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Authors: F. T. Bradley

The Alias Men

BOOK: The Alias Men
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DEDICATION

For my parents

PROLOGUE

YOU KNOW IN A MOVIE WHEN THERE'S SOME
dude hanging off a cliff or a building, and you stop to wonder how the Hollywood people pulled it off? Because it's all fake. I mean, it's the movies, right?

Only it's not fake. At least not all the time. Like in
The Hollywood Kid
, this movie I was in. There's one part where I was hanging off the—

Anyway, turns out that the scene wasn't fake at all, and there was no stunt double or anything like that. But I should start at the beginning, so you get to hear the whole story.

It all started in my mom's minivan, if you can believe it. But don't worry—like with all Pandora missions, it gets interesting in a hurry. And dangerous, too.

PLACE: HIGHWAY 101, GOING SOUTH

TIME: THURSDAY, 11:25 A.M.

Here's how it all went down.

1

THURSDAY, 11:25 A.M.

“DID YOU REMEMBER TO GRAB GRANDPA'S
medicine?” This was Mom talking to my dad, who was driving. We were in the minivan (which kind of smells like french fries and old socks), heading south on California's Highway 101. Our family was about fifteen minutes into the two-hour drive. We were at the part when Mom goes through her mental checklist, making sure we packed up half the house. Next she'd start to worry if she locked the doors and turned the outside lights on.

If you've ever been on a road trip, you know what I'm talking about.

“Grandpa's medicine is in the trunk, with everything else,” Dad said. He rolled the window down an inch. “You should really get this thing detailed.”

“4BBX329.” That was Grandpa talking. He thinks everyone is a criminal, so he keeps track of license plates, since that's how they catch the bad guys on his favorite crime shows. Sometimes Grandpa even writes them down in this little notebook he carries around. And I got to sit next to him in the van while he rattled off letters and numbers, and the occasional vanity plate.

Not that I really cared at that point. I was too busy worrying about a phone call I'd gotten just an hour earlier, when we were still at the house. It was from Albert Black, head of Pandora, this top secret agency tasked with finding dangerous artifacts. I'd been on two missions for them, and I thought that was it for me being a temporary junior secret agent.

See, I'm just a regular kid. The only reason Pandora wants me on these missions is because I look just like a junior secret agent named Ben Green. He's an annoying know-it-all, and—

“Now I'm wondering if I turned the outside lights on,” Mom said.

Dad sighed.

Me, I was trying to figure out what job was ahead. On my first mission, to Paris, I was just there to take the place of the junior agent I looked like, Ben Green. On my second mission, in Washington, DC, Pandora had invited me to throw the bad guys off Ben's trail (but I kind of ended up saving the day).

Now Pandora wanted me on a new mission, down in Los Angeles. As it turned out, I was going there anyway. The Baker family has an annual reunion of sorts every February, where all the aunts and uncles try to impress one another with their cooking and auto-mechanic skills. Mom and Dad even got me out of school for Thursday and Friday, which was a pretty sweet deal. My uncle Tim had this broken-down old car waiting for everyone to fix up, like we did every year. By Sunday the beater would be good as new—an awesome classic car—and we'd have a barbecue to cap the weekend. What can I say: The Bakers know how to turn scrap metal into vintage gold.

“Did you remember to close your bedroom window, Linc?”

“Yes. Also, I locked the back door, and I made sure the auto shop was all secure, too,” I said. From my angle, I could see Dad snicker in the rearview mirror. He's an auto mechanic, and his garage, Baker Autos, is conveniently located in our backyard.

“You laugh, but this is important,” Mom sputtered when she saw Dad's face.

Now, any other time I would've continued this road-trip razzing of Mom. But right then I was too preoccupied wondering what Albert Black wanted, and what Pandora had in store for me. Black had told me to meet him at two o'clock at the Perfect Frame Café, just up the street from Sterling Studios, a famous movie studio. I was supposed to take a movie-lot tour as part of the mission. Sounds simple enough, right?

