Authors: Gordon Korman
“I know what you mean,” Mrs. Bing agreed a little guiltily. “I guess I never admitted to myself how nerve-racking it is to be Griffin's mother.”
Mr. Bing set down his invention and answered the phone. “Hello . . . speaking . . .”
The receiver slipped from his hand and hit the floor with a clatter. He stooped to fumble it back to his lips. “Are you absolutely sure?”
“What is it?” his wife asked anxiously.
Mr. Bing held up a finger. “Right â we'll be there as soon as we can.” He hung up and dialed Griffin's cell. The call went straight to voicemail.
“What's going on?” Mrs. Bing demanded.
Her husband's face was gray. “Griffin's disappeared.”
“What do you mean, âdisappeared'?”
“He and one other camper never came to the mess hall for dinner. No one's seen them for at least a few hours.”
They were in the car, heading north, inside of three minutes.
Waiting in line to pay the toll at the Throgs Neck Bridge, Mrs. Bing frowned as a familiar SUV roared past in the E-ZPass lane. “Wasn't that Rick Drysdale's car?”
“With Griffin missing, I hardly think that's our number one priority right now.”
along with one other camper
,” she persisted. “Isn't Savannah at Ebony Lake, too?”
When the phone rang inside the SUV, Mr. Drysdale had no time for a conversation. “Sorry, can't talk now. We're heading up to Ebony Lake. Savannah's gone missing.”
“So has Griffin,” Mrs. Bing told him. “How much do you want to bet that, wherever they are, they're together?”
A quarter mile farther on, the Bings' van pulled alongside the stopped SUV on the shoulder. Mrs. Bing and Mr. Drysdale rolled down their windows.
“What do you think the kids have gotten themselves into this time?” Mrs. Drysdale called anxiously.
Mrs. Bing didn't answer. She was staring at a sedan that had just sped past them on the highway. “Wasn't that Pete and Estelle Slovak?”
It took a moment for the significance of that statement to sink in.
“How could Ben be with Savannah and Griffin?” Mr. Drysdale asked. “He went to a different camp entirely.”
Griffin's mother was already dialing her phone. “There's one way to find out.” And when Mrs. Slovak's voice came on the line, she asked, “Estelle â is everything all right with Ben?”
Ben's mother sounded distraught. “Endless Pines just called. Nobody's seen Benjamin since â ” Sudden silence on the line. “How could you know something's wrong?”
“Griffin and Savannah Drysdale have vanished from Ebony Lake.”
Mrs. Slovak was amazed. “And you think they're with my Benjamin? These camps are scattered across the north woods, with no transportation at all! That's impossible.”
“One thing I've learned from Griffin is that
is impossible,” Mrs. Bing said in a determined tone.
“I'm going to call the Benson girl's family,” Mrs. Slovak decided. “She was at camp with Benjamin. Maybe they've heard something from her.”
When Mrs. Slovak finally reached Pitch's father, she made an alarming discovery: Pitch's parents were at a rest area on the New York State Thruway about ten miles ahead. While stopped to ask directions to Camp Endless Pines, they had spotted the Kellermans' car at the gas pump. And in the Kellermans' backseat were none other than Mr. and Mrs. Dukakis.
“Are you saying that Antonia, Logan, and Melissa all disappeared from their camps today?” Ben's mother cried.
Mr. Benson was stunned. “How did you know?”
Mrs. Slovak was hyperventilating as she gasped out the details of the missing Griffin, Savannah, and Ben.
Six campers AWOL. Six Cedarville friends. Six members of Griffin's team.
This was no coincidence. There was only one thing it could possibly be.
he two parent parades sped north on the Thruway, connected via cell phone conference call. At a fuel stop, all five vehicles met up, and the two groups merged into one. The procession from Cedarville exited the highway a little farther on, heading west on a two-lane rural route. A half mile from the interchange, the streetlights ended, and they navigated without GPS in the darkness. To the residents of the farms they passed, they must have seemed like a funeral cortege, a tight formation of cars on otherwise deserted roads.
As they approached the vicinity of the three camps, the parents faced a dilemma: Unlike their children, they were planless. Should they split up, with the Bings and Drysdales proceeding to Ebony Lake, the Dukakises and Kellermans to Ta-da!, and the Slovaks and Bensons to Endless Pines? That made sense, except that everyone was convinced that the six missing friends were together. Perhaps they should remain en masse and visit the camps one at a time, maintaining a united front.
