I think this is pretty self explanatory. A lot of editing goes into each of my books, and since Phantom was my first book I was actually trying to publish, more editing went into than any other. That meant scenes were cut, characters killed off, and things reworked. But behold! All that was lost can live on here.
The deleted scene includes a scene of Phantom playing football, a dude named Kent who happened to be Sykes' lackey, Phantom's roommate that didn't make it from first draft to final, and other shenanigans. Enjoy:
I Am Phantom Deleted Scenes:
This guys’ name should have been Mr. Muscles. That’s all he was. He even towered over me and had a neck as thick as a light pole and flattened nose and broad chin. His biceps were as round as Matt’s torso. I was surprised he wasn’t pumping dumbbells in his hands.
“Hey, kid, I asked if you were a freshman?” He repeated.
“Yeah,” I said.
He looked me over (pretty unnerving from a guy his size) then said, “You play football?”
“What?” It took me a second to figure out what he was referring to. I’d heard about football but never actually seen anyone play it.
He squinted at me like I’d said something crazy. “Football? Like, the greatest game God gave man? You play, right? You’ve got the build and everything.”
Cody nudged me in the back and nodded.
“Sure,” I said. “I guess I can play a bit. Why?”
“I’m on the team,” Mr. Muscles said proudly, like I should know something about their team. “Coach already scouted a bunch of us out pre-season but we’re still looking for some strong walk-ons. We could use a guy like you.” He glanced at Cody and Matt behind me. “Just you. Open tryouts today at five. Queensbury stadium.”
And then he shouldered through the crowd, leaving me wondering what I had just agreed to.
“And just like that, you get involved,” Cody said, slapping me on the back. “Involved in the slightly smellier side of school, but involved all the same.”
Matt rubbed his shoulder where Mr. Muscles had bumped him. “Football is a sport for Neanderthals. They should be carrying clubs rather than pads.”
“Matt, buddy, the slightest gust of wind would knock you over so I can understand why you’d think that,” Cody said. “Seriously though, Drake, you should definitely try out. I actually heard Queensbury’s team’s not half bad. I think you could do it.” “And what would I have to do? How do you play football?”
Even Matt gaped at me when I said that. Cody shook his head. “From another country, got it. When’s your next class, Drake?”
I checked my schedule. “Introductory English at ten. I have an hour.”
Cody snapped his fingers. “Perfect. You and me, we’re going to talk football.”
“I’m leaving,” Matt said. “I have another class.”
“No you don’t,” Cody said. “You’re coming with us. I checked your schedule, you don’t have anything until eleven.”
And we left, with Matt grumbling something about personal privacy behind us.
Despite Cody lecturing me about football for an hour, I still had no idea what to do when I arrived at the field that evening. I stood around looking at everybody warming up and throwing the ball, trying to figure out where to go. I did learn one thing from surveying the field: they liked to hit each other. A lot. Preferably for no reason whatsoever.
I would have stood there longer, or maybe have just walked away, if one of the coaches hadn’t spotted me and came over.
“You the walk-on Kent was talking about?” He said.
So Mr. Muscles had a name. “Yes,” I said. “Do I just…” I made a gesture towards the field. The coach stopped smacking his gum.
“You stupid or something? You need pads, son. Go to the locker room, grab some and get back out here.” He turned back to watching the field. I looked around for the locker room.
“Behind you,” he growled. “The building with ‘Locker Room’ written on it. Make it snappy.”
It took me nearly ten minutes to figure out how the pads went on. Cody had kind of warned me about how physical the game was but the more pads I put on the more nervous I got. They had cushioning covering everything. How was I supposed to move?
When I got back outside the players were still in separate groups. One side of the field had a guy throwing footballs to other players. I knew I couldn’t do that. I’d barely seen a football in my life, not to mention tried to throw one. The other side of the field had players taking the ball and running with it. I could run. Couldn’t be that hard.
I jogged over to that side of the field and another coach caught me sneaking in at the back.
“You the new guy?” He yelled. These guys liked yelling a lot.
“Yes,” I said. “The other coach didn’t really tell me where to go—” “We’re running plays. You think you can handle that?”
The other players stared at me as I stuttered, “Uh—I guess—”
“Can you run?” He mimed running. “While holding a ball.” He pretended to cradle a football.
I decided to not push my luck and just say yes to everything he asked me.
The coach glared at me as if I’d suddenly thrown my arms up and confessed that I had no idea what to do, and some random kid with biceps as big as my face had asked me to tryout.
“All right then,” the coach said. “Give this kid the ball and have him run it.” They lined me up near the middle of the field. The guys on my side were wearing blue jerseys and the other side was wearing white. The guy in front of me looked back like he really didn’t want to give me the ball. I couldn’t blame him.
“HIKE!” The ball flew back and the guy caught it. He spun and I guess I was supposed to take it, not that I had a choice because he punched it into my gut so hard I could feel it through the pads. I looked forward and let my instincts take over.
It was as if everybody was moving half my speed. The guys blocking in front of me pushed some of the white jerseys out of the way and made a hole straight down the middle. I felt like I should go through but at the last second decided against it. They expected me to do that.
I tore around the outside, not even feeling the pads on my body. A white jersey dove for me but I easily jumped over him, ducked another one and outran a third. I heard somebody yelling but ignored it because three more players were on me. I spun around one and leapt over some outstretched arms. I was too fast for them. This was easy! This was wonderful!
Then it was over.
I ground to a halt at the end of the field and looked behind me.
“Woo!” I raised my hands and cheered. I at least knew that was a touchdown. A couple of my teammates were laughing like I was the funniest thing in the world. The white jerseys were walking back, the blues were lining up again, and the coach—his face was beet red and he stomped right up next to me, which was not a pleasant experience. “WHAT was that?” He demanded.
“THAT was me scoring a point. I think.”
The coach opened his mouth, then stopped. “Why didn’t you run through the hole like you were supposed to? That’s what you do, get it? The offensive line makes a hole, you run it through as far as you can until you get hit and go down. Or was that too hard for you to figure out?”
“I scored, didn’t I? If I went through the middle I would have gotten hit.”
“This ain’t auditions for Swan Lake! I saw you jumping around my players like you were some kind of ballerina! That ain’t how we play! I call the plays, you run the plays, and yeah, you get hit!” That made absolutely no sense. What idiot would run through the middle knowing he’d get hit?
“Sampson!” the coach yelled to another player. Sampson jogged over. Coach thumbed at me. “Tackle him.” Sampson ran at me and before I even knew what I was doing I stepped out of the way and pushed him so he fell in a heap of arms and legs behind me.
“What was that for?” I demanded.
“Get off my field,” the coach said, pointing towards the place I’d gotten my pads. “You can’t take a little physicality then I don’t want to see your pansy little face around my field.”
“Sure. Whatever.” I stormed off, ignoring the glares and stares of the other players. At least I think they were glaring. I couldn’t see their faces very well behind those stupid helmets. They just reminded me how out of my element I was; how much I didn’t belong in this sport, or even in the country. I held back a sigh and escaped into the locker room.
By the time I wrestled off the stupid pads and threw them in a heap on the stupid floor the practice was apparently over and all the players came streaming into the locker room. Most ignored me but a few snorted, nudged their teammates and pointed.
I left and walked back towards the dorm nearly the same way I came, but I heard a familiar voice behind the locker room.
“Didn’t I see you this morning? Yeah, I asked your friend to come try out but he sucked so coach kicked him out. What are you doing here?”
“I’m not doing anything. Just mind your own business.” I heard a grunt and the sound of a body hitting brick. I came around the corner and spotted Mr. Muscles, a.k.a. Kent and a couple of other players huddling around Matt on the ground. Matt saw me and for a second I thought he was going to yell, ‘My valiant hero!’. Either that or wet himself.
Kent turned when he caught Matt staring at me. I stepped in front of Matt and allowed him to get up.
Kent snorted. “You. I thought you were going to turn out to be something good, freshman. You ever touched a football in your life?”
“Let’s go, Matt,” I said. I didn’t feel like arguing. Getting yelled at for doing something good must have put me in a bad mood. Go figure.
“Aww…the big tough guy has to save you, Matt,” Kent said. “Don’t have the balls to fight yourself?”
“Says the guy who’s fighting three on one,” I shot back. “You should know a thing or two about having no balls.”
I turned to leave but Kent stepped waaaaayyyy up next to me (Personal space! Personal space!) and said,
“You’re new so I’ll let you in on something you probably didn’t know about this pretty little city of ours.” He spread his arms, indicating all around us which, believe it or not, was Queensbury. “Queens isn’t as safe as those fancy flyers said it was. Oh sure, we’re safe enough,” he continued when I looked skeptical. “We got nice sides of town and we got a nice campus and pretty trees and what not. But you watch your back, freshman, there’s a nasty side too.”
He spun and jabbed a finger at Matt. “That goes for you too, runt.”
“You’re not scaring anyone, Kent,” I said. “Matt, I said let’s go.”
Matt scrambled up. “What do you mean it’s not safe?” He asked. I mentally hit myself. For a guy who was supposed to be a freaking genius he was lacking in the common sense department. We could figure out what Kent meant later, when there weren’t three gorillas breathing down our necks.
“I mean just that, Matty. Look around you, I mean really look. You haven’t been here long but there’s something a little off about this city. People you might not want to meet after dark.” He sneered toothily. I pushed past gorilla number one, grabbed Matt and hauled him away.
“You watch yourself too, Drake!” Kent yelled at my back.
“Do you want to get yourself beat up?” I asked Matt as soon as I was sure we had left Kent far behind. I was already lost on campus again but I turned onto the main road the bubbly blonde girl had toured us through the first day. I think the road ran by the fancy science lab or something. “I mean really, I’m surprised he didn’t punch you.”
Matt brushed his sleeves and adjusted his shirt. “You should be a little nicer. I was there to see you, after all.”
“See me? Why would you do that?” I said.
Matt mumbled something and I had to ask him twice before he spoke up. “Cody said I needed to get out of the room. I was doing an experiment and driving him crazy so he said I should get out and find you. I needed to make amends for the way I acted when we first met.”
I didn’t say anything for a second. Kudos to Cody for actually getting Matt to do something like that, and kudos to Matt for actually doing it.
“Well, thanks. I appreciate it. Really. But all you got to see is me making a fool of myself.” “Not true,” Matt said, and I felt another rush of gratitude towards him. This guy was starting to grow on me. “You were faster than all of them. And you didn’t get hit. That was good. I watched a little football once with my dad and there aren’t many people who can dodge a whole team like you did.”
“Too bad it was the wrong thing to do,” I grumbled. “Coach liked to see a little more pointless hitting than I did.”
