Authors: Gordon Korman
Savannah was devastated. “He hasn't growled at me since his old guard dog days! What if, in trying to keep him from Swindle, we're turning him back into the mean, antisocial animal he used to be?”
“We're not just protecting Luthor,” Ben reasoned. “We're derailing Swindle's revenge before it ever starts, and that saves all our necks.”
Griffin put a sympathetic arm around his friend's shoulders, and started her down the stairs out of the station. “One thing at a time. First we hide him, then we worry about you two guys making friends again.”
Following them around the spiral, Ben had a practical question for Pitch. “How are we ever going to look after that dog? If Savannah gets growled at, the two of us will be lunch!”
It was going to be a really long ten days.
en, wake up.”
Ben opened one eye. It was still dark, which meant he was obviously dreaming. No, he could make out the first faint colors of dawn creeping in the windows of Cabin 17. Eli, the counselor, reached out and poked him in the ribs. “Come on, Ben. Everybody's ready except you!”
“Ready for what? It's the middle of the night!”
“No, it isn't. It's five-fifteen!” Eli insisted. “The fish are biting!”
That was another thing that was big at Camp Endless, along with cliff climbing and kayaking over waterfalls: getting up at oh-dark-thirty to go fishing.
Ferret Face peeked out from under the blanket and glared at the counselor, yellow eyes glowing. Waking Ben up was
job, and he was protective of it.
Eli backed off. “Oh, I get it. You're too tired, right?”
As the only camper with a sleep disorder, Ben was cut a lot of slack in that department.
“You get some more rest, Ben. I'll ask one of the guys to look in on you in a couple of hours.” The rest of the bunk clattered out with their fishing gear, hip waders squeaking.
“No, Ferret Face,” Ben said irritably as the small animal climbed inside his pajama top. “It's not time to get up yet.” He tried to settle back in his bunk, but Ferret Face delivered one of his trademark wake-up nips. “Ow! Okay, okay, I'm getting up! Sheesh!”
Ben peered out the small window in the cabin. Aside from his own bunkmates, not a creature was stirring. The mess hall was still dark, so breakfast wasn't an option. Last night after lights-out, Pitch had climbed the ranger tower with food and water for Luthor, so he was taken care of for the time being. With his bunkmates out of the picture, Ben should probably sneak over and check in on the Doberman. But the thought of going up those stairs in the half-light with no Pitch wasn't very appealing.
So he took out his phone and decided to tap out an e-mail to his parents:
Dear Mom and Dad,
I'm writing this by the light of the fire from last night's asteroid strike. The whole camp is destroyed, but don't worry. The smoke keeps the bears away. . . .
Obviously, his parents weren't going to believe this, just as they hadn't believed the volcano, the tsunami, or the zombie apocalypse. But they were definitely getting the message, which was that their son didn't like camp very much.
Unfortunately, the National Guard is rescuing us in alphabetical order. I'm not sure I'll be still alive by the time they make it to S. At least I'm not Matthew Ziegelbaum, who is writing his will even as we speak.
Well, gotta go. They're toasting marshmallows over the flaming latrine. I wouldn't want to miss out on that. It might be the last food I'll ever eat.
With his finger hovering over
, Ben frowned. What was that cooking smell? Maybe someone
roasting marshmallows. No, this was more like steak. Was he imagining it?
Ferret Face popped out from under his collar and sniffed the air.
In answer, the furry creature scurried down the length of Ben's body, scampered across the floor, and slithered out the crack under the door in pursuit of the tantalizing aroma.
“Hey, come back here!” But it was too late. The ferret was already gone.
Tossing the phone onto the bed, Ben headed off in pursuit. What a time for Ferret Face to go on one of his little walkabouts â in unfamiliar surroundings where he could easily get lost, or forget which of the identical cabins was the right one. And who knew what kind of animal might prey on a tame little guy like him? Ferrets weren't at the bottom of the food chain, but they weren't at the top, either.
Uh-oh. A yawn confirmed it. Ben could feel the irresistible drowsiness stealing into him like a blanket coming down over his head. And this time there were no little sharp teeth to shock him back to awareness. When narcolepsy struck, there usually wasn't time to make it to a chair or a couch. He didn't collapse, exactly. But it was all he could do to reach the wall, where he slid down to a seated position on the floor, snoring softly, dead to the world.
* * *
Dominic Hiller was flat broke. The steak alone had cost him $26.95, not to mention the gas money for a thirty-mile round-trip to the nearest diner. This whole job was turning out to be one disaster after another. His leg hurt from when all those kids jumped on him at the other camp. His partner had quit outright, telling Mr. Palomino, “It's not worth it! These aren't regular kids! They're some kind of doomsday machine!” And on top of it all, it was starting to rain. These dirt roads would be pure mud by the time he found the dog and got him to the rendezvous point.
He squinted at the number on the cabin â 17. According to the camp records, that was where the Slovak kid was. If Palomino's theory was right and Luthor had been passed to Slovak, then the mutt was hidden here somewhere, within smelling distance of a big, juicy twenty-seven-dollar steak!
Come on, pooch. Come to Papa.
At that moment, a bundle of fur burst through the cabin door and made a beeline for the meat.
