to slip out of the loop. It was too tight. She folded her thumb against her palm and pressed it down, trying to make her hand smaller, and pulled again, trying to work the plastic over her damp skin. It wedged against the base of her thumb. But it had moved, a little. She did have small hands. Ash twisted her trapped hand back and forth and pulled at the plastic, tugging at each end repeatedly: pinkie, thumb, pinkie, thumb. She didn't seem to be making any progress, and her trapped thumb was starting to cramp. But she remembered the second Wile, and how the tree had grown through its chains so slowly that no one had seen it happen. So she kept it up, as the falls continued their eternal roar, a sound that seemed to have settled into her ears. All at once, her hand came free. Ash groaned and sat in the wet grass. She massaged her wrist until her fingers worked again. Then she forced herself to her feet and ran through the darkness to the power plant. She picked her way over the rocks to the water's edge and checked under the bridge. The pack was gone. How could Drake have gotten to it? But Ash knew better than to ask. Drake was easy to underestimate. She stretched her arms, rolled her shoulders, and started the crossing, hand over hand under the bridge. As the black water raced under her feet, she wondered what it would be like to just let go. She would splash into the icy river, and just as she came up for air, her body would wash over the falls... She glanced past her arm, to where the water plummeted into the chasm and mist rose into the spotlights. There was a mesh that ran across the river, just before the falls, like a tennis net. For safety, she guessed. To catch idiots who fell in. Her body would be pinned by the current against that net until she was rescued. Or drowned. Ash climbed on, her fingers aching, until she reached the river's edge beside the Salish Lodge. She climbed the fence and reached the parking lot. The sound of the falls no longer echoed in her skull. Drake's Audi was gone. Ash stood in the empty parking spot, feeling the car's absence like a wound. He had really done it. He had betrayed her. And she had made it easy for him. She sat on the curb and put her face in her hands. Her fingers brushed her black eye and a bolt of pain shot through it. She jerked her hand away and sighed, as that eye teared up, stinging. She had to pull herself together. She needed a new plan. But all she could think of was curling up and dying. The sound of a car engine came to her. Probably vacationers visiting the hotel, maybe an old couple – and here she was, weeping on the curb. They would stop if they saw her. "Are you okay?" they would ask. "Where are your parents, little girl?" Sure enough, the car stopped right in front of her. It was a gray Volvo. The passenger-side window went down. "You want a ride?" Spencer asked from behind the wheel. "Or do you want to sit there all night?" # Spencer drove westbound on I-90, back toward Seattle, at three miles per hour under the speed limit. The dashboard clock read 1:21 AM. "You waited for me," Ash said. It wasn't a question. She wasn't sure why she said it. "Yeah." Spencer kept his eyes on the road. "I wasn't going to just leave you." Ash sighed. "You're always going after the story." He glanced at her. "That's not it." She was halfway through a second night with almost no sleep, and as the Volvo's engine lulled her, she sank into the heated seat. Fatigue settled into her body. She leaned back, sagging, limp as a crash-test dummy. Her eyes closed. "You didn't see Drake's Audi pull out of the lot, did you?" "I did." Her eyes opened. "Did you see which way it went?" "Nope. I was looking for you." Her eyes closed. She slipped away for a moment, and fought her way back. "Spencer... I'm falling asleep." But so what? At least she couldn't do any more harm that way. "Go ahead." # The dream came out of the darkness as soft as water, like a rising tide. The studio lights were bright white. She could feel their heat. The students lined up at the barre and did tendu exercises in precise unison. Ash hurried to join them. She was late. But there was no room. Everywhere she looked, a tall girl in pink and black lifted and fell, fingers floating, carriage high, poise perfect. Miss Claudine stood beside her, watching the dancers. "Aren't they lovely, Miss Ashley? So graceful, so feminine. Such marvelous girls. Ah," she caught herself. "I shouldn't say girls any more. They are young women now, certainly. On their way to make their impression on the world." Miss Claudine turned to Ash and held her gaze. "A shame you cannot join them. Such a shame." # Motion stirred Ash from sleep, and she woke to find the car pulling into the driveway of her house. She had experienced this feeling a thousand times before, and for a confusing moment, she wondered why this wasn't her father's familiar car. She turned, rolling her head on the headrest, and saw Spencer behind the wheel instead of her dad. And it all came back. "Are you going to be okay?" Spencer asked. No, she wasn't. "Yeah." "So... what now?" The porch light was on. Dad had to be worried sick about her. At this hour, maybe trying to sleep. Ash wanted to wake him up and let him know that she was safe. And to say she was sorry. "Thanks for the ride, Spencer." "So you're... calling it a night?" She stared longingly at her front walk, and turned to him. "I'm sorry. I'm going to bed, and tomorrow, my dad and I are going to try to keep me out of jail." He watched her, soft light from the dash turning his cheek blue. "You sure?" Drake's voice came back to her. I know you're not a ninja. "There's no story here," she said. "There's nothing left that I can do." She opened the car's door and climbed out. It occurred to her that if Spencer hadn't given her a ride to the falls, she would still have the Mutus Liber page. But that wasn't his fault. It was hers. "Thank you for everything." She shut the car door. Spencer rolled down the passenger-side window. "I know that punk broke your heart. But broken hearts heal. Believe me, I know." He shifted into reverse, and the Volvo rolled into the street. A moment later, it was gone. You don't know anything, she thought. And in that, she envied him. She walked to the front door. A note was taped beneath the peephole. Ash, Wake me. We need to talk. I love you. Dad Where was her house key? In her backpack. With Drake. What now? Knock? Wake dad? Her knuckles hesitated over the door. Drake... She should have thrown him into the falls when she had the chance. Her whole approach had been wrong. She had wanted to talk to him, to get his help. She had met him and appealed to him directly, honestly, straight up, no tricks. Why had she done it that way? That wasn't how ninjas did things. And a ninja wouldn't knock. Ash remembered that her bedroom window was unlocked as always. She didn't have to wake her dad. And Elsbeth's trunk, in the hall... That was unlocked, too. And Spencer had said Elsbeth was at Seattle City Corrections. Downtown somewhere. Maybe Ash could find it. And it was just past two in the morning. So she had a few hours of darkness left. Why had she believed that she had lost everything? That she had nothing left? She had all she needed. Maybe she wasn't a ninja. Maybe she was. But she knew for sure that she wasn't anything else. Ash put her hand flat on the door, feeling the grain of the wood. She had almost knocked. That would have spoiled everything. Ash slipped away from the porch and along the front wall to the drainage pipe under her bedroom window. She scaled it to her room, leaned over... and couldn't reach the window clasp. It had always been too far to reach. What to do? She was surprised to find that she wasn't upset or concerned, but only charmed by the challenge. She set her toes against the pipe, and let go of it with both hands, sliding along the wall to the window. She caught the sill as she fell, stopping herself, and eased the window open slowly and quietly. A quick hop, and she stood in the darkness of her bedroom. She shivered with breathless joy, since she hadn't known if she would ever stand in this spot again. Her room. If only she could climb into that bed, snuggle under that comforter. But not now; there was too much good work to do. She dropped and rolled halfway under her bed, grabbed the bundle of black pajamas there, and pulled it out. Sitting on top of the folded square of perfect, light-swallowing ink was Punchy, her knuckle-buster. She picked it up. It had taken a thousand blows from her, and its pristine condition – not even a splinter – mocked her. She fixed it in her left hand and reared back her right fist. She would break it right now. It would be like an omen. But the sound could wake her dad downstairs. She sighed and tossed Punchy under the bed, unbroken. No omen for her. But she didn't need one. She would make her own luck, with her own iron will, by choosing her moment, imperfect as it was, third-Wile-style. Ash drew the star from the dark bundle. It gleamed gold, catching the light from streetlights out her window. She would take it with her, of course. She needed every edge she could get. And there was another edge Ash needed in the trunk downstairs. A very, very sharp edge. She crept down the stairs, placing her feet on each step near the railing, so the boards wouldn't creak. In the hall, she eased open the trunk. Under Elsbeth's clothes, Ash found the scabbard. She took a deep breath, and lifted it out. Its powerful weight made her pause. Elsbeth had refused to let her touch it. Was Ash ready for something this dangerous? She pushed the thought aside. Tonight was not a night for rules. She gripped the handle and slipped the sword a few inches free of the scabbard. The blade gleamed silver. Please, she thought, don't let me kill anybody with this thing. Ash put the strap over her shoulder and let the scabbard settle into place on her back. She closed the trunk and started up the stairs, but a sound made her freeze. Steady, deep, soft... hiding under the hum of the refrigerator in the kitchen. Breathing. Dad, in the bedroom. Asleep. Ash listened, noting the rhythm. He was out – no trouble from him tonight. Ash kept listening, not quite willing to move on. The sound calmed her. At least he was finally getting some rest. She floated through darkness along the downstairs hall to her father's room. She wanted to make sure he was safely asleep, to see that he was okay, that he was undisturbed... She wanted to see him again. His bedroom door was partly open. Ash leaned in. The room was colored a faint blue from the glowing numbers on the bedstand clock radio. Dad lay on his stomach in the bed, his arm over his head and his legs tangled in the sheets. It looked like he had been tossing and turning. Dad had always taken care of her. How awful this had to be for him. Ash could never make it up to him, could never earn his forgiveness. And worse, assuming that she could bring Elsbeth safely home... Ash could never be sure of keeping him safe. The stakes were too high and the players in this new game were too dangerous. So what would become of him? Ash felt tears welling up. I'm sorry, Dad. I'll see you again soon. He shifted. If he woke while Ash stood there, she would have to explain the sword on her back. She wiped her eyes and slipped into the hall. Then she crept upstairs, hugging the railing to avoid squeaking steps, and reached her bedroom. She set the sword on the bed and changed without a sound, sliding on each black piece, working her fingers through the holes in the gloves, and finally, pulling the silky cap low over her eyes and the neck piece up over her mouth and nose. She flicked off the light and turned to her reflection. A soft thrill of fear ran through her at the sight of the shadow in the mirror. Who was that? Ash felt a strange sense that she was looking at someone else, some other dark figure. It had to be her, though. So... who was she now? What happened to her when she slipped into these clothes? No time. She plucked up the star and slipped it into the pocket at the small of her back. The scabbard fell into place over her shoulder. She paused with her feet on the window sill, the soles of her slippers gripping the edge, and gazed down the quiet street. Now, where do you put a prison in a big city like Seattle? On a normal day, Ash would have searched the web for it, but she didn't want to turn on her computer and start typing away, not with Dad asleep downstairs. Too risky. She needed some quick internet access. And all she could think of was Mule's new smartphone. She lunged for the drain pipe, caught it without a sound, and clambered to the roof. Once there, she leaped to the next roof, and the next. 35 Mule lived on the east side of Magnolia, in the last row of houses before the apartment complexes and train tracks. Ash bound over the rooftops, landing softly and pacing herself, until she dropped into the grassy sideyard of the Danneker residence. It was an older house, with a sunken backyard featuring a trio of enormous pine trees. Ash could smell the dusty wood of a stack of pallets leaning against the wall, and some rot from the trash bin. She crossed to the backyard, slipping her feet toe-first into the tall grass so she wouldn't make crunching noises. Mule's domain was the basement. He had his own tiny bedroom down there, and a living room