I thought back to what Kent had said. The guy was nothing but testosterone and talk but I still felt like I needed to take him a little seriously. Even if there was nothing to fear from Queensbury there was still something to fear from him and his friends.
“You’re thinking about it too,” Matt said. I glanced at him. He had been watching my face. “About what Kent said.”
That was a distressed scream if I’d ever heard one. It was slightly muffled and a little farther into the facility than I wanted to go.
I really, really wanted to leave. I mean, who knew what else was back there? Crazy people? A guy who needed help? Crazy people? A GUY WHO NEEDED HELP?
I hate my conscience sometimes.
I spun around to a new hallway with a sign marked BLOCK A. That sounded bad. If one patient was out then that could mean the electronic locks on the rooms were out which meant—I flicked the flashlight on.
I flicked it off again and pressed myself against the wall.
“You see that? Somebody got a light over there!”
They were all free. The whole row of probably fifty patients crowded the hallway in front of me. I didn’t see any guards and, for what had to be the millionth time, I wondered where they were. I quickly ran farther down the hall, putting as much distance between me and the free patients of BLOCK A. I don’t think any of them were dangerous…but it didn’t hurt to be safe.
“But he could, if he wanted to,” Matt said suddenly. He had his laptop out in front of him. “In answer to your earlier inquiry, Melanie, Sykes may have a way to get here, or any number of other places, very quickly. It’s quite simple, really.”
Cody and I glanced at each other. Matt had a convenient way of figuring out things long before everybody else, and then not telling anybody.
“Can you elaborate, Matt?” Cody asked.
Matt looked up as if just noticing us. He scrunched his face in disappointment that we hadn’t figured it out yet.
I joined Cody and looked at the list of potential cohorts. They ranged from small time crooks to a couple of terrorist cells. None of them seemed likely to help a mental ward patient in the middle of North Carolina.
“Horrible,” Cody said monotonously. “What a shame. Rats.”
“How do you know all that?” I asked.
Melanie shrugged, suddenly looking embarrassed. “Oh, Kent and I have some mutual friends.” She paused. “The jerk and I dated a couple of times last year.”
As I predicted, Cody’s head snapped up. “And?” Conversation focus: One hundred twenty percent.
“It didn’t work out. Too frisky, if you know what I mean. And he treats other people like garbage—in case you didn’t notice.”
Cody nodded furiously. “Yeah, of course. What a dick—douche—dummy head— Meany face. Yeah.”
Melanie gave him a weird look. “Right…. Anyway, party’s on Friday, Halloween night. I’m going early to help set up but I’ll give you the address.”
“As long as Kent isn’t there,” I said.
“Definitely,” Cody agreed.
“He won’t be,” Melanie said. “And if he comes we’ll throw him out. Nothing’s going to go wrong.”
“I got suspicious when I first applied to this school,” Matt started. “Of course I extensively research any decision I make as much as the next guy, but Queensbury was a little…different. The science program was great but Queensbury was having trouble with something else.”
“Gangs,” Matt said. We waited for him to explain. He didn’t look up.
“Yeah, gangs,” I said. “The student gangs Ryans was talking about. Them and any other crime going on here. What about them?”
“Gangs!” Matt said with more effect.
“Maybe explain why the gangs are so important,” Melanie said gently.
“Fine, then. They started almost five years ago, though they’ve really picked up the last two. Drug lords, crime lords, mob bosses, they all operate small, local gangs through Queensbury, some composed of students.”
“Plenty of kids willing to buy what they sell and plenty willing to make an easy buck,” Cody said. “And the gang leaders don’t actually live in Queensbury. They’re the big time gangs in major cities. Queensbury gangs are more like satellite groups, made for a specific purpose of value to a crime boss.”
“Which is this.” Matt again held the computer up to me. This time, mug shots scrolled past at a much slower pace. I gasped at a familiar one.
“He’s one of at least six high profile inmates the local gangs have helped bust out, Sykes included,” Cody said. “We think the mob bosses or whoever wants them for jobs or an immense cash gain when they do something in return for getting them out. Most of the inmates that they break out have some…unique skill sets. That’s why they’re there in the first place.”
“Bortolli, Malkovich, Hurns, Harris,” Matt was reading off. “Two of the inmates were on the F.B.I.’s most wanted list. Harris and Sykes.”
“And they’ve never caught any of the inmates or any of the gang members involved in breakouts,” Cody said. “The police, at least around Queensbury, don’t have the man power or resources to catch them. There’s nobody that can really pin them down.”
What they were saying finally dawned on me in an excited epiphany.
“Me,” I said. “one person can more easily infiltrate and stop these guys.”
“Every computer in the city went down,” Cody said. “Every. Computer. Do you know how many that is?”
“Not a clue,” I said. “A lot, I’m guessing.”
Cody nodded but continued typing. The door to our room in the Lab slid open and Matt and Melanie walked in.
“You guys saw it too,” Melanie asked. It was more a confirmation than a question.
“It was Sykes,” Matt said, rolling up a chair and sliding his laptop next to Cody’s. “The police scanner has been crazy with info streams. He even hacked the police computers.”
“That doesn’t mean it was Sykes,” Melanie said. “Just because he recently escaped doesn’t mean he stayed around Queensbury.”
Matt pulled the computer around. A few dots blinked near the center of a grid of the entire city.
“You patterned the recent weapons thefts?” Cody said. “They have to be more random than that.”
“Not if they’re all thefts of military grade weapons,” Melanie said, pointing to a portion of the screen showing a list of everything stolen. “But that doesn’t mean it’s Sykes.”
“True,” Matt said. “A lot of the small time gang activities Phantom has busted have parent operations in larger cities. It could have been one of the bigger gangs getting fed up with losing profits who decided to send Phantom a message.”
“But it’s probably Sykes.”
“Why?” Cody said. “I mean, I know it’s military grade tech, fine, but there could be plenty of other people who want that.”
“If any gang is going to get their hands on that kind of stuff they’re going to need somebody with the knowledge to get it without getting caught,” Matt said. “There would be no reason to break Sykes out if they weren’t going to use him. I say it’s him.”
“And if it is, Drake?” Cody said. A line of worry creased his face. “If he’s as dangerous as we think he is then I don’t know about Phantom taking him down.”
He was right. The man had terrified me to the point that I had put him in a tier above the common drug dealers and weapons smugglers I’d taken so far. They were clumsy and stupid and scared easily. Sykes…the man wouldn’t scare, that I could tell. He looked like the guy who would do the scaring, like he carried personal demons far worse than anything I could ever come up with.
And if he was the one behind the computer message then he was more involved now, for sure.
Melanie gently shook me. “Drake? Are you okay?”
“I need to take him,” I said. “I need to take him out before something really bad happens. He wants to play along, that means he’s out of hiding, that means he’s vulnerable. I can find him when he’s not laying low, when he’s making moves.”
“We could give this to the police,” Cody said. “If it’s Sykes then no need for you to go risking your neck—”
“It won’t work,” I said. “He’d be long gone by the time the police got there. That’s why I’m Phantom. I can get to people that a whole squad of police can’t. Plus,” I added. “They’d ask where you’d got the info. That would lead them here, to you and to me and we’d all go down.”
“Affirmative,” Matt said. “I can hide all of this from the police easily enough when they are unaware of me, but not if they put all their resources into it.”
“The police may have figured all this out on their own,” Cody said. “They’re not totally useless.” I went to the door and made sure there was no one who would question me too much as I left.
“I’ll watch for any police. They’re after my blood too but if they can get Sykes without my help then I’d prefer that. I’ll sync my headpiece at nine o clock. Be ready.”
I knew they were going to try to say something. Maybe ‘be careful’ or ‘come back okay’. But I couldn’t look at them. I was trying not to show my own fear.
Sykes came to Kent’s vigil. As we guessed, they blamed Kent’s death on Phantom. According the Matt, there was no sign of Sykes when the police burst in and found some unconscious men and Kent’s body. Ryans had wanted results, so, naturally, he pinned it on me with no evidence whatsoever.
And then the school held a ceremony in Kent’s honor. And then Sykes was there.
I spotted him in the crowd of faces. I could lie and say that I was constantly vigilante, scanning the crowd for any signs of danger. Truthfully, I couldn’t stand to look towards the front, where Kent’s parents were. It took all I had to even show up, not to mention look at their sobbing forms.
As the vigil wrapped up and the students began leaving, I stared out of the crowd. One man turned his face just a bit. He looked as if he was almost crying.
I started running through the crowd, pushing people aside. I had no idea what I would do once I reached Sykes, but just the fact that he had the nerve to show up chased all thoughts from my mind. Never mind that I was almost as guilty as he was. Never mind that he had tossed me around like a doll the last time we’d fought.
I emerged at the edge of the crowd where the group of students had begun to disperse. I couldn’t find him.
“Sorry.” I nearly bumped in to a couple moving away. It was Kent’s parents. I was too stunned to move as the husband gave me a long, sad smile, then gripped his wife’s arm gently in his hand and led her away. I must have stood there for five minutes, watching them walk away, shrouded in sorrow.
When I finally moved again I had lost all fight. There seemed no point in getting Sykes just then, his damage had already been done. And in fact, when I halfheartedly looked for him again, Sykes was gone.
“Sykes was living in an apartment near here at the time,” Dr. Ragan said, his hands clasped in a V before him. A woman suddenly exited the café, talking to somebody inside. She laughed and then closed the door and started down the sidewalk, nearing an alleyway and the camera.
“Susan Higgins, 32. Lived at the same apartment complex as Sykes.” Dr. Ragan glanced at me. “He saved her life, three days before this. Pushed her out from under a falling air conditioning unit that would have killed her.”
My mind reeled. “Why?” Dr. Ragan looked at me for a little longer, then returned to the tape, in which Susan had just passed the alleyway.
I could almost sense the mugger before I saw him.
He swept out of the alleyway and pinned Susan to the wall. There was no audio on the tape but I could imagine him screaming for money, and Susan’s desperate pleads.
“She must have rotten luck,” I mumbled.
The café door opened and another man ran towards the mugger and Susan. Sykes.
“What is he—?”
Sykes wrenched the man off Susan, wrestled the knife out of his hand with the same intense ferocity he had fought me with. The mugger never stood a chance.
Then he bashed the man’s head against the wall twice and the man stilled.
Susan stepped behind Sykes, thanking him and grabbing for some money in her purse.
Sykes turned and smiled, a handsome smile, said something else—and then stabbed her again and again and again.
I vaguely heard the tinkling of broken pottery as I leapt up, knocking over a vase.
“I don’t—I don’t—”
“Watch,” Dr. Ragan said as Sykes finished stabbing her and let her limp, bleeding body sag to the sidewalk.
