The Collectors, страница 1
For Beren, who’ll read it someday
1 Small Things
2 A Damp Squirrel
4 Something Dark
5 Petty Theft
6 Spy vs. Spy
8 The Collection
9 A Serious Mistake
10 Hair Wreaths and Even Stranger Things
11 We Will Come for You
12 Unexpected Guests
13 More Unexpected Guests
14 A New Pet
15 A Change of Plan
16 Down to the Dark
18 Hot Dog with the Works Pizza
19 Footsteps in the Dark
20 They’re Coming
21 Hold on Tight
22 Another Broken Bone
23 The Beast
25 The Fall
26 Unwelcome Wishes
27 The Second Train
28 The Rock and the Hard Place (and Chuck)
About the Author
About the Publisher
THE spider dangled above the table.
It was a large table in a busy restaurant, but it was wedged into the dimmest corner, and the spider’s web was strung between the curls of an old wrought-iron chandelier that no one ever remembered to dust.
A family sat at the table below: three grandparents, an aunt and uncle, a mother and father, and a child who was exactly four years old.
The spider positioned herself above the child’s chair. She waited there, watching, her eyes glittering like the bumps on a wet blackberry.
When several waiters trooped into the corner, carrying a special little cake with four burning candles on top, the spider inched a bit farther down her thread. The waiters and the family all sang and cheered.
“Make a wish!” said one of the grandmothers.
The child huffed out the candles.
Everybody cheered again.
And in that moment, while everybody was smiling and clapping and getting ready to slice the cake, something rose up into the air on a spinning wisp of candle smoke.
The spider caught it. It was what she had been waiting for.
She bundled it up into a ball of strong, gluey thread. Then she scuttled across the ceiling to the nearest window and wedged herself through the gap above the sill, dragging the bundle behind her.
Outside, a gust of cool evening air swept over her, making her clutch the restaurant’s brick wall with six legs. But she didn’t lose her grip on the bundle. Once the gust had passed, she lowered it slowly, carefully, toward the sidewalk.
A gray pigeon hopped down from its perch on a street sign. It glided below the restaurant window, snipped the spider’s thread with its beak, and flapped away up the twilit street, the bundle dangling under it like a tiny broken pendulum.
The pigeon landed on the shoulder of a woman in a long black coat. The woman held up one hand. The pigeon dropped the bundle into it. The woman tucked the bundle safely into one of the coat’s many pockets.
Then the woman turned and strode off into the shadows with the pigeon still perching on her shoulder, and the spider squeezed back through the window gap, and nobody noticed the small, strange, terribly important thing that had just happened.
That’s the thing about small things.
They’re very easy to miss.
This makes small things dangerous.
Germs. Thumbtacks. Spiders—both the black widows that lurk under rotting woodpiles, and the patient, watchful ones that live in the chandeliers of old Italian restaurants.
Most of us don’t spot them until it’s too late.
So it’s a good thing for us that someone else—someone quiet and sharp-eyed, and also very easy to miss—is always keeping watch.
A Damp Squirrel
ONE summer afternoon, in the middle of a very large city, at the edge of a very large park, sat one very small boy named Van.
His full name was Giovanni Carlos Gaugez-Garcia Markson, but nobody called him that. His mother, who’d given him all those names in the first place, called him Giovanni. Most people just called him Van, which he liked much better. And the kids at school called him Minivan, which he didn’t.
Van was always the smallest kid in class. Because his mother was an opera singer whose work took them all around the world, Van was always the newest kid too. And he was generally the only kid with a tiny blue hearing aid behind each ear. He tended to like different games, and watch different shows, and read different books than everyone else. He was used to being on his own.
In fact, he’d gotten very good at it.
So, on this particular afternoon, Van was sitting on his own on a wide stone bench. His mother was trying on shoes in a shop across the street, and every now and then, she’d look up and check on him through the plate-glass window. She’d warned him not to leave the bench. Van didn’t mind. He was more interested in looking around than in getting up, anyway.
There was plenty to watch. People were picnicking in the shade, jogging on the pathways, playing fetch with their dogs on the soft green grass. Pigeons waddled everywhere. A man with a pink guitar sang a song whose words Van couldn’t quite catch. And just a few feet away, a huge stone fountain splashed and shimmered, droplets of water falling from one bowl to the next like curtains of glass beads.
A boy on a bicycle zoomed past the fountain, his tires flattening a strip of grass.
And that was where Van saw it.
A small red plastic arm stuck up from the crushed grass of the tire track. Its hand was open, and its palm was turned out, so it looked like it had an important question and was just waiting for someone to call on it.
Van glanced over his shoulder. His mother was sitting in a shoe-shop chair, her head bowed over a pair of high heels.
The arm was still waiting. Van scooted his behind toward the edge of the bench.
Then, with a last quick look at the shoe shop, he slid off the bench and dashed across the grass.