But I had that nagging feeling in my gut that I always had when it came to Pandora missions. Like there was more to it than they were telling me.

At least this time it would be
my
mission, and mine alone. My look-alike, Ben Green, was not invited. So no risk of him messing with my flow. I was kind of excited about that.

“5VAT487,” Grandpa mumbled. We were cruising closer to the cliffs along the Pacific now. In the water, tiny-looking surfers were trying to catch a wave, and a coast-guard helicopter hovered in the sky. Grandpa got his nose close to the window. “Geronim
ooooo
,” he said.

This was the part where he would start telling us about the time he tried to join the army but they wouldn't let him because of his bad eyesight.

“I was going to be a parachutist, you know,” Grandpa said, his eyes still on the sky. “Taking risks, jumping from airplanes and helicopters.”

Didn't I tell you? Sometimes when you're family, you already know what the person is going to say before they do. “Sure, Grandpa,” I said, like I always did.

“It's true. You know why they yell ‘Geronimo' when they jump from the planes?” He didn't wait for us to answer, since we all knew this boring story. “To show they're not scared.”

“You seem out of it, Linc,” Mom said as she turned in the passenger seat. “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, sure. Of course it is.” I tried a smile. Truth was, I still needed an excuse to get away from the Baker reunion. Even if I only needed to sneak out for an hour or two, when you're twelve, that's not so easy. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about.

She frowned and looked me in the eye with her Mom X-ray vision. I swear, she can see right into my brain. “Something has you worried.”

“Well, there is this thing,” I said, making things up as I spoke. “Sam's dad knows this guy at Sterling Studios. He offered to give me a free tour.” Sam is one of my best friends, and it was the first excuse I could think of.

Mom didn't say anything. I could see Dad glance in the rearview mirror.

“But I don't have to go,” I said, feeling the Mom heat. “I mean, it's a really cool opportunity, Sam said.” I hoped Mom wouldn't check with his dad on this whopper of a lie I just came up with, or I would be toast. “But I'll just say I can't do it. Because this trip is family time and all,” I added.

Mom smiled. “You can go, Linc.” She turned back around in her seat.

I exhaled. This lying business was tough stuff. “The tour is at two.”

Grandpa glanced over at me. “Movie-studio tour, eh?” He shook his head. “Hollywood, all full of lies and agendas.”

And he was right, of course. I just didn't know at the time how right Grandpa was. Not until I got to the mission, anyway.

But it was only an hour tour at Sterling Studios. How bad could it be?

2

THURSDAY, 1:05 P.M.

MY UNCLE TIM AND AUNT JENNY HAVE
this really big place in Pasadena—stucco house, pretty flowers, and even a giant backyard with a fire pit. Aunt Jenny is my dad's sister. She restores rusty old cars and sells them for big bucks. Between that and Uncle Tim's real-estate firm, they have a lot more money than us Lompoc Bakers do. Not that I care, but it makes my mom act all weird. Like we have something to prove.

“Oh no.” Mom turned to me with this stressed-out, horrified look on her face. “We forgot to bring the wooden ladle.” We were unpacking the van.

“It's inside the pitcher.” I reached to show her, but then a bunch of cooking supplies fell from the trunk. All over the cobblestone driveway.

Of course that was right when my aunt Jenny came out. She's kind of round and short, and always wears these checkered shirts. “Georgie!” She smiled big and hugged my dad. He rubbed her head, and she pretended to be upset about him messing up her hair. It's like their secret handshake.

Then she moved on to me. “Linc.” She smacked my shoulders, like she was trying to squish me. My aunt Jenny has some strength, too, so I rubbed my arms. “Get into trouble lately?” she asked me.

“No,” I said, but I could see Dad roll his eyes next to me. “Okay, maybe a little.”

Dad coughed.

“Well, those science-lab mice really should be set free,” I argued. I was an ambassador of animal rights, if you thought about it.