Then he replaced the knife in the mugger’s hand and positioned him so that he was slouched against the wall. Next he lay out Susan, one arm over her face as though she had just fainted.
Then Sykes stared at her. Even though his face was towards the camera, the grainy quality made it hard to see his expression, but it looked like—
“He’s crying,” I said.
“Yes,” Dr. Ragan said.
Sykes shoulders didn’t shake and his fists didn’t clench, but there was such a defeated look, a mix between something he had done and couldn’t stop himself from doing, like he had no other choice.
The video switched. It was a little less grainy. It now showed the inside of an interrogation room. Sykes was on the other side of a table. He was talking, but I couldn’t see to whom.
The man off screen said, “Why?”
Sykes made a non-committal gesture. I heard the clink of the handcuffs securing him to the table.
“That’s it? No particular reason?”
“I am…” Sykes’ sounded different. Not like his usual self-assured tone.
“I know I am…broken.” A sorrowful expression tugged at his face and he buried it in his hands. “Sometimes I feel like the whole world is the crazy one and I’m just a onlooker watching it go by and trying to make sense of it all. I can’t connect with it, I can’t feel for it because I’m not a part of it. I want to feel something! Anything!” He started sobbing. I could only imagine what the reaction of the man off screen was. Sykes was pretty pathetic to watch. It looked like he was feeling plenty.
“So that’s it then? No other motive than you wanted to ‘feel’ something?”
“And I’m so terribly, terribly sorry I did it,” Sykes choked, pulling his head up again. “It didn’t make me feel any better.” He wiped his eyes, but I couldn’t see any tears. “You don’t think…you don’t think you could help me, do you?”
“We’re trying, Sykes. But we need your help first. Are you willing to let us help you?”
“I’m more than willing,” Sykes said. “I’m willing to become a changed man.”
“All right then. We’ll get started as soon as we can. I’ll be right back.” I heard the chair move and the man get up and leave the room.
“Something’s wrong,” I muttered.
Sykes continued wiping his eyes that had no tears. His sobbing had stopped immediately. Then he looked up at the camera and smiled.
“Oh, doctor, I’m a changed man!” he said in an eerily fake voice. “I’ll be so good, I promise, Doctor—”
The video shut off.
“That last part was taken once they caught him for Susan’s murder. Sykes had moved to that area a week before this happened,” Dr. Ragan said. “In that time he befriended five people who knew Susan. Her landlord, the café owner, even her boyfriend. He manipulated all of them exactly the way he wanted. All in a week. If Susan had lived and returned home that night she would have been dumped and kicked out and who knows what else.”
“What was the point?”
“The point?” Dr. Ragan shrugged. “Maybe it makes him feel like God. Remember, we never learned anything about him. But the end result, Susan’s death, was key. He killed her, not the mugger. If the mugger had killed her it would have been too soon, it wouldn’t have been right, it wouldn’t have been her part.”
“You make him sound like a director.”
Nothing was making any sense. “You’re telling me that Sykes treats everything like some divine cosmic play, one that only he sees and knows about?”
“I’m saying if you want to see what Sykes’ real plan is, look at the big picture.” Dr. Ragan went for another sip but his glass was empty. “But don’t feel bad if you can’t stop it. Maybe it’s not the right act.” He laughed darkly. The lights from outside lit up half his face and for a brief moment I saw the sorrow of the man who couldn’t do anything to stop Sykes.
“I think…I think Sykes knew what kind of monster he was. I know that makes him seem like he had a conscience—and we both know that’s not true—but he was aware at least. But like he true monster he couldn’t stop the urge to be his nature.”
It was time for me to go. “Is that all you had on him? All you could find out?”
“Depends on what you consider useful. If you want to hear the lies he told us, I can give them to you. Maybe you’ll see something we didn’t.”
“I mean anything else. Anything real.”
Dr. Ragan tapped his chin. “There was one thing he kept muttering in his sleep when I was at Monstaff. Indra’s arrow, and Sodom and Gomorrah. Plus a couple other religious things.”
“Indra’s arrow? The lightning from heaven? And Sodom and Gomorrah that were destroyed in the New Testament?”
“Don’t look too much into it. Criminals like using religious fervor to justify crimes. It’s relatively normal, but with Sykes, it’s all we have.”
I went out the way I went in. Before I left I heard Dr. Ragan say, “You’re welcome, Phantom. I hope you learn how to stop him. Lord knows we never did.”
I heard the elevator ding. I looked back as a man in a sharp suit stepped off. He looked around the floor and nodded satisfactorily. Then he saw us, Matt peeking from behind me, and walked over.
The door to the stairs burst open and Melanie ran out. She was panting and red faced. “Sir! You are not allowed up here! Sir!”
The man never broke stride. I stood up straighter as he approached, Melanie in tow, ready to stop him. He stopped in front of me.
“Sir, you can’t—“
“And Melanie Marks, and,” he glanced at me. “And Drake Sinclair, I take it?”
“Do we know you?”
The man reached in his jacket. Without waiting for any more signs that this yoo-hoo meant us harm, I grabbed his hand. The man’s smile flickered a little wider.
“Very quick, but I’m not here to hurt you, Mr. Sinclair.” He pried my hand off and pulled out two cards and a badge.
“My name is Cameron Hubbard. I’m the supervisor for the Queensbury Science and Engineering Applied Research Program I was just sent by the department of Applied Research of the Federal government.”
“What?” Melanie cried. She pulled my hand down.
“So-sorry, Mr. Hubbard. We just—well—we thought—“ Mr. Hubbard smiled.
“Don’t worry, Miss Marks, no harm done. I should have told you I was coming. I’m actually here to give you the times for your formal evaluations for the end of the year.”
“Oh,” Melanie squeaked.
“Right. Three days from now, on Friday at eleven in the first floor presentation room. Dress nice. Miss Marks, as their acting floor supervisor I would like you there, and Mr. Sinclair, you too.”
“Me?” I said.
Melanie looked between Mr. Hubbard and me in confusion. “I thought it was only the students and their projects. Not even their parents.”
“Do you want Drake there?”
“Well of course, but—”
“Then what’s the problem?” Mr. Hubbard said, laughing. “There’s nothing to say we can’t make a few exceptions. Okay, then see you all on Friday.”
And he turned and went back down the elevator.
“That was weird,” Melanie muttered.
I could tell right off they had mismatched styles. Tucker attacked from a distance while Willis tried to draw him in and bring the fight close, where he was undoubtedly better. They danced around each other, swinging and blocking until Willis swept Tucker’s feet and pinned him.
“You’re next, Drake,” Darian said. “Tom, you’re up too.”
Tom was the guy that had shook my hand at the beginning. He grinned and pounded my fist before going to the mat.
“Go ahead and start,” Darian said. Tom and I bowed to each other. We began.
I dreamed of going home to Bhutan. It was nice. Except I wasn’t really back home but instead lying unconscious in North Carolina. That was kind of a buzz kill.
The high walls, brick layered walks and impressive monastery brought back a rush of happiness. I was away from all the craziness of—everything, really.
I waited for the monk kids to run out and greet me but they didn’t. Now that I really got a look around everything seemed vacant and muted; the colors lacked any realism. Drake Sinclair: Student, Phantom, art critic.
I spotted Sonam and sighed with relief. He came towards me from across the courtyard and though I swear he was touching the ground he made no sound.
I wanted to go greet him but something made me stay put. When he was about to run into me he stopped and smiled his warm, kindly smile. I couldn’t help grinning back.
“Drake. You look tired. Very, very tired.” He dropped into Snake pose. “You must learn to relax.”
Confused? Yeah, me too, but this was a dream so I wasn’t going to read too much into it. I followed his movements. Punch, duck and flow, edge and weave, be one with the movement.
“Relax,” Sonam said. “You are so tense.” I didn’t realize I was punching for real, my kicks and strikes as if I was kicking a man with a gun, a drug dealer, a murderer, a rapist.
“I see my training has not gone to waste on you.”
I didn’t know how to take that. Was he ashamed of me?
“It’s helped me a lot,” I answered.
“So it has. It has helped you immensely in one aspect of your life. You have applied what you knew to the fullest extent. Has it brought you peace?”
I resisted looking over to try to see what he was thinking. “No. I’m not sure what to do. I don’t even know if I’m doing the right thing.”
Sonam shifted my way and for a second I thought he was going to ask me to fight him again. He continued moving.
“What should I do?” I asked.
“Have you remained true to yourself?”
“I don’t know. I did what I thought was best. Nobody was ever supposed to get hurt but—”
“How was nobody supposed to get hurt?”
“Drake, Drake…” The way he said it did not seem chastising, rather like he was reprimanding himself along with me. “You were naïve. But even those who are foolish but have their hearts in the right place can make a difference. If you are not the one to stand up to these injustices, then who will?”
“But I failed. What am I doing wrong?”
Sonam didn’t answer right away. “Did you think things weren’t supposed to go wrong?”
Of course I did. You would have to be an idiot not to. But seeing the results of my actions, getting up close and personal with the grisly reality of what I was doing was not something I had prepared myself for.
Sonam dipped low and came up again, one arm extended in front and one moving across his body. The monastery behind us seemed to have faded into the background and left us out in the middle of nothing.
“Earth and sky, day and night, these are absolutes. Wrong and right, they are not so clear. They do not have solid meaning, no matter what people tell you or what they may seem. You cannot look at one side and expect that to be everything.”
“So you’re saying—”
“I told you to remember yourself. Have you done so through all of this? Do you still hold Drake Sinclair’s truths, his ideals?” “Yes. But—”
“By refusing to sit idly by you have kept them. You have protected others not only in thought but in action. That is all you can do. Grieve for those lost, protect those who remain. Do not worry about the things you cannot control.”
The monastery vanished. We swept forward into the final movement. All the tension and power behind my strikes had been replaced by calm purpose.
I finally broke the rhythm. “You’re pretty wise for a dream.”
“So, since this is my dream, I guess that means I’m pretty wise, then.”
The sides of Sonam’s mouth twitched. “You’re off balance.”
And as a point he reached over and gently pushed me with two finger and I toppled over and the dream dissolved.
“Already?” Matt said. I heard Cody doing a sort of chant of ‘It works, it works, it works!”
I couldn’t help grinning. “Oh, and the suit works well, Cody.”
I heard Cody press his face up near the microphone. “I know.”
“You told me the parts would be here. Are those not the exact words from your lips?” Sykes did not look angry, he did not sound angry and yet seeing him not facing the other men, knowing he had not found what he had wanted, left me with a sense of dreadful anticipation.
The other figure pulled off his mask and started arguing. It was Kent.
