By Allen Zadoff
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Boy Nobody is the perennial new kid in school, the one few notice and nobody thinks much about. He shows up in a new high school in a new town under a new name, makes a few friends, and doesn’t stay long. Just long enough for someone in his new friend’s family to die — of “natural causes.” Mission accomplished, Boy Nobody disappears, moving on to the next target.
But when he’s assigned to the mayor of New York City, things change. The daughter is unlike anyone he has encountered before; the mayor reminds him of his father. And when memories and questions surface, his handlers at The Program are watching. Because somewhere deep inside, Boy Nobody is somebody: the kid he once was; the teen who wants normal things, like a real home and parents; a young man who wants out. And who just might want those things badly enough to sabotage The Program’s mission.
In this action-packed series debut, author Allen Zadoff pens a page-turning thriller that is as thought-provoking as it is gripping, introducing an utterly original and unforgettable antihero.
Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of I Am the Mission
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I PICK UP A BASEBALL BAT.
It's a thirty-two-ounce Rawlings composite. I feel the weight in my hands. The balance is slightly off from a dent on the tip.
I grasp the bat on either end and stretch out in the parking lot after the game. Natick vs. Wellesley. My Natick teammates are all around me, high school jocks doing what they do after a win. Celebrating. Big-time.
I celebrate, just like them.
This is what I think to myself:
I am one of you. I am young. I am a winner.
I smile and stretch.
After a moment, I shift my weight onto my back leg and I swing hard. Jack Wu comes up behind me at the same time. The bat misses his head by an inch.
A big man in a black suit tenses nearby. Tenses but doesn't interfere.
This is Jack's bodyguard and driver, a shadow behind Jack whenever he goes out. Jack's dad is rich. Rich and nervous.
Jack hates the bodyguard. He's told me a dozen times. Jack and I are friends, so he tells me these things.
"Watch it with the bat, dude," Jack says, and he punches me on the shoulder. A playful punch.
The Suit steps forward, and Jack spins around, anticipating him.
"Down, Rover," he says, like he's talking to a pit bull.
The Suit grins like he's in on the joke, but I wonder if he wouldn't slap the hell out of Jack if he had the chance. Instead he leans back against the sleek black Mercedes and waits.
"You killed it out there," Jack says. He head-gestures toward the field.
"I do my best," I say.
"Your best kicks ass and takes names," Jack says, and he punches my shoulder again.
This time the big man doesn't move. But the other players are looking at us.
Two punches on the arm. A way of asserting dominance.
Dominance is a threat. It must be dealt with.
I run a checklist in my mind:
I can let him punch me. Choose a lower status.
I can retaliate in equal measure, with equal force.
I can escalate. Assert my dominance.
Which should I choose?
Jack is supposed to be my friend. A teenage friend would punch a buddy the way he punched me. When in doubt, emulate. That's what I've been taught.
So it's option two.
I give Jack a light punch on the shoulder.
"Ow!" he cries in mock pain. "Take it easy on me."
This entire transaction takes no more than two seconds:
I swing the bat.
Jack punches. I punch back.
We both laugh as the Suit looks on.
This is what you'd see if you were watching us now. Two jocks, buddies, teasing each other.
"You want to come back to the bank vault?" Jack says.
The bank vault. That's what Jack calls his house.
"For a little bit," I say.
Jack steps toward the car. The Suit reacts quickly, opening the back door for him.
"My friend is coming with," Jack says to him.
"Yes, sir," he says, and he gestures for me to get into the car.
THE LEATHER IS SOFT IN THE MERCEDES.
It's the kind of leather seat that pulls you in, begs you to relax against it. A seat that says, You are being taken care of. You are being driven where you need to go.
I imagine having a father who can afford things like this. Expensive cars. Expensive bodyguards. Not just afford them, but a father who wants his son to have them. Wants him to be taken care of.
But this is not something I should be thinking about now. Not when there's work to do.
