The very cold fury that has seen her through the worst of her troubles is now killing her; she knows the cure, but she can't sacrifice the deadly electricity until she's rescued her family. But when she finally does rescue them, it's not the happy reunion she pictured. And the torment doesn't stop there, not even when she finally discovers Ultimate Power. Only destroying the Outfit completely can end this terrible nightmare.
Old enemies return to seek vengeance, double-crosses abound, and even more mysteries are uncovered as we rocket toward an end no one saw coming.
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THE SKY ROARED AND FLASHED AS A VIOLENT thunderstorm clustered over Chicago.
By late afternoon, dense clouds made it as dark as midnight. Rain fell like bullets as muddy ponds rose up, engulfing avenues, and electrical lines came down, blacking out neighborhoods. It had been an agonizing month to the day since someone disguised as one of Juan Kone’s ice cream creatures—those poor, addicted teens—disappeared into the void with my family.
An ominous Saturday if ever there was one.
I’d just finished presiding over a sit-down and was rushing to my hideout, the Bird Cage Club, when Doug Stuffins, my best friend, sent me an urgent text message:
SJ—Get back here on the double! Major breakthrough in ToOI!
He didn’t have to tell me to hurry. Those four little letters did the trick. They stood for Troika of Outfit Influence (I still didn’t know if it was an object or a location), beneath which ultimate power was buried. It, too, was a mystery; the notebook spoke of ultimate power and provided a key to its vault, but did not reveal what it was.
I believed in it because there was nothing else to believe in.
Ironically, a mortal enemy strengthened my faith in the existence of ultimate power and its ability to help save my family. Elzy, my former nanny and recent assailant who’d vanished, had been crazed to get the notebook from me; she was certain that a secret existed among those old pages—a secret so strong that it could conquer the Outfit.
I hoped she was right.
I hoped so hard that I stopped paying attention and drove into a trap.
In the street ahead, a fallen electrical line jumped like a cobra on fire, spitting sparks. A skinny ComEd guy in a reflective vest and helmet used a flashlight to divert traffic around it, sending me down a flooded backstreet. I obeyed, driving slowly as water seeped beneath the doors of my car. Between slapping windshield wipers, I peered at a larger, burly ComEd guy waving me to a halt. The utility van sat with its orange siren twirling in the storm. It seemed so real that I stopped, just as instructed, sitting like a complacent fool until I saw his goggles.
They were just like those worn by the other men who’d been chasing me for the past week—actually, less chasing than tracking, as if I were a deer in the woods rather than a girl in a 1965 Lincoln Continental.
My latest pursuers were invisible until the last second, sneaking up in the rolling camouflage of the city—garbage trucks, taxicabs, and other vehicles that blended in unnoticed—until I realized how fast they were approaching. I’d escaped each previous time because I’d been hyperalert, as usual, and driving really, really fast. But now I’d been distracted by Doug’s text and found myself sitting stupidly, motionlessly, staring at the burly guy.
If the goggles were meant to block cold fury, they were a weak defense.
Then I saw a claw-head hammer in his hand.
He swung once, shattering the driver’s window into jagged bits.
I leaped for the passenger side but the other ComEd guy, the skinny one in the reflective vest, was jerking at the door, battering the window with the flashlight. He wore the same goggles above a gaunt face decorated with a dark goatee.
I pushed into the back of the Lincoln, scrabbling at the seats, pulling them down, and rolling inside the trunk. The old car is more than just a vehicle—it’s a V8-charged weapon equipped for bad situations, stocked with water, a tire iron, disposable phones, a baseball bat, and the steel briefcase holding the .45. I knew then that the power line hadn’t fallen—it had been pulled down to stop me. I grasped for the briefcase, desperate for the gun inside, and cursed myself, remembering it had no bullets. I’d taken Doug to a deserted warehouse to teach him to shoot correctly, and hadn’t refilled the clip.
And then my assailants were splashing toward the back of the car.
I heard them muttering, making a plan under the pelting rain.
There was nothing to do but fight.
I grabbed the baseball bat, held tight, and kicked open the trunk top.
It hit something hard—the face of the skinny guy—there was a grunt, and he fell, and then the hammer barreled toward my face.
I held the bat wide, a hand at each end, catching the powerful blow as a metal claw splintered wood. The burly guy reared back for another shot but I dodged it, swinging awkwardly, missing him but knocking the hammer from his grip. He reacted quickly, grabbing the bat. I held on to it and he pulled so hard that I flew from the car. Now he had the bat while I went headfirst into cold water, scrambling away as he crushed the spot where I’d lain seconds before.
