” ‘Cause we might find out about our parents?” Iggy said.
“Yes,” I answered. “But now we’re here, and really weird things are happening, and I’m not sure-” With no warning, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
Directly in front of us, two Erasers leaped out of the doorway of a building.
Angel screamed, and I instinctively grabbed her arm, jerking her back hard. In a split second, I had swung around and we were racing down the sidewalk at top speed. Fang and Iggy were behind us, Nudge and the
Gasman on either side. The sidewalks were full of people, and it was like an obstacle course.
“Cross!” I yelled, and darted into the street. The six of us whisked between two passing taxis, whose drivers honked angrily. Behind us, I heard a loud thunk! and a startled, half-choked cry.
“Bicycle messenger took an Eraser out!” Fang shouted.
Can you giggle while racing for your life and protecting a six-year-old? I can.
But two seconds later, a heavy clawed hand grabbed my hair, yanking me backward, right off my feet. Angel’s hand was ripped out of mine, and she screamed bloody murder. You think you understand those words-bloody murder? Trust me; you don’t.
Without pausing, the powerful Eraser swung me up over his shoulder. Talk about being dead meat.
I smelled his harsh animal smell, saw his bloodshot eyes. He was laughing, happy to have caught me, and his long yellow fangs actually looked too big for his mouth. Angel was still screaming.
I kicked and yelled and hit and punched and scratched, but the Eraser just laughed and started tearing down the sidewalk while people stared. “Is this a movie?” I heard someone ask.
Nah-this is too original for Hollywood. They do sequels.
Lifting my head, I saw Fang, dark and determined, streaking toward us. He was keeping pace, but he wasn’t catching up. If a car was waiting, I was a goner. I struggled as hard as I could, chopping at the Eraser, punching and scratching, and it was infuriating how little effect I had on the beast. Had they been bred to have no pain receptors?
“Fang!” I bellowed, seeing him even farther away than he had been. We were outpacing him. Dimly, I could still hear Angel’s high-pitched shrieking. Every nasty swear word I knew came pouring out of my mouth, punctuated with punches and chops and kicks. The Eraser didn’t even slow down.
The next thing I knew, we were going down, suddenly and with no warning, as if someone had cut the Eraser’s legs out from under him. He hit the ground with a sickening thud, and I cracked my head against the sidewalk so hard I saw fireworks. My legs were pinned, and I frantically started kicking, scrambling out from under him.
He didn’t move. Had he knocked himself out? How?
I scrabbled back into a trash can, snapped onto all fours, and stared at the Eraser. He was completely still, his eyes open and glassy. Blood trickled out of his mouth, which had morphed halfway to a wolf’s snout. A few curious people had paused to watch us, but most kept on walking, talking into their cell phones. Life as usual in New York City.
Fang roared up and pulled me hard to my feet, starting to drag me away.
“Wait!” I said. “Fang-I think he’s dead.”
Fang looked from me to the Eraser, then nudged his boot against the still form. It didn’t move, didn’t blink. Still holding my hand, Fang knelt and put his fingers against the Eraser’s wrist, wary and alert for movement.
“You’re right,” he said, standing. “He’s dead. What’d you do to him?”
“Nothing. I was whaling on him, but it didn’t do squat. Then he went down like a ton of bricks.”
The crowd thickened and moved a bit closer as the rest of the flock raced up. Angel leaped into my arms and burst into tears. I held her tight and shushed her, telling her it was all right, I was safe.
Fang flipped the Eraser’s collar back, just for a second. We both saw the tattoo on the back of his neck: 11-00-07.
Just then, a cop car pulled up, lights flashing, siren wailing.
We started to fade into the background, edging away through the crowd.
“Crazy drug addict!” Fang said loudly.
Then we strode quickly, turning the first corner we came to. I put Angel down and she trotted next to me, keeping up, sniffling. I held her hand tight and gave her a reassuring smile, but actually I was shaking inside. That had been so freaking close.
We had to find the Institute and get the heck out of here-back to the desert. Somewhere they couldn’t ever find us. It was late, though. We were almost to the park, where we planned to sleep. In the street beside us, cars and taxis passed, unaware of the high drama that had just taken place.
“So he was five years old,” Fang said quietly.
I nodded. “Made in November, year 2000, number seven of a batch. They’re not lasting too long, are they?” How much longer would we last? All of us? Any of us?
