The Wild Cards universe has been thrilling readers for over 25 years. “Naked, Stones and Stabbed” is an fantastic new tale from acclaimed sci-fi writer Bradley Denton, about the hidden truths revealed when a Who concert goes haywire.
Freddie’s looking for answers. Freddie’s also a bit unconventional: in his looks, in his music tastes, and oh yeah, he’s also a nascent ace who can manipulate sound. But he’s got a gig as a roadie for The Who and the opportunity of a lifetime in New York City. See, the only thing Freddie wants is the opportunity to meet his older half-sister — and not even a suspicious fire at the Bowery Ballroom can stop him.
Our third night at the Bowery Ballroom, Liam punched me in the gut. But I was happy to let him do it, for the sake of the gig. Besides, I hoped it might take my mind off a few things.
Such as the fact that we were in the city where my half sister lived. Who didn’t know I existed. And whom I’d sworn I would never try to meet.
Trouble was, after three days in New York, I was finding that a tough resolution to keep. It turned out Big Sis lived just seven blocks from the Ballroom, a fact I discovered because I couldn’t stay off Google. And I reckoned if I walked in that direction, I’d do better to turn around, step into Sara D. Roosevelt Park, and alter my motivation with the cheap K2 its denizens were hawking.
Of course, I’d already heard that some of that K2, the stuff the locals called KX or Xeno, would drive you starkers. Among other things, it was blamed for various incidents of violence, especially nat-on-joker or vice versa. But that was the sort of thing prigs said to scare you. My own experience, though limited to one party in London, told me that K2—or Spice, or KX, or whatever—was just mild synthetic pot.
On the other hand, my gaffer in chief, Liam, warned that whatever was being sold in an NYC Jokertown park wasn’t going to be what I’d had back home. And since Liam had tried and quit more drugs in more places than I’d ever heard of, I guessed he would know.
Besides, if I got baked, I might be even more likely to wind up at Big Sis’s apartment. And then I’d tell her who I was, which would also mean telling her that eighteen years ago, her dad had cheated on her mum with my mum. Not an auspicious icebreaker.
Especially since Big Sis just happened to be world-famous as a fashion model, reality-TV contestant, and, hang on, what was that other thing? Oh, yes: Insanely powerful, civilization-saving ace.
Given some of the barmy fans I’d encountered in almost two years as a Maximum R&B roadie, I reckoned someone like Big Sis would have delusional wankers claiming personal relationships almost daily. So knocking on her door and saying, “Hi, I’m yer secret baby brother,” might be problematic.
Still, I couldn’t help thinking it might be nice to have a sister. Half or otherwise. After all, it was a safe wager I’d never see my mum again. Since, if I did, one or both of us could wind up dead. I hadn’t run off to join the circus on a whim.
In short, I was a bit torn. The one thing I was sure of was that as long as The Who were in Manhattan, I would be arguing with myself about it. So I was ready for Liam to punch me.
But I wasn’t ready for the Bowery Ballroom to catch fire, and I wasn’t ready to electrocute myself.
Or to die and meet an angel.
Or to be attacked by a psychotic mob.
Or to be smacked to oblivion by an insanely powerful, civilization-saving ace.
So I suppose what I’m saying is:
Getting punched would be the easiest part of my weekend.
Mr. Daltrey had screamed like a fiend on Thursday and Friday nights—in December, in New York City, in a drafty venue—so by Saturday, his throat was as raw as if he’d swallowed a hedgehog. But for the 2018–19 tour, The Who are playing multi-night stands in small to medium halls, and profit margins are slim. We ain’t about to cancel a show due to minor illness. Which means the band and crew must find ways to carry on.
For one thing, the lads might play fewer rusty-fork-and-chalkboard numbers. But even so, they always close with “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which requires the nuclear apocalypse of all screams. And they absolutely must do it, Mr. Townshend says, because otherwise “the arse‘oles won’t leave.” By which he means the audience.
My own favorite tune from Who’s Next happens to be “Bargain,” and I always wish they’d end with that one. Or “Pinball Wizard” from Tommy. But “Pinball Wizard” always shows up in the middle of the set, and some nights they don’t play “Bargain” at all. So Liam has told me not to bother suggesting it as a closer. “It’s always gonna be ‘Won’t Get Fooled,’” he says. “And ‘Won’t Get Fooled’ has always gotta have the ‘Eee-yaaayyyy’ so the Wholigans can end the night screamin’.”
So on Saturday night at the Bowery Ballroom, during the recorded synthesizer break near the end of the song, while the lights and lasers were flashing, Liam and I slipped behind Mr. Entwistle’s Hiwatt bass cabinets at stage right. It was the thirteenth time we’d done it in the year and a half since I’d shown Liam what I could do.
Liam got down on one knee. In the strobes, he looked like a bushy-bearded Buddha. Assuming Buddha had ever worn a black T-shirt emblazoned with a bull’s-eye roundel. Or if Buddha had ever flattened a bartender for calling me a “freakish little wog.”
Now, Liam himself had once said that my spiky white-blond hair, wheatish complexion, and silver-gray eyes were an “odd mishmash.” But that didn’t mean he’d let an outsider insult one of his crew. Even if that crewmate happened to look as I do, or sometimes happened to sound more like a Yank than a Londoner. But Liam knew I couldn’t help that. I learned how to speak from my mum, who had spent much of her youth in the States. And that was no doubt where she would have stayed, modeling and having tons of fun, if I hadn’t come along.
Which explains her resentment of me. Not that my childhood was consistently dreadful. For one thing, in addition to my odd speech patterns, Mum also gave me an appreciation for classic rock—since my naptimes were always accompanied by the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, or The Who. And after my card turned, that appreciation would help me make my getaway.
But I would always be an odd duck, and I couldn’t get away from that. In fact, it was right after Liam’s “mishmash” comment that I’d taken to wearing round, blue-tinted spectacles. I couldn’t change my skin, my hair, or the way I spoke. But I could cover my eyes.
Mr. Moon started the drum buildup to the “Won’t Get Fooled” climax, and Liam tapped his earplugs. “Ready, Mr. Fullerton?” he asked.
Which I knew by reading his lips. I don’t wear earplugs myself—don’t need ’em—but I still can’t hear shite over those Moonie drums.
I made sure my old gray jacket was open, so I’d get the full impact, then gave Liam a nod as he drew back his fist. I looked toward the front of house, adjusted my specs, and tilted my head up. I stared over the speaker cabinets and took careful aim at a dark point out at the center of the Ballroom’s high ceiling, midway between the balconies on either side. The place was packed with five hundred strobe-lit Wholigans on the floor, jumping and jostling, plus another hundred at tables on the balconies . . . and I didn’t want to bash any heads together. The audience was a diverse mix of nats and jokers, all of whom seemed to be having a fine time. But that might not hold steady if I knocked them into each other.
When Mr. Townshend’s big guitar chord slammed down and Liam’s fist connected with my belly, just below my own T-shirt’s bull’s-eye, it was perfect. Mr. Daltrey mimed my scream with precision, and the noise bounced off the ceiling, shook the Hiwatt cabinets, rattled the lights, rang through the cymbals, and roared from the walls. The whole joint was shakin’ all over. But nothing collapsed or burst, and Liam remained on one knee in front of me instead of being swatted away like a tennis ball. Best of all, it sounded like Mr. Daltrey on a good night, if a bit louder. The Wholigans cheered.
Liam was grinning as he stood up. And my headache, though immediate, wasn’t terrible. I could walk it off. This had been one of our best “Won’t Get Fooled Again” saves. And no one in the audience would guess that the scream what had ripped their knickers had come from an unamplified roadie.
But as the lads hit the “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” bit, a blazing yellow flash washed out the stage lights, and a tremendous ka-wham overwhelmed the music. It was even louder than my scream.
Then the amps and PA went dead, Mr. Moon dropped his sticks, and the only sound was a sudden cacophony from the audience.
Liam’s grin vanished. He peered out between the Hiwatts.
So did I. That was when I saw the flames at the foot of the stage, between the band and the audience.
The cacophony turned to shrieks.
Then came a second yellow flash and another ka-wham. This time I was blinded. I heard the shrieks become panicked as the audience stomped the floor and slammed into each other.
It was the beginning of a stampede.
“Bloody Jeezus!” Liam bellowed. “I told that Russian bloke ‘No pyros, and no smoke!’ I don’t think the sod was even allowed to be in here. I see him again, I’m gonna tear off ’is arms!” He slapped my shoulder, but not so hard that it triggered a shout. “Right, Freddie! We’ll bugger off out back. Arnie and I will get the lads, and you and Bruce grab amp heads. Two apiece if you can, but move fast!”
“And take ’em where?” I asked. We’d planned to load out to a hired lorry in the morning, and it wasn’t there yet.
“Carry ’em up to the hotel!” The band and crew were all staying at the Public Hotel a few blocks up Chrystie Street. “But stay out o’ the park, or them dossers’ll take ’em. Leave the drums and cabinets, and we’ll get ’em tomorrow. If they don’t burn!”
My vision was starting to clear. I caught a glimpse of Mr. Entwistle calmly unplugging his bass. Beyond him, below the lip of the stage, the flames were licking higher. I didn’t know what had exploded down there, or what was fueling the flames, but the fire was spreading. The stage monitors in front of Mr. Daltrey and Mr. Townshend were alight, and the heavy curtains at stage left were starting to catch. And there was smoke. The mingled chemical stinks of burning cloth, plastic, electrical wiring, and God knew what else filled the air.
Out on the floor, illuminated by flames and by bobbing cell phones, hundreds of flickering Wholigans were shoving, shrieking, and falling. They were all trying to get to the lobby doors at the far end of the house. But those doors were closed, and dozens of shadow-people had already clustered there, shoving outward. No one was escaping. And the fire was spreading.
I grabbed Liam’s arm. “We can get some of the audience out with us!” I had spotted a gap below our side of the stage where there were no flames, and where people might be able to climb up.
Liam’s scowl was tinged with something frantic. “No way to tell ’em!” He had to shout so I could hear him over the screams. “The PA’s knackered!”