“The shipping log said here. It’s the most recent order list. We’ve been stealing similar things for weeks,” Kent argued. He sounded as terrified as when I’d run into him. “Our logs have never been wrong but maybe they re-routed the shipment after you left that message—”
Sykes held up his hand. The other men stepped back. “Invitation. Invitation, invitation, invitation. I sent it to the one man in this town who I want to meet right now, who very well may be listening as we speak. The man who plays the games I like.”
The ski masks looked around when he said that but there was no way they could see me fused with the darkness of the walkway.
Mentioning me appeared to make Kent more agitated. “Invitation or whatever, just because we didn’t trip the alarms doesn’t mean the police won’t come. They might know where we’d hit next. They could be on their way right now!”
“They are,” Sykes said. “They are on their way, I made sure of it. And we’re going to stay right here until they arrive.”
Kent looked helplessly back at the other guys. They refused to look at him. He turned back to Sykes. I saw him muster his courage and point a barely quivering finger at him.
“You are under my orders! They might own you, but I run this sector, so I own you too. You do what I say and now you screwed it all up!” Sykes remained turned, as impassive as ever. Kent swore. “Screw you and your plans. I’m out of here. And you can be sure the boss is going to hear about this. Queensbury can go to hell with you in it for all I care.”
“Come here,” Sykes said. He half turned to Kent and motioned to him, like a father about to have an important talk with his son. Kent didn’t move. Sykes motioned again, more demandingly this time. “Come on, come on. It’s obvious you don’t trust me. Come here.” One of the guys behind Kent nudged him forward but even still Kent only stepped a little closer.
Sykes turned completely then. “I said come here. Closer. Come on, Kent, if I had wanted to hurt you I would have done it already. There’s something you need to hear.”
Kent slowly walked over to him. Sykes went to put an arm around him, Kent flinched and Sykes chuckled.
And then a knife emerged out Kent’s back and Sykes leaned over him and said, “Queensbury is going to hell. And I’ll be leading the way.”
Dear God I will never forget Kent’s face as he died.
Every hope, every dream, aspiration, or good part that might have been buried deep down extinguished in a single moment. The innocent little boy of proud parents vanished in the jarring, shuddering instant the knife went through his body.
Sykes pulled the knife out. Kent’s body sway in place and Sykes gently pushed it. It hit the ground with a dull, ringing thud and his eyes went out.
“Ah, youth,” Sykes said, wiping the knife on his pants and pulling open the front of his shirt. He turned towards the shocked men, exposing his horrible, scarred chest.
“I’ll admit he was a good resource into Queensbury, oh yes. But there are others. And men with your particular expertise can understand that. You need the right… cooperative, tool for the job.” His foot pressed on Kent’s head, turning his vacant eyes up to me. I wanted to stop him but I was still too shocked to move.
Up came the knife.
“And another one!” Sykes smiled, breathing deeply and dragging the knife across an unmarked patch of skin—back and forth like a saw. I couldn’t stop watching as he yanked and pulled his flesh side to side until a river of crimson poured on his skin. He put the knife away and closed his shirt, but the blood soaked through.
Like broken from a trance, I moved. Whatever held me there was forgotten but I was numb, not feeling the thrill of busting bad guys.
Truth be told I was holding my breath. The walkway ended, overlooking a space between the boxes. Ten figures stood there, two of them talking. I heard Cody’s intake of breath in my earpiece.
Sykes was the only one not wearing a ski mask. He looked as if he had broken out yesterday, smoothed clothes and hair, dressed more fittingly for dinner than for an illegal meeting in a warehouse.
“I don’t like this, Drake,” Cody said. “Sykes—”
I took the earpiece out and listened clearly to what Sykes was saying.
“You’re probably wondering why I wanted to meet you,” Sykes said. “I’m sorry but the answer isn’t anything exciting. I just wanted to. Mostly to say that I am a huge fan of your work. And I need to kill you. You’re a thorn in my side. You’re a nuisance and I need to clip that bud before it blooms. Like him.” Sykes nudged Kent’s body.
“Don’t touch him!” I said.
Sykes’ foot paused in mid-air. “Oh? What is this new kind of misplaced righteousness?”
Anger swelled within me and I lunged at him
I had never seen anyone move that quick, other than me. It must have been the blood loss slowing me down. And his fighting style was brutal. Not like the order and flow of my Kung Fu. It was as ruthless as he was.
I had to keep him occupied while I looked for an opening. Police would come bursting in any minute or one of his ‘friends’ would decide to come back and put a bullet in me from behind.
“Who helped you escape?”
“He speaks! I must say, Phantom, you sound much younger than I thought you would. About time we got a young person with a drive to get things done.” He mimed thinking, the tip of his knife pressing against his chin. “What makes you think anybody helped me?”
“I figured it out. That’s what crime bosses do. They helped you escape because they need you for something—”
“Wrong! Maybe that’s what they wanted. I’m not sure. I didn’t listen to them very much. All they wanted me to do was run here and get that, and go there and kill him, like some kind of common errand boy! I have a much, much bigger plan. First you need to die.”
His knife came at me fast but by then I had maneuvered myself behind some boxes. I toppled them onto him and ran, jamming the earpiece back in.
“Dead?” Cody said quietly.
“Dead,” I said. “Sykes killed him. And he got away, and they saw me running away too. They’ll find Kent’s body. They’ll think I did it.”
“Why? Why did he kill him?” Cody asked. The gentle press of the swab came back and Melanie pulled out some butterfly bandages.
“You’re lucky I’ve seen worse with all the crazy stuff kids build here,” she said. “And that they made me take an emergency first aid course.” Her voice wavered but she wiped her eyes and kept going.
“Kent didn’t want to work for Sykes anymore,” I said. “He was convinced the police would catch them and he wanted out. He just wanted out.”
Matt’s mouth opened and closed like a robot. “Oh.”
“Am I doing anything right?” I suddenly said. Melanie finished closing the wound.
“Yes, you are.”
“But you don’t want me to.”
“Drake, I’m closing up a knife wound, you’re soaked in blood and you watched…Kent.” She choked back a sob. “…get murdered by a psychopath whom the professionals should be dealing with. What do you want me to say? Better luck next time?” Her press became a little less gentle, then relaxed. “But,” she relinquished. “you are doing good.”
“Crime in Queensbury has dropped ten percent in the last two months,” Matt said. “I’ve got proof in bar graph and line graph format on my laptop if you want to see.”
I tried laughing but Melanie stopped me. “There. That should hold for a while as long as you don’t move too much. I stopped the bleeding at least.”
Kent’s dead face flashed before me. How easily could that face become somebody I truly cared about, not just a guy like me whom I pitied? How many others would get hurt while I stood by and watched it happen. I knew that wouldn’t happen. Because I could never just stand by and watch it happen.
“I’m not just doing it for you,” I said. “But thanks.”
I got closer. The wind had pulled back my hood, leaving only my mask. The man with the papers shook his head and the trio started moving farther down the cars.
That’s when I leapt. Unfortunately, that’s also when the car bumped. I tripped up and they saw me.
I had to roll off the side and grip the edge as bullets pinged around me. I shimmied right, moving towards them.
One of them looked over the edge. I grabbed his leg and hurled him off the train and into some bushes.
More bullets thudded near my hands. I hurled myself up over the edge at one of them.
“Agh—!” Was all he said before I hit him and his gun clattered off the train. He kicked me off.
I hurriedly looked left and right down the train, keenly aware of the other man in front of me. Where was the last one? There he was, cutting through the roof of one of the boxcars just down from us.
I went to get him but the other man stepped in front of me. He swung. I leaned back and watched the punch fly over. I almost overcompensated and nearly fell as the train hurtled around another corner.
The man lost his balance and I tiger claw struck his ribs. He sputtered and I hurled him off.
The last guy had vanished. For a second I though I’d lost him. Then he reemerged from the car with something clenched in his hand.
“You’ve got three minutes until the train’s out of Queensbury!” Cody yelled.
“Anybody call the authorities?”
I had to crouch back down as the car swayed. The guy stumbled and looked back. I heard a flicker of “Oh, shit,” blow past me. I sprinted—stumbled—towards him. He tried to pull out a gun but I tackled him. In retrospect, this was not the best thing to do on a fast moving train.
We crashed to the metal and he kicked me off of him but I managed to grab his ski mask and take it with me. We both got back up.
It was Kent.
“You just can’t keep from screwing everything up, can you, Phantom?” Kent said. There was no trace of the arrogant jerk we had spoken to at Queensbury. I still couldn’t believe it was him. On the earpiece, Cody and Matt had gone silent. Kent shook his head like he couldn’t believe what he was doing. “You don’t even know what you’re doing, do you. Just running around, thinking you’re helping.” He pointed a knife at me. “News flash, you’re not helping.”
I finally found my voice. “Says you.”
“Says me? Says me? Maybe if you just left everything alone then nothing bad would happen. Maybe if you, I don’t know, let things run their course then we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
Kent shook his head. We were rounding a bend and Kent glanced behind him. There was no way he was going to—
Without thinking, I jumped too.
Soft ground did not greet me.
I managed to roll when I hit but sharp pain cut in to my stomach and shoulders. I finally rolled to a stop. I groaned and rolled over. Nothing felt broken but I probably wouldn’t be able to walk tomorrow.
“You okay, Drake?”
“Fine,” I grunted. “Just peachy.” I pulled my hood back up.
“I knew Kent was a bad egg,” Cody said. “Absolutely knew it.”
“Later, Cody.” I paused to listen. At first I heard nothing but the end of the train retreating through the rest of Queensbury and the silence resettling over the patch of woods and back of the apartments I had landed by.
A chain link fence rattled, like someone was trying to climb over.
I sucked in a breath and started running. I wasn’t being stealthy at all. I tried to but jumping off a train made me a little bruised.
I spotted Kent running across the vacant apartment parking lot, ducking between two building and out of sight.
By the time I got there he had had almost gotten down the street. I needed to pick up the pace.
I Parkoured up the side of a building and started following from above.
Kent cut through alleyways, across streets and abandoned undeveloped areas. He kept shooting fearful glances behind him.
I dropped in above him once he broke free to an open construction site.
“Oh, screw you,” Kent panted when he saw me. He stopped and put his hands on his knees. “Don’t you ever stop?”
Kent pulled his head up. “You’re going to have to kill me now.”
“No, I’m not.”
“You’re going to have to, or Sykes will do it for you. I fail, I die. That simple.”
That stopped me. Kent was working for Sykes? I tried to not let the surprise show in my voice. “What did you steal?”
I used Kent’s momentary distraction to attack. But Kent was fast. Desperation drove him. He leapt back and returned with a flurry of insane punches, none of which came close to me. His eyes were wide and spittle flew from his mouth. The moment I stepped back he stuffed whatever he had stolen in to his pocket.
