I showed them Bennacio’s black sword. Horace tried to grab the sword and I told him not to touch it; the blade was very sharp. I also didn’t want him touching it because the thought of Horace Tuttle touching the blade of the Last Knight of the Order of the Sacred Sword made my stomach heave.
“We’ll never get this through Customs,” he said.
“Then I’m not going,” I told them. “I won’t leave without it.”
And I didn’t either. I stuck the sword in Horace’s bag and, when the screeners went nuts over it, I showed the supervisor Abigail Smith’s card. A call was made and in five minutes we were cleared through Customs.
So that’s how I ended up back in Knoxville, Tennessee, after saving the world and everybody in it, including the Tuttles.
After a week, I was back in school, but my picture had been flashed around the globe after the Stonehenge incident and now I was something of a celebrity. I don’t know what calls were made or who said what to whom, but I was back in school like nothing had happened. There was a rumor that I was an international terrorist because that’s what they called me on television, but I guess some people just can’t grasp nuances.
Amy Pouchard pulled me aside after math class on my first day back. She was working a piece of gum really hard, which reminded me of Mike Arnold, and suddenly I didn’t like Amy Pouchard as much as I thought I did.
“You disappeared, blew up something, and now you’re back,” she said.
“I didn’t blow up anything,” I told her. “I did kill somebody, though.”
Her eyes got wide. “Get out!”
“But he kind of had it coming.”
“Was he a terrorist or something?”
“No, but you might call him an agent of darkness.”
“Whoa. That’s too cool!” She touched my forearm with her hand. Her hand was very cold, and I wondered if she had a circulation problem. “You shot him?”
“I beheaded him.”
Her mouth opened a little and I could see the knobby bright green of her gum between her tongue and her teeth.
“Kropp! You! Kropp!”
It was Barry Lancaster, pushing people out of the way in the crowded hall to get to me.
“Are you still his girlfriend?” I asked Amy Pouchard.
“Sort of. Not really. I mean, he’s never beheaded anybody or anything like that. Do you want my cell phone number?”
Barry had reached me by that point. He shoved me hard in the right shoulder and said, “What are you doing here, Kropp? Aren’t you supposed to be in jail or something?”
“Actually,” I said, “I’m supposed to be in social studies.”
“But instead you’re talking to my girlfriend. Pretty stupid, Kropp.”
“She’s not your girlfriend, Barry.”
“Like you would know.”
He shoved me again.
“Don’t shove me, Barry.”
“Yeah? Who’s gonna stop me, Kropp?”
He shoved me again.
“Barry,” Amy Pouchard said. “Cut it out.”
A crowd had gathered by that point. The bell rang but nobody paid attention.
“Maybe this is the point I should tell you that the last guy who shoved me around like this got his head chopped off,” I told Barry.
“You’re so full of it,” he snarled, and then he launched himself at me.
He really didn’t have a chance. I sidestepped to the right and landed a haymaker to the side of his blond head as he flew past. Barry went down and he stayed down, and I guess if I had been Barry, I might have kicked him in the ribs. But I wasn’t Barry Lancaster. I was Alfred Kropp, not exactly a knight bound by the code of chivalry, but I was the descendant of the greatest knight who had ever lived. Plus I guess dying gives you some perspective on what’s worth fighting about.
I held out my hand.
“This is nuts, Barry,” I said. “We’re both gonna get expelled.”
“That was just a lucky punch,” he gasped, and he slapped my hand away.
“The odds are against that,” I answered. “I’ve never had too much luck.”
I pulled him to his feet and he spat, “You’re a freak.”
But he didn’t shove me again or try to punch me, and after that nobody teased me about my size or the remark about my IQ. People left me alone. Even my teachers kept their distance and went out of their way to give me a break. Of course, it got all around school that I had admitted to killing someone, and the rumor about me being a terrorist persisted.
I spent most afternoons in the Old City, walking aimlessly or sitting in the Ye Olde Coffee Shop, where I had met Bennacio. I always took the last stool at the end of the counter and sipped lattes, staring at the people walking past the big window. Sometimes I took out the card Abigail Smith had given me in London and stared at it. Most of the time, though, I just stared out the window. And I always dreaded going home to the Tuttles.
Sitting in the coffee shop made me feel close to Bennacio, the nearest thing to a father I ever had, and sometimes I would hear his voice in my head: Do not concern yourself so much with guilt and grief, Alfred. No battle was ever won, no great deed ever accomplished by wallowing in guilt and grief.
I began to understand I had claimed more than the Sword of Kings in Merlin’s cave. I had claimed something even more powerful and scary.
I had claimed who I was.
One afternoon, after I finished my coffee, I looked at my watch and realized it was almost six o’clock. Dinner would be over by the time I got to the Tuttles’, and Betty would fuss at me and wonder where I wandered off to every afternoon instead of coming home and studying like a good boy. Horace would stomp and shout, and the thin walls of the little house would shake. I would eat the leftovers and retreat to the little room I shared with Lester and Dexter. The next morning I would go to school and that would be my life, the life of Alfred Kropp, Heir to Lancelot, Son of the Sacred Order, Master of the Sword of Kings, and Adventurer Extraordinaire.
I left the coffee house and turned on Central to Jackson, but instead of walking toward the bus stop I went straight to the pay phone half a block down and dialed the 800 number scrawled on the back of the card.
“This is Alfred Kropp, Abby . . . Abigail . . . Ms. Smith, Doctor Smith, ma’am,” I said. “I was wondering about what you said. About, um, needing fresh talent . . .”