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Birds of a Feather

When a flock of grackles, blackbirds, and starlings gather, it usually means there’s a storm coming.

—The Ninth Korus of the Sapphire Tree

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Max clamped his eyes shut and forced his breathing to slow as the explosion of the incoming train shook the station. The concrete pipe he’d wrapped his legs around bucked and swayed. Dust filled his eyes as debris from the train’s backdraft sandblasted him raw. Electricity popped, sizzled, and snaked along the rails below.

Everywhere he looked—death, instant death.

I should’ve taken Nigel’s slap upside the head. At least that wouldn’t have killed me.

“The coward’s got to be here somewhere,” shouted Nigel above the din of the incoming train. It was legendary the way Nigel tracked his prey.

Max pictured Nigel in his mind: tall and broad-chested, with a face like the dark side of the moon…The only thing missing was the scythe and black hood.

“Find him or I’ll stomp you instead,” continued Nigel. “I mean to bury that flippin’ bug nut. If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to bury him. ”

Max gulped. Correction. I’m good. Couldn’t be better, really. Nice place for a holiday when you think about it.

Regardless of his piss-on-their-strawberries way, Max was a self-confessed indie in a school filled with rough boys, a strutter without any mates to back his play. True, he wasn’t going to win any popularity contests with his attitude—make that aptitude—so he walked the tight rope between getting pummeled and playing Major Weirdo from the Bug Brigade.

And while he took some satisfaction in the looks he got, thanks to his spider-inspired web of cornrows and the outline of a black widow shaved above his left ear, his hairstyle elicited more bravo than it did bravado.

Everyone at school knew a cool coif wasn’t a substitute for the prince’s plums—for courage—including Nigel.  Max knew one day his luck would run out. One day he wouldn’t be able to talk his way out of a tussle or hide where others dared not look. One day he’d have to stand and deliver, to take what was given.

But not today.

Confused footsteps pounded overhead. “Which way’d he go?”

That was Sal, aka “the Salamander,” the sod who never strayed far from Nigel’s side. Made mostly of grease, Sal was tall, skinny, and pale, with an Adam’s apple like a bleedin’ balloon bobbing in the wind.

“Headed back to Victoria Station if you ask me,” yelled Rodney from the opposite end of the station.

The Slug. Though not the quickest bloke, Rodney considered talking a form of exercise and he carried the extra stone to prove it. The nob needed to get off his arse every now and again and walk a few steps. Maybe then the boy would stop squawking.

“Well, I didn’t ask,” snapped Nigel, “so shut your cakehole. I say he went on to Black Friars. Took the runner’s way out and made for the East End.”

“Maybe we should just wait here,” offered Rodney. “See if he crawls out of the woodwork.”

Brilliant. From village idiot to Oxford don in two sentences, thought Max.

It was time to get moving.


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