with an old couch and television, with direct access through a back door. That door was usually locked. Ash didn't even try it. Instead, she slinked to a narrow window, a third the size of her own bedroom window, and barely knee high. It opened into Mule's living room and was set in the wall near the ceiling, over the washing machine. Mule kept it unlocked, so he could still get inside if he lost his keys and his parents weren't home. Mule lost his keys almost as often as he lost his cell phone. Hard to imagine Mule squeezing through there. No problem for her, though. She knelt in the grass and peeked in. The lights were out, but the TV in the corner flickered rhythmically. Ash pressed her cheek to the window frame and tried to see the TV screen. On it, hovering over a bombed-out cityscape, were the pulsing words SAVE Y/N CONTINUE Y/N The couch sat in the middle of the room, facing the TV. She could see Mule's messy brown hair over the back of it. He was leaning back and not moving. Through the glass, she could hear him snoring. She gripped the top of the window frame in her fingertips and pulled out. It rotated open along the hinge at the bottom, coming to rest as a chain on the side pulled taut. She listened to him snore for a bit, then decided it was safe enough. She held on to the brick wall and slipped through the window feet first, her black-clad butt sliding on the sloped glass until her slippers came to rest on the washing machine. Then she dropped to the concrete floor inside. The back of Mule's head didn't move. His open bedroom door was directly in front of her, and she padded through it. The bedroom had been built into the corner of the living room, made of temporary walls barely ten feet across. His bed was a single mattress on the floor. The phone sat on a desk in the corner, next to his wallet and backpack. Ash picked it up. Her fingers probed its edges until she found the power button. Its screen lit with an image of the battery, "22% remaining," and filled the room with cold light. She faced the open door and crouched, to keep the light from pouring into the living room. Mule's inhales came harsh and steady, like someone pulling the starter cord on a lawn mower. Ash tapped the browser icon and when the keyboard appeared, punched in "Seattle City Jail." The search came back with "King County Correctional Facility, Seattle, 500 Fifth Avenue." She clicked the map, and saw its location in the heart of downtown. She zoomed in from a satellite view. From above, it looked like just another office building. Where were the inmates? On the umpteenth floor? Was she going to have to scale a building? How would she find Elsbeth in there? Easy, she told herself. One thing at a time. She set the phone down. Mule might notice tomorrow that someone had searched for a prison on it, but then again, he might not. Ash wasn't worried. Mule was many things, but he wasn't terribly curious. Ash paused in the bedroom doorway, before the stretch of darkness behind the couch that separated her from the window over the washing machine. She watched the TV's pulsing light on Mule's face as he slept. Why had she broken in here? Why not just wake Mule and ask for his help? He would have found the prison for her. She didn't have to sneak around. A bitter feeling nagged at her. Yes, she did have to sneak. Mule wouldn't let Ash do what she was about to do. He would protect her... by stopping her. Once he grasped that she was serious, he would never let her go. And that wasn't his fault. He had always protected her. She wished she could thank him, instead of using her ninja stealth against him. Instead of lying to him. The bitter feeling got worse. Could she ever be honest with Mule again? And if not, how could their friendship survive? She felt an urge to go hug him. Or at least, sit on the couch with him while he played a few rounds of his game. She glanced down at herself, cloaked in shadow. What would he think of her outfit? The quintessent material caressed her face as she grinned. He'd like it, she knew. No time. She'd work things out with Mule later – she hoped – but for now, she had other priorities. She had to tell him. The thought came quick and without warning. When all this was over, she would. Mule, she would say, I'm a ninja. She set the thought aside and started for the window– Mule's grinding inhale cut short and he lifted his head. Ash had almost reached the washing machine. She dropped into the shadow behind the couch and rolled toward him as he drew in a sleepy breath and sighed it out. He scanned the room behind him, frowning, sleepy eyed. Ash lay in the dark below him, holding her breath. His face was dark, with his back to the TV, but still she could see the stubble on his heavy jaw. She could see up his nostrils. "Huh," he said. He faced forward and stood. Ash scooted silently against the back of the couch. The television clicked off, and the room was plunged into the safety of pure darkness. Ash relaxed. Mule pulled a string hanging near the stairs, clicking on a bulb at the ceiling. The room filled with yellow light. Ash winced soundlessly. She spider-crawled around the couch and balled up under the armrest. Mule made no sound. He had to be standing under the bulb, not moving. Why? Did he think someone else was in the room? "Huh," he said again. He crossed to the washing machine. Ash scrambled to the front of the couch to stay out of his line of sight as he closed the window she had opened. He wobbled sleepily back to the stairs, and Ash spider-crawled back under the armrest. He clicked off the light, bathing Ash in darkness. She tracked the sound of his breathing as he crossed to his bedroom. The light there clicked on. She circled the couch and peered around the worn edge of its upholstery at the doorway's rectangle of light. The light went out, and Ash heard the mattress springs strain noisily as Mule flopped into bed. After a minute, she heard his breathing deepen and grow louder, until those tortured-pig inhales were back. Ash tip-toed to the washer, hopped up, and opened the window, letting the pane swing slowly out and down until the chain stopped it. With a big toe on the window’s frame, she reached through until her fingers felt grass, and stepped over the pane with one leg, then the other. This time, she eased the window closed. Lucky, she thought. That's what she was. She sprinted to the neighbor's fence and continued up its wood planks until she balanced on its top. Then she hopped to the neighbor's roof. How was she going to get downtown? She would have to work on that while she kept moving. She jumped to the next house, and the next, moving south down the street, until she stood on a shingled slope beside a shopping center's parking lot. No more houses. She hopped to the asphalt, landing hard on her feet, and sprinted across. At the far side, she raced up the wall of a QFC grocery store, jogged across its broad flat roof, then hopped to a pizzeria, then Red Mill Burgers, then a Starbucks. This was getting exhausting, and taking too long. It would take until sun up to reach the prison at this rate. If not a ninjamobile, a ninja-cycle. Something. She touched down on the sidewalk on Dravus Street and plunged into the jungle of blackberry bushes that lined the slope leading down to the train yard. Maybe she could take a train... She pushed through the blackberry brambles, making more rustling noise than she would have liked. Not that there were people about to see her at this hour. A blackberry thorn scraped one of her exposed fingers, and she squeaked. A drop of blood formed on the knuckle. She flexed her finger and scowled, the mask caressing the face she made. Wait a minute. These were blackberries. They should be shredding her to a bloody mess. She made fists to protect her fingers and pushed farther down the hill. The branches turned aside, dragging against her body. They didn't snag or poke through her outfit. Elsbeth was right. These clothes made her too tough and too slippery. I love my black pajamas, she thought. She broke free of the brambles at the bottom of the hill, and stood before a half-dozen sets of tracks. Rail cars sat here, heavy and unmoving, waiting for someplace to go. The Dravus overpass loomed overhead, giving plenty of cover. Not a single person in sight. Ash grinned. Now she just had to wait for a train. She hopped up on one of the rail cars, sat on the broad expanse of cold steel, and looked north for a ride. All quiet. Nothing moved. No time for this. Maybe she could catch a truck. She zipped across the train yard and pushed uphill through the brambles on the other side. The smell of wet green life floated through her nose. She liked blackberries even more now that they didn't hurt. Once out of the train yard, she cut through some unlit parking lots behind a restaurant and laundromat, then more bushes, to the overpass that crossed Fifteenth Avenue. Fifteenth ran straight downtown. Ash hopped the guard rail of the overpass and dangled over Fifteenth, clinging to the cracks in the mossy concrete. She pulled her legs up and lowered herself more, hanging like a monkey. When the first truck blew by at about forty miles per hour, she wasn't ready, and the top of the trailer almost whacked her knee. Yikes! Low bridge, tall trucks. It wouldn't be a long drop to a truck trailer's roof. She just had to be going fast enough when she jumped, or she’d roll off the back and splat on the asphalt. She hung in darkness and breathed. Her fingers started to ache. Five... ten... twelve... And here came a beautiful furniture truck, with a trailer that was tall and broad and flat. She set her feet on the concrete wall and as the truck's cab passed under her, she pushed off. She seemed to dangle weightless over the trailer's expanse of white metal. Then she plopped on it, landing on her fingers and toes, without the slightest jerk. Nice! She flattened herself and let her ride take her downtown. 36 The truck roared south from Fifteenth onto the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a two-level highway with southbound traffic on the lower level, northbound traffic above. Ash now had solid concrete racing by no more than five feet over her head and traffic noise echoing straight into her skull. Ouch. At least the view was nice. The Viaduct ran along the coast, and at this hour, Puget Sound was still and black. She could smell the ocean. No ferries ran this late, and only the yellow glow of a freighter lit the water. She needed to get off at Yesler. But twelve feet off the ground, racing at highway speed while surrounded by concrete – how was she supposed to stop this ride? She sat up, flummoxed, and watched the dark and crumbling second level whirr by above her. She'd have to jump for it. Trees had been planted at regular intervals below, on both sides of the Viaduct, and their uppermost branches reached the southbound level. They might make a soft target. Ash crept to the rear corner of the truck and checked the traffic behind. No cars behind, so no one would see the jump... and no one would flatten her if she blew it and landed on the highway. Ash thought it through. As the truck moved forward, she would have to jump backward to compensate. Yep, that sounded right. So she would land in the tree and not smack it. Ash crouched at the very edge of the trailer's top and breathed. The sound of the highway retreated to a more comfortable distance, and the traffic seemed to slow. Beyond a highway column, she spotted a perfect tree, broad and leafy, colored gray-yellow by the lights along the piers. Soft and cushiony. She slipped over the edge of the truck, planting her feet on the side, and pushed off. She had to balance the speed of the truck, but forty miles an hour wasn't really all that fast. She got it about right, and suddenly had a face full of branches. She spread her arms and legs and grabbed randomly, stripping leaves off with her fingers, until she came down butt-first on a branch strong enough to hold her. She dropped to the sidewalk and paused only a microsecond before bolting across the intersection and racing up Yesler. She accelerated into a sprint, dodging parked cars and trees (and leaping over a homeless-looking guy) until she turned onto James Street. That was a straight shot, fast and low, passing the Smith Tower with its little pyramid on top, staying in the streetlight shadows and crossing the intersections in a single leap. She passed a tall white building with a lot of little windows and "King County Courthouse" in brass letters over the doors. Then an ugly gray block of a building, made even uglier by weird-looking diagonal criss-cross facades on the sides, labeled "King County Administration." Then the jail, a white, blocky office building like any other one downtown. Lots of windows. It would be locked up tight, so Ash would be scaling the outside. Ash crouched in the shadow between two parked cars and stared. Elsbeth was in there. The windows were inset without ledges or anything to hold on to. Ash wondered about security. Over her head, a skybridge extended across the street from the previous two buildings, like a long square windowless tube. That had to be how they got inmates to the courthouse and back. It could work for Ash, too. She doubled back to the ugly building. Those diamond-shaped concrete facades would be easy to climb. All the windows (one in each