I glance at Jack. He's leaning back with his eyes closed.
"I was thinking," he says.
"That's unusual for you," I say.
"Asshole," he says.
He smiles, his eyes still closed.
"I was thinking about you and me."
"Stop right there," I say. "You're making me nervous."
"Can I be serious for a minute?" Jack says.
"You want to get all heavy for sixty seconds, I'm not going to stop you."
"I was thinking that you're a real friend."
"You've got tons of friends," I say.
"Not guys I invite over to the house. Not guys I trust."
"You trust me?"
"For real," Jack says.
The Suit in the front seat coughs. A warning to Jack? A reminder that he's still here? Or nothing at all. A tickle in the throat.
"If you trust me, can I borrow a hundred bucks?" I say.
"I don't trust you that much," Jack says.
He punches my arm.
I let him do it.
THE SUIT TYPES A CODE INTO THE SECURITY GATE.
The large metal gate slides open to reveal a long driveway, a guard hut set twenty feet in.
We pull up to the hut and the Suit nods to a guard. He lifts two fingers. Two people coming in, Jack and me. The guard marks it down on a clipboard. He's seen me before, and it's not a big deal.
We continue around a hairpin turn, and the house comes into view. Big but not lavish. The Suit stops to let us out.
Jack types a code to gain access to the house.
The front door beeps to announce our entry. Front door open, it says.
It beeps again when the door is closed. Front door closed, the electronic voice says.
Jack's dad wanders by with a beer in his hand. Chen Wu is his name. His friends call him John. He's the CEO of a high-tech firm along Route 128. Lots of government contracts.
Does he need all this security?
I know he likes it. It makes you feel important to have a lot of people with guns around you. It makes you feel safe, and more importantly for him, it makes his wife feel safe. That keeps her from giving him a hard time.
It's not just Mr. Wu. All the CEOs are edgy right now. There was some violence a year ago. An important kid got shot during an attempted kidnapping while on spring break in Mexico. The Fortune 500 went security crazy. Now rich kids like Jack need a commando team to take a dump.
"Nice to see you, boys," Jack's dad says.
"What's up, Dad?" Jack says. "Gotta take a squirt. Pardon my French."
He turns to leave.
"Hey, I can't stay too long," I say.
"You gotta go?" Jack says, disappointed.
"Gotta call my mom," I say. "I guess it's morning wherever she is."
"Crap in a bag," Jack says.
He shoots up the stairs.
"You have time for a cold one?" Jack's dad says.
"Beer or soda?"
"How old are you?" he says.
"Soda for you. But it was a nice try."
I shrug like I'm bummed out, and I follow him through the den.
"How was the game?" Jack's dad says.
"Amazing," I say. "You should come sometime."
"High school ball is not really my thing," he says.
But it's his son's thing, so what does it matter?
I see this a lot with the Fortune 500. Mr. Wu is always working. Except Friday nights. His only downtime, and he doesn't want to spend it with his family. He relaxes for the evening, then works again all weekend.
So be it. It's Friday night and he's here. So am I.
That's the important thing.
We head into the kitchen, and the conversation drifts to the Red Sox. We're near Boston, so we have to talk Sox.
I notice an expensive knife block on the counter with one of the knives missing from its slot. A wide slot. This is a knife big enough to be used as a weapon.
I scan the room.
The knife is sitting on a cutting board next to the sink, ten feet away from us. A safe distance away.
I relax and exhale. I sit at the table, and I reach into my backpack and take out a ballpoint pen.
Jack's dad looks at me from the refrigerator, a question on his face.
"You taking notes?"
"When you talk baseball, I listen," I say.
Jack's dad smiles. I smile.
When in doubt, emulate.
I turn the cap until it clicks, exposing the point.
Jack's dad reaches forward to hand me the cold soda.
I push the end of the pen into the meat of his forearm. The action depresses a miniature plunger.