He crouched beside the red plastic arm. The rest of its body—if there was a rest—was buried in the dirt. Van took hold of the arm and gave a tug, and a small red man popped out of the ground.
The man had a red plastic space suit, and bendable red plastic arms and legs, and a helmet that looked like a bubble of fossilized chewing gum. Van crumbled a bit of dirt off the man’s shoulder. Then he put him in his jacket pocket and took a careful look at the grass all around. Perhaps a red plastic spaceship had crash-landed somewhere nearby.
Something glimmering in the mulch turned out to be a blue glass marble with a glittery gold swirl inside. Van rolled the marble back and forth on his palm, watching it sparkle in the spring sun. He dropped it into his pocket. To the spaceman, the marble could be a distant planet, or a meteorite full of some powerful and unearthly element. Van was trying to decide what sort of element it should be when he spotted something else gleaming on the pavement just ahead.
A bristly man in a windbreaker noticed the gleaming thing at the same time. The man bent to pick it up. Then he turned toward the fountain and gave the gleaming thing a flip off the tip of his thumb.
Van watched the coin arc through the air. It spun toward the largest bowl of the fountain, where it hit the water with a soft, splooshing plop. To Van’s ears, there wasn’t really any sound at all, but his mind filled in what he would have heard if he had been several feet closer.
The man turned around again. He noticed Van watching him and gave a bri
The next instant, there was a wild shiver in the bushes to Van’s left.
A squirrel—a pale, almost silver, very bushy-tailed squirrel—shot out of the leaves as if it had been fired from a grenade launcher. It bounded onto the edge of the fountain, swishing its tail and chittering excitedly.
An instant later, something else burst out of the bushes.
This something was a person—a youngish, girlish person, with brown hair tied back in a ponytail and a long, dark green coat that had clearly been made for someone much bigger. The girl bolted to the spot where the squirrel stood. Without even stopping to push up her floppy coat sleeves, she plunged face-first over the lip of the fountain.
Van generally liked talking to adults more than he liked talking to other kids. Adults didn’t call him Minivan. Adults didn’t think that tweed vests or cashmere cardigans were hilarious things to wear. As far as Van could remember, no adults had ever flicked anything that had come out of their noses at him. But there was something about this girl, with her weird coat and sloppy ponytail, that drew him closer.
He inched forward.
The girl sprawled on her stomach over the fountain’s side, with the squirrel crouched beside her. Van stopped just out of range of the girl’s kicking legs. From there, he could see that she was pawing at the scummy bottom of the fountain, scooping together a mound of even scummier pennies.
Van’s voice, like the rest of him, was small. “Um . . . ,” he said politely. “You probably shouldn’t do that.”
The girl shot up as though Van had screamed, “Look out! Rabid badgers!” straight into her ear. She whirled around, her ponytail spattering Van and the squirrel with a gush of fountain water. She gasped so loudly that Van gasped too.
The squirrel shook its wet fur.
“I’m sorry.” Van threw up his hands. “I didn’t mean to startle you. But—”
“What?” shouted the girl.
“I said, ‘I didn’t mean to startle you,’” Van repeated, slowly and clearly.
Now that the girl was staring straight at him, he noticed that the rest of her features were small and round, but her ears and her eyes were large. He wasn’t sure about the expression in those eyes, but if he’d had to guess, he might have called it fear.
The girl reached out one cold, wet finger and touched the center of Van’s forehead. She gave a little shove. Van wobbled.
“You’re real,” the girl breathed.
Van’s hearing aids made voices louder—but they made everything else louder too. In big cities, even in peaceful spots like parks, they filled his head with several sounds at once: motors, echoes, horns, tires, chirping birds, splooshing fountains. Still, Van was close enough to the girl, and her voice was clear enough, that he was pretty sure he’d heard right. Even if what he’d heard didn’t make sense.
Maybe this girl was one of the crazy people his mother said lived in the park. Van took a cautious step backward.
“Yes. I’m real,” he said. “But you—”
“Who are you with?” the girl cut him off, in a quick, sharp voice. “Why are you talking to me? You can’t stop me, you know. If you’re working for them, you’re too late. It’s mine.”
The squirrel hopped toward Van on its hind legs, raising both little squirrelly fists and making itself look as large as possible.
Now Van was almost sure that the girl was one of the crazy people. Maybe the squirrel was one of them too.
“I’m not working for anyone,” he said, glancing down at the squirrel, who he could have sworn was making little punching motions. “I thought . . . maybe I could help you.”
“Help me?” The girl frowned.
“Like—if you need money for something.” Van nodded at the water. “Maybe to buy food, or to get a ride somewhere. My mother could—”
“Money?” the girl repeated.
She stepped closer to Van. The squirrel crept toward him too, its little nose quivering and its ears flicking. Van got the sense that they were both smelling him. Or maybe not smelling him, but trying to sense something about him, something that Van himself couldn’t quite smell or hear or see.
