“We’re looking for anything unusual,” said the first voice. “Just a precaution. I’m afraid I can’t tell you more than that.” Implying that it was all top-secret government stuff. Maybe I was.
There was a pause. Was Dr. Martinez being drawn in by their voices? She wouldn’t be the first one. Oh, God…
I suddenly remembered my X-ray up on the light box, and I clapped my hand over my mouth. My stomach tightened. In the next minute I could be fighting for my life. It was too dark to look for possible weapons. Think, think…
“Unusual like what?” Dr. Martinez said acidly. “A double rainbow? Gasoline for less than a buck fifty? Sugar-free soda that actually tastes good?”
I couldn’t help grinning. She was just so great. And she seemed immune to Erasers, which was really weird.
“No,” said the second voice after a moment. “Unusual people, for instance. Strangers in the neighborhood. Children or teenagers that you don’t know or who look suspicious. Or unusual animals, even.”
“I’m a veterinary surgeon,” said Dr. Martinez in a chilling voice. “To tell you the truth, I usually don’t look at my patients’ owners much. And I haven’t seen any strangers around. As for unusual animals, last week I treated a cow that had a bicornuate uterus. She had a healthy calf in each side. Does that help?”
Silence. I would hate to be on the receiving end of her anger.
“Um…” said the first voice.
“If you gentlemen will excuse me, I have a business to run.” Icicles dripped off her words. “The way out is through that door.”
“If you do see or hear of anything unusual, here’s a number for you to call. Thanks for your time. Sorry to disturb you.”
Heavy footsteps faded from my hearing. A minute later I felt the front door slam shut.
“If you see those two guys again, call the cops,” Dr. Martinez said to the receptionist.
She came and let me out of the closet, looking at my face solemnly.
“Those guys were bad news,” she said, “am I right?”
I nodded. “I better leave right now.”
She shook her head. “Tomorrow morning is soon enough. One more night of rest. Promise me.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but what came out was “Okay. I promise.”
“Nudge, for the last time, give this up. This is a bad idea,” said Fang. “A terrible idea.”
Privately, Nudge was surprised that Fang was still with her. Fang had threatened to leave her several times, but when he saw she really wouldn’t budge, he’d retreated into angry silence.
Now they were at the edge of a trailer home neighborhood. Nudge had remembered an address, and Tipisco was so small that it wasn’t hard to get around and find it. She didn’t know what she had expected, but somehow this wasn’t it.
The trailer park was divided into meandering rows, most marked by rickety wooden signs with names like Roadrunner Lane or Seguro Street on them.
“Come on,” Fang said softly. “I see Chaparral Court.”
They snaked their way through the chokecherry bushes, gnarled junipers, abandoned appliances, and car skeletons that surrounded the neighborhood. No white picket fences anywhere.
Nudge’s quick eyes spotted an address, 4625, on the last mobile home of the line. She swallowed. Her parents could be right there. She pushed aside some spray paint cans, and she and Fang crouched beside an abandoned, graffitied car.
“What if they moved?” Fang asked for the nth time. “What if you misunderstood what you read and these people aren’t related to you at all?” Then, with horrible gentleness, he said, “Nudge, even if you weren’t a test-tube baby-which you probably were-what if there was a reason they gave you up? They might not want you back.”
“Do you think I haven’t thought of that?” she whispered with uncharacteristic anger. “I know that! But I have to try. I mean, if there’s the slightest chance- wouldn’t you try?”
“I don’t know,” Fang said after a pause.
“That’s because you don’t need anything or anybody,” Nudge said, turning back to stare at the mobile home. “But I’m not like that. 1 need people.”
Fang was silent.
They were fairly out of sight between the car and some small pinyon trees. Nudge felt so nervous she was practically shaking.
Beside her, Fang tensed, and then Nudge heard a door opening. She held her breath as a woman came out of the mobile home. Nudge quickly looked at her own arm to see if their skin tones matched. Kind of. It was hard to tell. The woman came down into the front yard, which was covered in brown pine needles, and sat down in a cheap lawn chair in the shade.
Her hair was wet and in curlers, and there was a towel draped around her shoulders. She leaned back, lit a cigarette, and popped the top on a can of soda.
“Coke. It’s not just for breakfast anymore,” Fang whispered, and Nudge elbowed him.
