I glanced at my phone. Ten minutes after ten. Time to go to The Second Story. They would be open by now. For the past couple of years, I had cultivated a relationship with Flores, the store owner and his helpers Demitris and Morgan. They knew me as an eccentric old guy who could be counted on to appear every few days. I was invisible to them, so could do pretty much what I wanted without fear of being watched. Except by the ever-present security cameras. Good thing the Shadow Web could put them out of commission now and then. The dead zones made it possible to plant forbidden books.
The sun was warm as I turned the corner and started down the street. I unconsciously patted the pockets of my duster. Good, the books were still there. This would be a risk, but under the circumstances, Kenz, Jones, and I all felt that it was necessary. We had to take a chance and try to make contact with friends of the teens who had disappeared.
The street was busy with shoppers, the sidewalks almost full. This block had several small novelty stores, a bakery, a coffee shop, and two book stores. The Read Door had new books and catered to an older clientele, leaving the younger crowd to the used volumes of The Second Story. I entered The Read Door and spent some time strolling the aisles. It was a good cover for my real activities. It also gave me a chance to scout for Enforcement Division Librarians who might be in the area.
I emerged from The Read Door a half an hour later and turned toward the used book store across the street. A steam of cars passed by on the street and foot traffic had picked up. I was careful to keep my eyes averted while not allowing anyone to bump into me. It was an art. Become invisible. Be just an anonymous stranger that everyone forgot as soon as he passed.
I froze for a split second. My heart started beating fast. A couple of tall young men were staring at me. Had I seen them before? Possibly. They stared at me and the taller one pointed. Time to move. Not all ED personnel wore uniforms, and they looked younger every year. I ducked down a side street and increased my pace. Halfway down the block was an alley that led between the buildings, so I turned down it and found a stack of old boxes beside a dumpster fifty feet or so away. I sprinted, cursing the sound my boots made on the asphalt. I could hear no one behind me in the alley. I reached the boxes unobserved and slid behind them, heart beating hard. Safe.
Two forms turned down the alley. One tall and one very tall. I peeked through a gap in the stack of boxes, keeping my breathing slow and even. Soon two more figures appeared, both apparently female. One was as tall as the first male, but the other was really short. The four conferred for a moment. To my surprise, it was the short girl who seemed to be in charge. She started giving the others directions and the group spread out to search. My heart sank. There was no way they could avoid finding me. I searched for a way out, but there was none. The back doors of the shops were likely locked. I prepared myself to fun and hoped they would not be athletic. I probably didn’t have that much luck.
Brin grabbed Logan’s arm and halted him. Justin stopped as well. “Bean pole, take that side,” Brin said to her tall friend. “Justin, take the other side. Irene and I will wait here and stop anyone who comes this way.
Logan rolled his eyes, “Sure, Hobbit. What else?” he replied.
The two guys set off slowly down the alley, carefully checking the shadows. Brin picked up a big stick from a trash pile. She handed it to Irene and chose another for herself. Armed, the two looked around. Brin spotted the back door of The Second Story and headed over. “Hey, let’s look for signs of ED coming this way.”
Chaos erupted. A figure dressed in a long flowing black coat burst out from behind a stack of boxes. He put his shoulder into Logan’s middle and folded the tall boy in half. Brin screamed in surprise and anger as the man turned and ran toward her. She shoved Irene out of the way and made a dive to the side. As the man reached her, she stuck her foot out. He tripped and fell heavily. Brin wanted to run check on Logan, but instead jumped on top of the man and began to hammer him with her fists.
I hit the ground hard. The little one must have tripped me just as I thought I would get away. One more step and I would have been clear. Who were these teens? Were they ED? Were they friends of the missing kids? Within seconds of falling, I was surrounded by the other three teens while the tiny one rained blows down on my head and shoulders. She wasn’t really hurting me because I was blocking most of her hits with my elbows and forearms, but if it continued, she might get lucky. “Hey, wait! Stop!” I yelled. “I’m not your enemy.”
