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Madeleine Devine’s scream was loud enough to wake my younger brother, Rondo, and that’s saying something. I’ve tried every trick in the book—flicking his ear, shaking his bunk, dripping cold water on his face—and I’ve never seen Rondo get out of bed that fast.
For a fourth grader, my brother attracts trouble on a professional level. I’m sure Madeleine’s scream triggered his curiosity and sucked him out of bed with the force field of a rare-earth magnet. Which meant I was going to have to do the responsible-older-brother thing and find a way to drag him back. With all five rooms of the Perro del Mar Bed and Breakfast occupied, a celebrity in Room 3, and now one of our guests having a meltdown in the middle of the night, the last thing Mom and Dad needed was Rondo roaming the halls like a magnetized electron on the loose.
I pulled the warm blankets up to my chin and calculated how long I could wait for him to come back on his own. Maybe he was in the bathroom. I could close my eyes for another ninety seconds at least.
I’d barely let them shut when my sister, Elvis, rolled out of the bottom bunk, padded across the room, and aimed her morning breath straight into my nostrils.
“Epic, are you awake? Is this a dream?”
I kept my eyes closed and wished we were stuck in one of my sister’s legendary nightmares. But Madeleine was still screaming. And the barking dogs and slamming doors in the guest wing were a dead giveaway that this was real life. Elvis’s nightmares are usually set underwater or on some alien planet. Never at home at the Perro del Mar.
“This is exactly like an episode of Bentley Knows.” She shook my shoulder. “If there’s a crime happening right now, I bet Sir Bentley will solve it. Wouldn’t that be exciting? We should go downstairs so we can watch. Do you think? Or should we wait? How long does detectiving take? Epic, are you dead?”
My sister was breathing fast and talking nonsense. She was probably still half asleep. I held up two fingers—the Sunny Day Academy signal to take a deep breath and chill out.
“There’s no crime, El. Give me a minute,” I said. “I’m waiting for Rondo. Thirty more seconds.”
I forced my own breath to slow and tried not to focus on worst-case scenarios. A guest screaming in the middle of the night didn’t have to mean murder. It could be a spider in one of their beds. Or a stubbed toe. Suddenly, the screams stopped. It sounded like the barking was moving downstairs.
Elvis started with the fast breathing again. “Why are we waiting for Rondo? Where is he? On Bentley Knows…”
I put my feet on the floor.
“Come on. You’ve never even seen a full episode of that show.” I handed her a pair of sandals, grabbed the pocket flashlight I’d made out of old Christmas lights, and pulled my messenger bag over my shoulder.
We tried Mom and Dad’s room first, but no one was there, so we headed for the stairs. Near the front entrance of the Perro del Mar, there’s a wide, brightly lit staircase in the lobby. It has a banister Mom made from scratch out of antique iron fence posts, and an upcycled champagne-bottle chandelier hangs overhead. But in the back of the house, the section where none of the guests ever go, the family stairwell is narrow and dark. A dim bulb at the bottom lets off a ghosty glow, and one of the steps has such a bad creak, Elvis won’t touch it. Ever.
“Don’t step on the Ghost Stair,” she whispered, grabbing my hand in a death grip as she stepped over the board that always creaked. Even though her thumb was still soggy and wet from sucking it all night, I managed to hold on and not gag.
“Don’t worry, El,” I said. “Deep breaths. Everything’s going to be okay.”
I tried to say it like I knew it was true, and when we got to the lobby, things were strangely calm. I don’t know what I expected, but aside from the fact that all the guests were in their pajamas, life at the Perro del Mar seemed almost normal.
The lights were on, and Dad was grinding coffee in the kitchen.
Guests were scattered around the lobby, lounging on the furniture, tapping on their phones. The only one who paid any attention when Elvis and I walked into the room was Pico, the Italian greyhound from Room 1. He was wearing flannel polka-dot pajamas and shivering from nerves or cold. Probably both. Pico locked eyes with me and gave a shiver of relief. Whatever was going on, he obviously thought I was going to fix it.
Like I said: normal.
Except that everyone else in Carmelito, California, was asleep, and Mom was on the phone with the police.
“No, I have no idea who stole it,” she said. “I don’t know anyone who would do such a thing … The value?”
Mom turned toward Madeleine Devine.
“I’d guess it’s worth at least…” Madeleine’s screamed-out voice was raspy, and she cleared her throat. Everyone in the lobby leaned in to hear. “Half a million, maybe?”
Mom was so shocked she almost dropped the phone. “Half a million,” she said into the receiver. “No, Luis, I’m not joking. Someone stole a dog collar worth half a million dollars.”