The skinny guy with the goatee was on his back, groaning, and I was on my feet, running, when the burly one grabbed my collar and flung me toward the Lincoln.
Spinning like a top, I hit the bumper and fell to my knees, hearing the burly guy sloshing toward me. I plunged a hand inside the open trunk, fingers grazing metal, and yanked out the tire iron. With jelly for legs, I gripped the weapon and turned toward the big man, who grinned. “You’re going to lose, girl,” he said, sounding like, Yoord goink to loose, girdle, his voice riddled with a thick accent.
“Maybe,” I said, “but when you see your face in the morning, I guarantee you won’t feel like a winner.”
He smiled again, lifted the bat, and swung. It was like an opponent in a boxing ring throwing a huge roundhouse right, except that it was a thirty-two-ounce Louisville Slugger instead of a fist. I went low, hearing it whoosh above my head, and came up behind him. He turned and alarm flashed in his eyes as I swung the tire iron. Lightning cut the sky like an electric whip and I saw it clearly—the ComEd helmet circling through the air, the guy pirouetting like a three-hundred-pound ballerina, and his skull. I don’t mean his own, which was bald, and bleeding where I’d hit him, but a smaller one, with evil eyes, tattooed on his forehead. There was time for one thought as thunder boomed like a cannon—What kind of freak tattoos a skull on his own head?!—before I broke and ran, going headfirst into water again with Goatee holding my ankle. I brought the tire iron down and heard fingers crunch like dry twigs, the guy making kicked-dog noises as I waded down the alley. Soaked strands of hair covered my face like overcooked spaghetti and I spit rain, pushing past downspouts that were puking liquid gunk. It was like fleeing through quicksand, and I heard shouting and the whining of an engine.
I looked behind me.
The van’s emergency light made orange ripples in puddles as the vehicle cut through the deluge and halted a few feet away. Skull Head climbed from behind the wheel and slung the bat over a shoulder like a caveman hunting meat. Goatee got out of the other seat and angled around me, pointing a gun with his unbroken hand, until I was surrounded.
His words were plain and cold; he was saying, “It ends now,” sounding like, Eet ainds now-uh. I nodded slowly, dropped the tire iron, and raised my hands, signaling surrender, and then rushed him, tucking and rolling like a gymnast as he fired over me. A double boom! was followed by the chik! of a bullet biting brick and the meatier thook! of another piercing Skull Head’s skull. He huffed once and toppled into a puddle, dead in a second. The shock of it froze Goatee until he turned his jaw into the freight train of my left hook and went down hard, the gun skidding away. I jammed a knee into his chest, pulled his face toward mine, and saw that I’d been mistaken—a goatee didn’t occupy his chin. Instead, it was a dark, angular tattoo of a devil’s leering face.
I blinked once, cold fury flickered and burned, and I grabbed his gaze, trying to find the mental swamp where his deepest fear lived, but—
“My own brother . . . I kill him . . . it’s your fault . . . ,” Goatee mumbled.
—I couldn’t locate a single image, not one looping film clip; his mind was shut off to me. Vibrating heart to bone, I said, “Who the hell are you?! What do you want?!”
Goatee spit, smiled with bloody teeth, and said, “Eh, fug you, stupid girl!”
It had to be the goggles—they were blocking cold fury somehow—and I ripped them from his head and jammed them into my pocket. “Look at me,” I said. He squeezed his eyelids, but I pried them open with my thumbs and grabbed his gaze until he was unable to look away. He whimpered once, and I saw him cowering inside a prison cell, surrounded by men tattooed with crude images of stars and skulls, barbed wire, bears, and crosses. The mob converged, holding him down so he couldn’t move. One of them slapped masking tape over his mouth, sealing the screams inside his throat, while another lifted a rusty needle dripping with ink over his chin, saying, “ . . .”
I couldn’t understand the language, but its rhythm—and Goatee’s horror—was disturbingly familiar. Not long ago, for research, Doug made me watch a foreign movie with subtitles called Brother, about a young guy drawn into the gangster life, and how his rivals wanted to murder him. I learned how members were recruited in jail, sometimes against their will, and tattooed to identify their gang affiliation and rank.
For two hours, I’d listened to criminals speak the same language, and I shuddered, realizing what it was.
At that moment, the Outfit was embroiled in a street war with the Russian mob.
