MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 20
I wanted to skip the rest of the school day and take a bus to Cuma immediately, but Bax talked me out of it.
“The school’s practically on lockdown since your brother disappeared,” he said. “Plus, don’t you think two American kids playing hooky at an Italian landmark would look suspicious right now? We should probably go on the weekend.”
“It’s already been a few days,” I said quietly, thinking about my brother, trying not to focus on how much danger he might be in. “I hate waiting.”
Bax ran a hand through his sandy hair. “Let me work on it. Maybe I can borrow Eric’s bike or something. I’ll let you know.”
After lunch, time couldn’t move fast enough. By 7th period, I was concentrating on the hands of Signora Garibaldi’s wall clock as soon as I slid into my desk. I just had to get through Italian and volleyball practice. By then, maybe Bax would have Eric’s Vespa and we could get to Cuma.
“Attenzione!” Signora Garibaldi rapped on the board with her knuckle and waited for us to settle down, wringing her hands. “If you attended last week’s field trip to Pozzuoli, you must go to the multi-purpose room immediately.”
A thin blonde gir from my art class raised her hand. “Signora, perché?”
“È una questione della sicurezza. It is a matter of security,” said Signora Garibaldi, shaking her head with a tsk-tsk. She grabbed a small stack of passes from her desk. “Please gather your things and take a hall pass.”
The blonde girl followed me into the hallway. “What do you think happened?” she asked me. “Is it about your brother?”
“I don’t know,” I said, but a faint feeling of hope flickered inside me: What if they found Troy?
I quickened my pace, every step punctuated by the squeak of Nyx’s red loafers, and the blonde girl ran down the stairwell to keep up with me.
Students were already clustered on lunch benches in the MPR, chattering nervously. Miss DiPaola and Dr. Williams stood onstage with Principal Fitzpatrick, a couple of naval officers and Italian officials in dark suits. Captain Baxter stood at the very front, casting a stern eye over each of us as we entered.
Two tables were set up in front of the stage, supervised by two grim-faced servicemembers in khaki uniforms. On the floor in front of each table was a machine that looked like a scale, with a cord connected to a laptop. The clerks sat behind efficiently-stacked white paper, pens and ink pads.
Across the room, Shawna sat with a group of juniors from Troy’s history class. She locked her big eyes on me and mouthed, “What happened?”
I shrugged my shoulders and squeezed next to Bax at the end of a row. “Why’s your dad here? Did they find Troy?”
He flicked hair from his face and chewed his fingernail. “Dunno. This has never happened before.”
Nyx and her gang sidled up to our row.
“What did you do now, New Girl?” Nyx kicked me with my own Converse as she passed. “Nice shoes,” she uttered under her breath.
I glared at her, wishing I could slap her with her own stupid shoes.
“Probably kidnapped her own brother,” Candace added, to a chorus of closed-mouth giggles from Heather.
Onstage, Captain Baxter boomed, “Find your seats. We need to begin. Stragglers, you don’t need to ask your neighbor anything. This is my show. I’ll tell you what you need to know. Got any questions for me, Red?” He pointed at Candace.
Candace rolled her eyes and pressed herself between Nyx and Heather.
“Good choice.” He clapped his hands together and paced the stage. “I’m Captain Baxter, director of the National Security Agency on base. Now, as you may know, a student disappeared from your field trip last week. While we continue our efforts to find this young man, it has also come to our attention that a rare artifact was stolen from the amphitheater during the time you were visiting.”
A few gasps erupted, and I felt eyes on me. I didn’t turn around, just stayed glued to my seat, wondering what had been stolen.
“What artifact?” someone called out.
“Doesn’t matter,” Captain Baxter said gruffly. “But to rule out any American involvement, our friends at the Italian polizia – ” he gestured toward the dark-suited Italians “ – have requested fingerprints and footprints from each of you. Our NSA clerks will take your fingerprints, then x-rays of your shoes. These will be matched against prints found near the artifact’s exhibit at the amphitheater.”
Murmurs of disbelief rippled through the room. I was dumbstruck.
X-rays of our shoes?
I looked down at my feet and wiggled my toes in Nyx’s red loafers. They fit me perfectly, which meant we were the same size. Nyx whipped her black mane around and her green-yellow eyes found mine. She glared at me, a smile on her lips as she turned back to face the stage.
How did she know about this?
“Captain Baxter, they’re only children!” Miss DiPaola protested.
