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The Inside Job
 

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The Inside Job


  THE

  INSIDE JOB

  (And Other Skills I Learned as a Superspy)

  Also by Jackson Pearce

  The Doublecross (And Other Skills I Learned as a Superspy)

  For Mom,

  who likes Hale best

  CONTENTS

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  CHAPTER ONE

  I’m a spy.

  I speak eight languages fluently and am conversational in another three. I can rewire a car and disarm most explosives. I’ve been building up my tolerance to poisons since I was four years old, and I can pick a lock in less than a minute and break into a safe in less than three—usually. (The giant safes take a little longer, obviously.) I’ve spent my entire life studying, training, and practicing to be the best spy I can possibly be.

  And yet, I was about to be chucked over a fence.

  Mission: Break into a highly secured building

  Step 1: Make it through the exterior fence

  It was at least seven feet tall, with another few feet of barbed wire across the top. My little sister, Kennedy, was able to spring up the fence and slip under the barbed wire like some sort of redheaded lemur. But Walter, my best friend, was too big to fit between the barbed wire and the fence. So, his plan was to climb the side of a nearby delivery truck, jump from there over the fence, latch on to a drainpipe, and then leap from the drainpipe to the ground.

  It was a pretty athletic plan. But Walter was a pretty athletic guy.

  “What about you?” Walter asked as he bounded from the ground to the hood of the truck in one swift movement.

  “Let me think,” I said. Like Walter, I couldn’t fit between the barbed wire and the fence. Unlike Walter, there was no way I could jump far enough to reach the drainpipe, much less cling to the side of it.

  I was a pretty unathletic guy.

  Well, no, that was putting it too mildly. Imagine a bowl of pudding. Now imagine a boy who is as athletic as that bowl of pudding. That was me. Which meant I had to be creative sometimes.

  “Kennedy, is there anything in that Dumpster?” I asked, motioning behind her. Kennedy frowned, then hurried to the Dumpster. She lugged out a few garbage bags, crinkling her nose at them.

  “Do I want to know what’s in those?” I asked, looking at the fat black bags through the chain-link fence.

  Kennedy untied the top of one and made a face. “Probably not.”

  “Great. Put them in a pile for me?” I heaved myself onto the hood of the delivery truck.

  “You’re going to jump over the fence and straight into those bags?” Walter asked as I rolled up onto the roof like a loose potato. I found my footing and stood.

  “Nope. I can’t jump that far.”

  “You’re going to hot-wire the truck and move it closer?” Walter asked, sounding excited.

  “No— Well, I guess I could, but with the angles of the alley, I don’t know if I can maneuver the truck closer, anyhow.”

  “You’re going to—”

  “You’re going to throw me,” I interrupted.

  Walter’s eyes went wide. He looked at the pile of trash bags, then back at me, then at the trash bags again. “What if I miss?” he asked hesitantly.

  “Don’t,” I said. “And we’re already at six minutes, so we need to move. Come on—I’ll run and jump. I just need you to throw me to make up the difference, is all.”

  This was a sentence I’d never really imagined myself saying.

  Kennedy shoved a bunch of the trash bags close together. Walter stood just beside me and gripped my arms. (Did his fingers lift weights? Because no one should have muscular fingers, but Walter Quaddlebaum did.) I took a deep breath and counted to three, and we charged forward across the top of the delivery truck. My foot hit the edge, I pushed off, and Walter shoved me upward and farther into the air. The barbed wire fence passed beneath me, and I had just enough time to see Kennedy’s fearful expression as I came down. I smashed into the garbage bags. One broke, and something leaked out of it onto my feet. I wanted to get up, since that was pretty disgusting, but my body seemed to feel that if I was going to allow myself to be thrown over a fence, I deserved to be frozen for a few moments.

  “Hale!” Kennedy squealed, shaking my shoulders frantically. I blinked at the clouds above me and finally sat up, coughing. I was going to have a bruise on my . . . well. On my everywhere, probably.

  “You okay?” Walter called out just before he jumped from the truck to the drainpipe to the ground, finishing it all up with a slick forward roll into standing.

  “I’m fine,” I said, wincing as I stood and dusted myself off (bad idea—now there was garbage juice on my hands). Walter lifted part of a banana peel off my shoulder and tossed it away. “Let’s move,” I said and limped toward the door by the Dumpsters.

  Step 2: Go through a locked door

  Kennedy and Walter looked on while I grabbed what appeared to be one of those bingo-stampers from my belt. I stamped a large circle of red dots on the door with it. Nothing happened for a few beats, but then with a bright hiss, the dots caught fire and ate at the metal. We had to step back to avoid the flames, but when they finally died down, I nodded to Walter, who gave the circle a solid kick right in the center. The metal broke away and clattered to the ground.

  “Door one—seven minutes, forty-three seconds—and remind me to talk to Ben about the amount of fire that thing puts out,” I said, checking my watch. I led the way through the door and into the building. Kennedy and Walter immediately turned and walked sideways, so we had eyes in all directions. Outside, we were pretty safe—even if we didn’t make it into the building, we weren’t in any serious trouble. But inside? Guards, alarms, trip wires, cameras . . . It was dangerous in here.