They were highly organized interlopers who had clawed away at the Outfit’s core businesses of drugs, prostitution, gambling, and hijacking. The Boss of Bosses, Lucky, had finally had enough and declared war. The conflict was bloody, from knee-cracking to car bombings, shotgun ambushes to plain old knives dragged across a neck. The violence was bad enough, but even worse, the war was expensive. Spending time fighting meant business suffered and profits plummeted. It made perfect sense that my pursuers were trying to catch me. Preoccupied with losing my family, I hadn’t considered what a juicy hostage target I was as counselor-at-large. What I didn’t know, what no one in the Outfit knew, was who was issuing orders on the Russian side. Their boss remained hidden in the shadows. The identity of their boss was invaluable information, and knowing it would make my always tenuous position with the Outfit more secure.
I looked at Goatee and said, “You belong to the Russian mob . . .”
Quivering, he said, “Mob? You mean Mafyia,” and nodded.
“Who is your boss? The one in charge? What’s his name?”
Tears and raindrops cut lines into his filthy face. “Please, please . . . ,” he said, sounding like plis, plis. “Let me look away . . .”
“I don’t know! I swear! I’m soldier! Only officers know boss . . . the ones with stars, here!” he said, pointing a shaky finger at his knuckles. “They say, bring girl, we pay this much! Bring girl and old notebook, we pay more!”
“Notebook?” I said, the word an icy needle to my spine. Besides Doug and me, the only other living person who knew about it was—“Oh god,” I said quietly. “Elzy.”
She’d once commandeered the Chicago Police Department to try to capture me. Was it possible—had she done the same with the Russian mob?
“That name, Elzy—you know it?” I said, boring my gaze into Goatee’s like a blue diamond drill. He shook his head, drained of all emotion except terror. “What else did the officers tell you? What else have you heard?”
He tried not to answer, tried to squeeze his mouth shut, but it was impossible, and he said, “When they have notebook, no more need for family . . . please . . . no more . . .”
Family—it stung my ears as a charged current burrowed through my body, searching for an outlet. Goatee was struggling to look away. With my thumb and forefinger on his chin, I squeezed his face firmly in place. “Your Mafyia has them,” I said, twitching with voltage, trying and failing to hold it in check.
“I don’t know! I only hear!”
“You’re lying!” I said. “Tell me now!” An electrical dam burst, flooding my fingertips, setting fire to the devil head on his chin. His body kicked and buckled, and I didn’t want to kill him—I didn’t!—but I’d lost all control. The bottom of his face was eaten by flame, and then his entire head, and then my fingers were ablaze. I fumbled away, shoving my hand into rainwater, hearing it sizzle as that same torturous electricity attacked my heart. I lay on the alley floor clutching my chest, gasping for air, sensing death creep through the storm; my eyelids fluttering, I was just on the other side of consciousness and the deadly specter looked and felt like Elzy.
She’d come back. No—she’d never left.
After finding my body, it would be simple for her to track down the Bird Cage Club and the notebook. The phone in my pocket with all its text messages between me and Doug, all its telling information. And then no more need for my family, and—
—inch by inch, pain receded like a slow tide.
Cool droplets of rain covered my eyelids and cheeks.
I was able to breathe, and rose weakly to my feet, shuddering with knowledge. Elzy had lost Poor Kevin. She’d disappeared from the Chicago Police Department.
But she’d gained control of the Russian mob.
I HURRIED PAST THE UTILITY VAN, ITS ORANGE light still spinning, got into the car, and made waves through the flooded streets. Ten blocks away, I pulled to the curb and cut the engine. The downpour thumped the top of the Lincoln like tiny hammers. I’d taken a last glance at Goatee, incinerated from the neck up. Skull Head was a pile of rain-soaked flesh, lying in a puddle, staring at eternity.
Two fresh deaths, one I caused, the other I committed.
You weren’t born to kill, I thought, looking into my own eyes in the rearview mirror. You do it to protect yourself. If you die, no one will save your family.
The car was silent except for the rain outside.
Doesn’t make it right, I thought, looking away from myself.
Throughout the past six months, I’d learned a hard, indelible lesson. The unspeakable acts I’d committed—the things I was forced to do, and chose to do—erased parts of who I was. My senses of sympathy and compassion were waning. Worst of all, human life had begun to seem expendable. I felt like a building whose original bricks were being removed from the foundation, one by one.
Those spaces couldn’t remain empty. No one is immune to her own experiences.
My survival habits had become less conscious and more instinctive—more an ingrained part of who I was. The original Sara Jane felt like a childhood friend who’d moved to another place, never to return.
Did I even remember who she’d been?
