Unwind / Page 23

Page 23



"How about a nice boot out the door?"

Still, the kid shows no sign of fear or disappointment. He just lays the bracelet on the worn wooden counter with that same princely grace.

"Why don't you just put that thing away and go home?"

"I'm an Unwind."

"What?"

"You heard me."

This throws the pawnbroker for a loop for a whole lot of reasons. First of all, runaway Unwinds who show up at his shop never admit it. Secondly, they always appear desperate and angry, and the stuff they have to sell is shoddy at best. They're never this calm, and they never look this . . . angelic.

"You're an Unwind?"

The boy nods. "The bracelet is stolen, but not from anywhere around here."

Unwinds also never admit that their items are stolen. Those other kids always come up with the most elaborate stories as to who they are, and why they're selling. The pawnbroker will usually listen to their stories for their entertainment value. If it's a good story, he'll just throw the kid out. If it's a lousy story, he'll call the police and have them picked up. This kid, however, doesn't have a story; he comes only with the truth. The pawnbroker doesn't quite know how to deal with the truth.

"So," says the kid. "Are you interested?"

The pawnbroker just shrugs. "Who you are is your business, and like I said, I don't deal with minors."

"Maybe you'll make an exception."

The pawnbroker considers the kid, considers the bracelet, then looks at the door to make sure no one else is coming in. "I'm listening."

"Here's what I want. Five hundred dollars, cash. Now. The I leave like we never met, and you can keep the bracelet."

The pawnbroker puts on his well-practiced poker face. "Are you kidding me? This piece of junk? Gold plate, zircons instead of diamonds, poor workmanship—I'll give you a hundred bucks, not a penny more."

The kid never breaks eye contact. 'You're lying."

Of course the pawnbroker is lying, but he resents the accusation. "How about if I turn you in to the Juvey-cops right now?

The kid reaches down and takes the bracelet from the table. "You could," he says. "But then you won't get this—the police will."

The pawnbroker strokes his beard. Maybe this kid isn't as naive as he looks.

"If it were a piece of junk," the kid says, "you wouldn't have offered me a hundred. I'll bet you wouldn't have offered me anything." He looks at the bracelet dangling from his fingers. "I really don't know what something like this is worth, but I'll bet it's worth thousands. All I'm asking is five hundred, which means, whatever it's worth, you're getting a great deal."

The pawnbroker's poker face is gone. He can't stop staring at the bracelet—it's all he can do not to drool over it. He knows what it's really worth, or at least he can guess. He knows where he can fence it himself for five times what the kid is asking. That would be a nice bit of change. Enough to take his wife on that long vacation she's always wanted.

"Two hundred fifty. That's my final offer."

"Five hundred. You have three seconds, and then I leave. One . . . two . . ."

"Deal." The pawnbroker sighs as if he's been beaten. "You drive a hard bargain, kid." That's the way these things are played. Make the kid think that he won, when all the while he's the one who's truly being robbed! The pawnbroker reaches for the bracelet, but the kid holds it out of reach.

"First the money.

"The safe's in the back room—I'll be back in a second."

"I'll come with you."

The pawnbroker doesn't argue. It's understandable that the kid doesn't trust him. If he trusted people, he'd have been unwound by now. In the back room, the pawnbroker positions himself with the kid behind him, so the kid can't see the combination of the safe. He pulls open the door, and the second he does, he feels something hard and heavy connecting with his head. His thoughts are instantly scrambled. He loses consciousness before he hits the ground.

The pawnbroker comes to sometime later, with a headache and a faint memory that something had gone wrong. It takes a few seconds for him to pull himself together and realize exactly what happened. That little monster conned him! He got him to open the safe, and the moment he did, he knocked him out and cleaned out the safe.

Sure enough, the safe is open wide—but it's not entirely empty. Inside is the bracelet, its gold and diamonds looking even brighter against the ugly gray steel of the empty safe. How much money had been in the safe? Fifteen hundred, tops. This bracelet is worth at least three times that. Still a deal—and the kid knew it.

The pawnbroker rubs the painful knot on his head, furious at the kid for what he did and yet admiring him for the strangely honorable nature of the crime. If he himself had been this clever, this honorable, and had found this kind of nerve when he was a kid, perhaps he'd be more than just a pawnbroker.

27 Connor

The morning after the bathroom incident, they are rousted awake by the Fatigues before dawn. "Everybody up! Now! Move it! Move it!" They're loud, they're on edge, and the first thing Connor notices is that the safeties on their weapons are oft. Still bleary from sleep, he rises and looks for Risa. He sees her already being herded by two Fatigues toward a huge double door that has always been padlocked. Now the padlock is off.

"Leave your things! Go! Move it! Move it!"

To his right, a cranky kid pushes a Fatigue for tearing away his blanket. The Fatigue hits him on the shoulder with the butt of his rifle—not enough to seriously wound him, but enough to make it clear to the kid, and everyone else, that they mean business. The kid goes down on his knees, gripping his shoulder and cursing, and the Fatigue goes about the business of herding the others. Even in his pain, the kid looks ready for a fight. As Connor passes him, Connor grabs him by the arm and helps him up.

