Authors: Gordon Korman
“About two minutes after the last time you asked,” Griffin said quietly. “Essential conversation only. We don't want Swindle to know he's got company.”
“An actor thrives on lines,” Logan warned.
Pitch had a suggestion. “Why don't you portray a character who's taken a vow of silence?”
“Back off, Melissa,” Savannah ordered in a low voice. “You're touching my elbow,”
“No, I'm not,” the shy girl replied. “I'm over here behind Logan.”
The image of a large hairy tarantula crawling up her arm caused Savannah to draw in a horrified breath. Before it reemerged as a scream, Griffin clamped a hand over her mouth. A short dance ensued.
“Calm down, there's no spider,” Ben whispered urgently. “It's just Ferret Face's tail.” He pushed the small animal higher under his shirt.
“You know,” Melissa commented in her usual quiet manner, “I haven't heard any sound from up there for quite a while.”
They listened, tense with excitement.
Swindle's voice, talking to himself, muttered, “Figures. He snores.” There followed the grating sounds of someone trying to get comfortable on a couch with creaking springs.
Five minutes passed. Then ten.
So slowly it was practically painful, Griffin inched open the door and peered through the crack. The small house was dim, but the day's storm clouds had broken enough to let in some moonlight. Palomino's pudgy form was scrunched in a threadbare loveseat. His hired man was sprawled in an easy chair. Both were fast asleep, openmouthed and snoring. Between them lay the big Doberman, curled up on a small braided rug, still dead to the world.
“This is it,” Griffin whispered. “Logan â get into position.”
The young actor retreated to the wooden cellar doors and climbed back to the weeds and mud of the yard. There, he reclaimed the rickety wagon they'd found on the property and pulled it around to the front walk, wincing at the squeak of the rusty wheels. If the plan was successful, the rest of the team would be coming out the door with Luthor in less than a minute.
Inside the house, Griffin, Ben, Savannah, Pitch, and Melissa stepped up to floor level, and crept silently across the parlor. Operation Hideout had reached its most delicate moment. It only remained to grab the dog and spirit him out to the waiting wagon. The trick was to do this just a few feet away from two sleeping enemies.
They arranged themselves around Luthor â two on each flank, and Savannah at the dog's large head. Griffin mouthed the command without uttering a sound:
One, two, three â now!
The original lift almost scuttled the plan. Luthor was a load, his muscular bulk awkward and unevenly distributed. The first few steps toward the exit were less silent than Griffin had hoped for, but Swindle and his associate slumbered on.
And then fate took a hand. Melissa's phone, which had gotten them so far, issued a low-battery warning in the form of three staccato beeps and a warble.
Palomino and Hiller sat bolt upright and took in the scene with twin gasps of shock and rage. Dragged down by one hundred fifty pounds of tranquilized dog, the team could only watch in dismay as the two men overtook them. Hiller got there first, grabbing the nearest arm.
It was Ben's, and the action drew Ferret Face out of his cocoon. Squeaking with anger, the little creature went on the attack, leaping onto the man's ankle and digging needle-like claws into his already injured leg. With a howl of protest, Hiller snatched up his cane and golfed the little ferret across the room.
Ben saw red. “Ferret Face!” He let go of Luthor and hurled himself onto Hiller, knocking the man flat on his back.
With Ben no longer holding his end up, the others dropped the Doberman. Frantically, Savannah scrambled to pick him up all by herself â an impossible task.
Swindle brushed her away. “He's not your dog â he's mine!”
Wild with fear for her beloved Luthor, Savannah pounded her fists against Palomino's chest. It took Griffin and Pitch to pull her away. Melissa yanked Ben to his feet, and the five backed toward the door.
“I'm not leaving without Luthor!” Savannah shrilled.
“We can't help him now â” Griffin tried to explain, but the girl's crazed struggles made it impossible for him to communicate that their only option was to retreat and regroup.
It took all the team members to get the door open and drag her out.
Logan and his wagon were right there. “Where's Luthor?” he demanded, bewildered.
The cottage door was slammed and locked in their faces.
The chaos rang through the quiet countryside.
“Ferret Face is still in there!” Ben shouted.
“He can look after himself,” Griffin promised, hoping it was the truth.
Savannah was wailing now, shaking loose of her friends and barreling headlong back to the door, ready to break it down if need be.
Inside, the atmosphere was not much calmer. Palomino and Hiller were chasing Ferret Face around the small house, and not very successfully. The little creature darted from mantel to bookcase, scooting through their legs and under the furniture. Savannah's screaming and banging on the door echoed in the enclosed space.
“We've got to shut her up before somebody calls the cops!” Hiller panted.
Swindle made an unathletic leap for the furry gray tail. The ferret wriggled out of his grasp, lunged through the air, and landed on Luthor's haunch. There, the small animal performed the task he had been trained for â administering a wake-up nip to a slumbering host.
For the first time in more than fourteen hours, Luthor came to life and took in the unfamiliar surroundings. He was with two men he distinctly remembered disliking. He was pretty sure both of them had been mean to him.
And then his sharpest sense â his hearing â came back to him in a rush. Savannah was out there somewhere, screaming in distress. She needed him, and he wasn't there for her.
He got to his feet with a bark that rattled the rafters. He made several runs for the door, bouncing back in painful frustration. She was still calling his name, still frantically upset. And he knew, with all the loyalty of more than a century of Doberman breeding, that there was no house that could keep him from her.
It was just a matter of effort.
he big dog unleashed a barrage on the cottage that was terrible to behold.