He was right. I could see Mr. Townshend, his face glowing with weird orange light, trying to yell to the audience through his mic as he waved his red Strat over his head. But there was no sound except the noise from the crowd.
“We can’t do nothin’ but look after our own!” Liam yelled. “That smoke reeks, and Mister D is gonna asphyxiate! So snag a couple o’ bass heads, and come on!”
He pulled away and ran around the Hiwatts to the front of the stage. I watched him grab both Mr. Entwistle and Mr. Townshend, who held on to their instruments as Liam dragged them back to the stage door that led to the green room and rear exit. Our crewmates, Ginger Arnie and Bald Bruce, came onstage from that door just then, and I saw Liam bellowing orders. Arnie collected Mr. Daltrey and Mr. Moon, who was wandering around behind the drum kit, and he got them out while Bruce yanked the speaker cables and power cords from Mr. Townshend’s two amp heads and carried them out as well.
That left me onstage alone, behind the bass cabinets, unplugging speaker cables from Mr. Entwistle’s three big Hiwatt heads. The vacuum tubes inside the top head glowed the same yellow-orange as the flames below the stage. The grille that had once covered the back of the chassis was long gone, so those tubes shone as bright and hot as tiny furnaces.
The amp was still getting juice. And it was one of Mr. Entwistle’s vintage units from the 1970s, so the power cord was hardwired. I couldn’t just yank out the cord, grab the head, and take off. I had to disconnect it at the mains.
The cord snaked down to a block of outlets bolted to the floor at stage right, and I scurried over to unplug it. But as I bent down, I heard crashing noises and still more screams. I looked out through the flames and smoke and saw people, nats and jokers alike, jumping from the balconies. Their chairs and tables were going over, too. So everyone below, already panicking, was now being hit from above. Some Wholigans were falling to the floor, and others were collapsing on top of them.
It looked as if one of the doors to the lobby had been torn from its hinges. But it was still nothing but colliding shadows back there. So the main doors to Delancey Street were still closed, and no one was making it out of the building.
For a few seconds, I froze with my hand on the plug of the power cord.
All I could think was that everyone who had come to see The Who that night was going to die. All those people. All those Wholigans.
And I remember what I did next. But I don’t remember deciding to do it.
So I guess I didn’t consider how much it was going to hurt.
I left the power cord plugged in and jumped back behind the Hiwatts. Then I made sure I had a line of sight to the western wall of the main floor, beyond the far edge of stage right. There was still a gap there with no flames. The wall was about thirty feet from me, and I hoped that was close enough. Luckily, no one was in my way because the entire audience was clustered at the other end of the house.
I reached into the amp head. Just to the left of the little glowing furnaces, I found the metal cover over the filter capacitors. It came free with a tug. Ginger Arnie, our lead amplifier tech, has to work on the guts of Mr. Entwistle’s amps almost every other gig, so he always leaves the screws loose.
After flinging the cover away, I reached back inside with both hands and grabbed the exposed capacitors. There were five of them, and I tried to squeeze them all into my fists. Then I yanked.
Filter capacitors look like small sticks of dynamite. I wasn’t looking at them just then, though, because I had to face that western wall. But I knew I had them. Arnie had pointed them out many times.
“Now, these little thugs,” he’d said. “You lay a finger on these ’fore you bleed off the charge, and they’ll kick yer bollocks up through yer skull.”
Which was his way of saying filter caps carry tremendous voltages. Sometimes they’ll even hold those charges for hours after the amp has been switched off.
When it’s switched on, though, there’s no debate. Grab ’em, and you’re dead.
Or most of you are.
I levitated. It was as if I were suspended in air on a skewer of lightning. Every cell in my body burst into a fireball.
Even so, I stayed on target, although the shrieks of my various internal organs kept me from hearing the actual noise of my shout.
But I saw the result.
A rough oval section of wall, eight feet wide by ten feet high, blew out as if punched by a gigantic fist.
And at that, I collapsed to the stage with my muscles convulsing and my head being crushed by a pneumatic press.
It was bad. Almost as bad as the day my card had turned, the day my mum had lost her mind and slapped the shite out of me. The day I had tried to suppress my first big shout—thus saving Mum’s life, but sending myself to hospital.
I had been all right with that. And I was all right with this, too.
The shock wave had knocked over the Hiwatt cabinets, so I still had a clear view to the hole I had made. It was a pretty thing, having been blasted through the shared wall into the building next door. That building appeared to house a showroom for commercial kitchen equipment. The lights were on in there, and as the brick and concrete dust settled, I saw gleaming pots and pans scattered on the floor where they’d been blasted from their shelves. The brightness stung my eyes, because my tinted specs had been knocked askew.
Then I saw some of the Wholigans come back toward the stage and begin to make their way out through the hole. There were just a few at first, but then ten, fifteen, thirty. One bloke who looked like he might be almost seventeen—my age—a dark-haired kid wearing Buddy Holly glasses and a kilt, took it upon himself to pull two limp fans through the hole. Then he pushed his way back to help two more. He moved so smoothly and so fast that he looked as if he must have been skating on air.
You can always count on a floating Scotsman, I thought.
Then I saw that his legs ended in wheels, joined by some sort of cartilaginous axle.
So I guessed my mind was not cogent. In fact, I reckoned I was in rotten shape overall. But I managed to turn my head enough to look out at the main floor. I wanted to see the entire audience find their way out through my new door.
But only those closest to the stage had seen what I’d done. Everyone else must have assumed the noise was another explosion. Now most of them were even more panicked than before, and they kept surging toward an escape that wasn’t there.
I had saved perhaps fifty out of six hundred. The rest were still going to be killed.
Unless I did more.
The amp head that had given me my jolt was on the floor beside one of the fallen cabinets. I tried to crawl toward it, but then I saw it was useless. Its tiny furnaces had gone out. Mr. Entwistle’s other two amp heads were nearby, but they were dark and defunct as well. So the people who didn’t find the new way out were doomed.
As was I. I had crawled just a few feet before collapsing into porridge. There was no way I would make it to either the stage door or the hole in the wall. The fire would get me first. And by the time my crewmates realized I hadn’t joined them outside, they wouldn’t be able to return. I could feel my smartphone buzzing in the hip pocket of my jeans, and I assumed it was Liam asking what was taking me so sodding long.
The smoky air was becoming hot, thick, and ever more bitter. So at least I would fall unconscious before I burned.
In the meantime, with my chest and cheek pressed against the boards of the stage, I could look out over the surging throng and take a shred of comfort in watching a few of them escape.
I supposed I should have tried to meet my sister after all. While I’d had a choice.
And then I knew I was dying, because over the rims of my skewed spectacles I saw an angel. She rose from the tumultuous shadows and flew toward me on cobalt-blue butterfly wings.
She was like a perfect holy creature carved from obsidian and come to life. As she soared over the flames, the smoke swirling away from her beating wings, she was the most beautiful sight I had ever beheld.
Now that, I thought, is even better than a floating Scotsman.
Then the angel fuzzed into darkness, and I was done.
I awoke as she lifted me from the stage. Startled, I twisted away and crumpled into a flat sack of bones again.
Now I was lying on my back, and my specs had popped back into place. I found myself looking up at the “angel” hovering over me, and it occurred to me that she might really exist. She still had huge blue butterfly wings, and she still looked as if she were carved from obsidian. But now I saw that she was also wearing a long-sleeved Union-Jack-patterned “The Kids Are Alright” T-shirt and bright red stovepipe pants. Two slender appendages like insect legs stuck out through extra holes below her shirtsleeves, and they wiggled. As did a pair of foot-long antennae sprouting from her forehead.
But more striking than any of that were her long, coppery dreadlocks glowing in the light of the fire. Her eyes were that same coppery color—and I could have sworn they glowed, too.
Other than that, she had the face of a deeply annoyed teenage girl. Perhaps a year younger than me.
“Cheese and crackers!” she yelped. She landed on the stage, her purple high-top Chuck Taylors on either side of my waist. “Dude, I’m trying to save you!” She was yelling. “A little cooperation, maybe?”
So she wasn’t an angel. She was a joker. But she was a joker who had flown to me on brilliant blue wings, so she still looked bloody angelic to me. Also, she had those red pants and purple Chuck Taylors. I myself stuck to black jeans and Doc Martens, but I could appreciate red stovepipes and Chucks. I wondered where she’d snagged the purple ones.
Then she coughed, and I realized the smoke had become still heavier and more pungent. The heat from the flames was getting aggressive, too. My right cheek was trying to decide whether to blister.
I looked toward the hole I had blasted. The bloke in the kilt was helping more people through, but it wasn’t going to be enough. In a few moments, he would have to give up and save himself, because the fire was about to cut off his access to anyone else. Which meant there wasn’t any point in trying to widen the hole or make another beside it, because no one else was going to reach that spot.
So I forced myself up to my elbows and looked toward the opposite wall. But there was already too much fire and smoke over there.
Nor was there any use in blasting through the back of the building, behind the stage. There was already a door there that no one out on the floor could reach.
I was too far from the main doors, and there were too many people in the way, for me to try to punch a hole there. Over that distance, the shock wave would spread too wide and weaken too much, and I’d only clobber the Wholigans instead of helping them. The same was true for the wall space under the balconies.
Besides, I couldn’t give myself another electrical jolt anyway.
All of that left just one option. And there was just one reason it was an option at all: The angel was real.
I stared up at her. My head was about to split open because someone was hammering an invisible iron wedge between my eyes. But the good news, I supposed, was that I was already hurting about as much as I could hurt.
Which was a dumb thing to suppose.
“A lot of people are about to die!” I said.
The butterfly girl reached toward me. “Some of us are going to make it, thanks to you! My boyfriend and I saw you blast the wall. It was loud! So he’s helping people get out, and I came to help you. I’ll fly you to the hole. Trust me, I can totally carry you!”
But I was already counting on that.
I pointed upward. “You can help more people if you fly me to the ceiling. Then drop me.”
I thought about the venue stats Liam had quoted as we’d prepared for sound check on Thursday: “Room echo won’t be bad once the Wholigans pack in. We’ve got just five thousand square feet, and twenty-four feet to the ceiling.”
A twenty-four-foot ceiling was fine for a music hall. But it might not give me what I needed. It wasn’t a sure thing, like the filter capacitors.
