Book 1


“Hurry up!” Steven looked back over his shoulder, jumping over a last pile of weed-covered bricks into the alley. He turned and threw up his hands in frustration. “Paul! Why are you so slow?” He watched impatiently while his friend clambered over a pile of bricks from a demolished building, dislodging debris that clattered loudly into the alley. Steven grimaced at the cacophonous noise, looking up and down the alley hoping no one noticed.

“You’re the one who wanted to go the back way,” Paul grumbled. He hopped off the last pile of broken concrete, and patted dust off his pants. “There. Easy.”

Steven sighed and looked ahead down the alley. They had just barely avoided the gang waiting for him at the front of Dmitri’s library. But for how long? “We need to hurry.”

“Why? They didn’t see us.”

Steven scowled, looking back the way they came. “I think they may be… it feels like they’re at the back door too.”

“No way. You can sense them already?”

“Yeah. I’m a freak, remember? But I don’t know if it’s them. I hope it’s not them.” Steven picked his way down the alley, then stopped. Paul bumped into him. Steven glanced at him, irritated, then returned his attention down the alley.


“He’s there. He knows.” Steven made a face, kicking at a clump of weeds. So much for sneaking to the library. His enemy was closing in around him. A slight movement in the weeds and overgrowth beside the alley distracted him and he groaned, wiping his face. “Oh no. Not again. No! Go away!” Steven whisper-yelled. “This so isn’t happening now.”

A trio of raccoons emerged from the underbrush and sat on their haunches, staring at him. He heard more coming in from the sparsely forested field behind the rubble. Steven rolled his eyes and gave Paul an exasperated look. “Everyone is already making fun of me about the animals.”

“Those critters used to be your best-kept secret. Now it’s out there for everyone to see.” Paul chortled, shaking his head. 

“I’m not doing it on purpose,” Steven said defensively, holding his hands out. “How can I make friends now? Everyone thinks I’m some sort of freaky animal whisperer now.”

“I’m your friend.” Paul held a hand up. Steven gave him a sideways glance then continued trying to shoo the raccoons away.

Paul looked up the tall, weathered, brick wall of the building they were skulking past. Dmitri’s library.  It was a good twenty feet up, a two-story commercial building similar to the rest that bordered the small town city square. He pursed his lips contemplatively. Steven noticed.

“No. Not even, just no. They already think I’m a hopeless freak. I’m not jumping up there.”

“They’d never expect it.”

Steven looked back the way they had come, pushing Paul further down the alley. “They’re coming that way now. They know we went this way.”

“Impossible. I watched them when we snuck across the street,” Paul said.

“You watched them?” Steven looked at Paul, incredulous.

Paul didn’t answer.

“You are nothing more than a figment of my imagination, dork.” Steven snapped. He glared at Paul, scowling. “I don’t know why I dreamed you up in the first place. Four years and what have you done for me?”

“I’m not a dork,” Paul said, subdued. He kicked at a clump of grass, dejected. “You’re still mad at me.”

“Ya think?” Steven snarked. He rubbed his face, considering his options. “I’m going to have to face him.”​

“He’s ticked.”

“Yeah.” Steven sighed, glancing up the library’s wall again. He was tempted. But things were already bad enough.

“Go ahead. Jump.” Paul goaded.

Steven looked up and down the alley. “There’s no plausible way up. They’d figure it out.”

“In their childish imagination, maybe.”

“I’m a child, moron!” Steven threw his hands up, exasperated. “Eleven years old and jumping up there? No. People would freak if an adult did it.”

“Nearly eleven. And if you want to make it to eleven, you’d jump,” Paul chided him.

“I can talk my way out of it. Like a normal kid.” He tried to sound confident but failed miserably. Sean wasn’t one to be trifled with. He glanced at the raccoons, noticing there were ten of them now. He could sense even more coming from the surrounding fields. “You guys are making it impossible for me.”

“He’s going to pound you. Then you’ll have to be a freak again.”

