“We know he works for the government,” Simon said after hanging up. “Which doesn’t really narrow it down a lot in Albany. I think Dad said it was city government, though, not state. So I can make some calls . . .” He checked his watch. It was after eight. “Tomorrow. For now . . . Hey, didn’t we go to Paul’s place once? When Dad had to drop stuff off?”
“Yeah. But Dad just pulled up outside and ran in. All I remember is that it was an apartment building on a street with a lot of apartment buildings.”
“Well, that’s a start. I think it was downtown, too. Or close to downtown. I remember there was a used game store nearby. We’d just gotten the Xbox and Dad let us pick out a few games. We’ll look up stores in the core, then just walk around, see if anything . . .” He glanced out the window. It was pitch black. Had been for the last two hours.
“So I guess for now we . . .”
We looked out into the night. It had started drizzling.
“Maybe I should get dessert,” Simon said. “To keep my blood sugar up tonight.”
We stalled at the diner for as long as we could, then headed out into the night. The sun was long gone, taking any heat with it, and the drizzle had turned to slush. My plan was to find an abandoned building, but we soon realized we were in the wrong part of town for that. It was mainly residential, and a growingresidential area, meaning nothing was boarded up.
After trudging along for an hour, I found a field where an old building had been razed to make way for houses. The foundation of the original place was still there, and the empty lot wasn’t guarded. I led Simon down to a spot guarded from the wind. It sucked, but it was the best I could do.
It didn’t take long to realize my best wasn’t good enough. The wind still whipped in. The ground was ice-cold and damp. And the mercury was finally plummeting to normal January temperatures. Simon was bundled up in three sweatshirts and a jacket and his teeth wouldn’t stop chattering, no matter how hard he tried to hide it. He pretended to sleep, but I knew he didn’t. We huddled there all night, cold and miserable, waiting for dawn.
As soon as we saw a hint of gray in the sky, we set out. We found a coffee shop and hung out there until the morning rush hit and the manager told us to move on. Simon was too tired to even try charming him into letting us stay.
We snuck into the bathroom and got another twenty minutes of warmth as we cleaned up. Or tried to. I needed more than a bathroom sink. My scalp itched, greasy hanks of hair tickled my face, and I stank. Washing my armpits and slathering on deodorant didn’t change that. Doubling up my shirts hadn’t been my brightest idea ever—now I only had one clean sweatshirt to change into, so I was saving it for later. For now, my jacket would stifle most of the smell.
Simon called the city bus department next and got a route that would take us downtown. It was slow—we had to transfer twice—but cheaper than a cab. We found a library, and I searched online for stores that sold used games. I knew it hadn’t been a chain, so that narrowed it down to two.
We photocopied area maps, took a bus to the first store and found it in a mall, which we knew wasn’t right. By then it was lunchtime, which meant another stop. On then to store number two, which was out of business . . . and not the right one either.
So we walked. And walked and walked. Simon cast the locator spell as we went.
“How long could we do this before you started bitching?” Simon said as we turned down another street of apartment buildings.
“We’ve been walking for two days now, and you haven’t complained once. It’s damned annoying, you know.”
“If you don’t complain, then I can’t complain,” he said. “Not without sounding like a whiny little snot.”
“My shoes are soaked,” I said. “I can’t feel my toes anymore.”
“Thank you. I lost feeling in my feet before lunch. I think even my brain froze hours ago, because I swear I wouldn’t recognize Paul’s apartment if we walked right past it. We’re not really doing anything out here, Derek. We’re just walking around because if we stop, we’re going to have to admit we’re totally lost and completely screwed.”
That about summed it up.
“Call Andrew.” I stopped walking and looked off into the distance. “I don’t know what else—” I stopped, then pointed to a strip mall. “Isn’t that where the video game store was? It’s not there now, but that looks like . . .”
“It is.” Simon grinned. “I remember the pizza place next door. You snuck in and grabbed a slice while I was picking out games.”
I’d forgotten that until he mentioned it.
“Paul’s place was down there,” I said, pointing. “One of those buildings. It had a broken fountain in front.”