  Step 3: Navigate to the central computer

  The hallway was lit by a handful of flickering, bug-filled fluorescent lights. There were dozens of doors—all locked—on either side, but I knew where we were headed; I’d been up since before dawn going over the building’s blueprints. Walter and Kennedy, much to their dismay, had been woken up at dawn to go on the mission with me. But hey, everyone’s always breaking into places under the cover of darkness. I’d figured morning light meant we had the element of surprise, and that only a handful of the building’s occupants would be awake.

  We made our way down the hall, right turn, left turn, third right, and eventually found ourselves peering through the windows of double doors leading into a space that looked like it may have been a conference hall at one point. On the opposite end of the room was a tower of beeping, flashing, outdated technology. The central computer—the thing we’d come for. I scanned the ceiling. Four cameras, all swiveling around seemingly at random. I knew the patterns, though—I’d taken an identical model apart ages ago, and the camera movements weren’t random, exactly. Each was just following one of four complex patterns. It wasn’t the most sophisticated system, but they got the job done.

  “
Door three,” I said under my breath. “Eleven minutes, fifty-one seconds. Ready?”

  Kennedy sprang up onto Walter’s shoulders and stood tall and perfectly balanced—he was her reluctant cheerleading partner, so this was a well-practiced move for them. Walter held my sister’s left ankle with one hand and then put his other on my shoulder to stay close. The cameras had very, very few blind spots, and the ones they did have were only a few feet wide. To stay hidden, we had to take up as little horizontal space as possible, which meant Kennedy on Walter’s shoulders and Walter right behind me. I pushed the doors open, and we crept in.

  I jumped across the floor, Walter immediately—and I mean immediately—behind me. Hopped to this tile, then across, then one, two, three, then back, and duck. Our legs lifted and we pushed off the floor in perfect time—it was like a dance. A really, really weird dance. Kennedy was using one arm to hug her hair to her neck so stray pieces wouldn’t be seen when camera three’s view swept just over her head. I held my breath, worried about the alarm—if Kennedy had grown even a half inch in the last few weeks, the camera would see her . . .

  Nope. The camera cleared us; I nodded, and off we went again, one, two—big jump—three, pause for a count of four—move.

  Finally we slid behind the central computer, which was bulky enough to hide us from the cameras. Kennedy flipped off Walter’s back and spun to the side to keep a lookout.

  Step 4: Get the hard drives

  “Time?” I asked as I grabbed a screwdriver off my belt. Walter took it from my hand and immediately began unscrewing the computer chassis.

  “Thirteen minutes,” Kennedy answered after checking her neon pink watch. The second hand was shaped like a unicorn and was circling a garden of rainbow-colored flowers. Walter finished up with the chassis cover and heaved it to the side. The two of us coughed in unison as a thick layer of dust rolled out at us.

  “I can’t believe they’re still using this piece of junk,” Walter said, hacking.

  “It still works, though,” I said and reached in. I grabbed a handful of wires and unplugged them. The first hard drive slid out easily, but the second jammed. I frowned, tugged harder—was it glued in? I fought with it for a moment, then yanked hard.

  The room fell dark.

  It was quick. One loud click and everything shut off, even the central computer. Walter pressed close; I heard Kennedy crack her knuckles, bracing for whatever was coming next. I took a deep breath.

  A net dropped down from the darkness, startling all three of us. It pinned us to the ground; we smashed around one another, looking for the edges, but mostly there was just a bunch of kicks to the stomach and elbows to the chin. I winced as Walter—who was panicking a bit—thrashed around and walloped my nose.

  The lights came back on.

  They did so one at a time, hissing and popping as the power returned to the room. I looked around, assessing the situation—Kennedy was a mass of red hair. Walter was curled into a ball. High-stress situations didn’t bring out the best in him.

  The double doors swung open hard enough that they bounced off the back walls.

  A man walked through. He was short and balding and looked kind of murderous. This was impressive because he was wearing pajamas, which don’t really lend themselves to looking murderous, but Agent Otter could probably make an Easter Bunny costume look scary. He crossed his arms and glowered at the three of us.

  “Nice try,” he growled. “You made it farther than you did last time.”

  Two more figures appeared behind him—a boy and a girl, about my age. Ben’s hair was sticking up in the back, and Beatrix, his twin, had pillow lines on her face.

  “What was the time, Kennedy?” Beatrix asked.

  “Sixteen minutes flat!” Kennedy answered triumphantly. Ben hurried over to the net we were trapped under and pressed his palm into the flat disks that were holding it to the floor.

  “Cool, huh?” Ben said, his voice groggy with sleep. “They’re magnetized! And the magnets reverse when I press them a certain way—” The magnet suddenly gave in, just as the boy had promised. The net went slack, and with a little fumbling, Kennedy, Walter, and I climbed out.

  “What did we trip?” I asked the three newcomers, pausing to adjust the rear of my bodysuit. That’s right. Bodysuit. I was wearing black spandex by choice these days, because it was a pretty effective outfit for spy work, no matter how ridiculous it made me look.

