Alan Maple is old and tired.
He loves his work. Few people spend their life working for their passion, and he’s always considered himself a lucky one. He loves what he does, and he’s good at it.
And it was easy until recently. He’d evaded that old detective for years, and even enjoyed it. He was younger then, fast and slick. But time has passed, and so had the old detective. Now, his good times are quickly nearing their end, and it began with the arrival of Christian Stanford.
Stanfard is young, fast, and has something to prove. He’s quick on his feet, tech-savvy, and dares to take risks that his mentor did not, all things that made Maple take an instant dislike to him. Rather than the old, steady cat-and-mouse, Stanford sniffs after him like a hound for blood. Every corner he turns, Stanford is there. Every time he sticks his neck out, Stanford breaths down it. Six different identities methodically snuffed out. Five safe houses in three states gutted in a year. Maple’s crew, with whom he once had a jolly good time, are now getting bent over their bunks in federal prison. He’s the last one left, and he’s so tired of running.
But he’s not out. Not yet.
There is time for one last score. And then, who knows, he thinks as he drums his fingers on the steering wheel of his trusty blue Sedan, the latest of his getaway cars, and one of his favorites. It sports a roomy trunk, plenty of space to lay a small body down out of sight in the back seat, good, grippy tires for sharp corners, and it screams “nothing to see here” in a crowd. He’s gone through a lot of cars in his thirty-odd years in this game, and he’s sure Stanford is already sniffing after this one, too. This is the last round.
And then, he muses, maybe he’ll turn himself in. Walk straight into Stanford’s office and offer himself up. Won’t that just ruin the lil bastard’s day, having his fanfare deflated by ol’ Maple turning himself in.
The front door to the house on the corner is closed. Maple checks his watch. Four minutes ’til seven. She should be out any moment. She is punctual, a creature of habit, and Maple respects that. She’s always neatly dressed, backpack perfectly arranged over her shoulders, shoes neatly tied. He licks his lips at the thought of mussing her up, disrupting that ordered little life she lives.
Picking his final score hadn’t been easy. He didn’t want a challenge, but he didn’t want one too young either — they wear out too quickly. The older ones can be difficult, too. He still has scars from the thirteen-year-old who tried to gouge out his eyes with her French tips. He’s far too old for the ones that kick and holler. He wants a workable plan and an easy target.
The girl is picked up by a school vehicle with a special needs sticker. After passing by the house for two months, Maple had figured out its pattern. The vehicles may change on occasion, as might the driver, but the sticker does not change, and the school always sends blue cars. This last part was luck. He believes the universe has sent him this coincidence to let him get in this last score. The sticker took some finessing to obtain, but he still has his tricks.
The girl steps out, dressed in her pink jacket and white gloves. The school vehicle is due to arrive in roughly three minutes. Maple pulls his own car to the curb, gets out, and opens the back door for her.
She looks at the car, then looks at him. She’s tiny, meek, and pretty, with deep brown eyes and honey-colored hair. He gives her his warm, practiced smile.
She turns to look back at the house for her mother. That moment is all it takes.
The last safe house, the only one Stanford hasn’t gotten his hands on, is in the middle of a dilapidated neighborhood. It’s a pathetic, moldy place that even Maple himself doesn’t care to frequent, but it has its advantages — namely that the neighbors don’t ask questions. He carries the girl inside. She is silent, shivering, and dazed. When he sets her down on the lumpy mattress in the corner of the tiny living room, she huddles herself against a corner and refuses to look at him. In fact, he wonders if she’s looking at anything. Her brown eyes have gone glazed and empty. He runs his eyes over her slender legs, long fingers, and pink lips.
“Don’t you worry, sweetheart,” he says in his best grandfatherly voice. “You and me are gonna have a good time.”
She says nothing. He stands back and admires her. She is a true gem, so much beauty in so small a package. He resists the urge to tear into her right away. She is his final score. His last meal before the gallows.
He sits her in a chair and takes pictures of her first. She poses obediently, so obediently that she doesn’t seem to feel the cold on her body even after he’s stripped her nearly naked. He considers whether to be disappointed or aroused by the glassy, resigned expression on her face. He’s going to take his time.
His mind doesn’t process the sound initially. The girl doesn’t look up.
The front door isn’t open.
Must be the back. He curses himself for not having checked both doors. He could’ve sworn he’d left the back door double-bolted the last time he was here. He leaves the girl and his camera and rounds the tight hallway to the tiny kitchen. The back door is open.
Actually, the back door is on the kitchen floor. Maple stops in his tracks. Cold January winds are whistling inside from the open doorway. A short, stout figure in a puffy red jacket steps inside, snow-covered sneakers crunching over the fallen door, which looks like it has been pushed straight off the frame, bolts and hinges and all.
“Who the hell are you?” Maple snaps. “Git out of here.”
The figure lifts its head and a somewhat familiar face looks up at him. Placing it takes a full second, then Maple remembers. The one who sometimes stood by the girl as she waited for her ride. The one who flapped and squeaked and had to be pulled out of the streets. The idiot brother. He’d once mused that he could snatch her right in front of him and he wouldn’t do a thing but keep running his little circles.
The boy takes another step inside and looks around. The way he moves his neck is odd, like someone who’s never been aware of their neck turning their head for the first time.
“Are you the driver of the blue car?”
Maple starts. The voice coming out of the child’s mouth is oddly adult. Unnatural.
“You are.” The boy taps his temple. Do humans have eyes that blue? “Hold on. I haven’t done this before. This child here stores a lot of information, you see. But he’s not great at accessing it, so I’m having to try hard to piece together a working language. He is telling me that you drove the blue car by his house eighteen times in the past month, at the same time, six times by his school, and four times he saw you around town in different places, same car.”
