Authors: Gordon Korman
As the dog was lifted free of the hatch, Ferret Face emerged from Ben's sleeve, scampered out onto Luthor's back, and made himself comfortable in the short black fur.
“Come back!” Ben hissed. As light as the ferret was, adding any extra mass to Luthor's load was unacceptable.
Now came the hard part â fitting all that bulk on the bicycle. They approached from several different angles, but each seemed to leave the Doberman hanging in a precarious way. They finally draped Luthor's hind legs over the Mustang handlebars, placing his chest and great head on the banana seat.
“We're not going to get it any better than this,” Pitch panted. “Now, let's blow this Popsicle stand before Swindle and his goon decide to check on Luthor.”
Pitch got on one side, Ben got on the other, and they started slowly down the road. The bike carried Luthor's weight easily. But in order to maintain balance, the two rescuers had to lean into each other, which made progress exhausting.
“How long do we have to keep this up?” Ben gasped.
Pitch's reply was strained. “As long as it takes.”
ominic Hiller pocketed his money and stood up, leaning heavily on his cane. “I wish I could say it was a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Palomino. But I've got one torn-up knee that says it wasn't.”
Swindle glowered at him. “Excuse me for thinking you and your friend knew how to handle yourselves around a couple of kids.”
“Those aren't ordinary kids,” Hiller defended himself. “Their loyalty to that dumb animal is insane. It's almost like a cult. It leads them to perform miracles.”
“Yeah, well, they just ran out of miracles,” Palomino retorted sourly. “I've got the dog, and within a week, every top breeder in the world will be watching him wipe up the competition on the show circuit. That âdumb animal' is going to make me rich.”
“We should have hit you up for more money,” Hiller mused, limping toward the door. “Especially Louie. He's got whiplash from when the bug dipper came down on him.”
They left the cottage and started for their two vehicles.
The first yelp came from Palomino. “The dog's escaped!”
“No chance! He's out cold for hours yet!”
“Then how do you explain
?” Swindle roared.
Hiller thumped over to see for himself. Sure enough, the SUV's hatchback was empty.
“I can't!” The hired man was mystified. “Even if he woke up early, how would he get himself out of the car? He doesn't have fingers, you know.”
“Which means he had help!” Palomino growled. “Those kids must have followed us somehow.”
“They can't have gone far,” Hiller reasoned. “You drive north, I'll drive south. We'll catch them.”
Distraught, Swindle leaped into his rental SUV, jammed the key into the ignition, and twisted it. The car did not start. He tried again. Nothing. Not a cough, not a rev, not even a hiccup.
“Cheap rental piece of junk!” He leaped out and ran to Hiller's truck. “My car won't start!”
car won't start!” Hiller was pounding on the steering wheel. “Mine won't, either!”
They raced around and threw open the hood. Cut and tattered wires were everywhere. On the SUV, the situation was the same.
“Those kids!” Hiller exclaimed in agony. “Is there anything they can't do?”
Palomino was upset, but not rattled. “We can still catch them.”
Hiller waved his cane. “I'm not exactly an Olympic athlete these days.”
“They're still kids, and they're carrying a ton of dog meat.” The fried-egg eyes grew even wider behind the Coke-bottle glasses as Swindle looked down into the mud of the road. There, the track of a single wheel, much narrower than a car tire, led off to the south.
Hiller followed his gaze. “A wheelbarrow?”
“Whatever it is, they're probably just around the bend. Let's go.”
They started off down the road, with the out-of-shape former storekeeper barely keeping ahead of his hobbled hired man. Soon they were soaked and mud to the knees.
“Lousy kids!” Swindle puffed. “Lousy kids!” After the first quarter mile, he had no breath left for any words at all.
Hiller's cane kept sticking in the soft ground, and he took to limping along without leaning on it, waving it in front of him like a sword.
At last, they rounded a curve in the road, and their quarry appeared out of the mist and rain.
Palomino pointed. “There. Three of them.”
Hiller's eyesight was sharper. “Just two. That's the dog in the middle. They've got him draped over a bike.”
The two men quickened their pace, hoping the poor weather would cover their approach. It worked for a while. But then one of the kids â the girl â happened to glance over her shoulder.
* * *
The first Ben knew of it, Pitch had accelerated her pace, and he had to jog to keep up with the bike. “Hey, what are you â ?”
“Run, Ben!” she interrupted urgently. “Swindle's after us!”
Terrified, Ben looked back at the two lumbering pursuers. The men were slow, but the overladen bicycle was slower. “Let's move!” he urged.
They pushed with all their might, which only seemed to dig the bike's wheels deeper into the mud.
Pitch's face was a picture of determination. “Faster!” she breathed.
Sweat ran down their faces, mingling with the rain. Gradually, the bicycle picked up momentum. The gap between them and the two men, which had been closing steadily, began to open up again.
Then it happened. The front tire hit an exposed root and bounced. With it bounced Luthor, down to the ground, where he rolled into the ditch. Pitch and Ben dropped the bike and stooped to lift him out, but it was impossible to get any leverage on so much weight.
