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Chapter One

Riley Mack
 Coming April 2012!

School was finished for the week and Riley Mack was itching for some action.

It was early May. Spring and mischief were in the air.

Riley and two of his best buds were sitting in their regular booth at the Pizza Palace on Main Street. Riley had already re-arranged the letters on the pizzeria's sidewalk reader board from "Buy One Get One Free" to "Neon Beef Eye Grout." That was fun, for like sixty seconds.

Now he and Mongo were playing pizza crust football.

"So Trystan Bordeau reached out to me today," said Riley. He flicked his finger at a chunk of crust, sending it flying over to Mongo, whose real name was Hubert Montgomery but since he was so humongous (freakishly larger than any twelve-year-old in the known universe), Riley, and, therefore, everybody else, called him Humongo—Mongo for short.

Mongo finger-kicked the crust back to Riley's plate. "What'd he want?"

"For us to break into the school this weekend. Steal the answer key to his geometry final."

"What'd you tell him?" asked Jake Lowenstein, the third member of Riley's after-school crew. Jake was too focused on thumbing out a text message to look up from his cell phone.

Riley grinned. "That we don't play that way on account of the brain surgery I might need in thirty, forty years."

"Huh?" Mongo looked confused.

"Riley was creating a hypothetical scenario," said Jake. As always, he was wearing his brown dragon-print hoodie with the lid up and kind of looked like a monk warrior from a ninja movie. He was way smarter than Riley (or anyone else who had ever been in the seventh grade at Fairview Middle School) so he could use words like "hypothetical" and "scenario."

"Oh," said Mongo, still confused.

Riley helped Mongo out: "I told Trystan, 'What if, when I get old, I forget to wear my helmet and fall off my bike? You think I want to be operated on by a brain surgeon who cheated his way through middle and medical school?'"

"Good answer," said Jake. Now his smart phone made a funny rumbling noise. Sounded like it was popping armpit-farts.

"That's my new text tone," he said, checking out his screen. "Uh-oh. Briana needs us. Immediately."

"Where is she?" said Riley, sitting up straight and feeling his brain start buzzing. Maybe this was the action he'd been waiting for.

"Two blocks away. Quick Pick Mini Mart. Corner of Old Post Road and Sanford Street."


"Fifth grader being harassed by Gavin Brown."

Mongo's face went to code purple because the big guy despised bullies. "Brown?" He sledgehammered both his fists on the tabletop. The Parmesan and hot-pepper-flake shakers shook. "I thought that doofus graduated."

"He did," said Riley with disgust. "He's a freshman over at the high school."

"So what's he doing harassing a fifth grader?"

"Guess he came back to pick on someone who isn't his own size. Makes the tough guy act a lot easier to pull off when your victims don't punch back." Riley sensed his dull Friday was about to become extremely interesting. He got a devilish twinkle in his eye. "So, Jake—do we know this fifth grader?"

"Nope. Briana says he's a newbie."

Riley nodded. His wheels were spinning. He loved using his wits to go up against the big, the bad, and the Gavin Browns. "We know anybody on the inside? What's the adult interference situation?"

"Hang on," said Jake, swiping his fingers back and forth across the glass face of his tweaked-out smart phone. "Accessing security cameras."

Riley was impressed. "You can do that?"

"Only with CCTV's tied to the net."

"CCTV?" said Mongo. "I don't think we get that channel."

"CCTV means Closed Circuit TV," explained Jake. "Security cameras. Fortunately, all the Quick Pick shops feed their video into a centralized server."

"Cool." Riley leaned back. Let Jake's fingers work their magic.

"Okay, this is good. Mr. Karpinksi is behind the counter."

The name sounded familiar. Riley stroked his chin. "Karpinksi, Karpinski...."

Mongo rubbed the stubble on top of his huge head. "Karpinksi...."

"Mr. Alexander Karpinksi," said Jake. "Day manager of the Quick Pick. We helped his son, Alex Junior, out of a similar jam last year. Basketball game. The bully under the bleachers? You orchestrated that fifty-person popcorn box dump. Remember, Riley? Freaked the butthead out, big time."

"Oh, yeah," said Riley, relishing the memory. "That was a good one."

"One of your best," said Mongo.

Riley shrugged modestly. "It did the job."

"Briana says, 'RUUP4IT?'"

"Works for me," said Riley. "You guys in?"

"Definitely," said Jake.

"Totally," said Mongo. "But, well, I have to be home by five-thirty to walk the dog."

Now Riley looked confused. "Dog? What dog?"

"Noodle. She's our new Golden Doodle puppy. She cost my mom fifteen hundred dollars."

Riley's jaw dropped. Jake turtled his head out of his hoodie. Even Nick, the Pizza Palace delivery guy, who was clearing the table in the next booth, dropped his tub of dirty dishes in disbelief.

