AS he pulled onto Tower Street, not far from where the GPS had told him Adam was, Mike scanned the block for his son or a familiar face or vehicle. Did any of them drive yet? Olivia Burchell, he thought. Had she turned seventeen? He wasn't sure. He wanted to check the GPS, see if Adam was still in the right area. He pulled to the side and turned on his laptop. No wireless network detected.
The crowd outside his car window was young and dressed in black with pale faces and black lipstick and eye mascara. They wore chains and had strange facial (and probably corporeal) piercings and, of course, the requisite tattoo, the best way to show that you're independent and shocking by fitting in and doing what all your friends do. Nobody is comfortable in his own skin. The poor kids want to look rich, what with the expensive sneakers and the bling and what have you. The rich want to look poor, gangsta tough, apologizing for their softness and what they see as their parents' excess, which, without doubt, they will emulate someday soon. Or was something less dramatic at play here? Was the grass simply greener on the other side? Mike wasn't sure.
Either way he was glad Adam had only taken to the black clothes. So far, no piercing, tattoos or makeup. So far.
The emos-they were no longer called goths, according to Jill, though her friend Yasmin had insisted that they were two separate entities and this led to much debate-dominated this particular stretch. They grazed about with open mouths and vacant eyes and slacker bad posture. Some people lined up at a nightclub on one corner, others frequented a bar on another. There was a place advertising "nonstop 24-hour Go-Go" and Mike couldn't help but wonder if that was true, if there was really a go-go dancer there every day, even at four A.M. or two in the afternoon. How about on Christmas morning or July Fourth? And who were the sad people who both worked and frequented such a place at such an hour?
Could Adam be inside?
There was no way to know. Dozens of such places lined the streets. Big bouncers with earplugs you usually associate with either the Secret Service or Old Navy employees stood guard. It used to be only some clubs had bouncers. Now, it seemed, all had at least two beefy guys-always with a tight black T-shirt that exposed bloated biceps, always with a shaved head as if hair were a sign of weakness-working the door.
Adam was sixteen. These places weren't supposed to let anyone in under the age of twenty-one. Unlikely Adam, even with a fake ID, could pass. But who knows? Maybe there was a club in this area that was known for looking the other way. That would explain why Adam and his friends would drive so far to go here. Satin Dolls, the famed gentle- men's club that was used as Bada Bing! on The Sopranos, was just a few miles from their house. But Adam wouldn't be able to get in.
That had to be why he came all the way here.
Mike drove down the street with the laptop in the passenger seat next to him. He stopped at the corner and hit VIEW WIRELESS NETWORKS. Two popped up but both had security features. He couldn't get on. Mike moved another hundred yards, tried again. On his third time, he hit pay dirt. "Netgear" network came up with no security features at all. Mike quickly hit the CONNECT button and he was on the Internet.
He had already bookmarked the GPS home page and told it to save his screen name. Now he brought it up and typed in his simple password-ADAM-and waited.
The map came up. The red dot hadn't moved. According to the disclaimer, the GPS only gave you markings to within forty feet. So it was hard to pinpoint exactly where Adam was, but he was definitely close by. Mike shut down the computer.
Okay, now what?
He found a spot up ahead and pulled in. The area would be kindly described as seedy. There were more windows boarded up than containing anything resembling the glass family. The brick all seemed to be a muddy brown and in various stage of either disintegration or collapse. The stench of sweat and something harder to define clogged the air. Storefronts had their graffiti-splattered metal hoods pulled down in protection. Mike's breath felt hot in his throat. Everyone seemed to be perspiring.
The women wore spaghetti straps and small shorts, and at the risk of seeming hopelessly old-fashioned and politically incorrect, he wasn't sure if these were just teenage partyers or working girls.
He stepped out of his car. A tall black woman approached and said, "Hey, Joe, want to party with Latisha?"
Her voice was deep. Her hands were big. And now Mike wasn't sure "her" would be accurate.
"You sure? It would open up new worlds."
"I'm sure it would, but my worlds are open enough as it is."
Posters of bands you never heard of with names like Pap Smear and Gonorrhea Pus plastered any free space. On one stoop, a mother propped her baby on her hip, sweat glistening off her face, a bare lightbulb swinging behind her. Mike spotted a makeshift parking lot in an abandoned alleyway. The sign said ALL NIGHT, $10. A Latino man wearing a wifebeater tee and cut-off shorts stood by the drive, counting money. He eyed Mike and said, "What you want, bro?"
Mike moved on. He found the address that the GPS showed him. It was a walk-up residence jammed between two loud clubs. He looked inside and saw about a dozen buzzers to ring. No names on the buzzers-just numbers and letters to indicate each.