The angel interrupted my thought with a non-angelic snort. “You want me to drop you? You already look two-thirds dead!”
I tried to nod, which only drove the iron wedge deeper. “Yeah, but don’t just drop me. Kick me straight down, hard as you can. Find a spot with some empty floor, and make sure I land on my back. But get out of the way before I hit!”
She stared at me for a second, then looked out at the main floor. The bulk of the audience was still surging against the doors and trying to jam into the lobby, and the rest had made it to the hole in the wall. So a small space in the center of the room was empty, and the fire hadn’t reached it yet.
The angel looked dubious.
“Are you—” she began.
Then she stopped. She knew I was sure. And we didn’t have more time to waste.
I dug down for some strength, then grasped her arms and hooked my heels behind her calves. Those glorious blue wings spread wide and pumped hard. We shot upward, and I gasped at the acceleration. But I held tight as we arced out over the main floor, all the way up, as high as we could go.
The butterfly girl paused then, her wings brushing the black iron braces that crisscrossed the ceiling.
We were at the point where I had aimed my “Won’t Get Fooled Again” scream. I was looking up at the angel’s face, and she was looking down at mine. I saw from her expression that she was afraid for me. I thought that was nice of her.
“I’m Adesina,” she said.
I made myself give her a smile. “Freddie.”
Then her wings pumped again, and she pressed her spine against one of the iron braces. She brought up her knees and jammed the soles of her Chuck Taylors against my chest as my heels slipped from her calves. I released her arms, and she kicked downward. Hard.
I watched her shrink and dive away as I tried to suck in as much smoky air as I could.
Then the sun exploded, and the earth crumbled. The darkness above me blew apart, and all the sky was stars.
I awoke, coughing, with my back against the concrete base of a streetlight pole in the middle of Delancey Street. Or rather, in the middle of the wide median that split Delancey Street. I was halfway between Bowery and Chrystie in a section of the median with planted greenery, although there was nothing green about it right now. Low shrubs stood stark and leafless on either side of me, and my rump was in the frigid dirt. My breath came out as fog in the cold night.
The heels of my Doc Martens were hanging over the street, and I was looking across four lanes of asphalt at the green iron railing surrounding the Bowery Station subway entrance on the sidewalk. Beyond that was the limestone facade and the tall, arched, wired-glass window of the Bowery Ballroom. The window reflected steady white streetlights punctuated with flashing red and blue. The steel double doors on either side of the window were still closed, and I thought I heard shouts and screams from inside. But I wasn’t sure because an FDNY fire engine, its siren winding down to a growl, rumbled past me and stopped beside a hydrant just west of the subway entrance.
Then I saw her.
At the east end of the subway entrance, turning toward the Ballroom as she emerged from beneath the street, was my sister.
For a few seconds, I thought I must still be unconscious. After years of wondering what it might be like to be in her presence, what were the odds that she would appear right in front of me, right now?
It was far more likely that I was still blacked out. Or perhaps dying. And my scrambled brain was performing one last act of kindness before closing up shop.
But then I shivered with considerable force, and icy needles shot through what felt like every shattered bone in my body. Also, I was pretty sure the iron wedge had succeeded in splitting my skull wide open.
So I was alive, and conscious. Painfully so.
And my half sister, Michelle Pond, the Amazing Bubbles, was standing right across the street.
Her back was to me now, and she was wearing a bulky, oversized gray sweater and black leggings with knee-high suede boots. So how could I know it was her?
How could I not?
She was tall and broad-shouldered, and her long silver-blonde hair was flying in the chill breeze. Her arms stretched upward, spreading in a wide V, and an enormous bubble formed between her palms. It gleamed with flashes of color from the FDNY lights.
As fast as an eyeblink, the bubble was larger than Bubbles herself, and it rose from her hands with the speed of an express lift.
“Adesina!” she cried. “Soft landing for your next passengers!” Her voice was clear and commanding. She sounded exactly as I’d imagined.
I looked up, my eyes following the huge bubble as it reached the top of the Ballroom’s facade. At that moment, the butterfly-winged angel appeared above it, flying through a thin veil of smoke with two hefty middle-aged nats, Wholigans for three or four decades, dangling from her hands. She didn’t struggle with the weight. Carrying me must have been a doddle.
She let them go, and the two men fell into the bubble, which sucked them inside with a loud kissing sound. Then they floated down to the sidewalk as gently as a tuft of goose down.
“Awesome, Mom!” Adesina shouted. “This’ll go faster now!”
Wait a minute, I thought. What—
The bubble disintegrated as it touched the concrete, and the rescued men stood there dazed. Then a firefighter leaped from the truck and shouted to them to hurry across Chrystie to Roosevelt Park. “EMS is setting up a triage station! They’ll look after you!”
By this time another huge bubble had reached the roof, and Adesina dropped a lizard-scaled woman and a three-legged boy into it as the two nats stumbled eastward.
“We have to be even faster!” the Amazing Bubbles shouted as the woman and child floated down. “If they can walk, just bring them to the roof and tell them to run to the front of the building. They can jump into a bubble on their own while you’re flying back down for someone else!”
Adesina, hovering, gave a quick nod. “Okay, Mom!” She shot backward, out of sight.
Wait a minute, I thought again. What’d she call her?
“But hold your breath down there!” Bubbles yelled. “And stop if the smoke is too thick for you to see!”
I tried to call out that I didn’t think Adesina had heard her. But now the firefighters were shouting too, and there were more sirens. Plus the roaring in my head, and my coughing. I couldn’t even hear myself.
“You over there, on the wheels!” a firefighter cried, waving her arms. She had a fleshy flap in the middle of her face instead of a nose, and it bounced with every word.
She was looking west. The fire engine partially blocked my view in that direction, and another engine pulled up and blocked it further. But then I glimpsed a kilted lad leading a string of stumbling, coughing people southward across the intersection of Delancey and Bowery. He had gotten them out through the restaurant supply showroom. And, sure enough, he was rolling along on two wheels joined by a cartilaginous axle at his ankles.
“Good man,” I tried to say. I was relieved that I hadn’t hallucinated the wheels. And I was even more relieved to see he had managed to lead thirty or forty people to safety.
“We’ve set up triage for injuries and smoke inhalation at the plaza that cuts through the park at Rivington!” the firefighter yelled at the wheeled lad. “You know the spot?”
The wheeled lad nodded and waved.
“Okay! Bring everyone along the south side of Delancey, cross north at Chrystie, and head for the flashing lights!”
The wheeled lad gestured to his flock, but not everyone chose to come along. A few abandoned the group and staggered off on their own. I hoped they didn’t wind up regretting it.
I looked back up at the Bowery Ballroom facade, despite the fact that a hot spike shot through my brain every time I moved my head. Enormous bubble after enormous bubble was floating up to the edge of the roof, and Wholigan after Wholigan, young and old, male and female, nats and jokers, were jumping off into the rubbery spheres and floating down to the sidewalk.
The firefighter who had shouted to the wheeled lad now ran up to the Amazing Bubbles.
“There are a lot of people inside, Ms. Pond,” she said in a rush, the flap on her face bouncing wildly. “You won’t be able to get them all out like this. And Morpho Girl isn’t wearing a respirator, so she needs to get herself out.”
Wait a minute, I thought yet again. What kind of girl?
“We can’t just leave people in there!” Bubbles snapped.
“We won’t!” the firefighter said. “That’s my job! But someone chained those doors on the inside, and we need them open—faster than we can pry them, because if anyone tries to come through that glass, it’ll be ugly. So if you could blast ’em, that’d be great!”
The Amazing Bubbles released another giant bubble as two more popped on the sidewalk and their occupants fled eastward. She lowered her arms and faced the firefighter. I could see her in profile now. Her nose was the shape of a small, inverted strawberry, and her jaw was like the corner of a shoebox. Both looked just like mine.
She was much slimmer than when she’d come up from the subway, and her sweater was hanging like an empty sack. She had “bubbled off” most of her fat while making the rescue spheres. That meant she’d have to jump off a roof herself, or have some big bloke punch her a few times, before she would bulk up again. Which was what made her one of the world’s toughest aces: If you tried to hurt her, you just made her stronger.
Bloody hell, how my screaming head, ribs, and spine made me envy that.
“I would have already blasted the doors,” Bubbles said, “but there are people on the other side. I could kill someone!”
The firefighter shook her head. “We’re on a phone call with one of the trapped individuals. He’s conveyed our order to move back, and we believe they have. We have to breach now!”
At that, Bubbles didn’t hesitate. She faced the Ballroom and thrust out her arms in another V, this time horizontal. A silvery bubble the size of a cricket ball shot from each of her palms, moving so fast that I heard the air sizzle. The bubbles hit the double doors on either side of the arched window, and the doors blew inward with a tremendous clang. But they stayed on their hinges, and one of them swung back. I saw a heavy chain dangling from its inside handle.
The firefighter had been right. Someone had chained the doors.
Someone had meant for all of us to be locked inside while the Bowery Ballroom burned.
I expected smoke to start pouring from the open doors. Instead, there was a sudden low whistle as air began rushing into the Ballroom. I looked up and saw a wide column of smoke rising from the roof, venting through the hole I’d blasted.
Four firefighters entered through the east doors and began hustling people out, while eight more firefighters in respirators went in through the west doors with a pair of hoses. They shouted for the civilians to head for the east exit, and a steady stream of coughing, crying Wholigans complied. Firefighters from the second truck began giving oxygen to some of them as a third truck stopped in the street between me and the Ballroom. Some of the third truck’s personnel began helping the escapees toward the triage station in the park.
I heard more sirens coming. NYPD cruisers and motorcycles had already closed Delancey to civilian traffic from both directions, and they were also stopping vehicles from turning north onto Forsyth at the far side of the park, more than a hundred yards from where I sat. There was no traffic entering or emerging from Chrystie on the near side of the park, either. That meant Chrystie was closed not only at Delancey but at some point to the north, probably Houston Street. So fire and rescue vehicles had a clear path, and so did the people fleeing the Ballroom.