“No way, man! I’m not kidding. You want this? You’re going to kill me.” He started running again and got halfway across the open yard before I tackled him. He thrashed around like an animal in a trap.
“Get off me! Get off me!” He elbow caught my nose and I stumbled away, feeling warm stickiness run down my lips. Kent leapt up and pulled his gun on me. Then he pressed the gun to his own temple. There was a terrified madness in his eyes. He backed away.
“Don’t get any close. I’ll do it, I swear I’ll do it, you know I will.”
I held my hands up. I could maybe react before he did. Maybe.
“I think you should leave him, Drake,” Cody mumbled.
Kent kept backing away.
“What does he need it for,” I said.
“Hell if I know. He just needs it. I don’t ask questions.” He shook his gun one more time and I let him back away until he turned and ran.
Melanie nodded, but Cody held up his oily hands. “Whoa, what did he do? Is this guy dangerous?”
“Wow,” Cody said.
“Ambitious,” I said. “But one more dangerous person isn’t going to make the place any worse. And we’re not going to get to see any patients.”
“I guess you’re right.” Melanie shuddered a bit. “But you should have seen the video of him on trial. He never stopped smiling, like the whole thing was some big game to him.”
“Since we aren’t going to see any patients,” I emphasized again. “Then I wouldn’t worry about it.”
Melanie paused, and then slowly nodded.
“I…saw him leave.”
“That’s not possible.”
“Well he did. I just thought you’d want to know since you’re on top of everything
“What did this supposed escapee look like?”
I described the man I saw. The nice hair, calm, vicious demeanor and the chest that would haunt my nightmares. Ryans didn’t show any emotion except for the flicker of his widening eyes.
“You must be wrong,” Ryans said when I finished. “He may have got out of his cell but not out of the building.”
“Do a head count. That’s who it was.”
“How should I know?” I finally said. “I only saw a brief glimpse of him. He left out the back.” I held my breath as Ryans processed this and finally looked away from me to write something down.
“Fine. And did he say anything to you? Anything at all. I don’t care how insignificant it seemed.”
“He didn’t say anything. He just looked at me—” I cut off, realizing how utterly crazy the look in Sykes eyes had been. How feral. “—yeah, he just looked at me, and then left.”
“He said all that?” Cody said. “Seriously, that guy is out of line. You should get a restraining order on him.”
I double checked the flyer in my pocket again. We were going to right way. “A restraining order? Like, to keep him away from me?”
“Yeah, it’s a court issued order to keep someone away from you. People use if on stalkers and ex-spouses and people like that. I don’t know if it’d work on a cop though…”
“I think I can handle him. He’s a jerk but I think he’s really concerned about Sykes.”
“Now then, what do you want to know?”
“Of course. But before I tell you that, let me ask you why. Why do you care so much about him?” Dr. Ragan had leaned forward in his chair, much like I imagined he would if he were talking to a patient.
“Because I have to stop him.”
“And that’s it?”
My hesitation must have been more obvious than I thought because Dr. Ragan smiled and took another sip of orange juice.
“Thought so. Everyone who wants to stop Sykes has a very, ah—personal—reason for doing so. Maybe you were with him years ago, but you seem too young for that. I can assure you, with absolute confidence, no matter what you think you did or what you blame yourself for, Sykes already had a plan. And nothing you did could have prevented it.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“You should. Whatever fault you may think you’re at, it’s not justified. Not at all. He knew everything before we did.” He motioned to the chair next to him. “Please.”
I sat on the arm rest, assuring myself that if I heard any sound that indicated police I was out of there.
“You probably know that I was Sykes’ personal Psychiatrist after he was arrested. The position, being a true doctor, thrilled me, of course. Here was the chance to get in to one of the most notorious minds of our time.” He sighed as though lost in memory.
“What did you learn?” I prodded him.
Dr. Ragan took his time setting the glass down. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
“You couldn’t learn anything?”
“You sound as frustrated as I was. Oh, we learned where he came from and grew up and all his history up to a point before he dropped off the grid. But we didn’t learn that from him. He never told us anything. All he did was spin fantastic, multi-fabricated lies about himself. They were quite detailed and impressive, really. But we never learned anything of any consequence.
“I was stationed at Monstaff at the time. I retired before all the excitement happened.” He paused. The wind knocked against the window outside. Whether unconsciously or not, his hand rested on the tape next to him. He got up and put it in the VHS player below the T.V. I had jumped up. Dr. Ragan chuckled when he had finished putting the tape in and returned to his seat.
“You’re tense. I knew you would come eventually. I wanted you to. The police aren’t coming.”
“Not that I don’t trust you, but I don’t trust you.”
“Fair enough.” His attention focused on the T.V. “We found this footage after we caught him. It was when he first returned to America.
“Before he was caught?”
Dr. Ragan frowned. “He was caught, yes. But he wanted to be found. You might not think so, but for somebody who was impossible to find before, he made it easy.”
The tape started. It was security footage, similar quality to the one that caught me when I had first been Phantom.
Static covered the screen for a moment and then cleared.
It showed a street I had never seen. It was obviously night and the camera was stationed on a light pole facing the drizzly sidewalk. Pressed against the border of the frame, nearly outside it was a gray, lit up café.
*This doctor is the original man who funded the project. His backstory is in the notes. He truly believed that this project was for a good purpose. He wanted it to be regulated, given only to those in special positions.
“That doesn’t even sound like a good idea in theory.”
“Many things don’t. But we would have made it work.”
“I thought I had it under control.”
“Famous last words. You could fill a book with people who thought that.”
“Indeed. Many books.”
“You could call me,” he chuckled darkly. “Your creator, I guess.”
“We gave you a gift!”
“That’s what you and Sykes keep saying but all I see in this is a curse! You destroyed the man he was, and maybe the man I’m going to be, and you made me a target from the people who worked for you. How is that a gift?”
Dr. Cadel slowly reached out his hand as though trying to touch an invisible cheek. “If only…if only they had what you possess. They would still be here. There lives would have been fruitful and happy and I would get to see the wonderful people they became before I died. That is your gift. The gift of survival.”
“Hello, Drake Sinclair,” he said calmly. Cody’s gasp hurt my ear. I tried to lie but my voice came out funny.
“You are, silly.” He seemed to just notice the men lying around him and the students and teachers almost finished clearing the floor and bleachers. “My, my, quite the production we have going on, isn’t it, Drake?”
There was no point in hiding it. I had no idea how he had found out. Maybe I wasn’t as good at hiding as I thought. “How long have you known?” I said.
Sykes shrugged. “A while. Maybe even after the first time we met. It wasn’t too hard.”
“Take him down now, Phantom, before he—” Cody said. I ignored him and stepped closer. Sykes didn’t move.
“If you know my name, then tell everyone.” I raised my arms around me even though almost everyone was gone. “Yell it to the whole world.”
“No!” He said, looking horrified. “That would ruin it. That wouldn’t make this fun.”
One of the men near my foot moved and I kicked him again.
“You mean the game you played with Susan Higgins and Ryans? That kind of fun?”
Sykes was momentarily confused, then his face lit up with a grin. “Looks like somebody’s been doing their research. You finally got it. I have to say, it took you longer than I thought it would. Yes, that game. Everything’s so much better when it has a grander plan.”
“Well, you could have done it any time. Why didn’t you kill him?”
Sykes turned towards me then, his mouth stretching into a wider smile, like the Cheshire cat, until his white teeth practically covered his face.
“Then again, it sounds like you still haven’t figured anything out, Drake. You are still so very naïve if you think it would make me happy to just kill him. You have yet to learn that there are far, far worse things to see before one meets death.”
“You’re not my mom!” I said. “Despite what you think, I did do some good last night. Even you have to admit that.” I didn’t want to tell them what was really eating at me, why I was really eager to do this. I had let Sykes escape. Sure, I was tricked in to and it could be considered not my fault, but the fact remained that Sykes was out there because of me.
“It’s not your fault,” Melanie suddenly said.
“What isn’t?” I mumbled.
“Him. Sykes going free. You didn’t know.” Cody and Matt both seemed to catch on. They nodded reassuringly at me.
“It doesn’t matter whose fault it is,” I said. “What matters is that he’s out there, right now, doing who knows what and it’s because of me.”
“They’ll find Sykes. Just wait a little bit.”
I looked up at her. I guess the determination and guilt was written on my face because Melanie lowered her eyes. “And how many people will get hurt before they do?”
Melanie remained purse lipped so I kept talking. “And we’re not going to be stupid about this. We’ve got Matt and you and yeah, even Cody, behind this.”
“Hey!” Cody said.
“We’ll be careful. We could really do this.”
“Are you done?” Melanie asked.
“Then by all means, go ahead and play hero.”
I faltered, taken aback at her sudden change of heart. “You won’t stop me?”
“Like you said, I’m not your mother. Do what you want.”
“And you won’t tell the police?”
“I want you safe, Drake, not in jail.”
Huh. This seemed a little too easy.
“No,” Melanie finally piped in. She had stood begrudgingly off to the side, listening to them. “Drake, this is suicide. You’re out there against people who have weapons and resources in a robe from a monk and some amazing athleticism.”
I feigned surprise. “So you’re not cool with this?”
She gave me an indignant look. “Of course not! It’s dangerous and stupid, and you’d be breaking a million laws. You want to help, Drake? Go join a community club and pick up garbage or something. Don’t go running around in a costume.”
“But what if I do some good?”
“But what if you don’t?”
“But what if I do?”
“What if we all stopped talking with raised voices so Cody’s poor head can get some rest?” Cody said.
“What if Cody hadn’t drank so much since he’s underage,” Melanie snapped viciously. “It’s out of the question, Drake.”
“But,” Melanie said sharply. “if you, at any point, get in too deep and don’t stop, you push yourself too far to the edge, I’m out. I won’t help you hurt yourself.”
“Right, of course. Piece of cake.”
“What? You want to know what I think?” He rolled off the table, stretched and said, “It’s perfect.”
Melanie looked scandalous. “How is Drake running around beating up people even begin to be perfect?”
Cody looking positively sick from last night but with a gleam of genius on his face; and Melanie, arms crossed in defiance of what we were doing but at the same time nodding slightly like she didn’t know if she wanted me to do this but knew I could, knew I had to if people like Sykes were ever going to stop getting free.
I whipped though the streets, my eyes barely taking in the shrouded scenery. I considered asking Matt for any updates, but realized I didn’t have my earpiece. It must have fallen out after the explosions or when I was digging for students out of what remained of the dorm. Now that I was aware it was gone I felt naked and exposed, like I’d just lost an eye or some really useful, sometimes annoying, part of my consciousness.