We found the building, complete with fountain, still broken, now turned into a raised garden . . . or what would be a garden, in spring. Right now, the only thing blooming in it was broken beer bottles.
I’d been kicking myself for not remembering the pizza place. Now I kept kicking myself for not remembering more about the apartment building. I should have remembered what I thought the last time I saw it: “At least we don’t need to live like this.”
Dad always made sure we stayed in nice places. Sure, when kids at school found out he was a lawyer, they’d make cracks about how he must not be a very good one, since we didn’t live in a big, fancy house. But it was always a decent home in a good neighborhood. This building, though? Even I’d think twice about coming in at night. It was late Saturday afternoon and a trio of punks had already staked out territory on the fountain, a six-pack of beer at their feet, though none was in spitting distance of legal age.
Was Paul in so much trouble with the Cabal that he had to hide thisdeep? I couldn’t remember what he’d done, only that Dad said it was a stupid mistake. Really stupid.
We walked past the losers on the fountain. They saw Simon first—he was hurrying ahead, paying no attention as usual—and one slid off his perch, gaze locked on Simon like a hawk spotting a scurrying mouse.
Simon stopped. The guy gave me a once-over, then shoved his hands into his pockets and backed onto the fountain again. He couldn’t resist a parting insult—something about my skin, my hair, whatever, mumbled under his breath for the benefit of his friends. I heard, of course. Ignored it. Went inside with Simon.
Paul wasn’t listed on the directory. Most residents weren’t. When a girl about twelve years old came out, though, Simon asked if she knew him. She did. Apartment 512, down the hall from hers.
We found it. Knocked. No answer. Knocked again. Nothing. There was a sheet stuck under the door. I made sure no one was around, then bent and pulled it out. A note from a neighbor, reminding Paul that he’d promised to buy Girl Scout cookies from her daughter. They had the cookies and she needed the money Friday. Today was Saturday.
Simon knocked on the next door. An old woman answered.
“Don’t want any,” she said, and started to close the door.
“Oh, I’m not selling anything. My mom works with your neighbor, Paul. He bought four chocolate bars from me for my school trip fundraiser. Only he wasn’t at work yesterday, so mom drove me over to collect. I need the money by Monday or I won’t have enough for the trip. He’s not answering, though. Have you seen him?”
She slammed her door and shot the bolt. Undaunted, Simon moved to the neighbor on the opposite side. This time he amended the pitch from a school fundraiser to a charity raising money to help a dying five-year-old girl whose parents couldn’t afford a dialysis machine. A bit over the top, I thought, but it worked. Managed to squeeze a tear from the guy, who tried to shell out twenty bucks for the cause. That made Simon hesitate—we could use the money—but after a glance my way, he gave it back and said he’d return later with the official donation forms.
“Have you seen Paul, though?” he pressed. “Mom thought it was weird, him not being at work, then not at home today. He isn’t that kind of guy.”
“Don’t know him that well,” the man said. “Keeps to himself and so do I. We usually leave at the same time in the morning, though. Say hi, talk about hockey. He’s an Islanders fan, and I was going to razz him after their wipeout Thursday night, but I didn’t see him yesterday morning. Didn’t hear the TV on Thursday either. Not that he cranks it up, but with these walls, you can hear a sneeze.” He paused, as if thinking back. “Last time I saw him, then, would have been Thursday morning.”
The morning the article on my incident had appeared in the Albany newspaper. Was that a coincidence? I hoped so.
Simon thanked the guy. As we walked away, Simon nodded toward Paul’s door.
While Simon stood watch, I grasped Paul’s door handle. I snapped the lock with a sharp twist. It was bolted, though. I was putting my shoulder to the door, ready to shove it open, when the elevator dinged.
I nudged Simon toward the stairs. He took off. I followed at a lope, slowing as the elevator doors sounded. A woman’s shoe clicked against the hall floor just as the stairwell door swung shut behind me.
“Wait until they’re in an apartment,” I whispered.
I cracked open the door and heard a firm rapping. No answer. A minute passed. A second knock. Still no answer. Simon frowned up at me. I lifted a finger, telling him to wait.
A third knock. This time a door opened and a raspy old voice barked, “What?”