A World of Trouble
My face is melting. The goopy blob that was my forehead is slipping south, its molten heat softening everything in its path. I’m literally liquefying, right here, in the back parking lot of Shell’s Belles.
Okay, maybe not literally. That’d leave a pretty big mess, which is what I’m trying to avoid. That’s why I’m still wearing this helmet when all I really want to do is rip off what’s left of my head and chuck it in the Dumpster I’m hiding behind.
“Soft as silk! How do you do it?”
A familiar voice crackles in my ear. I sit up straight, swipe one hand across the helmet’s tinted face shield. My view’s still fuzzy, so I flip up the plastic, rub my thumb over the damp interior, and lower it again. Through the small window I watch the teenager lounging in the purple salon chair. He holds a gossip magazine in one hand and pets his hair with the other. Grins at the young woman who stands over him with a comb and scissors, then at his reflection in the mirrored wall. Raises his palm for a high five, and gets one.
A good Troublemaker is an invisible Troublemaker. That was the first thing Houdini, my math teacher, told me when he found me standing on a bench in baggage claim and waving both arms three days ago. Apparently, he missed his own memo.
“What do you think about upping the cool factor?” Houdini asks.
“The cool factor?” the stylist repeats.
“Like with a blue streak. Or a lightning bolt. Or a blue lightning bolt.”
“You mean . . . in your hair?”
Houdini laughs. The stylist laughs. I roll my eyes, settle back in my seat, and wonder why I’m surprised. After all, like most of my new teachers, Houdini’s only a few years older than I am.
He might have a grown-up job, but he’s a kid. Kids break rules. Even their own, I guess.
Still, if I’d known he was going to get a makeover before doing what we’d come here to do, I would’ve asked to stay at the hotel. Where there’s air-conditioning. A mini fridge. Bottomless buckets of ice.
I’m considering dunking my head in the dirty snowbank next to the Dumpster, ostrich-style, when the bell above the back door jingles. A woman walks out. She wears a white velvet coat with a black fur collar. Her blond hair, newly done, forms a stiff half-moon around her head. She pinches a cell phone between her thumb and pointer finger. Against the parking lot’s gray backdrop, her red nails glitter like rubies.
Or maybe even apples. Perfect, shiny . . . powerful apples.
For a split second I picture the woman falling, her body slamming into the frozen pavement, her face twisting in pain. The image is so vivid I start to stand, to go toward her. But then I remember where I am. Why we’re here. And I stop.
“She’s leaving,” I hiss into the helmet’s small microphone.
I listen for a response. None comes. All I hear in the earpiece is muffled chitchat and country music.
The woman pauses by a shiny SUV. I tear my eyes away and scan the salon’s windows. They’re cloudy—but I can still see that Houdini’s chair is empty.
“Target’s on the move,” I say, louder this time. “Do you copy?”
I hear guitars strumming. Fiddles plucking. Ladies giggling. I glance back and hold my breath as the woman unlocks her car. My responsibility for this leg of the mission is not to let her out of my sight—even if that means leaving Houdini behind. So I slide forward. I take the silver handles in both hands and place one foot on the kick-start lever. I relax slightly when her cell phone rings, thinking I’ve won more time, but right after she answers it and gets in her car, the engine hums and brake lights illuminate.
“Um, hello? Houdini? I know you’re busy, but the lady? The one we’re following? I think she’s about to leave.”
The warmth of my breath combined with the heat radiating from my face creates a new, wet coating inside my helmet shield. As quickly as I wipe it away, a fresh one forms.
I can’t see. I can’t see, and I’m supposed to drive this scooter, which resembles a fighter jet on wheels, through a strange town. Across ice and snow. Without drawing attention to myself or
losing my target, who, given the way her tires are currently sending dirt and pebbles spiraling through the air, is in a hurry. Worrying about this only makes my heart thump faster, which makes me hotter, which makes it even harder to see.
I’m here because I’m the best of the best. Because I can do things other kids my age can’t—or so I’ve been told.
But it’s clear a mistake has been made. Again.
“I’m so sorry,” I say, watching the gray film before me thicken, “but you’ve got the wrong guy. I can’t—”
The scooter dips suddenly. I drop both feet to the ground and squeeze the handles. Houdini’s voice sounds behind me and echoes in my ear.
“I don’t. You can. And winners never apologize.”
The scooter bolts forward. My boots skid across pavement. I really hope this thing can be steered from the backseat, because if not, we’re about to become Kentucky roadkill.
“So I think I get it!” Houdini calls out.
The scooter jerks to the left, then the right. Fighting wind and gravity, I pull up my boots, find the footrests.
“Get what?” I call back.
“The high maintenance! My hair’s never looked this good!”
“Well, I don’t get it! I thought we were supposed to stay invisible!”
“But you followed her inside! And sat right next to her!”
The scooter hits a rock. We sail through the air. Eventually the scooter drops to the ground and speeds up again.