His eyes widen as the drug hits him. His mouth puckers, forming the familiar Wh—.
Maybe it's why he's trying to say.
Maybe it's what, as in What are you doing?
But the drug is fast-acting. Its actual speed depends on age and conditioning, which is bad news for Jack's dad.
He's out of shape.
So it is fast. Faster even than a word can form.
Jack's dad stumbles, and I catch him, place him on the floor by the kitchen table. I don't let him fall, because I don't want Jack running downstairs to see what caused the noise. I don't want anyone else rushing in. Not yet.
I need fifteen seconds.
Six seconds to lay him down, arranging the body, limbs splayed as if from a fall. I use an elbow to knock over the can of beer next to him. The foam hisses.
Five seconds to put away my pen and notebook, zip the backpack where it hangs from the back of a chair.
Four more seconds to play out the chain, let the chemical reaction in Mr. Wu's body take him beyond the point of resuscitation.
I look at the body. The man who was Chen Wu is gone.
A husband is gone.
A father is gone.
"I trust you," Jack said.
That was your mistake, I think.
Twenty seconds have passed. The outside edge of my operational window.
"Oh my god!" I say. "Help!"
I fling open the front door. "Someone!" I shout.
Jack comes running down the stairs, and his face turns white with shock. A sound comes out of him, something between a moan and a scream.
The security people rush in. One look at the body and the first guy knows.
It's all a show after that.
I stand to the side and watch it happen.
Resuscitation attempts, the ambulance, all of it.
I push forward like I want to be in the middle of the action, be near my friend Jack. The Suit from the baseball game stops me.
He puts an arm on my shoulder, gently, like he's my father or something. I want to shrug it off, but I don't.
"Maybe it would be better if you stepped away," he says.
"What about Jack—?"
"It's a family matter," he says.
I relax my shoulders beneath his arm.
"I need my backpack," I say.
He steps into the fray, grabs my backpack, hands it to me, and guides me out the door.
I glance back. My last image is of Jack on the sofa, his back hunched, his head almost to his knees.
A profile of grief.
All because of me.
I WALK PAST THE REVOLVING LIGHTS OF THE AMBULANCE.
Past the security vehicles, the police officers, the chatter of voices over shortwave radios.
"Do you need a ride?" the gate guard says.
"I'm good," I say.
"Tough day," he says.
"Terrible," I say.
"It happened on my watch," he says, shaking his head. "But they can't blame me, right? I'm not God. I don't get to decide when and where."
Not true. You don't have to be God to decide when and where. You only have to take action and be willing to deal with the consequences.
"Take care of yourself," he says.
"I always do," I say.
He opens the gate for me, and I'm out.
I walk down the street slowly, like someone who is traumatized. But I'm not traumatized. I'm already thinking about what comes next. I'm reviewing my exit strategy.
And maybe, just for a moment, I'm thinking about Jack.
He was my best friend for four weeks.
But not anymore.
He might not like it much that I killed his father. Not that he'll know. The drug leaves no trace. Jack's dad had a heart attack. That's what the autopsy will show, if there is an autopsy. Strings will be pulled. Or the modern equivalent—computer keys pressed.
If an autopsy is done, it will show nothing at all.
That's my specialty. People die around me, but it never seems like my fault. It seems like bad luck following good.
Good luck: You meet a great new friend at school.
Bad luck: A tragedy befalls your family.
The two don't ever seem connected, but they are.
Jack didn't know that when we became best friends a month ago. I slipped into his life easily, and now I'm slipping out just as easily.
I've broken another guy's heart, changed the course of his life. Lucky for me, I can do it and not feel it.
I don't feel anything.
I feel cold, I feel hungry, I feel the fabric of a new shirt rubbing against my skin, and I feel gravel beneath my feet.
But those are sensations, not feelings.
I had feelings once, too. I think I did. But that was a long time ago.
That was before.
