Authors: Gordon Korman
Case in point: Today's improvisation exercise in the performance center,
. Logan was Pharaoh, and Mary Catherine was the priestess of some minor god nobody cared about. Best of all, this was improv, which meant there was no script, and the actors were making it up as they went along.
“Come to Pharaoh, O random priestess,” Logan commanded in an imperious tone. “It is hot, and our royal feet perspire with great foulness unpleasant to our nose. Wash our sandals in the purifying water of the Nile.”
Red-faced but obedient, the unfortunate priestess was unlacing his sneakers when Melissa burst into the barn. “Great Pharaoh,” she announced, a little out of breath. “Follow me. You are needed on an urgent errand.”
“Pharaohs don't do errands,” Logan replied haughtily. “That is what servants are for.” He regarded Mary Catherine sternly. “To the Nile with haste, priestess. Let not the palace gates strike the rear of thy tunic on the way out.”
“But, Great One,” Melissa persisted. “This matter involves the â jackal. The
jackal,” she added meaningfully.
Logan kicked back into his shoes, stomping on Mary Catherine's fingers.
“Sorry!” Pharaoh blurted. “I â I forgot to lock my pyramid!” He ran for the exit.
Athena stepped forward. “This is about that poor abused dog, isn't it?”
“The farmer's got him back,” Melissa confirmed. “He needs our help â now!”
“He didn't look so abused to me,” Mary Catherine put in sourly.
Athena ignored her. “Go! We'll cover for you with Wendy.”
They jogged across the compound, Logan hopping to tie his sneakers on the way. “What's the emergency?”
“Swindle's got Luthor,” Melissa explained. “Griffin and Savannah are coming to pick us up in the Triple-S.”
Logan's nose wrinkled. “Not the Triple-S.”
“Faster! They could be here any minute.”
They made it to the trees without attracting attention, reaching the road just as a cargo van appeared in the distance.
“That's the one,” Logan confirmed sadly. “I can smell it from here.”
Sure enough, the familiar logo of the Sewer and Septic Service Corporation came into focus. Melissa and Logan stepped back into the cover of the trees.
As the truck rattled along, a rear door opened slightly and an arm reached out. It unlocked a reel on the side of the van, releasing a long hose. The next time the driver glanced at his mirror, he could see fifty feet of rubber tubing snaking behind him, flapping all over the road.
The truck screeched to a halt, and the driver set about restoring the hose, cursing colorfully. Melissa and Logan tensed for action. There would be a handful of seconds while the man walked back to his cab, climbed in, and restarted the engine. That was all the time they were going to get.
“Now!” Melissa whispered.
They were off like the wind, pounding for the rear of the van. As they approached, the cargo doors opened. Griffin and Savannah hauled them aboard and slammed the hatch shut. Just like that, they were moving again.
“You know, this better be important,” Logan complained. “I was about to make Mary Catherine feed me grapes.”
“I have no idea what you're talking about,” Savannah told him harshly. “But poor Luthor is in danger, so, yes, this definitely counts as important.”
The Man With The Plan was grim as he took charge. “Operation Hideout is falling apart, you guys. It's my fault, really. If Swindle could find Ebony Lake and Ta-da!, I should have known he would look to our other two team members at the third camp.”
“But how do we know where he's holding Luthor?” Logan asked.
Melissa held up her phone. “I'm tracking the GPS locater on Ben's cell.” She frowned. “We're moving in the right direction, but the signal's weaker than it was twenty minutes ago. That could mean the unit is running low on power.”
The van was built to carry equipment, not passengers, so the ride was rough, especially when they left pavement and began to jounce along dirt road. All eyes were on Melissa's phone, which pinpointed Ben's location. It was unlikely that the Triple-S was headed exactly where they wanted to go. They had to be vigilant, then. When it seemed as if they were as close as they were likely to get, they had to make their move and bail out of the truck. The rest of the way they would travel on foot.
“How far will that be?” asked Savannah worriedly. For her, every minute Luthor was in Swindle's clutches was torture.
Griffin shrugged. “It depends on the route of the Triple-S, and how far off the main road that cottage happens to be.”
Melissa sounded nervous behind her hair. “Ben's signal is down to ten percent. Don't people remember to charge their phones?”
“Just you,” Logan confirmed. “The rest of us have careers to think about.” He stretched, and his flailing elbow flipped a metal switch. The roar of a motor filled the van, followed by a loud hiss of suction. A length of corrugated tubing lashed out, slapping Logan in the cheek. The air filled with dust, starting them all sneezing and choking. A powerful vacuum tugged at their clothes. Melissa's curtain of long stringy hair was pulled away from her face and sucked into the nozzle.
Griffin lunged for the power vac and flicked the switch again. Blessed quiet returned. Melissa's hair reassembled itself in front of her face.
Nobody spoke. Nobody even moved. Had the driver noticed the disturbance? If he caught them, it would mean the end of Operation Hideout.
The van continued to shudder along, shock absorbers protesting loudly.
“That was close,” quavered Savannah.
“It's time,” said Melissa in a small voice.
“Time for what?” asked Griffin absently. He was so relieved at having survived the mishap with the power vac that he couldn't focus on anything else.
Melissa held her phone in front of him. They had homed in on Ben's signal, and were now veering away slightly. They would never be closer than this.