It was if I’d taken a step away from the old me, and then another, and when I looked back she was opaque, difficult to bring into focus. But then, when I really thought about her, a singular trait she’d possessed rose to the top and surprised me—hopefulness. Despite a lack of friends and the insularity of my life, I’d once thought that every new day came with its own happy possibilities. But since my family was kidnapped, almost from the moment I became counselor-at-large, that belief—that illusion—had been torn away piece by piece. Belonging to the Outfit was as much of a balancing act on the edge of a knife as a self-imposed life sentence in prison. There was no escape. The organization needed a Rispoli as counselor and so it owned them, generation after generation.
It owned me.
My belief in a joyful future had disappeared with the old Sara Jane.
My concern now was who I’d be when this ordeal ended, however it ended.
I had once resisted going down the road before me—the one leading deeper into the Outfit, toward increased violence as I sought my family—but now I was in its ruts, part of the flow, and turning around was no longer an option.
What I wanted more than anything was to stop before I went too far.
When I was younger and broke a rule, or got too angry at my little brother, my dad would warn me that there was always a line that shouldn’t be crossed. I’d never again be who I used to be, but if I could stop before crossing that line, maybe I could save a part of myself. I clung to the thought like a life raft in a raging sea.
I’d talked to Doug about those feelings, of course.
I discussed everything with my friend, who had a talent for drawing me back from the edge of emotional cliffs.
Your life is dangerous and unfair, he’d said recently, but you can’t waste one second being a victim. Stay in the moment, and do what’s necessary to save your family.
For half a year, I’ve been terrified that the boss of the Outfit, Lucky, would discover my excuse for their absence—that my dad is gravely ill—is a lie.
I could have admitted they’d been kidnapped, but for so long I didn’t know who’d taken them or why; I had no proof it had even happened other than our ravaged home. It was more than likely the suspicious old man would’ve assumed that my dad had faked his disappearance, gone to the Feds, and was in the process of betraying the Outfit. In that case, my life would have been worth little. The organization would not tolerate a rat, or even the daughter of one, in its midst.
I glanced at my phone, seeing that half an hour had passed since Doug had sent the text urging me to hurry back to the Bird Cage Club. He’d worry if I didn’t reply soon, so I tapped out a message that I was safe and on my way. And then, phone in hand, I was overcome by an urge to talk to someone else.
What would I say to him?
Maybe that my odd behavior had been caused by family issues. Or that the half-truths and outright lies I’d told were due to circumstances beyond my control.
Those explanations were too weak, far too lame.
I owed him more.
I owed him the truth—about my family, and about me, as counselor-at-large.
Somewhere nearby, a siren screamed and died. The quiet phone glowed in the cloudy darkness. If I paused I wouldn’t call. My fingers moved over the keypad and I waited—one ring, two rings—until Max said, “Hello?”
The boy I loved, greeting me from sunny California.
Hearing his voice, I touched a brass key inscribed with U.N.B. 001 that hung at my neck. Max rode a cool old Triumph motorcycle and had given me a T pendant, which I’d once worn in place of the key, sort of like a steady ring. But my existence was one big, dangerous secret—the opposite of steady—so I kept lying to him about why he couldn’t meet my family, why I was so standoffish at times, until it was obvious I was hiding something. Inevitably, my deception broke us apart. He left school (Casimir Fepinsky Preparatory—good old Fep Prep), Chicago, and me, and moved to Los Angeles with his dad. Afterward, I replaced the T pendant with the key, a cold, constant reminder of my search for ultimate power.
“Hello?” he said again.
My number was blocked. He didn’t know who was calling him, but like every curious person, he kept listening. It’s me, Sara Jane! I screamed in my mind. Tell me to head west and not stop until I reach L.A.! Tell me to save the last shred of myself so I can be with you, and be happy!
I couldn’t let him tell me those things because I might do them.
I might leave Chicago behind if he told me in his reassuring voice that another existence was possible.
Except it wasn’t, and I would never leave the city without my family.
Good-bye, Max, I thought, hanging up.
And then the Lincoln filled with flashing red light and the bwaa! bwaa! of a fire engine’s horn. I twisted the keys as the car roared to life, realizing what an idiot I was, waiting to be attacked. But no—the large red truck sped past filled with goggle-free firemen, kicking up a swell of water. I exhaled, watching it go, and then stepped on the gas and headed toward the Bird Cage Club.
Back to the life that was my only choice.
IN CONTRAST TO THE RAIN CLOUDS BLANKETING the Loop—Chicago’s nickname for its vast downtown area, looped by elevated trains—entering the Bird Cage Club at the top of the Currency Exchange Building was like walking into an exploding star.
A large, round electrical outlet stood in the middle of the former speakeasy; in the 1920s, its huge lightbulb sent out a beacon to alert thirsty Chicagoans that illegal booze was flowing. Doug had been trying to make it work for months, and now, blinking into its intense glare, I realized he’d succeeded. “Doug!” I said, shielding my eyes. “You’re burning the retinas out of my head!”
