The Doublecross, страница 1
real-life crime fighter
I should make one thing clear, right off the bat: It. Wasn’t. Cheating.
Agent Otter, who is the exact opposite of a cute and chirpy water mammal, said, and I quote: “Whoever crosses the finish line first doesn’t have to do pushups at the end of afternoon training.” Do you know how many pushups I can do? Zero. Well, no, wait—I can do half of one. Because I can definitely get down; I just can’t push myself back up, which is maybe the more important half of the exercise.
The finish line was the double door leading into the dining hall. The track—if you could call it that—wove through the halls of Sub Rosa Society headquarters. Upstairs. Downstairs. Past the wall of “windows”—glass panels with lights that were supposed to make us forget we were six stories underground. I wasn’t sure exactly how long the track actually was, but it felt like twenty-five, maybe thirty miles. Every week for the past four years of my life, I ran it. And every week, without fail, I came in last place.
Not just by a hair, either. Last, as in “most of my classmates had already changed out of their training clothes by the time I crossed the finish line” place. This always gave them plenty of time to line up and laugh at me when I finally huffed in, red-faced and sticky. You’d think the humor of watching a fat kid jog would wear off.
But apparently, I was the joke that kept on giving.
So anyway, you can see why, when Agent Otter said, “Whoever crosses the finish line first” instead of “Whoever is fastest,” I began to think. By the time my other classmates—all the SRS twelve-year-olds—lined up, that thinking had become planning. And by the time Agent Otter sounded the air horn, that planning had become . . . well. I don’t want to use the word “scheming,” but I’d understand if someone else did. But aren’t spies—even spies in training—supposed to do a little scheming?
I was already sweating on account of the extended kickboxing session we’d just finished, in which I’d learned a variety of new ways to be pummeled. Let it go, I thought. You’re about to show them. You’re about to win. My classmates and I lined up, crouched down in near-unison. We were focused, determined. Otter snorted at us—which I guess was large-brutish-man language for Ready? We lifted our chins and stared at the hall ahead in response.
Another grunt. Set? We lifted our butts into the air. Then froze. No one moved, not a muscle, not a hair. You can do this. You can do this.
From the corner of my eye, I could still see Walter Quaddlebaum. As usual, he was wearing a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off to better display his admittedly impressive shoulder muscles. Even crouched, he was obviously the tallest guy in class. Less obvious, but still noticeable, was the idea of a beard growing around his chin. Who had a beard at twelve? Walter Quaddlebaum, that was who.
Last year he was skinny and short, and his hair stuck up in front like the crest on a fancy breed of chicken. Last year he failed the physical exam right along with me—a single exam that kept us from becoming junior agents. Last year he was also my best friend.
But things change, and today he was just another guy I needed to beat. And I had a plan all worked out for how I was going to do that.
The air horn sounded, ricocheting off the concrete walls. My classmates jolted forward; I was a second behind them, but only a second. We charged down the hall, sneakers squeaking furiously on the floor. The first stretch was a straightaway, a mad dash for the staircase. The other kids were, of course, faster, their ponytails and legs and impressive shoulder muscles steadily becoming farther and farther away. Walter hit the stairs first, taking three or four at a time. I was flying—well, for me, anyway—almost to the first step.
Mission: Win Agent Otter’s Cruel and Unusual
Step 1: Skip the stairs
I took a sharp right, away from the others. My lungs were beginning to burn. My toes were getting that awful tingly feeling, but I had to keep going. Alarmed agents lifted their eyebrows as I passed their open office doors. Ignoring them, I dived for the elevator at the end of the hall, jammed my fingers onto button 2, and punched Door Close.
The elevator played a smooth jazz song as it went up.
“Second floor,” the female voice told me as I sprang out. I could hear my classmates again as they made the loop around the upper level. Something in my leg cramped, and I began to limp. Walter was still in the lead as he rounded the corner. His hair was flung in front of his eyes in a way that reminded me of the covers of Mom’s romance paperbacks. My hair was in my eyes in a way that reminded me of a swamp monster.
I ducked into the break room and wedged my body behind a rolling cart of water jugs, bracing my legs against it. I pushed, hard. The wheels creaked, then inched forward. Walter streaked by the break room door. Jacob, Eleanor, and the others weren’t far behind.
Step 2: Deploy obstacles
I took a deep breath and then pushed my feet as hard as I could. The cart shot forward, rolling out the door and into the hall, blocking the race route. Jonathan slammed against the cart, and jugs of water began to slide and whisk the other runners off their feet. Yes!
I staggered out into the hall, stumbling over a stray jug. Walter and the front of the pack—mostly kids who were already junior agents—were turning the corner ahead. I ran for the custodians’ staircase in the opposite direction.
I knew where all the dry storage rooms, electrical closets, and staircases were at SRS. I’d like to tell you it’s just because a great spy is keenly aware of his surroundings, but the truth is, I spent a lot of time avoiding my classmates by hiding in those places.