"Take it easy," Connor says. "Don't make it worse."

The kid pulls out of Connor's grip. "Get off me! I don't need your stinkin' help." The kid storms away. Connor shakes his head. Was he ever that belligerent?

Up ahead, the huge double doors are slid open to reveal another room of the warehouse that the Unwinds have never seen. This one is filled with crates—old airline packing crates, designed, both in shape and durability, to transport goods by air freight. Connor immediately realizes what they're for—and why he and the others have been warehoused so close to an airport. Wherever they're going, they're going as air cargo.

"Girls to the left, boys to the right. Move it! Move it!"

There's grumbling, but no direct defiance. Connor wonders how many kids get what's going on.

"Four to a crate! Boys with boys, girls with girls. Move it! Move it!"

Now everyone begins to scramble around, trying to team up with their preferred travel companions, but the Fatigues have neither patience nor time for it. They randomly create groups of four and push them toward the crates.

That's when Connor notices how dangerously close he is to Roland—and it's no accident. Roland moved close to him on purpose. Connor can just imagine it. Pitch black and close quarters. If he's in a crate with Roland, then he'll be dead before takeoff.

Connor tries to move away, but a Fatigue grabs Roland, Connor, and two of Roland's known collaborators. "You four. That crate over there!"

Connor tries not to let his panic show; he doesn't want Roland to see. He should have prepared his own weapon, like the one Roland certainly has concealed on him now. He should have prepared for the inevitability of a life-or-death confrontation, but he hadn't, and now his options are limited.

No time for thinking this through, so he lets impulse take over and gives in to his fighting instincts. He turns to one of Roland's henchmen and punches him in the face hard enough to draw blood, maybe even break his nose. The force of the punch spins the kid around, but before he can come back for a counterassault, a Fatigue grabs Connor and smashes him back against the concrete wall. The Fatigue doesn't know it, but this is exactly what Connor wanted.

"You picked the wrong day to do that, kid!" says the Fatigue, holding him against the wall with his rifle.

"What are you gonna do, kill me? I thought you were trying to save us."

That gives the Fatigue a moment's pause.

"Hey!" yells another Fatigue. "Forget him! We gotta load them up." Then he grabs another kid to complete the foursome with Roland and his henchmen, sending them toward a crate. They don't even care about the one kid's bleeding nose.

The Fatigue holding Connor against the wall sneers at him. "The sooner you're in a box, the sooner you're somebody else's problem."

"Nice socks," says Connor.

They put Connor in a four-by-eight crate that already has three kids waiting to complete their quartet. The crate is scaled even before he can see who's inside with him, but as long as it's not Roland, it will do.

"We're all gonna die in here," says a nasal voice, followed by a wet sniff that doesn't sound like it clears much of anything. Connor knows this kid by his mucous. He's not sure of his name—everyone just calls him "the Mouth Breather," since his nose is perpetually stuffed. Emby, for short. He's the one always obsessively reading his comic book, but he can't quite do that in here.

"Don't talk like that," says Connor. "If the Fatigues wanted to kill us, they would have done it a long time ago."

The Mouth Breather has foul breath that's filling up the whole crate. "Maybe they got found out. Maybe the Juvey-cops are on their way, and the only way to save themselves is to destroy the evidence!"

Connor has little patience for whiners. It reminds him too much of his younger brother. The one his parents chose to keep. "Shut up, Emby, or I swear I'm going to take off my sock, shove it in your stinky mouth, and you'll finally have to figure out a way to breathe through your nose!"

"Let me know if you need an extra sock," says a voice just across from him. "Hi, Connor. It's Hayden."

"Hey, Hayden." Connor reaches out and finds Hayden's shoe, squeezing it—the closest thing to a greeting in the claustrophobic darkness. "So, who's lucky number four?" No answer. "Sounds like we must be traveling with a mime." Another long pause, then Connor hears a deep, accented voice.

"Diego."

"Diego doesn't talk much," says Hayden.

"I figured."

They wait in silence, punctuated by the Mouth Breather's snorts.

"I gotta go to the bathroom," Emby mumbles.

"You should have thought of that before you left," says Hayden, putting on his best mother voice. "How many times do we have to tell you? Always use the potty before climbing into a shipping crate."

There's some sort of mechanical activity outside, then they feel the crate moving.

"I don't like this," whines Emby.

"We're being moved," says Hayden.

"By forklift, probably," says Connor. The Fatigues are probably long gone by now. What was it that one Fatigue had said? Once you're in a box, you're somebody else's problem. Whoever's been hired to ship them probably has no clue what's in the crates. Soon they'll be on board some aircraft, headed to an undisclosed destination. The thought of it makes him think about the rest of his family and their trip to the Bahamas—the one they'd planned to take once Connor was unwound. He wonders if they went—would they still take their vacation, even after Connor had kicked-AWOL? Sure they would. They were planning to take it once he got unwound, so why would his escape stop them? Hey, wouldn't it be funny if they were being shipped to the Bahamas too?


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