With the third FDNY truck sitting in front of me, I could no longer see the Ballroom doors or the Amazing Bubbles. But I saw a ladder go up the center of the building facade, and firefighters ascending to the roof. Four more giant bubbles of rescued people floated down past them.
The noise of trucks and sirens, and of shouting and screaming, was making my skull reverberate like a church bell. But the rest of my body was beginning to hurt a little less. So I pushed against the base of the streetlight, and managed to get my feet under me.
I wobbled as I stood, but steadied myself on the streetlight pole and took inventory. My boots were still tied. My jeans were soiled, but only with dirt. I hadn’t embarrassed myself. My T-shirt had come untucked. My trusty gray canvas jacket stank of smoke, but it had kept my shirt and skin intact when Adesina had kicked me to the floor. My head still swiveled, my mouth tasted only slightly of copper, and my blue specs were, somehow, still seated on my nose. All my senses seemed operational.
So despite my initial agony and blackout, I had come through this evening’s big shouts better than I’d come through the first one, on my fifteenth birthday. That had been worse because I’d tried to clamp my mouth shut. So some of the force had been directed down at my own guts, resulting in a hiatal hernia and what a laconic sawbones had called “just a touch” of internal bleeding.
“Nevertheless,” the doc had continued, “whatever caused this, I advise against repeating the activity.”
But even if I had understood what that first shout had been, I still would have tried to push it down. No matter how things had degenerated between us, I couldn’t very well kill my own mum. As it was, the small portion of the shout that had escaped my lips had thrown her across the flat and given her a radial fracture.
So as soon as a nurse had told me I was about to be released from hospital, and that my mum would be notified, I’d slipped away. Fortunately, I’d already stashed a few hundred quid from repairing guitars and amps, using one of my clients as a bank. It had been just enough to purchase a birth certificate and passport from an East End artisan, with both documents indicating I was three years older than I was. So if anyone were to ask, I was eighteen.
Then my “banker” had informed me that an old mate of his, Liam, was hiring crew for a certain iconic rock band’s upcoming Continental and North American tours. Minimum age requirement: Eighteen.
That tip had gotten me out of the UK for a good long while, which was just what I needed. Because if I had stayed in Britain, I might have been tempted to go home. And if Mum were ever to hit me in the face again, with all those rings she wears . . . Well, it wouldn’t be a good job. Not for anyone.
Which was what I was thinking as I leaned against the streetlight pole and watched Adesina fly out over the edge of the Ballroom roof again. This time, she wasn’t carrying anyone.
“Everyone’s getting out the regular way now, Mom!” she called.
And that was why I’d been thinking about my mum. Because Adesina, the angel who had saved me, kept addressing my secret big sis as “Mom.”
As the Yanks say, it was messing with my head.
“Come down, then,” Bubbles said, “and we’ll leave the rest to the professionals.” Her voice was strong enough that I could hear it through all the noise, despite the fact that a truck was sitting between us. “We’ll have the medics look you over, and maybe then we can go home. After which you’re not allowed to date again until you’re thirty. And I mean your real age, so we’re talking another two decades.”
Adesina began to descend, high-fiving a firefighter on the ladder on her way down. “I’m fine!” she said. “I hardly breathed any smoke. And we have to find Peter. He was helping people get out through the hole in the wall, but I don’t know what happened to him after that. He hasn’t answered my texts.”
So the kilt-wearing lad on wheels was her boyfriend, and his name was Peter. My head was clear enough now to understand that much. But I was still having trouble with the Amazing Bubbles being “Mom.” And with Adesina being—what, ten years old?
“Oh!” Adesina exclaimed. “We also need to make sure Freddie is okay!”
That made me feel a bit better. She hadn’t forgotten me.
“Who’s Freddie?” Big Sis asked.
“Come on, Mom! He’s who I told you about in my second and third texts. The dude who blasted the holes.”
“Well, it’s no wonder I didn’t catch who that guy was,” Bubbles said. “See, after your first text that said ‘Fire,’ I was sort of focused on getting out of the tub.”
“That guy is Freddie!” Adesina said. “He got knocked out when I helped him make the hole in the roof. But then there were a lot of people I had to try to rescue, so I just flew him out here and—”
Adesina dropped out of sight behind the fire truck, and her voice blended with all the other noises flooding Delancey.
It occurred to me then that where I was standing right now, where Adesina had left me, was the first place she and Big Sis would look for me.
I wasn’t ready for that. So I pushed away from the streetlight and headed east, struggling through a dead shrub and then wobbling along the wide concrete median. I wanted to get away as fast as possible, but didn’t think I was steady enough to run. And if I fell, I might give a yelp and blow a crater into the pavement. Also, a lot of other people were running, and if I ran and then collided with one of them, that might do something worse than blowing a crater. I had just now been electrocuted and kicked to the floor to save dozens of Wholigans, and I didn’t want to spoil it by turning any of them into pulp.
My phone buzzed in my back pocket again. Astonished it was still working, I brought it out as I turned left past a cluster of NYPD cruisers and headed north on Chrystie. I was in the lanes meant for southbound traffic, but at the moment, the street was wholly occupied by a few hundred coughing Ballroom escapees, all stumbling northward.
Most of them were making for the triage station, but not I. My plan was to head up another block to The Who’s hotel at Chrystie and Stanton. From what the Amazing Bubbles had said, she would be bringing Morpho Girl—“Morpho,” like the butterfly, I realized—to the park plaza to be examined. And I didn’t want them to find me there any more than I’d wanted them to find me in the median. Nor did I want them to spot me on the street. But I blended in well with the throng, since I was just one of many who were staring down at phones as we staggered along. The glowing rectangles joined with the streetlights to illuminate the small fogs of our breath.
My phone screen had a thin crack running across it, but it still came to life when I gave it a tap. Liam had sent me two texts—one, as I’d guessed, from just after I’d electrocuted myself. The second was from just now:
FUK IF UR ALIVE IM @ MEDIC IN PARK LOOKN 4 U. GOT LADS 2 HOTEL N CAME BAK BUT THINGS GETTN BARMY. WAS SOMETHN IN SMOKE. WHOLIGANS STARTN 2 GO ROUND THE TWIST.
I tried to text a reply and tell him we could just meet at the hotel. But for that, my touchscreen wouldn’t work.
Bugger it. I would have to stop at the triage station after all.
And then, when I was twenty seconds from the plaza, another text popped up:
SPOTTD SCUM WHAT SET PYROS W POISON SMOKE GNNA CRAK SKULL.
I heard a shriek ahead, and it multiplied and rippled toward me from scores of throats. In the middle of the shriek came a metallic crash.
So now, wobbly or not, I began to run.
The forty-foot-wide brick plaza had become a scene from Bedlam.
Dozens of jokers of all shapes, sizes, and sorts, some of whom I recognized from the Ballroom—jokers with extra arms or legs, jokers with tentacles, jokers with scales, jokers with flowers sprouting from their heads, jokers with necks like giraffes or heads like hippopotami—all were pressed with their backs against the ironwork fences on the northern and southern boundaries of the plaza, all the way across the park to Forsyth. They had terror in their eyes. They were being shielded by two thin blue lines of cops and medics, jokers and nats standing together. The medics had linked arms with some of the cops, and the rest of the cops had batons at the ready.
Between those blue lines, in the middle of the plaza, more than two hundred nats were rioting. They had overturned an emergency medical services van that had pulled onto the bricks, and now they were swarming over it, ripping off the doors and emptying it of every piece of equipment, all of which went flying into the air like jagged confetti. As it came down, most of the rioters dodged it. But a few didn’t, and they fell to the bricks, bleeding. They lay among dozens of dropped smartphones, some of which were glowing and buzzing, and some of which had already been trampled to pieces.
The only reason the fallen nats weren’t trampled themselves was because more and more of the rioters were joining screaming nats at either side of the plaza. They were lunging at the trapped jokers, and they were only just being held at bay by the thin blue lines.
A few of the jokers closest to Chrystie tried to escape into the street, but were driven back by a swarm of nats on the asphalt. I found myself in the middle of that swarm, which just moments before had been Wholigans running up the street with me. But now they swirled, stomped, and screamed.
Whatever had turned them into a psychotic mob hadn’t affected me. And at first, none of them seemed to notice. They all surged toward the plaza, and I stumbled backward to get away from them. But I collided with a patrol car blocking the entrance to Rivington Street, and six or seven stragglers turned toward me. They hunched over, cocked their heads, and sniffed the air. Then their lips curled back from their teeth. And over the shrieks of the mob, I heard them snarl.
One was wearing a black hoodie that said pinball wizard in jagged silver letters, and another was wearing a quadrophenia T-shirt. I caught glimpses of Union Jacks, blue latticework, a can of baked beans, and flying doves as they all moved toward me.
Then I heard Liam’s rough roar to my right. “Freddie!” he bellowed. “Fer God’s sake, get over here!”
I dove toward his voice, and the gang of half a dozen Freddie-hating maniacs lunged for me. A few of them slammed into the police cruiser and fell to the street. One tried to grab my arm, but he got my jacket, and I shucked out of it. Goodbye, faithful jacket. Then a maniac closed a fist on my T-shirt to the left of the bull’s-eye. Another grabbed it on the right. I pulled backward, spun away so the shirt ripped, and left them with scraps. The air hit my bare chest like ice water.
Then a big, meaty hand grabbed me by the collar and dragged me up from the street. I found myself standing on the sidewalk in front of an oak-and-glass restaurant entrance that said le turtle. For an instant, a horrified waiter stared at me from the other side. Then he flipped over a closed sign and cut the inside lights, and I saw my reflection. I looked like a half-naked, wheatish ghost with round blue eyeglasses and colorless hair. My T-shirt consisted of the sleeves, the collar, and the top of the bull’s-eye, plus a ragged curtain down my back. The tattoo of a Fender Deluxe Reverb amp on the right side of my chest was raked with red lines where a maniac had clawed me. But I hadn’t felt it, so it hadn’t provoked a shout.
I looked to my left and saw Liam’s bushy-bearded face looming over me. He was standing with his back against a brick wall, and he had my collar bunched in his left fist. Meanwhile, his right arm, as thick as a small goat and almost as hairy, had an orange-haired, hatchet-faced man pinned to the wall by the throat. The hatchet-faced man was wearing a green tracksuit that made his skin look yellow. He was gurgling and thrashing, holding a glowing smartphone in one hand.
