About the Book
"Help me find my little girl." Jess Mastriani - dubbed "Lightning Girl" by the press when, after a huge storm, she develops a psychic ability to find missing children —has lost her miraculous powers. Or has she? She would like the media and the government to think so. All Jess wants is to be left alone, by everyone except sexy Rob Wilkins—who still hasn't called, by the way
But it doesn't look like Jess is going to get her wish—especially not while she's stuck working at a summer camp for musically gifted kids. Then the father of a missing girl shows up to beg Jess to find his daughter. Jess can't say no, but now the Feds are on her trail again, as is one ornery stepdad, who'd like to see Lightning Girl dead.
He was late.
I stood on the side of road, trying not to notice the sweat that was prickling the back of my neck. Not just the back of my neck, either. There was a pool of it between my boobs. I'm serious.
And I wasn't too comfortable in my jeans, either.
But what choice did I have? I'd learned the hard way never to ride a motorcycle in shorts. The scar was gone, but not the memory of the way the skin of my calf, sizzling against the exhaust pipe, had smelled.
Still, it had to be a hundred degrees on that long, narrow road. There were plenty of trees, of course, to offer shade. Hell, Camp Wawasee was nothing but trees, except where it was lake.
But if I stood in the trees, Rob might not see me when he came roaring up, and he might go too far, and precious moments might be lost....
Not that it mattered. I was going to be fired anyway, on account of missing my one o'clock meeting with Dr. Alistair. I was willing to bet that by the time I got back, all my stuff would be packed up and waiting for me by the front gates with the following note attached to it:
Cha cha cha.
Sweat was beginning to drip from the crown of my head, beneath my hair and into my eyes when I finally heard the far off sound of a motorcycle engine. Rob isn't the type to let a muffler go, so his Indian didn't have one of those annoyingly loud engines you can hear from miles away. I simply became aware of a sound other than the shrill whine of the cicadas that were in the tall grass along the side of the road, and then I saw him, clipping along at no mean pace.
I didn't have to--we were the only two people on the road for miles, Lake Wawasee being about as isolated, I was becoming convinced, as Ice Station Zebra--but I put my arm out, to make sure he saw me. I mean, he could have thought I was a mirage, or something. It was one of those kind of blazingly hot sunny days when you looked down a long straight road and saw pools of water across it, even though, when you finally got to the pool, it had evaporated as if it had never been there...because of course it hadn't been. It had just been one of those optical illusions they talk about in Human Bio.
Rob came cruising up to me and then put out a booted foot to balance himself when he came to a stop. He looked, as always, impressively large, like a lumberjack or something, only more stylishly dressed.
And when he took off his helmet and squinted at me in the sunlight with those eyes--so pale blue, they were practically the same color grey as his bike's exhaust--and I drank in his sexily messed up hair, and his darkly tanned forearms, all I could think was that, bad as it had been, that whole thing with the lightning and Colonel Jenkins and all, it had actually been worth it, because it had brought me the hottest Hottie of them all, Rob.
Well, sort of, anyway.
"Hey, sailor," I said. "Give a girl a ride?"
He just gave me his trademark Don't-mess-with-me frown, then popped open the box on the back of his bike where he kept the spare helmet.
"Get on," was he said, as he held the helmet out to me.
Like I needed an invitation. I snatched up the helmet, jammed it onto place (trying not to think about my sweaty hair) then wrapped my arms around his waist and said, "Put the pedal to the metal, dude."
He gave me one last, half-disgusted, half-amused look, then put his own helmet back on. And we were off.
Hey, it wasn't a big wet one, or anything, but �Get on,' isn't bad. I mean, Rob may not be completely in love with me yet or anything, but he'd shown up, right? That had to count for something. I mean, I'd called him that morning, and said I needed him to drive for four hours, cross-country, to pick me up. And he'd shown up. He'd have had to find someone to cover for him at work, and explain to his uncle why he couldn't be there. He'd have had to buy gas, both for the trip to Chicago and then back again. He'd be spending a total of ten hours or so on the road. Tomorrow, he'd probably be exhausted.
