Chapter 9

It was a janitor’s closet. A very, very big janitor’s closet.

From what I could see, the room ran about 20 feet square, and except for a bare patch along the back wall it was piled floor-to-ceiling with every janitor’s supply imaginable. Brooms, rags, mops, and scattered piles of cleaning solutions lined one wall. Big boxes of toilet paper, multi-colored bottles of strange chemicals, and a lot of poorly organized tool racks lined another, while most of the back wall sat covered in vacuums and garbage cans. This cornucopia of items gave the room a very strong odor. It smelled terrible.

Above us, a single naked light bulb hung from the ceiling, its dim glow casting thick, stubby shadows across everything – including our host, who stood alone in the center of the room.

I realized for the first time that the mystery man might actually be one of the school’s janitors. He was tall – 6’3″, maybe 6’4″ – and he might be handsome if he weren’t wearing coveralls and a sour expression. In contrast to the coveralls, his eyes were large and intelligent, and they peered out at Eddie and I beneath bushy black eyebrows. His hair looked halfway between black and gray, and hey – he even smelled like a janitor.

Still, he didn’t look nearly as old as I had imagined (more like 40 instead of 60). I didn’t know if that made me feel better or worse.

Probably worse.

“Glad you could make it,” he said, spitting into a large bucket of sawdust at his right. “I was worried you weren’t coming.”

Eddie didn’t say anything so I spoke up.

“Worried? You didn’t think we’d show?”

The man raised an eyebrow.

“Are you serious? After everything you’ve been through in the last 48 hours it’s amazing you’re alive, let alone here with me.”

“Then you know what I’ve been through?”

“And then some,” he said. “Two of my best friends were in the Explorer escorting you.”

“The white one?”

“The white one. Two good men died in that wreck, Teal. I’m just glad you and your mom made it out okay. Nice work with the jumper cables.”

I couldn’t help but smile.

“How do you know about all that?”

“It’s my job to know. Some very important people want your family safe, while other equally important people want you dead.”

So he did have useful information.

“Who wants us dead?”

“Your mom didn’t explain much to you, did she?”

“No,” I said, inadvertently scowling. “She said she couldn’t – something about sensors that would be tipped off if she said too much.”

“Your mom’s a smart woman. Don’t you forget it.”

“Speaking of her…”

My heart pounded.

“…Do you know where she is?”

“What do you mean?”

“My mom. Where is she? Did they get her?”

The janitor’s expression darkened.

“I sure as hell hope not. Has something happened?”

“Yeah, something’s happened. When did you last hear from her?”

“Saturday morning after your car chase. She called to let me know that two of my men died in that wreck.”

This wasn’t going well.

“No,” I groaned. “This can’t be happening.”

“What, Teal? Spit it out!”

So I did spit it out. All of it. I started with the conversation between mom and I in my bedroom and ended with plopping down on Eddie’s lawn. More than once I found myself shaking, sometimes with concern, most times with rage. You’d think it would be easier to retell the story since I’d just told it to Eddie, but I actually found it much, much worse. My emotions were totally out of whack – a result of two days of sleep and the most erratic eating habits of my life, compounded by the stress of a dying father, a missing family, and a group of very determined individuals trying to kill me – and I was starting to worry that sometime soon I was gonna snap.

But for now I suppressed my hurricane of emotions and even managed to make it through my story.

Once I finished, the mystery man just shook his head.

“Teal, I’m sorry, but I don’t know where your mom is.”

I said nothing.

“But we don’t know the bad guys got her,” Eddie spoke up, patting me on the shoulder. “Right? She might have made it out in time.”

“He’s right,” said the janitor. “If anyone could escape these guys, it’s your mom.”

I wanted to believe them. Really, I did. But something inside me remained worried.

Oh well. Until I knew otherwise, I’d just have to hope they were right.

“I don’t want to think about what happened,” I responded with a sigh. “I could worry for days but that won’t change anything. Instead we need to talk about what we’ve gotta do to bring down these enemies once and for all. I think we should start by discussing why so many people are after my family.”

This sudden bout of sensibility surprised even me. Maybe I still had some emotional control left.

I looked straight at our host.

“So talk to me. Who are these guys, and why do they want my family dead?”

The janitor smiled.

“You should sit down for this, kid. It just might blow your mind.”

“Try me. After everything I’ve seen and done in the last 72 hours, I don’t think anything could surprise me.”

His smile turned to a chuckle.

