Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
As its title implies, my teenage spy novel, “The Boy Who Knew Too Much,” is inspired by the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
My opening hook consciously mimics Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (both versions). At the outset the hero encounters a wounded spy whose dying words set off a chain reaction of death, danger and narrow escapes. My hero, 15-year-old Brian Parker, comes across the doomed spy in Lucerne, Switzerland, while on a European trip sponsored by his suburban Milwaukee high school.
Very quickly afterward, the plot departs from “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and follows the formula of Hitchcock’s chase pictures, such as “North by Northwest” and “Saboteur,” with young Brian being pursued across Europe by shady spies and crime lords all after the same MacGuffin.
The book’s other major inspiration was Ian Fleming’s canon of James Bond novels and, specifically, the excitement I felt as I discovered and read those books in my early teens. Brian is not unlike my younger self, somewhat socially awkward and obsessed with spy novels. Brian’s knowledge of espionage fiction comes in handy once he is kidnapped by Jack Silver, the murdered spy’s CIA handler who wants to keep his crooked financial arrangement with the informant secret while investigating his death. Silver lets it slip the spy was killed by a ruthless criminal mastermind named Matthias Skyrm.
My goal in writing “The Boy Who Knew Too Much” was to combine the cinematic elements of Hitchcock and the literary elements of Bond (not to mention a heavy dose of “Treasure Island”) to create a nonstop spy story aimed at young readers and anyone who remembers the thrill of being a young reader. Naturally, Brian gains a beautiful ally along the way. That development is faithful to both Hitchcock and Bond!
The following excerpt occurs early in the novel. Brian already has escaped Jack Silver in the south of France. As Chapter 10 begins, Brian is at an Internet café in Cannes. He has just done a Google search on a name spoken by the dying spy. The name belongs to Edouard DeJonge, a research scientist based in Toulouse, France. Brian also comes across sketchy information about an experimental U.S. weapons system that seems to link DeJonge with the dead man in Lucerne. Brian has decided to travel to Toulouse and track down DeJonge when he turns away from the computer and finds Matthias Skyrm standing over him.
CHAPTER 10: STAIRS
As he stared into Skyrm’s eyes, Brian knew why that subliminal chill had shot through him when he passed the man in the Lucerne alley. Skyrm’s irises, so pale they were closer to white than blue, were unnatural enough, but they were made unholy by their outlines, hair-thin circles the same dark red as dried blood.
Brian could not tear his gaze away from these eyes. The world seemed to retract, leaving nothing but a frigid tunnel between his eyes and Skyrm’s. Was this what it felt like to have a cobra stare you down? Skyrm looked back impassively. His irises flitted back and forth as if a subroutine in his brain were scanning Brian’s face. After several seconds Skyrm’s eyebrows rose and his mouth opened in recognition.
“The boy from the alley,” he said. “This makes some sense after all.”
Brian was confused for a moment until he realized Skyrm wasn’t addressing him but a man standing behind him. It was the tall man with the beige shirt who had pounded on the door to board the bus in Nice. Things made more sense for Brian, too. Silver had been correct about being tailed. Skyrm and the other man were in the yellow Deux Cheveaux, and when Brian escaped, the other man followed him to the bus station and then to Cannes. The man must have overheard Brian asking directions to the Internet café, then called in Skyrm.
The two men formed a wall that hid Brian from the other customers. The tall man pulled a flick knife from his jacket and held it with the flat of the blade across his belt so that only Brian could see it.
Skyrm said, “You will come with Mr. Kralik and me to answer a few questions.”
“We would like to know your name.”
Brian didn’t answer.
“Very well,” Skyrm said calmly. “You will tell us soon enough. Please rise and follow me. Mr. Kralik will follow you. Do not make a scene, because we are prepared to injure you.”
When Skyrm said that, Kralik grinned like a demented jack-o’-lantern.
Repulsed by the grin, Brian turned back to the computer. The results of his search for American military technology glowed incriminatingly on the screen. Brian quickly clicked off the browser, but he had time to read a single headline: “Congress stalls funds for Pentagon heat ray.” Had Skyrm seen it too?
Brian reached for his backpack, but Skyrm knocked his hand away. “I will carry that,” he said as he lifted it from the floor. “Now, come.”
Gripping Brian’s backpack by the handle as if it were a briefcase, Skyrm led them out of the Internet café. Kralik took up the rear of their little parade. He remained just beyond arm’s reach behind Brian—too far for Brian to strike but too close for Brian to make a run for it.