“This bag o’ shite drugged us!” Liam bellowed. “I knew it soon as I got into clean air. We were lucky to hustle out before gettin’ a full dose. So forgive the Wholigans, Freddie, for they know not what they do.” He sniffed the air. “Jeezus, lad, you stink like Satan’s bum.” He let go of my collar.
The hatchet-faced man stopped thrashing. And despite the fact that Liam’s arm was across his windpipe, he sneered.
“You got some dose, bear-man,” he said. He spoke with a Russian accent. “Xeno smoke lets natural person smell what others are. Joker smells like vermin, so must kill. Ace smells like hyena. Foul, but dangerous to touch. Boy is ace, yes? But not strong ace. Stench can confuse at first, if ace not strong.” He managed to nod toward the street. “Look now.”
I turned toward Chrystie. The nats who had tried to attack me had followed as far as the curb. But now they were backing away and shaking their heads like dogs trying to get rid of skunk spray. I took a step toward them, and they shrieked, spun, and ran to the plaza to join their fellow maniacs in threatening the terrified jokers.
In that instant, I was overwhelmed by a cold fury. I whirled back toward Liam and the Russian.
“Gaffer,” I said. My voice was hoarse. “Hit me. I’ll take off his head.”
Liam snorted. “Not on your Nelly! You’ll take off my arm as well. We’ll let the coppers have him.”
“He’s beaten the coppers!” I waved at the scene behind me. “He set fire to the Ballroom and nearly killed us all, and he’s poisoned the nats so they’ll finish the job. And he’s proud!”
The Russian was pinned to the wall, so he couldn’t shrug. But his face took on an “oh well” expression. “Sorry about fire. Was supposed to just be smoke, with jokers locked inside so natural persons could kill. Will fix next time. But situation now is working also, yes?” He sneered again. “Xeno may fade in hour or two, but will be enough. Purge of jokers will have begun. So sure, give me to police. Comrades will see what Xeno can do, and continue liberation.”
Liam’s big left fist swung around and caught the Russian square in the face. The Russian’s eyes rolled up to the whites, and his arms went limp. His phone clattered to the sidewalk. Liam took his right arm away from the Russian’s throat, and the berk crumpled into a green and yellow pile.
“Shut yer gob, you tosser,” Liam said. He leaned over, picked up the Russian’s phone, and put it into his back pocket. “Rotter was makin’ a video of all this and smirkin’ like he was shootin’ a snuff film.”
The shouts and shrieks behind me intensified. I turned toward the plaza again and saw that fifty or sixty of the drugged nats had boiled back into the street. Half of them charged north, and the other half charged south.
I looked north and spotted the kilted lad, Peter, barreling toward us at high speed. He had somehow acquired a robin’s-egg-blue NYPD motorcycle helmet. The maniacs tried to converge on him, but he dodged and wove between them like an Olympic skier on a slalom course. At his first dodge, his axle compressed, and his two wheels merged into one. He leaned to the left and whipped around his first set of attackers, then leaned to the right and whipped around another. Then he did it again, and again. They couldn’t lay a finger on him.
“Adesina!” he shouted.
That’s when I looked south. Seventy yards away, my blue-winged angel was trying to rise from the street. But Xeno-drugged maniacs clawed at her legs to drag her down. And it looked like they were going to do it.
One of the enraged nats grabbed Adesina around her knees, and he rose a few feet with her as she struggled to ascend. Then a second nat grabbed the first one, and a third grabbed the second. Two or three more joined in, and they started pulling Adesina back toward the asphalt.
I took a step toward her as Peter came abreast of me—but then a silvery bubble the size of a grapefruit shot up from the center of the nat cluster, and it caught the first maniac in the spine. He shrieked and lost his grip on Adesina, and the whole string collapsed. Adesina zipped upward.
“Stay there, Peter!” she cried. “I’ll get you!” The street was full of shrieks, and more and more sirens were coming closer. I heard a helicopter closing in. But Morpho Girl’s voice rang out over all the noise.
Peter twisted sideways and skittered to a halt a few yards ahead of me. His axle expanded as he came to a stop, his wheel splitting in two again.
Adesina flew toward us, and she spotted me.
“Freddie!” she called. “You’re okay!”
Peter looked back at me. “Freddie?” Then he recognized me and rolled closer. “You’re the dude who blew the holes in the wall and ceiling! Nice work!”
I was nonplussed, and I became excessively polite. “Er, well, thank you very much indeed. And you did a fine job helping others exit. Well done. Peter, is it?”
Liam stomped past us into the middle of the street. “Write each other a couple a’ epic poems, why don’tcher,” he said, and knocked down two charging maniacs.
“Thank you!” Peter said to Liam. Then he turned back to me. “It’s Peter, but some of my friends call me Segway.” He pointed at my chest. “Cool tattoo. What happened to your shirt?”
I gestured toward another crazed nat Liam was fighting off, and then at the screaming mob in the plaza. They were coming closer and closer to overwhelming the thin blue lines protecting the jokers, and some of the cops had started swinging their batons. I saw one make contact, and the nat went down to the bricks. Which enraged those around him even further.
“A riot happened to my shirt,” I said.
Peter grimaced. “Yeah, we need to get out of here. I was just at Houston Street, and the cops up there said SWAT teams are on the way. They don’t know what’s made the nats go berserk, so they’re just gonna zip-tie everyone and take ’em to the Tombs. But I don’t see how they can do it without a bloodbath.” He tapped his helmet. “One of the cops tossed this to me when I started back. They don’t expect the night to end well.”
Morpho Girl landed between us, her wings brushing me as she threw her arms around Peter’s neck. “Thanks for finally answering my texts!” She sounded irritated, but the neck-hug said something else.
“Hey, I was kinda busy!” Peter said. “None of the people I took out of the Ballroom went crazy, so I had to help them get clear. Where’s your mom?”
Adesina pointed back down the street. “Moving slow. Those psychos are trying to stop her, but whenever she gets close, they shake their heads and back away. Then they swarm in again. But none of them will hit her, which is totes frustrating ’cause she burned off almost all her fat making rescue bubbles. So, obvs, I was gonna fly her up and drop her—but the nats got between us and started grabbing me. I had to take off, and I think Mom used her last bit of fat to knock them away.”
“Can’t she just throw herself down on the pavement or something?” Peter asked.
“That might give her enough to bubble two or three psychos,” Adesina said. “But look how many there are! Somebody needs to, like, attack her.”
Liam was still keeping the maniacs away from us. “I knew that had to be Ms. Bubbles over there!” he yelled. “Once she gets here, it’d be my honor to give her as much of a thumping as she likes. Then she can machine-gun-bubble all these nutters!”
I tried to imagine how that would work out. The mob in the plaza extended all the way across the park. Even if the Amazing Bubbles could reach us and fatten up, there was no way she would be able to deal with all those maniacs before the SWAT teams arrived and the violence escalated. Not without seriously injuring or killing people herself.
The sirens were getting louder, and I could see more flashing red and blue lights to the north. The SWAT units would be on us in two minutes. At most.
“No,” I said. In that moment, it was the only word I could muster. “No.”
As maniacal as all those nats had become, Liam was right: They knew not what they did. The only thing they had done of their own free will was attend a concert—a pretty damn good one, too—and they’d been happily enjoying the show along with everyone else. Nats and jokers alike.
In fact, for a few hours, there in the Bowery Ballroom, there hadn’t been any nats or jokers. Or aces, either.
We had all been Wholigans.
And now a lot of us had been hurt. But “hurt” was as far as I was going to let it go.
No. It was as far as we were going to let it go.
I looked straight up. Le Turtle was on the ground floor of a six-story apartment building. It was maybe seventy feet to the roof. That would be enough.
“Morpho Girl!” I said. “Do you and your mom have your phones?”
Adesina looked at me, startled. “Well, sure.”
That’s what I’d thought. “Okay, good. And after what we did in the Ballroom, you trust me, yeah?”
She frowned. “I—guess so.”
It wasn’t quite a vote of confidence, but it would have to do. I looked at Peter. “Segway! We have to clear a path to the Amazing Bubbles. Roll toward her, fast, and get close enough so some of those nats around her come after you. Then zip up the street to draw them away. Go just far enough so that when you wheel around and come back this way, you’re rolling as fast as you can when you’re here at Le Turtle. Top speed!” I looked at Liam, who had a moment between maniac attacks. “And when Segway rolls past, both ways, don’t let the nutters slow him down.”
Liam looked gobsmacked that I was giving him orders. But he gave me a sharp nod and said, “Right, mate.”
Peter was staring at me. “And, uh, where am I supposed to stop when I come back here at top speed?”
I used the sternest tone I could muster. “Stop at Adesina’s mom. Put your head down and ram her with that helmet. Hard.”
Peter’s eyes grew wide as saucers.
“Oh, hell no,” he said.
More of the nats from the plaza, and stragglers on the street, were coming at us now. The cluster around the Amazing Bubbles was getting bigger, too. More batons were swinging in the plaza. And the SWAT teams were drawing near.
“Segway, please—” I began.
But I didn’t have to finish, because Morpho Girl shouted over me. “Peter, go!” she yelled.
His eyes still wide, Segway took off toward the cluster.
I looked at Adesina and pointed up. “Get me to the roof.” Then, as she launched into the air and hovered over my head, I gave Liam a glance. “You got this?”
He gave me a feral grin and, without looking, clotheslined a shrieking nat the size of a mountain gorilla. “Whaddaya take me fer?”
I reached up and grasped Adesina’s ankles. I remembered how fast she could accelerate, so I held on tight.
As we shot upward, I saw that her purple Chuck Taylors had silver shoelaces. Why hadn’t I noticed that before?
In seconds, I was standing on the metal flashing at the lip of the roof. A sharp breeze hit my skin and made me shiver.
I released my grip on Morpho Girl as I looked down at the melee below. I could see the entire park plaza and the swarming maniacs therein, plus those in the street, all illuminated by streetlights. To the south, I could see two police vans and three cruisers with flashing lights approaching on Delancey, and to the north, three more vans and five cruisers on Houston. One of the vans had already turned from Houston onto Chrystie.