That time, however, was about to pay off.
Step 3: Use carefully researched alternate route
I flung open the door of the staircase, hurdled over a mop (okay, it was more of a stumble-almost-face-plant than a hurdle), and slid down the first few steps. Bursting through the first-level door, I cut across the hall through the Disguise Department.
“Hale! What do you think you’re doing—Hey! Stop!” shrieked a woman meticulously painting a prosthetic nose. I grabbed on to her bookcase to help turn a corner; its display of wigs on Styrofoam heads crashed to the floor. Fake hair scattered everywhere. I kept going, plowing through the copy room, sliding on stray bits of printer paper. The production studio was ahead, filled with desks and props for making fake newscasts, anonymous clips, and the occasional staged wedding video for when senior agents needed to pose as a married couple. I heard footsteps pounding on carpet nearby—I was just in time.
Step 4: Everyone takes a trip
I crossed into the production room, grabbed a cable on the closest camera, then squeezed behind the green screen. I yanked the cable taut as t
The green screen in front of me floated down across the scrambling bodies of my classmates. Was that all of them? It was impossible to tell from the limbs and loose shoes thrashing around under the fabric. I climbed over the pile of people (Sophie said a few more words that would get her in trouble) and took off.
There was no one ahead of me—the hall was blissfully empty. There was no sound other than my feet on the floor, thudding—slowly, I admit, but thudding along.
This must be what it’s like to be the fastest. The strongest. The winner. I’d never really experienced the sensation before, so I tried to enjoy it and ignore the fact that my lungs felt like they were about to collapse.
I turned a corner—the dining hall doors came into view. This was amazing. I was going to win. I wasn’t going to have to do pushups, which was still pretty fantastic, but that suddenly seemed a mere bonus to the winning. The dining hall looked strangely empty, mainly because my classmates weren’t lounging in the tables by the doors, waiting to mock me. I would be there so early, I could lounge! I could . . .
Footsteps. Pounding fast behind me, way faster than mine. I didn’t want to look, but I had to.
His eyes were serious, his arms pumping furiously at his sides. He was gaining by the second. I begged my legs to move faster, and I think they tried, but they were no match for Walter’s. He was a machine, flying past me. He was a dozen yards away from the doors, then ten, nine . . .
You might remember I said that once upon a time Walter and I were best friends. Which means once upon a time we told each other everything. Which means I knew exactly what would stop the machine that was Walter Quaddlebaum in his tracks.
I took a deep haggard breath. Puckered my lips, tilted my head back, and called out in a pitch-perfect impression of Walter’s mother when she was angry:
It really was pitch-perfect. I’d been around the Quaddlebaum family often enough to learn the tone, the length of the y sound, even the trill of the a. I’d also been around the Quaddlebaums often enough to say, without any reservation, that there was nothing, nothing an SRS spy could possibly face more terrifying than Teresa Quaddlebaum when she was angry.
Walter slammed his heels into the floor and whirled around. I could see his eyes darting back and forth across the hall, looking for his mother; his lips parted, probably to combination answer-apologize for whatever he’d done to warrant the tone.
I lumbered past him. I was only a few steps along when I felt Wally realize what had happened—one step, two steps behind me, he was building speed . . .
I flung myself forward, arms outstretched. My stomach slapped against the floor first, and I began to slide, slide forward, slide through the doors, into the dining hall. My shirt ruffed up, and my skin began to squeak against the tile as I drifted to a stop, inches away from the first row of tables. I choked for the breath that had been knocked out of me, and I rocked onto my side, staring at the ceiling.
Was I dying? I certainly felt like I was dying, what with the way my heart was imploding and the beautiful glorious white light I saw above me. After a few desperate breaths, however, the glorious light became a plain old fluorescent one. Dizzy, blinking, I sat up.
Walter was in the doorway, staring at me. His expression was hard to name—was there a word for something between “amazed” and “horrified”? Agent Otter was beside him, silver whistle in his teeth, hands on his hips. His expression was easy to name: dumbfounded. He was dumbfounded, with his knees slightly bent, his eyes wide, his brows furrowed, like he had been about to whistle in the race winner, but someone hit Pause at the exact moment he saw it was me.
It was me.
Step 5: Win
I wanted to whoop, to leap, to pump my fist into the air, but since I still felt a little like dying, I settled for grinning. The rest of my class stumbled down the hall, ponytails and shoes askew, looks of fury on their faces. It was hard to care—I had won, after all.
“You cheated,” Walter snapped.
“What?” I said, but I was all wheezy so it came out: “Hhhhhut?”
“He cheated!” Eleanor seconded, and Jacob folded his arms, nodding in agreement.
“He didn’t run the whole route,” Walter said.
“And he used a trip wire,” Eleanor said.
“And I ran into a bunch of water jugs. I bet my trigger finger is broken,” Sophie said, rubbing her hand for good measure. For the record her trigger finger looked just fine.
