… EPISODE SIX…
Sneaking out of the house isn’t a problem. Once my mom falls asleep, it would take a foghorn or a full-scale villain assault on her bedroom to wake her before she’s ready to get up.
Getting into the lab isn’t a problem either. The night security guards haven’t seen my mom yet, so they don’t know that I’ve been banned from the facility. They don’t bother to check the badge—they just let me scan my way in like I do every night.
Even packing up my research isn’t a problem. There’s a lot of it, and some of it is kind of hard to carry, but I find a couple boxes that will hold the fragile stuff pretty well. It’s not ideal, but I’ll just continue my experiments at home until Mom gets her sanity back.
Everything goes like clockwork. All that’s left is to find sub-level three. The problem is that I don’t have a clue how or where to look. There must be an entrance. But where?
This building is huge. There are three levels above ground and two—well, maybe three—below.
Plus, the layout is downright labyrinthine. A million different hallways crisscross each other, and each hallway leads to four or five separate labs or storage areas or offices. I explored a lot of them when I was younger. There’s not much else to do when your mom is obsessed with her job and you’re too young to actually touch anything in a state-of-the-art research center.
It was annoying when I was little, but now I’m glad, because I don’t have to waste time wandering these halls. I already know where they lead. At the same time, if sub-level three exists, that means, even with how well I know this place, I’ve missed something.
Even worse, it means I’ve been in the dark for a very long time.
The thought doesn’t sit well. But it makes me even more determined to prove these crazy suspicions wrong.
Unsure of where else to start, I search my mom’s lab—back to pre-Nitro condition, thanks to the Cleaners—from top to bottom. I feel a little ridiculous pressing against walls, pushing buttons, and checking out every nook and cranny. But I don’t know what a secret entrance is supposed to look like, so I’m trying to examine anything and everything that might fit that bill.
My mom’s lab is clean, just like I expected it to be. But really, I consider, while one might imagine the center’s top scientist would need access to the supersecret level, she wouldn’t be the only one.
I think about Mr. Malone, about the Superhero Collective—the elite group that makes all the decisions in the super world—and their immensely huge egos. They would demand access to a special level.
And not just access, easy access.
Which means I’m totally looking in the wrong place. Although my mom is down here on sub-level one, the Superhero Collective’s offices are all above ground.
They have huge offices with huge windows that reflect how important they are. Of course access to supersecret sub-level three—if it exists—would be wherever they are.
Leaving my research in a pile near the door so I can swing by and get it later, I head for the elevators and the building’s third floor.
As the elevator whooshes me upward, my stomach sinks. What am I doing? I almost reach for the button to take me back down. Not only is this a ridiculous wild-goose chase, but I could be in big trouble if I get caught.
I’ve never been good with unanswered questions though.
I have no choice. I have to follow the goose.
The good thing about my mom’s pass? She has access to everything—even the inner sanctums.
I decide to search Mr. Malone’s office first. I’ve seen my mom swipe her access card at the entrance to his suite.
It works. I’m in.
Walking into this room is like taking a step back in time to a nineteenth-century palace, complete with a king and an unlimited budget. Silk curtains, antique couches, expensive paintings.
I try to ignore the opulence, but being here makes me uncomfortable. Not because I’m spying on Rebel’s dad, but because this office is all about power.
It clearly belongs to someone who is impressed with himself and wants everyone else to be impressed too.
Which makes me feel icky, especially given what Draven and Rebel said.
A guy who turns his office into a shrine to his self-importance, who is so egotistical and power-happy that he actually named this building after himself… Suddenly, all the outlandish theories don’t seem quite so far-fetched.
But taking in the view isn’t going to get me anywhere, so I start looking. I’m totally lost. There’s just so much in this room, so many places to hide a secret entrance.
I peek behind all of the paintings, then check the filing cabinet, the closet, even underneath the rugs.
I don’t find anything. No trapdoor, no secret panel. Nothing is even the least bit suspicious.