“I’m not going to fight him. Besides, Dmitri made me promise.” Steven glanced sideways at his imaginary companion. Tall, lanky, early teens, Steven could only guess Paul represented Brandon when he wasn’t around. His one real friend. But he hardly ever saw Brandon anymore. Sighing, Steven trudged down the alley toward the back entrance. The raccoons followed, keeping close to the underbrush.

“Maybe we could go through the front now?” Paul shoved his hands in his pockets and kicked a rock down the alley. “If they’re going through the Pearson’s building.”

Steven looked at the rubble that used to be a flower shop. He had watched Mr. Pearson knocking it down with a backhoe recently. Perhaps he planned on building a larger, better store? He had no idea. Currently, it offered numerous hiding spots they could have used to avoid the gang. Shaking his head, he glanced up the alley. “It’s too late. They’ll be through the rubble any second now.”

A clatter of bricks and sheet metal confirmed his prediction. He looked back as three teens emerged from the rubble, hands in pockets as they casually walked into the alley. They all carried what looked like hefty sticks slung from their shoulders. Steven frowned. That was new. But then, they had experienced a bad encounter with the raccoons the last time he was bullied.

“Three of them.” Paul looked back at the teens following them. “That means only a couple watching the front of the library.”

“You are such a math wiz.” Steven gave Paul a sideways glance, hoping his imaginary friend recognized the sarcasm. “We’re surrounded. I can feel the rest hanging around the back parking area now.”

“You can take them,” Paul whispered, grinning mischievously.

Steven didn’t answer. He just glanced furtively at Paul and continued walking, even trying to casually kick a rock. It turned out to be a chunk of rebar sticking out of the pavement and he stumbled. The kids behind him snickered and Steven flushed, embarrassed.

“Smooth.” Paul laughed.

“Shush,” Steven said quietly, glancing back.

“Like they’re going to hear me?” Paul smirked and kicked his rock a few more paces down the alley. The echoing racket of it bouncing along grated on Steven’s already frayed nerves.

“Can you stop that? I’ve got a frickin poltergeist. That’s what you are,” Steven grumbled. He grimaced, realizing he said that loudly. The other kids had to have heard. “Crap.”

“I think they heard you,” Paul whispered, giggling. “Pretending to be normal isn’t working out so well, dude.”

One of the gangsters caught up with him and draped an arm over his shoulder, making Steven wince. “Hey Pied Piper, can I talk to your friend too? We can all be besties.”

Steven pursed his lips as he walked, trying not to jerk away from the bully. He found the chaotic jumble of thoughts he got through his touch disconcerting. Intrusive, even. But trying to get away would just trigger the bully even more. 

“He can play hopscotch with me.” The teen attempted to hop through a crudely drawn hopscotch pattern on the pavement while holding onto Steven.

“He? I was talking to your Mom,” Steven snarked. A button pushed, but Steven couldn’t resist.

“Oh, he’s funny,” the boy said through a clenched smile, squeezing Steven’s shoulders painfully.

“Stop that.” Steven glanced at him, squirming a little. It was then that he got an impression from him that the boy’s mother was fighting cancer and instantly regretted using her in their little game of tit-for-tat.

“Why? You gonna hurt me? Are your animal friends going to bite me again, Pied Piper?” The teen squeezed even harder while waving his stick. 

Yep, that button got pushed. He was just another button-push away from a brawl. Steven decided on another tactic. “I’ve got COVID.” He coughed, hoping to be convincing.

The boy glanced back at the other two who promptly covered their mouths with their shirts. He made a face, then returned his attention to Steven. “I’ve been pricked.” 

“You are a prick,” Steven said reflexively, daring to continue pushing buttons. He glanced up at the boy. “Unless you really like me. Do you really like me?”

“I think we’ll be besties.” The gangster shook Steven. It was not a friendly shake.

“That figures. Sean told you not to touch me, didn’t he?” Steven could see the memory clearly. He could also tell the bully was just moments away from delivering a gut-punch. No marks for Sean to see.

“He’s… he’d like to have a word with you.”

“Yeah. I gathered that.” Steven sighed. 

“Jake, there’s more of them,” one of the bullies said, sounding worried. He started tapping his stick on the pavement when the raccoons got too close.