So now what?
He didn't have a clue.
He could wait out here for Adam. But what good would that do? It was ten o'clock at night. The places were just starting to fill up. If his son was here partying and had directly disobeyed him, it could be hours before he came out. And then what? Would Mike pop out in front of Adam and his friends and say, "Aha, got ya!" Would that somehow be helpful? How would Mike explain how he ended up here?
What did Mike and Tia want out of this anyway?
This was yet another problem with spying. Forget the obvious violation of privacy for the moment. There was the issue of enforcement. What do you do when you find something going on? Wouldn't interfering and thus losing your child's trust do as much or more damage as a night of underage drinking?
Mike wanted to make sure his boy was safe. That was all. He remembered what Tia had said, something about our job being to escort them safely to adulthood. It was true in part. The teen years were so angst-filled, so hormone-fueled, so much emotion packed in and then raised to the tenth power-and it all passed so quickly. You couldn't tell a teen that. If you could hand down one piece of wisdom to a teenager, it would be simple: This too shall pass-and it would pass quickly. They wouldn't listen, of course, because that's the beauty and waste of youth.
He thought about Adam's instant-messaging with CeeJay8115. He thought about Tia's reaction and his own gut instinct. He was not a religious man and didn't believe in psychic powers or anything like that, but he didn't like to go against what he would describe as certain vibes in both his personal and professional life. There were times things simply felt wrong. It could be in a medical diagnosis or in what route to take on a long car trip. It was just something in the air, a crackle, a hush, but Mike had learned to ignore it at his own peril.
Right now every vibe was screaming that his son was in serious trouble.
So find him.
He had no idea. He started back up the street. Several hookers propositioned him. Most seemed male. One guy in a business suit claimed to be "representing" a variety pack of "steaming hot" ladies and all Mike had to do was give him a laundry list of physical attributes and desires and said representative would procure him the proper mate or mates. Mike actually listened to the sales pitch before turning it down.
He kept his eyes moving. Some of the young girls frowned when they felt his gaze. Mike looked around and realized that he was probably the oldest person on this crowded street by something like twenty years. He noticed that every club made the clientele wait for at least a few minutes. One had a pitiful velvet rope, maybe a yard long, and the guy would make whoever wanted to come in stand behind it for maybe ten seconds before opening the door.
Mike was turning to the right when something caught his eye.
A varsity jacket.
He spun quickly and spotted the Huff kid walking the other way.
Or at least it looked like DJ Huff. That varsity jacket the kid always wore was on his back. So maybe that was him. Probably.
No, Mike thought, he was sure. It was DJ Huff.
He had disappeared down a side street. Mike quickly picked up his pace and followed him. When he lost sight of the kid, he started to jog.
"Whoa! Slow down, gramps!"
He had bumped into some kid with a shaved head and a chain hanging from his lower lip. His buddies laughed at the gramps line. Mike frowned and slid past him. The street was packed now, the crowd seeming to grow with each step. As he hit the next block, the black goths-oops, emos-seemed to thin out in favor of a more Latino crowd. Mike heard Spanish being spoken. The baby-powder white skin had been exchanged for shades of olive. The men wore dress shirts unbuttoned all the way so as to show the bright white, ribbed tee underneath. The women were salsa sexy and called the men "conos"and wore outfits that were so sheer they seemed more like sausage casing than clothing.
Up ahead Mike saw DJ Huff bear right down another street. It looked like he had a cell phone pressed against his ear. Mike hurried to catch up to him... but then what would he do? Again. Grab him and say, "Aha!" Maybe. Maybe he would just follow him, see where he was going. Mike didn't know what was going on here, but he didn't like it. Fear started nibbling at the base of his brain.
He veered right.
And the Huff boy was gone.
Mike pulled up. He tried to gauge the speed, how much time had elapsed. There was one club about a quarter of the way down the block. That was the only visible door. DJ Huff had to have gone in there. The line outside the place was long-the longest Mike had seen. Had to be a hundred kids. The crowd was a mix-the emos, Latinos, African Americans, even a few of what they used to call yuppies.
Wouldn't Huff have had to wait on line?
Maybe not. There was a super-huge bodyguard behind a velvet rope. A stretch limousine pulled up. Two leggy girls stepped out. A man nearly a foot shorter than the leggy girls took his seemingly rightful place between them. The super-huge bouncer opened the velvet rope-this rope being about ten feet long-and let them right in.
Mike sprinted toward the entrance. The bouncer-a big black guy with arms the relative thickness of your average hundred-year-old redwood-gave Mike a bored look, as if Mike were an inanimate object. A chair maybe. A disposable razor.