Faint sounds like pop guns going off grew closer. The took a small detour and stopped just outside the edges of downtown. Groups of people waving guns moved from one shaft of firelight to the next. Some were chanting and others firing rifles into the air. Every now and then they would duck behind some buildings and shoot at someone I couldn’t see. I could only hope the National Guard could get them under control. Sykes was my first priority.
The abandoned refinery at the western edge of Queensbury loomed above me as I neared it. It was a smoky black shadow against a dark sky, its iron teeth waiting for me… I was getting too melodramatic with the metaphors. I was so focused on it that I didn’t see the barrier the national guard had set up to cut off the street. I slammed to a stop just before hitting it.
“Hold up! This road is closed until—uh—”
He faltered when he turned his flashlight on me.
“Whoa,” was all he said before I shot my grapple to a building’s ledge above his head and became airborne. I heard the soldier below me call into his radio:
“Phantom guy they warned us about heading west bound on Reimar St. dressed—darkly, you know, gothic—kind of like my teenage son.”
The road I dashed above came alive with crackling radios, spotlights and roaring motors as though they had been lying in wait for me.
I pushed faster. The building I was on ended abruptly at a wide road running in front of the refinery gates.
“Phantom!” A voice over a loudspeaker called. “You have nowhere to go. Give yourself up now.”
Nowhere to go? Overly optimistic, weren’t they? Shows how much they knew about me.
I slid down the side of the building, using my gloves’ grip to slow my descent. My side sang with pain as I landed, and with each stride as I dashed over the road and leapt the fence.
A spray of gunfire just missed me when I crossed the open space to the refinery. I started zigzagging. The floodlights found me just as I ducked inside. Bullets tore in to the metal pipe I crouched behind.
“Horrible shots,” I muttered.
I moved deeper into the refinery, leaving the floodlights behind. Inside was an iron jungle, thick with cold steel and caked with years of rust. Gauges held readings frozen in time on the bellies of giant tanks I assumed once held oil. Ladders leading to nowhere climbed up metal sides and cut off at overhanging walkways. Gravel crunched under my feet. My nose burned faintly with the scent of some kind of chemical. Oil stains dripping from the pipes led my way.
Even though it had been abandoned, someone had set up floodlights to light my way. It wasn’t hard to guess who. They cast everything in a nightmare of contrasting shadows and dank light.
The chopping sound of a helicopter’s blades circled just outside. But nobody was following me in. It seemed like Ryans had told the National Guard what was up but I hurried anyway, ducking under some low-lying metal pipes and down a hallway marked: Access to Bay 1.
That sounded like a good place to hold a missile.
I crept down the hall, ready at any moment to get shot at or for someone to stop me.
I checked around the corner. Another floodlight shone from the end of the hall. It illuminated an unmoving figure on the ground.
He didn’t look conscious so I crept closer. I was about to kick him, then froze. He was dead. A foot long knife jutted from his eye socket now pooled with blood and dribbling down his cheek. He lay on his back, contorted in pain and his arms above him pointing down the hall.
I got the message. I was going the right way.
The body count didn’t stop there. The next few hallways were a labyrinth, and guiding me the whole way were macabre displays of what had once been Sykes’ men.
Some had been propped in majestic poses, as though a marble sculpture, a couple were skewered to the metal, their hands pinned with knives and fingers pointing the way. Blood slathered the walls with crude childlike paintings of what I guessed were Sykes and me beneath the destroyed dorm were next to some of the bodies.
I’d had enough long before I reached the last man pinned to some double doors. Two words were ripped into his bare chest: Almost There
I pushed through and into the center of the refinery. Lights lined the upper rim around me, aimed towards the center of the concrete slab that was the floor.
Gleaming metal machinery twisted and contorted like snakes, hemming in all sides and rising until abruptly stopping beneath the vast, starless sky.
And the missile. It was bigger than I thought it would be. A part of me was secretly happy we were right about it. It wasn’t painted with anything; steam or smoke rose silently under it and the missile itself mixed with the rest of the metal as though it belonged there.
And above it all, on a raised platform observing his creation, stood Sykes, blood soaked shirt in tatters at his side and crimson streaming down his ribs and chest.
Rage consumed me, making my head spin and the pain of my bullet wound all but disappear. I didn’t care if he had a detonator, or was more dangerous than anyone I had ever fought or even about justice; I wanted him dead for the people he killed and the lives he’d ruined. I wanted him dead more than anything in the world.
I grappled up to him and attacked.
“Drake!” Sykes said, not even turning around, as though I wasn’t worth his time. He ducked under my blow and drove his shoulder into me, forcing me back. “I can still call you Drake, right, Phantom? Or is it the other way around? Has Phantom consumed Drake?”
“Stop—talking—you—monster!” Impossibly, Sykes bounded off the platform and landed beneath me at the foot of the missile. The steam obscured him in moments. I followed him down but he had vanished completely and I was left turning in circles.
“I said the first time we met that I just wanted to see you, discover for myself if you were real. That was only part true, I now see. Another part, what’s left of my more hopeful part, saw a part of me in you.”
My breath stuck in my throat. The mist had turned threatening. Each wisp and curl held the threat of an attack.
I saw a person willing to forgo what is normal and accepted in favor of something right and yet unjust. ”
“You’re confusing perception with insanity. You need help, Sykes.” I paused. “Ryans and I, we’re trying to help you.”
“Don’t take his side!” Sykes screamed. “Don’t pretend you understand what normal people want for me. You of all people, Phantom. You’re a happy medium between them and I. Too scared to take either side. Besides, my ‘madness’ is just a much a part of reality as your sanity. It’s just reality from a different viewpoint.
“And then there’s people like my pal Ryans,” Sykes said, his voice taking the air of one recalling a pleasant memory. “I assume you know why I did this for him?”
I spied a pipe above my head. “His kingdom,” I answered, trying to keep him talking. “You wanted to destroyed Queensbury, everything he loved, because he did the same to you.”
“I would say bravo, but I think it was obvious, wasn’t it?”
I grappled to the pipe and managed to clear the steam. I spotted Sykes. He stood apart from it all, pacing the perimeter of the cloud with his hands behind his back like a professor giving a lecture. He looked up at me and smiled.
I dropped from the rail and charged. With a flurry of movement Sykes was back in the steam.
“What you see as a catastrophe I see as a normality.”
I looked for another way to get him. I stayed perched above the steam, waiting for any movement.
“Smart people understand that everyone born into this world just wants to get out as fast as they can. They don’t want to suffer! They don’t want the pain and emotion and heartache that goes along with living! I’m helping that along, you see? Maybe by stopping me, you’re the evil one. Ever think of that? Why wouldn’t you want to end their suffering? Help those who have no hope?”
“I’m not like you, Sykes.” Anger flared through me then. I forced it into check. Barely. Having a head clouded by hate wouldn’t help me here. Not with him.
“I don’t see life as so useless to just kill people without a thought.”
A strange sound rose from the mist. It took me a moment to realize what it was. Laughter.
“You? You honestly think you can say that to me? Did you even once think for a second how many people you might of killed when you were ‘helping’ the city? Did you keep a check on every punch you threw, check every attack you made?”
Cold fingers gripped my gut. He was wrong. I had complete control over what I was doing. Sure, sometimes I was angry, but I hadn’t—did I let that get in the way?
Had I really killed somebody, and never even knew?
“Didn’t think about that, did you?” Sykes said.
“You’re wrong,” I said weakly.
“And you can’t face the truth,” Sykes returned. “In some ways, you’re sadder than I am, Drake. At least I embrace my sickness.”
A figure began to take shape to my right and I shot my grappling hook at it, feeling it hit soft resistance. Then I was yanked down and dragged along the floor. I scrambled up and the hook detached and I fell back.
“You understand so little about me, and Ryans, even about yourself.” Sykes appeared outside the mist. He had his hand out in front of him, palm up, with something black and cylindrical in it.
I slowly turned to face him. He didn’t run this time.
“I’m not acting like I understand anything about you, Sykes,” I said, keeping my voice level. Sykes’ unnerving predator stare never left my face. He didn’t twitch a bit and it was so tempting to just reach out and grab the…
“I can’t understand you. You and me, we’re completely different. I’m not going to pretend like you haven’t been wronged, but doing this? You know this isn’t the way to fix it.”
Sykes didn’t say anything, which was more unnerving than if he had spoken; his eyes remained fixed. His mouth was a thin line and fresh blood welled from the cuts on his chest.
I slowly reached my hand out. “Give me the detonator. Please.” We both stood in stalemate, hands out.
“Take off your mask,” Sykes said. “Look at me face to face like a real man.”
I hesitated and the corner of Sykes’ mouth tugged upwards. “Come now, Drake, I already know who you are. A little facial confirmation won’t hurt.” His skeleton fingers began to curl back around the detonator.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay, here you go.” I pulled back my hood and undid the other mask, dropping it at my side. The steam clung to my skin. Everything seemed ten times louder.
“Such a bright future, Drake. And yet you chose this path. A path you had to know would eventually lead to destruction. Why?”
“Because I couldn’t let people get hurt.”
“People got hurt, Drake, they’re still getting hurt. Hell, you may have hurt more people by becoming Phantom. I’ll admit you have helped a few here and there. But not even your own friend was safe.”
The familiar wash of anger took me but I held it in check. Barely.
From behind his back, Sykes produced a gun. He held the butt of it out to me.
“Show me I’m wrong. Take it and show me you have what it takes to stop me.”
He wasn’t really giving me that chance. And…I wasn’t really going to take it. Was I? The talk before, about killing Sykes, it hadn’t been fake. I wanted to. More than anything.
And yet…I hadn’t really understood what it meant until I felt the gun suddenly in my hand. When had I grabbed it?
It was heavier than I thought it would be. So heavy and so final.
I lifted it and pointed it at Sykes’ bleeding chest. He was going to die anyway, right? He was going to bleed out so I was just helping him along. I was doing something good. By stopping him I was saving so many others from death. I had to do it. There was no other way.
Pull the trigger.
Pull the trigger!
There were no bullets in it. I couldn’t stop looking at the gun in disbelief. My arms sagged in exhaustion.
Sykes’ grin grew. “A man after my own heart.”
My God, I would have done it.
This time Sykes held out the detonator. I’m not sure I had enough strength in my arm to take it. “You out of everyone should want to end the suffering. You’ve seen how bad it is out there. You’ve seen the other side. Take it and prove to me you understand, that you can never save them all, but you can save everyone in Queensbury, right now. Save them from their suffering and pain. Save them from something they don’t even know they need saving from. Will you do it?”
I felt my own hand reaching towards him, his eyes never leaving my face.