  “Beatrix and I installed a fake hard drive last week. Drive two, I think?” Ben said, thumbing toward his sister and grinning. “When you grabbed it, it tripped the power grid and rang an alarm in the dorms. A really, really loud alarm—we weren’t going to sleep through it like last time.”

  “You wired something to trip the entire League power grid without telling me?” the bald man interrupted. He was growling again, but I’d known Agent Otter long enough to know that was just his voice.

  “Sorry,” Ben said a little meekly.

  I shook my head. “Don’t be sorry. That was genius, Ben. The fewer people who know about the traps we set, the fewer chances for a security leak. The BENgo worked great, by the way,” I finished, motioning to the bingo-stamper device we’d used on the exterior door. Ben wrote his name into all his inventions’ titles, so no one else could claim to have made them.

  “So we did it, then?” Walter asked. He still looked a little shaken from that business with the net and the darkness.

  Everyone’s eyes turned to me. They were all watching, waiting for an answer. It was hard to think back to a few months ago, when most people were looking at me for a quick laugh at the fat kid’s expense. Now they were all waiting for me to nod. To say yes. To say that we’d finally finished after months of trying to turn an office full of outdated equipment into an elite security system that even SRS-trained agents couldn’t break through.

  I took a deep breath.

  Step 5: Prove The League’s security system is SRS-agent-proof

  I grinned. “Mission accomplished, everyone.”

  CHAPTER TWO

  Here’s a secret: life was easier at SRS.

  I mean, it was and it wasn’t. See, at SRS, I never questioned who I was. I was Hale Jordan, resident fat kid and wannabe field agent. My parents were SRS’s top two agents. They were the good guys. The only thing between a world of innocent, unknowing citizens and The League, the world’s most dangerous spy organization. I’d spent my entire life training, practicing, and studying, so one day I could be an agent—one of the good guys—just like my parents.

  Of course, at SRS I was also known as Fail Hale, which wasn’t easy, not by a long shot. And I was kind of a loser. And I was probably never going to get to be a field agent, since I couldn’t pass the stupid physical exam.

  But still—I knew who I was.

  Then everything got turned upside down. I discovered that SRS were secretly the bad guys. The League were secretly the good guys. And my parents were stuck in the middle—on the run to keep from getting offed by SRS while also working to take them down completely, just like The League and I were.

  But what did that all make me, exactly? I was a League agent now, sort of. I was in charge of my sister now, sort of. I was a spy now, sort of. And that last one was what I had always wanted, right? So it was wrong and terrible of me to feel, well . . .

  Confused, I guess. Because as much as I hated SRS for everything they’d done—the lies, the crimes, putting a hit out on my parents—I still missed SRS. I missed my old life.

  I missed my parents.

  But, I reminded myself whenever I missed them too much, they’re heroes—they walked away from SRS, from everything they’ve ever known, from their family, because it was the right thing to do. Nothing’s ever easy for heroes. That’s why there are so few heroes—and why it’s so great that your parents are two of them. That’s why you need to work harder to be one too, instead of wallowing around missing SRS like some sort of . . . wallower. Stop whining, you wallower. Stop it!

&nb
sp; “Are you ready?” someone asked from my door—Walter. I sat up in bed to see him looking my room over, frowning. “Seriously, man. You’ve got to put up some posters or some . . . something.”

  “What would I put up posters of?” I asked.

  “I don’t know. Cars. Sports teams. Bikini girls.”

  I lifted my eyebrows.

  “Okay, then, wiring schematics for SRS-localized missile-launch controllers. Just something. Your room is depressing,” Walter said, rolling his eyes at me. I ignored him, ducking to grab my shoes from under my bed. The truth was, Walter was right. We were all living at League headquarters now, and everyone else’s rooms were decorated. Kennedy’s was covered in neon cartoon animals and nine billion shades of pink. Walter’s was covered in posters of the stuff he’d mentioned earlier—cars, sports teams, and bikini girls—even though I knew he had a stuffed frog hidden under his blankets. Ben’s was full of wires and pictures of Nikola Tesla. Beatrix’s was full of spare computer parts. Even Otter’s room was probably decorated, though who knows what with—I didn’t want to think too hard about what Otter looked at as he fell asleep at night.

  And mine was white. White walls, white bedspread, white floor.

  When we left SRS for good last year, I hadn’t thought to take anything with me. In my head there wasn’t time. I’d been so caught up in getting myself, Walter, and Kennedy out that I hadn’t thought about taking things. Walter, however, had remembered to pack his stuffed frog, some T-shirts, and a telescope his parents gave him. Kennedy had grabbed her favorite set of pom-poms, a few photos of Mom and Dad, and Mom’s wedding ring.

  I didn’t have anything. I mean, I had them, and I knew that should have been enough, but still. I wish I’d grabbed something. Like one of Dad’s ties, or maybe his grappling hook set . . .

  See? Wallowing again.

  “You’re going to be late,” Walter said, nodding at my alarm clock.

  “That’s four minutes fast,” I said. “And besides, what’s Otter going to do—give me pushups?”

  Walter grinned as I finished tying my shoes. I joined him at the door, and together we walked down the hall and upstairs to The League’s mission control room.

 
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