diamond) were dark. The time had to be three in the morning. Ninja prime-time. Ash started up. The wall had plenty of places to grip, and after climbing ten floors in a zig-zag pattern, she rolled onto the roof. The roof was broad and flat and painted white. The skybridge crossed this roof and extended to both buildings on either side of her, and it was totally enclosed. The access door was locked, and not Ash's style anyway. Using the doorknob as a step, she reached the roof of the skybridge in two quick hops. Ash stood on a smooth white road, with a hundred-foot drop to the street on each side, that ran straight to her destination. Strong breeze up here. She was safely out of view of the street, and doubted if any human had ever stood where she was. She took the road like a racetrack. At the jail, the skybridge disappeared into the wall of the building. Ash hopped up to the jail's broad white roof. She took a deep breath. Made it! Elsbeth was somewhere below her... so close. This was going to work. Ash could really pull off a rescue. Elsbeth would be impressed. Then Elsbeth and Ash could take turns beating Drake until they knocked him to the next county. She could– Slow down. Ash had to take her time now and not blow it. She started a slow walk, taking in her surroundings. Rooftops all looked the same. White, with pipes and vents and metal boxes sticking out, one metal box humming noisily. Where would the inmates be? Top floor? If Ash had to build a prison into a highrise, she wouldn't put the bad guys near the lobby. Yeah, top floor. Ash set her feet lightly as she walked. She had no idea, really, where the prisoners would be. Maybe something else was saying "top floor" to her. Intuition, maybe. Elsbeth, maybe. Could it be auntie's telepathic trick? Ash tried to reach out with her mind. Elsbeth? Are you here? But before, it had only worked when they were touching. Now, Elsbeth could be on the other side of the building... assuming she was only ten feet down. Ash sighed. Elsbeth, it's me! Nothing. Okay, new plan. Except Ash didn't have a new plan. She looked down at the late-night traffic racing along I-5. Really, it was super-early-morning traffic. There was nothing else Ash could do from the roof. She had to face that. What, then? She had to go in and look around with her own eyes. And get caught on security cameras and seen by prison guards, and tackled and arrested and thrown in a cell for being dumb enough to break into a prison. Yeah, she had to do it. She couldn't let Elsbeth down. It wouldn't be hard. She could cut right through the roof with the sword, straight down. Drop in from the ceiling. But that would leave a mark on the building. Evidence. Ash wandered over to the great humming box. A heater. She put her hands on its warm aluminum and felt it vibrating. A fan cranked away in there. She walked around it and found a vent on the other side, down low, a mechanical roar coming from it. Narrow... but not too narrow. No hinge, no bolts, not able to be opened. So Ash would make her own door. She reached over her head and her fingers touched the soft fabric wrapping the handle of the sword. They tapped thoughtfully. Was she really going to do this? There was no backing out, starting now. Fine. But... she left the sword in its scabbard, and instead drew the star from her pocket. Holding it like a scalpel, she sliced away the vent cover. The air that blasted out the opening washed over her, a sauna from hell. It would be hot in there. It might even hurt. But she could do it. In, and down. She replaced the star, hunkered, and crawled– The sword handle hit the opening and the strap gave her a yank. She reached back and pulled the handle inside the vent, then faced forward, squinting into the Saharan wind tunnel. Best to get this done quick, before she roasted. She shimmied her way inside. No light in here. Judging by the racket, the heater was in the metal box now directly above her. She dropped down the rectangular shaft and landed on thin aluminum. She probed the darkness with her fingertips and found herself in the middle of a three-way intersection. She didn't try waiting for her eyes to adjust. Instead she crawled forward in a slow, light slide, shifting her weight gently. The aluminum still snapped and thumped as she moved. She tried seeing with her peripheral vision, but got nothing but black. The ceiling of the top floor had to be right below her. She just needed an opening. As sweat began to tickle her neck and the first drop caught in her eyebrow – and she thought she was medium-rare pushing medium – she found one. She lay in an air shaft with her chin resting on the edge of a two-foot drop. At the bottom was a grate like the one on the roof – not designed to be opened. Bright light shone through it. She reached down with the star and carved it out, peeling it back and pulling. When it came loose, she set it in the shaft ahead of her. Through the opening, about eight feet below, lay dull brown-gray carpet. A hallway, with blazing fluorescent lighting. She lowered herself head-first, inching along, and stopped when she could see along the hallway's length. It looked like a typical hallway of offices, with evenly spaced doors on either side of the hall. Except the doors were white, like the walls. Painted metal, not wood. Reinforced steel? And there were file folders clipped to each door, sort of like a patient room in a doctor's office. So maybe she had found the prison floor after all. No bars or windows to peek through. Even standing in the hall, she wouldn't be able to see Elsbeth. Ash hung upside down, annoyed. She craned her neck, twisting her body to see the other direction. And noticed the video camera three feet away. 37 Ash yanked her head up, turtling into the shaft, wincing. Caught on a prison camera... wait. Ash slowly lowered herself and peeked into the hall again until she could see the camera. It was massive, white, and rectangular... and angled down so it could see the floor along the length of the hall, not the ceiling where Ash was. She was above it, too high, too close. It couldn't see her. She let out a sigh of relief. But if she went any lower, it would definitely see her then. Ash pressed her molars together, thinking. She'd have to break it. She reached behind her and – upside down in the ventilation shaft, not easy – worked the sword loose. She fed the long blade through the hole she had cut and reached for the camera with it. The blade wavered, glimmering in the bright hall lights. With a gentle flick, the blade's tip sliced the camera's power cable. The little red light went out. There! Ash tucked her legs close to her chest, and as she held the vent hole's edge with one hand, she flipped into the hall and landed smoothly on her feet... without stabbing herself, either. She put the sword away, so she could have both hands free, and so if a prison guard saw her, he wouldn't freak out and shoot. Then again, seeing a teenaged girl dressed in black on the top floor of a prison, he might freak out anyway. No alarms went off. No pressure sensors in the floor. That was just the movies, she supposed. The hall had a weird chemical smell. It smelled very, very clean, and it made her a little sick. She glanced around and noticed a T-intersection at each end of the hall. Where to? She didn't have much time before somebody noticed the dead camera. She imagined some poor guard sitting at a desk with a bank of screens. One of the screens just went black. Would he come running? Call for backup? Was he in administration two buildings over? Or just down the hall? How much time did Ash have? She started down the hall, trying to listen with her mind. Elsbeth, I'm here. Nothing. She reached the T at the end of the hall, where a narrow window showed the darkness of Seattle's night outside. The window had bars. At last, bars, she thought. Like a decent prison. Ash pressed her back to one wall and slinked up to the corner. She peeked fast and pulled her head back. Another camera at the far end. She drew the star from its pocket... and hesitated. She couldn't keep dismantling cameras. She was going to get caught, at this rate. But she needed to reach Elsbeth. She would use the time she had. No giving up, no doubting. Just some good aim, please. She breathed in the rhythm her aunt had shown her, and felt calm return. Her heart settled and her senses sharpened. She had to be gentle. Too hard and the star would go through the building and land in the traffic on I-5. Ash visualized how much force she would need, then she turned and flicked the star at the camera. It drove itself into the lens with the sharp sound of glass cracking. The red light flickered, but stayed on, sending a blurry mess to a screen at that guy's desk. Nice shot! Ash held up her fists and did a victory hop. She walked a slow, zigzag path down the hall toward the camera, pausing at each cell door and probing for Elsbeth with her mind. Nothing. Ash looked up at her handiwork, the star wedged into the camera like a knife halfway through a block of cheese. She leaped up and grabbed the camera with her left hand, hanging there while she worked the star free with her right. A harsh mechanical buzz came from somewhere else on the floor. An alarm? Ash heard a loud clank-clank on top of it, and the buzz stopped. She recognized it – somebody being buzzed in through a security door. Her guard had finally arrived. She dropped and pressed herself to the wall at the corner. She was dressed in black, against a white wall in a brightly lit corridor. Bad news. Option one: Bolt. Back to the vent and gone. Without Elsbeth. Option two: Whack the guard. Keep looking until more guards come. Get caught, reveal the existence of ninjas and spoil the Cloak forever. Go to jail for murder, and deserve it. Under her mask, Ash's lips pulled back from her teeth. These options sucked. Think! Slow footsteps sounded elsewhere on the floor. Coming closer. Ash had no choice. Option one, then. She slinked to the next corner, back the way she had come, and paused at the corner to listen. The footsteps echoed quietly, seeming to float everywhere, difficult for Ash to locate. She peeked around the corner to the hallway with the cut-out vent in the ceiling. At the moment she looked, the guard stepped into the hallway from the other side. Ash pulled back before he saw her, but she got a look at him. Young guy, hair cut close, tan uniform. Wide awake and looking for trouble. Ash was cut off from her escape route. His footsteps came closer... and closer. Maybe Ash could circle around to the vent from the other side. She got ready to sprint– The footsteps stopped. He had to be standing under the hole. Ash heard a burst of static from a radio. "Twenty-one, twenty," the guard said. "Prisoner escape. There's a vent carved up here." Ash's heart sank. She closed her eyes. ELSBETH! The radio crackled back. "Twenty, twenty-one. If you're joking, you're fired. You know that." "Just hit Code Four already," the guard said. Ash! A bolt shot through Ash's body, like being struck by lightning. That was Elsbeth! Where are you? Ash hollered mentally. The voice in Ash's head sounded weak, barely a suggestion. Maybe Ash was imagining it. In the van... The van? Ash wouldn't imagine something that made no sense. What kind of van could be in a prison cell? Did Elsbeth mean– Outside! Hurry! Ash raced down the hall to a window and pressed her face against the glass. Far below, a white van emerged from a parking garage and wheeled through the lot. What the heck was Elsbeth doing there? The transfer to Supermax in Colorado – Spencer had said seven AM, but it looked like it was happening now, in the middle of the night. Just like the library renovation – did these people do everything early? Didn't they know how to keep a schedule? Ash had to catch that van. But she was a hundred feet too high for that. The security door buzzed and clanked open again. More footsteps, more voices. The guard's friends were here. Ash had climbed the diamond facades on the administration building because the prison's walls were smooth, with no ledges. No choice now, though. Down she would go, and fast. Hopefully not too fast. I'm coming, Elsbeth! Ash stepped back from the window and drew the sword. She gripped the handle in both hands, swallowed, and drew in a breath. She was already sorry about the mess. She swung hard at the window, eye-level, right to left. The blade's tip caught the wall and raced through, cutting drywall, wood, and concrete – then glass and steel bars – then drywall, wood, and concrete. The gash was four feet long and clean, and Ash hadn't even had to push very hard. She swung again at knee level, then two vertical slashes to complete a square. The bars tumbled away first, followed by a section of glass, then the wall on each side of the window tumbled a hundred feet down. Icy wind blew into the hallway and the steel bars rang when they hit the parking lot below. "What was that?" said one of the guards. Ash had a few seconds left before she'd be in the middle of a serious cell block rumble. She had a clear view of the van now, without the glass reflecting the hallway lights. A police van, with "King County Corrections" on the side. It left the parking lot and turned into the street. Ash hesitated, unsure how not to plummet to her death. And unsure how not to be seen, and shot at, by the guards when they reached the spot where she was now standing. She needed a hang glider. She sheathed the sword and dug the throwing star from her pocket. Her fingers brushed the smooth edge of severed concrete and she stepped one foot over the cut glass at the bottom of the window. Outside, her toes found the window’s base, a flat concrete ledge less than two inches wide – enough for her feet, but her hands had nothing to grip. She reached around to the outside of the building, drove the star into the wall, and pulled down, testing some of her weight on it. It cut through the wall like butter, carving a vertical groove in the surface. It wouldn't support the weight of a kitten. Crap, Ash thought. She pulled the star's sharkfin blade out of the wall... and jabbed it in again, horizontally. She pulled down and swung her body entirely out the window and into the night air. Now all her weight hung against the flat of the star's blade. And it held. So she could climb with it after all. And, remembering her escape from Mrs. Wilson's math class, she climbed up. Ten feet higher, she reached the roof and sprinted to the east side of the building. At the edge, she spotted the van closing on the southbound I-5 onramp. It had to be heading for Boeing Field or Seatac Airport, next stop: Colorado. Ash would be on that van before it reached the highway. 