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       Cloaked, p.1

           Alex Flinn
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  For my daughter, Meredith

  Special thanks to Toni Markiet, Jayne Carapezzi, Joyce Sweeney, Dorian Cirrone, and George Nicholson

  Few people know how to take a walk. The qualifications are endurance, plain clothes, old shoes, an eye for nature, good humor, vast curiosity, good speech, good silence, and nothing too much.

  —Ralph Waldo Emerson



  Title Page


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42

  Chapter 43

  Chapter 44

  Chapter 45

  Chapter 46

  Chapter 47

  Chapter 48

  Chapter 49

  Chapter 50

  Also by Alex Flinn

  Author’s Note


  About the Publisher

  Chapter 1

  There once was a shoemaker who worked very hard, but was still very poor. . . .

  —“The Elves and the Shoemaker”

  I’ve never seen a princess before. And it looks like I won’t be seeing one today either.

  Let me back up: I come from a long line of shoe people. My grandfather called us cobblers, but that sounds more like a dessert than a person. My family’s run the shoe repair at the Coral Reef Grand, a posh hotel on South Beach, since before I was born—first my grandparents, then my parents, now my mother and me. So I’ve met the famous and infamous, the rich and the . . . poor (okay, that would be me), wearers of Bruno Magli, Manolo Blahnik, and Converse (again, me). I know the beautiful people. Or, at least, I know their feet.

  But, so far, I haven’t met a single princess.

  “She should be here any minute.” Ryan, one of the college guys who works as a lifeguard, interrupts me as I rip the sole off a pair of Johnston Murphys a customer needs by eight. “My friends texted me that her motorcade’s down Collins Avenue.”

  “And this affects me how?” I do want to go see her, but I have to stay at my post. Can’t afford to miss a customer.

  “It affects you, Johnny, because anyone, any normal seventeen-year-old guy, would rip themselves away from the shoe counter if a hot-looking princess was in the lobby.”

  “Some of us have to work. I have customers—”

  “Yeah, shoes are important.”

  “Money is.”

  Ryan doesn’t usually talk to me. Like most guys my age who work here, he’s only earning money to gas the convertible he got for graduation or maybe to buy clothes. I notice he has on a new Hollister polo that’s tight in the arms, probably to show off the muscles he’s always flexing.

  Me, I work here to support my family, and the only workout I get involves running penny loafers through a Landis McKay stitcher. Even though I’ll be a senior in the fall, I won’t be off to college next year. No money. I’ll probably be repairing shoes until the day I croak.

  “Don’t you want to see her?” Ryan looks at me like I’ve admitted I’m wearing Pull-Ups or have gills. He flexes again.

  Of course, I want to see her. I’ve been drooling over pictures of her on the covers of the Miami Herald, Miami New Times, Sun Sentinel, and USA Today newspapers that face out in the hotel coffee bar across the way. One tabloid claims she’s mated with an alien, but most of them show a hard partier who frequently disgraces her family and her country. She’s in Miami for some important, top-secret business, which probably involves consumption of many drinks with “tini” at the end of them.

  Oh yeah, and I know she’s beautiful.

  And I, who have the most boring life of anyone, should at least get to see her, so that when I die of an aneurysm, trying to rip out a tough stitch, at least I’ll be able to say I once saw a princess.

  “Mr. Farnesworth doesn’t want us out there, gawking at her. Besides, what if someone shows up and I’m not here?”

  “Some kind of shoe emergency?” Ryan laughs.

  “Yeah. It’s always an emergency when you can’t wear your shoes. I can’t do it.” I try to say it with finality, the way Mom used to say, We can’t afford it, when I was little, and I knew there’d be no more arguing.

  “What’s up?” My friend Meg sidles up toward me.

  I’m glad to see Meg, who works the coffee counter next to our repair shop, but I know she’s going to be angry because her brothers, who worked last night, didn’t clean up at all. Like me, Meg works for her parents, helping out even during the school year. She’s my best friend, and usually the only friend I have time for. In middle school, I had a sort of crush on her. I even took her to our eighth grade dance. She wanted to make some other guy jealous, but for a moment on the dance floor, I thought there could be something there. But that was a long time ago.

  Anyway, Meg will understand why I can’t go with Ryan.

  Ryan flexes and looks Meg up and down, like he does every girl. “I was trying to talk Johnny here into taking five minutes off from the fast-paced world of shoe repair to go see Princess Vicky’s motorcade. This guy never wants to have any fun.”

  Meg makes a face and lays her hand on my arm. “And why, exactly, would John want to see Eurotrash?”

  “Hello?” Ryan says. “Because he’s a seventeen-year-old guy with normal male urges, and she’s got—” He holds both hands out from his chest.

  “Really pretty eyes,” I complete his sentence.

  Meg rolls her own brown eyes. “And the IQ of a single-celled creature.”