“Ma’am, I understand the rules and regs of this military outpost better than anyone else. A dependent of the base is required to uphold the same standards of conduct as active military and civilian personnel.” He cleared his throat again. “Now, as I was saying, form two lines. Boys on the right, girls on the left.”
“Guess I’ll see you in a minute.” Bax flipped the hair from his eyes. “You okay? You look a little pale.”
I gulped. “Just surprised, I guess. You don’t think they know about us, do you?”
He shook his head. “My dad would have grounded me already. This is probably just a matter of protocol. No big deal.” He followed the other guys to the line on the right.
No big deal.
Maybe not, but he wasn’t the one wearing someone else’s shoes.
Donatella got into line behind me, shaking her curly-haired head. “Che stupido!” she huffed, pulling a pack of gum from her backpack. “Want one?”
“Yeah.” I unwrapped a stick of spearmint and surveyed the students ahead of us. Nyx and her cronies were ahead of us, talking to a humorless female clerk in a tight bun. “What do you think was stolen?”
Dona chomped her gum. “I heard it was a marble finger, carved by Michelangelo himself.”
“Huh, I didn’t know he traveled to Naples.”
Dona shrugged. “Whatever. Anyway, it’s a serious waste of time. Not like I mind missing biology.” She popped her gum. “You’ll be at volleyball today, right? ‘Coz Coach Dino said he won’t let anyone play at Jamboree if they miss more than three practices. How many days were you out?”
“I don’t even know,” I said. “Last week is a blur.”
Dona patted my arm. “They’ll find him, Eden. I know they will.”
Nyx was at the front of the line, getting her fingerprints taken. I stared at my shoes on her feet, angry that I’d fallen for her trick. Why did she hate me so much? She’d had it in for me since I arrived at Naples American High School…
The clerk called out, “Size eight!” and another female clerk, this one with short auburn hair and a clipboard, stepped down from the stage. She motioned for Nyx to stand on the x-ray machine.
As Nyx stepped onto the machine in my old gray Converse, I turned away, panicking. What if they’d found my prints in the amphitheater? They’d accuse her of being underground… and I had no doubt she’d tell them she saw me. How would I explain that?
“Next!” The clerk with the severe-looking bun scowled at me.
I moved forward on shaky legs, the red loafers squeaking with each step.
She ran a trimmed fingernail down the list of names. When she came to mine, there was a thick red circle around it. “Are you related to the missing dependent?” she asked flatly.
“He’s my brother, yes.”
The clerk didn’t look up. “Shoe size?”
I eyed Nyx’s feet in my old Converse high-tops and felt a new wave of hatred flare up.
“Shoe size?” the clerk repeated.
“Eight,” I croaked.
The clerk peered over the table at the red shoes on my feet and nodded, noting my size on an official-looking chart. My name and birthdate were on the top, as well as my dad’s name, civil service rank and social security number.
“Size eight!” she called out and directed me to the x-ray machine.
“Isn’t it terrible, New Girl?” Nyx asked dramatically as she stepped down from the machine. “Something’s missing from the underground cells of the amphitheater. It’s a good thing you weren’t there…”
The auburn-haired clerk typed on the laptop. “Kosmos, you’re clear. Next.”
Neither of us moved. Nyx squared her eyes at me, then glanced at her shoes on my feet. She swept one hand toward the x-ray and sneered, “Your turn.”
My hands balled into fists and I gritted my teeth. “What did you tell them?” I hissed.
“I said you’re clear, Kosmos,” the clerk barked. “Next!”
Nyx gave me a final, evil glare and walked away as the clerk perused my data sheet.
“Your name is DellaLuna, like the missing dependent?” she asked.
“Yes, I already told her that,” I said, nodding at the clerk with the tight bun. “Can you tell me what’s going on? Why do you have my dad’s information?”
Her jaw went slack, like I’d just asked why Italians speak Italian. “Chief DellaLuna is your sponsor, correct?”
“Then he’s responsible for everything you do here,” the clerk explained.
I felt sick to my stomach and looked around for Bax, who had finished his fingerprints and x-rays and was standing near his dad on stage.
The auburn-haired clerk gestured to the ink pad, then two blank boxes on my chart. “Index finger there… then there… Thumbprint there… then there…”
I did as she said, heart pounding.
“Now stand on the x-ray machine,” she said, nodding to the scale-like thing on the floor.
I bent down to remove Nyx’s red shoes.
“With shoes,” she snapped.