Like a bus rider getting up to pull the cord for his stop, Griffin opened the rear door a crack, leaned out, and released the hose from its wheel. The four of them waited, poised for flight, as the truck crunched to a halt. But instead of the squeak of the reel rewinding, the back hatch was flung wide, and the driver was glaring in at them.
knew I heard something â” the man began angrily.
Without thinking, Griffin lunged for the power vac and kicked the switch in the opposite direction. The machine blared to life, blowing out this time. The gale-force wind took the glasses clean off the driver's nose and sent them skittering down the road.
Nobody needed a signal. The four campers blasted out of the truck. They crossed the road and disappeared into the woods. For the first hundred yards, their flight was pure escape. Then Melissa began to adjust their route according to the blip from Ben's cell. When it became clear that the driver wasn't interested in chasing them, they slowed to a walk.
“The signal's going in and out,” Melissa observed. “When the phone dies, we'll be flying blind.”
The rain was tapering off, but the ground was swampy. Every step pulled at their sneakers, making progress slow and miserable. Onward they forged until, with sinking hearts, all four of them watched the signal on Melissa's screen flicker and wink out.
Savannah was practically hysterical. “How will we ever find Luthor
Griffin asserted his leadership. “Going back isn't part of the plan. We're headed in the right direction. We stick to it as best we can.”
“We've been sticking to it for the last hour,” Logan pointed out. “Who knows if we can even retrace our path to the road to catch another truck back to camp?”
“I don't care about getting back,” Savannah insisted. “I only care about Luthor.”
“We have to care about all of it,” Griffin said firmly. “If we can't stop Swindle right here, right now, he's going to haunt us for the rest of our lives.”
They continued to walk, with a little less sureness in their steps. A lot of the hopeful determination had gone out of them.
And then a voice that was low, yet remarkably close, queried, “What's taking them so long? What if they got caught? What if they can't find us?”
Griffin stopped dead, a goofy grin spreading across his face. “I'd know that whine anywhere.”
The four of them rushed through a break in the trees into a clearing at the side of a narrow dirt road. There they found a small cottage, two disabled vehicles, and Pitch and Ben, waiting not very patiently.
Due to their dire situation, the reunion was brief and subdued. As soon as Palomino could find transportation, Luthor would be out of reach. It was the worst kind of ticking clock, since, for all they knew, a tow truck could be right around the next bend.
“Maybe that's our opportunity,” Griffin mused. “Swindle will go to the garage with his rental, right? That'll leave Luthor alone with only one guy.”
Pitch shook her head. “I only pulled out wires. They might not need to go to a garage.”
Melissa nodded. “A trained mechanic could fix that on the spot.”
“Knocking out the cars was sheer genius,” Griffin praised Pitch. “Without that, the plan would be dead in the water.”
“It was an amazing ad lib,” added Logan, using theatre terminology.
“That's not all,” Pitch enthused. From her back pocket she produced the page she had taken from the SUV â the form from the dog pound that proved Palomino had given up his Doberman.
“We can't leave here without Luthor,” Savannah said determinedly. “Judge Bittner will
to overturn the court order when he sees this.”
“But how do we get to Luthor?” Logan asked. “He's locked in the house with two adults.”
“Adults have never stopped us before,” put in Griffin. “All they are is bigger than us. That doesn't mean much when you've got the right plan.”
“It'll be tricky, though,” Pitch acknowledged. “Ben and I already made a play for the dog, so Swindle will be on high alert.”
“When's Luthor going to wake up?” wondered Ben, absently rubbing his T-shirt to stroke Ferret Face through the fabric. “He could be our secret weapon. That dog could eat two adults as an appetizer and still have room for a full-grown bull elephant.”
Savannah glared at him. “Luthor's as gentle as a lamb.”
,” Pitch told her, not unkindly. “No offense, but to the rest of the world, he's an instrument of destruction. I agree that it's a shame to waste him if things get rough dealing with Swindle.”
The dog whisperer was adamant. “I won't allow it. He was trained to be vicious before, and it almost tore him apart.”
“And now he's devoted his life to tearing everybody else apart,” Ben observed.
Savannah reddened. “If he bit somebody, he'd have to be put down!”
“Fighting among ourselves doesn't help rescue the dog,” Griffin said quickly. “The truth is, we have no idea what kind of shape Luthor is in â or how closely Swindle and the other guy are watching him. We need a spy operation.”
“There's no time,” Savannah protested. “A mechanic could already be on his way to fix the cars!”
“All the more reason we have to spy,” Griffin argued. “We can't start planning until we know how long we've got to work with.”
“How are we supposed to do that?” Logan challenged. “Stare in through the window and try to read Swindle's lips?”
“If only we could find a way to hear what they're saying in there,” Griffin mused.
“Some Man With The Plan you are,” Ben said sarcastically. “I can't believe you forgot to pack an electronic listening device in your duffel bag.”
“Actually,” Melissa spoke up shyly, “I might be able to help out with that.”
Everyone stared at her.
“You brought a
to summer camp?” Pitch asked incredulously.
“Well, no, but I was just thinking.” Melissa took her phone out of her pocket. “If I call Griffin, and we place my cell inside the cottage somewhere, it should pick up everything that's being said in there.”
“I like it,” Griffin approved, his eyes alight with the excitement of a plan beginning to take shape. “But how are we going to get your phone into the house?”
Pitch took the handset from Melissa. “That's the easy part.”
Ben was wide-eyed. “There's no mail slot or doggie door, and Swindle knows we're around, so there's no way they left a window unlocked. What are you going to do?”
She grinned. “Think Santa Claus.”