Authors: Riley Clifford
UNLOCK A TOP SECRET FILE
ABOUT THE CAHILLS’ DEADLIEST ENEMY —
The code fragment for this story is:
Are you ready to save the world?
Eight Months Before the Clue Hunt
On Christmas morning, Grace Cahill learned she was dying of cancer.
She watched as Dr. Zimmerman set a thin folder down on the desk. They were in a wide study in Grace’s house. She was the kind of person people made house calls for, even on Christmas. All that bad news from such a small file. It struck Grace as strange, though she wasn’t sure why. She was an accomplished chemist and knew that the most terrible things often came in small doses.
“How long?” Grace asked, as though the question were an involuntary reaction. “Isn’t that what people ask in this situation?”
Dr. Zimmerman sighed, removing her glasses and pinching the bridge of her nose. “Patients at this stage usually have a time frame of around six months. That’s about where I’d put you, Grace.”
“Six . . .” It wasn’t enough time. There was still too much to prepare, too much that the children didn’t know. And if they weren’t ready, the whole world could suffer. “I’ll take eight,” Grace said.
“Grace,” said Dr. Zimmerman. “You’re a strong and ambitious woman. I know you’re going to fight this, which is why I’m telling you six months instead of three. But you need to accept that you are dying. Soon.”
Grace found her eyes were locked on her hands, which were knotted firmly in her lap. They were the only things she
focus on right then. She didn’t dare meet the oncologist’s eyes, in case she betray not sadness or fear, but anger. Grace was furious with herself. She’d spent her whole life searching for the 39 Clues, but it still wasn’t enough time. She’d failed.
Dr. Zimmerman reached for Grace’s hands. “You need to be thinking about your loved ones right now. Your family. Are they taken care of? Have you spent the time with them that you need to? It’s Christmas morning, and where are they? Now is the moment to make sure they understand how much they mean to you, and ensure that they are provided for.”
Grace’s thoughts snapped back to the legal documents locked in a hidden compartment in that very desk, right below her test results. They would change not only the lives of her family, but perhaps the very course of human history. Grace slowly withdrew her hands, patting out invisible wrinkles in her blouse.
“Thank you, Barbara. I think you’re right. There are affairs that still must be set in order.”
“I’m sorry, Grace. I’ll still do everything I can —”
“No, thank you. You said exactly what I needed to hear, I think. I’ll come to your office next week to talk treatments.”
Grace led Dr. Zimmerman to the door and said good-bye, then moved silently to the window. She was nearly eighty years old. Death was no stranger to her. She’d seen it take many others, including her beloved daughter and son-in-law. Staring death in the face now was nothing compared to finding it had sneaked by to claim her only child first.
Grace watched the snow begin to fall over the front lawn of her estate like a blanket, or a powder, or any of those soft and comforting things snow was supposed to be in moments like this. But she didn’t need comfort right now. She needed to make a decision.
A coughing fit brought her cat, Saladin, into the room. Saladin was a large, gray Egyptian Mau and had been Grace’s travel companion on many adventures. When she first started getting sick, it had been Saladin who seemed to sense it. In the week preceding her recent prognosis, he had barely left her side at all.
Grace’s cough subsided. Reaching down to pet Saladin, she noticed his fur was wet with melted snow.
“You’ve been prowling the neighborhood, haven’t you?” she said. “Quite a trek through the snow, just to fertilize the neighbors’ yards.”
Saladin mewled, as if feigning surprise at the accusation.
“Well, it’ll be spring by the time they find your little gifts, and by then . . .” Grace paused. “By then, they’ll have much bigger things to worry about. The whole world might.”
Grace was the matriarch of the Cahills, the most influential family the world had ever known. George Washington, Napoleon, Amelia Earhart — nearly every important figure in the last five hundred years had belonged to one of its five branches. Most of the family members themselves didn’t know the true extent of the Cahill legacy — or the terrible responsibility that came with it. Only Grace had figured out the truth of the 39 Clues that concealed the source of the Cahills’ great power. It had been the defining goal of her life to find each of the Clues, and protect them from her ruthless family.
And only Grace knew that the Cahills weren’t alone in the search for the Clues. A shadowy organization, the Vespers, lurked somewhere in the dark places of the world, and crept into her thoughts now.
Grace produced a small key seemingly from nowhere, and moved quickly from the window to the large, carved cherrywood desk at the center of the room. She opened a drawer in the desk, then felt around within it. There was a soft clicking noise as a smaller, hidden compartment descended into place. She unlocked the secret drawer and pulled it open. Splayed within, like an open deck of cards, were the legal documents that would set into motion a deadly serious scavenger hunt for the very Clues she’d worked her whole life to protect. But she was dying, and someone must come forward who was strong enough to stand against the Vespers.
Now that the moment had finally arrived, however, she found that she was hesitating.
She picked up the small pen that lay beside the documents. Just a bit of ink to paper, and she would drop her only grandchildren into the fray. Such terrible things from such small doses.