HIS NAME WAS MIKE.
And he was my best friend.
Or so I thought.
He was the new guy in school, but he didn't seem new. The minute he started, it seemed like he'd been there forever.
"What are you into?" he said the first time I talked to him.
"I like to read," I said.
I was twelve then, and I had so many books that my dad had to build a second bookcase in my room.
"You read that vampire stuff?" he said.
"No. Action, adventure. Sci-fi if it's good."
"Cool," he said. "Me, too."
It didn't feel strange when we became instant friends, like when you feel separated at birth. A brother from another mother. That's what they call it.
Within a week, we were inseparable. Within two, he was sleeping over at the house.
We stayed up late, defying my parents, talking about everything under the sun. We exchanged books. We talked about girls.
It was during that year that I noticed girls were wearing bras, and you could see through their shirts if the light was right. Mike taught me you should always let the girl get between you and the window on a sunny day because it improved your viewing options. I thought he was a genius.
Mike and me. Two twelve-year-old kids, laughing and shooting the crap, thrilled to have found a partner in crime in each other.
In hindsight, I should have found it strange that I never saw his house, never met his parents. He said his dad was a corporate lawyer who traveled for business. My dad was a professor and scientist who sometimes went to conferences, so I knew what he meant. Kind of.
His mom got overwhelmed, he said. She didn't like kids around.
My mom got overwhelmed, too. Not with guests, but with my dad. At the time, they'd been fighting for what seemed like months. I didn't know what it was about, but it was one of those fights that was going on even when it wasn't, even when everything was quiet.
It went on for so long it felt like our family was having a nervous breakdown.
I told all this to Mike.
He was my friend. It felt good to tell him, to confide in him.
I didn't know he was going to kill my parents.
THIS HAPPENS SOMETIMES WHEN I FINISH.
Memories come. I don't know why.
They go away eventually if I keep moving.
I'm a mile from Jack's now, walking down the street, moving toward my egress point. If all has gone as planned, I should be clear and on my way out of town.
I sense it a moment before it happens. Something in the air shifts. Everyone has intuition, but not everyone knows how to listen to it. I've been trained to listen, to perceive small changes in the environment around me, to predict outcomes before they happen.
And I've been trained to react.
My intuition tells me something is about to happen.
And then it does.
A dark gray sedan comes around the corner. The car jerks slightly when the driver sees me. It happens in a split second, like when someone spots a pothole at the last moment and pulls the wheel to avoid it.
But there's no pothole. Only me.
It's a natural human reaction. When you spot what you're looking for, your body reacts. In poker they call it a tell, a physical tic that reveals what's going on with the player.
This driver has a tell. That's good.
Because by the time the car pulls to a stop in the middle of the road, I've had a few seconds to prepare.
I rapid-scan the area:
Empty road behind. Stone and gravel surface beneath. A spattering of houses set way back from the road, their views obscured behind thickets of trees.
And the car in front of me, twenty yards away.
I continue for a few steps, and the license comes into view. It's not one of Jack's dad's cars. This car has diplomatic plates.
The doors open. Four Asian men in suits get out. They do it casually, as if the non sequitur of four men in suits stopped in the middle of a suburban street is no big deal.
I could escape into the woods. See how good they are on foot and separated.
Some would say that's the best strategy in this situation, divide power and take it on little by little.
Some say that. I don't.
There's another trick that I learned from the people who trained me. Don't diffuse power; concentrate it. Get it too close together, where its effectiveness is reduced.
That's the trick I will use.
The problem: I never carry a gun, and my weaponized ballpoint pen and other tools were dropped down a sewer. I left my empty backpack in a Dumpster a ways down the road.
So I've got nothing to rely on but my training.
It should be enough.
But I can't know for sure.
I stay on the same trajectory, moving toward the car. Ten yards away now. I keep my posture nonthreatening. I'm a sixteen-year-old kid walking down the street. That's what I want them to see.