"I need to get in," Mike said.
"I'm not on any list."
The bouncer just looked at him some more.
"I think my son might be inside. He's underage."
The bouncer said nothing.
"Look," Mike said, "I don't want any trouble-"
"Then get to the end of the line. Though I don't think you'll get in anyway."
"This is something of an emergency. His friend just came in two seconds ago. His name is DJ Huff."
The bouncer took a step closer. First his chest, big enough to use as a squash court, then the rest of him. "I'm going to have to ask you to move now."
"My son is underage."
"I heard you."
"I need to get him out or it could mean big trouble."
The bouncer ran his catcher-mitt hand across his cleanly shaven black dome. "Big trouble, you say?"
"My, my, now I'm really worried."
Mike reached into his wallet, peeled off a bill.
"Don't bother," the bouncer said. "You're not getting in."
"You don't understand."
The bouncer took another step. His chest was almost against Mike's face now. Mike closed his eyes, but he didn't step back. Hockey training-you don't back down. He opened his eyes and stared at the big man.
"Back up," Mike said.
"You're going to be leaving us now."
"I said, back up."
"I'm not going anywhere."
"I'm here to find my son."
"There is no one underage in here."
"I want to go in."
"Then get on the end of the line."
Mike kept his eyes locked on the big man's. Neither moved. They looked like prizefighters, albeit in different weight classes, being given instructions at center ring. Mike could feel a crackle in the air. He felt a tingle in his limbs. He knew how to fight. You don't get that far in hockey without knowing how to use your fists. He wondered if this guy was for real or just show muscle.
"I'm going inside," Mike said.
"I have friends with the police department," Mike said, a total bluff. "They'll raid the place. If you have underage kids in here, you'll go down."
"My, my. I'm scared again."
"Get out of my way."
Mike stepped to the right. The big bodyguard followed him, blocking his path.
"You realize," the big bouncer said, "that this is about to get physical."
Mike knew the cardinal rule: Never, ever show fear. "Yup."
"A tough guy, eh."
"You ready to go?"
The bouncer smiled. He had terrific teeth, pearly white against his black skin. "No. Do you want to know why? Because even if you are tougher than I think, which I doubt, I got Reggie and Tyrone right there." He pointed with this thumb to two other big guys dressed in black. "We aren't here to prove our manhood by taking on some dumb ass, so we don't need to fight fair. If you and I 'go' "-he said it in a way that mocked Mike's voice-"they'll join in. Reggie has got a police Taser. You understand?"
The bouncer folded his arms across his chest, and that was when Mike spotted the tattoo.
It was a green letter D on his forearm.
"What's your name?" Mike asked.
"Your name," Mike said to the bouncer. "What is it?"
"And your last name?"
"What's it to you?"
Mike pointed to his arm. "The D tattoo."
"That has nothing to do with my name."
Anthony the bouncer stared at him. Then he nodded slowly.
"Vox clamantis in deserto,"Mike said, reciting the school's motto.
Anthony handled the translation: "A voice crying in the wilderness." He smiled. "Never quite got that."
"Me neither," Mike said. "You play ball?"
"Football. All-Ivy. You?"
"And All-American," Mike said.
Anthony arched an eyebrow, impressed.
"You have any children, Anthony?"
"I have a three-year-old son."
"And if you thought your kid was in trouble, would you, Reggie and Tyrone be able to stop you from getting inside?"
Anthony let loose a long breath. "What makes you so sure your kid is inside?"
Mike told him about seeing DJ Huff in the varsity jacket.
"That kid?" Anthony shook his head. "He didn't come in here. You think I'd let some chicken-ass in a high school varsity jacket in? He ran down that alley."
He pointed about ten more yards up the street.
"Any idea where it goes?" Mike asked.
"Dead-ends, I think. I don't go back there. No reason to. It's for junkies and the like. Now I need a favor from you."
"Everyone is watching us going at it here. I just let you go, I lose cred-and out here I live on cred. You know what I'm saying?"
"So I'm going to cock my fist and you're going to run off like a scared little girl. You can run down the alley if you want. Do you understand me?"
"Can I ask one thing first?"
Mike reached into his wallet.
"I already told you," Anthony said. "I don't want-"
Mike showed him a picture of Adam.
"Have you seen this kid?"
Anthony swallowed hard.
"This is my son. Have you seen him?"
"He's not in here."
"That's not what I asked."
"Never seen him. And now?"
Anthony grabbed Mike by the lapel and cocked his fist. Mike cowered and screamed, "Please don't, okay, I'm sorry, I'm going!" He pulled back. Anthony let him go. Mike started to run. Behind him he heard Anthony say, "Yeah, boy, you better run..."
Some of the patrons applauded. Mike sprinted down the block and turned into the alley. He almost tripped over a row of dented trash cans. Broken glass crunched beneath his feet. He stopped short, looked ahead, and saw yet another hooker. Or at least he figured that she was a hooker. She leaned against a brown Dumpster as if it were a part of her, another limb, and if it was gone she would fall and never get up. Her wig was a purplish hue and looked like something stolen from David Bowie's closet in 1974. Or maybe Bowie 's dented trash can. It looked like bugs were crawling in it.
The woman smiled toothlessly at him.
"Did you see a boy run through here?"
"Lots of boys run through here, sugar."
If her voice had picked up a notch, it may have registered as languid. She was skinny and pale and though the word "junkie" wasn't tattooed on her forehead, it might as well have been.
Mike looked for a way out. There was none. There was no exit, no doors. He spotted several fire escapes, but they looked pretty rusty. So if Huff had indeed gone here, how had he gotten out? Where had he gone to-or had he sneaked out while he argued with Anthony? Or had Anthony been lying to him, trying to get rid of him?
"You looking for that high school boy, sugar?"
Mike stopped and turned back to the junkie.
"The high school boy. All young and handsome and everything? Ooo, baby, it excites me just to talk about him."
Mike took a tentative step toward her, almost afraid that a big step might cause too much vibration and make her fall apart and vanish into the rubble already at her feet. "Yes."
"Well, come here, sugar, and I'll tell you where he is."
"Closer, sugar. I don't bite. Unless you into that kind of thing." Her laugh was a nightmarish cackle. Her front bridge dropped down when she opened her mouth. She chewed bubble gum-Mike could smell it-but it didn't cover up the decay from some sort of dead tooth.
"Where is he?"
"You got some money?"
"Plenty if you tell me where he is."
"Let me see some."
Mike didn't like it, but he didn't know what else to do. He pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. She reached out a bony hand. The hand reminded Mike of his old Tales from the Cryptcomic books, the skeleton reaching out of the coffin.
"Tell me first," he said.
"You don't trust me?"
Mike didn't have time. He ripped the bill and gave her half. She took it, sighed.
"I'll give you the other half when you talk," Mike said. "Where is he?"
"Why, sugar," she said, "he's right behind you."
Mike started to turn when someone punched him in the liver.
A good liver shot will take out all the fight and temporarily paralyze you. Mike knew that. This one didn't do that, but it came damn close. The pain was staggering. Mike's mouth opened, but no sound came out. He dropped to one knee. A second blow came from the side and hit him in the ear. Something hard ricocheted across his head. Mike tried to process, tried to swim through the onslaught, but another blow, a kick this time, got him underneath the ribs. He flopped onto his back.
Instinct took over.
Move, he thought.
Mike rolled and felt something sharp dig into his arm. Broken glass probably. He tried to scramble away. But another blow hit him in the head. He could almost feel his brain jar to the left. A hand grabbed his ankle.
Mike kicked out. His heel connected with something soft and pliable. A voice yelled, "Damn!"
Someone jumped on him. Mike had been in scrapes before, though always on ice. Still he'd learned a few things. For example, you don't throw punches if you don't have to. Punches break hands. At a distance, yes, you might do that. But this was in close. He bent his arm and swung blindly. His forearm connected. There was a cracking, squelching noise and blood spurted.
Mike realized that he'd hit a nose.
He took another blow, tried to roll with it. He kicked out wildly. It was dark, the night filling with grunts of exertion. He reared his head back, tried to head-butt.
"Help!" Mike shouted. "Help! Police!"
He somehow scrambled to his feet. He couldn't see faces. But there was more than one of them. More than two, he guessed. They all jumped him at the same time. He crashed against the Dumpsters. Bodies, including his, tumbled to the ground. Mike fought hard, but they were all over him now. He managed to scratch a face with his fingernails. His shirt got torn.
And then Mike saw a blade.
That froze him. For how long, he couldn't say. But long enough. He saw the blade and he froze and then he felt a dull thud on the side of his head. He dropped back, his skull smacking the pavement. Someone pinned down his arms. Someone else got his legs. He felt a thud on his chest. Then the blows seemed to come from everywhere. Mike tried to move, tried to cover up, but his arms and legs wouldn't obey.
He could feel himself slipping away. Surrendering.
The blows stopped. Mike felt the weight on his chest lessen. Someone had gotten up or been knocked off him. His legs were free.
Mike opened his eyes, but there were only shadows. A final kick, a toe shot, landed squarely on the side of his head. All became darkness until finally there was nothing at all.