Segway had reached the cluster of maniacs surrounding the Amazing Bubbles, who was an island in the eye of a hurricane. Segway zipped back and forth along the northern edge of the storm, his two wheels compressing to one again, and then he spun and rushed northward with at least fifteen of the nats giving chase. The northern edge of the hurricane had been broken.
Adesina landed beside me. She pointed straight down.
“Who’s the guy in the green tracksuit, lying on the sidewalk? He’s, like, right behind where you were standing.”
I was watching Segway, Liam, and the mob. “That’s who did this,” I said. “He drugged the nats with the smoke in the Ballroom. Some Russian arse.”
Adesina gave a gasp. “Another one?”
I didn’t ask what she meant, because I had to keep track of the action below. Segway had made it past Liam, zigging and zagging around numerous maniacs, and Liam had helped him out by booting a few of them toward the park. But now the first police van coming down Chrystie had almost reached Stanton, just a block north. And more vans and cruisers were turning onto Chrystie from both Houston and Delancey.
The mob in the park was still screaming and lunging against the thin blue lines. And the lines were breaking. Jokers were being attacked, falling to the bricks.
The synthesizer break from “Won’t Get Fooled Again” started playing in my head. We were already in the middle of the drum buildup.
“Adesina, phone your mom.”
“I can text—”
“She’ll need to hear you.”
I kept focus on the street and the plaza. So I didn’t see Adesina take her phone from her pocket. But I heard her say, “Mom?”
And I saw the Amazing Bubbles press her hand to the side of her silver-blonde mane. She was looking up at me and Adesina.
I glanced to the north. Segway had turned back before reaching Stanton, and the first police van had been forced to slam on its brakes to avoid hitting him. Good. That bought us a few more seconds.
Now Segway was streaking southward.
“Morpho Girl!” I barked. She was standing to my right, and much too close. “Take off! Get away! And tell your mom that the moment she gets fat, the very instant, she has to blast me. One shot, everything she has.”
Adesina gasped again. She lowered her phone and gripped my arm.
“Freddie, you don’t know how much that can be,” she said. “I mean, you really don’t know!”
I shook off her hand. “You said you’d trust me. Tell her!”
“But she won’t!” Adesina said. “I know her, and she won’t!”
I was staring straight at the Amazing Bubbles now.
In my peripheral vision, I caught the blue-helmeted blur of Segway directly below.
The Moonie drums in my head were approaching a climax.
“Yes, she will,” I said.
I put my hand on Adesina’s neck and threw her off the roof.
She gave a short, startled scream. Her mother heard it.
Adesina dropped below the edge of the roof. If she had been a regular kid, she would have fallen to the sidewalk and died.
But she was Morpho Girl. I kept my eyes on Bubbles, but I felt the rush of air from Adesina’s wings as she began to swoop up and away.
By then, I had raised my right middle finger to my big sis.
And Segway hit her. Head down, full steam. Right in the solar plexus.
I heard a whump and saw concentric rings of vapor radiate out as if blown away by a sudden explosion of heat. Peter bounced back as if he’d hit a wall of rubber, and he tumbled arse over teakettle, bowling over two or three maniacal nats in the process.
Meanwhile, in the tiniest fraction of a second, of a nanosecond, the Amazing Bubbles expanded. Her oversized sweater stretched to its limits, and her white-blonde mane became a spiked corona around the enraged visage of a goddess.
Her tree trunk of a right arm shot out, and I saw a shining, silvery globe burst from her palm and blaze toward me.
I wasn’t sure of its size, because it was coming straight at my head. Maybe a football. You know, a proper football. Or maybe it was three times larger. Five. Ten. Fifty.
The synthesizer and drums reached their peak.
So I looked toward the plaza, and across the raging sea of maniacs to Forsyth. If I aimed at the buildings there, the Wholigans wouldn’t take a direct hit. They would catch the spreading lower edge of the shock wave, and then the reflection from the buildings as the leading edge bounced back. And maybe there would be no deaths.
Well, maybe one.
In an instant, the black sky turned crimson, then golden, and then an unbearably brilliant white as every star in the Milky Way went nova. A hundred thousand spikes of lightning stabbed into my skull, my eyes, my throat, my lungs, my heart. My arms spasmed outward. The tattoo on my chest caught fire, and the fire rushed to the rest of my flesh like burning magnesium.
The lights came up, and the guitar, bass, and cymbals came crashing down.
And I screamed.
Limbs blew off the trees in the park and flew through the night to splinter on distant walls. Windows shattered, and glass sleeted down for blocks. Streetlights burst, and steel poles swayed like bamboo.
The edge of the shock wave hit the plaza, and almost everyone, nat and joker, cop and criminal, sinner and saint, new boss and old boss, fell to the earth as if blown down by a puff of breath from the lips of Shiva.
Then the reflected wave returned, and those few who had been left standing joined the rest down on the asphalt, down on the concrete, down on the bricks. Even Liam, and even the Amazing Bubbles. They toppled like mountains chopped down by the edge of an invisible hand.
And then the reflection hit me, too. It almost blew me backward, back onto the roof of the Le Turtle building. But my last shreds of reflex fought it, and they fought too hard.
So I fell forward. As I went over, I saw the police vans and cruisers approaching the plaza. If they hurried, maybe all would be well. Maybe they could zip-tie the fallen nats before any could rise. Maybe no one would be hurt too badly. I had tried to stun everyone, to knock them down and take their breath away. But I knew there would be injuries. Maybe some bad ones.
But no deaths. Please, no deaths.
And maybe all the Wholigans drugged by the Xeno smoke would come back to themselves. So we could all see each other at another show sometime.
I tumbled, glimpsing a brick wall and spinning lights and broken windows and then the concrete squares of the sidewalk. I would hit it right beside the crumpled Russian.
Then I tumbled over once more, so I was looking up at the sky. It was dark again, just as a night sky should be.
High above, I caught a glimmer of cobalt-blue wings.
For the longest time, I was Nothing.
It wasn’t that I was suspended in Nothing. I was Nothing.
Darkness. Emptiness. No light, no music. Nothing.
I dreamed of my mum.
Except she wasn’t Mum. She looked like her, with her smooth, dark hair and chestnut eyes. And she sounded like her, her voice tinged with faint hints of Welsh and Punjabi, with a broader streak of American popster.
But this Mum’s eyes were bright, her brow unfurrowed. And when she reached toward my face, I didn’t flinch. She gave me a light caress with her fingertips.
Perhaps she was the Mum I had known when I was small. Until I was about eight.
That was when her London modeling jobs, already few and far between, had evaporated. That was when she’d started taking the waitressing and cashiering jobs. Which, soon enough, had become few and far between as well.
And she’d become angry. All the time. Mostly at me. After all, I was the thing that had changed her life, and not for the better.
But that wasn’t who we were in the dream.
In the dream, I’d been accepted to university, and was preparing to leave.
Mum, her fingertips still on my cheek, said she was proud. But that I must phone her twice a week, and text more than that.
I held up my phone and showed her the crack in the glass.
Then Mum took her hand away, and she turned to smoke.
I jerked awake, threw off the covers, and shouted, “Wait!”
My voice was a croak.
I was in bed, propped against the headboard with pillows. Across the room, in a big cream-colored chair in the corner, Adesina looked up from her phone. Her expression, much like the first time I’d seen her, was one of annoyance. The light from the floor lamp beside her chair made me squint.
The blue edges of her wings were visible behind her shoulders. But she wasn’t wearing a Union Jack T-shirt or red stovepipe jeans. Now she wore a dark green pullover—which still had small slits for her insect legs—with khaki slacks and fuzzy orange socks. No shoes.
She set her phone on the chair’s armrest, then raised an eyebrow. Her antennae gave a twitch. “Do you need me to, like, show you where the bathroom is?” she asked. She tucked a coppery dreadlock behind her ear. “I mean, again?”
I looked around the room. A chest of drawers, a dresser. Art on the walls, including a watercolor of the Statue of Liberty and a framed photo of Adesina at nine or ten. A window looking out on a Manhattan street, maybe SoHo or Jokertown, with a sky turning to dusk. We were on the seventh or eighth floor of . . . somewhere.
The bed was queen-size, with half a dozen soft pillows, a couple of cushy blankets, and a comforter. To my right was a walnut nightstand with a reading lamp, along with my blue spectacles and a glass of water.
I would have expected to wake up in hospital, which I would have hated. Assuming I woke up at all. But this was someone’s bedroom.
Every joint and muscle in my body reacted as if stuffed with broken glass. But I managed to push out from the pillows and swing my legs to sit on the edge of the mattress. Then, with my head starting to throb, I had a quick look at myself.
I was wearing white socks, gray sweatpants, and a too-large navy blue T-shirt. The shirt had a gold logo that I pulled away from my chest to read. It said Jokertown Mob!
“That’s my school jazz band,” Adesina said. “I’m the bass player. Peter plays trumpet. By the way, I’m missing practice right now. Not that you should feel guilty about that.”
I smoothed out the shirt. “You guys any good?”
She gave me a sardonic smile. “We’re hella good. And if you start acting like someone who isn’t a poopyhead, I’ll show you our YouTube channel.”
No doubt about it. Adesina was a musician.
“That explains why you were at a Who concert,” I said. “Our demographic skews a bit older, but bass players of all ages seem keen to watch Mr. Entwistle at work.”
Adesina rolled her eyes. “Well, yeah! But Peter wanted to go, too. I mean, OMG, great music is great music, right?” Her eyes narrowed. “Besides, I bet you’re not much older than we are. And you’re one of their roadies.”
I picked up my specs from the nightstand, grimacing as the jagged bits of glass in my arm shuffled about. “Yes, well,” I said. “I’m mature for my age.” I put on the specs with my hands shaking. But the throbbing in my head eased a tad as the tinted lenses dimmed the light.
Adesina pointed at her photograph on the wall. “That was me a year ago. You got nothing on me in the ‘mature for your age’ department.”