It's also the truth. I am sixteen. I am walking.
As I get closer, I can hear the men talking to one another in Mandarin. I see the cheap material of their suits, and I see how their jackets fit poorly over bulky shoulders.
Diplomats do not have bulky shoulders. Maybe one guy if he's into fitness. Not four in a row.
I don't know these guys. I didn't come across them on the assignment with Jack. But they know something about me because they're looking at me like I'm dinner at the zoo.
This could get interesting real fast.
"Hey," the first one says. "We're lost. Can you give us directions?"
His English is good. His ploy is not.
Nobody stops his car on a diagonal in the middle of the road to ask for directions.
It's ridiculous, but I'm a teenager, so people often underestimate me.
Most teenagers fight against that because they want to prove how tough they are.
It's good to be underestimated. It's what's known as a tactical advantage.
So when the Chinese guy asks for directions, I say, "Sure. Where are you headed?"
He's a little surprised, but not totally.
"I've got the address on my phone," he says.
He holds out an Android phone for me to look at. The guy next to him shifts his eyes toward it. The phone is arm's length away. Which means I have to come within arm's length to read it.
I move closer.
The two guys in the back step in, tightening the net. They relax at the same time. This is going to be easy. That's what they're thinking. I see it reflected in their posture.
Two rows of two. I'm walking toward them and putting the story together at the same time. Thick chests, tight haircuts, and diplomatic plates. I'm probably looking at Chinese spies. I'm guessing Jack's father was in business with them, and that's the reason I was sent here.
But I don't know for sure. I don't need to know.
Asking questions is not what I do. I'm given an assignment, and I carry it out.
Most of the time it's simple, but something has gone wrong, because they're here, and I've been detected.
I'll save the questions for later.
Only one thing matters right now.
I do not fight for sport. I fight when it is necessary.
If they get me in a car with diplomatic plates, it's all over. There will be no police interference, no help for me at all.
I cannot let that happen.
The guy who spoke English holds out his phone to me. I think of one of those deep-sea fish that has an appendage dangling in front of its mouth to attract prey. A fish with its own fishing rod, designed by nature.
AP Biology, Subtopic 3C: Competition and Predation.
This guy has his phone. He dangles it.
I take the bait.
Literally take it. Out of his hands.
I twirl and smash the phone into the bridge of his nose. I don't ask questions, and I don't hesitate. Not against four men.
The glass shatters. His nose shatters.
Before he even hits the ground, I'm on to the next man. This time it's the corner of the phone. I spin and swing, and he takes it in the left eye. A quick adjustment, and I stab the phone into his right eye. The globe resists briefly before rupturing.
Surprise was my advantage. No more.
The third man comes. He's bigger than the others. Much bigger. He guards his face as he moves. He won't be fooled like his friends.
So I fool him another way.
Noting that the fourth man has cleared to the edge of the road, I dive for the open car door. It's exactly where number three wanted me a minute ago. But a minute is a long time in a fight. He thought he'd be putting me in the backseat. The fact that I'm already there means he has to come after me.
I move as though I'm going to jump through the door and out the other side.
I do half of that. I get into the car. I don't get out again.
It's a narrow space. Flexibility wins over bulk in a narrow space.
I'm flexibility. He's bulk.
He tries to get his arms around to swing at me, but there's not enough room.
I still have the phone. This time I tuck it in my fist to weight the punch, and I lash out hard three times.
It stuns him but doesn't disable him.
I slip out, and when he comes after me, I bash the door into his face.
He drops to the ground, out cold.
He knows how to take a punch, but he doesn't know how to take a car door to the head. Nobody does.
I look up to find the fourth man waiting with his gun out.
He's got a gun, and I've got a broken phone in my hand.
Not what you'd call a fair fight.
A stupid guy with a gun would think he'd already won. Not the fourth man. He's smart. He's been watching and learning.