“But they’re not– ” Mine, I wanted to say, but she shook her head like she’d had enough of me.
“With shoes,” she repeated.
I stood on the machine and she clicked her fingers across the keyboard of the laptop. With an audible sigh, she pushed away from the table. “Wait here.”
“Is…is everything okay?” I warbled.
“Just wait here.” The clerk scrambled to the stage and whispered to Captain Baxter. He furrowed his bushy eyebrows and followed her back to the table. Bax was close behind.
The clerk pointed at the monitor. “It’s a match, sir…”
I felt the blood drain from my face. “Match?”
Captain Baxter scratched his chin and nodded. “Miss DellaLuna, do you understand that any federal offense made by a minor dependent overseas will be reflected on the permanent record of said dependent’s sponsor?”
“What?” I turned from him to Bax.
Bax’s face turned pale. “If you get in trouble,” he said quietly, “it goes on your dad’s record.”
“Why are you telling me this?” My eyes darted from the red shoes on my feet to Captain Baxter and back to the x-ray of Nyx’s shoes. “Am I in trouble?”
“We’ll have to see about that.” The captain typed on the laptop. “But the footprints of your shoes are an exact match of prints taken near the artifact’s display…” He rose to his intimidating full height, back perfectly straight. I searched for any resemblance to Bax in his face, trying to remain calm.
Bax stammered, “But Dad, Eden wasn’t wearing—”
Captain Baxter held up a hand. “I’ll be in touch with your father,” he said to me in his Texas drawl. “If you have anything to tell him, you’d best do it as soon as you get home. The NSA won’t tolerate any stories. Dismissed.”
This couldn’t be happening. Head spinning, I blurted, “But they’re not my—”
A pile of books fell at the back of the MPR. Next to them, Nyx shook her head, black hair swinging just enough for me to notice.
The room felt like it was swaying. Nyx would only know that Bax and I had been under the amphitheater if she’d been there, too. I kicked myself for falling for the shoe thing.
“Yes, Miss DellaLuna?” Captain Baxter asked. “They’re not your what?”
“They’re not my shoes! They belong to Nyx.” I pointed to Nyx and her face froze in surprise. It was the first time I’d seen her with an expression other than disgust or condescension. “Before lunch, she made me trade shoes with her!”
Miss DiPaola gasped and every head in the MPR turned toward Nyx.
“Huh,” Captain Baxter said, expressionless. “That so?”
He beckoned Nyx forward. She simpered toward us, batting her eyes like a doe.
“Yes, sir?” Nyx said in a saccharine sweet tone.
The captain wagged his thumb at me. “This young lady says she’s wearing your shoes.”
Behind us, Candace faked a cough. Under her breath, I heard, “Della Loony.”
Captain Baxter ignored her. “Now, I don’t even want to garner a guess why Miss DellaLuna might say such a thing, but is that true? Did you,” he scraped his chin with one meaty hand, annoyed, “make Miss DellaLuna trade shoes with you today?”
Nyx blinked several times, as though pained by the very suggestion. Every second that passed, I seethed a little more.
“Tell them,” I hissed.
Lowering her eyes, Nyx answered softly. “With respect, sir, if I had such a pretty pair of shoes, why would I give them away?”
Everyone craned their heads to look at our feet. The loafers were perfect, practically brand-new, with shiny red patent leather and a famous label on the back. In contrast, my old gray Converse high-tops had tiny holes worn through the sides and cracked rubber soles.
“No, I can prove those are mine!” I said. “I wrote my name on the side! Right here.” I squatted by Nyx’s feet and pointed to the inside of the right shoe, where I’d written “Eden” in Sharpie while I was bored on the bus. Instead, I found a thick, dark red stripe along the length of the shoe. I slumped my shoulders.
“Captain, sir?” Dona raised her hand. “Maybe Nyx colored over it?”
“Maybe Nyx colored over it?” Candace mocked in a bumbling voice. Heather giggled and Nyx snapped a death stare in Dona’s direction.
Dona retreated back into line. I mouthed, “Thanks anyway,” and she half-smiled.
Captain Baxter crossed his arms over his chest, scarcely hiding his contempt. “Miss DellaLuna, I don’t have time for this game of she said/she said.”
Nyx shifted her weight toward Bax’s dad. “Captain Baxter, I didn’t want to say anything, sir, because I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but… I saw Eden leave our group at the amphitheater and go down a staircase. I didn’t know where she was going at the time, but I’ve felt sick about not mentioning it to NSA. Especially now, with the artifact missing.” She hunched her shoulders meekly.