I looked down at the logo on my shirt again. The Mob! part was ringing in my head. “I have nothing on you in any regard,” I said. “If not for you, everyone at the concert . . .” I tried to swallow. My voice was thin and ragged, and I was thirsty. But I didn’t think I could lift the glass of water from the nightstand.
Adesina stood. “Freddie, don’t you jump down that bunny chute again. We totes do not want you to go lights-out so we have to start all over.”
I was confused. “Bunny chute?”
“Rabbit hole, or whatever! Jeez!”
Okay. Stay above ground, then. Ask the question.
But it was as if my throat were trying to close around a wire brush.
Then Adesina was standing in front of me, holding the glass of water to my lips. “Just a sip,” she said. “Don’t gulp it, or you’ll get all spewy again, like when I fed you that oatmeal this morning.”
A sip helped. “What happened to . . .” I took a painful breath. “Everyone in the park?”
She set down the glass. “I think you just like hearing it. You pretty much saved everyone, okay? I mean, some people got concussions, and there were a few broken arms and wrists. Some ruptured eardrums, duh. And a couple of skull fractures, but you didn’t do those. Anyway, it’s been three days, and something like thirty people are still in the hospital. Twitter says a few of the nats are having psychotic episodes, but everyone else seems to be over it. Oh, and there were maybe ten or twelve nats who ran off before the cops could stop them. So no one knows if they’re all right, or if they’re still smoke-crazy.”
The smoke. That evil shite.
“What about the Russian?” I rasped.
“That creep disappeared. I mean, he was still on the sidewalk when you fell. I saw him. But by the time the cops showed up, like a minute later, he was gone.”
Hell and damn. “So he got away with it.”
“Nope, he’s ska-rewed,” Adesina said. “Your boss had his phone. So now the cops have his contacts.” She made a low noise in her throat. “Also, it looks like he knows this other crook-type Russian I ran into a few months ago. That jerkface was trying to enslave joker kids—so guess what, he wound up on Rikers. And now with this Xeno thing, the cops think there must be a whole gang of them.” She gave a shudder. “The good news is that the police think they can get the smoke guy. The bad news is that I didn’t tell my mom about my run-in with the first guy, and now she knows. Lucky you, you were still unconscious when we had that discussion.”
It was as if the broken glass were trying to shred my brain. “I’m sorry,” I said, lowering my eyes. “Especially about everyone who got hurt.”
Adesina put her hand under my chin and tilted my head up. It wasn’t painful at all, which is a lie.
“Jeez Louise,” she said. “That’s not on you! Besides, nobody got killed. Things were starting to get super violent—but you gave that ginormous yell, and then everyone just sorta lay there like stunned tuna while the cops cuffed them.” She released my chin and took a step back. “‘Course, a bunch of people are pissed about their broken windows. Funny thing, though. Nobody knows who broke ’em.”
My joints, muscles, throat, chest, and head still ached. And I had more questions. But they could wait. A tension that had been twisting my gut had decided to relax.
“Right,” I said. “Now you can show me the bathroom.”
It was one door down the hall, which was good. When I finally emerged, another door across the hall opened, and Adesina peeked out.
“You alive?” she asked.
I nodded, which hurt. “I’m okay. But I’m concerned.”
Adesina stepped into the hall. “About?”
I rubbed my neck. “When I woke up, you were angry with me. And I don’t know why.”
She rolled her eyes again. “Dude! You pushed me off a roof!”
Somehow, I hadn’t realized that would be a problem. “Well, I did know you could fly.”
She crossed her arms. “It was mean. And when you hit the sidewalk, you yelled straight at me. I was tossed up, like, another two hundred feet. I almost hit a helicopter.”
I suspected she was exaggerating. But we had met in the midst of trauma, and then I had fallen unconscious for three days. During which she’d apparently been required to feed me.
“I apologize,” I said. “But you’re wrong about one thing.”
She raised her eyebrow again. “Oh, really?”
I nodded once more. Extreme pain. I had to stop doing that. “You said I saved everyone. But it was you, and Peter, and your mother. And Liam, the big hairy git.” I shrugged, and winced. “You played the music. I was just the instrument.”
Adesina rolled her eyes a third time, but now she was smiling.
“No way,” she said. “You were, like, the amplifier.” Then her expression changed. “Speaking of which, my bass amp has been making a stupid stinky buzzing noise. You know anything about stuff like that?”
As it happened, I did. Her amp and bass were in the living room, so we went out to have a look. The buzz was a ground-loop issue, easy to rectify. But I noted that the amp was a low-watt practice unit, and I thought she should have something with more punch. Especially since her bass was a lovely purple-sparkle StingRay. So we talked about small yet muscular amps she could get away with in an NYC apartment.
At some point, I remembered to ask if she knew whether I still had a job. She said the band and crew had moved on to Philadelphia—but that Liam had promised to rent a car and make a side trip to collect me the next Saturday, if I had recovered. Then we’d drive to Boston in time for the show that evening.
Adesina had taken out her phone and was showing me a game called Ocelot 9 when the apartment door opened and the Amazing Bubbles entered with two bags of groceries.
“Mom!” Adesina chirped. “Look who’s up!”
Bubbles was the same size as when I’d first seen her. She was dressed much the same, too, except that today’s big sweater was lavender. And her platinum hair was tied back in a ponytail. She hip-checked the door shut behind her, then crossed the living room to the open kitchen. She was giving me and Adesina a look I couldn’t read.
“This worries me,” she said at last, setting the bags on the kitchen counter.
My throat started to close around the wire brush again, and I had the urge to run for the exit. But I knew if I did, I’d flop over like . . . well, like a stunned tuna.
“No, it’s okay!” Adesina said. “He went to the bathroom by himself and everything.”
Bubbles began unpacking groceries. A whole chicken. Rice. Celery. Pasta. Black grapes. I focused on all of that so I wouldn’t look at her face. If I did, she might turn me to stone.
“I mean,” Bubbles said, “I’m worried because your bass is beside the couch, and you’re ignoring it. So I’m wondering if this rock-band roadie has talked you into wanting a new one.”
Adesina gave a short laugh. “God, no! He knows the StingRay’s awesome.” She tilted her head. “But he does think I need a new amp.”
There was a brief moment of silence. Then Bubbles said, “Of course he does.”
I risked looking at her, and tried to get enough air to speak. “It’s, you see, it’s not that her amp is bad, it’s—”
Bubbles didn’t seem to hear me. “At least we can all sit at the table for dinner. And then I can have my bedroom back.”
Adesina jumped up. “Mom! You can’t kick him out! He’s our guest! Besides, you’re the one who wouldn’t let them keep him in the hospital. You, like, insisted—and what were they gonna do, say no to you?”
The Amazing Bubbles regarded Adesina with a look of motherly reproach. “That isn’t quite true. Liam said Freddie hated hospitals and would recover faster elsewhere. But the doctors wouldn’t listen, since Liam was just a friend. So he asked if I could do something. Which I did, as soon as I—” She began folding the first grocery bag. “—realized I could. But I didn’t threaten anyone. I don’t do that.” She frowned. “At least, I don’t make a habit of it.”
It looked as if I was getting the boot. I wasn’t sure where I would go now . . . but I was grateful to Bubbles and Adesina for taking me in. And I didn’t want to cause further strife.
“Ms. Pond,” I said, “thank you so much for having me. But I’ve imposed quite enough, so I’ll take my leave.”
Or rather, that’s what I tried to say. But nothing came out except “Ms. Pond,” followed by a wheeze.
The Amazing Bubbles rolled her eyes, and now I understood how Adesina had gotten so good at it. “Four things,” Bubbles said. She held up a finger. “One: Adesina, I’m not kicking him out. I’m saying, now that he’s better, I can have my bed back, and he can have the couch.”
“But Mom!” Adesina protested. “He’s a guest—”
Bubbles added a second finger. “Two: He’s not a guest. And he’ll have his own space here, whenever he wants it, as soon as we clean out that room we’ve been calling an office, but which has really been the junk room. We’ll need another bed, too. For tonight, though, he gets the couch.”
Adesina stood silent and still. She blinked. Her antennae twitched.
Bubbles began emptying the second bag.
Then Adesina said, “What? Huh?”
Bubbles set a loaf of French bread on the counter.
“Freddie,” she said, looking down at the bread, “is your mother named Farishta Fullerton?”
It took me a few moments to answer. I’d almost never heard anyone use Mum’s given name.
“I—she—” I gulped air. It hurt. “Yes.”
Bubbles nodded. “When Liam told me your last name, I knew why you looked familiar. Doubly so.” She paused, and when she spoke again, her voice was quieter. “Your mother and I did some shoots together when I was fifteen. She was eighteen or nineteen. My so-called father came to those shoots, so I assumed he was keeping an eye on me. I thought he’d realized I was about to file papers to become an emancipated minor. But that wasn’t why he was there.”
Adesina and I were both staring at the Amazing Bubbles, and the Amazing Bubbles was still staring at the bread.
Finally, she looked at Adesina. “I’m sorry to spring this on you, honey. But it wouldn’t have been fair to him if I’d told you before he was awake.”
“Huh?” Adesina said again. “What?”
Bubbles gave a slight smile. “Adesina,” she said. “This is your Uncle Freddie.” She looked at me. “Freddie, this is your niece, Adesina.”
Now Adesina was staring at me instead.
“It’s traditional to shake hands when introduced,” Bubbles said.
I stood up, wobbling like a buoy in the wake of a speedboat. Adesina and I managed to shake hands, and she looked at me as if I had materialized from the ether.
“Uh, Mom?” Adesina said, sounding dazed. “You said ‘Four things.’”
“Oh, yes.” Bubbles held up three fingers. “Three: Adesina, please come help with dinner. I’d ask your uncle as well, but he still looks shaky. And we have things to chop.”
Adesina released my hand. She walked to the kitchen with her wings quivering.
I swallowed. Ow. “Um, the fourth thing?” I asked.
Bubbles didn’t hold up four fingers. Instead, she pulled a cutting board from a cabinet and dropped it onto the counter. Then she reached into a drawer and produced a large, gleaming knife.
“Four,” she said, cutting the wrapper from the chicken. “I’m not ‘Ms. Pond’ to you, Freddie, any more than you’re ‘Mr. Fullerton’ to me. My name is Michelle. Got it?”