38 She hopped onto the barrier at the roof's edge and dug the star into it. She eased herself over the side and lowered herself down. When she was hanging from the star as low as she could, stretched to full length (which wasn't very long), her foot found the lip of a window. She twisted the star loose and jammed it in a couple of feet lower, and lowered her body again, stretching for a foothold. It would work. It would take forever and wear out every muscle in her body, but she would reach the ground. As she hung ninety feet over the hum of traffic on the interstate, she realized she needed a new strategy. She gripped the star as tightly as she could, jammed it in vertically, and put some of her weight on it. It gouged a furrow in the concrete. As before, it wouldn't support her weight. But she didn't need it to. She took a breath, then another, and pulled her foot off the window’s edge. She raced down, speed-walking backward along the wall and letting the star keep her from freefall as it tore a valley in the building's side. The sound was like a miniature jackhammer. She could barely keep her legs moving fast enough as she back-skipped down. The star tried to turn, tried to roll free of the wall, tried to shake her loose. Above her, a broken stripe ran up the wall. Halfway down, she twisted her body, turned to the highway and spotted the van racing up the onramp, merging into the sparse traffic. Getting away. She grabbed her wrist with her free hand and let the star grind away as her feet found a rhythm in their high-speed shuffle. Twenty feet above the ground, she jumped. And landed in a tree. Between the branches, she searched for police – anyone who might be looking for whoever had gone out the hole in that window. Nobody. They hadn't traced her to this side of the building. And she'd be gone before they did. She sprinted to the overpass, going for speed rather than stealth. She'd be a black blur to anyone who noticed her. At the overpass, she hopped the rail, dangling over the traffic of I-5, clinging to deep cracks in the ancient, freezing concrete as cars whipped past her knees. The van was still in sight, its red tail-lights receding. Ash needed to hitchhike, like she had with the truck. An adopted ninjamobile – something speedy this time. She set her feet and waited... knowing that every second, Elsbeth was slipping away from her. Ash heard the engine before she saw the car – a rolling, high-pitched roar of RPM's – and had a split second to charge up her body for the jump, compressing herself like a spring. A black sedan blasted by underneath her, and Ash could already see the red halos of its tail-lights as she pushed off the concrete wall. She shot out over the highway, arms pressed to her sides, legs straight, her body rocketlike. She seemed to hang over the sedan's shining black roof for a timeless moment. As gravity brought her gently down, she bent her knees, reached out and landed, froglike, with barely a thump. She crouched low behind the moonroof and kept her toes in front of the back window. Not a lot of space, and nothing to hang on to. She hoped the driver hadn't noticed her. Would the car slow down? Swerve? She noticed her reflection in the shine of the car's roof – the ghostly black oval of her head, the crescent that exposed her eyes. She glanced around. No other cars, except for an SUV in the far left lane, now falling behind. It rolled along steadily. If she stayed low, she was probably hard to spot. Good color choice, this car. And she was gaining on the van! In fact, she was more than gaining. As traffic raced under the overpasses and dark buildings of downtown, her little hot rod pulled even with the van, which plodded along. The way her driver was racing, she would pass the van and leave it in the dust. Time for a new ride. Ash swallowed and judged the distance. Could she jump to the van across three lanes? At this speed? Maybe. If she slipped, she'd slide to a stop, and see whether this suit would protect her from road rash. Even if she landed well, a thump on the van would alert the people inside. Then what? The little black hot rod pulled a car-length ahead of the van, then two. Too far now. Ash had missed her chance. Stupid third Wile. She should have jumped. Her ride was gaining on a red pickup truck. Time for a transfer. She leaned to one side and tried to set her feet for a jump. The car's roof was slippery with a fresh wax job – this could be tricky. And she'd have to aim... She placed her feet squarely under her and pushed off, floating over an empty lane of traffic at sixty miles per hour, the wind caressing her as she extended her arms and sank through an arc into the pickup truck's bed. She landed on a tool box and rolled off. It tipped and its lid fell open, showering her with wrenches and screwdrivers. She winced in pain and balled up. The truck hit the brakes hard – the driver obviously heard the crash – and she was flung forward to the front of the truck bed. She pressed herself against the cold red metal directly under the cab's rear window, trying to be a shadow. The driver turned and scowled, taking in the mess, his face lumpy and foreshortened from her perspective, under the sweatstained bill of his baseball cap. Don't look down, Ash thought. The driver faced forward and the truck swerved, correcting its drift and returning to the center of the lane. Ash crept to the side and peered over the rim of the truck bed. The van holding Elsbeth was slowly pulling ahead. It had changed lanes right, maybe to take the next turn-off... that meant Boeing Field. Boeing Field was a small airport, unlike SEATAC, which handled most air traffic in and out of Seattle. Maybe a small airport was better for putting a prisoner on a plane. It would be private and easier to manage security. That would be important if the prisoner was a ninja. Ash wondered if this was the work of Mr. Alexander again, behind the scenes. Ash hunkered behind the driver and peered past his headrest. Yep, the van was taking the next offramp. Boeing Field, all right. But the pickup stayed in the lane where it was. Ash would need a new ride again. Her heart sank, and she slumped behind the truck's back window. Not another jump, please. She'd almost been beaten to death with tools on the last one. Hitchhiking was not her thing. But she didn't see another way. And then she did. If Mr. Pickup Driver wasn't going to take the offramp, well, maybe Ash could persuade him to. She rolled onto her stomach, lying flat behind the driver, and drew the sword. It gleamed, golden reflections of city lights rolling along the blade as buildings passed by. She settled behind the driver, back-to-back with him, and put her black-slippered feet on one of the wheel-wells – rounded rectangles that bulged into the truck bed on each side. Her feet gripped the cold red steel. She pressed, stabilizing herself, and set the tip of the blade against the wheel-well, right between her feet, sharp side down. Slashing tires was such a cliche. For a juvenile delinquent, she wasn't very imaginative. But, she supposed, slashing tires at highway speed was a neat twist. She pushed, and the blade melted through the steel. Gently, she thought. Don't jam the wheel. Don't send the truck spinning out of control. Just persuade Mr. Baseball Cap to take the next offramp. There would come a time, if this went well, when Mr. Baseball Cap would notice a surgical one-inch cut in the wheel-well, and wonder what caused it. Ash supposed the staff at King County Corrections had to be wondering how the enormous rectangular hole in the side of their building had gotten there. Ash wasn't so good at this. She kept leaving evidence. But who would look at it and think that they had a ninja problem? Gremlins. That was more likely. Ash smirked, and the mask caressed her cheeks. She was a gremlin. She drove the sword deeper. The sound was not a "pop" – that's what Ash had been expecting. Instead, it was a loud thump, and then a sort of roar as the tire deflated. Ash yanked out the sword and rolled to the front of the truck bed so the driver wouldn't see her. The collapsing tire dragged the car to the left, and the driver swerved back. Ash heard him swear. The truck swayed uncertainly. The driver turned and checked the truck bed a few more times, then he faced forward and changed lanes to the right. Ash rolled over on her stomach and slipped the sword into its scabbard, guiding the blade with both hands while her chin pressed against the truck bed. The van holding Elsbeth had already taken the offramp and was a quarter-mile ahead. The pickup followed. Ash sighed happily. Her trick had worked! The highway and the turn-off were twenty feet above ground level. Ash peeked over the bed's rim as the pickup left the highway. She saw treetops passing by. Beyond them lay wide open space: one-story flat-roofed white buildings separated by broad strips of tarmac. This was the place. 39 Ash lay flat in the truck bed, gazing up, as streetlights flashed by like orange suns. The truck was already slowing and easing its way to the shoulder of the offramp. Ash knew she had to get out before he stopped. This whole invisibility thing was tough. How did Elsbeth and the ones who came before her do so well maintaining the Cloak? The driver was already going to have a sob story to share with his buddies over a beer about how his toolbox exploded on the highway, and two minutes later, his tire blew out, and what could have made this hole in his wheel-well? And the fine people at the King County Jail – would they write up the damage as some sort of escape attempt? Would they interview all the inmates and try to find out who had planned it? If Ash succeeded in busting Elsbeth loose, could the police figure out that the damage to the building and Elsbeth's escape were related? Sure they could. What in the world was she doing? Just before the truck came to a stop, Ash slipped over the side and ran for the guard rail. She hopped the railing, caught it, and dangled in the streetlight-shadow, saving herself from a twenty-foot drop into some lovely greenery. Her feet scrabbled against the concrete side and she peeked under the rail. The driver got out and lumbered to the blown tire. He took off his baseball cap, scratched the back of his neck, and jammed the cap back on his head. Ash could hear him grumbling. A half-mile down the offramp, the van followed the slope to ground level and began a wide loop into the airport. The curve of the road doubled back to a main entrance that was close to Ash. The van would be coming this way. She hesitated. There would be cops, and Ash probably wouldn't be able to just cut Elsbeth's handcuffs or whatever and slip away with her. She might have to fight. She wasn't going to hurt anybody. Total clarity there. She knew the guards in the prison, and the people in the van, and the pilot of the plane – everybody – were just trying to do their jobs, trying to do the best they could with what they knew. Mr. Alexander and his weasels had lied to them. Ash wouldn't lose that distinction, wouldn't lose track of who the enemy really was. But she was still a newbie with the whole sneaking thing. The suspicion sat like a pebble in her stomach: she was going to be seen. There would be reports, filed in triplicate and emailed, describing her. And that would risk the Cloak... which would risk Elsbeth and Ash and all the other invisible guardians, wherever they were. And that was unthinkable. Ash breathed. She couldn't indulge these doubts. Elsbeth needed her, and now. When people ran out of the woods claiming to have seen Bigfoot, what did they hear from everyone? You saw a bear. Maybe on its hind legs. A UFO? You saw a cloud. An experimental plane. Swamp gas. Venus. If no one has an explanation for what they see, Ash told herself, they reach for the conventional, no matter how silly the conventional is. Who would believe these emails? Who would believe a tale of an attack by an unreasonably speedy five-foot-nothing teen girl, dressed head-to-toe in velvety black? You must