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IX. The Mangle Trucks

 

On the Monday of the week before Thanksgiving week, Tom and Ange and Arn and Daph were sitting around in Tom’s room, giving Eva the eight-handed pet, when hurried feet came up the stairs. Cloud and Rats burst into the room panting.

“Mangle trucks,” said Cloud.

“Ever heard of them?” asked Rats.

They described how they had been off wandering the neighborhood, which was only a little bit sketchy—in point of fact, they were returning from that one old drug store that sold cheap ice cream sodas that were just sooo good. On their way back, as they got to Birch Street, the street that bordered the Lyceum block, they came up next to this old shabby guy who seemed to be waiting for a bus or something. He made a gesture to indicate caution. So they looked up and down the street: nothing. They were just about to cross when they heard a distant cry, to their left, to the north: it sounded like a little girl’s scream. Moments later, an unmarked panel truck went by. It was actually the start of quite a long procession of not-quite-identical unmarked panel trucks.

Finally they saw the end of the line. As the last truck passed, the old guy said, “Them’s the Mangle Trucks. Wait ten beats after they pass, then cross and do it quick.”

“So that’s what we did,” said Rats.

“But the guy,” said Cloudius. “He was interesting too. He had long grey hair, he had a pony tail, he had beads, and, like, a blanket or a poncho or something.”

“And an eagle feather,” said Rats.

“Wait, an eagle feather?” Daphne repeated. “He’s an Indian.”

“Yeah,” said Cloudius. “He’s an Indian. Whether he’s a live Indian is another whole question.”

“It’s not the Lyceum Indian,” said Tom, “you know, the IMS, because he doesn’t dress like that, but I know he has friends.”

“Okay, so you thought you heard a scream,” said Arnulf, “and you saw a bunch of trucks, and you saw some old guy dressed up like a native American. And this scared you guys?”

“Well,” Cloudius started, but then he just looked at Rats and rolled his eyes. “You explain.”

“Nah,” said Rats. “There’s no way we can explain it. You’d have to see them yourself.”

“So there were all these trucks,” said Angelica. “No, I’m totally interested. They were all alike and they didn’t have any signs or anything on them. What color were they?”

Rats and Cloud looked at each other. “Dark,” they agreed. “I don’t know if they were black, or dark green or dark blue or what,” said Cloud. “And you know what else?” said Rats. “They didn’t go that far past the Lyceum before they turned off.”

“How do you know that?” asked Angelica.

“You could hear the way the engine sound changes when they slowed down to turn off,” said Cloud. “Like they were taking an exit off an interstate.”

“Maybe da Bears are moving out of Chicago,” said Daphne, who was a Packers fan.

“Hey,” said Arnulf, “Ditka’s going to turn them around, you’ll see. Payton, Singletary, that new QB—!”

“Yeah,” said Daphne, “and you think these guys are imagining things? I got news for you.”

 

And the discussion devolved from there. Of course, the next morning, bright and early, they all got to hear it on the radio: a girl had gone missing from the neighborhood north of the Lyceum, not the first, and, police feared, not the last.

“It means something, I’m telling you,” said Cloudius that afternoon in Tom’s room. He was holding a short but sharp and sturdy sword.

“What’s that?” asked Arnulf.

“It’s my Uncle Excellus’s old sword.”

“What? What are you planning on doing with that?”

“Going and finding out where the Mangle Trucks go.”

“What? You guys are crazy. Daphne—!”

“Yes?” Daphne was sitting on the other side of him, holding her own, brand-new, Sword +1.

“Knock some sense into them,” said Arnulf. “We can’t go chase Mangle Trucks. We’re just kids.”

“Right,” said Daphne. “I’ll remind you of that next time you want to go snooping under museums. Hey, I got a sword. It might be kinda cool.”

“So, you going?” asked Cloudius with his usual irresistible smile.

Arnulf sighed and rolled his eyes. He shrugged. He stood up and rolled his eyes and sighed and shrugged again. He shook his said. He sighed and rolled his eyes again. “Yeah,” he said at last, “I better go just to keep you guys out of trouble.”

 

So when Friday twilight rolled around, they were all slipping out of Ash House in different directions and meeting up in the library garden. Tom was last: he spent ten minutes petting Ash’s cat Kenneth, waiting for him to doze off completely, before Tom slipped away through the living room. Tom and Arnulf decided to trust to their wands, while Cloud held Uncle Excellus’s sword, Daphne hefted her own sword and Angelica had the long knife and three blade disks she’d bought at a magical farmer’s market last summer. The knife was tucked into her belt under her hooded sweatshirt; the blade disks were in her back jeans pocket.

Indeed, the mangle trucks had not gone down Birch Street very far beyond the Lyceum. There was a sprawling warehouse complex a block down a side street, right off of Birch a block past the Lyceum. The side street ended in a garage door into the warehouse.

“You’re sure they ended up in here?” asked Angelica.

“Pretty sure, yeah,” said Cloudius.

“Pretty sure?”

“I believe him,” said Daphne. “The place smells.”

Tom and Cloudius were about to say something back when there was a distant cry, away to the north up Birch perhaps.

“Sound of motors,” said Arnulf.

“Crap,” said Angelica, “they’re back. They’re coming.”

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