Grace set the pen down.
All her life, Grace had been tormented by the worry that someone with selfish or evil aims would find the 39 Clues. But for five hundred years, the Clues had remained safely hidden.
Saladin approached cautiously, watching Grace tuck the documents back into the secret desk drawer.
No one had ever been able to locate all the Clues. Soon Grace would be dead, and here she was on Christmas morning, laying plans to protect them from her grave. She wouldn’t place such a heavy burden on the two people she loved most — Amy and Dan Cahill, her grandchildren.
Grace locked the drawer once more, and moved hurriedly to the phone on the other side of the room. Saladin scampered out of her path as she crossed, now completely oblivious to him.
The world was safe enough without eccentric old Grace Cahill shaking things up one last time. The Vespers hadn’t been heard from in over a decade, and Grace pushed them firmly out of her mind. It was decided.
The secrets of the Clues would die with her.
It was Christmas, and Dan Cahill was not in a good mood.
“Sit down, dweeb,” Amy said. “You’re making me nervous.”
“What’s taking her so long?” Dan said, pacing back into the cramped living room from the bathroom. “Grace was supposed to call two hours ago!” Dan was dressed in his usual Christmas outfit: a black ninja costume, complete with plastic throwing stars stuffed into his pockets.
“I can’t imagine why she’d be trying to delay the inevitable,” said Amy, looking back down at the Tchaikovsky biography she had open on her lap. “Maybe it has something to do with the neighbors seeing an eleven-year-old ninja being driven up to her house.”
“Grace has way weirder people than me coming in and out all the time,” Dan said. “You, on the other hand, are about as boring as it gets. If Grace is worried about anyone cramping her style, I’d point to the gloomy nerd reading about Chucklesky.”
sky. He composed the score for the ballet
Dan threw his hands up. “How am I supposed to get any better at making you sound like a loser if you just do all the work for me?”
Amy cocked her arm back to throw her book at her brother. Dan yelped and bolted into his room, slamming the door. A handwritten sign on the front read
Amy sighed and lowered the book back onto her lap. At this point she was just pretending to read — she couldn’t actually concentrate on the sentences in front of her while she waited for Grace’s call. In her pocket, her cell phone felt like it weighed a thousand pounds, and she kept imagining she felt it ringing. But it never did.
Dan was always a little exasperating this time of year — even more than his usual day-to-day annoying — but this holiday had been especially trying for the two Cahill siblings.
Amy looked around, taking in the tiny apartment. Paper Christmas decorations and streamers were strewn along half the room. They cut off abruptly, though, the streamers falling limply to the carpet. Frida, their most recent au pair, had been hanging them when Amy and Dan’s guardian called to lay her off.
Amy and Dan were orphans. Their parents had died in a fire years ago. Though they were legally in the care of their great-aunt Beatrice, she opted to have the siblings housed apart from her, hiring a constant and varied stream of live-in au pairs to watch over them. They never lasted very long. Beatrice had a habit of quickly firing them, often for no reason at all.
Dan emerged from his room after a few minutes. He’d switched out the ninja getup for a sweater, jeans, and his backpack, but he still had the mask hanging around his neck. He held a plastic throwing star up in a defensive position.
“Try anything with the book, and you’re getting this right between the eyes,” he said.
“If you throw that anywhere near my face, dweeb, they’ll be burying you in that goofy costume.”
Dan narrowed his eyes. “You are a worthy rival, nerd-san.”
Amy smirked and shook her head. “Listen, I wouldn’t worry,” she said, as a sort of peace offering. “I’m sure Grace is busy with something important. Maybe she’s getting us a really incredible present . . . a little bit late.”
She wished there was more she could do for Dan. Her little brother would never admit how sad he was, but she knew. Earlier in the day she’d presented him with his Christmas present to try to cheer him up, a huge pack full of bottle rockets. It had taken her months to save up for the gift and convince Frida to do the actual purchasing for her. Still, it was worth it to see Dan get excited about something, even if just for a little while. She knew that presents weren’t everything. Every holiday story since holiday stories began had drilled that point home. But they didn’t hurt, either.
Dan shrugged and lowered the throwing star. He shook his backpack off and dug through it, pulling out the pack of bottle rockets.
“Can we shoot some of these off while we wait?”
Amy thought about it for a moment. “You wouldn’t rather do it at Grace’s house, with all that space in the yard?”
“I have some ideas I want to try out,” Dan said with a grin. “Like, what happens if you tie two, or even three rockets together, end to end, so they’re all pulling in opposite directions?”
“Someone gets hurt, probably,” Amy said doubtfully.
“Or something even cooler than that.”
“We should probably just wait for Grace,” Amy said, looking back down at her biography.
Dan crossed his arms. “You know what? I’m tired of waiting. If we aren’t important enough for her to pick us up on time
, I don’t see why she should keep me from having fun. I’m going out.” He replaced the rockets in his backpack and slipped it over his shoulders, then stalked over to the apartment door and opened it.