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"That can't be him." I froze at the bottom of the school steps and stared at the man on the sidewalk twenty yards ahead of me. It was a Monday afternoon in early March, and we'd just gotten out of school.
"Which means it has to be him," Mookie said. "He's really tricky, right? So I'll bet he's disguised to look like himself, just to throw people off."
"It's definitely him," Abigail said when we were ten yards away. "There can't possibly be two tall, thin redheaded men on earth with ears that large."
"Wait!" Mookie grabbed my arm. "It could be one of his robots. We should wait here until it explodes."
"It's not a robot," I said. "They do a good job with the squirrels, but the human ones never look that real. It's him. I still can't believe this."
I thought nothing Mr. Murphy did would surprise me. As the head of BUM—the Bureau of Useful Misadventures—he'd tossed me to a pack of vicious guard dogs, sent me over an electrified fence, made me think I was about to get blown up, and nearly burned down my house. He even had me claw my way through a mountain of garbage. At least he hadn't made me chew my way through the trash heaps with my hands tied behind my back.
After my adventure on the garbage barge, I'd spent several months carrying out other spy missions for BUM. I'd saved a lot of lives, and helped the good guys catch some really evil bad guys.
During that time, Mr. Murphy contacted me in dozens of strange and dangerous ways involving all sorts of mechanical creatures, lots of sparks, a scattering of laser beams, far too many flames, and a variety of explosions.
But there was one thing he'd never done after I'd joined BUM.
"This must be serious," I said.
"It's definitely unprecedented," Abigail said.
"He's not a president," Mookie said. "At least, I don't think he is. And if he was, he probably wouldn't tell anyone."
Abigail groaned, but didn't bother to say anything. I had a feeling I knew what unprecedented meant. This had never happened before, not counting the first time Mr. Murphy had approached me. But it was happening now. The master spy who had recruited me and trained me, the man who did everything in secret, was standing in public, right in front of the school, waiting for me. He wasn't even wearing any sort of disguise or hiding behind a large plant.
"We need to talk," he said when I reached him.
I couldn't even begin to guess what this was about.
"We'll catch up with you," Abigail said. She tugged at Mookie's arm. "Come on. Let's leave them alone."
"Hold on. We all need to talk." Mr. Murphy tucked his little finger under his thumb, then aimed his other fingers in our direction. "The three of you. Right now. But let's not stand here where we'll attract attention."
He headed down the street. I stared at his back for a moment, then raced to catch up with him.
"Well, that certainly won't attract any attention," he said. "Would you like to hop and skip, too? Or is running enough? You could sing at the top of your lungs. That would be a nice touch. Maybe we can find you some sparklers to wave around."
I tried to think of some smart-alecky reply to throw back at him, but he was right. Spies should never attract attention—unless they're doing it on purpose to distract people from secret actions being done by other spies.
"What's going on?"
"We have a chance to take out RABID from the very top," he said. "If we act now, we can cut the head off the snake. That would be a major step toward destroying them."
He definitely had my attention. I'd love to see RABID wiped out. The name stood for Raise Anarchy by Inciting Disorder. They wanted to control people by making them unhappy with their leaders. They were responsible for plenty of the bad things that happened in the world. They would have done even more bad things if Mr. Murphy and I hadn't been around to stop some of their plans.
"But you said they're too spread out to get rid of." From what I knew, RABID worked in little groups all around the world. Mr. Murphy called the groups cells.
"We think we know how to locate the man at the very top of the organization. If we can capture Baron von Lyssa, the cells won't survive for long." Mr. Murphy pulled a folded sheet of paper from his pocket and handed it to me. "Ever heard of this?"
I opened it up and read the first three lines.
Enter a Team in the Ultimate
Athletic and Academic Competition!
Below the headline, there was a drawing of a kid with a big head and bulging muscles. He had a dumbbell in one hand and a book in the other. The flyer looked sort of familiar. "I saw this on the bulletin board last month," I said. It had quickly gotten covered by posters about the band concert, the bake sale, and all sorts of other stuff. "They put up an announcement every year. Nobody from our school ever enters."
I noticed Abigail was staring at the flyer. Then her gaze drifted toward the clouds, like she was thinking about something.
"That kid must have to buy his hats somewhere special," Mookie said. "What's that have to do with us, anyhow?"