Steven’s escort looked up and down the alley. There were at least thirty raccoons now. “Jesus, man. You really are a freak.” He gave Steven a wicked smile, jabbing his own stick on the concrete pavement. A raccoon scurried out of the way. “We came prepared this time.”

“I didn’t call them.” Steven squirmed under the Jake’s arm. “I didn’t call them last time either. They just came.”

“Sure. They just coincidentally hang out with you whenever we’re around.” He held up his stick-carrying arm, showing a nasty bite wound. “They did that. I had to get a rabies shot because of you.” 

Jake maintained his grip on Steven as they rounded the corner. Sean was sitting on the hood of a car. His? Steven wasn’t sure. But Sean was old enough. At least sixteen years old. Jake’s age. 

Sean pocketed his vape and hopped off the hood, letting out a puff of smoke. A gaggle of teenagers loitered around him, as if they were getting together for a friendly session of Hacky Sack. Steven got the impression he was the little bean-bag ball they were eager to kick around. Jake pushed him into the crowd.

Steven looked around and eyed the back door to the library as the gang gathered around him. Perhaps he could make a break for it? Someone pushed him. Not so hard as to knock him down, but it did make him stumble. Before he could recover another pushed him, and yet another, and Steven found himself being pushed and tussled in a group of laughing bullies. The Hacky Sack game had begun. Each touch sparked a thought or memory from them. Steven winced under the mental onslaught. They all blended together into a dizzying disassociated collage of minds and he bent over and retched.

“Ew.” One of the bullies shook his foot. “You tossed on my shoes?”

Another laughed, pushing Steven.

“Please. Don’t touch me,” Steven asked urgently, struggling to keep his feet and holding a hand up. He retched again.

“So this is the little computer genius.” Sean crowed. He looked around at the raccoons that silently sat on their haunches around the perimeter of the small parking lot. “I thought you were just a harmless Pied Piper. A weirdo freak who will grow old and die alone. But no. There’s more to you, right?”

The others backed away from Steven, a welcome respite allowing him to catch his breath. With the anthology of disordered memories fading, he stood up and wiped his mouth.

“He doesn’t look like he’s what, ten?” Sean circled Steven, appraising him. “A little animal freak with,” he gasped melodramatically, “imaginary friends?” He held up his phone. “I got proof. Your weirdness just keeps getting weirder. Arguing with air about your real parents? Sally and Jonah Crow aren’t your parents?”

Steven scowled, wiping his mouth again. His chances of ever appearing normal were diminishing by the second. He glanced at Paul who stood with his arms crossed.

Sean watched the argument his young victim had had with Paul again, pointing at his phone. “Oh, this is rich. You really are a freak. Look, you’re even crying. Did your imaginary friend really make you cry? Dude, you are yelling at the air!” He stopped circling and gave Steven a faux-serious look. “And seriously, they’ve been missing since you were a baby? Your real parents are dead.” He shrugged. “Sorry, but your imaginary friend is right.”

Steven clenched his fists briefly, sorely tempted to let the freak loose. He fought with all his might to maintain control. Sean didn’t know his parents or situation. He was just pushing buttons. The raccoons were closer now.

Chortling, Sean continued circling him, watching the video and shaking his head. “Oh, this is cringeworthy. This is so going on the internet, and this time you won’t be able to fix it.”

“This time?”

Sean stopped in front of Steven, scowling and putting his face inches from Steven’s. “Everyone knows what you did, you pathetic weirdo freak with no parents. Your hack undeleted the videos of us. I don’t appreciate that. Jake?”

Jake crossed his arms and shook his head.

“See? Jake doesn’t appreciate it either.”

Steven fumed, keeping his silence. He glanced at Paul again. His imaginary friend was now grinning. Sean noticed and looked in that direction. “Is that where your friend is? Hey imaginary friend, do you know Steven is a diaper-baby freak?”

Paul looked behind him, confused. “I’m over here.”