"Fifteen hundred bucks?" said Riley. "For a dog?"

"Well," said Mongo, "Noodle is very cute. Sort of like a teddy bear with a tail."

Jake's smart phone armpit-farted again.

"Uh-oh," he said. "Briana reports 'the situation is deteriorating.' Gavin Brown is now jamming the little guy's head into the freezer case."

"That does it!" Mongo exploded. "I'm gonna sit on Brown's chest and pound his face!"

Riley placed a gentle hand on Mongo's furiously clenched fist. "Take it easy, We don't need Gavin Brown to be afraid of you. We need him to be afraid of this fifth grader."

"Good luck with that," said Jake. "On the security camera feed, the kid looks like he weighs less than a frozen burrito. Saving him from Brown is going to be tough."

Riley smiled confidently. "Tough, my friend, is what we do best. Tell Briana we're on our way. We'll go with the Payoff Protection play. We'll need some ketchup, syrup, and cash. Have her clue in Mr. Karpinksi. Feed him his lines. Shut down the shop."

Jake's fingers tap-danced across the smartphone's face. "Done and done."

Riley gestured at the hunk of crust on his empty paper plate. "You want it, Mongo?"

"Nah. I want Gavin Brown!"

"Then, let's roll."

Chapter Two

Riley, Mongo, and Jake ran three abreast up the sidewalk, their Jansport backpacks slapping against their spines in time to their strides.

They heard a whistle. The two-fingered, big-city kind that can stop traffic. Train traffic.

"Yo, Riley! You guys! Over here."

It was Briana Bloomfield, standing in the parking lot of the Quick Pick Mini Mart, windmilling her arms over her head. She was wearing a bright red wig, some kind of billowy silk scarf, and rhinestone studded sunglasses. Briana was big on theatrics. She loved (just about everything she said came out in italics) wearing costumes and pretending to be somebody she wasn't.

"Who are you supposed to be?" asked Mongo, his eyes wide with awe.

"It's a disguise!" gushed Briana. "I didn't want Gavin to know it was me following him!"

"So you put on a clown wig and flashy glasses?" asked Jake.

"Exactly!" said Briana. "Would someone who was tailing you wear a costume so ridiculously conspicuous? No. They'd try to blend in. Hide in plain sight. They sure wouldn't dress like this! Gavin Brown never knew I was tailing him!"

Amused, Riley examined Briana's blazingly bright Bozo wig and shook his head. Riley himself had shaggy red hair but his was the orangish color of fox fur, not the freakish color of a fire truck.

"How we doing inside?" he asked.

"We're on script," said Briana. "Mr. Karpinksi's behind the counter, yelling 'stop, stop,' threatening to call the cops. Gavin keeps pummeling the little guy, trying to snag his iPod, shake him down for cash."

"And the fifth grader won't give in?"


Riley slipped off his backpack. "I like this new kid already." He unzippered the bag's main compartment

"We need to hurry," said Briana, whipping off her bedazzled shades. "Gavin's giving the guy a freezy-wheezy."

"Is that like a triple nipple cripple or ruby booby?" asked Jake, who had, apparently, studied Bully Lingo 101.

"No," said Briana. "He has the kid's face stuffed in the freezer—right above the microwavable breakfast biscuits and Hot Pockets."

Riley pulled two handy-talky radios out of his backpack, powered them up, and handed one to Briana. "You give Mr. Karpinksi your cell number?" he asked Briana.


"When he calls, you know what to do."

"Yep. But I might try a new voice or two, okay?"

"Fine. Just make it work."

"Oh, I will." She pointed a finger to the sky and proclaimed, "There are no small parts, only small actors!"


"I also locked down the set." Briana gestured toward the Quick Pick's sliding glass doors. The "Sorry We're Closed" sign was flipped into place. "We have total control of the store. No grownups, in or out."

"Excellent." Riley tossed the second battery-powered radio to Jake. "Once Mongo and I have Brown's attention, slip in, stay low, and head behind the counter. When Mr. Karpinksi calls the cops, go to Channel B."

"Got it. You want me to make it squeal and stuff?"

"Can you do that?" asked Briana.

"Boo-yeah!" said Jake.

The other three stared at him.

"Sorry," he said, retreating inside his hoodie. "Just a little pumped, you know?"

"Definitely," said Riley. "I'm right there with you. Mongo, if you don't mind, mess up your shirt a little."

Mongo popped open a button, tugged his shirttail out of his pants. "Like this?"

"Perfect." Riley turned to Briana. "You grab the ketchup and pancake syrup packs off the condiment counter?"


Now everybody stared at her.

"Sorry." She pulled a small plastic tub from her backpack. "I mixed it up already." The ketchup was for color. The syrup thickened it up and sold the slop as coagulating blood.

Mongo took the tub. "Where should I put it, Riley?"

