One

THE KID burst out of the alley in an explosion of flying debris. It was a real traffic stopper. Cars skidded and swerved as drivers tried to avoid the shattered wooden crates and overstuffed bags of garbage that splashed across the street. A couple of rats, rudely evicted from their trash den, were so panicked they scampered straight up a brick wall.

The kid was pissed. He shot into the street at a dead run, causing a three-car fender bender when the driver of a big, candy red SUV hit the brakes and slid to a screaming stop just shy of plowing into him. Not that the kid noticed any of this. A rusty pickup stopped suddenly in front of him. He didn’t miss a step, just leapt right over the hood and kept running.

People shook their fists and screamed at him, cheerful things like “Crazy fool!” and “Get your stupid ass out of the street!” and “You lunatic!” and other stuff that would draw big fines from the FCC if it slipped through on one of the television networks. To the average citizen, the kid had to be insane, tearing down the street that way, chasing nothing. Only he wasn’t chasing nothing. He was chasing a very definite something, a sprite that had rendered itself invisible to human eyes. The kid could see it, though. Despite appearances, he wasn’t entirely human.

I could see the sprite too. It looked a lot like a two-year-old boy, although one whose brown arms and legs were abnormally long and as spindly as twigs. Oh, and it sported a white beard that was about a foot long and tied in tidy little knots. The sprite laughed as it ran down the street. Sprites were always bubbly and full of laughter, even when they were in mortal danger. Judging by the look on the kid’s face, this sprite’s body was soon going to be tied in more knots than it wore in its beard.

But the sprite was a wily one. The chase was taking place on South Main Street in downtown Wisteria, Illinois—a bustling town about a hundred miles south of Chicago—on a sunny but only lightly warm April morn. There were droves of pedestrians everywhere: shoppers carrying bags, office workers on lunch break, lawyers (eek!) headed for the courthouse. The sprite ducked and dodged his way up the crowded sidewalk. The kid, on the other hand, plowed through like a tractor clearing snow. There are only so many people you can knock down before someone takes offense. In this case, the offended party just happened to be a cop.

The cop was well over six feet tall and decked out in full blue regalia. The kid apparently didn’t see that, even as he bumped the cop’s shoulder hard enough to knock the officer sideways. The cop had already noticed the hubbub and was scanning the crowd for its source when the kid hit him. The cop’s reflexes were so good that he not only managed to keep his balance, he nabbed the kid by the collar of his jersey and snatched him up.

“Hold it there!” the cop said.

“Let me go!” The kid had his head turned, enraged eyes locked on the steadily giggling, swiftly retreating sprite. “Let go!” He put his foot squarely in the cop’s chest and shoved.

The kid looked African American, with medium brown skin, wearing his hair faded on the sides and back but shooting up on top in short, spiky black and tan dreadlocks. He was on the small side for a teenager, about five nine or so in height, but he couldn’t have weighed more than 150 pounds soaking wet. The cop was completely stunned when that single shove of the kid’s foot sent him flying backward a good thirty feet.

Unfortunately for Mr. Bad Attitude, the cop held on to him, and he went flying down the sidewalk with the man in blue. They crashed into three men who had just stepped out of a cafe, and all five of them went down in a heap.

The dreadlocked guy immediately began shoving his way through the jumble of bodies atop him. Just as he was scrambling to his feet, the cop tackled him, forcing him facedown on the sidewalk. Even with the cop on his back, the kid pushed himself effortlessly up on his hands and knees. Snarling, he reached over his shoulder for the cop.

“Help me!” the beleaguered officer shouted. The three men sat on their asses, momentarily amazed at the sight of this kid, without the slightest hint of strain, pulling a policeman twice his size off his back. The cop fell to the sidewalk but still had his arms locked around the kid’s neck. He tried, unsuccessfully, to wrestle the boy down. The kid punched the cop once in the shoulder with the heel of his right hand, and the cop released him, flopping backward onto the concrete.

The kid was just getting to his feet when the three men jumped him. Caught off balance, he went down. He would have probably fought these guys off too, except one of them immediately pinned his hands behind his back. The second man wrapped his arms around the kid’s ankles, while the third pressed a foot down on his butt.

“Get off!” the boy screamed. “He’s getting away! He’s getting away!”

The cop jumped in. He locked a pair of cuffs on the kid’s wrists and another pair on his ankles. With an angry grunt, the kid whipped his legs apart, snapping the cuffs binding his ankles as if the metal was no more than an overstretched rubber band. He was about to do the same with the cuffs on his wrists when the cop hauled out a nightstick and clocked him one right on the head. The boy barely seemed to feel the blow, and the cop had to whack him three more times before he finally slumped in a daze on the sidewalk.

The cop hauled the boy up by the back of his jersey and the seat of his loose jeans. The officer muttered thanks over his shoulder to his citizen assistants and half carried, half dragged the boy down the street amid jeers and curses from still-traumatized onlookers. The boy struggled feebly, but he was too out of it to put up a fight now. The cop dumped him in the backseat of a patrol car, slammed the door, slid behind the wheel, and peeled away from the curb in a squeal of spinning tires.

I watched all this from the doorway of Lady Diana’s Midwestern Gallery and Emporium, where I had just spent my entire morning. I try to stay out of trouble, and shopping is one of the best ways for me to do that. That kid had just planted himself in a whole world of strife. Truancy, assault and battery, reckless endangerment, assault on an officer of the law, resisting arrest—and those were just the charges I could think of off the top of my head. My common sense was screaming for me to walk my ass down the street and take the bus home. My sense of decency was arguing for helping the kid out and damn the consequences. My selfishness recognized that the kid could be helpful to me. My sick curiosity trumped them all. Sprites are some of the meanest things on the planet, and more than anything, I wanted to know why this kid was so anxious to kill one.

After tugging my cap down low over my face and shoving my hands into my pockets, I stepped away from Lady Diana’s store. The bus stop was down the street to my left. I turned right, heading for the downtown police precinct.

COPS WHO are good at their jobs tend to be observant and suspicious. Fortunately, not all of them are that good. It makes things easier when you want to bust someone out of jail.

The downtown precinct was a square, hundred-year-old brick-and-mortar building on the northwest corner of Adams and Second. Most criminals picked up in the area were booked into the much newer, much bigger Criminal Justice Center on Lincoln Avenue, but kiddie thugs went to the old precinct to keep them away from the adult no-goods.

Squad cars lined Adams from Second to Main, many of them double-parked. That’s illegal, by the way, even for cops. When the average citizen does that, his car gets ticketed and possibly towed. Cops get away with their lawbreaking because citizens and fellow cops tend to look the other way. It pisses me off too much for me to ignore it. I paused in front of the precinct and briefly closed my eyes. Moments later, a meter maid came running around the corner from Second. Her eyes were practically burning with outrage. She marched down Adams, indignantly slapping tickets with hefty fines on the windshield of every double-parked police car. Smiling, I turned and strode up the walkway to the main entrance.

There were six cops spread around the lobby, and for good measure, there was a seventh behind the front desk, which rose up six inches off the floor on a wide, circular pedestal that had to be mounted via a three-step stair. They all glared at me when I stepped through the door, which was a lot like being in the sights of seven guns. I’ve been told that I don’t look a day over fifteen. Few things are more suspicious than a minor waltzing unaccompanied into a police station in the middle of a school day. I stopped long enough to meet each cop’s gaze in turn. One by one, they turned away and went about their business as they suddenly forgot I was there. All, that is, but the one behind the desk. Wordlessly, he stepped down from his perch, crossed the lobby, took me by the arm, and escorted me to the elevator.