He stays far away from the phone, away from me and outside of my striking range.
He keeps the gun aimed at my center mass. Which means he knows how to use it. If you aim at someone's head and they move quickly, there's very little chance you're going to hit them. Not so if you keep the weapon on center mass.
I don't use guns, but I know all about them. At least enough to know that I'm screwed.
He motions with his head for me to turn around. Doesn't wave the gun barrel like an inexperienced man would do.
If I turn now, I've lost.
I don't think he's going to shoot me. He's going to take me somewhere and ask questions. That's a lot worse than being shot.
I think of my father. The last time I saw him I was twelve years old. He was taped to a chair and bleeding. Someone had asked him questions.
Questions are bad.
That day with my father was a long time ago. Another time, another life.
Now there is a man with a gun.
Now I must look for options.
Now I must survive.
The fourth man shouts at me in Mandarin. I don't know what he's saying, but he's angry. He knows what I'm trying to do. Stall. Work the angles. And with three of his colleagues down and bleeding, he's not treating me like a sixteen-year-old anymore.
I look at the gun. I look at his eyes.
I'm in trouble.
And then the phone rings.
The Android phone in my hand. The glass is shattered, but the phone is still working.
The ring surprises him as much as it surprises me.
Surprise is not a bad thing. Not if you can use it to your advantage.
I answer the phone.
"Ni hao ma?" I say. How are you? in Chinese.
That's about all I know how to say.
I listen to the phone for a moment, then I hold it out to the fourth man as if it's for him. He's so shocked he doesn't know what to do.
I shake the phone a little. I look at him like he's an idiot. We both hear the man shouting over the phone, his voice tinny and distant.
I don't know what he's saying, but it doesn't matter.
AP Bio, Subtopic 3C.
I dangle the phone in front of me.
The guy reaches—
And I hit him in the head, in the soft spot of his right temple, an inch behind his eye. I hit so hard that the phone comes apart in my hand.
He drops to the ground.
What if the phone didn't ring? What would have happened?
Not now. I can't think about that now.
"Chance can be your friend or your enemy," Mother used to say. "Make it a friend."
Mother, that's what I call the woman who trained me.
She'd taught me this lesson, and I applied it today.
I look at the bodies of the four men on the ground around me. I look at the gun by my feet.
Mother taught me another lesson. Death is a tool I use for my work. It's not something I do lightly. I could finish these men, but it is not strictly necessary. They are already crippled, their mission thwarted.
They do not need to die. At least not now.
It's time to use a real phone. My iPhone.
It looks like a normal phone, but it's not. The physical architecture is the same, but the operating system is much different. And the apps? Well, they're far from average.
Praise for Boy Nobody:A 2014 Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers* "Zadodff shines in this violent, entertaining twist on the teen spy novel. [Boy Nobody is]...a tense and exciting story with a strong cast...blunt and hard edged narration and twists will keep readers riveted."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- * "[Boy Nobody] is like a darker version of Alex Rider, [and] Thomas in James Dashner's Maze Runner series... Fans of such fast-paced action novels should love this first installment in the Boy Nobody series."—VOYA (starred review)
- "Operating in the tradition of both James Bond and of Robert Cormier's I Am the Cheese(1977), Boy Nobody is an auspicious first volume in a promised new series of action-adventure thrillers that will keep readers clamoring for more."—Booklist
- "Fast, furious, and fun...Plenty of action and drama, and hairpin turns [that] will keep readers guessing; a twist in the end will have them begging for more."—Kirkus Reviews
- "A promising start to an exciting new series."—SLJ
- "I cannot wait to get this title, first in a new series, into the hands of my male students who are often at a loss for material to read."—Library Media Connection
- "When James Bond was a little boy, he wanted to grow up to be half as hard-core as Boy Nobody."—Barry Lyga, New York Times bestselling author of I Hunt Killers
- On Sale
- May 13, 2014
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers