A/N: Here's the next chapter, as promised :) I'm really ambivalent about making story updates contingent on reviews - I don't do that with any of my other stories - but for this one, please indulge me. *bats eyelashes*


2

The bus came to a halt in front of a large house. It wasn't an old house; in fact, it looked almost new. There was no moss or ivy climbing on it, and the exterior seemed to be in very good condition. Spencer realized that it was entirely possible for this house to have been constructed with only this venture in mind. And if that was the case, it would seem to indicate that even more planning had gone into this than he had originally thought.

The bus doors were opened by the masked man at the wheel. The other man pointed his gun at a kid in one of the front rows, and then at the door. "Get out."

The boy, hunched over and trembling, scurried off the bus. Everyone else stood stock-still. The man looked back at them all, through the slits in the woolen cap covering his face, and then bellowed, "ALL OF YOU!"

There was a mad rush for the doors. Amid the commotion, Daniel dove under a seat, crawling up against the wall to hitch a ride back to civilization, and hissed at Spencer to go on without him.

Spencer went. Daniel felt horribly alone watching his best friend begin to walk down the steps leading off the bus. He looked away from Spencer and watched the masked men instead. They hadn't noticed him yet.

Inexplicably, an invisible force suddenly yanked the wool caps off their faces.

"Spencer!" Daniel hollered before he could stop himself.

Spencer whirled. His photographic memory snapped a picture of the kidnappers before they jammed their caps on again. Then he dashed back onto the bus as they started toward Daniel, who had given himself away. Spencer darted between his friend and the antagonists and stood there, unmoving. He'd never thought he'd have to do this for Daniel again.

Daniel scrambled to the emergency exit door. He tried to heave it open, but the handle was rusty and it stuck.

"Get out of the way, kid," one of the men snarled impatiently at Spencer, raising his gun.

Spencer reached into his pocket, pulled out his last resort, and made as if to throw it.

The two men stopped in their tracks, and one even took a step back. "Whoa. Ease up, kid. You put that away. We won't hurt your friend."

"Then you know what this is?" Spencer could sense Daniel still struggling with the door handle. He held his ground.

"Of course we do. They told us all about it."

"Who's 'they'?"

"How stupid do you think we are, kid?"

A harsh buzz erupted all around them as Daniel finally jerked the door handle up and jumped off the bus. Without lowering his hand or turning his back, Spencer walked slowly to the exit and jumped too.

Moments later, the bus revved up again and drove off. Spencer could feel his classmates ogling him, and he made sure he wasn't trembling. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Adam—Jake? No, that one was Adam, definitely Adam—Wranner flash him a thumbs-up sign, along with that careless and infectious grin that had helped make him so popular in so short a time.

The door to the enormous house opened. A man stood in the doorway. He was tall, with dark hair and glasses.

"What are you waiting for?" he barked. "Get inside!"

Another mad rush ensued. Spencer and Daniel hung back. So did Anna, knowing that it would be a lot easier to go through the door once everyone else had gone.

"Spence, you were awesome," said Daniel in hushed tones. "They would have killed me."

"Maybe."

"I was talking worst-case scenario."

"You always do."

"It was lucky they knew about the mace, or you might have had to use it."

"Yeah."

"Were you really ready to use it?"

"I'm ready to hurt anyone who's ready to hurt you." He fingered the small stainless steel cylinder he was still holding. Then he slipped it back into his left pocket, careful not to touch the thumbprint scanner, simultaneously withdrawing his asthma inhaler from his right. He put it to his lips and breathed in deeply.

"You okay?"

Spencer nodded and put away the inhaler. "Did you see what made their masks come off?"

"No." It was absolutely true. He'd been watching, but he'd seen nothing. "That was just bizarre."

"Like everything else." Spencer watched Anna go through the door and took a step toward it.

Daniel pulled him back. "Let's wait a little bit?" he asked hopefully.

Spencer sighed, but waited.

"Spence, I know you don't see what I've got against her—"

"You don't even know what you've got against her."

"Spencer, I've told you a million times: I can't stand how she holds herself above everybody else."

"That's exactly why she can't stand you. But Dan, she doesn't hold herself above everyone. She's just been shunned by 'em for so long that she holds herself so far below them that she can't even imagine herself as a part of them anymore." He started walking toward the door again, and this time, Daniel came with him.

"You've given this a lot of thought," said Daniel, slightly sarcastic, as they entered the house and found themselves in a long hallway. "You were that bugged about her not showing up to your parties?"