Elvis tugged her hand from mine and stuck her thumb back in her mouth.
“We’re going to be on the news for sure,” she mumbled. Her eyes were fixed on our celebrity guest. Like any minute now, the Bentley Knows theme music would flood the room and the culprit would be revealed. She leaned forward on her toes, but Sir Bentley slouched in the corner, droopy-eyed, and yawned.
Mom held her hand over the phone and shook her head at me, waving toward the family stairs. I knew she wanted me to get Elvis out of the way and back to bed, but I had bigger problems.
I kept scanning the lobby, hoping I’d missed something. But no matter how many times I looked, I couldn’t find my brother. And now I couldn’t keep the worst-case scenarios out of my brain. Madeleine hadn’t screamed because of a spider. She hadn’t stubbed her toe. An actual criminal had been in our house. Stealing things.
A half-a-million-dollar dog collar was missing.
And so was Rondo.
(THREE DAYS EARLIER)
CANINE COMFORT GUARANTEE
Mrs. Boone cracked the door of Room 1 and poked her head out into the hall, looking like she’d swallowed a cockroach. Scrunched eyes. Puckered lips. Her hair was piled into a silk sleeping scarf knotted at her forehead, and a mass of tiny black curls sprouted out the top like a volcano about to blow.
At her ankles, a small, wet dog nose poked through the barely open door and sniffed frantically in my direction.
“Young man, Pico’s been waiting an eternity!”
Seven minutes late isn’t the tiniest fraction of an eternity. But I didn’t mention that to Mrs. Boone. If you calculate the time in dog years, it’s more like forty-nine minutes. And with the Boones’ dog, Pico, you have to adjust for three more factors: 1) his internal clock is calibrated to the nanosecond; 2) he worries about everything; and 3) he counts on me.
Free dog walking is part of the Perro del Mar Bed and Breakfast’s Canine Comfort Guarantee, and while most guests come for a weekend, the Boones had arrived for last June’s Puppy Picnic and liked it so much they never left. Which meant I’d shown up for Pico every morning at 6:00 A.M. sharp for a year straight. Mom is our official B&B dog walker, but Pico refuses to go out with anyone but me.
“Sorry,” I said. “Mom needed me to bring them.”
I nodded in the direction of Rondo and Elvis, who were both leaning on the hallway wall like it was the only thing holding them up. El hadn’t changed out of her rainbow pajamas, and she had her cheek pressed up against the silver wallpaper. Eyes closed, thumb in her mouth. Rondo, who’d taken a snail-paced seven and a half minutes to get out of bed and then refused to put his book down long enough to brush his teeth, had his nose in a paperback called The Right Way to Do Wrong: An Exposé of Successful Criminals by Harry Houdini. I don’t know where he finds this stuff.
Pico used his head to wriggle the door open another centimeter, but Mrs. Boone used her toe to block him.
“You’re usually so reliable, Epic. I hope this isn’t going to become a habit. Is everything okay?”
I winced. I’d barely slept. We’d gotten home at nine from the sixth-grade graduation “celebration,” and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t turn off my brain. Even at three in the morning, when I was dead tired, my synapses kept firing, running through impossible next-year scenarios. In her graduation speech, the head of school told us leaving Sunny Day Academy was a privilege. She called it an “initiation into the next evolution of the soul” and said we were rocketing toward new adventures, challenges, and world-changing responsibilities.
Everyone, including my best friend, Declan, had cheered. Like we were heroic astronauts heading for Mars instead of a tiny class of five kids who were getting kicked over to a new school because Sunny Day ended after sixth grade.
I didn’t get why everyone was so happy. Sunny Day wasn’t like other schools. It was an Expeditionary Learning school, which meant we didn’t have tests, grades, or textbooks. We went to the beach to learn about tides. Made robots to learn about circuits. Put on plays to learn about Shakespeare. What if I didn’t want to rocket away? What if I didn’t want to evolve?
As if he could read my mind, Pico gave a frustrated whimper from behind the door. He didn’t even know the worst of it. Carmelito Middle School started a whole hour earlier than Sunny Day. Which, come September, was going to put a huge seventh-grade-sized wrench in my Pico-walking schedule.
But I didn’t explain any of that to Mrs. Boone.
“We’ve got to be back by seven to help Dad with breakfast,” I said to her. “So Mom can finish building a new dog bed for Room 2 and fix the toilet in Room 3.”
My sister jerked like she’d been hit with an electric shock. Her eyes popped open, and her thumb dropped out of her mouth.
Copyright © 2020 by Josephine Cameron