Brian kept his eyes on Skyrm’s back as he followed him across the street. Skyrm wore the same leather bomber jacket from Lucerne and a pair of dark gray slacks. Neither man spoke. Brian needed to break the silence. Even though he knew the answer, Brian asked, “Were you following Silver in Nice?”
Without turning his head, Skyrm replied, “We have been following Silver since he arrived in Lucerne.” Brian could not place Skyrm’s accent. Maybe it had once been Russian or Polish, but Brian guessed it was the Central European equivalent of the uninflected diction taught to news anchors across America.
As they went up a short stairway to the next street, Skyrm said, “Until I recognized you a few minutes ago, we didn’t understand your involvement. We thought Silver might be protecting you, but you ran away. That was puzzling. Now I see that Silver needed you to protect himself. And that makes you useful to me.”
“I doubt that,” Brian said without believing it. He wondered what had happened to Silver.
Skyrm was leading him across the street to another narrow stone stairway between two shops. “No more talking,” Skyrm said. “My car is on the street above.”
Stepping into a car with these two men would be the equivalent of stepping into a grave. Brian couldn’t let that happen, even if he had to yell for the police. But no police officer was in sight as they crossed to the opposite sidewalk and Skyrm started up the stairs. This stairway was steeper and taller than the last, rising the equivalent of two stories. A metal handrail in the center separated up traffic from down, or it would have if anyone else were on the stairs. The steps took a sharp bend near the middle, so that the street above wasn’t visible from the one below.
The layout gave Brian an idea. If he timed it right, he could get away from these men unharmed. If not, he at least would provoke a struggle that might attract the police before he was seriously injured. Brian shuddered at the possibility he might get hurt, but he had to risk it. He did not escape from Silver to be captured by Skyrm.
Choosing the right spot was crucial. Brian had to make his move after rounding the bend but before Skyrm reached the top. He could not give Skyrm the advantage of level ground. How Skyrm would react, and how quickly, was the plan’s critical unknown. But Brian would worry about Skyrm once he took care of Kralik.
They trudged up the stairs in silence, too much like a funeral procession for Brian’s comfort. He didn’t dare turn around to measure the distance between himself and Kralik because that might signal his move. He listened to Kralik’s footfalls, satisfied the thug was maintaining the same strategic distance as on the street. Brian had to lure him closer.
As he rounded the bend, Brian saw Skyrm had about twelve stairs to climb before reaching the street. Brian’s moment was now. He started to run, perilously closing the gap between himself and Skyrm. As soon as he heard Kralik quicken his pace, Brian put his hands forward and dropped to a crouch. He gripped the step that his hands landed upon and pulled his right knee forward. With Kralik almost on top of him, Brian kicked backward like a mule. His foot smashed into Kralik’s chest and sent the man flying. Kralik’s body bounced off the railing before crashing to the stone stairs. Brian heard a satisfying grunt as Kralik tumbled past the bend and out of view.
Brian looked back up to see Skyrm’s foot swinging at his face. He rolled under the railing, just avoiding the kick. Brian bounced to his feet with the railing between himself and Skyrm.
Skyrm leaned across the railing and snatched at Brian’s jacket. Brian countered the move with a simple bakat-marki, an inside-outside forearm block. Skyrm cocked his head, a sign that he did not expect such a move from a teenager. Then he smiled.
“So you know some martial arts. I’d wager I know more.”
As Skyrm said this, the thin red rings around his irises seemed to burn. Brian’s confidence faltered. He turned to run, but Skyrm grabbed his jacket with his left hand and yanked Brian backward. Brian lost his balance. Falling, he twisted himself around to grab the railing before he hit the ground. He stopped himself from pitching headlong down the stairs, but Skyrm had gained the advantage.
Skyrm spiraled over the railing in a fluid motion that culminated in a roundhouse kick. Brian shoved himself from the railing, narrowly dodging the foot that would have crushed his ribs. Brian’s momentum carried him into the stone wall behind him. He blinked at the impact, and Skyrm was in his face. Pinning Brian to the wall, Skyrm threw a flurry of blows at him. Brian deflected them with competence, but Skyrm was moving too fast to allow counterstrikes. The constant buffeting was hurting Brian’s forearms and he knew it was only a matter of seconds before he faltered. That moment of doubt allowed Skyrm to score a knife-hand strike to Brian’s left shoulder. Brian yelped as his upper arm exploded in agony, but the intensity of the pain focused his mind in time to twist away from a rabbit punch that would have dropped him had it connected with his stomach.