The officer was tall, lean, and brown-haired. He held me so close the handle of his gun dug into my ribs. He was being protective of me, as inspired, but only a stupidly careless cop would allow an unbound suspect that kind of proximity to his weapon, and it wouldn’t be wise for the two of us to draw any undue attention. I looked up at the cop. He pushed me two feet ahead of him and cuffed my hands behind my back. Then he punched a code into a keypad on the wall, and the doors of the secured elevator slid open.

We rode down to the basement. The elevator opened into a narrow, brightly lit corridor. We started walking. At the end of the corridor, another cop—shorter, leaner, and meaner looking—sat reading a magazine at a desk outside a heavy steel door. He shot a combination of scowl and grin at us.

“Got a fresh one, huh, Meeks?” said the mean one.

“Oh yeah,” Meeks returned. “Real knucklehead.” He swatted me one across the back of the head. It was a touch of authenticity I could have done without.

Officer Meeks and I stopped at the steel door, waiting. Mean Cop got up, grabbed a ring of keys from one of the desk drawers, unlocked the door, and opened it. Officer Meeks shoved me through the doorway.

Now we were moving down a corridor lined on either side by cells fronted with thick metal bars. Behind the bars were teenaged offenders of varying sizes and ethnicities, all of them boys. Some of them scowled at me, others at the cop, with eyes that promised all sorts of mayhem at the slightest provocation. They were all scared as hell. I had smelled the fear the second I stepped off the elevator.

The sprite-chaser wasn’t scared, though. Locked in a cell at the end of the corridor, he was steaming with frustration, boiling with anger, and cooking up an escape. I could tell all that from the fact he was digging a hole in the back wall of his private accommodations with his bare hands.

I said quietly, “Hey.”

The kid turned and froze, momentarily startled. He stared at me and my dark-blue-suited escort, the surprise on his face quickly giving way to a sneer. It was almost insulting how small of a glitch he thought the cop’s and my sudden appearance was to his plan. He turned back and lifted his right foot to kick his way through the wall.

“There’s an easier way out than punching your way into the building next door,” I offered.

“Yeah?” The kid smashed the flat of his sneakered foot against the wall, pulverizing another good six inches of concrete. Surprisingly, the blow produced only a muffled thump, although it sent vibrations rattling through the floor like a major quake. “And what’s that?”

“The front door.”

He looked over his shoulder, first at my cuffed hands, then at the staring, motionless cop. “Riiight,” he said, drawing out the word the way you do when speaking to someone who is woefully nuts. He drew back his foot for a final kick.

Officer Meeks stepped up and unlocked the cell. The kid spun, hands raised, ready to fight. Then he hesitated when he saw the cop stand aside, holding the cell door open for him. He sent me a “what the hell” look.

“Trust me,” I said.

He stared into my eyes for another moment. His gaze abruptly went blank, and then his whole body became slack. He stepped into the hall and put his hands behind his back. The cop cuffed the kid’s wrists together. The three of us walked back up the hall.

Mean Cop looked confused when Officer Meeks returned to the unlocked steel security door and pushed two handcuffed boys through. “What the hell is this?” Mean Cop asked. “Scarborough just brought that black kid in, kicking and screaming. And you must not have locked this other one up for even a hot second.”

Meeks gave an exasperated roll of his eyes. “Just got a call. Detectives want these two up in the interrogation rooms.”

There were no phones in the holding cells and no cell phone on Meeks. Mean Cop didn’t seem at all concerned as to how Meeks had gotten any call. He just gave a crooked, satisfied smile at the sight of Meeks hauling the kid and me away to the elevator by the scruffs of our necks.

When the elevator doors opened, I did a quick scan of the lobby. There was only one cop present now, and he was standing on the pedestal, leaning over the front desk and pecking at the computer keyboard. I looked into Meeks’s eyes; he quickly freed the kid and me from the handcuffs. Then he strode across the lobby toward the front desk, loudly asking, “Farmer, what in blazes are you doing to my computer?”

I took the kid by the arm, and we eased out of the police station like a pair of snakes.