have seen a shadow. Maybe it was a trick of the light. Then again, maybe you saw a ninja... no, Ash figured quite a few other guesses would be ventured before anyone proposed that. For centuries, the Cloak had worked, and it was protecting her now – by making her very existence the height of improbability. Gremlin, she thought. Venus, she thought. She grinned, and jumped from the side of the offramp into the tree a few feet below. A branch made of the hardest wood on Earth whacked her bruised eye. The agony grabbed her body and shook it. She clung lamely to the tree like a stuck cat and winced, her legs kicking randomly, trying to shake off the pain. Eventually, her vision cleared. Of course, she thought. The easiest tree landing would hurt the most. She slid down the trunk and landed on the grass, deep in the shadow of the offramp, where the yellow of the streetlights and the city-lit sky couldn’t reach. The darkness was total, a blanket of safety, and she was tempted to linger, to rest. She reached the edge of the miniature park, past trees and landscaping. The van was still looping back, and ahead of it, at the start of a long runway, sat a white passenger airplane. It looked just like any other small white airliner, except that it had no markings. No light came from the long row of little passenger windows that ran along the side. The door just behind the cockpit was open, and a set of movable stairs had been parked under it. The tarmac was otherwise clear. Ash had been dreading a hundred armed cops who had all been told that they were transporting some crazed serial killer. But besides the plane and an unmarked gray sedan about fifty feet from it, there was nothing nearby but shining mist-damp asphalt. Not many places to hide. But at least there was no army to fight. Regular airport staff, mechanics and luggage handlers, had probably been told to stay clear. Just two men standing at the stairs beside the plane. One wore a dark blue windbreaker with US MARSHAL in yellow letters on the back. The other carried a shotgun. Ash needed to get closer. She took a deep breath, then another, and counted time. The air seemed to grow still and warm, and the sounds from the highway behind her receded. She let her body sink, lowering her carriage and center of mass, and sprinted into the open. Rows of long white buildings lay between the grassy area and the tarmac. Ash came to the closest and bolted up the side, clearing the wall and landing on the flat pale roof. Its white paint looked dull and gray in the soft light from the city-lit clouds, except for the dark rain-puddle stains. Ash raced a quarter-mile along the rooftop and skidded to a stop at the far side. At the edge, she crouched and watched as the van pulled to a stop. Its rear doors were barely ten feet from the base of the stairs leading to the plane. They opened. A man emerged, also in a navy windbreaker, and he guided Elsbeth out onto the tarmac. She wore a loose-fitting orange jumpsuit. Ash gasped. Elsbeth looked exactly like a criminal, as anyone would dressed like that. If Ash didn't know her, she would think that Elsbeth had to be dangerous, had to be put away. Elsbeth's hands were cuffed behind her, and chains rattled between her ankles. The men watched her and guided her. To an outsider, it would all look normal... perhaps mildly interesting, but ordinary. Nothing to see here. It filled Ash with a cold rage, bitter and powerful. She realized with detachment that her decision not to harm these people was merely intellectual, and in her heart lay the power to do terrible things. She was pissed enough to really kick their asses. She pushed the anger down. Focus on the mission. Get Elsbeth. Get out. And the first step: stop the plane. Ash dangled by her fingers over the side of the building, then slid down the ten feet of steel wall to the ground. She bolted across the lot, black against black, a flicker of shadow, circling closer to the tail of the plane. Elsbeth was led step by step to the stairs, chains clinking. Her glasses were missing. Her face was serene, passive... not an uncommon expression for her, but under the circumstances, it struck Ash as positively zenlike. Ash would be freaking out. She stopped her circle and ran straight for the plane, balling up behind a rear wheel of the landing gear. She reached behind her head and drew the sword. This would go just like Mr. Baseball Cap's truck. She was getting good at this. She caught the flat of the blade in the L of her index finger and thumb, and set the silvery tip against the tire. Crouching, Ash drove the sword into the tire, and it sank in. Nothing happened. The tire didn't deflate. Ash pushed harder. She tried twisting the blade, but couldn't. She pulled the sword out and stood, peering around the landing gear at the men. They all watched Elsbeth being led up the stairs. Ash gripped the sword handle with both hands and swung in an arc, slashing the tire. It popped, like a loud, angry black balloon. The blast of air hit her in the face, and the stink of rubber choked her. She squeezed her eyes shut and fell back a step. She opened them when she heard a soft metallic creak above her. The plane leaned as it settled against the flat tire. One wing tip dropped almost to the ground, and the stairwell, fixed to the plane, rattled as it was dragged. The guard by Elsbeth gripped the rail. Elsbeth herself remained steady, riding along. Then everyone froze. They all stared at the exploded tire. Ash cowered behind it. Oops. At least the plane wasn't going anywhere any time soon. The guy with the shotgun scowled, angry and suspicious. He took rapid steps sideways, away from the van, and pointed the shotgun at her. "Who's there?" Ash tried to blend against the shredded tire and disappear. It didn't work. "What's there?" called the one with US MARSHAL on his jacket. "Is it a person?" The guy had come halfway around the landing gear and peered down the sights of his shotgun at her. Ash felt panic welling up. She wasn't bullet proof, was she? Oh, how she didn't want to find out. She should rush him – quick. And do what? Judo him? Deck him in the face? She wished she had Mule's right cross. But in all her practice, she had never even cracked her ping pong paddle, and if you couldn't defeat a ping pong paddle, you probably wouldn't last long against armed law enforcement. She could get into this guy's grill in no time flat, but she'd just hurt her wrist if she tried hitting him. Or maybe– "Freeze!" he said. "Step away from there. Step out where I can see you." Punchy's job hadn't only been to toughen up her fists. Ash drew in a breath and focused on the guy, noted the angle of his elbow, the tension in his right index finger on the trigger, the energy in his posture, and she judged her timing. She shifted the sword to her left and leaned, set a foot against the landing gear behind her, and launched herself at him. As she cleared the distance, she saw the tension build in his trigger finger. He was going to fire... She leapt over him, grabbing the barrel of the shotgun in her free hand. She pulled it up and the shot went off, releasing a slow-motion roar and flash of light past her leg. A flock of holes appeared in the plane's side, like a sprinkling of pepper. Her body continued its arc over his head, and she squeezed the barrel, feeling in her forearm all the times she had gripped Punchy – so tight – as she hit it. And she yanked the shotgun out of the guy's hands. The second Wile had worked – small moves had given her strength she didn’t know she had. Ash landed in a crouch ten feet behind him, sword in one hand and shotgun in the other, and had another passing thought of dealing some raging mayhem to these people. The guy stared lamely at the sky, still reacting to the shadowy force that had passed over him. He turned oh-so-slowly to face her, vulnerable as a lost puppy. But she'd made her decision already. She whirled into a fouetté, and after a full turn she let the shotgun go. It spun into the night, disappearing. The guy stared at her, his suspicion gone, nothing on his face but dumb surprise. Put that in your report, she thought. She heard the shotgun clatter faintly on the tarmac behind her. Something whizzed past her head, sounding like a killer mosquito. She heard the pop from the US MARSHAL's handgun a microsecond later. He'd shot at her! Ash freaked, and the world slowed down even more. He fired again, and this time, she saw the flash from his gun bloom like an orange flower, casting light that reflected off the plane's white fuselage. Something tiny and gray flicked past her ear, faster than she could react. A bullet. She had seen the bullet. Only then did she hear the sound, another angry pop. She had to do something, and preferably something other than cower behind the landing gear. Rush him, too? Not easy – he was farther away. Elsbeth stood with her guard, unmoving. She had twisted her body, turning to him, her chin up, whispering. He lowered his head to her, listening. Another flash, and another gray spec flicked by her, missing her right hip. She could see them, but she couldn't dodge them. Maybe she needed another Wile or two for that. Something to look forward to. If she lived long enough. The only thing in reach was the fuselage of the plane, all gleaming white. A square of rivets surrounded a round cap set into the metal, with red symbols of warning printed beside it, and a single large word: FUEL. No time to think. Ash's arm swept out and the silver blade cut a six-foot gash through the metal, cutting FUEL in two. The plane sprayed her, dousing her with stinking jet fuel, almost pushing her off her feet. The mask over her nose didn't hide the smell, which was stronger than gasoline... and stung. It felt like blisters were forming in her nasal passages. Ash felt like she was standing at the bottom of Snoqualmie Falls. The fuel spread like rainwater across the tarmac, touching the landing gear, the shoes of the stunned shotgun guy, the base of the stairwell, and the tires of the van. It spread halfway to the mysterious parked sedan. Ash huffed out a breath, blowing a spray of tiny drops from her mask. "Well," she muttered, "that was dumb." The US MARSHAL looked horrified. He backed up, pointing his pistol at the sky. "Everybody back!" He pulled a walkie-talkie off his belt, and it barked static. "We have a major fire hazard. Get everyone clear and set up a perimeter at a hundred yards." He pointed to the man holding Elsbeth. "Everybody off the plane! Get her down from there!" The US MARSHAL backed away. The now shotgun-less guy splashed through the jet fuel, going for distance. Ash slipped the sword into the scabbard on her back. "Maybe not so dumb," she told herself, grinning. The man at Elsbeth's side jerked his head down in a quick affirmative nod and grabbed Elsbeth by her elbow. She didn't move. "Wait," she said. Then she said more, but Ash couldn't hear. The man lowered his head, catching her words. He spoke back to her. Ash strained to hear any of it, but couldn't. The man at Elsbeth's side stopped nodding and only stared at her. A moment later, he pulled keys from his belt and unlocked the cuffs. Elsbeth rubbed her wrists and waited as he bent down and unlocked the chains at her ankles. "Go," Elsbeth said. The man stood and gazed at her, and Ash saw longing and affection. No guard ever looked at his prisoner that way. At last, he left her and pounded down the stairs. Far away, the US MARSHAL yelled, "What did you just do?" But Elsbeth's new boyfriend just kept running, straight to his court martial or whatever fate awaited him. The US MARSHAL followed him. What had Elsbeth said to him? It must have been good, whatever it was... and an example of power that Ash hadn't anticipated, a power Elsbeth had quietly possessed all along. Ash had a long way to go. She raced up the stairs and threw her arms around Elsbeth. "I can't believe he let you go! Which Wile was that?" "We had a wonderful chat in the van. Tell you later." Elsbeth hugged her back. "You smell terrible." "Come on. I'm rescuing you. Let's get out of here." Ash spun Elsbeth and pushed, prompting her down the stairs. Before Ash could take a step, a dark intuition came over her, a wrong feeling that made her nauseous – and it wasn't just the jet fuel. Her back was to the plane. Her intuition heightened to a dizzying sense of imbalance. Her hands, pressing on Elsbeth's back, suddenly clutched at her for some sort of reassurance... and then Ash identified the feeling. It was the feeling of the sword being drawn from the scabbard on her back. She spun around and saw the silvery blade held in a fighting stance by Mr. Alexander. He wore his usual perfect gray suit, and seeing him armed with an ancient sword – ready to chop off Ash's head – filled her with a crazy sort of terror. About to die, yes, but more: the world was off-kilter and spinning out of control. Mr. Alexander cocked an eyebrow, and the blade turned playfully, catching the light from the plane's cockpit. "These are very rare," he said. Ash could barely process his words. She was paralyzed with the realization that she would be killed, with the shame of making such a stupid mistake, and with the shock of seeing the person who stood behind Mr. Alexander like an obedient shadow. Drake. 