Today's Reading

Wojo pulled the Taser from his pocket, squeezing the trigger so fast, he felt an electric snakebite in his own leg as he whipped out the weapon. The stun gun had two metal fangs at the end of it, which Wojo stabbed straight into the Grouch's left thigh.

The Taser's blue light crackled like a mini lightning storm.

"Guuh..." the Grouch shouted, his leg going limp, his whole body falling sideways, like a cleaved tree.

Forty seconds to—

Go, go, go, Wojo thought, scrambling to his feet. The stun gun would buy him a moment. Wojo ran from the room and darted through the house, back toward the front door. As he ran, he was still squeezing the trigger, the blue electricity crackling as it lit his way.

In seconds, Wojo was outside, the summer air licking his face. Until that moment, he didn't realize how hard he was sweating. His heart punched in his chest. Up the block, he spotted the red rear lights of a car leaving, though he barely registered it.

He looked around, panicked, lost, like he'd awoken in a strange hotel and couldn't quite figure out where he was. There. The car he came in. The BMW!

Sprinting for the car, Wojo ripped open the door and slid inside. He pulled the keys from his pocket and threw the stun gun aside. But just as he went to start the car, from the back seat...

A thick forearm wrapped around Wojo's neck. Behind him... in the back seat... someone was already in the car, waiting for him. Wojo caught a glimpse in the rearview. That buzzed blond hair...

"You think I'm blind!" Captain America roared, tightening his choke hold. "I forgot my jacket in the car, and when I came out—You think I wouldn't see you leave!?"

"P-Please... you don't understand..." Wojo pleaded, realizing that the car he saw leaving was a taxi. Cap was a man of action. He'd jumped in a cab to race back home.

"Please... Inside..." Wojo added, twisting wildly, fighting to get loose, clawing at his own neck. Cap's grip was too strong. Wojo was thrashing now, his face a pale purple, tears squeezing out behind his eyes. He could picture Oscar the Grouch and his misshapen mask. By now, the Taser would be wearing off. He'd be here soon.

"You steal my car..." Cap roared. Ten seconds.

"'...and break into my house!?"

"If we don't— Please... He's—" Wojo begged. "If we don't go, he'll kill us... !"

"He?" Captain America asked. "Who's 'he'?"

Tink. Tink.

Outside the driver's window, a knuckle tapped against the glass.

In perfect sync, both Wojo and Captain America turned left, looking up at a saggy, askew Oscar the Grouch mask. The man in the mask raised his gun.

Pffft. Pffft.

Two quick shots. Then a third when he saw who else was in the back seat.

Anthony Wojowicz wilted sideways. A small burn mark from the bullet appeared in his temple and sent a spray of blood across the passenger seat. Dead at thirty-two years old.

Behind him, Captain America—an Army veteran named Archie Mint— slumped forward, a matching burn mark on his cheek.

Wojo's luck had finally run out. But when it came to Archie Mint, well... even in death, Mint still had a bit of luck coming.

CHAPTER 1

Wonderly Square, Pennsylvania

Four hours. He spent four hours working on her body. "Ziggy, let her be. She looks good."

"Good?" Jim Zigarowski asked, standing over the coffin, makeup brush in his hand. "Not great?"

"Let me rephrase. Great. Beautiful. Michelangelo would say you're Michelangelo," said Puerto Rican Andy. Zig never liked the name, but Andy had been calling himself that since fourth grade, when there were three Andys in his class. Today, at three hundred pounds, Puerto Rican Andy lumbered through the viewing room at Calta's Funeral Home, carrying a metal easel with a bushel of bright daisies that he placed at the foot of the coffin. "She hasn't looked this good since Reagan was President."

"Don't listen to him, ma'am," Zig whispered, leaning down toward the dead elderly woman with high cheekbones and pale pink lipstick. Fallen #2,546. Mrs. Leslie Paoli, ninety-three years old. Dead from stomach cancer and whatever else you catch when you spend your last decade in a nursing home. "You look even more beautiful now, Mrs. Paoli."

...

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