Hmm. Nudge sat back on her heels. It was weird. Part of her hoped that wasn’t her mom. It would have been better if she’d been, like, setting a tray of cookies on the windowsill to cool or gardening or something. Something mommish. But part of her still hoped it was her mom, because, frankly, someone, anyone, was better than no one.
Nudge just needed to get up, stroll over there, and say, “Um, did you lose a daughter named Monique, about ten, eleven years ago?” Yep, that’s all she had to say. And then the woman would say-
“Looking for something, freaks? Guess you found it.”
There was no mistaking that beautiful, melodic Eraser laugh, right behind them.
Nudge jackknifed to her feet. There were three of them, and they were already beginning to morph. They started off looking like male models, but then their freaky muzzles elongated, fangs erupted from bloodred gums, ragged claws grew from their fingertips.
“Ari,” Fang said evenly.
Nudge frowned and looked at the leader. Her eyes widened. “Ari!” she said. “You were just a little kid.”
He smiled, flexing his clawed hands. “And now I’m a great big grown-up Eraser,” he said. He snapped his teeth together playfully, making strong clicking sounds. “And you’re a little brown piglet. Yum.”
“What did they do to you?” Nudge asked quietly. “I’m sorry, Ari.”
He frowned, his hairy brow lowering. “Save your pity for yourself. I’m exactly who I want to be. And I’ve got some news for you.” He rolled up his sleeves to reveal heavily corded, muscled, hairy arms. “Your hideout in the mountains is nothing but ashes. Your pals keep having unfortunate accidents. You two are the last ones alive-and now we’ve got you.”
This struck the Erasers as funny, and they chuckled, shoulders shaking, while Nudge’s brain reeled. Last two alive? The others were dead? Their house had burned down?
She began to cry and commanded herself to stop but couldn’t. Then she was weeping like a baby.
She glanced anxiously at Fang, but he was watching Ari, his jaw tight, his hands coiled into fists.
“Pinwheel,” he muttered out of the side of his mouth.
Ari frowned, obviously wondering what pinwheel meant, his large, beautiful eyes narrowing.
“Cholla first,” Nudge muttered. She couldn’t believe she was being so brave, almost like Fang. The rest of the flock was dead? It couldn’t be! It just couldn’t!
“Count of three,” Fang said evenly. Which meant count of one.
Ari leaned over, lightning fast, and cuffed Fang’s shoulder. “Shut up!”
“One,” Fang said, regaining his balance, and Nudge instantly lunged forward, shoving the second Eraser in the chest as hard as she could. Taken off guard, he staggered backward, right into the sharp spines of a cholla cactus. Cursing, the Eraser waved his arms but landed smack on top of its three-inch needles, shrieking like a train wreck in the making. A lovely, musical train wreck.
In the next second, Nudge launched herself into the air sideways, praying that Fang would catch her.
He did, grabbing her arms and swinging her, following her momentum. Her feet kicked outward, smashing Ari in the side of the neck, almost knocking him over, and leaving him choking and gagging.
Then Fang swung Nudge as hard as he could, spinning her through the air as she snapped out her wings and beat them so fast that she stayed airborne.
“You’re gonna die, mutant,” Ari snarled, leaping for Fang as he pushed off the ground. He grabbed Fang’s leg, and they both fell heavily. Then Ari was sitting on Fang’s chest, punching him. Nudge gasped and put her hand over her mouth as she saw blood erupt from Fang’s nose. The second Eraser kicked at Fang’s chest, hard, over and over, thunk, thunk.
Nudge was freaking-this was a disaster. The people in the trailer park were bound to notice her, hovering in front of the trees. Fang took another hit, his head jerking sideways, and then he spit a stream of bloody saliva right into Ari’s face. Ari roared and brought both hands down onto Fang’s chest with enough force to snap his ribs. Nudge heard Fang’s breath leave him with a whoosh.
What to do? If she went down to the ground she would be dead meat, and so would Fang. If only she could-
Then she remembered the cans of spray paint on the ground. Maybe they were empty. Maybe not.
In an instant, she had dropped down, grabbed up the nearest can, and leaped back into the air, out of reach. She shook the can hard, then dropped a few feet and aimed it right at Ari’s face. After a heart-stopping wheeze, green paint arced through the air. Ari screamed and jumped to his feet, his clawed hands swiping at his eyes.
Fang leaped up and took off faster than she’d ever seen him move. Nudge managed to get another Eraser in the face, and then the paint ran out. Nudge threw it hard at Ari’s head, where it bounced off his healthy, thick, green hair.