Ferret Face hid under the easy chair as Luthor flung his full weight repeatedly against every inch of the walls in search of a weak spot that might allow him to get through to Savannah. His roar was earsplitting. Furniture flew in all directions, curtain rods came crashing down, wood splintered, mirrors shattered.
“Get the dart gun!” Palomino yelped in desperation.
Hiller picked up his cane and thumped for the exit. “No chance, boss! I quit!”
Swindle ducked as Luthor sailed past, knocking over tall shelves, sending books and knickknacks flying in all directions. “Me first!” he yelled. He beat his man to the door, flung it wide, and fled.
His first step outside was into the wagon. His momentum sent it rolling across the property down the gentle slope. He rode like a novice skateboarder, back ramrod straight, chubby arms windmilling in a desperate bid to maintain balance. A gasp of terror was torn from his throat as he jounced into the road just as a pair of headlights loomed out of the darkness on a collision course.
A split second before impact, the vehicle screeched to a halt.
Mr. Bing jumped out and stared at the cause of the near accident. “
Where are our children?”
Not even when he'd been robbed of a million-dollar baseball card had S. Wendell Palomino felt so completely dazed, outsmarted, and outnumbered. More cars were arriving â the rest of the parents, no doubt. He should be saying something to them, giving them a piece of his mind about their terrible, lawless kids. Yet as he climbed unsteadily out of the wagon that had very nearly become his coffin, it was all he could do to point vaguely in the direction of the house.
The new arrivals spilled out of their vehicles and rushed over the wet terrain to the cottage just as Luthor blasted out the door. He joined Savannah in a joyous lovefest on the front walkway, complete with human kisses and very sloppy canine licks. For the dog whisperer, this reunion could not have been sweeter. She was positive that, if Swindle had been allowed to board a plane with the Doberman, she might never have laid eyes on her Luthor again.
Mrs. Drysdale embraced both daughter and dog, choking back a tear. “Aw, honey. I know it feels good now, but it's only going to be twice as painful when you have to give him up.”
Savannah unburied her face from Luthor's short black-and-tan fur to beam at her mother. “But we
have to give him up!”
Mr. Drysdale appeared at his wife's side. “Mr. Palomino may not be the nicest person in the world, but he still has the court order on his side.”
“Not anymore!” Pitch pulled the document from the Cedarville pound out of her pocket and unfolded it triumphantly in front of the Drysdales. “See? This proves Swindle gave up his dog when he moved out of Cedarville. When you adopted Luthor, it was one-hundred-percent legal. He's
The Drysdales looked in amazement from the paper to Pitch and finally to their daughter and her beloved Doberman.
“Well,” Mr. Drysdale said emotionally, “it seems as if this might be the happy ending we were hoping for.”
There were nods of agreement from anxious parents reunited at last with their missing campers.
“Not yet!” declared a strident voice.
The Slovaks' car had been at the back of line, so Ben's mother and father were the last to hustle onto the scene.
“Where's my baby?” bellowed Estelle Slovak. “Where's Benjamin?”
Snickers soon morphed into concern as the company looked around.
“Wait a minute,” Griffin blurted, confused. “Where
At that moment, a small furry form burst out of the cottage, stopped on a dime on the front step, and paused, sniffing the air. It took Ferret Face barely an instant to locate his master, sprawled on the wet ground, fast asleep from the stresses of the night. He hopped onto Ben's stomach, burrowed beneath his T-shirt, and delivered a small bite.
“Ow!” Ben sat up, rubbing his eyes, and was surprised to find himself the center of attention. “What did I miss?”
His mother scooped him into a hug that bordered on a wrestling move. “I could kill you,” she said adoringly.
“Uh, excuse me, folks,” Dominic Hiller called in an embarrassed tone. “Could any of you give us a ride to the nearest town? We've had a little â car trouble.”
Mrs. Drysdale's eyes widened in outage. “You must be joking! You two bullies threatened our children and put them in danger! And
” â pointing at Palomino â “tried to cheat us out of our pet!”
“More than a pet!” Savannah chimed in. “A member of the family!”
“And you helped!” Logan accused Hiller, mustering all his acting skill to portray a lawyer delivering a devastating denunciation in court. “You tried to dognap Luthor at the Showdown!”
“You took out a court order against us,” Mr. Drysdale added. He took the dog-pound form from Pitch and waved it angrily. “And you deliberately hid this evidence so the judge would rule against us! How do you explain that?”
Short, pudgy Palomino drew himself up to his full height, which was still a head shorter than Hiller. “I forgot.”
Griffin could hardly believe his ears. “You
“I forgot I gave the dog up,” Swindle said stubbornly. “I thought he was still mine. It was an honest mistake.”
“Honest!” Savannah spat, squeezing Luthor tighter. “You shouldn't be allowed to use that word, Mr. Palomino! Too bad there's no court order for that.”
“Maybe not,” said her father, glaring at Palomino. “But if you come near my family or any of these kids again, we're going to take this evidence to Judge Bittner and have you arrested for fraud. Now start walking. No one's going to drive you anywhere.”
Luthor underscored this statement with a threatening growl â a reminder that the vicious guard dog he had once been could still be called to active duty if necessary.
“Come on, boss,” Hiller put in quickly. “It's a nice night for a stroll.”
It was just about the opposite of that. The warm muggy air buzzed with mosquitoes, and the pitch-black rural night made it impossible to navigate a dirt road that had been turned into a muddy minefield of puddles. Yet the cottage was no longer an alternative â not with the inside trashed, and the animal that had trashed it wide awake and stationed between them and the front door.
Swindle and his hired man sloshed off into the darkness, utterly defeated. Twice S. Wendell Palomino had gone up against The Man With The Plan. And twice he'd been sent packing.