  “Anyway, he’s not going.” Ryan just has to keep putting the boot in. “The boy is in love with shoes.”

  “‘The shoe that fits one person pinches another.’” This I say with a wink to Meg. She and I collect quotes about shoes. I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to use that one. “Carl Jung said that.”

  “Carl who?” Ryan asks.

  “A Swiss psychiatrist,” I say. “Ever hear of Jungian—”

  “Whatever,” Ryan says. “So you’re really not coming?”

  Meg glances at me. “I can tell your customers you’ll be right back, if you want to go. But I’m sure—”

  “Can you? Thanks.” I know Meg expected me to turn her down, but I really do want to go. Not that I’ll ever get closer to Victoriana than watching her check in from behind a potted palm. But still, it’s a brush with adventure, and adventure is something I get none of.

  “Gotta go!” Ryan holds up his phone. “Pete at the door just texted that her limo’s in view.”

  “You’ve got connections,” Meg says to Ryan.

  “It’s the name of the game.” Ryan moves closer to her. “Maybe you and I could make a connection sometime—like, say, Friday night?”

  I’m sure Meg will say y
es. Most girls turn into puddles of drool around him. But she doesn’t even smile. “No, thanks. You’re not my type.”

  Ryan looks as surprised as I feel. “What’s your type? Other girls?”

  Meg shrugs, glances at me, then shrugs again. “Why don’t you go ogle your princess now?”

  “You’re sure you don’t mind covering for me?” I know she does.

  “Just go before I change my mind.”

  Ryan glances back at Meg as we walk away. “She’s hot for you.”

  “Yeah, right.”

  “She is. You should go for it. She may not be that good-looking, but you can’t be too picky.”

  “She turned you down flat.” I glance back at Meg, who’s still watching both of us. She flips her chin-length brown hair back from her eyes, and for a second, I remember that night in eighth grade. But when she sees me looking at her, she holds up her hands like, What are you looking at? “Nope, she and I are just friends.”

  Still, I wave to her before I make the turn toward the lobby.

  Chapter 2

  The lobby is bustling like the Calle Ocho street carnival, but without the salsa music. A housekeeper leads six swans on their morning waddle around the hotel fountain. Another removes a cover from a parrot cage. The Miami sun streams through the thirty-foot-high windows at the front of the room, hitting the marble floors so they look like pure gold. It also makes it hard to see because the manager, Mr. Farnesworth, glances right in my direction. I think he’s going to come over, but then, his head snaps back, and I see why. Every bellhop in the place is entering, each carrying two Louis Vuitton suitcases. I skitter sideways, as quick as a crab, and stand as I’d planned, behind a potted palm, imagining what must be in those suitcases. The shoes. Prada, Stuart Weitzman, Dolce & Gabbana, Jimmy Choo, and Alexander McQueen!

  Ryan’s right. I’m not normal. No one else would think of shoes at a time like this.

  Among the suitcases, I notice a dog carrier. Now, needless to say, the Coral Reef doesn’t allow dogs, but I guess you don’t tell princesses that. It’s a large carrier, and I peer through the bars, expecting a standard poodle or an Afghan. But, instead, I see a bloodhound’s black-and-brown face and sad eyes staring back at me.

  “Hey, boy,” I say.

  The dog growls.

  “Nice going.” Ryan has also taken up residence behind the palm. “He sees us.”

  He means Farnesworth, who’s taken his eyes off the door long enough to march over to our palm. “You! Where are you supposed to be?”

  “We’re on break,” Ryan says.

  “Be on break elsewhere. I don’t want you bothering the princess.”

  “Excusez-moi?” a voice interrupts. “You are ze hotel manager?”

  Farnesworth turns and takes a step back, then a second, onto my foot. I try to jump back. It’s her!

  Farnesworth, still on my foot, stutters, unable to form words. I wonder if they’ll send a chambermaid to clean up after him when he pees his pants.

  “Uh . . . ,” he manages.

  I bow, pushing Ryan down with me. I’m really trying not to stare at her shoes, but from this angle, they’re the only thing I can see. Roberto Cavalli. Italian black-and-white V-strap platforms with a woven leather upper and an architectural heel.

  “’Allo?” She’s still trying to make contact with Farnesworth, who’s panting like he just jogged down the beach. Sweating too. She leans toward me and gestures that I can stand. That’s when I get my first good look at her.

  I’ve seen lots of pictures, but none of them prepare me for the real thing. Her beauty shocks me, which is saying a lot, considering I live in South Beach, where hot is the new average. She has long white-blond hair that curls down to her perfectly proportioned hips. Even though she emphasizes her body with fitted clothes and a short skirt, her huge eyes, which are bluer than the ocean outside, make her look all innocent, like a Disney princess.

  “Nice dog,” I manage.

  Oh, I am such an idiot.