Steven shook his head, then looked at Sean. His nemesis pocketed his phone and glared at him for a moment. He glanced at a large, dead tree on the edge of the parking lot, observing a couple dozen large eagles swooping in and landing on gnarled branches. Shaking his head, he turned around, looking at the growing collection of raccoons that sat quietly staring at them. Some feral dogs had even joined them. They just plopped down and watched. Sean repressed a shudder. Waving, he glared at Steven. “You’re friends can’t help you, Piper. I will collect my pound of flesh and my peeps will whack the hell out of any rodent that tries to interfere.”

“I didn’t do anything. I just fixed a computer.” 

“I deleted those videos fair and square. Scott free. No evidence. Now, I am suspended. And because of you?” Sean crossed his arms, looking at Steven critically. “No. It can’t be. I can’t believe you did it.” He turned to face his friends. “The school must have made a mistake. I mean, look at him! A scared diaper-baby who drove his real parents away?”

“I just fixed the NVR,” Steven repeated quietly, trying his best not to clench his fists. “I wasn’t trying to…” He stopped. He had effectively undeleted the files in seconds. “I was just trying to be useful. Dmitri was at lunch.”

“Your man couldn’t have undeleted those files. A forensic lab could not have. But you did?” Sean leaned into Steven’s face. “I unlinked them and overwrote the blank sectors.” He shook his head. “They were permanently deleted. I’m a computer genius. So what does that make you? How did you do it?”

“I got lucky.” Steven tried not to smirk. The attempt to hide the deleted information was amateurish at best. He decided against providing a step-by-step tutorial, however. Some buttons were better left unpushed.

“Uh-huh.” Sean squinted at him for an uncomfortable moment. “I don’t think so. I think you’re some sort of diabolical freak.” He waved at the animals. “This is forgivable. It’s harmless. You’re just a weirdo freak with an animal magnetism. But Steven,” Sean stood up straight, leaning menacingly toward him, “what you did on that computer suspended me. Put me in DAEP. I’m on a short bus, because of you. Because of you!” He poked repeatedly on Steven’s forehead. “A nobody Pied Piper freak with imaginary friends and no parents, who thinks he can hack computers?”

“I’m just Steven.” He wiped his forehead. “And I’m not the one who vandalized the school computers.” He looked curiously at his hand, then at Sean. “Or used that to hide hacking your grades?” Steven squinted, the depth of the consequences dawning on him. “You’re the reason why they’re auditing the school? You were grade-fixing?”

Sean’s eyes got wide. “What? You… what? How do you know that? How did you figure that out?”

Steven shrugged. He glanced at his imaginary friend, bemused. Paul was bent over laughing.

Sean gripped him by the neck and pulled him close, furious. “Did you tell anyone?”

Steven squirmed, then stopped, staring at Sean. A memory stood out above the others. “He beats you if you don’t make straight A’s?” He noticed a bruise under Sean’s long, dirty blond hair. A nasty purple knot. “Your father did that?”

The upraised fist hinted at a button-push too far. Steven steeled himself, getting ready to absorb what looked to be a vicious punch. But it never came. Sean stood there glaring at him, trembling with barely contained rage. He ducked an eagle that swooped close, keeping his murderous glare on his victim. “If you tell anyone, they won’t find your body.”

Steven nodded.

Sean shook his head. “No, I don’t think you understand. Right now, I’m just a disturbed kid who damaged some computers. It’s on the videos. Caught red handed. But come January I’m back. Life goes on. But Steven, if you tell, that means jail for me. Expulsion. And that means a shallow grave for you. You got that?” 

Did Steven just get some leverage? He felt it through Sean’s grip on his neck. He held his hands up. “Not a soul.”

“Excuse me, young man.”

Sean looked around, startled, almost dropping Steven. He looked back at Steven, shaking his head in warning. 

Steven was likewise startled. He had not sensed her. A young woman stood just a few feet away with her hands on her hips. She brushed a lock of platinum blond hair from her face, then crossed her arms, looking less than pleased. Steven squinted at her. Something wasn’t quite right, but he couldn’t put a finger on it. Then it dawned on him. He could sense all the other boys and every creature nearby. But she may as well have been one of the cars. A blank spot. He found it odd that in the middle of nearly being beat up by a gang, this interruption had almost totally superseded his fear of the impending confrontation.

