She called me on Thursday night at 10:07 PM. I’d just finished the last of my homework, and was sitting at my desk in my bedroom thinking about what to do before going to bed.
“Nick, I know where he is.”
“He?” I said.
“Men and women smell different.”
“Like with perfume versus aftershave?”
“Before that even, but that’s not important. He’s staying in one of the rental cottages on the south shore of Grand Lake. If he’s still here, we might be able to find which one.”
“Wait,” I said, “how do you figure that?”
“He smelled a little like dill. I didn’t think about it last night, but today I got it.”
She didn’t have to say much more than that for me to make the connection.
The Heinz pickle plant stood on the south shore of Grand Lake. It sat next to a number of old businesses and factories on the edges of downtown. Further down Shoreline Drive could be found cottages, lakeside condos, and surprisingly expensive older homes.
The key point about the Heinz plant was that it reeked of pickles. Ten foot tall barrels stood outside in all weather. With the right wind, the smell could cover a quarter of the city.
“I just got out of work,” she said. “I’m at Chuck’s Pizza. They were short staffed, so Dad sent me here. Do you want to pick me up in Grandpa’s car? I’ll be about a block east of the restaurant.”
“I’m done with homework so I guess I’m free for a little while.”
“I’ve still got a few algebra problems left,” she said. “Do you think we could make it quick?”
“I’ve got an eleven o’clock curfew,” I said. “It’ll have to be.”
We hung up. I considered telling her to be careful, but I stopped myself. While Chuck’s Pizza wasn’t in the nicest of neighborhoods these days, she was probably the most dangerous person there.
* * *
My parents didn’t seem to have any problem with me running down to Grandpa’s house — though it wasn’t as if I’d given them time to think about it. I just told them I’d left some books there and ran out the door.
Ten minutes later, I found myself driving Night Wolf’s car downtown. I adjusted the wheel on the dashboard until the color turned blue, pressing the button that swapped out the license plate.
The car handled beautifully even in the snow. I didn’t even have to flick on the spikes for extra traction.
As she’d said, Haley stood a block down from the pizza place in front of “Hal’s Used Cars,” a surprisingly dingy, but, well lit used car lot. A line of cheap red and green plastic flags hung on poles around the perimeter.
“This is so cool,” she said as she stepped in, stashing her backpack in the back seat. “I bet the Defenders do things like this all the time.”
“Probably,” I said, “but I bet they’re getting paid.”
I pulled away from the curb the second she shut the door, giving the car more gas than I should have, but it accelerated so smoothly I barely noticed the speed. Driving it felt like flying except less exposed.
I shot past three cars almost immediately and didn’t stop, changing the color of the car back to all black (and the license plate to “Night Wolf”) as we turned onto Shoreline Drive. We were far ahead of traffic by then.
She glanced over at me.
“You seem a little nervous.”
“I’m okay,” I said. “I’m a little worried about getting home before my curfew though. It’s already 10:24 and I’ve got to be back home by eleven, so we’ve probably got to find whoever it is before 10:40. We’re just cutting it close.”
“What would they do about it?”
“I don’t know. Ground me, maybe.”
I pulled over to the side of the road. We stopped in front of an old video store just past the pickle plant. Posters in the window advertised videos in Spanish.
Ahead of us, trees lined the street, marking an end to downtown and the beginning of houses and rental cottages. If we pushed through the yard, we could have walked along the edge of Grand Lake, but in that weather, we wouldn’t have wanted to even if we had the time.
“Does this look like a good place to begin?” I asked.
“Perfect,” she said. “Could you get out first? I need to get into costume.”
“Sure,” I said, and stepped outside, walking around the front of the car in the slush, and waiting for her on her side of the car.
It took her a couple minutes. I occupied myself by playing with my equipment. According to the readouts from my helmet, the temperature was just a little above freezing and the wind blew at ten mph. I felt grateful that the stealth suit included an optional jacket.
I’d found our exact latitude and longitude and had begun to use the GPS to calculate the exact distance from here to HQ by the time Haley got out of the car. She wore a black League jumpsuit — which meant it was insulated, bulletproof, and form fitting. A mask hid the upper half her face.
“I’ll try to catch his scent,” she said.
She started walking down the side of the road and I followed her.
It didn’t take long before we stood in front of a long, one story, wooden building. Glowing, the old sign in front of it said, “motel” without giving a name. In smaller, neon letters, it said, “vacancy.”
I’d ridden past it all my life, but it had never occurred to me that it was still open.
“He’s here,” she said. “I can smell him. I bet we can find his exact room.”
She stepped off the side of the road and into the driveway and parking lot of the motel. The building stood close enough to the road that the parking lot touched the sidewalk.
We walked past each of the doors, peering to the degree we could around the curtains in the window.
As we passed the fifth door, Haley touched my arm and whispered, “This one.”
The door opened.