Skyrm resumed his boxing attack. As Brian continued to counter and dodge the blows he felt his left shoulder grow numb. That arm would soon be useless. His only hope was that someone would see the fight and call the police. But no one appeared. Brian wished he had picked a fight on a busier stairway.
Footsteps sounded from below. Brian didn’t dare take his concentration off Skyrm, but maybe a rescuer had arrived. When Skyrm didn’t break off his attack, Brian’s spirits sank lower. He knew who was running up the stairs even before Kralik growled, “Let me have him!”
“Don’t interrupt!” Skyrm warned, but Kralik wanted vengeance. Brian caught the flash of Kralik’s knife as the man tried to step between the combatants. Skyrm turned his head toward Kralik. Brian punched Skyrm’s larynx. The blow only stunned Skyrm, but it was all Brian needed. He grabbed the lapels of Skyrm’s bomber jacket and spun him into Kralik. The two men tumbled together and landed in a heap halfway down the stairs.
Brian ran, scooping up his backpack and breaking to the left once he reached the street. At the corner he turned right and then took the next right so that he was running in the opposite direction he had shown Skyrm and Kralik. He was heading toward the train station, and though he was exhausted and had a numb left arm and a bruised right arm, Brian did not slow. This was the second time this morning he had run full bore through a city on the sunny Riviera. Not the way he expected to see France.
The Cannes train station was soon before him, its rectangular façade encased in decorative crosshatches of curved iron. Brian hurried inside and bought a ticket for the next train to Toulouse, which was leaving in forty-two minutes. He went into the men’s restroom and peeled off his shirt to look at his injured shoulder. The bruise was huge, a violent mixture of black and purple, but the shoulder wasn’t abnormally swollen. He sat down in one of the stalls and massaged the shoulder. This was painful, but the sooner normal circulation returned, the sooner the pain and numbness would dissipate.
Brian went to the snack bar and ordered a Pepsi. He drank it quickly and held the cup of ice against his shoulder for several minutes. Then he went into the gift shop and selected a Michelin Green Guide to France’s Languedoc, Roussillon, and Tarn Gorges regions. The slim but heavy book contained a nineteen-page description of Toulouse, plus two street maps. Brian also wanted a cheap wristwatch to replace the one Silver had taken, but the only inexpensive, plastic watches the shop offered were branded with the Superman and Batman logos. Brian looked at the balding man behind the counter and said, “But I’m a Marvel guy.”
The man shook his head. “Je ne comprends pas.”
“That’s OK,” Brian said to himself, “most people who speak English don’t understand it either.” He chose the Batman watch because black was much less conspicuous than red, blue, and yellow. Brian paid for the guidebook and watch then went down the escalator and boarded the train.
Exhausted from two getaways in one morning, Brian fell asleep as soon as the train left the station. He awoke six hours later in time to watch the sun sink into the Mediterranean, a circle of orange melting into wine-red ripples. He went into the bathroom and changed into a pair of olive drab cargo shorts and a black polo shirt. His left shoulder was still a deep purple, but with fewer black highlights. Brian returned to his seat and spent the remaining two hours of the trip reading about Toulouse and studying the maps.
By the time he arrived in Toulouse, Brian had learned that its train station was separated from the central city by the Canal du Midi, the manmade waterway that connected the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean. Stepping outside the station, Brian saw the downtown lights half a mile away. He took the nearest bridge over the canal and then spent the next fifteen minutes crisscrossing streets and doubling back on himself to make sure he hadn’t picked up another tail. Satisfied no one was following, Brian hailed a taxi in front of a hotel and showed DeJonge’s address to the driver.
The cab headed south, which didn’t surprise Brian. Université Paul Sabatier was south of the city. As the cab entered residential neighborhoods, Brian hoped his ordeal would be ending soon, that he would reach Eduoard DeJonge in time and that the professor would arrange for his protection. The driver told him they had reached DeJonge’s street. Several vehicles were parked along the curb, including a dark red van. Brian imagined he saw the orange pinprick of a lit cigarette glow briefly behind the van’s windshield. The cab pulled up outside a small two-story house on a street crowded with similar homes. Brian looked at his Batman watch as the cab pulled away. It was 9:27. “Gotham Standard Time,” he murmured to himself.
Brian doubted the professor typically received foreign visitors this late, but what could he do about it now? He rang the bell, hoping the door led to his safety.
The door opened, and there, wearing blue jeans and a Ramones T-shirt, was the most beautiful girl Brian had ever seen.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
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