Authors: Gordon Korman
o Pitch, who had conquered mountain peaks, sheer cliffs, and frozen waterfalls, getting to the roof of the single-story cottage was as easy as stepping onto a footstool. From the eaves, she was amused to look down and see her five teammates watching her movements anxiously. She smirked at them and then crossed to the stone chimney. She hoisted herself up and peered inside. Perfect. There was no damper; she could see clear down to the fireplace about fifteen feet below.
She took out Melissa's phone and began to unwind the makeshift twine they had created by removing leaves from the ivy on the side of the cottage. Pitch secured the handset to one end, triple-knotting it. Then she dialed Griffin.
He answered on the first ring. “Ready?”
“Here goes nothing,” she replied, and began to pay out the vine.
The unit descended into the gloom of the chimney. The ivy was surprisingly strong and clung to the case as if it had been designed especially for that purpose.
The handset disappeared in the darkness of the passage. Pitch continued to lower until, suddenly, the glossy screen was clearly visible in the light of the room below. Quickly, she wound up the ivy until the unit was in shadow again. This was as far as they dared go. The last thing they wanted was for Swindle to glance at his fireplace and see a phone dangling there like a worm on a hook.
Pitch looked down off the roof. The others were huddled in the bushes, crowded around Griffin, who had his phone to his ear. Was it working? she wondered. Could they hear anything?
What was going on?
* * *
S. Wendell Palomino was in a towering rage.
he barked into his phone in disbelief. “I can't wait till tomorrow morning! I've got a flight to California
“Sorry, Mr. Palomino,” came the voice on the other end of the line, “but that's not going to happen.”
to happen!” Swindle stormed. “What kind of garage are you running?”
“This isn't like the big-city outfits you're probably used to. I'm a small operation. It's just me and my truck, and we cover a lot of territory. As you've probably noticed, wet weather means a lot of mud around here. When people start getting stuck, it's first come, first served.”
“And you just leave people stranded,” Palomino seethed.
“Well, that's another story entirely. Are you telling me you're stranded?”
“Not only am I stranded, I'm exposed to animal attack!” Okay, that was an exaggeration, but Luthor was going to be none too happy when the tranquilizer wore off. “And I've got no way to get my poor injured friend the medical attention he needs.”
“Sounds serious,” the mechanic agreed.
“Exactly! So how soon can you be here?”
can't make it till tomorrow, but if things are as bad as you say, you'd better call the police.”
the police if I had a
!” Swindle insisted.
“Like I said, I'll be there tomorrow. You don't have to wait around. Stick with your buddy. Just leave the cars unlocked and the keys on the seat. I'll call you as soon as I know what's what.”
“Oh, fine,” Palomino groaned. “We'll wait for you.”
“Are you sure that's wise for your friend?”
“Positive,” Swindle replied with a sigh. “In fact, I think he's getting better. Come as soon as you can.” He hung up the phone and slumped in his chair. Nothing was ever easy where those lousy kids were involved.
Hiller thumped over on his crutch. “Maybe we
be calling the police. If our cars have been vandalized, that's a crime.”
Palomino shook his head. “The last thing we need is some cop snooping around.”
Hiller's eyes narrowed. “You said the dog is legally yours.”
“Of course. But the mutt's been tranquilized, which is going to seem fishy to some small-town flatfoot. If he gets a sniff that there are kids involved â runaways, no less â that's a can of worms I don't want to open.” Swindle surveyed the kitchen irritably. “Is there anything to eat in this dump?”
The hired man limped for the door. “I've got a turkey sandwich out in the truck. Tell you what: I'll split it with you if you promise me we're the good guys.”
Palomino grimaced. “Do I look like a crook to you?”
* * *
Griffin's face suddenly went white, and he waved the phone up at Pitch on the roof, gesturing wildly. She shot him a questioning shrug, but by then, he and the other team members had ducked out of sight in the bushes.
The sound she heard next made her stiffen in fear: the opening and closing of the cottage's front door.
Hiller stepped out of the house and started for the pickup truck.
If he looks over his shoulder, he'll be staring straight at me!
Her nerveless fingers lost their grip on the vine, and Melissa's phone was falling. Fumbling madly, she caught the line, stopping the unit three inches from shattering against the base of the fireplace. Heart pounding, she dove for the apex of the A-frame roof. If she could make it over the top before Swindle's man turned around . . .
As she somersaulted over the peak, a horrible realization came to her: She had misjudged the slope. Down the other side she skidded, tumbling out of control.
ustering all her strength and climbing skill, Pitch wedged the heel of her sneaker against a kitchen vent. Her momentum spun her upside down, sliding toward the edge. At the last second, she reached above her head, locked a pincer grip on the eaves, and squeezed. Her motion shuddered to a stop. She hung there, her hair cascading off the roof. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Griffin and the team crouched in the foliage, staring up at her in horror. Another second or two and she would have gone over the side.
Oblivious to the drama unfolding above him, Hiller got a small paper bag out of the pickup and went back inside the house. The crisis had ended as quickly as it had begun.