“I’ll do it,” I said.
Closer, nearly a foot away.
Sykes hand faltered. I looked up into his horrific eyes now narrowed in rage.
“You’re lying.” His knife and went for my face. I rolled back but his second attack sliced my upper arm.
“I thought you, out of all people, would get it!” Sykes screamed, stabbing at me, first right, then left. He had been trained so well, it took everything I had to stay one step ahead.
“You saw the darkness and the light, you saw the pain and the suffering. You saw how horrible life can be and you had the power to stop all of it. You are selfish!”
Back and forth we went, his movements a blur, my mind in overdrive again, just like it had been with Sonam, a deadly refrain of our fight. His roundhouse kick nailed me in the ribs and I felt a few crack. I sprawled to the left, flipped over while skidding and kicked as he leapt at me.
One foot caught him in the shoulder and he spun away. The detonator flew from his grasp and skittered behind me and I leapt up and stomped on it, splintering it into a hundred pieces.
“I-gave-you-everything,” Sykes said sadly. He remained crouched with his head down. Blood from his chest pooled beneath him. “I gave you the opportunity of a lifetime. I saved you.”
“And I’m doing the same,” I said. “Your problem is you think everyone wants the same thing you do.”
“Perhaps not,” Sykes admitted, looking up at me. “I guess we’ll have to find out.” He pulled another black cylinder from his pocket.
Him and those damn detonators.
He clicked it.
A sudden explosion of air blew us back. Smoke billowed from the base. Explosions rocked the pipes above us, making them ring as the whole thing started collapsing.
Sykes stumbled up and looked at the missile as the sound and steam increased. Then he looked at me as the fires consumed the refinery floor. He brought his arms up as though mimicking playing a violin.
“Shall I fiddle while the city burns?” he yelled. “Any requests? I know it’s a myth but it will make one hell of a reality, don’t you think?”
“You idiot! We’re both going to die!” I screamed. The growing heat prickled my skin. I felt sure I would start melting at any moment. I searched for a break in the flames.
Sykes eyes clouded as though in peaceful bliss. “I know we both die. Isn’t it wonderful? Not that it matters. In fifteen minutes everybody will join us. I made sure it was enough for them to see, to see and reflect on how glorious it is. Everybody will be happy.” He looked up, half his face lit by the flames and the other in darkness and then his expression changed to that of someone who had reached the end of his life and did not find what he expected.
He took a step back into the fire, arms at his side, blood on his bubbling, face turned upwards in extreme ecstasy.
“It’s beautiful!” he yelled.
The missile gave a final screech and rumble and I dove through the fire behind me as it launched, enveloping Sykes in his final, happy moment and then lifting off, slowly at first, but picking up speed until a new star had been added to the empty sky.
You ever have one of those days where everything goes wrong? You spill food on your shirt or forget your homework or embarrass yourself in front of someone you really like? I was having one of those days, just on a death-to-my-whole-city level.
The blaze had nearly consumed everything by the time I grappled, clawed and climbed my way out of the maze of pipes and back outside the refinery. How had it caught so fast? He must have coated it with something.
Maybe people could be inherently good or evil. But maybe there’s another side to that. People could be both. They could be doing evil things for good, or good things with evil intention. Or they could be completely, bona fide, one hundred percent bonkers, which I’m pretty sure is what Sykes was. He was because all that’s left is a pile of ash.
I tried ignoring the missile growing brighter in the sky and focused on how to stop it…I had nothing.
“Hey, you! Stop!”
I hadn’t even been paying attention to where I was going and nearly ran back in to the barrier the two national guardsmen had set up. I quickly drew my hood over my face.
“You think you can just—”
I pointed to the sky. “Missile,” I said. One of the guardsmen looked up at the fiery dot still cruising upwards.
“Yeah, we all know what you fired and if you think we can’t stop it then—”
“I didn’t fire it, Lucius Sykes did, who’s dead now, by the way. That missile’s coming down on Queensbury unless one of you care to stop it.”
The other guardsmen spoke into his radio. “Swanson, update on diverting missile.” There was a brief pause, which didn’t sound good.
“Negative. It’s got some kind of EMP field or something around it. Our counter missiles can’t touch it. They’re trying to see if they can hit it on the terminal phase but there’s not much time left. We’ve started evacuating the public. Relieve stations, evacuate all civilians you can and leave within ten.”
Not enough time. They couldn’t do anything. There had to be someone else who would know what to do. Someone who was smart enough to come up with a—
Matt’s special wormhole machine thing. Could that work?
I spied my motorcycle over one of the guard’s shoulders.
“I know somebody who can stop this.”
One of them leveled his gun at me. “No way. You’re leaving with us,” he said. The other one put his radio down.
“Johnson, we’re all going to be dead if we don’t evacuate people and get out of here. If he says he can help, let’s let him go.”
“But I wanted to catch him!” Johnson whined.
The other man patted him on the back. “Maybe next time. You, Phantom, hurry up. We didn’t see you.”
I wasted no time in reaching my bike and gunning it towards the Lab.
Queensbury was in chaos. People flooded the streets. People streamed out of houses, some still wearing the things they were asleep in. The streets were in gridlock, sirens wailed.
A National Guard Humvee tried pushing its way through the traffic, its siren blaring and some guy with a loudspeaker yelling at people to move. I’m no expert on crowd control, but I don’t think it was helping any.
I took the curve near Madison Street sharply, nearly colliding with a traffic jam. I jumped the curb to the sidewalk.
“Out of the way!” I yelled. They leapt to the side, some yelling ugly things, others saying, “Whoa! Phantom!”
I’ll admit, the publicity was nice.
The Lab was locked. I kicked in a window and leapt through, ignoring the alarms I set off. I just hoped I didn’t trigger some kind of safety door closing off all the projects.
There was no phone nearby to call Matt with. I had a brief panic attack and then figured I could work his machine myself. A machine to bend space-time couldn’t be too hard to work, right?
I took the stairs three at a time and burst onto the fifth floor.
Every room was silent and empty.
He was in the back room working furiously at his invention, not even stopping to look up when I came in.
I paused for an agonizingly long beat, then asked, “Will it work?”
“Of course it will work,” Matt said. I let out a deep breath and relaxed.
“It will work. Successfully, on something as big as a missile and without proper testing? I’m not entirely sure.”
And…I was tense again.
“There.” Matt put the tools down and started rolling the machine out the door. His phone rang. He stared confusedly at his pocket then picked it up.
“This isn’t the time, Matt!” I said.
“Hello?” Matt said. I watched his face turn from confusion to suddenly drain of color. “You’re where? No! Get out of the city now! Do you have any idea what’s—no, get Cecily and get out!” He hung up. He looked up at me without disguising the pain clouding his eyes. “My family is in the city. They came to get me.”
I sprinted ahead to call the elevator. Matt joined me a second later.
“How did you think of using this?” I asked, trying to distract him from what he’d just learned.
Matt didn’t say anything for a second. “It’s the only plausible thing,” he finally said. “I saw the reports on the news when the missile launched. From what parts Sykes used I deduced he built the missile more for its destruction radius and less for speed. With the area of launch and intended target, however, there still wouldn’t have been enough time for the military to do anything and still not enough time to evacuate. That left only this.”
The elevator dinged and we pushed the machine inside. Matt pressed the button for the top floor.
“If the missile hits, nothing in a three mile radius will be left standing,” Matt said.
“So hope this works,” I said, staring at the hard, cold steel of the elevator doors. I saw Matt nod minutely.
“Hope this works.”
“Roof access,” I said, pointing to a marked door to our left once we stepped off the elevator.
We pushed the door open. A stairwell of cool air and metal steps greeted us.
“Lift!” I yelled and we did. To Matt’s credit, the machine was light. Either it was so incredibly simple it used almost no parts or he had known we might need to carry it hurriedly up a flight of stairs with a missile about to rain down on us.
I kicked the door to the roof open and pulled it out into the morning sunlight.
Despite the panic, from above Queensbury looked as it normally did: sleepy and safe with only faint reminders that there was life teeming beneath its roofs. The tall buildings and low tress covered up most of the panic.
Matt pointed to the sky. “There.” I looked. Against the grapefruit color of the rising sun, there was a single pinprick of light with a smoky tail, dropping straight towards us like some perverse shooting star.
“How do we know where it will hit?” I asked, pushing his machine into place near the edge of the building. “What if we overshoot?”
“It’s a wormhole, Drake,” Matt said. “Anything above it, so, the missile, will be drawn towards it.”
Another thought struck me. “And where will the missile go?”
Matt bent to tinker with the machine. He was quiet for a little longer than necessary.
“I don’t know. Nobody knows what’s at the end of a wormhole. But we have to open it at the last possible moment to avoid destroying anything but the missile.” He punched buttons while he talked, aiming the end of the tube and loading things on the screen. “Primed,” He said. “Now we just have to fire.”
I watched the missile grow closer, my internal clock nearing zero.
“If this doesn’t work, Matt—” I started.
“Don’t,” Matt said, his eyes fixated on the sky. “It will work and goodbyes are stupid.”
“Well then, I love you too.”
I followed his eyes up, tracking the missile’s decent. I heard Matt’s breathing steady.
“Now.” He pressed the fire button.
Click Click Click
I spun on Matt’s shocked face. “That was the last part we needed!” he said. “I triple checked, ran diagnostics. Everything else should have been fine—if it didn’t fire then—the primer coupling!” He suddenly cried, tearing off a metal section of the machine. He gazed in shock at something inside and reached in to pull out a small note where I guessed an important piece should have been.
You made it this far. Now finish it.
It’s not conducting!” Matt said, panicking now. “There’s no way for the electronic signal to conduct to the power coupling. There’s no way to fire!”
The city below seemed to inhale in anticipation of the missile’s touchdown. When it all came down to it, the times I had been close to death this past year, the times a bullet should have killed me or a knife found my heart or I’d watched other people die while I again cheated death, I never gave it a thought of how I would react when I knew I was going to die.
I pushed him out of the way and jammed my gloved hand where the primer coupling—whatever it was—should have been, making sure it fit tight.
“What are you doing?” Matt said.
I saw my purpose in perfect clarity. “Human conductor,” I said. “Fire it.”
“It’ll kill you, Drake!”
Maybe this was how Ryans felt when he looked out over Queens from his office. So removed from it all; the energy and the inspiriring excitement. The distance did a great job of hiding the sickness, the thing I had tried to cure.
I had explored its streets, conquered its castles. Was I going to throw it away like a used rag?
The hum of the city’s energy still held me. It still whispered promises that there was yet hope. Now Matt’s family was there; and so was mine, my new family.
This was for them. This was for it all.
Matt’s eyes were clouded with pain. His hand still hovered just over the button.
