Foster homes and child abuse don't always go together, but Nickel has experienced the worst kind of abuse. His foster parents already have two children in their care when Nickel arrives, and eventually they introduce the innocent 8-year-old boy to their child pornography studio.
Nickel, however, foils their plans, freeing himself and his two foster siblings from this slavery. Although we never learn what happened to the other two children, by the time he is 12 years of age, emancipated Nickel has set himself up in a solo household, and by courage and clever misdirection, manages to exist on his own.
How he does so is the basis of two extremely compelling novels by Aric Davis: Nickel Plated and Tunnel Vision.
Nickel PlatedGiven his back-story, we can understand why 12-year-old Nickel didn't want to stay in the foster system, and we can also see why he would be slightly anti-social in his behavior. In a smart twist on fostering, Davis introduces a father figure (the boxing/jiu jitsu/EMA coach Rhino), whose lessons in discipline are sufficiently hands-off for Nickel to accept.
Details of this 12-year-old's life are also perfectly consistent with his age and his past: he gets around by bicycle, riding a sufficiently beat-up bike to keep it from being a target for theft. He tells himself to eat wisely, but then indulges in pizza pockets as soon as he gets home from the grocery. He brings in money by growing and selling pot from his backyard garden, and by trolling online for pederasts, whom he then blackmails for cash.
His main business, however, is working as a Private Investigator. His clients are desperate enough to employ a "child" to do their work, or perhaps they accept his argument that he succeeds because "no one notices a kid".
Child or not, Nickel is as hard-boiled as they come. He accepts that in himself: "It had been nice to have a real talk with someone, to take off that veneer and just be a kid. Deep down, I’m just a survivor, and that survivor has his own special set of rules. Sometimes, like tonight, that veneer slips a little, and I get to be normal."
Nickel Plated follows the 12-year-old through the ins and outs of a slimy underground world where children are commodities to be traded or discarded after use. In the process, we get acquainted with a loaded and unholstered weapon, the brain of a child who would never be a victim again.
Tunnel VisionI finished Aric Davis' Nickel Plated with a strong desire to see what happens next for an emancipated drug-dealing 12-year-old who has dedicated himself to the defeat of child abusers. When Tunnel Vision appeared, I was ecstatic.
Alas! the Nickel we meet in this second novel is revealed in the first few pages of the book as an older, harder, nastier version of the child P.I. I enjoyed in the first book.
Nickel is now in his mid-teens, and has endured a stint at a nightmarish juvenile detention camp. Think about the kids of Holes, 16 years old and still at their desert labors, and you get some idea of what Nickel encountered at this camp.
From his term there, he has acquired a new ghost to join Nicholas and Eleanor from his childhood, and has redirected the righteous anger of his preteen years to the pot-sellers who deal his crop. I won't spoil the story, but we quickly learn this isn't the same shiny Nickel we met at 12.
This time, instead of pederasts and kidnappers, Nickel steps into a cold murder mystery. Almost as a sideline to solving the murder, he is also attempting to resurrect the pot business that sent him to the juvvie camp. And as the two issues braid together in his life, Nickel finds for the first time someone to whom he wants to reveal himself.
By the time I was halfway into Tunnel Vision, I was no longer missing the sharply sweet 12-year-old; Nickel at 16 is just as true to himself (eventually) as the boy we met in Nickel Plated.
I hope we will see him again.