Authors: Gordon Korman
Luthor was in enemy hands, but he was not alone.
en felt like he was swimming upward through layer after layer of clinging fog. Even in his dazed state, he knew from bitter experience exactly what had happened to him. This was no regular sleep. This was â
“Ben!” Eli slapped him lightly on both cheeks. “Wake up, Ben! What happened to you? Why are you on the floor?”
The room came into focus at last. He saw his counselor and bunkmates leaning over him in concern. His first response was to pat at his T-shirt. Nobody home.
“Where's Ferret Face?” he demanded.
“Your weasel?” asked one boy, toweling off his wet hair. “He's just outside.”
Ben struggled to his feet. No wonder he'd fallen asleep like that! Ferret Face was lying down on the job! He staggered to the door and threw it open. There was the little creature, languid and stuffed, still gnawing at a half-eaten steak.
“Oh, great!” Ben exclaimed. “When it comes down to me or your stomach, we all know where
stand!” He frowned. “Eli, are they serving steak in the mess hall today?”
The counselor laughed. “Steak? At this place? Try Corn Flakes.”
Stupid question. It was breakfast.
It was starting to come back to him. Right before he'd conked out, he distinctly remembered smelling steak.
Who brought steak to a summer camp at five in the morning? Someone who wanted to draw out an animal. And nobody wanted to draw out a ferret. That steak had been bait â for
His reeling mind immediately reached two terrifying conclusions: (1) Swindle's agents had already tracked the Doberman to Camp Endless Pines, and (2) at least one of those agents had been right here in the last few hours.
Haunted, he scanned the compound, half expecting to see an enemy crouched behind every hut and building. He looked down. There were dozens of footprints in the mud, but one set stood out â two large construction boots flanked by a neat round hole, something made by a crutch or a cane. Yesterday Griffin had told them that one of Swindle's men had hurt his leg at the Ta-da! Showdown. It couldn't be a coincidence.
Ben snatched up the soggy Ferret Face and stuffed him inside his shirt. “Come on, little man. You've eaten enough.” He had to call Pitch. This was a full-blown crisis.
Back inside, he found his phone lying on the floor, close to the spot where he'd napped. When he unlocked the screen, the image that appeared sent cold fingers of dread clutching at his heart. It was a picture he'd taken of the ranger station â Luthor's new safe haven. No way had he been looking at it this morning. Someone had checked his phone. If Swindle's man had seen this picture of Luthor at the ranger platform, then things were even worse than he'd feared.
He dialed Pitch's number. It went straight to voicemail. “We've got big trouble!” he recorded. “Call me right away!”
A half hour went by. No call.
He left a second message, this one practically hysterical.
While waiting for a response, he borrowed binoculars from the supply hut and trained them on the elevated ranger station. There was no sign of Luthor. There was no sign of any life up there.
But that doesn't necessarily mean anything. It's raining. Visibility's bad. I wouldn't see him if he was lying flat on the floor. Or maybe Pitch brought him down to go for a walk. And she isn't picking up because her phone got rained on. What am I getting so crazy about?
An hour went by. No sign of Luthor; no word from Pitch.
He went to her cabin, number two. No one had seen her since breakfast.
There was no getting away from it. He had to climb up that ranger tower to see if Luthor was there.
He told Eli he'd be in the Arts and Crafts tent, making a wallet, and then snuck out of the compound, heading for the station. All the way, he lectured Ferret Face. “It's, like, ninety feet straight up. And if I fall asleep on those stairs, I'm a dead man. So no goofing off. I mean it.”
At last, he reached the base of the platform and began his ascent. As he neared the top, he called out, “Luthor? Pitch? Are you there?”
With a sinking heart, he pulled himself up into the screened-in station. It was empty.
He sat down to catch his breath, broken with despair. He'd known he was going to find this, but somehow he'd been holding out the faint hope that he was wrong, that he'd misunderstood somehow, and that everything was really fine.
A tiny flash of yellow caught his eye. He moved to get a closer look. Embedded in a wooden post was a small feathered tranquilizer dart. And in the dust on the floor, evidence of a turbulent struggle, large canine paw prints along with construction boots and, yes, the imprint of a rubber-tipped crutch or cane. It was proof beyond a doubt that the worst-case scenario had come to pass.
Luthor had been kidnapped.
And Pitch? Where was Pitch?
Back on the ground, he picked up the trail in the mud of the forest floor. Heavier footsteps, deeper. Why? Because the man had been carrying a tranquilized one-hundred-fifty-pound dog! The prints went on for a short distance to the dirt road, where they disappeared. From that point, Luthor and his captor had driven away in some kind of vehicle. Probably a small truck. The tires were wide, and dug two distinct grooves into the mud of the dirt road.
He began to follow the tracks, while berating himself for doing such a stupid thing. The truck could have gone a hundred miles, maybe more. Was he going to walk that far? Yet, while there was a trail to follow, he couldn't bring himself to turn back. Futile as it seemed, it was just that important. He'd always rolled his eyes at Griffin's stubborn devotion to his plans. And here was Ben, the sensible one, doggedly pushing onward against all logic.
It was not loyalty to Griffin that kept his wet feet moving; not compassion for Luthor; not even so much his worry about Pitch, who, of the six team members, could take care of herself. It was this: Ben could not bear the thought of spending the rest of his life looking over his shoulder, waiting for Swindle's revenge. Better to stand up to their enemy now, even if that meant taking on the mud and the rain and the endless north woods.