But he'd shown up.
And I didn't think he was doing it because it was such a worthy cause, either. I mean, it was, and all, but he wasn't doing it for Keely.
At least...God, I hope not.
By two thirty, we were cruising along Lakeshore Drive. The city looked bright and clean, the windows of the skyscrapers sparkling in the sunlight. The beaches were crowded. The songs playing from the car radios of the traffic we passed made it seem like we were a couple in a music video, or on a TV commercial, or something. For Levi's, maybe. I mean, here we were, two total Hotties--well, okay, one total Hottie. I'm probably only Do-Able--tooling around on the back of a completely cherried-out Indian on a sunny summer day. How much cooler could you get?
I guess if we'd noticed from the beginning we were being followed, that might have been cooler. But we didn't.
I didn't because I was busy experiencing one of those epiphanies they always talk about in English class.
Only my epiphany, instead of being some kind of spiritual enlightenment or whatever, was just this gush of total happiness because I had my arms around this totally buff guy I'd had a crush on since what seemed like forever, and he smelled really good, like Coast deodorant soap and whatever laundry detergent his mother uses on his T-shirts, and he had to think that I was at least somewhat cute, or he wouldn't have come all that way to pick me up. I was thinking, If only this was how I could spend the rest of my life: riding around the country on the back of Rob's bike, listening to music out of other people's car radios, and maybe stopping every once in a while for like nachos or whatever.
I don't know what was occupying Rob's thoughts so much that he didn't see the Mercury Marquis on our tail. Maybe he was having an epiphany of his own. Hey, it could happen.
But anyway, what happened was, eventually we had to pull off Lakeshore Drive in order to get where Keely was, and little by little, the traffic thinned out, and we still didn't notice the maroon sedan purring along behind us. I don't know for sure, of course, because we weren't paying attention, but I like to think it stayed at least a couple car lengths away. Otherwise, well, there's no other explanation for it. We're just idiots.
Anyway, finally we pulled onto this tree-lined street that was one hundred percent residential. I knew exactly which one Keely was in, of course, but I made Rob park about three houses away, just to be on the safe side. I mean, that much I knew. That much I was paying attention to.
We stood in front of the place where Keely was staying. It was just a house. A city house, so it was kind of narrow. On one side of it ran a skinny alley. The other side was attached to the house next door. Keely's house hadn't been painted as recently as the one next to it. What paint was left on it was kind of peeling off in a sad way. I would call the neighborhood not the best. The small yards had an untended look to them. Grass grows fast in a humid climate like the one in northern Illinois, and needs constant attention. No one on this street seemed to care, particularly, how high their grass grows, or what kind of garbage lay in their yards for that grass to swallow.
Maybe that was the purpose of the high grass. To hide the garbage.
Rob, standing next to me as I gazed up at the house, said, "Nice looking crack den."
I winced. "It's not that bad," I said.
"Yeah, it is," he said.
"Well." I squared my shoulders. I wasn't sweaty anymore, after having so much wind blown on me, but I soon would be, if I stood on that hot sidewalk much longer. "Here goes nothing."
I opened the gate in the low chain-link fence that surrounded the house, and strode up the cement steps to the front door. I didn't realize Rob had followed me until I'd reached out to ring the bell.
"So what exactly," he said, as we listened to the hollow ringing deep inside the house, "is the plan here?"
I said, "There's no plan."
"Great," Rob said. "My favorite kind."
"Who is it?" demanded a woman's voice from behind the closed door. She didn't sound very happy about having been disturbed.
"Hello, ma'am?" I called. "Hi, my name is Ginger Silverman, and this is my friend, Nate. We're seniors at Chicago Central High School, and we're doing a research project on parental attitudes towards children's television programming. We were wondering if we could ask you a few questions about the kinds of television programs your children like to watch. It will only take a minute, and will be of invaluable help to us."