"Daniel, why are we talking about this?" He was looking around, and Daniel got the hint and dropped the subject.

Spencer's photographic memory took in the hallway. It was about 20 feet wide and perhaps 50 yards long. The floor was wooden, and the walls were painted white. Very white. He noticed that along the bottoms of the walls were miniscule bumps, spaced at intervals of about every five feet. He first thought that these were motion sensors, but that seemed primitive in relation to projectile-free guns, so he snapped a 1-frame picture of them and magnified it in his mind. He was right—they weren't motion sensors. They were cameras. Really, really small cameras.

There were three doors on each side of the hallway, with signs on each. Signs full of weird markings and chicken-scratch too pixilated and perfectly positioned to be someone's handwriting.

Spencer didn't blink, didn't flinch, didn't react at all. But he knew this code. His father used it to label chemicals that he kept in his enormous, temperature-controlled refrigerator. It wasn't a secret code; it was actually a pretty simple one. All it did was slice letters in half and position one half higher or lower than the other. But why was it here? Was whoever organized this trying to intimidate him with how much he (or she) knew?

"Spence." Daniel interrupted his thoughts.

Spencer turned to him. "What?"

"They said they were told all about the mace."

"So?"

"Isn't that classified?"

"Only the formula." Spencer shrugged a dismissive shoulder. "And the water-related properties. It's pretty common knowledge that it's a dangerous mace when it's not diluted. That's why they—"

"But maybe they know about the diluted properties too," Daniel pressed on grimly. "And maybe...Maybe the formula is what these people want."

Spencer nodded slowly, considering. "Possibly. I don't think any other companies ever developed anything like it. Because it was an experiment gone wrong, in the first place."

"Really? You never told me that. And nobody got sued?"

"No, because nobody got hurt. It was close, though. They just barely managed to contain it. It was really nerve-wracking, I remember; my dad felt so guilty, he couldn't sleep for days."

They reached the end of the hallway and entered a room at the end, where the rest of their classmates were milling around. The man who had told them to go inside seemed to have disappeared, and the shock was starting to wear off. As Daniel and Spencer passed a cluster of girls, Daniel distinctly heard one of them say to another, "You know, that skirt makes you look so skinny..."

Daniel shook his head.

Spencer's roaming eyes found Anna. She was alone, as always, and she was leaning against the far wall of the room. He wanted to walk over to her and just talk to her. He knew that her five brothers treated her about the same way as her classmates did, and that since she was the quiet one in her family, her parents also paid her very little attention. It had probably been ages since she'd had a decent conversation with anyone.

But he couldn't talk to her. It hurt too much.

A door on the left side of the room opened, and the dark-haired man came in.

Silence descended upon the room.

"Why is Anna the only one who knows what to do?" he shouted, pointing at her. "Line up against the wall!"

How the heck does he know who she is? Daniel wondered as they all ran for the wall.

When everyone was lined up, the man spoke again.

"Down that hallway," he said, pointing to the doorway that they had just come through, "are six doors, three on each side of the hallway. On each door there is a sign. Each door leads to a room. In the corner of that room, there will be a door. That door leads to another room.

"I am going to give each of you a card. You are to match the card with a sign on one of the six doors in the hallway. That is where you will stay until the ransom is paid. Do not go into the wrong room. If you do, I will know. The boys will stay in the front room, and the girls will stay in the back one. You may only leave your room if you are called or if you need to go to the bathroom. Is that all very, very clear?"

Everyone nodded.

"Good." He pulled the deck of cards out of his pocket.

All this time, Spencer's eyes had been darting ceaselessly about the room, searching it for something, anything. Daniel knew that Spencer's ears were taking in everything the man was saying, but it was impossible to tell by looking at him.

Just before the man finished speaking, Daniel mumbled his automatic editorial evaluation, "Guy seems awfully sure of himself."

Spencer's eyes stopped roving and fixed on the man. Something about that face suddenly clicked in his mind and memory, and it jolted him horribly. He swallowed.

"No," he breathed. "See how jerky he is when he moves? He's not sure of himself at all. This whole thing was planned by his brother."

Daniel blinked. "Excuse me?"

The man came forward and started to hand Spencer a card, but then yanked it back.

"One more thing!" he called, over the whispers that were starting to break out. "Before you leave this room, you must check your name off on the list by the door." He waved vaguely at it, then handed over the card.