"Nose and mouth. Make it look like someone gave you a bad bone taco."

"A what?"

"A punch in the face."

"Oh." Mongo dabbed his finger in the thick red goop.

Briana put a hand to her hip. "Have you ever worn makeup before, Mongo?"

"Once. For Halloween. I was a werewolf and glued teddy bear fuzz to my face."

"Come here," said Briana. She found a cotton swab in her makeup kit and used it to paint a line of fake blood dribbling down from the corner of Mongo's lips. Then she stuffed a thick gob of the ketchup concoction up his left nostril. "Let your schnozzle drip. Just like you do in the winter."

Mongo nodded. "Okay." The nodding made red goop splatter down the front on his shirt. Briana jammed another swab of the crimson crud up his snout.

"Don't shake your head again until you guys are inside, okay?"

"Okay," said Mongo, catching himself this time before he nodded.

Briana balled up her fist. "You need me to punch you in the face so you can totally feel the pain?"

"No, thanks," said Mongo. "I'm good."

"Mr. Karpinksi lend you the cash?" asked Riley.

Briana handed him a stack of twenty-dollar bills. "Two hundred bucks."

"Works for me."

"He, of course, wants it back. I mean he's grateful we saved Alex Junior last year but he's not that grateful."

"No problem. We're not in this for the money."

"Um," said Jake as he fiddled with the portable radio, "you ever think about adjusting that portion of the Riley Mack credo?"

"No," Riley said. "Why?"

"Well, money for a new Guitar Hero might be nice," said Mongo.

Jake nodded. "Or a flash drive."

"I need a new pair of vampire fangs," said Briana.

"You guys?" said Riley, cocking up his left eyebrow.

"Sorry," the other three said in unison.

Riley rubbed his hands together. He was ready to do this thing. "We know the fifth grader's name?"

"Wilson," said Briana. "Jamal Wilson. And Riley?"


"Hurry up. With his head buried in the deep freeze, the poor kid looks like an eighty pound sack of human ice cubes!"

Chapter Three

Riley led the way through the Quick Pick Mini Mart's sliding glass doors.

Mongo stumbled in behind him and started moaning, "Oh, my face. He punched me in my face. Jamal gave me a bone taco."

Riley figured Mongo wouldn't win best actor in his category this year, but he was doing just fine. The gentle giant was totally focused, like he always was whenever they set out to take down a bully—even though, back in fifth grade when Riley first met Mongo, everybody thought Mongo was the class bully because he was so immense and would seriously mess up anybody dumb enough to make fun of the teddy bear trinkets he had dangling off the zipper of his backpack. One day, in the cafeteria, Riley gave Mongo his snack pack of Teddy Grahams cookies. Chocolatey Chip flavor. They talked. Riley suggested that maybe Mongo should redirect his rage. Mongo said he'd give it a try if people quit making fun of his teddy bears, which Riley said he'd take care of. They'd been pals ever since.

Now Riley led Mongo to a spot where his bulk would block Gavin Brown's view while Jake scampered off to hide behind the checkout counter.

"That does it!" shouted Mr. Karpinksi, the storeowner. "I'm calling the cops!"

"Fine," bellowed Gavin. He looked like somebody had dropped him out of his crib face first, leaving him with a flat nose, flatter eyes, and a permanent smirk plastered on his flat lips. Sort of like a flounder with a bad attitude. "Go ahead. Call the police! They'll be on my side. They always are!"

"Wow!" said Riley. He and Mongo waltzed up the potato chip, corn nuts, and beef jerky aisle toward the freezer cases. "Is that Jamal Wilson?"

"What?" Gavin twisted around, keeping one arm locked on the scrawny fifth grader's skull. Riley could see that the kid was shivering.

"Who the heck are you?"

Riley gave Gavin a brisk two-finger salute off the tip of his eyebrow. "Riley Mack. We've met."

"Oh, yeah. You're the punk who's always looking out for the losers. What're you doing here, punk?"

"Trying to protect you, Gavin."


"When you call the cops, Mr. Karpinski," Riley shouted over his shoulder, "let them know we found Jamal Wilson."


Riley could hear the storeowner beeping out a phone number. Sure, it had more notes than 9-1-1 should but Riley was banking on the fact that Brown, being a bully, was, most likely, an idiot, too. Probably had trouble counting above one and two.

"Hello?" he heard Mr. Karpinski say. "Is this the police?" It came out stilted, but Briana had only fed him his lines like five minutes ago.

Gavin laughed. "I told you wimps—I'm not afraid of the cops."

"They're not coming to get you, pal," said Riley. "They want him." He gestured toward the flailing legs dangling out of the freezer case.


"That's Jamal Wilson!"


Riley nodded toward Mongo. "You know my man Mongo?"

One of Gavin Brown's sunken eyeballs twitched; probably remembering the last time Mongo sat on his chest and flicked at his ear lobes.