Bax flinched, eyes darting toward me.
A white-hot anger roiled in my gut. “Are you joking?” I spat. “First the shoes and now this?”
Nyx blinked for dramatic effect, eyes on the floor. “I might have been wrong, sir. Eden’s still new, so maybe she didn’t know she was trespassing.”
Miss DiPaola clicked across the stage. “Frankly, Captain Baxter, there were so many students that day, I had assumed she was with us. This detour is news to me.” She swept to my side in a swirl of floral perfume. “Eden, dear, tell us the truth. Where were you during our tour of the amphitheater?”
The room spun around me. Miss DiPaola’s concerned eyebrows blended into Bax’s shocked face and into Nyx’s feigned empathy. When my gaze landed on Captain Baxter, who stood straight-faced with his hands on his hips, I knew I didn’t want to lie anymore. I just wanted them to find my brother.
“Well, okay, I was in the underground cells,” I admitted.
A gasp rippled through the MPR, followed by mumbles and loud whispers.
I scanned the room for a sympathetic face, but even Donatella was shaking her head. Sweat beaded my forehead. “B-but I wasn’t anywhere near the artifact—”
He crossed his arms. “Alone?”
Bax’s eyes grew wide, waiting for me to answer. In my periphery, Nyx’s mouth curled into a sneer.
“Answer my question, Miss DellaLuna,” Captain Baxter said. “Were you alone?”
I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand and looked down at Nyx’s ridiculous red shoes. There was no way he’d believe me now, no matter what I said. I could feel Bax’s nervousness beside me, but there was no reason for me to drag him into this mess. I had no other choice but to lie again.
“Yes,” I whispered.
Miss DiPaola clapped a hand over her mouth. Dr. Williams cleared his throat repeatedly, as though he might choke. Next to me, Bax’s shoulders relaxed but his face looked pained. Glancing from me to his father, he opened his mouth to speak, but I cut him off.
“I didn’t do anything but look around,” I said. “When Troy came looking for me—”
“Your brother was AWOL from the field trip, too?” the captain asked. He turned to the teachers. “Don’t y’all keep track of your students?”
Between coughs, Dr. Williams protested, “He must have slipped away during my lecture…”
The captain scratched his forehead. “Miss DellaLuna, you have made several grave errors by not reporting the truth when we first met.”
“Yes, but—” I interrupted.
“Enough!” Captain Baxter held up his palms. “Are you aware that I’ve got several officers searching for your brother at this very moment? And meanwhile, he may be selling a priceless artifact on the black market?”
His words stung like a slap in the face. “No, sir,” I said, “my brother wouldn’t do that—”
The captain raised his voice. “I’ve heard enough. Until I speak to your father and get all the facts, I’m calling off the search.” Captain Baxter returned to the stage, placing his meaty hands on his hips while he spoke with the Italian officials.
Miss DiPaola pursed her red lips. She let out a disappointed sigh and click-clacked out of the room. Students milled around, shaking their heads in my direction, whispering.
It was the second worst moment of my life. Who cared if I was a Muse? My life sucked.
“I’m sorry,” Bax said. He ran a hand through his hair nervously. “I’ll tell him I was with you—”
“He won’t believe you.” I sank into a chair and held my head in my hands. “If I didn’t know better, I wouldn’t believe me.”
The only thing I could think was: Troy. They were going to stop looking for him because of me. And if that happened, I couldn’t forgive myself.
I looked up. “Listen, Bax, I need to follow the leaf’s coordinates. I don’t know where it will take me, but it’s all I have to go on. And if I’m going to be in a huge mess of trouble, I have to do it fast.”
He studied me, arms folded. “I feel like I owe you big time.”
It sounded too much like Nyx’s threat, and made me cringe. I picked up my backpack and stood. “Don’t say that, Bax. There’s nothing to owe. Just get Eric’s Vespa. Please. I have to get to Cuma. The sooner the better.”
Across the MPR, Nyx sneered in my direction, satisfied that she’d put me exactly where she wanted me. With a flick of her black hair, she grabbed her books and headed toward the exit, Heather and Candace lapping at her heels.
In a matter of minutes, Nyx Kosmos had managed to ruin my life, and I had gone from the new girl to a thief and a liar. And although I didn’t know how yet, I was determined to prove my innocence and get my brother back.