“And,” Walter said, glowering at me (I swear, the guy never glowered when we were friends), “he distracted me at the end. You heard him, Agent Otter, right? He cheated.”
I hauled myself to my feet with the help of a nearby table. I tugged my shirt down over my stomach, tried to slick the sweat off my forehead. The bubble of victory was still swelling in my chest, but I could feel how delicate it was becoming.
“I didn’t cheat,” I said, spitting the words out between pants. “Agent Otter said first one across the finish line wins. He didn’t say we had to take the path.”
“It was implied,” Sophie said, and everyone—literally, every single one of my ten classmates—nodded in agreement.
“Quiet down, all of you,” Agent Otter said gruffly, letting the whistle fall from his mouth. He pressed his tongue against his teeth, looked at the other students, who were clustered together like a pack, then at me. “That true, Hale? You cheated?”
“No!” I said, hitching up my pants and walking toward him. “I didn’t cheat!”
“Then what would you call it?”
“I . . . I assessed the situation and strategized accordingly,” I said, like I was reading an SRS textbook. Not that there’s an SRS textbook, of course, but if there was, it’d say something like that.
“Sure, kid,” Agent Otter said. “Pushups, everyone. Hale, my office, now.”
I guess, in the end, I got out of doing pushups. So that was something.
It was little consolation, however, as I sat in Agent Otter’s office. The room, much like Otter himself, was covered in hard surfaces and the color taupe. Taupe walls. Taupe desk. Taupe computer. Taupe flowers. I suppose the flowers had been yellow once, maybe pink, but they were dead and keeled over and had become crispy and, well . . . taupe. I’d probably keel over too, if I lived with Otter.
There was a quiet rap on the door.
“Ah,” Otter said, glowering at me. “That’ll be your parents now. Can’t wait to tell them about this one. Come in!”
You know all those sayings? Ones like “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!” and “What a chip off the ol’ block!”? I can promise you they ’re not true. Because I am slow and fat, and as graceful as a potato, and my parents . . . well.
My parents are known around here as “The Team.” Not “a team”—“The Team.” They were the first choice—sometimes the only choice—for highly dangerous missions. My mother speaks seven languages and had recently developed a new style of martial arts. My father is a master fencer and once hacked a terrorism ring’s network using a calculator. They have so many awards and medals that turn up in weird places in our apartment—the linen closet, the pantry, dropped down behind the refrigerator . . .
The door clicked open and my parents walked in—I had my mom’s dark hair and brown eyes, and my dad’s broad shoulders, which looked manly on him but just made my waist look even wider. They both smiled briefly at me, and the sick feeling in my stomach subsided a little. Dad sat down on the left, Mom on my right; she put a hand on my arm gently, and even though it’s a little embarrassing to be comforted by your mom when you’re supposed to be becoming an elite spy, I was grateful for it.
“Mr. and Mrs. Jordan,” Otter said, drumming his fingers
“Please, Steve. There’s no need for formalities,” Mom said, all but rolling her eyes at Otter. They knew each other well because they’d all grown up together, just like Walter and I and the others. At SRS it was impossible to be a stranger—but that didn’t mean it was easy to be friends.
Otter looked at me. His beady eyes would be charming on a gerbil but were terrifying on a full-grown man. “It seems we’ve had yet another incident with Hale.”
“Oh?” Dad asked, unfazed. His hair was gelled and flawless, like mine in color, perhaps, but nothing else.
“Indeed. At the end of today’s training session, he won a race by cheating,” Otter said.
Mom frowned at me. “That doesn’t sound like you, Hale.”
“That’s because it isn’t like me,” I said. “I didn’t cheat.”
“And now he’s calling me a liar, I see!” Otter exclaimed.
Instead my Dad made his eyes steely and leaned toward Otter. I knew this position—it was the “getting answers” position. Hard stare, strong shoulders, firm jaw. That position could get everyone from my little sister to a criminal mastermind talking. Otter didn’t stand a chance. He leaned back a bit in his taupe office chair and folded his hands together. He was trying to hide it, but I could tell he was nervous.
“Tell me what happened, Steve. Exactly what happened,” Dad said coolly.
Otter stumbled through the story—he didn’t know the details, really, so it wasn’t much of a tale. Then my parents asked me to tell my side.
I went through the whole thing, lingering perhaps a little too long on the beauty of the green screen floating down on my classmates’ heads.
They listened intently and then looked at each other. My parents did this thing—I guess it was a throwback from being partners long before they got married—where they had entire conversations without saying a word. I could tell they were having one now from the way their eyebrows lifted and fell, like their mouths were moving even though they weren’t.
“Steve,” Mom finally said aloud. “It sounds to me like Hale got the best of your trainees. I have to admit, I’m a little surprised. I mean, they couldn’t jump over those water jugs? Couldn’t see the trap in the production room? And Walter Quaddlebaum—my goodness. Didn’t he just become a junior agent a few months ago? Yet he was thrown by the sound of his mother’s voice? How embarrassing. For everyone.”