“Oh! My bad!” he said, and the room went gray. “You didn’t come right back after I texted you, so I decided to work on it, and guess what? It wasn’t the bulb after all! It was the wiring! I ripped out the old . . . ,” he said, and then paused. “You’re soaked.”
I saw him clearly now—baggy jeans, T-shirt bearing one of his favorite movie quotes (“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”), and a welder’s mask over his face. “Would you take that off?” I said. “I’ve endured enough freaky eye coverings for one day.”
It clanged to the floor as he crossed the room. “The goggle guys again?”
“Two of them. In a ComEd van this time.”
“You escaped, obviously. Where are they?”
“Crap. Did you . . . ?”
“Yeah, I did. One of them, at least,” I said quietly. “I didn’t mean to.”
He spotted my burned fingers and lifted his eyebrows. “Looks like he touched a live wire named . . . um, let me guess . . . Sara Jane?”
“Something like that.”
In his best therapist voice, he said, “You want to talk about it?”
“No. I think I’m okay,” I said.
“Except for that hand. Listen, I can say this because we’re BFFs . . . you’re an idiot.” He hurried away and returned with ointment and bandages. “You have to take an aspirin every day or you’ll fry yourself . . . to . . . death! Do I really have to remind you?”
He didn’t, but he did, and still I avoided taking the pills.
Watching Doug dress my wound, I realized again how much I depended on him, and as his own hand shook slightly while applying medicine to mine, I thought of how much he’d endured over the past several months. He’d beaten his addiction to Sec-C, the drug-infused soft serve ice cream, and emerged dramatically thinner. Exercise was sharpening the edges of his body. His face, with its ruddy complexion and spray of freckles, had grown angular, and even the sandy-colored bush on his head had been reshaped into a presentable haircut.
Step-by-step, my friend was taking control of his physical self.
It was his emotional self that concerned me.
Once he was clean, Doug’s natural obsessiveness had come roaring back, fixated on the Troika of Outfit Influence. He was as crazed as I was to find that hidden object or location, and to unearth the ultimate power buried beneath it. If anything, his focus on saving my family—our “noble quest”—had increased. But Sec-C had been designed to burrow into other parts of his mind, the places where a person locks up the most personal thoughts about himself. He despised his appearance, with the heaviness of his body weighing him down mentally as well. For most of his life, he’d considered himself capable of little more than consuming mass quantities of Munchitos and movies. Sec-C made him feel attractive, but it went far beyond that; it made him believe he could take on the world, and win. Since those positive feelings had dissipated, his greatest fear was regression—not to Sec-C, of course, but to resuming an existence, as he’d put it, as a useless lump.
It was the PAWS talking.
He’d researched it online—Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome—PAWS for short, which was ironic, since Harry, our little Italian greyhound, provided Doug with daily doses of sympathy and affection. The main characteristic of the syndrome, common among ex-addicts, was intense, needling self-doubt. It also came with panic attacks, minor and major, brought on by stressful situations. Trembling, sweating, loss of breath, dizziness—Doug had felt them all over the past month. The ones he hadn’t experienced, and dreaded most, were hallucinations (the freeze response, where stress renders a person unable to move), and aphasia (the temporary inability to speak).
That didn’t seem to be a problem now.
His mouth was going a mile a minute, asking me about the Russians, how I’d escaped, if anyone had seen me. As he finished wrapping my hand in gauze, I told him everything about Skull Head and Goatee, careful not to exclude a single detail, and then put the cherry on top.
“Elzy,” he said quietly. “How did she get control of the Russian mob?”
“How did she infiltrate the cops?” I said with a shrug. “She grew up with a dad in the Outfit. Elzy knows a lot of tricks and lots of bad people.”
Doug nodded, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a square, steel lighter. He lit one, coughed smoke, and said, “Let’s think this through.”
It was my turn to lift eyebrows. “You’re smoking?”
“Can’t sneak anything past you.”
“Doug, what the hell? Since when?”
“Since recently, okay?” he answered, smoke snaking above his head. “And what the hell is that nicotine has a calming effect on people with PAWS. Besides, all great detectives . . . Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe, Jack Nicholson as J.J. Gittes . . . required a cigarette to help them think.”
“You know what it makes me think? Rotten teeth, lung cancer, and addiction. Seriously, you just got one monkey off your back and now you’re starting all over.”
“Relax, Surgeon General. I smoke Chippewa Naturals. They’re non–habit forming. Look, the package says so, right there.”