Spencer took it and went to the list. He noticed instantly that it was a list of everyone in class 9-A, and it was in alphabetical order. As his eyes skimmed down to find his name, two names jumped out at him. Names of kids in his class who were sick today, and therefore, not here. The checklist seemed to indicate that the kidnappers did not know exactly who they'd kidnapped. Yet the man knew Anna—of course he would, Spencer thought—but who else did he know?

As he raised his pen to check off his name, he realized something else: There was a boy in this room whose name was not listed.

The boy's name was Jake Wranner. Not Adam Wranner. Jake. Adam's identical twin.

He was not listed because he was not in class 9-A. He wasn't in 9-B, either. He went a completely different school, a school that Adam called "special" with audible quotation marks dripping from the word. After Spencer had invited Adam to join a couple of basketball games on the weekends and to bring Jake along too, Adam had shown up alone and during a time out, he casually let slip between gulps of water that Jake was rarely allowed out of the house. According to Adam, their widowed mother was ashamed of whatever it was that made Jake "special," and preferred to keep him cut off from society. In contrast, Mrs. Wranner clearly doted on Adam, her "normal" child. Jake didn't particularly like this arrangement, Adam said, but he was the type to suck it up.

Adam was not, Spencer knew. When he got fed up, he let the world know. He'd argued incessantly with his mother ever since moving to New York, and somehow managed to convince her that it would be good for Jake to have some limited contact with the outside world. And with enough skillful nagging, he was also able to manipulate her into thinking that school trips constituted a good example of this limited contact. Mrs. Wranner had called the school and made a bizarre arrangement to pay the necessary fees that enabled Jake to come on Adam's school trips with him, without attending the school himself.

So today Jake was kidnapped along with everyone else, but since the kidnapping had clearly been planned for class 9-A and Jake wasn't in class 9-A, he wasn't listed.

After giving mind to all of this, Spencer finally checked off his name.

Moments before, Daniel had received a card. As he followed his best friend to the list, the usual excruciating negativity hit, and hit hard.

What if he and Spencer were put in different rooms? Worse, what if he was put into a room with Drew Garrett or Howie Kender? Or both? Daniel could just picture them picking on him mercilessly, without Spencer to defend him—

Stop it, Daniel told himself as he walked up to the list. It's illogical to assume the worst when you don't have enough information. Or when you don't have any information.

He then proceeded to attempt to figure out the probability of being put into a room with Drew or Howie.

Well, if there are 6 rooms, and there are about 24 kids here, then there should be 4kids in each room...The total number of possible combinations of 4 that can be made from 24 is 24C4 which is...10626. But there's only 1 of me, and there's only 1 of Drew (thank God), and only 1 Howie. So the probability of me being with only Drew is 1 times 1 times...well, it doesn't really matter who else, so if there are 22 kids left to choose from, it's 22C2...1 times 1 times 22C2...231. But if I do it that way, isn't Howie included in those 22leftovers?...Need to subtract that overlap...

Still mulling it all over in his mind, he reached the list and checked off his name. Then he went into the hallway, where he found Spencer gazing intently at a sign on one of the doors.

Daniel looked at his own card. There were strange symbols on it that looked familiar, but he couldn't think why.

Daniel quickly found the door with the matching sign, and then glanced over at Spencer. The sign that he was examining had similar symbols, but fewer of them and more widely spaced.

Spencer sensed Daniel watching him. He turned and asked, "Have you figured out what your sign says?"

Not wanting to admit that he hadn't even tried deciphering the code yet, Daniel turned the question around. "What does yours say?"

Spencer shrugged. "It doesn't really matter."

Daniel rolled his eyes, telling Spencer very visibly that he did not care whether it mattered or not.

"It says 'ransom.'"

Daniel stared. And you're telling me this doesn't matter?

"It doesn't," Spencer said, reading Daniel's expression perfectly. "I just know it doesn't."

"How?" Daniel demanded, stamping his foot in an immediately regretted display of frustration. "How do you know what they want, who planned this—what's going on?"

"Calm down," said Spencer. "No need to shout."

"I'm not shouting." It was an instinctive, feeble defense; he had been shouting. He felt like an idiot, just lying like that. He tried to correct himself. "I mean, I was shouting, but I'm not now, I mean, I won't shout anymore..." Why can't I just shut up?