Rob looked at me like I was insane. "Ginger Silverman?" he whispered.
I glared at him. "I like that name."
He shook his head. "Nate?"
"I like that name, too."
Inside the house, locks were being undone. When the door was thrown back, I saw, through the screen door, a tall, skinny woman, in cut-offs and a halter top. You could tell she'd once taken care to color her hair, but that that had sort of fallen by the wayside. Now the ends of her hair were blonde, but the two inches of it at the top was dark brown. On her forehead, not quite hidden by her two-tone hair, was a dark, crescent-moon shaped scab, about an inch and a half long. Out of one corner of her mouth, which was as flat and skinny as the rest of her, dangled a cigarette.
She looked at Rob and me as if we had dropped down from another planet and asked her to join the Galaxian Federation, or something.
"What?" she said.
I repeated my spiel about Chicago Central High School--who even knew if there was such a place?--and our thesis on children's television programming. As I spoke, a small child appeared from the shadows behind Mrs. Herzberg--if, indeed, this was Mrs. Herzberg, though I suspected it was--and, wrapping her arms around the woman's leg, blinked up at us with big brown eyes.
"Mommy," Keely said, curiously. "Who are they?"
"Just some kids," Mrs. Herzberg said. She took her cigarette out of her mouth, and I noticed that her fingernails were very bleedy looking. "Look," she said to us. "We aren't interested. Okay?"
She was starting to close the door when I cried, "There's a ten dollar renumeration to all participants...."
The door instantly froze. Then it swung open again.
"Ten bucks?" Mrs. Herzberg said. Her tired eyes, under that crescent-shaped scab, looked suddenly brighter.
"Uh-huh," I said. "In cash. Just for answering a few questions."
Mrs. Herzberg shrugged her skinny shoulders, and then, exhaling a plume of blue smoke at us through the screen door, she went, "Shoot."
"Okay," I said, eagerly. "Um, what's your daughter's--this is your daughter, isn't it?"
The woman nodded without looking down. "Yeah."
"Okay. What is your daughter's favorite television show?"
"Sesame Street," said Mrs. Herzberg, while her daughter said, "Rugrats," at the same time.
"No, Mommy," Keely said, tugging on her mother's shorts. "Rugrats."
"Sesame Street," Mrs. Herzberg said. "My daughter is only allowed to watch public television."
Keely shrieked, "Rugrats!"
Mrs. Herzberg looked down at her daughter and said, "If you don't quit it I'm sending you out back to play."
Keely's lower lip was trembling. "But you know I like Rugrats best, Mommy."
"Sweetheart," Mrs. Herzberg said. "Mommy is trying to answer these people's questions. Please do not interrupt."
"Um," I said. "Maybe we should move on. Do you and your husband discuss with one another the kinds of television shows your daughter is allowed to watch?"
"Well, we did," Mrs. Herzberg said, with a kind of rueful smile. "Back when he was around. But now it's just up to me. And I don't let her watch junk, like that Rugrats."
"Mommy," Keely cried. "I want to watch Rugrats right now!"
"That's it," Mrs. Herzberg said. She pointed with her cigarette towards the back of the house. "Outside. Now."
"No," Mrs. Herzberg said. "That's it. I told you once. Now go outside and play, and let Mommy talk to these people."
Keely, her lower lip jutting out, stomped away. I heard a screen door slam somewhere in the house.
"Go on," Mrs. Herzberg said to me. Then her eyebrows knit. "Shouldn't you be writing my answers down?"
I reached up to smack myself on the forehead. "The clipboard!" I said, to Rob. "I forgot the clipboard!"
"Well," Rob says. "Then I guess that's the end of that. Sorry to trouble you, ma'am--"
"No," I said, grabbing him by the arm and steering him closer to the screen door. "That's okay. It's in the car. I'll just go get it. You keep asking questions while I go and get the clipboard."