“Oh, well, as long as it says so. Who would ever lie about tobacco?” I said, staring at him. “You’re self-medicating, Doug. When are you going to quit?”
“When you start self-medicating,” he replied, blowing a smoke ring. “One little aspirin, every morning.”
It was a staring standoff until I said, “Let’s think this Elzy thing through.”
“As if it’s a movie,” he said. “Act one. She sends Poor Kevin and a bunch of cops to capture you and the notebook . . .”
“So she can gain control of ultimate power,” I said. “She’s not sure what it is, doesn’t even know it’s called ultimate power. But she knew there was something in the notebook that could help her take over the Outfit.”
“But she fails to get her hands on it. She disappears . . .”
“In the meantime, Juan Kone kidnaps my family . . .”
“He wants a different type of power,” Doug said. “Enzyme GF. The thing floating in Rispoli blood that creates ghiaccio furioso. Wants to create and sell armies of cold fury freaks to the highest bidder.”
“Act two,” I said. “Juan also fails, but not before someone disguised as an ice cream creature snatches my family again . . .”
“Ice cream creatures. Those red eyes.” Doug shuddered.
“It had to have been Elzy. She infiltrated both the cops and Juan’s operation. Damn, she’s good . . . in a terrible way,” I said. “Speaking of eyes. Look what I got.” I pulled Goatee’s goggles from my pocket and handed them to Doug.
He ran a thumbnail over the lenses, then hurried them to the control center. It was covered with laptops and reference books on every conceivable subject to do with Chicago, all assembled to help us find my family. Riffling around, he came up with a thick, black folder.
La Ciencia de Ghiaccio Furioso—The Science of Cold Fury.
We’d taken it from Juan Kone’s laboratory before torching the place.
It explains how part of my brain produces enzyme GF when I feel threatened or angry. The enzyme travels via electrical impulse, fills my eyes, and produces a powerful laser effect called cold fury. My adversary absorbs it with his gaze, triggering his deepest fears and broadcasting them back to me. I’ve learned to use the anger component to control it—to turn it on and off literally in the blink of an eye.
The problem is Au 79, the periodic symbol for gold.
My ancient ancestors, Egyptian assassins, believed that eating raw gold extended their lives; instead, it became part of Rispoli DNA, glittering from our eyes. Au 79 has no effect on cold fury—but cold fury affects the gold, which is a highly conductive metal.
If I get threatened, or channel my anger, my eyes flood with enzyme GF.
An electrical impulse delivers the enzyme but also charges the gold, turning me into a walking, talking lightning bolt. The more emotional I become, the more enzyme is released, the more voltage fills my body. I can release some of it (just ask Goatee) but not all. If left unregulated, I could electrocute myself from the inside out.
That’s where aspirin comes in.
Its main ingredient, acetylsalicylic acid, blocks the gold from becoming electrified. After learning of it, I recalled how my grandpa and my father each took an aspirin every day. I had once asked my dad why he popped the pill. “It’s good for you. Thins the blood,” he’d said, then locked his eyes onto mine. “When you get a little older, you should take one every day, too. Just in case.”
Good advice that I couldn’t follow.
Even though it could kill me, I needed the electricity. Beyond a left hook, beyond cold fury, it was my last line of defense.
Doug looked up from the folder. “Juan Kone was a genius. Sick and twisted, but a genius. The ice cream creatures were his lab rats. He pumped them full of chemicals, trying to turn them into supersoldiers.”
“Must’ve been a disappointment when their brains blew up like grenades.”
“True, but he succeeded in another way. They produced a weird little enzyme of their own, Enzyme R, that turned their eyes red and gave them the ability to withstand cold fury. It’s right here,” he said, pointing at a document, “how Juan extracted creature blood and used it to make his own red contact lenses.”
“Enzyme R. If Juan could make contacts—”
“Maybe someone else could use it for easy-to-wear, easy-to-remove goggles? Perfect for catching Sara Jane Rispoli,” Doug said.
“Elzy wanted ultimate power, but she also wanted me. If I surrendered the notebook and joined her, with her brains and my cold fury we’d rule the Outfit together,” I said. “My guess is that her basic plan hasn’t changed. Instead of Poor Kevin in a mask—”
“She’s got a bunch of ex-con gangsters in goggles,” Doug said, following my thought. “Plus, this time she has your family. If she doesn’t catch you, it’s a major bargaining chip to force you to give up the notebook and go to work for her.”
I nodded. “Even the street war makes sense. Elzy knows that Outfit members never really want to fight, it messes up the profit margin. I think she’s pushing them to the limit, hoping they’ll surrender.”