“Fire or I’ll do it myself!”
Matt didn’t move. I smashed my hand into his and pressed it.
I thought it hadn’t worked and then—
Painful bliss surrounded me. A thousand tiny snakes slithered through my veins, from my toes to my teeth. I couldn’t even scream.
But my eyes still worked, and I watched a fantastic light, growing brighter, illuminating everything. Then the skin of the air above the city went oddly wrong like a wrinkle in a sheet, and then, for the briefest of moments…another place, another time was visible, like looking through a back window into a place where things were simply right.
And it swallowed the missile up. I guess Matt turned the thing off. I’m not sure. I think I was dead.
“You caught Sykes. I saw the newspaper clipping in the hallway. You’re the one who finally caught him when nobody else could. And now Sykes wants revenge.”
“You know a lot about him.”
“I know as much as anyone who pays attention.”
“Fine,” Ryans said. “Then why hasn’t he killed me yet? Why is he still here?”
“Because it’s not the right act,” I said. Ryans didn’t move for a moment. Then his eyes bulged. He raised his fist.
“Phantom can help you!” I blurted out, not sure why I was doing it. “You’re making a big mistake.”
The younger man glanced at me and then to the shards of the coffee cup on the floor.
Matt was convinced Sykes was in Queensbury for a reason, but to me, the longer he stayed here the better chance he was going to get caught. It was suicidal. Besides that, I hadn’t seen a single whiff of Sykes in any of the drug deals I’d stopped. Then again, drugs weren’t his style. He was too high class for that. It was too easy.
“He wants loose ends tied up. The gangs he can suppress to an extent, like he’s been doing the last month. Most everything he can sweep under the rug.”
“Except me,” I said.
“Except you,” she agreed. “He can’t stop you and he won’t admit you’re helping the city. His city.”
“Heaven forbid I do anything like that.”
Melanie shrugged. “Maybe it’s pride. You’re doing his job and making him look bad.”
“Have you narrowed down what he may be looking for?”
“I did a check on everything Coleman INC. sells,” Melanie said, shaking her head. “I thought that would bring up something, but they make everything from microwaves to RC cars. So unless Sykes plans to use a Dune Buggy 3000 as his means of terror then it’s going to be impossible to pinpoint any one thing.”
“Let’s hope we find the answer tonight,” I said.
I read the side of the boxes. “Matt, what does Rogers’ and Makers’ Tech produce?”
I waited impatiently as Matt typed away. The boat docked and men started hauling boxes off. The policemen in the warehouse were oblivious.
“Microchip guidance systems and metal alloys, both used for plating on drones. Military grade.”
I managed to take out at least three more before they caught on and wisely screamed, “Phantom!”
Thank you, thank you. No introduction needed.
I grabbed some guys’ muzzle and squeezed. My glove put an irreparable dent in it and I shoved it against his face and moved off a box, spinning around and kicking another guy. I don’t know if the cops realized I was helping them but the bullets lessened around me.
A grenade bounced off my foot and I swept it up and hurled it into the air where it exploded like a demented firework, earsplittingly loud through the warehouse, shattering a few windows.
“Phantom!” Matt yelled into my ear. “I need to know exactly what is in those boxes! Go—”
“On it.” I hurdled a guy who was hunkered down behind a box, and spotted a man with an Uzi, spraying where some cops were. I rolled out of the way as he fired at me. I knocked his arm aside. If it was possible, his eyes grew bigger before I punched him square in the nose.
I took a position out of the line of fire and tore a hole in one of the boxes.
“Anything?” Matt asked. I pushed aside bubble wrap and peanuts and saw the glint of a slab of metal. Tiny letter had been engraved on the side.
“DC-M17. Looks like the plates you were talking about.”
“Anything else?” Bullet holes appeared in the top of the box.
“Not right now,” I said. Most of the gang members were hit or taken out by me. The few remaining were running back out the way they had come. It was time for me to scoot before the police turned their attention back to me.
I grappled my way out one of the windows, ducked as bullets tore by me (ungrateful cops) and made it to my bike without any trouble.
“You getting casualties on the scanner?” I asked as the bike came to life. There was a little smoke from the grenade rising through the warehouse roof as I spun the motorcycle around and drove away. I took more back roads, away from the sirens until I was sure I was clear.
“Negative,” Cody said a moment later. “They may not be putting it on the scanner. Either that or nobody was seriously hurt.”
“I doubt that,” I said, glancing back at the carnage left behind.
I kept my head low for the next month, but then, so did Sykes. Matt found the new channel the police were transmitting on, but besides the occasion drug bust there was nothing. It was as if things had gotten quiet for good.
We knew differently. While classes dragged along and midterms came and went, I couldn’t help feeling like I was standing at the very edge of an immense chasm, and at any moment I was going to topple in.
The catalyst was none other than Ryans and his public announcement during lunchtime. It came on the radio, every T.V. in the student center and lunchroom, and maybe even spewed from loudspeakers across campus. It was a demand, all sugar coated and wrapped with a bow.
“Due to our constant diligence to students’ safety at Queensbury University,” Ryans’ sharp voice crackled. I halted in the student center. Some kids around me looked up at the T.V. “We feel it is our duty to announce we have reason to believe the criminal you all know as Phantom is a student here at Queensbury University.” An ice cube dropped into my stomach. Here Ryans went, tightening the noose.
“Phantom, contrary to what you may have seen or read, is not a saint or defender of the weak. He is a criminal, a vigilante who has participated in crimes ranging from assault, racketeering, philandering and yes, murder.”
“No way!” A guy next to me exclaimed and a few other students nodded in agreement.
“No matter what you think Phantom has done for this city or this school, you are wrong. He is not a savior, he is not helping. Anyone who knows the identity of Phantom or any information about him, I urge you to talk to a campus officer or myself. If you know something and do not tell anyone,” Ryans’ eyebrows furrowed, making it very clear that anyone who did so would be hunted too. “Then you could be charged for withholding evidence. Thank you for your time and have a good day.”
The announcement ended. We stood in morose silence, occasionally looking at one another as though confirming if that had really just happened.
“That guy is full of shit,” another guy said.
“Yeah,” A girl behind me agreed. “Ever since he got here things have been better. My friend can walk to work without being scared of getting assaulted or something.” I sidestepped the group as they got deep into discussion about it. I debated putting my two cents in about how awesome Phantom was but modestly decided against it. Ryans’ announcement had been clear: I’m coming for you.
“You’re not turning yourself in, are you?” Cody asked for the hundredth time the morning after Ryans’ announcement. We had just left for class and I was still sleepy from being out late ‘not helping’ take down a convicted rapist.
“No,” I said. “He’s been trying to get me for months. I don’t see why making his manhunt public would change my mind.”
“Good, because he still has no idea it’s you.”
I wasn’t so sure about that. I’d been on Ryans’ radar since the first time we met. He was probably growing desperate for some results.
“By the way, was there homework last night?” I asked. But Cody’s head swiveled away from me, following a guy in a brightly highlighter orange shirt. It came forward again.
“Did you see that?”
I glanced back at the guy but he had been replaced by two girls, each wearing different brightly colored shirts with large chunky letters on the front. We stopped walking as we entered the main thoroughfare of campus. The shirts were everywhere.
“Cody! Drake!” Melanie waved at us behind a booth stacked high with the same shirts. A line had formed in front and she was frantically exchanging money and handing a guy a lime green shirt.
“I thought you guys had class,” she said.
“We do,” I said. “What is—hey, Matt.”
Matt sat in a lawn chair next to Melanie, scarf up to his disgruntled face and a counting a wad of cash in each hand.
“Hello, Drake, Cody.” He held up the money. “Business is booming.” Melanie accepted some more money and the buyer picked a bright yellow shirt and held it up.
There, in bold block letters, as though screaming defiantly to the world, were the words: I AM PHANTOM
“What is that supposed to mean?” Cody asked. “And where did you get these?”
“Thank you, sir. Pick our a shirt.” She handed the money to Matt and said, “I made them right after Ryans’ announcement yesterday. It was easy, really.”
“And what does I AM PHANTOM mean?”
“I thought it was obvious.”
Cody and I looked blankly at her. Melanie helped the next person. The line was growing, and by now other students on their way to class had either stopped to buy or were giving the booth second looks.
Melanie noticed us still staring at her. “You really don’t get it? Ryans wants Phantom? Phantom is all of us.” She held up a shirt. “He wants Phantom? I AM PHANTOM. You are Phantom. We are all Phantom. We are all with him—or her—whoever he—or she—is.”
Cody’s eyes lit up like an epiphany had just occurred. He stared at Melanie with extreme admiration.
“Can I kiss you in public?”
“Don’t,” I advised. “Sales might go down. And while I love the idea, how is this going to help me—Phantom.” I pulled my backpack closer. Because of Sykes I had started taking my Phantom costume almost everywhere. Just in case, I swear. I wasn’t paranoid or anything.
“Dude, don’t you get it?” the next person in line, some guy with dreadlocks, smelling like a cappuccino, took a shirt. “Phantom can’t do this by himself, man. He’s, like, given so much to us, and now we give back a shirt and stand with him. Get it?”
“Take your shirt and go, hippie,” Matt said.
“Don’t worry, Drake,” Melanie said. “A little public support never hurt anyone. Now, you two should get to class.” I waited for Cody to give Melanie a quick peck on the cheek and then we walked, faster now. I was amazed at how popular the shirts had gotten since yesterday. Sure, not everybody had them but a lot did, and more were walking in the direction of Melanie’s table.
“She’s amazing, isn’t she? Coming up with something like that,” Cody said.
“Yeah,” I agreed, though I think Cody was talking about a little more than Melanie’s propaganda shirt making ability.
“You know she’s right,” Cody said. “Getting the school on your—Phantom’s side. The police want him gone and Sykes want him dead but if we have the public with him then at least Phantom will be safer from one of them. If we get enough support then Ryans couldn’t touch him.”
“Is that so?”
The screen changed and suddenly we were looking at downtown Queensbury. Despite it being dark the streets were still lit by fires. Shattered glass like crystals covered the streets and over the announcers voice I heard yelling and gunshots.
“…police are stretched thin after this afternoon’s bombing, and gang violence is on a rampage in the downtown area. It seems to be open warfare out here on the streets. We encourage everybody to stay inside and lock their doors until the National Guard can get things under control.”
I heard very loud, very obnoxious country music playing before I had even reached my dorm room. That meant what’s-his-face roommate was there and possibly awake for the first time since I’d been at school. And, no, I hadn’t bothered to learn his name.
“Dude,” he nodded to me over the southern twang and drawl coming from his speakers. “Dude,” he said again and rolled over in bed.