Then she and Fang were in the air, well above the Erasers. Ari was still standing, but his pal was on the ground, swearing and trying to wipe paint out of his eyes. The one who’d finally gotten off the cactus was way scratched up. Between the red blood and green paint, they looked kind of Christmassy.
“You’re dead, freaks,” Ari snarled, his eyes streaming with tears, his long yellow teeth seeming too large for his mouth.
“Oh, like you’re not a freak yourself,” Nudge said meanly. “Try looking in a mirror, dog boy!”
Ari fumbled in his jacket, then pulled out a gun. Nudge and Fang rocketed out of there as fast as they could. A bullet whistled right past Nudge’s ear. She’d been that close to being deaf and dead.
When they were safely away, Nudge said breathlessly, “I’m sorry, Fang. It was my fault you got hurt.”
Fang spit more blood out and watched it fall a long, long way to the ground. “It wasn’t your fault,” he said. “You’re just a kid.”
“Let’s go home,” she said.
“They said it burned down,” Fang answered, wiping blood from his lip.
“No, I mean the home with the hawks,” said Nudge.
Angel stared and stared and stared at Jeb Batchelder.
She knew who he was. She had been only four years old the last time she’d seen him, but still, she knew his face, his smile. She remembered Jeb tying her shoes, playing Old Maid with her, making popcorn. She remembered hurting herself and Jeb picking her up to hold her tight. Max had filled in for her how good Jeb had been, how he’d saved them from the bad people at the School. How he’d disappeared and they thought he was dead.
But he was alive! And he was here! He had come back to save her again! Hope filled her like warm light. Angel almost jumped up to ran to his arms.
Wait. Think. There was something wrong with this picture.
She couldn’t get a single thought from his head-it was a gray blank. That had never happened before. Also, he was wearing a white coat. He smelled all antisepticky.
The fact that he was here at all. Her brain felt simultaneously hyper and sluggish, and she blinked several times, trying to figure this out, as if it were a two-minute mystery.
Jeb knelt on the wooden floor in front of her. The whitecoats who’d been running the maze melted into the background. Jeb reached back, then held something out to her.
Angel looked at it blankly.
It was a tray of food, lots of delish-looking food, hot and steaming. It smelled so good Angel felt a whimper of longing rise in her throat.
She stared at the tray, her brain crackling with input, and she had a bunch of thoughts all at once.
One, Jeb looked like he was on their side now. An enemy of the flock, like all the other whitecoats at the School.
Two, wait till Max found out about this. Max would be, well, she’d be so mad and so hurt and so upset that Angel couldn’t even imagine it. She didn’t want to imagine it. She didn’t want Max to ever feel that way.
“Angel, aren’t you hungry? You haven’t been getting very much to eat, have you?” Jeb looked concerned. “When they told me what they’d been feeding you- well, they misunderstood, sweetheart. They didn’t know about your appetite.”
He laughed a little, shaking his head. “I remember once we were having hot dogs for lunch. Everyone else had two hot dogs each. But you-you ate four hot dogs by yourself.” He laughed again, looking at her as if he thought she was amazing. “You were three years old. Four hot dogs!”
He leaned forward, gently pushing the food tray nearer so it was right beneath Angel’s nose.
“The thing is, Angel, with your metabolism, and how old you are now, you should be getting about three thousand calories a day. I bet you haven’t been hitting a thousand.” He shook his head again. “That’s going to change now that I’m here. I’ll make sure they treat you right, okay?”
Angel narrowed her eyes. This was a trap. This was exactly the kind of thing Max had warned them all about. Only Max had never guessed it would come from Jeb.
Without saying a word, Angel sat up, crossing her arms over her chest and staring at him the way Max stared at Fang when they were having an argument and she was going to win. Angel made herself not look at the food, not even smell the food. She was so freaked at seeing Jeb here that her stomach was all in knots anyway. The fact that she couldn’t pick up any of his thoughts made him seem weird and dead to her.
Jeb smiled ruefully and patted Angel’s knee. “It’s okay, Angel. Go ahead and eat. You need to. I want you to feel better.”
She tried not to even blink, not to show how upset she was.
Sighing, Jeb unrolled the white paper napkin, took out a fork, and placed the fork right into the food on the plate. All she would have to do is reach down… and she was doomed?