“And then what?”
“She’ll probably do what the Outfit does to smaller, weaker gangs. Absorb them.”
“Absorb them,” he said. “You think Elzy’s planning a merger?”
“More like a hostile takeover. The Russians are brutal and there seem to be a lot of them. The tables have turned. In this case, the Outfit is feeling more like the smaller, weaker gang. That, plus cold fury and me, plus the notebook? Elzy would rule Chicago, just like she’d always planned.”
“So where does that leave us?”
“At a very dangerous act three,” I said. “Whatever ultimate power is, Elzy knows it exists. She also has to know that if I find it, I’ll use it against her. If possible, locating the Troika of Outfit Influence has just become even more urgent.”
“Well then, get ready to hug a small Italian greyhound,” Doug said with a grin. “Because Harry found it.”
I COULD HEAR MY HEARTBEAT.
Sitting rigidly, I clenched and unclenched my fists, trying to tamp down hope. “Are you sure, Doug?” I said. “The Troika of Outfit Influence? Please say yes.”
“Maybe. Possibly,” he said, whistling once.
Harry limped from my bedroom, clicking painfully across the room. He touched a nose to my bandaged fingers and whined as I rubbed his smooth head. Harry had once belonged to my brother. There was a time when the little greyhound and I had been enemies, jealous over Lou’s affection, but we called a truce after my family’s disappearance, bound by the common cause of saving them. He was as much a partner to me as Doug; Harry had proven to be smart and fearless—a four-legged hero, as Doug called him. He’d saved me from Poor Kevin and never left Doug’s side as he sweated through Sec-C withdrawal.
“Why is he walking like that?” I said. “Is he hurt? What happened?”
“Don’t worry. It’s minor, and he’s tough,” Doug said, petting Harry’s back. “Right, buddy?”
“I don’t understand. You said he found it.”
Doug walked behind the control center and stood before the enormous wall map of Chicago taken from Club Molasses, the old speakeasy hidden beneath my family’s bakery. “I think so. As long as ‘found’ means this giant thing hanging right in front of our dumb-ass faces.” I stared at the yellowed map with its city streets drafted in perfect lines. It showed hundreds of Chicago buildings in great detail, some now demolished, others still standing after more than a century.
When I’d first discovered the map, it was pierced with dozens of colored, lettered stickpins. I moved it to the Bird Cage Club after diagramming how they were placed, and put them back exactly as they’d been. It wasn’t until I’d read and memorized the notebook, particularly chapter one—“Nostro—Us”—that I realized the pins represented the locations of significant Outfit front businesses. Some were long outdated, like the F representing the Fischetti Brothers Mortuary (extremely dead) and a K for Katzenbaum’s Deli (bomb makers; blown up). But others were of the moment—there was a pin for Knuckles Battuta, VP of Muscle, and his front business, BabyLand. And another for Tyler Strozzini, VP of Money, and his front business, the multinational junk-food producer StroBisCo. Of course, the pin where Rispoli & Sons Fancy Pastries stood, my family’s front business for three generations, was the simplest to identify.
The map seemed unchanged. I looked back at Doug as he stubbed out the cigarette and lifted up The Weeping Mafioso, the screenplay written by Uncle Jack, Grandpa Enzo’s long-lost brother who’d appeared out of the blue a month earlier with his daughter, Annabelle, and his granddaughter, Heather. The old man, riddled with Alzheimer’s disease, came back to Chicago searching for my dead grandfather, hoping for a final reunion before dementia overtook him. Heather’s death accelerated the disease, leaving Uncle Jack drifting like a ship without an anchor, but before returning to L.A., he’d left the screenplay and urged me to read it.
Doug flipped to the end. “If I’ve said it once . . . all of life’s answers can be found in the movies.” He pointed at three lines of dialogue spoken by the character Renzo, and read, “‘I know the secret to ultimate power . . . potenza ultima . . . and all I need to get my hands on it is one little brass key. It’s in a vault made of brick deep beneath the streets of Chicago. Right under what the old-timers used to call the Troika of Outfit Influence.’”
“So it’s a place,” I said. “We’ve always known the vault is underground—”
“Not just underground,” he said, “under the streets of Chicago.” He put aside the screenplay and lifted the notebook. “We’ve gone through it endlessly looking for the Troika. It’s mentioned in the screenplay but not here, not in any of the chapters. Okay, so I decided to concentrate on the other word, influence.”
“Yeah . . . so?”
“So,” he said, “your uncle Jack transcribed the passage in the notebook about ultimate power from your great-grandfather Nunzio, right?”