40 Seeing Drake standing beside his father somehow shocked Ash more than finding Mr. Alexander on the plane. She glanced past Elsbeth to the tarmac, looking for guards, U.S. Marshals, the TSA, firefighters, anyone. Everyone normal had cleared out. She turned to Mr. Alexander and caught her breath, forcing out words to settle herself more than anything else. "What... are you doing here, Mr. Alexander?" The blade waved slowly, dangerously, like the head of a cobra. "You mean what's a high school principal doing here? I also consult with numerous Federal law enforcement agencies." He smiled, looking a bit like a shark. "I'm a man of many talents." "Sure you are," Ash said. Drake's freezing stare at his father drew her attention away from the hovering sword tip. His scowl appeared especially intense – no puppylike gazes at dear daddy. He seemed almost unhappy to be here. She didn't believe it. He had already handed over the page, and maybe his being here was a reward from Mr. Alexander – here, son, you can watch me decapitate a couple of ninjas. Maybe you'll kill a ninja or two when you're older. Ash felt Elsbeth's touch at her shoulder. It strengthened into a firm pull. Ash, came Elsbeth's mental call, time to go! But Ash resisted. She wouldn't leave the sword, and let Mr. Alexander score yet another victory. Tonight had gone badly enough already. She would rather stand here and die than go hide and hope for another chance on another day. She wouldn't do that, not in front of– "Drake," she whispered. "How could you...?" "I tried to warn you," Drake said. His beautiful voice was flat and lifeless. He glanced at the sword, and back to Ash. Ash froze. Had she just missed something? Drake gave the slightest sigh of exasperation. Mr. Alexander leaned forward, menacing, and the blade's tip drifted back over his shoulder. The muscles in his sword arm pulled his suit coat tight at his shoulder. He could swing any second. "Now," he said. "The page." Ash frowned. Nothing was making sense. Was she so scared that she'd gone hysterical? No. Let him swing. Then at least she could bleed on Drake. "The page," Mr. Alexander said. He reared the sword back farther. "Where is it?" Everything went click in Ash's head. So! Drake was one sneaky guy. His face was a mask – as much as hers. His eyes revealed nothing. Why keep the page from his father? Ash remembered what Rachel had said, and could guess the answer easily enough. Drake hated his father. Even when he was desperate for his father's approval. So where had Drake hidden it? And what would he do with it? Hand it over to his father later? Could Ash sway him to her side? Get him to give the page to her? A bitter rage pressed up from within her, and it held the answer. No. Ash would never deal with Drake, never work with Drake, never trust Drake, never speak to Drake. She would kill him, maybe. If she got the chance. But she would never forgive him. "The page," Mr. Alexander said. Elsbeth's grip tightened on her shoulder. Drake's cold stare flicked again to the tip of the blade, which now hovered above him. Then his eyes locked on Ash. His eyebrows moved slightly, something like a little shrug. He was telling her something. But what? What did it matter? It was a lie, whatever it was. Ash was on her own. Maybe she could suckerpunch Mr. Alexander, get a shot in before he swung. Yeah, right. He'd cut her in two. Drake's eyes left hers for a third time, settling on the blade tip, then returning. "Last chance," Mr. Alexander said. He looked at Elsbeth pleasantly. "If she doesn't tell me, maybe you will." For a split second, the third Wile flashed into Ash's mind. "Bite me," she hissed, and she drew in a breath. Time downshifted, and she wondered if a leap of faith could include faith in a person. Mr. Alexander focused on Ash and his pleasantness vanished. His arm stiffened and the tip of the blade raised as he flexed his muscles to swing. She could probably dodge it. She had to be faster than he was. But instead, she drew back her right fist for a blow to the center of his chest. This is where I lose my head, Ash thought. Mr. Alexander leaned into the swing, crossing the point-of-no-return. Rather than dodge, Ash poured all her power into a right jab. Drake reached up and plucked the tip of the sword blade between a thumb and forefinger, ever so gently, like holding a sprig of mistletoe. That bit of resistance threw off his father's balance. Mr. Alexander's eyes widened, his eyebrows climbing in surprise. A split second later, Drake innocently let go, and the blade veered off course. The flat of Ash's knuckles blasted Mr. Alexander in the solar plexus. His shoulders rolled forward and his body seemed to curl around Ash's extended arm. The sword swung past her ear. Mr. Alexander went sprawling backward, past the cockpit door and into an empty food cart. And he dropped the sword. It clattered to the floor, its blade whittling up spinning bits of airliner carpet. Ash couldn't believe it. She had laid out a grown man with a single punch. Mule couldn't have done better. It had hurt less than hitting Punchy. And Drake! Drake had... She faced him, astounded. Drake shook his head. "Don't thank me. It's not over yet." Elsbeth melted around Ash and snapped up the sword. Now standing between Drake and the open door, she pushed Ash toward the stairwell. "Escape, you said? Excellent thought." Mr. Alexander picked himself up. It took him a moment, since he couldn't seem to breathe very well, or stop pressing at least one hand to the center of his striped necktie, where Ash had nailed him. "You..." he said to Drake, and Drake was wincing even before the blow came. Mr. Alexander punched him hard on the ear, and Drake wobbled to a passenger seat and fell into it. "Betrayal!" Mr. Alexander gasped for air and jabbed an angry finger at his son. "And for her? A girl? You'll pay for this, my son. You'll regret it dearly." Ash was ready to sock him again, but she couldn't get past Elsbeth. She scowled at him from under the overstarched prisoner-orange sleeve of Elsbeth's sword arm. "Don't you touch him, you son of a bitch!" Elsbeth had the sword, Ash thought. She could whack this guy. But that froze her in a moment of doubt. What would Elsbeth do? Was she about to cut Mr. Alexander into little pieces? Ash really didn't want to see that. "Elsbeth..." she began. Mr. Alexander struggled to his feet and sneered at them fearlessly, not cowering, but exposing himself to Elsbeth's sword. "You think this is over? You think you've won? Well, here's a suggestion. Why don't you run for your lives?" He looked at the ceiling. "Quisling!" Ash didn't know that word. Mr. Alexander had said it in the same tone one would use to call a dog. The stairway behind her rattled slightly, and Ash turned. At first, she couldn't make sense of what she was seeing. There was something blocking her view of the airport, an otherworldly blackness, a shadow that had descended on the stairwell. Then Ash saw that it had a human shape. It stood with legs spread, one black-slippered foot on each rail. Its eyes stared mercilessly at Ash through a crescent-shaped gap. And the shadow held a sword. It's a ninja! was all Ash could think before that silvery blade came slashing down at her head. 41 Ash had no time to react. But Elsbeth did. The spooky ninja's blade came to a sharp halt a few inches above Ash's forehead, stopped by Elsbeth's blade swinging in from behind her. The sound when the blades touched was a piercing ring, sharp and beautiful. Ash launched herself backward into Elsbeth. In a series of unninjalike fumbles, she scrambled past Elsbeth, past Mr. Alexander, and found herself trapped inside the plane with Drake. She had no time for him now. She spun to face the new threat. Elsbeth held her sword crossed with a shadow. As the invading ninja moved in front of the light from the cockpit, she acquired an outline, became real. She? Ash had seen it in her eyes at first glance, in that crescent gap in her mask, and could see it now in the shape of her body. A woman. But who? What ninja would abandon the cause of guarding the Silent Book? "Kill them," Mr. Alexander said. The spooky ninja responded with a swarm of sword blows at Elsbeth. Elsbeth dodged and blocked, sidestepping into the narrow aisle between the seats. Ash stood helplessly, a few feet behind Elsbeth. The swords moved faster than Ash could follow. Corners of seatbacks and tray tables caught some of the blows. With ripping and snapping sounds, bits of stuffing and plastic wheeled through the air and bounced off the overhead bins. Drake worked his way to his feet beside Ash. "Get out," he said. "I can't leave her," Ash insisted. Drake pointed at the invading ninja. "You can't fight that." "Who is she?" "Get out now." That wouldn't be easy. There were emergency exits at the rear of the plane, but by the time Ash worked a handle and yanked a door open, the crazy traitor ninja would have cut them into bite-sized pieces. Ash and Elsbeth were running out of space. The ninja hadn't landed a blow – Elsbeth still had all her arms and legs – but Elsbeth kept losing ground, backing up, as more and more seats were shredded in the crossfire. Ash backed up as they came closer. Drake grabbed her arm. "By the way," he said, pulling her close. "I hope I don't ever have to fight you." "What?" Ash said. He looked into her eyes, and Ash was suddenly aware of her mask and how it was the only thing between them. "You're sort of a badass," he said. "What I mean is, you look good in black." Ash wished she could have held on to that moment, but there was no time. Words piled up in her mind, jumbling to be said, like I hope I don't have to fight you either, and thank you for not giving the page to your father, and come with us, but what finally came out was, "Don't count on it. Not fighting me, I mean." Drake released her. "Go." He and Ash retreated to the rear of the plane as Elsbeth and the evil ninja approached. Ash didn't even try to work an emergency door – she wouldn't leave Elsbeth. Instead, she felt in the small of her back for the star, and pulled it out. She crept up behind Elsbeth and breathed, driving time to downshift again. The sword blades became visible, slicing arcs through the air. Bits of foam and plastic tumbled lazily. Ash wouldn't risk the ninja's head-to-toe quintessent weave blocking the star. She would hit the ninja where she was vulnerable, and that meant no more sweating over hurting someone, as she had over cutting down unarmed Mr. Alexander. Elsbeth was fighting for her life. Time for a kill shot. Ash would nail that ninja between the eyes. The range was easy – no more than ten feet. But Elsbeth was partly in the way, and the woman in black was moving fast. Ash narrowed her eyes and concentrated. It would work. Ash was fast too. She pinched the star by a sharkfin blade between her thumb and forefinger, and took another breath. Elsbeth and the ninja drew even closer to her. Ash twisted her body and let herself unwind like a spring, as she had at the beach with Drake, when she had thrown the stone. The star left her fingers, streaking to the crescent of skin in the woman's mask. The star hit the silver blade of the woman's sword with a sharp clang that was somehow musical and ricocheted away. Ash lost track of it, but saw the broken passenger window – a perfect star-sized gash in the glass, with white cracks radiating from it. Ash's heart sank. Couldn't she do anything right? The ninja had batted the star away like a paper airplane, and now it was lying on the tarmac somewhere, lost. But Elsbeth used the moment. She turned her back on the ninja and swept her sword in a broad vertical loop, rolling her shoulder to make the biggest circle she could. The blade raced through the floor between Ash and Elsbeth, up the wall, across the ceiling, down the other wall– "Ash!" she called. "Take my hand!" Ash leapt for Elsbeth, grabbing Elsbeth's wrist in both hands, as a gap appeared in the plane overhead and Ash saw amber-gray overcast sky. A sudden cold breeze blew through the cabin. The gap widened, the floor sloped under Ash’s feet, and the tail of the plane dropped off. Umpteen tons of steel fell to the ground with a deafening crunch. Ash dangled from Elsbeth's wrist until her toes could find the edge of the carpet. "Jump!" Elsbeth commanded. Ash didn't wait. She sprang into the night, somersaulting over the broken tail and landing on the tarmac a hundred feet beyond. The plane's front two thirds remained balanced on its landing gear, leaning a bit from the tire Ash had slashed. Elsbeth stood silhouetted against the light from the cabin, and in the airplane's last remaining row of seats, Ash saw Drake peering over a seat back, wide-eyed, at the damage. Something in the tail was starting to smoke. Elsbeth hopped off the plane, out of the crazy ninja’s reach, and landed in a crouch on the curving steel near the tail's vertical fin. The tail rocked under her weight, shifting until one of the tail's wings touched the ground. More smoke. As Elsbeth leapt clear, little spurts of orange flame appeared where the tail had been cut. Not surprising to Ash – Elsbeth must have cut through hundreds of wires and conduits and electrical bits. The flames spread across the fuel-soaked tarmac. Ash pressed a hand on the ground, feeling for wetness. Dry, except for a few drops shaken off her own body. She should be safe from being burned alive, for now. Elsbeth landed a few feet away. Ash stood and threw