Sean got the message and released Steven. He glared at the woman, stepping away. “We’re just having a discussion.”

“May I suggest you do it somewhere else, please?” She looked at Steven, walking calmly through the crowd. Every move and expression hinted at immeasurable confidence and Steven shivered a little. She smiled sweetly at him. “Preferably where a gang of ten young men aren’t picking on a little boy?”

Sean looked around as his gang scattered then started walking away. The wildlife also seemed to filter back into the underbrush or fly away. Sean noticed. He looked back at Steven. “This isn’t over, Piper freak. You owe me big and I will collect.” He jumped over a rail dividing the parking lots and disappeared among the cars.

“Are you okay, sweetie?” The woman knelt down, gripping his hand and running a moist thumb across a dirty spot on his forehead.

Steven just gaped, his eyes going wide. He remembered to breath and nodded. “Um, yeah. Fine. I’m fine.

“Aren’t you just a cutie.” She ran her free hand through his unkempt mane of black hair, trying to bring order to it.

Steven tried not to cringe or pull away. Her grip on his hand was like irresistible iron, but still gentle. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“It’s okay to run, Steven.” She glanced back the way the kids had vanished. “Just find the first public store and go inside. Letting them catch you back here was foolish.”

“Yes ma’am.” Steven continued staring at her as he took a step back. To his relief, she released his hand. He glanced at the rear entrance to the library and continued stepping backward. “I’ve got to go. Um, thanks.”

“Anytime, sweetie.” She smiled warmly, then sauntered over to the car Sean had been sitting on.

Steven swallowed, then turned to enter the door, bumping into it. He fumbled and got it open. Glancing back, he saw her sitting in the car. She waved at him. Steven gave her a hesitant wave, then closed the door.

“What?” Paul asked.

Steven stared at the closed door, trying to catch his breath. “I got nothing. Nothing at all from her.”

“I got that she was hot.” Paul grinned, yanking on Steven’s arm. “C’mon, man. Sean was about to pound you.”

Steven looked at him for a moment then sighed. Sean was going to be a problem. “The school really screwed me, making me a witness. I just fixed their stupid computer.”

“You could have left it for Dmitri to fix when he got back from lunch.” Paul waggled a finger at him. “But no, you just had to show off how proficient you are. And you don’t even go to that school.”

“Yeah. I screwed up. Tell me something new.” Steven looked back at the door. He felt a chill, remembering the lady. “I got nothing from her.”

“Steven! You’re late!”

Steven flinched, looking back into the library. A stocky graying man stood by a desk, tapping his fingers on the surface.

“No, Dmitri. I’m not.” Steven turned and entered the back office of the library in a huff. He took a last glance at the back door as he entered.

“What happened?” Dmitri frowned. Usually that made Steven laugh. He was never late.

“Dmitri… just…” Steven stopped and rubbed his temples. The encounter was starting to sink in as his adrenaline leveled off. He avoided a fight. Barely. But their vitriol clung to him like a bad stench. “Just me being a freak.”

Dmitri followed him into the office, concerned.

“Sean blames me.”

“He caught you in the parking lot?” Dmitri walked over to a bank of monitors. “I told you to stick to the front door.”

“I thought I’d beat him to the door and avoid,” Steven took in a breath, not finishing his thought. He waved a hand, not wanting to give words to abject futility. “He’s ticked.”

“He didn’t hit you.” Dmitri nodded, scanning through the security footage. He gave Steven a sly look. “And you didn’t hit him.”

“Yeah. Some weird lady stopped him.”

“Weird?” Dmitri looked at him, alarmed.

“I got nothing from her. Was like reading a rock.”

Dmitri turned to the monitors again. “Was she a brunette?” He scanned the footage until he found her and visibly relaxed.

“Blond. Like really blond.” Steven scratched his arm, looking at the monitors with Dmitri. “I was about to get stomped by a gang and we’re here freaking over a lady?”