For a split second, Hiller actually allowed himself to think,
Hey, this is easy!
before he noticed that the animal gnawing crazily on the bait was about one-eight-hundredth the size of Luthor. He reached out to brush the interloper away. The little weasel-like creature sank tiny razor-sharp teeth into his hand, drawing blood. The effort to keep from screaming brought tears to his eyes. Sucking air, he kicked the steak a few yards away. The animal released his hand and scrambled off after it.
Where was the mutt? He shone a flashlight under Cabin 17, then eased the door a crack and peered inside. There was only one kid in there â fast asleep on the floor â and no dog. Camp sure was different from when he'd been a kid.
A phone sat on a bunk, its screen still lit. That was weirder yet! The kid must have been typing less than sixty seconds ago. Who goes to sleep that fast? And on the floor? He picked up the phone. There was a half-finished e-mail on the screen from sender
. So this was definitely the right kid.
What to do, then? Squeeze the dog's location out of Slovak? Or . . .
He opened the phone's camera function, and there it was: the most recent picture was Luthor, standing on a screen porch somewhere. No, make that a balcony, a high one â the trees were far below. He clicked on another photo, and light dawned. The “balcony” â he'd seen it before. It was the fire-spotting platform just west of the camp. He'd passed it on the way in. That was where they'd stashed the dog!
He covered the bite wound with his mouth to soothe it. This might turn out to be easy after all.
itch loved climbing in the rain. Clothes turned damp and heavy, and could throw off your sense of balance. The rocks got wet, slippery, and treacherous. Dirt and gravel became loose and unstable. Best of all, most of the other climbers gave up and went home. That left just Pitch, alone with the rock face, the purest relationship in the world â the climber and the challenge.
The crest of the ridge was just a few feet above her now. She pushed for it, enjoying the burn in her muscles. This was always her favorite part â the moment when she reached the top, the highest point, and a whole new vista unfolded before her on the other side.
There was the camp, nestled in the pines. And, about three-quarters of a mile away, the ranger platform where Luthor was safe and sound . . . or was he?
There was a dark shape halfway up the steps on the tower. A person? It had to be. But the shape was kind of wrong, huge across the shoulders. Like Bigfoot wearing blue jeans! Whoever or whatever, it was descending very slowly, almost painfully.
She squinted for a clearer picture, but the platform was just too far away. Acting on pure instinct, she began to climb down the other side of the ridge, moving carefully, yet never taking her eyes off the mysterious figure. She continued to find lower and lower positions, steadying herself with handholds that were often little more than a single finger jammed into a tiny crack or hole. Most mountaineers spent years perfecting the techniques she had grown up with. In the Benson house, it was as natural as breathing.
The mysterious figure was on the ground now, stepping out of the shadow of the tower. All at once, Pitch was low enough to get a good look. It was a man, all right. The giant humpback resolved into a familiar expanse of black and tan fur.
Pitch's breath caught in her throat. This was Swindle's man! And he had Luthor slung over his shoulders!
Instinctively, she reached for her cell phone to alert Ben, but then realized she'd left it back in her cabin. No one climbed with a phone â not if they wanted it to be in one piece at the end of the day. She was on her own. If anything was going to be done, she would have to be the doer.
She sped up her descent. She was no planner, like Griffin. But what she lacked in strategy, she made up for in raw determination. She was going to stop this guy even if she had to tackle him into a tree! Then, hopefully, Luthor would protect her if the goon got mad. As she moved down the rock face, she wondered why Luthor hadn't protected himself, especially in view of yesterday's angry mood.
She'd find out soon enough â at least, she would if she got there in time.
She worked her way around a rock spur, and noticed for the first time a mud-spattered red pickup pulled over to the side of the dirt road. It seemed to her that Luthor's kidnapper was heading there. If he made it to the truck . . .
The wet clay of a foothold disintegrated beneath her weight, and she dropped several feet, bruising her pride almost as much as her hindquarters. Dismayed, she found herself on a narrow ledge over a sheer drop. There was no way down from here. She had to climb up and around just to continue her descent.
She had cost herself time, and there was none to waste if she was going to beat Swindle's man to the pickup.
She realized too late that she wasn't going to make it. The jerk was already leaving the cover of the trees for the road. She was in an agony of guilt. She and Ben had been given Luthor less than twenty-four hours ago, and already they were losing him!
The man limped over to the pickup â he was walking with a cane, she noted. She could see clearly from this vantage point that the Doberman's eyes were shut, and his body was limp.
, she concluded.
With effort, the man loaded the hundred-and-fifty pound dog into the backseat of the crew cab, and heaved himself in behind the wheel.
Pitch watched helplessly as the truck started up. The most she could do was try to read and memorize the license plate so they could report it to the police. But what use could that possibly be? A judge had legally awarded Luthor to Swindle. In the eyes of the law, this wasn't kidnapping. The real kidnapping had happened when Griffin and Savannah had smuggled Luthor to Ebony Lake in the first place. It was so unfair!
If Pitch had had time to think about what happened next, she never would have done it. The truck jounced along the muddy road, passing directly under her perch. She dropped fifteen feet straight into the payload, bouncing catlike off the truck bed, and falling back into a pile of tires. The beating of the rain, the roar of the motor, and the groaning of old shock absorbers over rough terrain masked the sound of impact. The driver never turned his head.