The girl stared into Van’s eyes. She had to tilt her head down to do it. Her eyes, Van noticed, were a pretty shade of greenish brown—like a mossy penny at the bottom of a fountain.
“Who are you?” the girl asked.
“My name is Van Markson,” said Van politely. “What’s yours?”
The squirrel chittered loudly. Its high-pitched little sounds sounded almost like words. “Quickquickquick!” it seemed to squeak.
“I know,” said the girl, and this time, she was definitely not talking to Van.
Her gaze flicked down to the mound of submerged pennies. Then, keeping one eye on Van, she reached down into the fountain.
Van couldn’t help himself. “That water is full of germs,” he said.
The girl pulled a dripping handful of coins out of the water and stuffed them into one of her coat’s huge pockets.
“And you probably shouldn’t take those coins,” Van soldiered on. “They’re people’s wishes.”
One of the girl’s fine brown eyebrows went up. “I know,” she said again.
“Then why are you taking them?”
“Because,” said the girl impatiently, “you made me lose track of the one I was trying to get.”
“Why were you trying to get just—”
“QuickquickQUICK!” the squirrel chittered again.
Van had never been interrupted by a squirrel before. But he’d been interrupted by other people often enough to know when it was happening.
“I’ve never seen a tame squirrel in person,” he said, hoping to move the conversation in a more pleasant direction. “I mean, I’ve seen Alvin and the Chipmunks, but they’re a cartoon. And they’re chipmunks.”
The squirrel blinked at him.
“Does it like popcorn?” Van asked. “Because I could get some money from my mother and—”
“So, you’re just a normal little boy,” the girl interrupted again, stuffing one last fistful of coins into her pocket. “You’re a little boy sitting here in the park. And you saw me take some pennies. That’s it.” She waited, watching Van closely. “Right?”
Van didn’t really like this description of himself. He didn’t like the “little” part. And he especially didn’t like the “just” part. But there wasn’t much else to say. There was no easy way to explain to this weird big-coated girl that he hadn’t just been sitting in the park. He’d rescued a spaceman, and discovered a meteorite, and noticed other things that everyone else seemed to ignore. This wasn’t the sort of thing you said to a stranger. At least, it wasn’t the sort of thing Van said.
So, instead, he said, “Right.”
The squirrel leaped onto the girl’s shoulder and chittered into her ear.
“No. There isn’t time for popcorn,” the girl muttered. She looked back at Van. Her feet made an anxious shuffling motion. She tugged her bulky coat tighter around herself, even though the day was warm. “I don’t mean to be mean,” she said. The words seemed to fall out of her unintentionally, like objects slipping out of a pocket. “I just . . . people don’t usually . . .” She broke off, tugging at the coat again. “They don’t usually talk to me.” The girl turned. “I’ve got to go.”
“Wait!” said Van, before she could dart away. He groped in his pockets. He wanted to give this girl something better than slimy pennies. Something a little bit special. His fingers closed around the smooth, curved surface of the mysterious meteorite.
“Here.” He held the marble out toward the girl. It sparkled in the sunlight between his fingers.
The girl frowned slightly. “What is it?”
“I found it. I just thought . . . you might like it.
The girl took it from Van’s fingertips.
“I notice things sometimes,” Van blurted. “Interesting things.”
The girl met Van’s eyes again. She gave him a long, hard look. “What do you mean?” she asked. “What kind of things?”
Before Van could answer, a ringing voice said,
Van whirled around.
His mother towered over him.
If Van’s mother had been a building instead of an opera singer, she would have been a cathedral. She was a big, sturdy, elegant structure, with a dome of upswept coppery hair on top. Any sounds that came out of her rang as though they’d traveled through a huge stone hall. Van knew why opera singers don’t use microphones: they don’t need them.
“I told you to stay on that bench, didn’t I?” said Ingrid Markson, in that ringing voice.
“Yes,” said Van. “And I was staying. But then—”
“And I come out of the shop to find you all the way over here, completely out of sight. Haven’t we talked about this?”
“Yes, Mom,” said Van. “But there was—” He glanced at the spot where the girl had stood just a moment before. But she and the silvery squirrel had vanished. “There was this—”
“If I can’t trust you to stay where you’ve promised, you’ll be stuck with me in a lot more shoe shops.” His mother lifted her shopping bag demonstratively. “Now, let’s go home.”
Side by side, they strode through the park gates.
“I almost forgot,” said his mother, who was already starting to look less like her angry self and more like her usual glowing self again. “We have to make one more stop. It’s an extremely important errand. Shall we go to the ice-cream parlor on the corner, or the gelato place across from the train station on Twenty-Third?”
“Gelato,” said Van, although he wasn’t really thinking about sweets at all.
As they turned down the street, he glanced all around, hoping to spot some trace of a baggy-coated girl with a squirrel on her shoulder. But the crowds quickly grew thicker, and the streets got louder, and the city crashed around him like a tide, washing everything else away.