Maple considers if he should be afraid. Those blue eyes tear into him.
“Funny thing, this brain I’ve picked,” the boy continues. Then, he lifts the door up and slams it back into the frame as if it weighs no more than a sheet of cardboard. “So much potential, but disorganized. He understands so much though, and he retains more than I thought would be possible for your species.”
Suddenly afraid, Maple turns and makes for the front door, bashing his elbow painfully in the corner of the hallway as he rounds it. He passes the girl sitting like a doll in her chair and his fingers come less than an inch short of the front door knob. Terror chokes him as a small hand drags him back by the shirt tail. He falls and lands heavily on his back. The boy stands over him.
“That won’t do,” the boy says. “He is saying I can keep you from getting away if . . .” he looks off for a moment. “I break this.”
The sound is like the snap of a chicken bone. Maple screams as pain shoots through him like fireworks. He looks down to see his right foot has been flattened like some sort of morbid cartoon. The boy takes off his jacket, wraps it around the girl, then returns to Maple. He blinks and his pupils turn brown, then blinks and they’re blue once more.
Air rasps in and out of Alan Maple’s lungs. He doesn’t want to look into those strange, alien eyes but he’s terrified of what would happen if he looks away.
“So,” the boy says in that strange, adult voice. “I’m not an especially good scout. It’s a job that gets you jaded. I’ve seen a lot. That’s part of scouting — see a lot, do nothing.”
Maple nods. His neck creaks up and down like a rusty hinge.
“I was debating if I should try harder, give it my all and be a better scout, or just give up and do whatever I want until I get fired. It’s a tough choice. All or nothing. I’m one of those who like to choose nothing. Nothing is easier. It’s easier not to care.”
Can he run on one foot? Hop for the door like a hobbled kangaroo?
“Then I ran into this kid.” The boy taps his temple. “And he’s got such an interesting mind. Everything’s so black and white, good and bad, like it or hate it. So simple. I like that. I’m telling you this for a reason. I want you to understand how he sees you right now. Got it?”
He doesn’t dare look toward the door.
“Nod if you understand.”
“Good.” The boy snaps his fingers and looks away, as if sifting through his brain for words. “He’s telling me a story.” His eyes lose their luster for a moment, taking on a dazed, glassy look. They switch to brown, then back to blue. “He says there was this thing he saw, once his parents took him to a place. Vacation. They went to this vacation, and there was a thing by the side of this desert road. It was small, and prickly. He hates prickly things. Really hates them. They feel like nightmares and just looking at them makes him feel like his skin is being pricked. His sister said it’s called a horny toad, which he thought was silly, because it was neither a toad nor was it horny. Now I don’t know . . .” His entire body stops as if someone pressed the pause button. His eyes change color then change back again. “Oh, that’s a toad. Alright, yes, I see. Anyway, this thing was making him upset. Very upset. He thought it was the most disgusting, upsetting thing in the world. He kicked and screamed a lot and wanted to stomp on it but was afraid. It was a really bad day. He hates that thing and he never wants to see it again and he wishes it did not exist. It was a blemish on the world to him. Just awful.”
The boy raises one hand, lays it flat, and holds it above his head.
“Now see, here is the toad.” He flattens his other hand, stretches his arms open, and holds it almost to the ground. “And here’s you. This is the most horrifying, disgusting thing he’s ever seen in his life, and this is you. You are so upsetting and bothersome to him that he’s having trouble processing it. He doesn’t understand why anyone, anyone at all, would dare to put their hands on the best thing in his world, which is that girl there. Oh, you should see how he sees her. Like a brand-new sun. He can see where you touched her, too. None of this make sense to him, which again, is terribly upsetting. He feels a need to . . .” He snaps his fingers again. Every motion he makes sends a tremor of terror through Maple.
“Dismantle you. He needs your existence to make sense. I don’t know a whole lot about this planet, or how your laws work. But, like I said before, I don’t care. I am one of those who just does not give a . . .” He pauses. “Huh. I don’t know a good word to fit there. Point is, I don’t care. He gave me direction, and I steered him here. I’m lending him a bit of, shall we say, coordination? The rest is up him.” He stands. Maple’s entire body is pulled tight with fear.
“But,” says the boy, as his left eye changes to brown. “I do know, as a universal truth, how children ought to be treated. And frankly, you are repulsive.”
Should have gone with Stanford when I had the chance, thinks Alan Maple.
“He wants to know if you have a phone.”
“Never mind, I’ll find it. He’s telling me I need to do something first. Find a phone and dial a number that he knows. He stores quite a lot of numbers.” The boy reaches into Maple’s coat pocket and fishes out his burner phone. “This’ll do.” He stops, as if listening, and then dials a number.
“Hello,” he says. “Police? I have the girl you’re looking for. Naomi Rodriguez. No, it’s not a joke. The girl you’re looking for is here. 2310 Santa Barbara. You have ten minutes before I do something unspeakable to her kidnapper.”
With a burst of strength Maple lunges upward and stands on his one good foot just as the boy finishes speaking. He makes one last try for the door.
“Hey!” the boy calls. “You stop that!”
The last thing he hears is the wet sound of something being torn apart.
What they find when they arrive is not a pleasant scene, though it is a peaceful one. The brother is sitting with his sister, both huddled together for warmth in the corner of the dank house. They’re facing the wall, sharing the same jacket and rocking back and forth. Behind them, on the floor of the dirty living room, rests Alan Maple, arranged into three neat rows, by shape and color.
The girl is holding her brother’s hand and singing.
“March and May are pretty
September is just fine
But love if you are with me
January is Divine“