“Right,” I answered.
“And Jack later used that information in his screenplay, along with the term Troika of Outfit Influence, which must’ve come from Nunzio,” he said.
“Had to. It’s so specific.”
“Nunzio was the original counselor-at-large, a genuine old-timer. In his day, there was one guy who controlled not only the Outfit but also the entire city . . . the only person with real, lasting influence. It was so strong that his shadow still looms over Chicago. You’ve said it yourself—Outfit members consider him their personal god.”
A dull shiver climbed my spine. “Al Capone.”
“Scarface Al. No one was more influential, not then, not now.”
“It’s true. I can’t make it through a sit-down without someone—an enforcer, a coke dealer—wondering WWAD? What would Al do?” I said.
“Now listen to this, from chapter five, ‘Sfuggire—Escape,’” Doug said, flipping pages and reading: “‘Capone Doors were invented in 1921 by Giuseppe “Joe Little” Piccolino, the chief officer of weapons and devices, and were installed in and around Chicago between 1922 and 1950 . . . a boon to Capone Doors came in 1938, when the city began to dig subway tunnels in order to supplement El trains. A far-ranging and wide-reaching system of secret tunnels that already existed beneath the muddy surface of Chicago, to which Joe Little had long ago connected many Capone Doors, was engineered to access the subway system as well.’”
“Joe Little was underneath the streets of Chicago, building stuff,” I said. “You think he built the vault?”
“It had to have been him,” Doug said. “Constructing secrets for the Outfit was his job. Which made me think . . . I bet there’s a Capone Door leading to the vault.”
“But . . . which one?”
“No clue. Maybe they all do.”
I thought about it, gnawing a thumb, saying, “We still don’t know how Nunzio found out about ultimate power. Or how he got the key.”
Doug nodded. “But we know the key was taped to the inside back cover of the notebook for a long time. So I took a closer look,” he said, turning it toward me with a magnifying glass. I stared at the back cover, seeing a faint outline where the key had rested for decades, and inside it, letters in Great-Grandpa Nunzio’s handwriting, printed so lightly they were barely visible:
B U R G L R.
I said it phonetically. “Burglar?”
“Confusing, since the notebook is a who’s who of thieves, pickpockets, and safecrackers. I wouldn’t have figured it out if it hadn’t been for Harry,” he said, rubbing the little dog’s ears. “A pin fell out of the map, the green G, and he stepped on it. You should’ve heard my poor baby howl. After making sure he was okay, I put it back where it belonged. That’s when I saw this.” I rose from the couch and went to the map, staring at the spot where Doug pointed. Two other pins stood close to the green G—another R, this one purple, and a white U—indicating businesses on different corners in a neighborhood called Uptown. “So many pins, clustered in so many shapes,” he said, “I never noticed how those three make a perfect little triangle.”
“No . . . a troika,” I murmured, staring at the intersection of a trio of streets.
“Broadway, Racine, and Lawrence Avenue, the heart of Uptown,” he said. “That accounts for the B, one of the Rs and the L. After that it was easy. The notebook is full of info about Uptown since it was the epicenter of Capone’s North Side operation. Chapter one, ‘Nostro—Us,’ lists every piece of real estate he owned as a front business. It includes the Green Mill Lounge on Broadway, which he used as headquarters, the Riviera Theatre on Racine, where he ran an after-hours casino, and the Bridgeview Bank, a perfect money laundry, on Lawrence Avenue.”
“G is for Green Mill, R is for Riviera, but what about the bank? You said it’s called Bridgeview,” I said, “but its pin says U. It doesn’t fit.”
A smile creased his face. “It used to, back in the day. When it was called the Uptown National Bank.”
“Uptown National Bank,” I said, touching the key at my neck. “U.N.B. 001.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Cold Fury: " A heroine worth cheering."—Booklist
"An engaging thriller."—VOYA
"Teens who think all the really butt-kickin’ literary heroines currently hang out on the fantasy shelves have not met Sara Jane Rispoli. By the end of this first adventure, she’s up to her neck in her family’s line of mob politics and there’s no turning back—and that will suit her newly won fans just fine."—BCCB
"Fast-paced story...assassins, corrupt cops and a ward's worth of unsavory villains."—TimeOut
"A clever story."—Chicago Sun Times
Praise for Embers & Ash:
“Goeglein keeps up his uncanny ability to channel a strong, smart, teen heroine; weave Chicago’s Capone era into the twenty-first century (one scene features the mummified remains from a speakeasy execution); and create a rich supporting cast.”—Booklist
“Readers will feel nothing but empathy for Sara Jane and her family . . .”—VOYA