“We’ll see about that,” he said, motioning toward a shop vac. I took a seat atop it; Eddie sat down on a stack of boxes across from me, and our host leaned against a blank stretch along the room’s back wall.

“I guess we’ll start with the obvious,” he began. “According to your story, you’ve heard about the company called Genetitech.”

Eddie and I nodded.

“That’s as good a place as any to start. You know Genetitech was started by a man named Augustus Beck?”

“Yeah. The high school was originally his lab.”

“That’s right. Thing is, it was never meant to be a lab. Genetitech’s never been anything more than a front for something way creepier than DNA sequencing and all that ‘cure mankind’s problems’ crap. Beck just said things like that to distract people from looking too closely into the real reason for building this huge complex.”

“…Which was?”

“A front for Zargansk study and experimentation. You guys ever heard the word Zargansk?”

I shook my head, but Eddie nodded vigorously.

“Where’d you hear it?” I asked.

“I saw it on a conspiracy theory website while we were researching the green blasts. There was paged called The Zargansk: Yesterday’s Savior, Tomorrow’s Slayer.”

Janitor man snickered at this.

“What did it say?”

“Not much. The story was pretty hokey, as you can imagine from the title. What do you know about the Zargansk?” he asked, turning to our host.

“More like what don’t I know about ’em,” the man replied. “The Zargansk are–”

He paused, interrupted by a sudden tremor beneath us. Everything in the room rattled softly; some mop and broom handles tipped over and a bottle of ammonia fell from an overstocked shelf.

“What was that?” I whispered, glancing at Eddie. He shrugged and shook his head, then we turned to face the janitor.

I’d never seen an expression change so quickly. Seconds earlier the janitor had looked smug – like he was getting ready to tell a secret he’d had bottled up for months. Now he looked…murderous.

“You okay?” I asked, but he ignored me, eyes narrowed in concentration.

Several moments passed, then a thunderous boom nearly rattled the teeth right out of my head. It sounded like a cannon had exploded beneath us, and at this the janitor man leapt to his feet and mumbled a whole line of obscenities I won’t even try to repeat here.

What was interesting, however, was his comment after the cursing.

“I can’t believe he’s actually going to try it,” he mumbled, shaking his head. “So help me God, that stupid Zargansk is really gonna try it.”

“What?” I asked. “What’s going on?”

Still the janitor ignored me, his brow furrowed in concentration.

“Dude!” Eddie whisper-yelled. “Remember the newspaper article I showed you – the one about the earthquake at this building?”

“Yeah. Do you think…?”

He nodded.

“I think it’s happening again.”

I jumped up and shook the janitor.

“Listen, man – I don’t know what’s going on but I want to help. Are the bad guys here? Can we fight ’em?”

He removed my hand from his arm.

“Watch it, Teal. You have no idea what you’re up against.”

“Sure I do,” I replied with a glare. “In case you forgot, I’ve taken these guys on more than once – and every time they’ve paid for messing with me.”

He glared back.

“These aren’t the same guys you’ve been fighting. There could be true-to-life Zargansk down there. Fighting them is a totally different game. Only a handful of humans have faced these guys and lived to tell about it.”

I didn’t know how to respond to this new bit of information. Every time I thought I was getting a grasp on things, the world fell out from beneath me.

New bad guys? Seriously?

“So what are we gonna do? Wait for them to come kill us?”

Another tremor shook the floor, causing more mops to fall over.

The janitor placed a firm hand on my shoulder.

I’m not gonna sit here,” he said. “I’m going down there and putting an end to that God-forsaken portalgate. You two are staying here and waiting for me to return. When I get back we’ll talk more.”

Portalgate? Why did that sound familiar?

“Wait!” I yelled. “You can’t go by yourself! These guys are trying to kill me and I want at ’em!”

“Quiet down, Teal. Your whining doesn’t mean anything to me. I’ve sworn to make sure nothing happens to you, and dragging you into a Zargansk fight ain’t my idea of keeping that promise. Now shut it and make yourself comfortable. I’ll be back ASAP.”

The tone of his voice didn’t leave any room for questions.

“You,” he said, pointing at Eddie. “Promise you’ll keep Teal here. Don’t either of you leave until I get back.”

Eddie nodded, which only infuriated me further. I didn’t need a babysitter.

“This is unbelievable,” I muttered. “And what do we do if you don’t return? Wait here forever?”

“I always return,” the janitor replied with a smile so charming I almost believed it. “Now watch closely. Someday you might need to know this.”