"We think RABID looks for exceptional young people and convinces them to join the organization. Sometimes, they start working on their candidates when they're years away from becoming active."
"And kids who enter the contest are more likely to have the sorts of skills that RABID would find useful," Abigail said. "Especially the winners."
"I've been told you're quite smart," Mr. Murphy said. "Apparently, that's the case. I assume you know what I'm going to ask next."
"Ooohhh! Let me guess!" Mookie raised his hand, like we were in class, waved it wildly, and then shouted out, "You want us to parachute out of a jet and attack the bad guys. Right?" He clenched his fists above his shoulders, the way people do when they're hanging under a parachute. Then he tugged down with his left fist and skittered in that direction.
Mr. Murphy made a face like he'd just tried to swallow a large slice of moldy onion. "Well, lad, I wouldn't mind dropping you out of a jet, preferably over an empty stretch of ocean, but that's not exactly the current plan. Though I'll keep it in mind for later, should an opportunity arise."
"No jet?" Mookie asked.
"No jet," Mr. Murphy said.
"He wants us to form a team, enter the competition, and do well enough that we're approached by RABID," Abigail said. "That's why he's talking to all three of us. Each Brainy Brawny team has three people on it."
"That was my next guess," Mookie said. "But I didn't want to show off too much. Nobody likes a smarty-pants. Or a smarty-skirt."
"Correct again." Mr. Murphy nodded at Abigail, who happened to be wearing a skirt today.
"Okay, so you want us to enter the contest," I said. "I guess we have a chance to do well. But why didn't you just send a message to me like you usually do?"
"There wasn't time. We figured out RABID's connection with Brainy Brawny late this morning, right before the sign-up deadline. All three of you need to fill out an entry form immediately." He handed each of us a sheet of paper and a pen. "Fill these out, and I'll mail them right away. But before you do, I need to make sure all of you understand what you're getting into."
"A jet?" Mookie asked.
I had a good idea I knew what Mr. Murphy meant. "We'll be meeting with a very dangerous person. At some point, we might be on our own, out of touch with BUM. If we mess up, there won't be anyone to come to our rescue."
"Exactly," Mr. Murphy said. "Wherever you go to meet him, you'll be scanned for electronic devices, so we can't use any sort of tracker or beacon. You'll be isolated. They'll take steps to make sure you aren't being followed. We'll have no way to communicate. If they suspect you, bad things could happen. There are definite dangers. The choice is yours."
"I'm in," Abigail said.
"Me, too," Mookie said. "Can I keep the pen?"
"Looks like we have a competition to win." I checked out the entry form. "Our parents don't have to sign anything?"
"Not for the local competition at your school," Mr. Murphy said. "You'll need permission for the regional competitions, but I'm sure that won't be a problem."
I filled out the form and handed it back to Mr. Murphy.
He put the sheets in an envelope. "You're doing a good thing—all three of you. I'll be in touch very soon." He nodded at us, then walked off.
"I guess we'd better start practicing," Mookie said. "Do you think there'll be lots of math?"
"You can't practice for this," Abigail said. "We could be asked to do anything."
"I can practice spying." Mookie squatted, squinted, and looked around from side to side. "I know we'll be doing that."
"Good grief!" Abigail backed away from Mookie and fanned the air in front of her nose. "Don't squat around people. It puts too much pressure on your overloaded intestines."
"Sorry." Mookie shrugged and stood up. "Oops. Sorry again. I guess getting up from a squat presses on stuff, too. But I can't help it if my intestines are overloaded. Mom made her cauliflower casserole last night. The recipe takes three whole cans of spray cheese. It's too good to resist."
Abigail backed farther away from him. "I wonder whether they'll ask about current events? I haven't read today's newspaper yet. Or any of this week's news magazines. I'd better get going."
"I thought you just told us we can't prepare for this," I said.
"We can't. But it doesn't hurt to brush up on a topic or two, just in case. I gotta go." She dashed several steps away, then stopped when the opening notes of the Jupiter Symphony played from her purse. That was her current favorite ringtone. I wouldn't have known the name if she hadn't told me. Last month, she'd used the nesting call of the speckled grackle.
She pulled her phone from her purse, spoke for a moment, then ran back to me.
"Nathan!" she said. "There's amazing news!"
Copyright © 2010 by David Lubar