“Sometimes being seen is the best way not to be seen!”
This makes no sense. I might point that out, but then we round a curve and tilt sharply. My body’s pulled down and to the right. I hug the bike with both legs. Release my fingers, lean forward, and wrap my arms around the handles. Close my eyes, even though it’s as dark as night inside my helmet.
“I was one of the girls!” Houdini continues. “I had to be—the supply closet was in full view of the rest of the salon. It was safer to do that and win their trust than it was to sneak around. We can’t get into trouble before we’ve made any ourselves!”
I’m not sure how to respond, so I don’t. We cruise along for several minutes. I don’t ask where we’re going or what we’ll do when we get there, and Houdini doesn’t tell me. All I know is what he shared when I woke up this morning: Today we finish what we started three days ago. And as soon as we’re
done, I can go home . . . where a very different sort of trouble waits for me.
I blink. A mental picture of Mom biting into a fat cheeseburger disappears.
“So I am.” I note that we’re no longer moving—and that I’m still vertical on the bike and not horizontal on the side of the road. “Nice driving.”
“Phenomenal, actually. But that’s not what I meant.”
I slide off my helmet and find Houdini standing next to me. I peer past him to the small red house with white shutters. I’ve spent fifty of the last seventy-two hours monitoring live video feed of the property’s occupants and activity, so I know the home almost as well as I know my own. That, however, doesn’t make it any less strange to be parked behind a bush at the end of its driveway.
“Everything looks okay,” I say. “Sounds it too.”
At which point a door slams. A familiar voice yells. High heels hit the floor like bullets to a concrete wall.
Houdini holds a purple purse toward me. “Don’t worry. I emptied it for its owner before filling it up again.”
I take the bag. Unzip it. “You said you were getting weapons.”
“I did. You’re welcome.”
I pull out a short, plastic tube. Thanks to Mom’s endless pursuit of fuller, bouncier hair, I actually know what it is. “A roller? What am I supposed to do with this?”
“You’re the marksman. You’ll figure it out.”
Snow flurries drift around us, but a fresh layer of sweat spreads across my face anyway. Houdini must notice because he steps toward me and offers more explanation.
“Bows and arrows? Paintball rifles? Water grenades? They’re great, but generic. They can do damage to anyone, anywhere. If you want to make a lasting impact, it’s always better to personalize.” He shrugs. “Plus, try getting a metal Frisbee through airport security.”
“Boomaree,” I mumble.
I drop the roller back in the purse. “Frisbees are for kids.” This is something Ike, my tutor, told me back at Kilter. “Boomarees are part Frisbee, part boomerang. They’re for Troublemakers.”
Houdini grins. “You can rock this, Hinkle.”
Can I? Maybe. In the past few months I’ve definitely done things I never thought I would.
But do I want to?
A scream shatters the snowy stillness. And just like that, I stop thinking and start moving.
I put on the helmet, throw the purse over one shoulder. I stoop, then shoot forward. As I run, I keep one eye on the ground and the other on the shadowy figures hurrying behind pulled curtains.
“IV in Q3.” Inside my helmet, Houdini’s voice is steady yet urgent. “ML in Q2—scratch that. ML backtracking to Q1.”
He must be watching the live feed on his K-Pak. I translate quickly. IV is Innocent Victim, also known as Molly, an eleven-year-old only child. Q3 is Quadrant 3, or the bedrooms in the rear of the house. ML is Mother Lubbard, our target. Q2 is Quadrant 2, the combined living and dining room, and Q1 is Quadrant 1, the kitchen.
I’m so busy decoding Houdini’s locations I don’t think about what they mean until I’m in the backyard, crouched beneath the living room window. Through the lace curtains I watch Mrs. Lubbard storm from the kitchen. Then I glance behind me to confirm that Mr. Lubbard is in his usual spot: the small woodshed, where he pretends to build bookcases while actually playing poker online.
“D2 washed the white sweater,” Houdini says.
I turn back. “Wasn’t she supposed to?”
“The cotton cardigan, not the cashmere V-neck. ML’s freaking because the sweater shrunk ten sizes.”
“Then maybe she should give it to her daughter. As a thank-you for everything else Molly—IV—has done right.”
“A good mother probably would.”
But this, we know, isn’t Mrs. Lubbard. After all, a good mother doesn’t treat her daughter like an overworked, underpaid employee. She doesn’t demand that her indentured servant vacuum, dust, mop, and scrub every window in the house every single day, before the young girl’s even done her homework—and then punish her when she finds a rolled oat on the floor or a smudge on the glass. And she definitely doesn’t do all this when her real priorities are spending hours at the salon, soaking in bubble baths, and recovering from the exertion with daily two-hour naps.
Mr. Lubbard, of course, is no prize himself. But he hides out mostly to get away from the missus, so if we fix her, there’s a good chance we fix him, too.