Dmitri put both hands on the counter. The lady looked at the camera and gave it a sultry wink before entering the car and driving away. “New people are always a concern. Especially with Sally and Jonah’s job and my history.”

“Everyone’s a concern, it seems.” Steven scowled. He had to admit, however – she unsettled him.

Frowning, Dmitri turned around. “Your parents will identify her when they get back from their mission.” He held out his hand. “Homework?”

Steven reached into his pocket and handed Dmitri a thumbdrive. “There’s like a dozen file-sharing sites I can put this on.”

“And you’ve cracked every single one of them. This is still the best way.” Dmitri held up the thumbdrive. “You know the drill. Don’t tell Sally about this. She’d castrate me if she found out.”

“I just followed your crack,” Steven mumbled. “Took me like ten minutes.”

Dmitri looked at the results on his workstation. “And you improved on it. Smart. Eric is going to love this.” He glanced back at Steven. “Have you done your school modules?”

“The ones I’m coming here every day to do while Sally and Jonah are away? I’m caught up to the end of the school year.” Steven crossed his arms, smirking.

“It’s only September, Steven. You want to pace yourself. You’re already three grades ahead.” Dmitri admonished him. “This extra credit will help.” He pointed at the code on his screen. “It’ll pay for your college.”

“Sean hacked his grades,” Steven said quietly, playing with the keyboard on his desk. “He’s the grade-fixer they’re looking for.”

“I know,” Dmitri said, handing another thumbdrive back to Steven. “Your next assignment. It’s a simple bank-to-bank asset move. North Korea to Bali.”

“You know? I thought I was the only one who saw it.” Steven threw his hands up. “Sean is holding that over my head.”

“You kept your cool. You’ll do fine.” Dmitri said, flippantly waving a hand. He stopped and looked at Steven. “You’re upset.”

“I am a freak!” Steven held his hands out again. He couldn’t get the faces of the gang out of his head. Their cruelty seemed to magnify in his memory. “Look what it’s gotten me! I have no friends except maybe Brandon when he visits. I have to hide from everyone. No touching. No nothing. Paul here is still haunting me and now everyone knows.” He wiped his face and plopped down on his chair.

“I’m not haunting you.” Paul pouted.

“Steven, this never used to bother you.” Dimitri sat on Steven’s desk.

Steven put the thumbdrive in his library workstation and inspected the code and instructions. “Because I had my animal friends, and Paul here always annoying me.” He looked at Dmitri. “Who aren’t real. Just proves I’m a freak.”

Paul sighed, rolling his eyes. “Friends annoy each other sometimes. Doesn’t mean we’re not friends.”

Steven chewed his cheek, regarding Paul sourly. “I should have real friends.”

Paul crossed his arms, scowling.

“The animals are real. Still are.” Dmitri nodded, his eyebrows raised when he glanced at the monitors. “Which is kinda freaky.” He had never seen so many raccoons in the same place. In the forest, it was wolves and bears that hung out with Steven.

“Yeah but when I was a kid,” Steven paused briefly, waving a hand. “When I was younger, I imagined them talking to me. Like they were actual friends. Now people make fun of me because of them.”

Dmitri ran a hand through his thick mane of graying hair. “Sometimes I forget how isolating our lives can be. With me and Irina, we’re hiding from our Russian foes. Sally and Jonah are hiding from their own enemies. And here you are, stuck in the middle of it.”

“It wouldn’t be so bad if I was normal. I could have real friends! Who wants to be friends with someone like me?” Steven pounded the desk for emphasis. 

“I do.” Dmitri grinned and held a hand up. “I think you’re underestimating the local kids.”

“They all make fun of me because of the animals. They know I have imaginary friends now. They know I… know stuff about them. Stuff I shouldn’t know. They know I’m smarter than they are. They know I’m a freak and hate me.” Steven pouted. He looked down, sniffing. “I can’t blame Sean for being mad at me. For hating me. His father beats him and now it’s worse because of me.” He pulled the thumbdrive and stuffed it in his pocket. “I have no one like me. No one who understands. Just a bunch of…” He wiped his face. “Just a bunch of perfectly normal kids.”

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