The girl stopped hitting me and sat back on her heels and shook her hand with a wince. “Why should we believe you?”
The dark girl stepped up and brandished her club. “We’re looking for three of our friends. Do you know anything about them disappearing?” The two boys arrived and the big one helped me up. He wore a glare as he towered over me, but somehow the girl who had been pummeling me seemed bigger.
“I don’t know anything. That’s why I’m here. I’m trying to find them,” I answered as I brushed the dust off my jacket. “I’m not ED if that’s what you are worried about.”
The big one shook me, “Then who are you? I’ve seen you hanging around book stores, especially that one.” He jerked his head toward the back door of The Second Story.
I tried to look dignified with my coat askew and hair mussed. “Smith. John Smith.”
The little one snorted derisively, “And I’m Jane Doe. That tall guy is John Q. Public.”
It was my turn to laugh. “That is wise, young lady.” I rubbed at my cheek bone where one of her fists had sneaked through my defense. It was going to leave a mouse. I scanned the faces around me. All of them looked serious, but rather frightened. I took a chance, “I’m also looking for your friends, and so are a lot of other people. Any help you can give me might get them back.”
Munchkin pulled Treetop down where she could whisper in his ear. He straightened and looked me in the eye. He had much less of a glare now, but I could tell he still wasn’t going to trust easily. Good for him. Munchkin spoke, “We know a place we can talk.” She turned and strode out of the alley like a queen. Stilts gestured and I followed her. He and the other teens fell in behind.
Kenz leaned back in her chair and put her hands behind her head. The reports on her desktop screen tied her stomach in knots. There were several reports of people arrested the night before, three from The Second Story. That had to be the ones she and Smith were looking for. Problem was, there was no record of which detention facility they were taken to. She tried other searches, but still came up empty. What was going on? They didn’t drop off the face of the Earth. Kenz punched a button on her intercom. “Kayla? Would you come in, please?”
In a moment, the young blonde woman arrived. “Yes ma’am?” she asked. She had been Kenz’s secretary for the past few months, ever since Kristen returned to her duties with ED where she used her authority to cover for Kenz. I was a good system. “Kayla, please send a message to Kristen Hill at ED. I need her expertise on an issue that came up.”
The young secretary disappeared into the outer office. Kenz stifled a smile. She had already contacted her new friend on Shadow Web circuits, but this would cover them both. Her computer soon dinged with an incoming video call. She clicked “accept”.
“I have a problem, Miss Hill,” Kenz began. She saw the young ED officer raise an eyebrow and continued, “Three kids were arrested last night from The Second Story, a book store on Main Street. I can’t find where they were taken. I think they may have been involved in a new sort of scam involving contraband books and I would like to look into what we find out from them.”
“There was no one arrested on that street last night,” Hill replied. Her gaze was steady in the pickup, “they do not exist. Sorry I couldn’t help, Ms. Bradbury.”
Kenz stifled a smile as her purse buzzed faintly. She activated her Zone of Silence, not the one issued by The Library, but the one given to her by the Shadow Web. It would replace current events with a recording of previous things that she had done and said in her office. Meanwhile, she extracted her tablet computer and punched “receive.”
“Kenz, that is puzzling. Three kids were picked up, but apparently were not taken to any of the holding facilities. I’m worried. I have scanned video surveillance tapes from last night, but they don’t show anything.”
Kenz nodded. “Zone of Silence. Probably a new model. I have an idea. If it pans out, I will be in touch as soon as I know anything.” She signed off and called up the video footage of the area around The Second Story. She narrowed the time down to late afternoon where she saw a group of teens lounging around a bench across the street. Kenz’s heart stopped when she saw a figure suddenly burst from the store and dash toward the group. She checked the time stamp. 4:38.
Kenz quickly booted up her Shadow Web tablet and called up the alley video of that same time frame. A few moments later she whispered, “I’ve got you now, you bastards.”