Gingerly, Pitch got herself turned around and made her way back to the chimney. Winding the vine around her arm like the spool of a fishing rod, she reeled the phone out of the flue. Then she shinnied down the drainpipe and rejoined her friends.
Even Ferret Face regarded her in awe.
“Are you okay?” Ben hissed. “Man, I figured we'd be scraping you out of the weeds with a spatula!”
“First rule of climbing,” Pitch told him bravely. “If it didn't happen, there's no point in stressing over it.”
“The important thing is we got the information we needed,” The Man With The Plan reminded everybody. “Swindle and the other jerk are stuck until morning. Which means we've got some time to make our move on Luthor.”
“We haven't got
much time,” Ben put in. “Pitch and I have been AWOL from camp since this morning. If we don't get back soon, the counselors are going to start to panic.”
“We can't worry about any of that,” Savannah insisted. “The only thing that matters is saving Luthor.”
“That's another problem,” Pitch pointed out. “The dog weighs a ton. We can lift him â but not with two people chasing us. Been there, done that.”
Melissa had a suggestion. “Maybe we can wait till they go to sleep.”
Griffin nodded. “The question is how do we get in the house?”
“The roof won't work,” Pitch supplied. “No way into the attic, no skylight.”
“An unlocked window?” asked Logan.
Griffin shook his head. “We can't depend on it. Besides, the house is so small, we could be climbing straight into Swindle's lap.”
Stealthily, Griffin approached the little cabin, the others trailing behind him. Crouched in the cover of the bushes, they circled the outside. Griffin stopped in front of a pair of flat, wooden cellar doors, separate from the house.
Pitch indicated the heavy padlock that barred the entryway. “How are you going to get through
Griffin knelt on the damp ground to investigate. The lock was metal, but the doors themselves were ancient wood, softened by decades of northeastern weather. He began to work with his thumbs, trying to create some separation between the iron hasp and the rotted panel. “Quick â see if you can find something to jam under here.”
Melissa handed over a sharp wedge-shaped rock. “Try this.”
Griffin inserted the pointed edge beneath the cleat and pressed down, levering the hasp away from the door. With light popping sounds, the softened wood gave way, and the cleat came off in his hand, still attached to the lock. Slowly, he opened the doors, trying to minimize the squeaking of the ancient rusted hinges. The gust of air that came up to greet them was musty and coolly damp. They squinted into the gloom of a root cellar, with stone walls and a dirt floor.
“Yuck,” said Logan. “There could be mice down there.”
“And don't you dare disturb any of them,” Savannah told him. “They're animals, just like the rest of us.”
Ben looked down his own collar. “Hear that, Ferret Face? No hunting.”
“Keep him safe inside your shirt,” Griffin ordered. “The last thing we need is you falling asleep in hostile territory.”
Melissa called up the flashlight app on her phone and handed it to Griffin. He led the way down the six steps into the cavelike cellar. The cobwebs were so thick that progress was like passing through lace curtains. Savannah gagged.
“What's the matter?” Pitch whispered. “Aren't spiders animals just like the rest of us?”
The space was empty save for a few potato sacks and a broken bushel basket. The toe of Melissa's sneaker nudged an ancient potato, only to have it crumble to dust.
“When's the last time anybody came down here?” hissed Ben in revulsion.
“They forgot about this place when they started remembering the Alamo,” Pitch replied in a low voice.
Griffin held out his arms beside him. The group halted and fell silent. They had reached another staircase, this one leading to a small door. Light was visible around the edges. It was the entrance to the house. Muffled conversation wafted through the door â Swindle and his man.
The enemy was no more than a few yards away.
“What now?” Savannah barely whispered.
“We chill,” Griffin informed them.
“Here?” quavered Logan, plucking a shred of cobweb from the end of his nose. “The Screen Actors Guild would never approve these conditions!”
“Ferret Face doesn't like the dark,” Ben warned.
“Don't be stupid,” Savannah said sharply. “Ferrets are most active at murky times like dawn or dusk. They're crepuscular.”
“Yeah, but I'm not!” Ben complained.
“We have to be able to tell when Swindle and the other guy go to sleep,” Griffin explained. “As soon as it gets quiet on the other side of the door, that's when we make our move.”
“Let's switch our phones to airplane mode to save battery life,” Melissa advised. “Once the sun goes down, they'll be the only light we've got.”
r. Bing was rewiring a SmartPick
that had short circuited.
He tightened the connections, replaced the cover, and pressed the button. With a whirring sound, the titanium fruit-picking pole telescoped across the kitchen, poking his wife in the small of the back.
Mrs. Bing let out a yelp, juggling and nearly dropping a heavy casserole dish. She turned on her husband. “Why don't you take that thing to your workshop before you put it through a wall?”
“It's so empty around here with Griffin away at camp,” the inventor complained. “Who would have thought one kid could fill up a whole house?”
The Man With The Plan,” she reminded him.
He grinned. “Not at Ebony Lake, he isn't. That's the best thing about sending him to the back of beyond â none of his scheming. Not unless he's organizing a woodchuck insurrection.”