The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 18

The subway concourse was mostly deserted at this time of night. Jet took form near Ben’s shop. There was no one close by to see him. Jet was well aware of the life that went on in the shadows. He had been part of that life until recently. In some ways, he still missed it.

It was too much to hope that Ben would be at the shop tonight. Sometimes Ben slept over in the back room when he had a late night crowd or was just too tired to go home. Jet walked down the eerily empty concourse which was lit by low emergency lights due to the late hour. All the shops had their gates pulled down and locked but Ben’s shop had a thick chain stretched across the entrance as well. Jet moved closer. There was a placard taped to the glass door inside the locked gate: CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. Jet had a bad feeling.

He glanced around, then shifted to shadow so he could squeeze in between the bars and underneath the door. He materialized inside the dark shop and made a palm-sized flame so that he could see without turning on the overhead lights. It was empty—completely, totally empty. Not even a table remained. Jet flicked on the light switch. Nothing. Just to be sure, he went into the back room but that, too, was completely stripped. Why would Ben have closed up shop so suddenly? The answer seemed obvious to Jet: he wouldn’t.

Jet flowed out through the supply entrance which led up to the street, and from there across town to Ben’s apartment. He had only been there a handful of times, but Ben had lived there for longer than Jet had been alive—about as long as he’d owned the sandwich shop. Ben lived in a mid-rise, older apartment building on the non-family side of the river. Jet flowed up the outside wall to Ben’s window and squeezed in. Ben wouldn’t mind, considering the circumstances.

The bad feeling in Jet’s gut grew as he surveyed the empty apartment. There was still some furniture left, but everything of a personal nature had been removed. Jet didn’t stay. He fled back to the subway to his old hidey hole and drew the shadows in around him. There was nothing he could do now. In a few hours he would go back to the sandwich shop and hopefully talk to some of Ben’s friends.

When morning finally came Jet headed out to the main subway concourse. He was surprised at the startled looks he received until he remembered he was wearing Merrell’s gray uniform. It looked too much like the clothing his enforcers wore. Jet swore under his breath. That could be a problem.

Old Pete owned the little store right next to Ben’s. He sold newspapers, candy and soft drinks. At this time of morning Pete did a brisk business though not as brisk as Ben’s used to be. Ben sold coffee during the morning rush.

“Pete, where’s Ben?” Jet asked without preamble. The customer at the counter hurriedly paid for his purchase and left. Pete stared at the gray-suited young man in front of him without recognition. Jet frowned. “Pete, it’s me—Jet.”

The old man peered more closely at Jet. “It is you! I thought for a moment you were one of them come back to get me too.” He leaned over the counter. “Jet, your’re Family?”

Smiling wryly, Jet nodded. “I’m not one of those enforcers, though. What happened to Ben, Pete?”

Pete shrugged his shoulders. Another customer came into the shop, spied Jet, thought better of it and left. “They came and talked to him a bunch of times a few weeks ago. The enforcers,” Pete said to Jet’s raised eyebrows. “Next thing I know the shop’s all boarded up and Ben’s gone.”

“He didn’t say anything about where he was going?”

“Not to me,” Pete replied. “I was talking to some of the regulars about it, and they didn’t know anything either. It’s a shame. I’m thinking about putting in a coffee machine,” he added. “A lot of demand for it now that Ben’s closed up shop, you know?”

Jet nodded absently. “Thanks.” He walked out, not quite sure what to do next. An awful thought occurred to Jet. Doll. What if something had happened to Doll too?

Since it was daytime, Jet took a cab to Doll’s place, using up the last of Ben’s emergency money in the process. There was no answer when Jet rang the bell, so he slipped inside via the keyhole.

The furniture was all still in place. In the downstairs foyer there were photographs of Doll’s family, so they obviously still lived here. Her parents must be at work.

Relieved, Jet made his way up to Doll’s bedroom and got his second shock of the day. Doll’s room was just as empty as Ben’s apartment had been. Oh, her bed was still there, and a bare bureau, but the bed was stripped, the bureau was empty, and no clothes hung in Doll’s closet.

What was going on? Had Merrell somehow found out that Ben and Doll were Jet’s friends and gotten rid of them? Jet had told Merrell that nobody in Low City knew about his ‘other’ talents—which wasn’t true. Both Ben and Doll knew he could dematerialize his physical body and become his elements. Had Merrell’s enforcers, or possibly Merrell himself, questioned Ben and Doll mercilessly until they confessed that they knew Jet’s secret? Was that why they had been gotten rid of?

Jet tore out of Doll’s house as wind. If he had known the way back to Darcy he would have gone all the way there as wind, but Jet had been asleep both times he made the trip. He went to the bus station instead and waited impatiently for either Marty or Ed to come in on a run so he could find the next bus back to Darcy. Jet had run out of money. Buying a ticket was no longer an option.