He trudged along, never lifting his gaze from the tire tracks. Luckily, it was so early in the morning that the only fresh grooves deep in the mud belonged to the truck he was following. That wouldn't last as the day went on and more traffic appeared on this road. Not so lucky was the fact that he was soaked to the skin, and caked in slime up to the knees. If his mother could see him, she'd be running a hot bath and making oatmeal.
So absorbed was he in his own misery and the crisis at hand that he nearly walked past the bike. It was a rusty old wreck, probably from the 1970s because it had one of those long banana seats. Someone had obviously thrown it away, or it had fallen off a roof rack on its way to being thrown away. But the chain was still in place, and the fat tires seemed to have air. It looked pretty rickety, but it was better than walking.
It's not like I could get any wetter or dirtier by falling off a beat-up bike.
He got on, and began to wobble down the road, placing his front wheel in one of the ruts made by the getaway truck. An alarmed Ferret Face peered out of his collar and directed a quizzical look up at him.
“Don't ask,” he muttered. There could be no good explanation for this, not even if he spoke ferret.
t was a rough ride, even for a rock climber. Pitch could feel her breakfast tossing around with every bump in the road. The tires, mudguards and all, were spraying her with a constant shower of slime. If it was possible to be less comfortable, she didn't see how.
She crouched in the front driver's-side corner of the flatbed, barely daring to move for fear that Swindle's man might catch a glimpse of her in the rearview mirror. From her spot, she could just spy the slumbering Luthor. At least, she hoped he was slumbering. He was awfully still.
She couldn't tell how far they'd gone when the pickup veered off the narrow, muddy, bumpy road onto an even narrower, muddier, bumpier side road. Her watch said they'd been traveling a little less than half an hour. When she dared to peek over the side wall, she could see they were approaching a tiny neat cottage. Sure enough, they pulled up onto a gravel front drive and parked.
Pitch pressed her body against the truck bed, holding herself as low as possible, so even if the man glanced at the payload, his eyes would pass right over her. Still, she was ready for instant action. If she had to escape, she could definitely outrun a man with a cane.
She needn't have worried. He checked briefly on Luthor, and then limped into the house.
Pitch was out of the truck bed in an instant, and into the backseat beside the Doberman.
“Okay, Luthor, rise and shine.” There was absolutely no response. She placed her hand high up on his belly, and was relieved to feel a steady heartbeat and deep, even breathing. “Come on, big guy. I know you're tired, but it's time to bounce!”
Luthor wasn't bouncing. He was alive, but that was it.
With a sigh of resignation, she wrapped her arms around the dog's midsection and attempted to heave him bodily out of the cab. She felt his hundred-and-fifty-pound body move an inch or two, but then her strength was at an end, and she was setting him down again. She tried once more, if only because not trying was something a Benson would never accept. She might have been struggling like that all day if she hadn't heard an approaching engine. Frantically, she shut Luthor back in the cab and dove behind a stand of bushes near the front of the house.
The new vehicle came into view, shaking and bouncing even more violently than the pickup had. It, too, was mud to the axle, and the wipers labored at top speed, clearing the windshield of watery filth. It turned into the drive and parked behind the pickup.
Pitch had just an instant to reflect that the compact SUV bore stickers from a car rental company when the door opened, and out stepped S. Wendell Palomino.
That rotten Swindle was no longer content to leave his dirty work in the hands of private investigators and canine kidnappers. The enemy had come for Luthor personally.
She watched as he peered in at the tranquilized dog in the cab of the truck, smiling with smug satisfaction.
If you look up “creep” in the dictionary, you'll find a picture of S. Wendell Palomino.
“Nice work, Hiller. Come out and give me a hand!”
The man with the cane emerged from the little house and limped over to the truck. They exchanged a greeting, but there were no friendly handshakes. It was obvious that theirs was strictly a business relationship.
With great effort, the two men unloaded Luthor's inert form and carried it over to be placed in the hatchback of the SUV. The sight of them â one hobbled and limping, and the other short, pudgy, and out of shape â struggling along with a hundred and fifty pounds of deadweight would have been funny if it hadn't been so awful. Hiller had handled the dog better by himself.
Swindle shut the lift gate. “Stupid mutt sure doesn't look like Best in Show now.” He emitted a nasty laugh at his own joke.
Hiller didn't share his amusement. “You've got some money for me?”
Swindle nodded. “Let's get out of this rain.” They headed into the cottage and shut the door behind them.
Without leaving the bushes, Pitch crept over to a window and peeked inside. She could see Swindle at the kitchen table, peeling bills off a thick roll, while Hiller watched over his shoulder.
The fact that they had loaded Luthor straight into the rental rather than bringing him inside the cabin worried her. That meant their stay here would probably be brief. Once Swindle drove off with the dog, their chances of ever finding him again would be zero â he could be going straight from here to the airport, and off to California. All Griffin's planning and Savannah's dog-whispering couldn't reach the Doberman from a distance of three thousand miles. What would happen next came straight from everyone's wildest nightmares: Luthor would be used for his earning power and then thrown away. And Swindle would put his newfound wealth to work exacting revenge on the kids he believed had ruined his life.