her arms around her mentor. "Wow," was all she could say. "Time to go." Elsbeth slipped the sword back into the scabbard on Ash's back. "You're invisible." Elsbeth gestured at her orange jumpsuit. "I'm not." "Wait..." Ash watched the plane as the fire spread. She was looking for the ninja, she told herself, to see if they were being followed. But she knew she was really looking for Drake. Why, she wondered. Who cares? Let him burn up. At the stairs, Mr. Alexander appeared. Another man appeared behind him, and Ash guessed that might be a pilot, hiding in the cockpit all this time. They scampered down the stairs. Drake came out onto the stairs behind them. Ash let out the breath she'd been holding, as all three of them ran for their lives. She scanned the low white buildings in the direction of the offramp that had brought her here. She could see people in uniforms – lots of them – and vehicles flashing red and blue lights. They all kept their distance, though. If Ash and Elsbeth could get to one of the white buildings, they could slip away by rooftop. Elsbeth pulled her arm. "This way." They had a clear path to the buildings – law enforcement personnel had made their stand farther back, between the buildings. Ash could understand why. The fire behind her and Elsbeth lit the airport with flickering orange. The people seemed to be paying attention to the growing fire, rather than following them. The distraction was okay with Ash. In fact, she wished she'd thought of it. That set her wondering again. Had Elsbeth set the plane burning on purpose? Flames rose higher than the plane's fuselage now. She could feel the fire's heat at her back. Rather than running to the closest building, Elsbeth led her three buildings over. Impaled in the white siding, about a foot off the ground, was the star. Elsbeth twisted it out of the wall and handed it to Ash. "You'd better take this." She shrugged and gave a demure grin. "I have no pockets." The star glimmered in the firelight. Ash took it and slipped it into the fold in the small of her back. Elsbeth crouched, and like a spring, leapt ten feet up the side of the building and disappeared over the roof. Ash followed. The roof's broad white expanse, with its humming pipes and metal boxes, muffled the sirens and radio calls coming from below, and seemed ordinary – above the chaos. The cops hadn't planned for their escaping prisoners to leave the ground. She and Elsbeth ran the length of the building, passing over the police perimeter without a sound. They slipped down the wall on the other side and raced for the shadowy trees near the offramp. Once there, Ash knew they were home free. Except... Ash stopped in a shadow as Interstate 5 traffic raced by and the dark yellowish ceiling of Seattle’s cloudy night brightened in the east. Morning was coming, and it would steal their cover. They didn't have much time. Where could they go? 42 Elsbeth led Ash west, swinging over still black water from the drainage pipes under the Sixteenth Avenue bridge, then rooftop by rooftop and shadow by shadow, to the West Duwamish Greenbelt. As the sky lightened and the stench of jet fuel faded from her black pajamas, they cut two miles north through sheer forest, unbroken by street or clearing, and emerged from the woods into the suburbs of West Seattle. They stopped on a rooftop two blocks away from Alki Beach. Across the gray water of the sound, Ash could see the skyscrapers of downtown and the hills of Magnolia. She could see the blue-gray dome of the water tower, and had a vague idea of where her house had to be, though she couldn’t see it. That’s where Dad was. The thought hurt her heart a little. Elsbeth's prisoner-orange jumpsuit had begun to fray around the edges from all the high-speed travel. She slinked down the slope to the roof's edge and rolled over, catching the rain gutter. Then she disappeared. Ash crept to the edge and peeked down. Elsbeth had entered an open second-floor window. "Elsbeth?" Ash whispered. "Who's house is this?” Elsbeth beckoned at Ash from the dark room inside. All the other windows were dark, too, and there was no car in the driveway. Ash dangled from the rain gutter, feeling it strain and flex under her fingers, and hopped to the window sill. She wriggled through and plopped onto bare carpet. The room had no furniture. Ash caught the stale smell of dust, and she knew that no one lived here. Not for a long time. "This house belongs to a bank at the moment," Elsbeth said. She shut the window. "I've been borrowing it." "How did you find it?" Elsbeth opened the closet. It was empty, except for a couple of piles of folded clothes on the floor. She rifled through them, her back to Ash. "There are hundreds of foreclosed houses in Seattle. Millions in the country. And you'd be surprised how many have an unlocked upstairs window." She passed a bundle of clothes to Ash. "This has been my home away from home." Ash took the bundle. It was Ash's third-favorite pair of jeans, and her green swirly t-shirt. "I've been looking for this!" "I borrowed it. I keep essentials here for both of us." Ash slipped the sword off her shoulder and set it down in the middle of the room. Then she pulled off her velvety cap, and worked the neck-warmer whatsit over her head. Cool air touched her face. She slipped off her gloves, dropping everything in a pile, and rubbed her eyes and cheeks. So, this was her new home for now. A dark house with no furniture, across the sound from her own bed. She would sleep on the carpet, and probably had to keep the lights off because they would draw attention. It was going to be lonely. The tears came up hard and fast, surprising her. She was glad it was dark in here – the only light came from the deep blue twilight out the window – and she let herself cry. Elsbeth watched her, saying nothing. She quietly changed out of the orange jumpsuit into street clothes of her own. "You rescued me." Elsbeth said at last. Ash's sobs finally ran dry. "I can't go home." Elsbeth gazed out the window, remembering something. "Neither can I." Ash wondered where home was for Elsbeth. But Ash didn't ask – there were too many disasters on her mind. They welled up and tumbled together, until one in particular overshadowed the others. "Elsbeth... I failed. I lost the page." Elsbeth's face showed no confusion, no shock, no disappointment. Ash knew that Elsbeth was choosing her reaction, practicing the first Wile. "Mr. Alexander doesn't have it," Elsbeth said. "I suppose... Drake?" Ash couldn't believe it. "How did you know?" "I know you. You would go to Drake before attempting to rescue me." Ash wilted inside. "Am I that transparent?" Elsbeth smiled. "You don't yet believe some things you should believe." Ash was too exhausted and disappointed to try unraveling that. "The whole point was to protect the page. That was all we had to do. And I blew it." "The boy didn't hand it over to his father. That's suggestive. Perhaps it's still in play. All is not lost, Ash." Maybe not. But Ash was afraid to hope. Because if Drake had kept the page from Mr. Alexander, maybe there was a chance that Drake and Ash could be... well, something other than mortal enemies. The thought lingered in her mind, sensuously, until Ash finally pushed it away with an exasperated sigh. "But what do we do? They have a ninja, for crying out loud! Who was that?" Elsbeth's expression grew dark. "I don't know. I was not expecting her." "Mr. Alexander called her something." Ash found the word in her memory, bright and sharp. "Quisling. Is that a name?" "It used to be. Now it just means traitor." Ash sat on the floor in the middle of the room. "Why would a ninja do that?" "I don't know." "What could he do, to make her do that?" "I don't know, Ash!" Elsbeth snapped. Ash felt her breath stop in her throat. That was anger in Elsbeth's voice. Real frustration. Elsbeth had never lost her cool before, not in Ash's presence. Elsbeth looked away, her fingertips at her mouth. "She's..." Ash began quietly, carefully. "She's going to be a problem. Right? I mean, we have to fight one of our own kind." Elsbeth sat on the floor, knee to knee with Ash. "She is no longer one of us." "How do we–" Elsbeth leaned forward and put her hands on Ash's shoulders. "You rescued me," she repeated. "Why do you keep saying that?" "Because it means that, while the other side may have a ninja... we have a new one of our own." "Me?" Ash didn't buy it. "Sure. Right." Elsbeth narrowed her eyes. Then her face became calm, blank, inscrutable in the dim morning light. She picked up the scabbard and shook Ash's mask and gloves from it. "You stole the sword." Ash stared. "After everything that happened, all the mistakes I made, you're going to bug me about the sword?" "Ash, you weren't ready for this." Elsbeth drew the sword from the scabbard and inspected it. The blade caught the light from the window and played with it, turning it silver. "You could have cut off your foot or something. As it is, you nearly incinerated yourself. I told you not to touch the sword." "I just borrowed it." Ash pointed at Elsbeth. "Like you're borrowing this house." Elsbeth nodded. "Good." "Good?" "If you don't listen to me, I can't keep you safe. But..." Elsbeth shrugged. "It was good that you took it. Any ninja would have." Elsbeth's words banished the anguish from Ash's mind, and occupied the new silence there. Any ninja would have. It was time, Ash realized, for her to begin to believe. # The broom closet office of the Falcon stank of ammonia as much as it ever did. Why wouldn't that smell go away, wondered Spencer. He didn't need the distraction. His article on standardized testing was almost finished... he just needed a zinger of a final paragraph... "You've no idea what you've done." Spencer's ears perked up at the sounds echoing through the grate near the ceiling. The words were compelling, but they were nothing compared to the icy tone of that voice. Mr. Alexander was pissed. "You think you were clever, making your old man look the fool." Ah, so young Drake was getting chewed out. Spencer leaned back and listened. Eavesdropping wouldn't produce anything newsworthy, but his concentration was already crumbling, so why not enjoy? "I could tell you that we could have been killed, but I don't think you care." "I'm sorry, sir." "Don't you dare speak to me like you can apologize for what you did! Nothing you can do will make this all right. I can never forgive you, son." Spencer grinned. He didn't want to be the type of person who relished another's misfortune... but Drake was a bastard. So there it was. "What about the fire?" Drake asked. Spencer's grin slipped away, and he felt his ears twitch. Everyone at school was talking about the plane that caught fire on a private airstrip last night. No one had been hurt, but it had been pretty spectacular. People could see it from I-5, and it had backed up morning commuter traffic for miles. Spencer had planned to write about it, if he could just finish the standardized testing article. "Concerned, are you? Everything was destroyed. As far as anyone knows, it was just a plane that caught fire on a runway. We're keeping the NTSB out of it. Now get out of here – I have work to do, and I can't stand the sight of you." "There's just one thing, sir." "No. Get out." "Father–" "I've had enough of you. Out." "I have the page." Silence. What was Mr. Alexander's interest in the fire? Why would Drake ask about it? And how could the principal of Magnolia High School keep the National Transportation Safety Board out of anything? Spencer's antennae were now on high alert, and he started typing notes into his article draft. "You wouldn't dare," Mr. Alexander said quietly, "lie or joke about that." "So you believe me." "If you're telling the truth, you're in terrible danger. Not even I can protect you." "I'll take my chances." "You'll give me the page." Drake cleared his throat. "Ashley Prue. And her friend, the Jane Doe." "What about them?" "Drop the charges. Rescind the arrest warrants, whatever. Make it like they never happened. Ash comes back to school." "That's absurd. Impossible." "You can do the impossible. There's the phone." "You're bargaining with me?" "No, sir. You need to do these things before we can begin to bargain." A cold laugh from Mr. Alexander. "I admire your courage. And your skill. You've bested both the ninjas and us. Still... you're going to wake up at the bottom of Puget Sound, and there's nothing I can do to save you." "No one knows where the page is but me." "I see. Well, then. You are your father's son." Spencer's antennae quivered frantically. The mystery of Ashley Prue again! His mind roared with curiosity, burned it like fuel, and he knew no level of dedication to this would be enough – but oh, he would try. Forget the testing article, forget the airplane-fire article. He would phone in some boilerplate and abandoned drafts until he had the answers he sought. He'd go full-time on this. He would crack this case if it killed him. As he relished his new resolve, he reviewed his notes. Conspiracy, falsified criminal charges, the NTSB, and... a single strange word. He must have misheard what Mr. Alexander had said. And yet, everything had sounded clear enough. There the word was, on his screen, like a joke... or maybe a riddle. Ninjas. 