Our Story Begins...
THE CANDY BAR SLIPPED through his fingers, bounced off the rack, and scooted along the grocery store floor like a small animal darting for cover.
He reached down and picked up the chocolate square, flicking his eyes toward the cash register in the center of the squat store. He caught the cashier’s squinty eyes, and she glanced away, as if she’d been watching him for awhile. As if she was just going to wait a moment and then turn her head back to watch him again.
It was almost eight o’clock on a warm school night in the outskirts of Paduka, and there was no way Max didn’t look suspicious: a third-grader, alone. Lurking around the candy racks. Even at this open-all-night place, the regular people who wandered in from the night wandered out just as regularly.
No one lurked. It wasn’t the right side of town for lurking.
Max wiped his sweating palms across his thighs and angled his body so he was hidden from the cashier’s view. She looked like a meanie. Had her hair up in a bun and those reading glasses on a chain. She could almost be Mrs. Mellonie’s sister or something.
Max felt his hands start shaking again.
But they wouldn’t have sent him to this store if they thought he could be recognized by his teacher’s sister, if she even had one. That wouldn’t make sense. When you operated in the civilian world, some mistakes had to be avoided. With planning and at a cost.
Max knew about the cost of being recognized.
It’s show time or no time. And you don’t want to run out of time, do you, little solider?
Max knew he didn’t.
He stepped away from the candy racks, his shoe with the torn sole squeaking like a baby mouse on the polished tiles, and then turning all stealth and silent when he hit the dirty red carpet leading outside.
The exit doors were wide open, the wild night air flowing in from the parking lot, mixed up with diesel exhaust from a rumbling beer truck working the nightshift.
Heavy footfalls behind him came down fast. Max’s last breath of freedom caught in his throat.
His legs screamed to run. If he went now, made it through the doors, ducked left and leaped over the cement flower boxes, he’d disappear down the deer trail behind the store before anyone could grip his neck.
Just a shadow in the night.
But sometimes when you tried to escape one thing, you just ran into something worse. So Max closed his eyes just before the trap he’d set on himself snared, and the angry man coming up behind him gripped his shoulders with fearsome, big hands.
Max’s arm twitched. Four chocolate bars slid out of his sleeve, bouncing across the red carpet.
“Did you pay for those?” the man demanded.
Max kept his mouth shut. His cheeks burned. The game was on.