“Come on, Luthor, wake up,” Pitch pleaded with the slumbering dog. “You can nap all you want once we get away, but right now we have to
Too late. Swindle and Hiller appeared at the top of the ditch, panting and glaring down at them. “Fancy meeting you kids here,” drawled S. Wendell Palomino in an unpleasant, if breathless tone.
Ferret Face shrank inside Ben's collar. Even the little animal could see the hopelessness of their situation. Luthor was still immobile, and the enemy was upon them.
This was the end of the road.
All at once, Pitch sprang away from the Doberman, grabbed Ben's hand, and hauled him out of the ditch. They pounded through the wet underbrush, making for the cover of the trees. Hiller started to chase them, but came down too hard on his injured leg and hit the ground with a splash beside Luthor. By the time he'd gotten back up again, Pitch and Ben were disappearing into the woods.
He started after them in pursuit.
“Forget it,” Palomino told him. “We've got the mutt. That's all that matters.”
“They could go to the cops!” Hiller sputtered.
“And tell them what?” Swindle challenged. “That we stopped them from stealing
dog? We've got the law on our side. Now we just need a mechanic to fix the cars, and we'll never have to deal with those rotten kids again.”
At least not until I'm ready to go back to Cedarville and take them all down.
Palomino thought it, but he didn't say it aloud.
* * *
It wasn't easy for slight Ben to keep up with Pitch's long athletic strides, but he came close, sprinting through the forest, sidestepping trees like a broken-field runner in a football game. When at last he drew close enough to reach out and grab a fistful of her T-shirt, he nearly pulled her over backward.
She paused for a moment, listening for footsteps crashing through the woods behind them. “I think we're safe.”
Ben collapsed to his knees, hyperventilating. “Why did we do that? Why did we run?” he rasped. “We abandoned Luthor!”
“We didn't abandon him,” Pitch corrected firmly. “We lived on to fight another day.”
“Try telling that to Savannah!” Ben croaked. “Try telling it to Griffin! The whole point of the plan is keeping Luthor away from Swindle. We just did the total opposite of that!”
“Cool your jets,” Pitch soothed. “They've got the dog, but they're not going anywhere anytime soon.”
“And we are?” Ben challenged. “We don't even have a way to get back to camp.”
“Never mind camp,” she told him. “Give me your phone. It's time to call in the troops.”
he score was 3â2, with a man on third, when Griffin's stomach began vibrating.
Crouched behind home plate in his catcher's mask and chest protector, he had no way of answering the phone that was taped to his belly. Cyrus had already confiscated Savannah's cell â the girl was so frantic over what might be happening to Luthor that she was constantly being caught using it at unauthorized times. If Griffin lost his phone, too, they'd be completely out of touch with the plan.
But he had to take this call. It could only be about Operation Hideout.
The vibration stopped.
Oh, no! I missed it! Call back! Please call back!
The batter hit a weak dribbler out toward the mound. It was the pitcher's play, but at that moment, the phone began to vibrate once more. Griffin charged the ball as if he'd been shot out of a cannon. He flattened the pitcher as the boy bent to field the grounder, scooped up the ball himself, and made a beeline for the base path. Spying the danger, the runner reversed course and headed back to third. He should have been caught in a rundown except that Griffin had no time to waste on baseball. He had to make the out and scram in time to answer his call.
With a burst of speed that surprised even him, Griffin executed the tag, shouted,
and sprinted for the wash station, jettisoning equipment as he fled.
“What?” he panted when he was finally able to rip the phone from his skin and hit
“Swindle's got Luthor and we're lost in the woods!” Ben babbled on the other end of the line.
It was the last thing any planner wanted to hear â that the wheels were coming off and there was nothing to be done about it.
“Calm down,” Griffin ordered. “Tell me what's going on.”
“We're not lost,” came Pitch's voice.
“We just don't know where we are!” Ben added helpfully.
“We know exactly where Luthor is â that's the main thing,” Pitch explained. “Swindle's got him tranquilized in a cabin maybe a quarter mile from here.”
“Any idea what the jerk's going to do?” Griffin probed, struggling for calm.
“Well, he's not going to drive away,” she replied. “Not until he finds a good mechanic. But there's another guy with him, and there's no way Ben and I can handle both of them without help.”
“Sit tight,” Griffin ordered tersely. “We'll be there as soon as we can.”
Ben was practically hysterical. “How can you find us?
can't even find us!”
“Your phone has a GPS. Melissa will know how to locate it. This is going to be a whole team effort.”
He hung up, taking note of the clock. Savannah, he knew, was in Arts and Crafts, tie-dyeing T-shirts. The next truck coming by would be the Sewer and Septic Service, also known as the Triple-S. It wasn't Griffin's preferred choice of transportation, but it was the soonest option.
And he had a sinking feeling that time was running out.
* * *
Logan finally loved camp â and it was because camp finally loved Logan.
He was getting the respect he deserved at last. After his Showdown-saving performance of Abraham Lincoln being attacked by a dog, he was the number one star at Ta-da! Well, technically,
was number one. But since she had given up singing and would only work on set design, that left Logan in the top spot. Better still, Mary Catherine the Klingon was way down at the bottom of the totem pole with the termites.