There is a gigantic safe on one wall, tucked behind a painting of some epic battle scene, but it’s certainly not big enough for a human to fit through—especially one as tall and broad as Mr. Malone. I don’t know how to break the combo, but I feel pretty confident in assuming it’s not the secret door.
At the same time, I wonder why he needs a safe anyway. What kind of secrets is he hiding? The heroes are supposed to be all about transparency. Secrets are for villains, Mr. Malone always says.
Jeremy would laugh at how paranoid I’m being, but it’s a massive safe. It could hold a lot of secrets.
Still, it’s not like I have the ability to melt steel, so I move on
I’ve searched the office, so I head for the bathroom—yes, he has his own bathroom attached to his office, complete with shower and steam room.
I can’t imagine the Superhero Collective traipsing through a bathroom to get to a secret sub-level, but maybe that makes it the perfect access point.
The shower, specifically, would be a really clever place for a secret door. All that tile provides plenty of places to hide an access button. Before I can do much more than step into the shower, I hear Mr. Malone’s office door opening and muffled voices.
Oh shit! He’s here! I have absolutely no excuse to be in Mr. Malone’s office except for the truth, and it’s not like I can just blurt that out.
Who, me? I’m just investigating an accusation made by villains who I’m not even supposed to remember. But I believed them enough to doubt the president of the League’s integrity.
Yeah. That would go over well.
I’m totally screwed.
I would trade anything for the power of invisibility right now.
I launch into full-blown panic mode. Glancing frantically around the small room, I try to find a place to hide. It’s not like there are a lot of options—the shower is a glass cubicle, the cabinet under the sink is stuffed with Kleenex boxes and other stuff, and the towel closet has shelves that only leave about two inches between them and the door.
I settle on the steam room—it has a full-length door with only a small, square window. Hopefully Mr. Malone’s not here for a late-night sauna session.
As the voices get closer, I slip inside and close the door carefully, holding the handle so it doesn’t click into place.
“I don’t know, Rex,” a male voice I don’t recognize says. “I’m not happy with this recent breach of security.”
“I understand, but it’s fine. Sit down, have a drink.” There’s the tinkle of what sounds like ice cubes on glass. “They didn’t get anything.”
I can’t believe how clearly I can hear them. What if they can hear me too? I try to quiet my panicked breathing.
With all the money Mr. Malone spent on this office, you would think he’d have spent some on soundproofing. But isn’t that typical? All show and no substance.
I press myself back against the wall.
“They knew to come here. To look for the missing villains—”
My heart stops. Terror rips through me and for a second I forget how to breathe.
“Again, they didn’t find anything or we would have heard about it by now. And if they try to come back, they will run into deadly security measures.”
“I’m not sure that’s good enough,” a different male voice says.
“It is, John,” Mr. Malone insists. “Trust me.”
The other men don’t respond, or if they do, their voices are too soft for me to make out. They must be displeased though, because Mr. Malone suddenly booms, “Why don’t you come down with me? You can take a look at what I’ve done today. I assure you, it will put your minds at ease.”
“That might be best,” the first man says. “I’d like to look over the new security, make sure there are no flaws.”
“Absolutely, absolutely.” Mr. Malone’s joviality sounds forced, but that’s not exactly a surprise. I’ve been around the Malone house enough to know he hates being questioned about anything. He gets furious every time Rebel stands up to him over something stupid. I can’t imagine how angry he is right now.
He would never trip over himself to please the other members of the Collective. So who are these other men that Mr. Malone feels the need to placate them?
The voices fade a little, and I hear what I think is the office door shutting. Then I don’t hear anything.
For a few seconds I just stand there, shaking, my heart in my throat. I can’t believe how careless I was, how close I came to getting caught. And I really, really can’t believe what I just overheard.
I replay the conversation, the sick feeling in my stomach getting worse. For the first time tonight, I’m not sure that I’m going to prove my doubts wrong.