He wished he hadn’t left Macek that note. Jet would be back in Darcy by nightfall instead of by the weekend as he had initially planned. Was it worth stirring things up? Jet thought about it. Yes, it was.

Ed was already at the station. He wasn’t scheduled for a run to Darcy, but he offered to take Jet anyway. The manager posted an unscheduled bus trip to Darcy on the board and in a matter of minutes five other people, all Family, had purchased tickets. Jet eyed them suspiciously but nobody paid much attention to him; in fact, after seeing his gray uniform, the other passengers avoided eye contact with him. It made Jet wonder all over again at the reputation of Merrell’s enforcers.

Jet sat up front behind Ed.

“Yah, there’s always takers for a trip to the Capital,” Ed remarked, waving one arm for emphasis. “A lot of times we throw on another bus just for that reason.” But Ed hadn’t charged Jet for the trip. He wouldn’t hear of it any more than Marty would on the trip out. “Glad to see you’ve come up in the world since I last saw you,” he said.

Jet realized he meant the uniform. “Oh, that? I’m not an enforcer,” he replied.

“If you say so.” Ed grinned at him through the rearview mirror. He probably thought Jet had stolen the stupid gray suit. People didn’t seem to realize that the grays had another significance besides the enforcers. Maybe they weren’t supposed to know.

Jet paid attention this time, asking Ed questions every so often as they changed routes. Finally Ed handed Jet a map, which he studied for the rest of the trip. They made two stops at about three-hour intervals for food and bathroom breaks and still made it to Darcy by seven p.m.

“Thanks again,” Jet said. “I’ll see you around.”

Jet ignored everything Merrell had told him about not using his hidden talents, and he rode as wind all the way back to Arden. He was done listening to Merrell.

Jet realized he didn’t know where Merrell slept. His office was locked up tight. Jet went to see Macek. He should know where his father’s rooms were.

As usual, Macek’s outer door was wide open. He sat behind his small desk doing paperwork, and looked up when Jet walked in. “Where were you?” he asked, coming to his feet. “My father is furious.”

“Good. So am I,” Jet replied. “Call him. I want to talk to him.”

Merrell, however, was already on his way up. Someone must have seen Jet prowling the hallways and reported it already. “Jet!” Merrell snapped. “Why did you go back to Low City?”

Jet revised his guess. How had Merrell known he’d gone to Low City and not just to Darcy? “I live there,” he said belligerently. “Can’t I go back if I want to?”

“You were supposed to go to Salter,” Merrell said mildly, but his jaw was clenched.

“So I missed a few days, so what?” Jet answered. “Are you upset because the poor farmers didn’t get their water or because I messed up the pattern you had going?”

Merrell slammed Macek’s door without moving from his spot. “How did you get to Low City, Jet?”

Startled, Jet said, “By bus.” He didn’t mention that he’d gotten to and from the bus station his own way. Macek wasn’t supposed to know about that. Jet wasn’t sorry he had disobeyed Merrell’s rule not to use his hidden talents. Merrell had some explaining of his own to do. “What did you do to Ben Reaves, Merrell? His shop is closed down and he’s nowhere to be found. What did you do to Doll? She’s gone, too. Are you going after my friends, Merrell?”

“Who?” Merrell asked. “I don’t know anything about a Doll. I thought you told me you had no friends in Low City. What do you care if some shop owner moved away?”

Jet noticed he didn’t deny involvement in Ben’s disappearance. “I have friends,” he said. “Not that it’s any of your business.”

“Wait a minute,” Macek said. “Doll? You mean the girl from the Low City library?”

“Yeah, that Doll.”

“I knew she was more involved than she let on,” Macek said.

“She’s not involved in anything!” Jet said. “She worked at the library. I knew her. Now she’s gone too.”

“I didn’t have anything to do with that,” Merrell replied, dismissing Jet’s concern.

“And Ben? What about him?”

“You lied to me, Jet. You should have told me about the shopkeeper from the beginning. I admit we talked to him. What he did after that has nothing to do with me.” Merrell glanced at his son, who sat behind his desk following the exchange with increasing confusion. “Does he know about you?”

“What?” Jet glanced at Macek too. “That I’m Family? I guess so. He never seemed to care about it. What did you do to him, Merrell?”

“I told you already.”

Jet was never going to get a straight answer this way. “I want to know where he is,” he said stubbornly. “Find out. If he’s hurt or dead, I’m gone. You understand me?” Jet stalked towards Macek’s closed door. He didn’t bring up Doll again. It sounded like Merrell really didn’t know anything about Doll, and Jet did not want to bring his scrutiny back down on her. He flung the door open to a crowd of cousins all gathered in front of it. A closed door was a big deal on the student’s wing.

“Jet, you don’t know as much as you think,” Merrell called out after him.

Jet didn’t stop. He pushed his way through the kids outside Macek’s door and went into his own room, slamming the door behind him and securing it with wind. Let them make of that what they would.

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