I nodded. Ow again.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
She pointed the knife at me.
“I mean—yes, Michelle.”
Michelle slapped the chicken onto the cutting board and attacked it. “Damn skippy,” she said.
My new phone buzzed as Michelle, Adesina, and I came into the apartment late Saturday morning. We were stuffed with blintzes from Katz’s and loaded down with bags from other stops, including one straining with eight LPs from Bleecker Bob’s. One Jethro Tull, one Kinks, two Stones, and four from my employers: The Who Sell Out, Tommy, Live at Leeds, and Who’s Next.
After we’d discovered a turntable stashed in the “junk room,” I’d told Adesina there was only one way to fully appreciate classic rock: on vinyl. So we’d set up the turntable in her room, and now she had some records. They were all in decent shape, too. Of course, Michelle had grumbled about there being more than enough noise in the apartment already, what with the bass playing and the bandmates coming ’round. But she’d paid for the albums.
As we’d left Bleecker Bob’s, Adesina had asked me which song on which album was my favorite. “That’s a sticky wicket,” I’d said. “I don’t think I can answer.”
She’d rolled her eyes. “What if I threatened to push you off a roof?”
“Side one, track two,” I’d said. “Who’s Next.”
It had been a long morning’s hike, and I was sore. But we were all puffing a bit. The day was sunny for December, but the air still had a chilly bite. Michelle’s cheeks were pink, and once she’d hip-checked the door, she shuffled to the couch, dropped her bags, and flopped onto her back.
“This is mine,” she said, groaning. “You two can have the floor.”
Adesina hefted the bag from Bleecker Bob’s. “No, I’ll be in my room with the volume turned to—” She grinned at me. “What was it?”
“Eleven,” I said, setting down my own bag.
Michelle groaned again. Adesina and I fist bumped.
Then I took the new phone from the pocket of my jacket, which was also new. The jacket was almost like the one I’d lost in the riot, and Michelle had wanted to buy it for me. But I’d done it myself, since she’d already paid for my phone.
I had a text from Liam. CAN U MEET ME RATHR THAN PIKN U UP? FOUND SHOP LAST WEEK HANDMADE GUITAR STRAPS N LADS ORDRD SOM. NICE LADY FINSHNG THM UP BUT TIME SHORT MUST GO SOON AS SHE FINSHS F WE R 2 GET 2 BOSTN SOUNDCHK. 195 CHRYSTIE NEAR WHERE WE HAD ROW W YANKS N RUSSIAN. BE HERE IN 30? TELL MS BUBBLES N MORPHO GRL SRRY 2 MISS EM.
Bollocks. I’d thought I’d have another hour. Enough time for a proper goodbye.
But then, a proper goodbye might be too much like a goodbye.
I tapped my answer. BE THERE IN 30 MATE.
“What is it?” Adesina asked. But she knew.
I gave her a smile, hoping it didn’t look forced. “It’s Liam. I’m to meet him on Chrystie, not far from where I tried to throw you into a helicopter. Am I right that I can walk there in fifteen or twenty minutes?”
Adesina looked into her Bleecker Bob’s bag and didn’t answer. But Michelle sat up. “Twenty, if you don’t window shop,” she said. “We can walk you. Do you have to leave right away?”
I nodded. “’Fraid so. Liam sends apologies.” I looked from Michelle to Adesina. “I want you both to know, these past few days have been . . .” I took a moment to find the right words. “ . . . the best of my life, other than my seventh birthday, which was the day I rode a pony.”
Adesina actually laughed. That was a relief.
“Let me put these records in my room and go to the bathroom,” Adesina said, with just a touch of a quaver. “Then we’ll walk you to Chrystie, and Mom and I can give you a genuine New York goodbye.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
Michelle stood. “It involves the same one-fingered salute you gave me a week ago.”
Now I laughed. Or chuckled, at least.
“Much as I hate to miss that,” I said, “I’d rather say farewell here. If you were to come along, I . . . might be tempted to miss my ride.” I was suddenly aware that my throat was still a bit ragged. “And I do want to keep my job.”
Adesina set down her Bleecker Bob’s bag and wrapped her arms around me. Then her wings wrapped around me as well. It was like being inside a warm blue cocoon.
“But you’ll come visit,” Adesina said into my neck. “Lots.”
“Of course.” I pushed away as gently as I could. Her arms released me before her wings did.
“If you don’t,” she said, “I’ll send Mom after you.”
I glanced at Michelle. “Good Lord. Nobody wants that.”
Adesina picked up the Bleecker Bob’s bag. “You better believe it.” Then she turned, went to the hallway, and vanished.
Michelle reached behind the couch and picked up my olive-drab duffel. “I’ll walk you down.”
We took the stairs, and neither of us said another word until we were in the lobby. No one else was there.
At the door, she handed over my duffel. “I know Adesina told you how I came to adopt her. So you know that, for us, the mother-daughter thing has been forged in fire. Which means you also need to know: If you’re going to be my brother, you can’t just be Adesina’s friend or bass-equipment guru or anything else teenagers might be to each other. There’s a duty. You know?”
“You’ve only been aware of my existence for a week,” I said. “But my mum told me about you almost from the day I was born. So, for me—” I dropped the duffel, took a chance, and hugged her. “You’ve always been my sister. And now Adesina is my niece.”
Michelle hugged me back. “So if anything should ever happen to me . . .”
“Nothing could. But I’m her uncle. Always.”
“Good.” She broke the hug. “You’re gonna text us both, right? Maybe even phone or FaceTime once in a while?”
“I think I’m obligated, since you bought the phone. Besides, Adesina’s hooked me up with Ocelot 9, so I’ll be playing online with her and her friends.”
Michelle gave a mock grimace. “You’re braver than I.”
Then she held out a fist and opened it. A bright silver bubble lay in her palm. “This is a reminder,” she said, “that you have a place here. Whenever you have a break. I’ll buy the ticket.”
I plucked it from her palm. It had weight, like steel.
“Cor blimey,” I said. “It’s a pinball! I reckon that makes me a wizard.”
Michelle frowned. “Say what?”
I dropped the bubble into my jeans pocket. Sometimes music skips a generation. “Ask Adesina.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, fine. Make me feel like an out-of-touch mom.” Then she gave me a steady gaze. “Speaking of which. It might not be my business, but . . . maybe phone your own mom, too. You wouldn’t have to tell her where you are or what you’re doing. But let her know you’re alive, okay?”
I scuffed one of my Doc Martens. “I sent her an email once. She knows I’m alive.”
“Like I said, might not be my business. But you kept her name. So I’m thinking, maybe you want to keep her, too.”
I nodded and picked up my duffel.
Michelle made a throat-clearing noise. “One more thing. Last week, when you were up on that roof . . .”
She looked at the floor. “I bubbled you pretty bad. Right afterward, I knew it was what you wanted. But that wasn’t why I did it.” She shook her head. “Adesina had already told me what you did in the Ballroom. And I knew my own daughter could fly. But when you pushed her, I lost control. And I hit you.”
She sounded torn up about it. Which surprised me.
“Well, I knew you would,” I said.
She looked at me again, her face tight. “Is my reputation that . . . monstrous?”
I realized she had been through some shite that would always make her doubt herself. And maybe, sometimes, that was a good thing. But in this case, it was a load of crap.
“Michelle, your reputation had sod all to do with it. I knew you’d do it because I knew I would.” I shrugged. “And you’re my big sis. So I kind of am you.”
Michelle let out a breath. “Poor bastard.”
I put my hand on the door. “That’s accurate.”
She crossed the lobby to the lift. “By the way, Little Bro,” she said as she pushed the button. “That bubble in your pocket will be stable for about six months.” The doors opened, and she stepped inside. “After that, it could explode at any moment. So you might want to come back before that.” The doors closed.
I pushed out into the crisp air and started south on Lafayette. But I’d only gone twenty feet when I saw the kilted figure of Segway coming toward me in one-wheel mode, zigzagging around pedestrians and saying “’Scuse me!” to anyone who seemed startled. He was wearing his NYPD helmet, which he’d been allowed to keep, and was carrying a trumpet case. He waved to me with his free hand, so I paused as he expanded to two wheels and slid to a stop in front of me. I saw that the NYPD shield on his helmet had been replaced by a Jokertown Mob! sticker.
“Hey, Amplifier!” he said. “You leaving?”
I nodded. “And you’re on your way to see Adesina?”
He hefted the case. “Yup. We’re gonna play a little. Band practice at school is all well and good, but you gotta put in the hours if you wanna be a badass.”
That was true. “I’m glad Adesina has a boyfriend as serious about music as she is.”
Peter’s jaw went slack, and his face flushed. The lenses of his Buddy Holly specs fogged a bit.
“I, uh, I—” He gave a cough. “I wouldn’t say I’m her boyfriend, exactly.”
“Ah,” I said. “But she would. So have a care.” I lowered my own specs and looked at him over the rims. “Don’t make me raise my voice.”
He swallowed. “I hear you.”
“Good man,” I said. I gave him a clap on the shoulder and started on my way again. “But it’s ‘Mister Amplifier’ to you.”
This time, I had walked just another ten feet when the sky above me rang with the majestic noise of side one, track two of Who’s Next. Turned to eleven.
I looked up and saw Morpho Girl hovering above me. She was eight stories high, just outside her open bedroom window.
“Uncle Freddie!” she called down through the music. “It’s a love song! But it’s, like, about more than that, right?”
I gave her a wave. Exactly right.
Now I had to hurry. So the nearer I drew to Chrystie, the more I became aware that my joints still ached. That my legs still had pangs. That my head still throbbed, and my throat and chest still rasped. That it was still going to be a while before I was strong again. Before I was free of pain.
Well, no wonder. I had been punched, shocked, kicked, dropped, pummeled, bubbled, and knocked about like a small silver ball being flipped and battered between bumpers and buzzers. And then I’d tilted into a darkness where I hadn’t even known whether I still existed.
But after all that—
I’d awakened into a new life. In a new world.
And like the song says: I’d call that a bargain.
The best I ever had.
“Naked, Stoned, and Stabbed” copyright © 2019 by Bradley Denton
Art copyright © 2019 by John Picacio