The idea is devastating. Terrifying. Incomprehensible. Even though I’m almost positive Mr. Malone is gone, I open the steam-room door slowly. Creep out. Peer around the door into the office. The empty office. Thank God.
The best chance I have to get answers is to follow Mr. Malone and the others. But I have to be careful. Something tells me, Rebel’s best friend or not, things won’t go well for me if I’m caught snooping.
I cross Mr. Malone’s office and peer through the interior windows. He’s walking down the hall with two men, both in slate-gray suits.
Damn, the Ray-Ban brigade. I knew those guys were bad news.
I start to follow them, making sure to leave a good distance between us. It’s not unheard of for me to be up on the third floor, even at this time of night, so if Mr. Malone sees me it won’t be the end of the world. But he can’t think I’m following him.
When the men reach the elevator bay, I dart into an alcove, press myself against the back of it, and hold my breath until the elevator car arrives.
The doors swoosh shut and I peer out. They’re gone. The coast is clear.
I press the call button, and the second elevator starts up from the lobby. As I wait, the first elevator’s indicator light stops on sub-level two. My heart beats double time as the second elevator arrives and I step inside. Clearly they’re not going to my mom’s lab to see the new security measures, because that’s on sub-level one.
When I swipe Mom’s security badge on the access panel and press sub-level two, the elevator descends quickly, bypassing all other levels. It only takes a few
moments, but it feels like forever. I clench my hands into fists to keep them from shaking.
The elevator opens onto a containment hallway, a long, empty space with no labs or rooms on either side. Sub-level two is laid out differently than sub-level one.
They conduct far more volatile experiments here, so additional safety precautions are in place. No one wants a nuclear blast getting out of the basement.
Mr. Malone and the gray suits are nowhere to be seen. Where could they have gone? I’m only a few seconds behind them.
And since Mr. Malone doesn’t have super speed, it makes no sense. They can’t have made it out of the containment hallway already.
They couldn’t have just disappeared into thin air, right?
I step off the elevator, wondering if I made a mistake. But when I press the call button, both elevators’ doors slide open. No, Mr. Malone and the Ray-Ban brigade definitely came to this level.
So where did they go?
I start running, and still it takes me a full minute to reach the end of the hallway.
No way did Mr. Malone turn the corner before my elevator arrived. No freaking way. Which means…what? I don’t have a clue, but something shady is going on.
I head back and push the elevator button again. Again, the doors to both elevators slide open. I get in the one on the left this time, the one Mr. Malone and the gray suits took.
I don’t press any buttons. Instead, I just stand there as the doors close in front of me.
What am I missing? They got in this elevator, descended to sub-level two, and…what? Vanished? I know I live in a world of superpowers, but that just doesn’t happen.
Only about one percent of superheroes have the power to go invisible, and Mr.
Malone isn’t one of them. Which means they are somewhere.
I tap on the floor, push on the walls. Nothing. I’m frustrated now, really frustrated.
I press the button to take me back up to three. The elevator rises effortlessly. At the top level, instead of getting out, I press the button to go back down to sub-level two.
It’s crazy, but I can’t help thinking that the answer is here in this elevator. I just need to find it.
Come on, Kenna. Think.
The elevator goes back down, but when it stops at the second sub-level, the doors don’t open. It just sits there, like it’s waiting for me to do something. Too bad I don’t have a clue what that something is.
I start to step forward and the door slides open.
My movement must have signaled the door sensor. Why would they need a pressure trigger in an elevator?
My jaw drops.
Instead of stepping out into the hall, I swipe Mom’s badge over the reader and return to the center of the elevator. When the door closes, I turn and take a step toward the back.
The rear panel of the elevator slides open, revealing a dimly lit concrete space and a winning staircase.
The staircase doesn’t go up, like an emergency stairwell might.
It goes down. To what I can only imagine is secret sub-level three.
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