Danny slipped through the brush as silently as a gentle breeze, nearly invisible in the twilight. He breathed deep the crisp springtime air as he skipped over the tiny stream behind the house and crept up the slope of the hill to the chain-link fence at the edge of the property. His partner was already waiting for him. Danny pulled his Atlanta Braves ball cap down over his black, curly hair.
“Where’ve you been?” Bryn asked. She had that look again—the one that said, “What did I ever do to draw Danny Underhill as a partner?”
“There was a…Actually, I kind of…”
“Got distracted? What was it this time?”
“Squirrel,” Danny said, shuffling his feet.
Bryn looked at him with both exasperation and endearment. “Well, at least you’re here now.”
“Anything to report?”
Bryn shook her head. “Pretty quiet. I thought I heard something in the woods a half-hour ago. It was just a bird.”
“Are you sure?”
“Mostly sure,” Bryn confessed. She turned back toward the back yard. “I swear,” she sighed, “we should have switched her out a month ago.”
“Mrs. Redmane said we had to be sure,” Danny protested. “Given the circumstances…”
“I know, Danny,” Bryn said. She smiled, and Danny’s heart jumped just a little. Then again, Brynhilde Delling seemed to have that effect on everything with an Adam’s apple. She tossed back her head in a way that made her golden hair seem to dance in the moonlight.
Crickets chirped. Somewhere, someone was grilling steaks. Danny realized he was hungry. The cafeteria food he had been eating for lunch the past few weeks never seemed to fill him up. Hopefully, all that would change tomorrow afternoon. He tried not to dwell on how much was riding on this assignment. He certainly couldn’t afford to think about the news he had just received.
No, best not to dwell on how this entire mission might be the death of him. Let Bryn think he was late because he got distracted by a squirrel. He kept telling himself—and Bryn—that it was just another switch-out. He’d done this plenty of times. No biggie. He was even starting to believe it himself.
“Are you listening?” Bryn asked. Apparently, Danny wasn’t.
“Uh,” he said.
“I said I’ll keep my distance till you call me. She knows you, after all.”
“Sounds good,” Danny said. “We don’t want to spook her. Well, any more than is necessary, anyway.” He gazed across the back yard toward the modest house. He pulled back as he got a little too close to the fence. Cold shivers spread in a wave up his arms and down his spine.
A light flicked on in the back bedroom. A young girl entered the room. Thin. Pale-skinned. A little on the tall side for her age—in fact, she was exactly the same height as Danny. Her long, straight hair that was not quite blonde and not quite brown hung loosely over her shoulders.
Behind her came another girl with caramel-colored skin and her hair in beaded braids. This second girl smiled at the first as they both plopped their backpacks on the bed.
“I just hope I don’t have to get between her and her friend,” Danny said. “That girl makes me nervous.”
“What do you mean? She can’t know anything.”
“She doesn’t like me,” Danny said. “I’m not sure why.” He wondered if she did know the truth about him. She didn’t show up in any of the background checks, but background checks could be wrong. Things can get lost in the shuffle—otherwise they wouldn’t be in this mess!
“You’re imagining things,” Bryn said. “It’s not worth getting all worked up over some Jack kid.”
“Yeah.” Danny was not so sure. The truth was, he couldn’t afford for anything to go wrong. Not now. He glanced at Bryn. She couldn’t possibly know how much was on the line—what Danny was planning, and how much might be riding on the skinny girl in the back bedroom.
Focus! he told himself. Only one more to go. You’ve got to get this right.
“I’ll talk to her in the park. It’s usually pretty empty right after school. Then I’ll take her to meet you at the ring.”
“What about the other one?”
Danny sighed. “I’ll play that by ear. If I have to, I’ll arrange for her to go home early.”
“Just don’t give her anything too serious,” Bryn said. “We need a clean ledger on this one. Nobody owes anything to anybody.”
“I’ve done this before, you know,” Danny said with a huff.
“I know you have,” Bryn said. “You’re in charge. I’m your backup.”
“Right,” Danny said. “But that means if anything goes wrong, it ain’t your tail on the line, it’s mine.”
“And a fine, waggly tail it is,” Bryn said, smiling. “You’ll do fine. Like you say, this is just another switch-out. You’re the expert. I’m just the placeholder until she makes her decision.”
“About that: do you need anything else to pull it off?”
“Give me a heads-up tomorrow when you see what she’s wearing. I can handle it from there.”
“Are you sure? Honestly, Bryn. I’m asking a lot of you here. You’ve got to be perfect. What if somebody doesn’t buy it? It could be a disaster! They’d call in the police, maybe even the FBI.” That would be a total disaster: guns, handcuffs…maybe even riding in a car! Danny shuddered at the thought. He found he had been drained of whatever optimism he had managed to gin up.
Then again, if Danny had to choose between the FBI and an angry Mrs. Redmane, he’d take the FBI any day of the week! One last switch-out and I’ve fulfilled my contract, he told himself. One last switch-out and I’m free. Unless, of course, the whole thing blows up in my face.
“Piece of cake,” Bryn smiled, oblivious to Danny’s concerns. “It could be fun. It’s been a long time since I was a teenager.”
“You’ve never been a teenager like her!” Danny scoffed.
“How different could it be?” Bryn pouted.
“Trust me, I’ve been living around them practically since Imbolc. They’re not like us, Bryn.”
“Then Taylor Smart’s life is about to get very interesting,” Bryn said with a twinkle in her eye.
“You can say that again!”
“Well, then, it looks like we’re all set,” Bryn said. “What do you say we stop by the drugstore and see if they’ve got any new teen music magazines. I’m still a little shaky on a couple of those boy bands you’ve told me about.”
“All right,” Danny said. “But just for a few minutes. I gotta study for a history test.” He glanced at the light in the back bedroom window one last time.
He nodded to his partner. Then they both vanished silently into the gathering darkness.