43 For the next three days, Ash was seen by no one but Elsbeth. She slept on the carpet in the empty house, mostly during the day, and spent her nights outside. On rooftops. In trees. Under bridges. Looking for Drake. She wore the black pajamas more often than not. Her lingering doubts about being caught and having to explain her outfit had faded, since she had waited in the dark as so many eyes had passed over her – a bus driver, then a cop, then a security guard. She wondered if the ancient costume was more than just black-in-shadow – maybe it caused a sort of mental block that scrambled people's brains when they did happen to catch a glimpse. Or maybe they never caught a glimpse at all. She divided her time between Mr. Alexander's house, Drake's mom's place, Rachel's work, and Magnolia High. She even got out to Snoqualmie Falls again. She tried to check Richmond Park, on the beach by the train tracks, but she found that the place brought too many memories. They clouded her vision so badly she wasn't sure if she'd notice if he was actually there. No sign of him anywhere. Drake was gone. One morning before dawn, as she swung herself into the empty house through the window, she found Elsbeth waiting for her in the bedroom. "Something has happened," she said. And she refused to say more. They left together, Ash following, and raced roof-by-roof to the Prue residence. Ash watched her old place suspiciously. She didn't want to be here without reason. It hurt too much. From the roof of the house across the street, she could see lights inside – the kitchen and Dad's room. "He's late for work," Ash muttered. "He hasn't been going to work," Elsbeth replied. "He's been looking for you." Ash swallowed back the annoying lump that formed in her throat. "I've been trying not to think about Dad. Why are we here?" "Look again," Elsbeth said. There was a piece of paper taped to the door, low, at Ash's height. She couldn't read it from here. "Dear Ash," Elsbeth quoted, "Charges dropped, all is forgiven, please come home – Dad." Ash felt a chill run down her spine. Could it be true? How was it possible? Her senses flooded with the sudden image of standing on that doorstep, of being inside her own house with her father, of seeing him and talking to him again. A bolt of terror followed – what if it wasn't true? – and she shook the image from her mind. "Elsbeth..." Her throat was so tight it was hard to speak. "What does it mean?" "We'll soon see," Elsbeth said. They didn't dare come any closer to the Prue house that morning. Instead, they checked for other signs. Elsbeth found personal ads in the Seattle Times and the Weekly, and two more on Craigslist. They matched the note on the door, word for word. At midnight, Ash went to the Magnolia High campus and picked up a discarded Falcon. There too, among the love notes of the personals, was Henry Prue's message. "If it's a trap," Elsbeth mused in the dark of their house later that night, "it's a strange one." "Dad would never go along with it," Ash whispered, "if it wasn't true." She nodded, staring at the floor. "It must be true. It must be true." Elsbeth set a gentle hand on Ash's shoulder. "It's time to find out." It rained the next morning. Just as the sky turned a bright enough gray for the streetlights to turn off, Ash stepped out the front door of their foreclosed house and made her way to her own front porch. Elsbeth had never snatched an umbrella or one of Ash's jackets, so by the time Ash reached the door, she was dripping and shivering, hugging herself against the cold. The note, curled and faded, was in her dad's blocky handwriting. Ash no longer had a house key, so she stood there, freezing. Then she knocked. She folded her arms and tried to squeeze away the cold. Sudden guilt overpowered her. She had run away from her father, she had destroyed her cell phone, she had caused Dad so much trouble and pain. What if he was angry with her? She closed her eyes and tried to turn her mind off, until she heard the door open. She opened her eyes. Dad stood there, looking at her as if she might be a ghost. He didn't speak. He wore his work slacks, a shirt and tie. She caught the scent of his aftershave, the same she had smelled for so many years that to her, it smelled like morning. He looked almost normal. But his eyes were not normal. They were dark, red and shining, they held trouble and pain, and they were fixed on her. "Hi, Dad." Her voice came out quiet and trembling. Dad let out a long sigh. "My... baby girl." He had never called her that before, not exactly those words. Not long ago, Ash wouldn't have liked the expression. Now, it didn't seem to matter. She reached out to him, and he swept her up in his arms. # Henry Prue made Ash return to school. She should have expected it. He didn't know about anything that had happened to her, or anything that she had done. Returning to school seemed beyond dangerous to Ash – Mr. Alexander would be right there, watching, within easy reach. Elsbeth said that was exactly why Ash had to go back. To keep the enemy close. And to keep up appearances. A girl of sixteen should be in school. And she couldn't exactly cite ninja training or the mission of guarding the Silent Book as an excuse. So Ash found herself on campus. She was a focus of attention again, even more than when she was "the girl who got attacked." Now she was "the girl who got accused," or "the girl who got busted," and sometimes "the girl who probably did it, whatever it was," and people asked her about it endlessly. What was it like? Where did you hide? Did you really do it? She tried to be invisible – or, given her new appreciation for that word, she tried to keep a low profile, staying out of the pages of the Falcon. She turned down a lot of interviews requested by their staff, except that annoying but strangely compassionate almost-friend, Spencer Marsh, who for some reason left her completely alone. The first time she saw Mule since he had been asleep on his couch, he was hunched over his copy of Huckleberry Finn at their table in the library. It was their scheduled tutoring time, but he still straightened when he saw her, his face lighting up. “Hey, it’s the fugitive.” She wrinkled her nose at him. “I don’t think so.” “Aw, come on.” He shrugged. “You don’t write, you don’t call. What’s the latest on your aunt?” She pulled out a chair and eased into it thoughtfully. “She’s… she’s out.” Mule raised his eyebrows. “They cut her loose? What, did she make bail?” He lowered his voice and leaned back. “Or was it more like a cloak-and-dagger thing?” Ash drummed her fingers on the table and pulled Huckleberry Finn away from him, peering at the cover. “You’re still reading this?” “Yeah, apparently there are seven hundred chapters. And it’s cool, you don’t have to give on your aunt. It’s just that, you know. You went off the other night, all alone, to track down, um, what’s his name…” “Drake?” “Yeah, I forget.” She smiled. “And I waited up all night by my new phone, on the off chance you would call. Just in case you needed me.” Ash frowned at him. You played video games until you fell asleep, you goof. She sighed. “Sorry,” she said. He had to be wondering about Drake, even if he wouldn’t come out and ask. And wondering about the principal, and wondering about her involvement with the CIA, or whatever his best guess was today. But she would get no interrogation from him. That just wouldn’t be Mule – he was too laid back to pepper her with questions no matter how curious he was. No. He respected her. That was it. “Thank you,” she said. “For being there for me.” Mule grinned and shrugged again. She remembered standing in the darkness of his bedroom. She had sworn to herself that she would tell him everything. Mule, I’m a ninja. She looked at him for a long moment, her breath caught, her mouth slightly open, the words ready to come out. He watched her, waiting. “What?” She couldn’t keep lying to him. Their friendship was too important. She owed him the truth. She just had to say it. She swallowed, and slid the book over to him. “So, what chapter are you on?” # Ash was pondering her new existence as she walked to third period math class, her new blue backpack over her shoulder, passing through the camera-blind space beside the math building, next to the tree that some students used to sneak up to the roof. She brushed a worn spot on the trunk, and thought fondly of Bond and James Bond. And almost bumped into Drake Alexander. He looked like he always did, his blond hair carelessly styled, his leather jacket beaded with mist, his scowl more thoughtful than angry. Ash's shoe squeaked on the concrete as she hit the brakes. "You!" her voice was hollow with surprise. Drake took in her presence with a slow inhale, his eyes narrowed. "Yeah." "You're going to class?" Ash said, stunned. It seemed absurd. If he had the page and his father didn't, his life had to be in as much danger as hers. "You too." He shrugged. "Hard to believe. But here we are. Unable to escape the need for a high school diploma." The bell rang, and the flow of students around them thinned until they stood alone, watching each other, beside the tree with its worn spots. Pigeons fluttered and cooed on the picnic tables in the quad. Ash wanted to talk to him, but wasn't sure what to say. "Thank you," is what came out. "For what you did on the plane." Drake looked away. "My father doesn't know how to hold one of those." "You never gave him the page." His eyes locked on to her. He didn't say anything. "Where is it now?" Ash wished she could have phrased it better, or used some of Elsbeth's persuasion. It would have been great to charm the information out of him, instead of asking straight out like a dope. She needed more Wiles. Drake didn't react to the question. "I hear the charges against you were dropped. A big misunderstanding." The slightest grin touched his lips. "That's great to hear." Ash's mind whirled until it locked on: he had traded the page. Traded it for her. "You..." she gasped. "You didn't!" He took a step closer to her. "You're safe now." He arced an eyebrow. "Well, safer. That's all I wanted." A chill welled up from Ash's heart, making her feel sick. "You're one of them. I thought maybe there was a chance that we could... but no. You're the enemy. Drake, how could you?" "I had no choice. Ash, if you knew..." His scowl melted away. He took a step closer to her and drew his hands from his pockets, as if he might embrace her. His hands hovered, imploring. "I'm sorry. But you and me... we can't be together. It's not in the cards, and how we feel about it doesn't count for shit. So if I can keep you alive, then that's what I'll do." The sickness spread through Ash until her entire body felt hollow. Drake's words had emptied her out – there was nothing left of her. She shook her head sadly. "No, Drake. You betrayed the both of us. And now I have to let you go." Drake's chin lifted and his mouth opened, about to protest – but he didn't. "That," he said, and his voice sounded as if he were under some great strain, "would be for the best." Ash couldn't take any more. She turned and walked away, and kept walking. Until she couldn't take another step. Then she breathed. In for five. Hold for ten. Out for twelve. She couldn't forgive him. But she couldn't walk away either. Time relaxed, became peaceful, as it had when she first jumped into his car. The clouds, piled up heavy and gray, stopped their drift across the sky. The pigeons stopped their cooing, and the leaves of the math building's tree had stopped turning in the cold breeze. Ash turned back to face him. Her new backpack, bought by her dad two days ago, slipped off her shoulder and began its long journey to the concrete. He was turning away from her, mid-breath, his long leg extended in a step, his scowl returning and more grim than ever. She drank him in this way, watching his profile, holding him with her eyes. She ran toward him, pushing through air thick as molasses, gaining speed. He didn't react – she would be long gone before he reacted. Ten feet from him, she grand pliéd, bending her knees in preparation, and launched herself in a grand jeté unlike any ever seen in Miss Claudine's class. She flung her body into a somersault, one arm extended for balance, her legs arching up behind her, her eyes locked on Drake's profile. The distance between them closed to nothing, and this time, her aim was perfect. In her heart's center a deep anger raged at him, but stronger than that was a gentle warmth that refused to die. There was so much that she and Drake could never have, so many ways they could never be together. And yet, she could not give him up. She passed over him, her body inverted, and her lips brushed his. She knew it would be over like the wing-beat of a butterfly and she would be gone before he could notice – this would be just a flicker in his perception, a ghost of an image. He would wonder what exactly had happened, and whether or not he had imagined it. She didn't know when or where they would cross paths again, or what the circumstances would be. She would get the page back, or she wouldn't. She would shed his blood, or she wouldn't. Or he would shed hers. Whatever happened, this moment would always belong to her and her alone. Maybe it would carry her through whatever pain was to come. So for now, she kissed him, and tried to stay right here, to hold on to this time and place for as long as she could.


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