  She nods and opens the cage. The dog scampers out, looking for something to sniff, but at a signal from the princess, he comes right back and sits behind her. She strokes its head, then turns to me.

  “Is he”—she nods at Farnesworth—“not right?”

  “He’s okay, usually.”

  Farnesworth’s mouth tries to move. “You . . . you’re . . .”

  “I am Victoriana.”

  People are like shoes. Some are like sneakers or flip-flops, while others are like high-heeled pumps. Princess Victoriana is like the shoes she wears—not very practical, but beautiful.

  Farnesworth finds his voice. “I didn’t expect you to . . . I mean, I thought I’d be dealing with your lady-in-waiting or . . . something.”

  “She is back zere.” She gestures behind her at a woman with short hair, a plain skirt, and what looks like the Alorian version of Aerosoles. “Slow.” She looks at Ryan and me. “And zese . . . zese are some of your employees?”

  Mr. Farnesworth recovers with a look of complete contempt. “Oh, them. Don’t worry. I won’t let them bother you.” He flicks his hand at Ryan. “Surely your break is over. And you . . .” He glances at me.

  “Non, non. Zere is no need to leave. I will be here, maybe some time, and I would like to know zose who offer zeir services.” She looks at Ryan particularly. It’s news that she’s staying a long time. Actors sometimes stay awhile if they’re filming a movie, but visiting dignitaries are usually here only a day or two. She looks again at Ryan. “What is your name?”

  He grins, used to attention but still flattered. “I’m Ryan. I work at the pool. Maybe if you’re there sometime, I can rub lotion on your back.”

  “Maybe, maybe not.” The princess maintains eye contact an instant longer than required, and I can tell she’s sizing Ryan up. I fantasize she doesn’t like what she sees. She turns to me. “And you? Who are you, and what do you do?”

  Words fail me. Why does she want to know about me?

  “Say something!” Farnesworth hisses, thumping me on the back. Like he was so eloquent!

  I say, “I’m Johnny. I . . .” And the second before I say it, I’m ashamed of it. “I repair shoes. My family runs the shoe repair here.” I gesture toward the hotel shops.

  “Shoes!” She claps her hands like it’s the most wonderful news she’s ever heard. “I love ze shoes! I have a suitcase of zem!”

  I laugh. Of course she does. She’s a princess.

  “You laugh at me? You think my love of shoes is—’ow you say—shallow?”

  “I didn’t—”

  “Maybe I am. But I believe zat ze shoes, zey are magical, like in ‘Cendrillon’—‘Cinderella’ to you—or Ze Red Shoes. I believe in magic. Do you?”

  I gape at her. “Uh, I guess so.” One of the swans from the fountain walks by, and the bloodhound starts to bark, not a mean bark, but a soft, steady bark, like he’s talking to it. Victoriana places her small hand in front of the dog, and he stops.

  “Where I come from in Aloria,” Victoriana says, “zere is magic. Sometimes good, sometimes not so . . .” She stops and shakes her head, obviously realizing she sounds nuts and should change the subject. “You must never be ashamed of shoes, and to work for your family is honorable. I, too, am in ze family business. It is not always easy.”

  I nod, thinking it seems pretty easy to me, traveling around and going to parties. But maybe it isn’t. Staring into Victoriana’s eyes, she doesn’t seem to be the girl from the newspapers and the tabloids, the party girl who cares only about clothes and drinking. Instead, her eyes are sort of sad, like she feels trapped in her life, just as I am in mine.

  Farnesworth must decide that’s enough from me, because he offers her his arm. “Your check-in has already been taken care of. I can show you to your room.”

  The princess looks at me an instant longer before saying, “Very well.” She ignores Farnesworth’s arm and starts toward the elevator. Farnesworth trots behind her.

  Ryan and
I head in the opposite direction. When we reach the hallway that goes to the pool, I turn to Ryan. “God, I think I’m in love.”

  “Yeah, whoudda thought? A princess who’s obsessed with shoes. Shame you’re not better-looking. And shame you don’t work at the pool like me. I’ll probably get to see her every day in a bikini.”

  “Yeah.” I’ll never see her again. Princesses don’t get their shoes repaired. They send the servants out for new ones.

  He starts to whistle, then stops, maybe seeing how seriously depressed I am. “They’re looking for a new lifeguard. You should apply.”

  I shake my head. “Can’t.”

  “Can’t swim?”

  “Nah. I’m a great swimmer. But my mom needs me to work in the shoe repair. It’s just the two of us.”

  “Cut the cord. You’re what, seventeen? Time to make your own decisions.” He shrugs. “Suit yourself.”

  I glance at the elevators. Victoriana’s boarding the one that goes all the way to the penthouse. She’s scratching the dog’s ears. I picture myself with them, flying all the way to the sky.

  Chapter 3

  A buyer came in, and liked the shoes so well that he paid more for them than usual. With the money, the shoemaker was able to purchase leather for two pairs of shoes.

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