FROM MASTERMINDS: PAYBACK
The branch comes out of nowhere.
I don’t even see it until it’s too late to shout a warning. One second, we’re riding down the river. The next, the limb catches Malik on the side of the head, pitching him off our makeshift raft into the water.
I don’t hesitate. I can’t. The current is so fast that I could be a quarter-mile downriver before I make up my mind. And anyway, it’s a pretty selfish move. I’ve already lost Eli and Tori. If I lose Malik too, I’m all alone.
I hit the water with a splash, and begin to stroke upstream. It’s a struggle with the river boiling all around me, and I’m grateful for the water polo training I got back in Serenity.
I never thought I’d be grateful for anything about growing up in that town.
Malik is moving toward me, carried by the current. He looks okay, except for a bloody gash behind his ear. I take hold of him in the classic Red Cross lifesaving position and swim for shore.
He’s shouting something, but I can’t make it out over the roar of the river. What’s he saying?
“You idiot, Laska! What are you doing?”
“Rescuing you!” I snarl back.
“I don’t need rescuing! Why’d you jump off the raft?”
He’s struggling against my grip. I pull harder for the riverbank. “We’re stronger when we stick together!”
“Don’t give me that Serenity baloney. Now we’re both going to get caught!”
He wrestles free of my grasp, and the two of us swim ashore. We crawl through the reeds onto dry land and lie side-by-side, gasping and glaring at each other. I’m twice as mad at him as he is at me, because I know that, if he could catch his breath, he’d be yelling at me.
He’s right about one thing, though. Getting caught is a real danger. The Purple People Eaters saw us ride off on the river. When you escape from a commando team, you have to figure they’ll be coming after you. Soon.
We scurry through the cover of the trees, staying low. After ten minutes, we come upon a two-lane highway with dirt shoulders. I’m about to step out, but Malik pulls me back.
“Use your head,” he hisses. “The next car around the bend could be one of their SUVs. I’m going up to see what I can see.”
He starts climbing a huge old tree. I follow him. I’ve already jumped off a raft so I wouldn’t be alone. I’m not about to stand there at the side of the road, waiting to get scooped up by Purples. It’s a testament to what we’ve been through since escaping Serenity that neither of us thinks twice about scaling a thirty-foot oak. Running for your life does that to a person.
By the time we make to the top, we wish we hadn’t bothered. The two black SUVs carrying our pursuers are heading our way. They’re hopscotching along the road, stopping periodically to send out teams of searchers into the woods. The lead car pulls over about three hundred yards short of us, and four men head into the trees.
We exchange a look of pure horror. Not only are they close, but we’ve trapped ourselves thirty feet in the air.
And then a pickup truck appears in the distance, coming from the opposite direction, pulling a large white camper. It’s going pretty fast, but it has to slow down to take the curve. In that instant, we both know what we’re going to do. It’s reckless and insane, but it’s also our only option.
Malik is already hustling down to a lower branch, dragging me with him.
“I get it!” I whisper urgently. “Worry about yourself!”
About fifteen feet up, a heavy branch extends out over the road. We crawl onto it, Malik in the lead. In a few seconds, the camper will pass directly beneath us.
“Jump early,” I advise. “You know, to compensate for the motion of the –”
I never finish the sentence. He pushes me off the branch and lets go himself.
The drop is only about six feet, but it feels like a hundred miles. Maybe that’s because, while we’re falling, we have no idea if we’re about to land cat-like on the camper or with a splat on the pavement.
I hit the roof and flatten myself to the metal surface. Malik lands behind me a split second later. I look back with furious eyes.
He offers a slight shrug. “You said jump early.”
I almost say I’m never going to forgive you for this! I don’t because this is at least the fifteenth thing I’m never going to forgive Malik for. Besides, he did care enough to push me, which means he’s probably even more scared of being left alone than I am. Malik may look like a tough guy and a bruiser, but deep down, he’s a big baby.
We stay pressed to the roof, keeping as low as possible, so we don’t get to enjoy the moment when the camper sails by the SUVs. Too bad. I would have loved to laugh in their faces. Of course, that would have given us away. We have to be satisfied with the fact that they’re going to search for hours, only to come up empty. I hope the mosquitoes are hungry tonight.
As the road straightens out, the camper speeds up again, and the wind begins to whip at our wet clothes. Suddenly, I’m freezing despite the heat, but that’s far from the real issue. We’re clinging to the roof like flies on a wall, with nothing to hang onto.
Malik inches his way up beside me. “Now what?” He has to shout to be heard over the wind and road noise.
“How should I know?” I shoot back. “This was your idea!”
“I only thought about getting away! I never made it this far!”
I look around. No luggage rack, no handhold, no bracing point. “Just hang on!” I manage.
In spite of everything we’ve been through, I’ve never been so scared in my life. Every curve threatens to hurl us off the camper. Every bump is sure to launch us into outer space. We lie flat, pressing our hands and feet against unyielding metal. Within minutes, our entire bodies ache with the effort. I’m a workout nut, but this is beyond anybody’s physical capabilities.
Back in Serenity, I used to make a list every morning, planning out my entire day. If I could do that now, clinging to the roof in terror and agony, there would only be one item on it:
THINGS TO DO TODAY
- Don’t let go!
The pickup just keeps driving, hauling our camper after it. It’s putting miles between us and the Purples, but our daring escape isn’t going to do us much good if we end up roadkill.
“I’m sorry!” Malik says suddenly.
He’s babbling now. “I’m sorry I made you jump! And – and for all that other mean stuff! If we get killed, you should know!”
Before I can reply, the truck’s engine noise changes and we start to slow down. I dare to raise my head and see a weather-beaten old gas station coming up on the right.
“We’re stopping!” I exclaim emotionally. I honestly don’t believe we could have held on much longer.
“I was starting to think this bonehead was going camping in Oregon,” Malik adds, sounding more like his old self.
The tires crunch as we pull off the road onto the gravel drive and come to a stop at the gas pump. The driver gets out of the pickup and heads around the back of the mini-mart to the rest room.
Malik and I don’t wait for an engraved invitation. We crawl to the back of the camper and climb down the ladder. My arms are pure pain from shoulder to fingertips. When my feet touch the ground, I’m amazed that my rubbery legs hold me upright.
“I accept your apology.” I whisper.
“What apology?” he growls. “Come on!”
We start for the cover of the wooded area behind the station when Malik suddenly freezes in front of the mini-mart. I look back to see what has captured his attention.
He’s standing opposite a newspaper box, staring at a copy of today’s Dallas Morning News. The headline is something about global warming, but I skip down the page to the story that’s caught his eye:
GUS ALABASTER RELEASED FROM PRISON
ON COMPASSIONATE GROUNDS
I recognize the name instantly, and just as instantly, I understand Malik’s fascination with the news.
Gus Alabaster is one of the most notorious gangsters in American history.
He’s also the criminal mastermind Malik is cloned from.
Nice bracelet. Gold, studded with glittering stones.
“No price tag,” I observe.
“Those are diamonds, Eli,” Tori tells me. “Diamonds are expensive. Besides, check out how they’ve placed it in the display case. You can tell it’s the star of the show. I wonder what it’s worth.”
I peer closer, my nose touching the hot glass of the jewelry store window. I’m not worried about attracting attention. The store is closed, and there’s hardly anybody around. It’s a broiling afternoon in Amarillo, Texas – the kind where sensible people stay inside in the air conditioning.
I get what Tori’s saying. It’s like all the other pieces are in orbit around that one bracelet. I’m not surprised she noticed. She has a great eye for detail that made her the best artist in our hometown, Serenity, New Mexico. I’m also not surprised that she zeroed in on the item in the whole shop that would be most valuable to someone who steals it.
That comes from a part of Tori neither of us wants to think about.
To be honest, it all looks pretty expensive to me – rings, necklaces, earrings, and brooches, gold, platinum, gemstones. Not that we ever learned much about money in Serenity. Our parents took care of that, and they always seemed to have plenty. That was before we found out the whole town was fake, and the fakest thing about it was our parents. The Creepy Truth: they’re scientists who’ve been studying us since the day we were born.
Of course, since leaving Serenity, we’ve learned a lot about money. Like you really can’t survive without it. And we’re running out of what little we had in the first place.
“No point wasting our time wondering how much we could get for a bracelet we’re never going to touch in the first place.” I point to a sign in the window: THESE PREMISES PROTECTED BY APEX SECURITY.
She steps back, scanning the store. When Tori looks at something, she takes in every detail, almost like she’s inhaling it. “Well, the alarm wires go through the door.” Then she points to a window in the second floor of the strip mall shop. “But I bet there’s a way in through the attic.”
“The store has motion sensors,” I point out.
It stops her for a second, but not much longer. “See the mail slot in the door? If we put a bird in through there –”
“You want to catch a bird?”
“I’m just thinking out loud. My mind does that on its own. Doesn’t yours?”
Well, yeah, but not like Tori’s. Nobody’s mind works like Tori’s. Okay, scratch that. Maybe one other person’s – and she’s in jail right now.
“Anyway,” she goes on, “the bird sets off the motion sensor and triggers the alarm. But when the police come, they see it’s just a bird. So the owner turns off the motion sensor until he can come back in the morning and chase the bird out. And we have all night to get in from the upstairs. Simple.”
I stare at her – but it isn’t Tori that I see. It’s a convicted bank robber named Yvonne Marie Delacroix, presently serving a life sentence in a Florida prison. Tori is an exact copy of her, right down to the DNA in every one of her cells. Tori has never robbed a bank in her life. Still, you have to figure that everything Yvonne Marie is capable of, Tori could be too.
“But we’re not going to do that, right?” I say anxiously.
I have to ask, because I’m like Tori – I have the DNA of a criminal too. Not a bank robber. That would be a huge upgrade for me. But we’ve been breaking the law a lot lately. Don’t get me wrong; we didn’t bust out of Serenity to go on a crime spree. It’s more like it took a crime spree to escape Serenity. And to keep us from getting caught and dragged back there.
Suddenly, Tori points. “There’s one!”
Across the parking lot, the front sliding doors of the supermarket part to reveal an elderly lady pushing a heavily loaded grocery cart.
Tori’s off like a shot, but I’m right behind her. “It’s my turn!” I hiss.
“It’s my turn!”
“No way. You got the fat guy in the cowboy hat, remember?”
Tori backs off, and I approach the old woman just as she pops the cargo door of a Buick SUV.
“Here, ma’am, let me help you with that.” I grab a bag and load it into the back of the Buick.
She beams at me. “Well, aren’t you sweet!”
I’m not even a little bit sweet. I am an exact genetic match for Bartholomew Glen, California’s notorious Crossword Killer. But on a ninety-eight-degree day, anyone who carries your parcels counts as sweet.
She tips me a dollar. A dollar! It would take more than a dollar’s worth of soap and water just to wash the sweat off my poor sweltering body. I straggle back to Tori and we compare our take for the day.
“Fourteen dollars and fifty cents,” I announce with a sigh. “For four hours in a parking lot.”
“That bracelet could get us more,” Tori puts in. “Then we could afford a hotel room. With real beds. And a bathroom.”
“We’re not criminals!”
“We kind of are,” she reasons.
“Just because we’re cloned from criminals doesn’t mean we did any of the stuff they’re in jail for,” I insist.
That’s what Serenity, New Mexico turned out to be – not an actual town where people live and work and raise their kids, but a front for a twisted experiment called Project Osiris. Basically, the idea of Osiris is nature versus nurture. If you take evil people, raise them in the perfect community, and give them the perfect life, will they still turn out evil, because that’s their nature? Or will they end up good, because that’s how you’ve nurtured them to be?
You have to start an experiment like that from the very beginning, which means what you need is evil babies. Project Osiris cloned DNA samples from the worst criminal masterminds in the prison system and created us – exact copies of the scum of the earth. And they raised us as human guinea pigs to see if we could rise above our horrendous genes.
There are eleven of us, but only five escaped Serenity. One of us already turned out to be a traitor. Thanks to Hector Amani, we were almost recaptured four days ago. Tori and I got away by the skin of our teeth. The last we saw of Malik and Amber, they were being washed down white water by a brutal current. Even if they survived the river, they would have been in no shape to get away from their pursuers – our Serenity parents and their hired muscle, who we nicknamed the Purple People Eaters.
So it’s up to us to stop Project Osiris. As tempting as it to disappear and try to make new lives for ourselves, we can’t turn our backs on the past. Six of our fellow clones are still under Osiris’s thumb, with no idea of the truth about themselves. They’re never far from our thoughts. When you grow up in such a tiny, isolated place, the handful of other kids in town are practically your brothers and sisters.
It seems impossible. I’m thirteen and Tori’s only twelve. Plus our story sounds totally nuts. How do we prove what’s been done to us? Serenity’s now a ghost town, all the evidence of the experiment burned to ashes.
The supermarket doors hiss open once more and a man steps out into the heat, struggling with two big bags.
Tori is already on the move. “My turn,” she tosses over her shoulder at me.
I watch her catch up with the guy and take the bigger parcel from him – he won’t let her carry both. They walk to his car, chatting amiably.
Tori loads the groceries into the man’s trunk and he hands her a tip. The grin on her face is all the more remarkable because there’s been so little to smile about these days. She pockets the bill and flashes me an open hand. That means five dollars, our biggest score of the day. I’m kind of insulted that nobody ever gives me that much. I guess Tori’s a little stronger on charm than I am. That might be because her fake parents genuinely loved her – not like my dad, the ringleader of Osiris, who never had any use for me except as a lab rat.
A long dark sedan cruises across the blacktop and screeches to a halt right in front of Tori. The passenger door is flung open and a tall man wearing a black suit and sunglasses jumps out and grabs for her.
Too late the warning is torn from my throat. “Tori – run!”
She has another idea. She reaches into the grocery bag, pulls out a glass jar of pickles, and swings it at her attacker, catching him full in the face. He staggers back, dazed, his sunglasses askew. The pickle jar drops to the pavement and shatters.
I’m running flat out, desperate to reach her, my mind spinning with the horrible thought that Osiris has found us again. I don’t recognize the man in sunglasses, but he could easily be one of the Purples.
“What do you think you’re doing?” The shocked grocery shopper steps protectively in front of Tori.
The sedan’s driver leaps out and shoves him to the pavement with a warning of “Mind your own business, old man!”
Tori reaches into the trunk for another weapon. This time, she’s not as lucky as she was with the pickle jar. She comes up with a long baguette of French bread, and swings it like a baseball bat at the driver. With a cruel laugh, he allows her to club him with it a couple of times before yanking it from her hands.
Out of options, Tori flees. The driver springs after her. She’s the fastest and most athletic of us – burglar DNA – and I toy with the possibility that she can outrun him. He’s got long legs, though, every stride of his matching two of hers. He’s gaining fast.
I’ve got to help her, but what can I do? I’m fifty feet behind, and slower than both of them.
And then it comes to me – the sedan is just standing there with the motor idling and both doors open!
I jump in and throw the car in gear. I’ve driven before – Malik and I both taught ourselves so we could escape from Serenity. I’m just about to take off after them when a hand reaches across the front seat and grabs at my elbow. I forgot about the other guy – the one Tori hit with the pickle jar. His sunglasses are broken, and a big angry bruise is blooming in the center of his forehead.
I stomp on the accelerator and yank the wheel hard left. The car bursts forward, swerving violently. I feel the grip release from my arm, and when I glance over at my attacker, he’s not there anymore. He’s in the rearview mirror, twenty feet behind, still rolling on the blacktop.
Ahead, the first guy is almost up to Tori, so close he could grab her at any second. I roar alongside them, yelling through the open passenger door. “Get in!”