“Why go to the camps at all?” Mrs. Slovak challenged. “Those are the only places we know for sure that our children
Mr. Bing had a suggestion. “Let's stop at a diner and talk this out over coffee. We've all been on the road for three hours. We're not thinking straight.”
“Good idea,” approved Mr. Kellerman, three cars back. “Is there any place open around here?”
Towns were few and far between in these woods. The biggest businesses were the summer camps, and they provided their own food service. Mile after mile of wooded nothingness unspooled before the parent parade.
Just as Mr. Bing was about to despair, a neon sign flickered up on the left.
“Foot gargle?” his wife repeated, bewildered.
But as they drew closer, they could see that the glowing letters had burned out over the years. Illuminated by headlights, the message was:
The place turned out to be a grimy gas station that sold drinks, snacks, and cheap souvenirs from a row of dilapidated vending machines. The twelve parents sat down over watery coffee to weigh their options.
Mrs. Slovak was becoming visibly more agitated every minute. “Why aren't they answering their phones?”
“Maybe they don't have them,” Mrs. Bing suggested. “The rule at Ebony Lake is to leave all devices powered off in the cabins. Besides messages home, they're supposed to be just for emergencies.”
isn't an emergency?” Mrs. Slovak demanded.
“The reception is probably spotty out in the sticks,” suggested Mr. Kellerman.
“Or their batteries are dead,” added Mrs. Dukakis. “Melissa is always running dozens of applications. What for is beyond me, but I do know that power drain is a problem.”
“Let's focus on the big picture,” Mr. Bing advised. “Out in the wilderness, separated by not just miles but entire forests, our kids have managed to get themselves in some kind of trouble.”
“Trouble!” Ben's mother spat. “Why don't you call it by its real name? It's your son who's The Man With The Plan!”
“But what kind of plan could they possibly have around here?” wondered Mrs. Benson.
And then an all-too-familiar name was spoken in the tiny shop:
Two men leaned on the counter. One, in greasy coveralls, was chewing on a cinnamon bun and talking with his mouth full. “Guy called himself Palomino. Real obnoxious. Must be from downstate.”
Mr. Drysdale stood up. “Excuse me, are you talking about S. Wendell Palomino?”
“Didn't catch the fellow's first name,” the mechanic replied. “He a friend of yours?”
Savannah's father flushed. “In a manner of speaking.”
“Well, you might want to take a ride over to the old Peterson place, seeing as how I can't get there till morning.”
Mrs. Slovak spoke up. “Did he mention anything about children? Thirteen-year-olds?”
The coveralled man shook his head. “Nah, nothing about any kids. Says he's got a friend who needs a doctor, but he was just angling to jump the line and get his car fixed ahead of schedule. Says a lot of things, this character, none of them too pleasant.”
“It can't be a coincidence,” Mr. Bing whispered. “Palomino? Near the three camps? Not too pleasant?”
“You don't think he'd hurt the kids, do you?” Mrs. Kellerman asked anxiously.
“This could be about Luthor,” Mr. Drysdale mused. “Maybe he hid the dog so he can sue us for stealing him.”
“Where is this Peterson place?” Mr. Bing called to the mechanic.
“Head west about thirty miles,” the man replied. “Left turn on the dirt road. You can't miss it. It's the only house around.”
nce night had fallen, the root cellar of the old cottage was smothered in suffocating darkness. The phones provided occasional light for a while. But as the minutes ticked into hours, and batteries dwindled and died, these intervals became a luxury the team could no longer afford. Soon only Melissa's handset had any life at all, thanks to a few power-saving improvements the brilliant girl had invented. And even she dared not use her flashlight app for fear of squandering what little juice she had left.
“Don't these people ever sleep?” Ben complained in a peeved whisper.
“Big talk from the guy whose sleep is more messed up than anybody's,” muttered Pitch, who got edgy when she wasn't active. She had a lot more patience for Griffin's plans when climbing was involved.
Ben glared at her resentfully, but could only make out her outline â or was that Savannah? “Yeah, well, these creeps could use a little narcolepsy right now. And no ferret to wake them up.”
It would have been too risky to ease the door open and peer into the house, so the team was conducting surveillance purely by listening. Conversation between the two men was sparse, but they were clearly still awake and moving around. There had been no sound from Luthor at all.
“Those awful, low-down, animal-abusing criminals,” Savannah seethed. “How strong a tranquilizer did they use on the poor sweetie?”
“What time is it?” Logan yawned.