Rob's pale blue eyes, as he looked down at me, definitely had ice picks in them, but what was I supposed to do? I went, "Ask her about the kind of programming she likes, Nate. And don't forget the ten bucks," and then I bounded down the steps, through the overgrown yard, out the gate....
And then, when I was sure Rob had Mrs. Herzberg distracted, I darted down the alley alongside her house, until I came to a high wooden fence that separated her backyard from the street.
It only took me a minute to climb up onto a Dumpster that was sitting there, and then look over that fence, into the backyard.
Keely was there. She was sitting in one of those green plastic turtles people fill with sand. In her hand was a very dirty, very naked Barbie doll. She was singing softly to it.
Perfect, I thought. If Rob could just keep Mrs. Herzberg busy for a few minutes....
I clambered over the fence, then dropped over the other side, into Keely's yard. Somehow, in spite of my gymnast-like grace and James Bondian stealthiness, Keely heard me, and squinted at me through the strong sunlight.
"Hey," I said, as I ambled over to her sandbox. "What's up?"
Keely stared at me with those enormous brown eyes. "You aren't supposed to be back here," she informed me, gravely.
"Yeah," I said, sitting down on the edge of the sandbox beside her. I'd have sat in the grass, but like in the front yard, it was long and straggly-looking, and after my recent tick experience, I wasn't too anxious to encounter any more bloodsucking parasites.
"I know I'm not supposed to be back here," I said to Keely. "But I wanted to ask you a couple of questions. Is that okay?"
Keely shrugged, and looked down at her doll. "I guess," she said.
I looked down at the doll, too. "What happened to Barbie's clothes?"
"She lost them," Keely said.
"Whoa," I said. "Too bad. Think your mom will buy her some more?"
Keely shrugged again, and began dipping Barbie's head into the sandbox, stirring the sand like it was cake batter, and Barbie was a mixer. The sand in the sandbox didn't smell too fresh, if you know what I mean. I had a feeling some of the neighborhood cats had been there a few times.
"What about your dad?" I asked her. "Could you dad buy you some more Barbie clothes?"
Keely said, lifting Barbie from the sand and then smoothing her hair back, "My daddy's in heaven."
Well. That settled that, didn't it?
"Who told you that your daddy is in heaven, Keely?" I asked her.
Keely shrugged, her gaze riveted to the plastic doll in her hands. "My mommy," she said. Then she added, "I have a new daddy now." She wrenched her gaze from the Barbie and looked up at me, her dark eyes huge. "But I don't like him as much as my old daddy."
My mouth had gone dry...as dry as the sand beneath our feet. Somehow I managed to croak, "Really? Why not?"
Keely shrugged and looked away from me again. "He throws things," she said. "He threw a bottle, and it hit my mommy in the head, and blood went everywhere, and she started crying."
I thought about the crescent-shaped scab on Mrs. Herzberg's forehead. It was exactly the size and shape a bottle, flying at a high velocity, would make.
And that, I knew, was that.
I still felt like a jerk. I felt like a grade-A, number one heel. But what could I do?
I guess I could have gotten out of there, called the cops, and let them handle it.
But did I really want to put the poor kid through all that? Armed men knocking her mother's door down, guns drawn, and all of that? Who knew what the mother's bottle-throwing boyfriend was like. Maybe he'd try to shoot it out with the cops. Innocent people might get hurt. You don't know. You can't predict these things. I know I can't, and I'm the one with the psychic powers.
And yeah, Keely's mother seemed like kind of a freak, protesting that her kid only watches public television while standing there filling that same kid's lungs with carcinogens. But hey, there are worse things a parent could do. That didn't make her an unfit mother. I mean, it wasn't like she was taking that cigarette and putting it out on Keely's arm, like some parents I've seen on the news.
But telling the kid her father was dead? And shacking up with a guy who throws bottles?
No. No way.
So even though I felt like a complete jerk about it, I knew what I had to do. I think you'd have done the same thing, too, in my place. I mean, really, what else could anybody have done?