I took a deep breath and looked around. My eye was caught by a taxi with one of those flashing-red-dot signs on top that advertise Joe’s Famous Pizza, or a cleaning service, or a restaurant. This one had the words racing across its face: “Every journey begins with one step.”
It was like a taxi-fortune cookie. Every journey, one step. One step. I blinked.
I stopped where I was and looked down, where my feet were taking one step at a time on this long, bizarre journey.
Then I noticed a stunted, depressed tree set into a hole in the sidewalk. A metal grate protected its roots from being trampled. Barely visible between the bars of the grate was a plastic card. I picked it up, hoping I wouldn’t see a burning fuse attached to it.
It was a bank card, the kind you can use at an ATM. It had my name on it: Maximum Ride. I tugged on Fang’s sleeve, wordlessly showed him the card. His eyes widened a tiny bit, so I knew he was astonished.
And voila, my ol’ pal the Voice popped up just then: You can use it if you can figure out the password.
I looked up, but the mystic taxi was long gone.
“I can use it if I can figure out the password,” I told Fang.
He nodded. “Okay.”
Swallowing, I tucked the card into my pocket.
“Let’s just get into the park,” I said. “Nice, safe Central Park.”
“How can the Voice know where I am and what I can see?” I whispered to Fang. All six of us had settled onto the wide, welcoming branches of an enormous oak tree in Central Park. Almost forty feet in the air, we could talk softly with no one hearing us.
Unless the tree was wired.
Believe me, I had lost my ability to be surprised by stuff like that.
“It’s inside you,” Fang answered, settling back against the tree’s trunk. “It’s wherever you are. If it’s tapped into any of your senses, it knows where you are and what you’re doing.”
Oh, no, I thought, my spirits sinking. I hadn’t considered that. Did that mean nothing I did was ever private anymore?
“Even in the bathroom?” The Gasman’s eyes widened with surprise and amusement. Nudge suppressed a grin as I gave Gazzy a narrow-eyed glare. Angel was smoothing Celeste’s gown and neatening the bear’s fur.
I took out the bank card and examined it. I still had the one we’d stolen from the jerk in California, and I compared them. The new one seemed just as legit as the old one. I stuck the old one into a deep fissure in the tree’s bark-couldn’t use it again anyway.
“So we need to figure out the password,” I muttered, turning the new card over and over in my hands. Great. That should only take about a thousand years or so.
I was beyond tired. I also had an impressive knot on my head from whacking the sidewalk. Because, you know, I didn’t have enough head problems lately.
Wordlessly, I held out my left fist. Fang put his on top, then Iggy, then Nudge. Gazzy leaned way over from his branch and managed to barely touch us. Angel leaned down and put her fist on Gazzy’s, and then Celeste’s paw on top of her fist. I heard Gazzy sigh. Or something. We all tapped hands, then got comfy on the wide branches. Angel was directly above me, her small foot hanging down to touch my knee. I saw her tuck Celeste firmly against the tree. Kinda sweet.
The evening air washed over me. My last thought was that I was thankful we were together and safe for at least one more night.
“It is unlawful to climb trees in Central Park,” boomed a tinny but very loud voice.
My eyes popped open and instantly met Fang’s dark ones. We looked down.
A black-and-white was parked below, its lights flashing. Like in New York they didn’t have any more important crimes to work on than a bunch of kids sleeping in a tree.
“How did they even know we were up here?” the Gasman muttered. “Who looks up into a tree?”
A uniformed cop was talking to us through a PA system. “It is unlawful to climb trees in Central Park,” she repeated. “Please come down at once.”
I groaned. Now we had to shimmy clumsily down instead of just jumping and landing like the amazing super-duper mutants we were.
“Okay, guys,” I said. “Get down; try to look normal. When we’re on the ground, we’ll make a run for it. If we get separated, connect up at, like, Fifty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue. Comprende?”
They nodded. Fang went down first, and Iggy followed him, carefully feeling his way. Man, for big adolescent kids, they were some awesome, squirrelly climbers.
Angel went next, then Nudge, then Gazzy, and I went last.
“There are signs posted everywhere clearly stating that climbing trees is forbidden,” one cop began pompously. We started to back away slowly, trying to look as if we weren’t really moving.