He then reached around his neck and unclasped a thin black necklace with a diamond-shaped pendant. With the necklace clasped tightly beneath his fingers, the janitor crouched over the bucket of sand he’d been spitting into. One by one he opened his fingers until only his thumb held the pendant, and then, after a final glance at each of us, he let go.

Nothing happened.

No, really – nothing happened. The pendant didn’t move. It didn’t fall. It just hung there, suspended in mid-air as if held by an invisible wire. The janitor seemed to sense our doubt, and he waved his hand over the top of the pendant to emphasize its free-floatingness.

What was this? A magic show? This didn’t seem like a great time for tricks.

As I tried to solve how the janitor made the necklace hover, the overhead light suddenly flickered and went out.

Awesome. I had SUCH fond memories of power outages.

And then a creepy rustling noise filled the room. It was hard for me to pinpoint the source of the sound since it seemed to come from everywhere at once, but I soon realized that was just the acoustics of the closet.

The sound was, in fact, coming from the bucket beneath the pendant. It sounded like a handful of sand slipping through someone’s fingers – or maybe like an overturned hourglass.

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I realized that the bucket was shaking, the sawdust inside it rattling like something beneath it was climbing to the surface.

I noticed my breathing growing quick and shallow and I fought to slow it down.

The janitor sent me a calm, fatherly smile.

A bright blue light suddenly burst from the center of the bucket, transforming the room into a landscape of cerulean shades and hues. I shielded my eyes (which had just begun to feel comfortable in the darkness) as a bright blue sphere on a steel shaft rose from the center of the bucket. Higher and higher it climbed until it rose nearly two feet into the air – and in so doing, touched the pendant.

A sudden rush of air swept through the room as the blue light disappeared, both it and the shaft suddenly sucking back into the bucket. A soft clink echoed as the janitor’s pendant fell onto the dust, and after several moments the light bulb above our heads flickered back to life.

I was at a loss to explain what had just happened.

Then Eddie yelled, “Teal!” He pointed frantically at the back wall, at the empty stretch where the janitor had been standing just moments before.

My jaw dropped.

A chunk of the wall had completely disappeared. The opening it left behind was floor-to-ceiling tall and several feet wide.

The inside of it looked to be some kind of tunnel. The walls and floor shimmered like silver, and a soft breeze flowed from the otherwise silent entrance.

Eddie looked over at me, his eyes so wide they looked cartoonish. My eyes probably looked the same.

“Glad to see you liked that little trick,” the janitor said, re-tying the necklace around his throat. “But now I’ve got work to do. You two stay here.”

“Wait!” I yelled. I really didn’t want to stay here – especially if the bad guys had my mom. I had to try one last plea.

“What if one of these Zargansk guys gets past you and comes after us? We have no way to defend ourselves. I know you’re confident in your skills and all, but if you really want to protect us shouldn’t we at least have some kind of weapon?”

The janitor chuckled.

“Fair enough, Teal. You can follow, but don’t say a word. The Zargansk can hear much better than we can, and they might even have a way to track our movement. So stay close and stay quiet – got it?”

I suppressed a smile and nodded seriously. Eddie did the same.

The janitor turned to leave, then paused. He slowly turned back around and placed a hand on Eddie’s shoulder.

“Listen, Ed – this ain’t your fight. You’re under no obligation to follow us, and I need to be honest with you. My top priority is protecting Teal. I’ll do my best to keep both of you safe, but if it comes down to any kind of choice, I have to save him first.”

I’d never felt more awkward. First off, I didn’t have any idea why this janitor guy was so serious about protecting me. I was a nobody. A nothing.

And I really couldn’t believe he’d say that to Eddie’s face. I wanted to crawl under a rock.

But Eddie just smiled.

“Hey, I’m cool with that. No one’s making me come. But Teal’s my friend, and with his family gone he needs all the help he can get.”

He turned and gave me a thumbs-up.

“And hey, dude – if you’re really that important, I’d better make sure you stay safe. I’m definitely coming with.”

Eddie and I are good friends. Best friends, even. But man, to hear that…

…I guess I’m just a lucky guy. Not everyone has a friend like Eddie.

The janitor nodded.

“You’re a good kid. Teal’s fortunate to have you around.” He squeezed Eddie’s shoulder then turned and faced the tunnel.

“Okay, boys,” he muttered. “Time to go.”

We walked into the tunnel.

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