"I give up. This is totally insane."
Jostled by waves of people walking briskly in dozens of directions, Toby Magill looked hopelessly lost. His friend Strobe, a tall teen wearing a black watch cap, regarded the teeming crowd with a bemused expression. "I think we need to go over there. Past that sign and down those stairs."
"We just came up those stairs."
"No, we didn't."
"Yes, we did."
"That's the only thing I am sure of."
"In that case … this is totally insane!"
"Take it easy, you two. We can figure this out."
That's exactly what Annabel Oshiro was trying to do … figure out the New York subway system with only a map as her guide. As Annabel studied her map, Toby and Strobe continued to take in the intense scene that surrounded them. Compared to the trio's Ohio suburban community of Hidden Hills, New York City was like a rocket blast of sound and movement.
Hundreds of people navigated the huge underground area that was an intersection for dozens of subway destinations. A bewildering number of overhead signs pointed the various ways to red, blue, green, and yellow subway lines, not to mention subway trains identified by numerous numbers and letters … a unique underground language. To the uninitiated, it was like standing inside a gigantic 3-D puzzle that simply didn't fit together.
"It would have made a lot more sense for the big guy to send someone to pick us up at the airport," Strobe said, obviously annoyed at this slight.
Annabel looked up from her map, nodded when she found the sign she was looking for, then slid her map into a side pocket of her backpack. "I think Harvey means this as a test, Strobe. He wants us to figure out how to get to KP headquarters on our own. Which is this way."
"I'm done with tests," Strobe declared as he followed Annabel down a narrow stairway toward a subway platform teeming with people. "We passed our test. A little respect is in order here."
It had been almost four months since Annabel, Toby, and Strobe met when they began working at Killer Pizza, Hidden Hills' newest pizza place. What they discovered not long after the grand opening was that the Killer Pizza franchise offered something much more than award-winning pizzas.
"Just because we killed an ugly-as-sin monster, doesn't mean we're experts," Toby pointed out. "There're always gonna be more tests to pass."
It was after a typically busy day in the Killer Pizza kitchen that Harvey P. Major III, the owner of KP, had revealed to an astonished Toby, Annabel, and Strobe that his pizza chain was actually a front--a legitimate front, with award-winning pizzas and franchises all over the world--that put all of its profits into an underground organization of monster hunters. Even though Annabel and Toby were only fourteen--Strobe, fifteen--Harvey had asked the still-disbelieving trio to try out for his elite group.
"That's our train," Annabel called out, quickly bounding down the stairs. The trio pushed their way into the rush-hour horde that was cramming into the subway car. They made it inside just as the doors closed. Toby, the last one in, was jolted when the doors slammed into his backpack. He yanked away from the doors to free himself, then flew across the aisle and landed in the lap of a passenger dressed in a smartly tailored business suit.
"Sorry!" Toby said, pushing himself away from the startled woman. When the train jerked forward and accelerated down the track, Toby lost his balance and toppled over. Fortunately, Strobe was there to catch the flailing teen before he hit the floor.
"Please excuse the boy," Strobe told the woman with a smile. "This is his first trip to New York." Tersely readjusting her crumpled newspaper, the woman pointedly ignored Strobe. After pulling Toby away from the woman and down the aisle of the crowded subway car, Strobe indicated an overhead bar. "Grab hold of that, will you. And try not to embarrass us for the rest of the ride."
"The doors attacked me," Toby countered good-naturedly. "You saw it."
Standing nearby, Annabel shook her head in exasperation. "I can't take you two anywhere. I swear."
"That may be true, but I ask you this," Strobe said. "Where would you be without us, huh?"
The subway train plunged into a dark tunnel, leaving the well-lit platform behind. Hurtling through the endless night of the tunnel on the swaying, jerking train, Toby found himself thinking about Strobe's question, but from his point of view. Where wouldhe be without Strobe and Annabel? Toby looked around the packed subway car. Not here, in New York City, that's for sure.
Fact was, Toby's life had been rather mundane before he started working at the take-out pizza place located on a Hidden Hills dead-end street. Since his first day at Killer Pizza, however, life had become tons more interesting. And maybe a bit too exciting at times.
The train suddenly entered another brightly lit platform area.
"This is our exit, guys," Annabel announced.
Toby threw himself into the middle of the competing mobs of people jostling to get on and off the subway. A veteran now of three subway car departures since arriving in New York, Toby was actually starting to enjoy what felt like a thirty-second extreme-sports event. The object? Get on or off the subway car before the doors close!
Energetically elbowing his way toward the beckoning platform, Toby made it just as the doors closed behind him, this time avoiding the subway-door backpack grab. Toby nodded in satisfaction as he located his KP partners on the crowded platform. He was already getting better at navigating the wild energy that NYC was famous for.
"From here," Annabel was saying as Toby approached, her eyes locked on her all-important subway map, "we need to get to the Fifty-first Street downtown platform of the green line and…"
"Annabel?" Strobe interrupted. "Just lead the way, okay?"
"What a surprise, Strobe. You're actually willing to let me lead. A little advice? Keep me in sight or you just might get lost." Annabel gave Strobe a competitive nudge, then pushed her way through the crowd.
* * *
Toby smiled when he caught sight of an unusual triangular high-rise building through the trees. "Hey, check it out, guys. How cool is Killer Pizza's headquarters?"
From a certain angle, New York's Flatiron Building looked like a huge ship's bow, aiming for Madison Square Park. Crisscrossing the park, the trio was on a collision course with the New York landmark.
"Bet you didn't know it's considered one of the first skyscrapers ever built," Toby revealed. "It was finished in 1902--"
"Looks like where Peter Parker works in the Spider-Man movies," Annabel observed.
"It is. It's one of the most recognizable buildings in the city, and not just because of the Spider-Man movies. Know how it got its name? It's built on a lot that resembles a clothing iron."
"I think somebody did a little research for this trip."
"You bet I did. I mean, how exciting is this?"
"It's not that exciting," Strobe said, playing it cool, as usual. "You obviously don't get out much, do you, Tobe."
"Compared to you, no, of course not. You know what? I can't wait to see KP's culinary operations."
"Well, you're gonna have to wait," Strobe shot back. "We're not here to learn how to make better pizzas, after all."
That's exactly what the trio's parents thought their children were doing in New York. Attending a weekend training session for "promising young employees" of Killer Pizza. But the real purpose of the trip was an intensive tour of KP's underground Monster Combat Officer headquarters.
Emerging from the park, the trio joined a crowd that was waiting for the light to turn at a nearby crosswalk. Then they walked across Broadway to the epicenter of Killer Pizza's worldwide operations.
Copyright © 2011 by Greg Taylor