Aunt Jenny laughed. “That's my boy.” Then she gave me a stern look. “As long as you leave your troublemaking in Lompoc. We don't need any mishaps around here.”

“Linc will be on his best behavior,” Mom said as she walked over. My uncle Tim came outside, still on his cell phone. He's all business when showing houses and talks nonstop, but during these Baker reunions, he kind of hangs back and just watches the car overhaul take place. “Linc!” Uncle Tim called right after he hung up the phone. “What's cookin' with my favorite nephew?”

“I'm your only nephew.” We had this same conversation every year. “And there's nothing new, Uncle Tim,” I lied, thinking of my Pandora mission.

He hugged me and the rest of the Lompoc Bakers. It's always awkward with Grandpa. He doesn't like to hug, so there was some grumbling on his part before he went inside the house.

Uncle Tim walked back toward the door, pointing at Dad. “Have Jenny show you the wheels, George. It's a real piece of rust.”

“That's how we like 'em,” Dad called.

“I have you sleeping in the east-side bedrooms, as always,” Aunt Jenny said once Uncle Tim disappeared. Their place is so big, they have whole wings—great for family reunions. Our house in Lompoc is just a little bigger than this wing Aunt Jenny set up for us.

“Thank you.” Mom smiled. “Oh, I almost forgot: Linc has some kind of movie-studio tour arranged, at Sterling Studios. Maybe Mike can drive him?”

I froze. “Why can't you or Dad drop me off?” I whispered. Truth was, I didn't want my cousin Mike to tag along on the case.

“Mike will do it. You know how he loves to drive,” Aunt Jenny said before I could argue. “That way, your mom and I can talk recipes.” She winked at Mom.

“Super,” Mom said in her fake excited voice. That was because Mom isn't much of a chef, and Aunt Jenny is.

“Speak of the devil.” Aunt Jenny pointed down the tree-lined road, where Mike was driving his white 1960 Ford Falcon. There were a few cars parked along the street—your average sedans, a minivan.

And I spotted one car, a blue compact. There was a woman inside, studying a map but occasionally glancing our way. She had very short silver hair.

Was this lady with Pandora? I didn't recognize her—why was she here?

“Linc!” Dad nudged me.

I looked away from the car. “Huh?”

“Mike's here. Say hello.”

Mike had pulled up onto the driveway and rolled down the window. He gave me one of his cool nods. His hair was spiked and looked like he'd used about half a pound of gel to mold it. “Hey.” His girlfriend, Willow, had dyed her long hair very blond, and she wore it in two buns on the sides of her head. They looked like earmuffs. She waved hello from the passenger seat.

“Linc needs you to drive him to Sterling Studios for a tour,” Aunt Jenny said to Mike, leaning on the car. She checked her watch. “You should probably leave now or you'll hit traffic.”

Los Angeles traffic is notoriously miserable, no matter what time of day. But during rush hour it's so bad you might as well walk.

“Sure,” Mike said with a shrug. Willow nodded and high-fived Mike from her seat. They're big into high fives, and movies. You can't sit next to them without getting a pop quiz about some random Hollywood flop.

Dad handed me a couple of twenties and told me to behave. Then I got in the back of Mike's car, behind Willow. As I buckled up, I glanced over my shoulder to see if that blue compact was still there.

It was—the woman folded up her map and pulled away. Mike reversed just in time for me to watch the blue car drive down the street and disappear around the corner. That lady obviously wasn't following me.

I smiled and shook my head. Pandora was turning me into some paranoid agent—like Ben Green.

“What's so funny?” Mike asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “Just paranoia.”

Mike nodded. “You know what they say about that.” He slowly eased to a stop at the end of his street.

“What?” I asked.

Willow answered, “Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean someone isn't out to get you.”

“That's what Grandpa always says!” I laughed. It was nonsense; everyone knew that.

Right?

BOOK: The Alias Men
6.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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