“Are you runaways?” asked the female cop. “We’ll take you somewhere. You can make phone calls, call your folks.”
Uh, officer, there’s a little problem with that…
Another cruiser pulled up, and two more police people got out. Then a walkie-talkie buzzed, and the first cop pulled it out to answer it.
“Now!” I whispered, and the six of us scattered, tearing away from them as fast as we could.
“Celeste!” I heard Angel cry, and I whirled to see her turning back to pick up her little bear. Two cops were racing toward it.
“No!” I yelled, grabbing her hand and pulling her with me. She almost fought me, planting her feet and trying to unbend my fingers from around her wrist. I swung her up into my arms and took off, tossing her to Fang when I reached him.
With a fast glance back, I saw that the female cop had picked up the bear and was staring after us. Behind her, the others were jumping into their cruisers. Just as I sped around a corner, I saw a tall cop sliding into his car. I blinked hard, twice, and my heart seemed to freeze. It was Jeb. Or was it? I shook my head and ran on, catching up to the others.
“Celeste!” Angel cried, reaching back over Fang’s shoulder. “Celeste!” She sounded heartbroken, and it killed me to make her leave her toy behind. But if I had to choose between Angel and Celeste, it was going to be Angel every time. Even if she hated me for it.
“I’ll get you another one!” I promised rashly, my legs pumping as I kept up with Fang.
“I don’t want another one!” she wailed, putting her arms around Fang’s neck and starting to cry.
“Have we lost ’em?” the Gasman called back over his shoulder.
I looked back. Two police cars with lights and sirens were weaving through the heavy traffic toward us.
“No!” I put my head down and ran faster.
Sometimes it felt as if we would never be free, be safe. Never, ever, as long as we lived. Which might not be that much longer, anyway.
We headed south and east, out of the park, hoping to get lost among the ever-present crowds of people jamming the streets.
Fang put Angel down and she dutifully ran, her small face white and streaked with tears. I felt really, really bad about Celeste. Iggy ran next to me, his hand out to barely brush against me. He was so good at keeping up, following us, that it was easy to forget sometimes that he was blind. We passed Fifty-fourth Street-the police were still behind us.
“Inside a store?” Fang asked, pulling up beside me. “Then out through a back exit?”
I thought. If only we could take off, get airborne-leave the ground and the noise and the crowds and the cops behind, be up in the blue, blue sky, free…My wings itched with the urge to snap open, unfurl to their full size, catch the sun and wind in them.
“Yeah, maybe so,” I shot back. “Let’s turn east on Fifty-first.”
We did. Then we pounded down the pavement. Really fast. I almost laughed when I realized it was a one-way street going the wrong way: The cruisers would have to take a detour.
If only we could find a safe haven before they caught up to us…
“What’s that?” Nudge called, pointing.
I skidded to a halt, the way they do in cartoons. In front of us was an enormous gray stone building. It soared up into the sky, all pointy and lacy on top, not like a skyscraper. More as if gray stone crystals had grown toward the sky, stretching up and thinning out as they went. There were three arched doors, with the middle one being the biggest.
“Is it a museum?” Gazzy asked.
I scanned for a sign. “No,” I said. “It’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. It’s a church.”
“A church!” Nudge looked excited. “I’ve never been in one. Can we go?”
I was about to remind her that we were running for our lives, not playing tourist, but then Fang said quietly, “Sanctuary.”
And I remembered that in the past, churches used to be safe havens for people-cops weren’t allowed in them. Like hundreds of years ago. That probably wasn’t the case anymore. But it was huge and full of tourists, and it was as good a place to try to get lost as any.
A steady stream of people was filing through the huge middle double doors. We merged with them and tried to blend in. As we passed through the door, the air was instantly cooler and scented with something that smelled ancient and churchy and just… religious, somehow.
Inside, people split up. One group was gathering for a guided tour, and others were simply milling around, reading plaques, picking up pamphlets.
It was incredibly quiet, considering it was a building the size of a football field, full of hundreds of people.
Toward the front, people were sitting or kneeling in pews, their heads bowed.
“Let’s go,” I said softly. “Up there.”
The six of us walked silently down the cool marble-tile floor toward the huge white altar at the front of the church. Nudge’s mouth was wide open, her head craned back as she stared at the sunlight filtering through all the stained-glass windows. Above us the ceiling was three stories high and all arched and carved like a palace.