"Yeah. I know Mongo. The teddy bear freak. What happened to his face?"

"Jamal Wilson!" said Riley.

"This wuss? No way. This skinny little wiener is a walking vending machine. I hit him up for two iPods last week. Now he's got a brand new one and it's got my name on it, too."

"No it d-d-doesn't!" came a muffled voice from inside the freezer case. "It's m-m-my dad's!" Riley figured the kid was shuddering out of frostbite as much as fear.

"Shut up! I want his cell phone and cash, too! He coughs 'em up, maybe I let him live."

Riley chuckled, shaking his head from side to side. He was enjoying this. "Gavin, Gavin, Gavin. Will you never learn?"

"Learn what?"

"I told you: That's Jamal Wilson!"


"The Jamal Wilson?"

"Am I supposed to know him or something?

"New kid in town, am I right, Jamal?"


"Featherweight Golden Gloves champion. Three years running. Right, Jamal?"


"His fists are registered as lethal weapons. Isn't that right, Jamal?"

"I-I-I don't...."

"...wanna talk about it? Of course you don't. On account of what you did back in Pinedale. You remember Pinedale, don't you Jamal?"


Riley moved in close on Gavin. "His family had to move here because Jamal kept getting kicked out of schools. Pinedale, Poughkeepsie, Pittsburgh, Paducah..."

"Piscataway!" added Mongo, who must've thought they were playing some kind of alphabetical geography game.

"A lot of places," Riley said quickly. "And, yes, the Wilson family prefers towns that start with the letter P."

Gavin raised his eyebrows with interest. "Why'd they kick him out of all those schools?"

"Incorrigible fisticuffs."


"He knocked out too many kids with his bare knuckles. Took down some teachers, too. Sent a principal to the hospital!"

Gavin laughed. "This little worm?"

"That's right. He's wormy. He slithers into a new town. Lets everybody think he's a wimp. Strings you along. Then, bam! He sucker-punches the toughest kids in town, takes over their territory. Tell Gavin how it went down with you, Mongo."

Mongo pointed to his bloody nose and lip. "He did all this with one punch."

Now a radio started squealing and screeching. There was even some feedback. Under the checkout counter, Jake Lowenstein was working his techno-magic.

"That sounds like my police scanner!" said Mr. Karpinski, who had memorized his lines perfectly.

"One Adam-Twelve, One Adam-Twelve," squawked a very nasal police dispatcher as played by Briana Bloomfield out in the parking lot with her handy-talkie. "See the man. Quick Pick Mini Mart. We have Jamal Wilson cornered in the frozen food department. Approach with extreme caution."

"Who's that?" asked Gavin, a hint of panic in his voice. "That's not the dispatcher!"

"Mr. Karpinski called the state police," said Riley.

"I thought he was calling the Fairview Police Department!"

"No way," said Riley. "This is a job for the Staties!"

"One Adam Twelve requesting backup," came a new voice over the radio. This time Briana sounded like an angry man with a nasty frog in his throat. "Listen, sister—if you expect us to apprehend and arrest Jamal Wilson, we're gonna need the SWAT team! Tell them to bring their biggest bazooka! Tell them to bring a tank! Tell them to say their prayers!"

Riley pulled out the wad of cash Mr. Karpinski had loaned them. Started peeling off bills. "What's it going to take for you to leave my friend Mongos alone, Wilson? Huh? One hundred? Two hundred?"

Gavin's jaw dropped. "You're paying him off?"

Mongo took one step forward. "It is the only way for me. To walk the streets. Without constantly looking. Over my shoulder. In fear!" Mongo usually memorized his part of a script in chunks.

Riley stuffed the money into the short kid's trembling fist.

"Enjoy, Jamal. You might consider paying him off, too, Gavin. After all, now he knows your name is Gavin Brown. And I wouldn't be surprised if he knew that you live at 48 Crestwood Drive."


"He'll hunt you down like a dog and hurt you, Gavin. He'll hurt you bad!"

Gavin finally took his hand off Jamal's head, which was still stuffed between tubs of ice cream. "No way. My dad won't let Jamal Wilson or anybody else hurt me."

"Your dad, my dad—they can't be everywhere every minute of every day, can they?"

Gavin shook his head. "No.They can't." He gulped once. Then his fishy eyes nearly popped out of his face in fear. "I gotta go!"

Breaking into a run, legs flailing, he scuttled backward up the snack aisle. He banged into a big cardboard display and sent several dozen candy bars skittering across the floor.

"Daddy!" they heard him scream from out in the parking lot. "Daddy!"

Riley tapped Jamal Wilson on the shoulder.

"It's okay, kid. He's gone. You can pull your head out of the freezer."

"I'm thuck."


"I'm thuck. My thongue."

© Chris Grabenstein, 2011