“ML and IV en route to Q4.”
Houdini sounds even more serious now. Once I translate, I know why.
Quadrant 4 is the basement.
“Copy,” I say. And then I run.
I reach the back door outside just as Mrs. Lubbard and Molly reach the basement door inside. Mrs. Lubbard flings open the entrance to her daughter’s worst nightmare. Molly’s back hits the opposite wall. Her head shakes back and forth.
I reach into the purse.
Two shots. One to break the door’s small window, and one to teach this mother a lesson she’ll never forget. That’s all it’ll take.
My fingers find what feels like a thick rubber band. They keep digging until they hit the purse’s hardest, heaviest item, which turns out to be a jar of lime-green goop. On the way out, they snag something long and prickly.
An elastic hair tie. Pauline’s Pear Pomade. A metal comb. These are my weapons.
“IV WW about to commence,” Houdini says.
Waterworks. Molly’s about to cry.
I slip the hair tie around the jar. Hook my left thumb on the elastic and pull back the jar with my right hand. Raise both arms. Close one eye. Aim.
“ML WW about to commence?”
Mrs. Lubbard’s about to cry?
I lower my weapon and lean toward the door. Houdini’s right. Our target’s face crumples as she holds out one hand, examines her fingers, and fans her eyes. Molly steps toward her, concerned.
“Now, Hinkle,” Houdini urges. “Her defenses are down. Take your shot.”
I start to aim again—and then stop. Because what am I doing? Who am I to try to teach anyone—but especially an adult I’ve never even met—anything? What do I really know about this family? I know what I saw on video, but what about everything our cameras didn’t catch? What if Molly was a total terror last week? What if all that we’ve seen the past three days, all the yelling and fighting and demanding, is simply one desperate mother’s way of dealing with her out-of-control daughter?
Parent-kid relationships can be complicated. I get that. I’ve lived that. And I don’t want to make this one any worse.
“Start the scooter,” I tell Houdini, already running. “It’s not happening.”
“What do you mean it’s not—?” He pauses. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Nope. Sorry. I tried to tell you I wasn’t cut out for—”
My earpiece must be malfunctioning. I tap the side of my helmet. “What?”
“ML’s fingernails. She pretended to give a flashlight to IV, and when she yanked it away, her nails brushed against the wall. Her manicure’s ruined. That’s why she’s crying.”
Houdini’s voice sounds different. Not just serious. Nervous, too. It makes my feet slow beneath me.
“Now she’s yelling,” he continues. “She’s got IV by the elbow. She’s pushing her toward the stairs.”
My feet come to a stop. I stand there and listen—to Houdini’s play-by-play. Molly’s whimpers. Soon a door slams. The deck shakes.
Molly falls silent.
“She’s in the basement,” I say.
“Yes,” Houdini confirms.
“Where she can’t reach the overhead light.”
“And she’s so scared of the dark she needs three lamps on just to fall asleep at night.”
I take a deep breath. “Get her out through the storm door. I’ll take care of Mom.”
When Houdini informed me earlier that I’d be the one teaching Mrs. Lubbard the ultimate lesson, and I asked how I was supposed to do that, all he said was that I’d know once the moment was right. I didn’t believe him.
For the next ninety seconds, I don’t think about what I’m doing. I just do it. I follow along the side of the house, peeking in windows to monitor ML’s progress. By the time she reaches the marble vanity in the bathroom, I’m in position, locked and loaded. As she sits on the velvet-cushioned stool, I slide open the window and take aim.
The elastic hair tie makes for a stellar slingshot. I use it to fire everything Houdini swiped from the salon, including Pauline’s Pear Pomade. Nail files. Curlers. Cans of hair spray. Combs. Brushes. I’m careful not to hit my target directly, but I don’t mind when the weapons fly around Mrs. Lubbard so fast she twists and turns and falls off the stool. And while she’s not struck, the same can’t be said about her precious beauty supplies. Jars of lotion break. Perfume bottles shatter. Tubs of powder shoot up and fall back down, releasing thick white clouds. I discover a
clump of bobby pins near the bottom of the purse and fire them at the small lightbulbs framing the mirror. I break all but one so that Mrs. Lubbard can see what happens next.
A bottle of nail polish slams into the middle of the mirror. Red liquid drips down the cracked glass. A note, scribbled in lipstick on a piece of hair foil, stays in place with fake-eyelash glue.
Mrs. Lubbard is curled in a ball on the floor. Her arms cover her head. Her shoulders tremble. She stays like that for a few seconds, then gets up slowly, tiptoes to the mirror, and leans forward to read the message.
It’s pretty good, if I do say so myself.
Think you pay a price to look nice?
Not BEING nice can put you in the poorhouse.
Make it up to Molly. Or lose everything.
Mrs. Lubbard stands up straight. Presses the fingers of one hand to her lips. Looks around.
By the time her gaze turns toward the window, I’m gone.