Spencer didn't laugh at him; Daniel knew he wouldn't. Spencer's eyes did not lose their pensive look for a second as he said, "I can't explain it, Dan. I guess my brain just went too fast for me to follow it. I need some time to think it through, but I just know that the object of this kidnapping isn'tme, it's—"

He broke off in mid-sentence.

"It's what?" Daniel pressed.

Spencer looked at him very oddly.

"I—don't know," he stammered. (Daniel searched his memory, but found no record of Spencer ever stuttering like that before.) "I knew a second ago, but..."

"Forget it," said Daniel, but this abrupt lapse shook him more than just about anything else had today. If Spencer was starting to lose it—

"Dan, stop it. I'm fine. I'm just a little nervous."

"You were nervous when you won the state spelling bee," Daniel pointed out. "But you won it anyway. Your memory didn't blank out on you."

"That was a different kind of nervous," said Spencer shortly, and to Daniel's distress, he turned his back on him and went into his room.

#

Meanwhile, Anna was still waiting for her card.

And she still wasn't scared. Having the unknown man call her by name was alarming, but allowing herself to be intimidated by it was probably exactly what he wanted. So she wasn't scared.

But she was confused and completely unsure of what to do now, later, or ever. She knew that she should try to escape from this place, but she had nowhere to begin. She couldn't just run out of the room; she'd be caught. Questions began to whirl in her mind: Was the door to this building locked? What if it wasn't? Where would she go if she actually managed to get through it? Would she just get lost in the woods?

There seemed to be dead ends everywhere.

The man finally reached her. He looked at her, looked at what was left of the deck of cards, fanned it out in front of him, selected a card, and handed it to her. It was only then that Anna realized that he wasn't giving the cards out randomly. He was actually choosing which kids would go where. But as to why and how, she couldn't begin to guess.

She took her card, walked toward the list of names, and saw three girls huddling there anxiously. As Anna neared the list, one of the girls turned.

"Anna, do you have a pen or something?" she whispered. "None of us do, and we're scared to go without checking off our names."

"Yeah, I have one," Anna said, digging into a pocket.

#

Jake Wranner received his card. He looked at it, raised his eyebrows at its strange design, and started walking toward the list. As he walked, he couldn't hide the sparkle in his pale blue eyes, and finally had to duck his head as a bright smile lit his features.

Because to Jake Wranner, life was a game. He took everything that was tossed his way, good or bad, and played along with it. Nothing scared him, because he always had the calming, reassuring knowledge that nothing could really hurt him. If he had wanted to, he could have been in total control of his life. If he had told his mother that he would use his power against her, she would have been forced to do whatever he wanted. He would have been able to go to regular school, he wouldn't have to deal with being locked up for days without food during the summer, he would have been able to have a wristwatch, and he would have been able to go outside to do something other than get on the bus.

But that would have been cheating life, and incredibly risky. Jake didn't like to do it more than once a day, and he'd already filled his quota today.

As Jake came closer to the list, he saw a group of four girls sharing one pen to check off their names. The last girl who used it stuck it into her pocket, and Jake gathered that she had been the only one who had remembered to bring a pen.

There was something about this girl that drew Jake's eyes. It was the fact that she didn't look frightened. She wasn't smiling or doing anything nearly as weird as he had done, but her face was smooth, relaxed. Very unlike the rest of the faces around him. Was she really not anxious at all? Or was she just the type of person who looked calm whether or not she actually was? And if she was really, truly calm, could that possibly mean—?

Jake was still puzzling over her when she left the room. Then he realized that he also didn't have a writing implement. But, as Spencer had noticed earlier, Jake's name wasn't listed. In Jake's optimistic mind, this wasn't unsettlingit was a stroke of luck, considering he couldn't have checked off his name.

#

The girl Jake had seen was Anna, and she wasn't nervous; rather, she was completely bewildered. She'd had absolutely no idea that Jake had been watching her; indeed, she, like nearly all of her classmates, had never even heard the name "Jake Wranner" in her life.

When she got into the hallway, she looked at her card for the first time. On it was a collection of straight and curved lines. For a brief second, she wondered if the card could possibly hold any secret meaning.

But she didn't think about that for very long, because out of the corner of her eye, she'd seen the door with the sign that matched the card. That alone didn't make her stop wondering; she stopped because she'd seen the person standing in front of the door, holding the exact same card as she was.


A/N, part 2: As you may have noticed, there's a code in this chapter, but since it's FP. com, the pictures I drew can't be made a part of the posting. Let me know if the idea still came across!