Secret of the Forbidden City, страница 1
Table of Contents
A Preview of House of Robots: Robots Go Wild!
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QUICK NOTE FROM BICKFORD KIDD
Okay, I’ll make this fast because, as you can see, I look like I might hurl.
My twin sister, Rebecca, did that drawing of me being grilled by a criminal mastermind. In fact, Beck did all the drawings in this book. Wherever we go, no matter what happens, no matter how much treasure we find or how much danger her irreplaceable twin brother might be in, Beck keeps doodling in her sketchpad.
Meanwhile, I’m always scribbling in my handy-dandy spiral notebook.
Except when I’m upside down. Pens don’t work upside down.
So that’s the basic idea: I’m the writer; my twin sis is the illustrator.
This also explains why so many of her drawings have helpful notes like that one over there about my excess body odor. It’s not really true. I bathe on a regular basis. Honest.
All right, already! Beck says I have to tell you that, sometimes, I make things up, too. In other words, don’t believe everything you read or see. Adventures are like that.
You never know which way is up.
Especially when both your parents are CIA superspies and you’re currently being tortured by being dangled upside down in a dungeon.
Yep. There’s a lot to tell you about. Read on!
We begin our tale of hunting treasure while avoiding torture in a very tight spot.
The four of us—me; my twin, Beck; our genius sister, Storm; and our way cool older brother, Tommy—were being held captive by the notorious Dionysus Streckting, his sniveling minions, and their snarling dog, Munch—a German shepherd with a toxic case of beef jerky breath.
Streckting was seriously evil.
Everybody said so, including him.
“I am seriously evil, children. Pure, undiluted, one hundred percent evil!”
Storm, who has a photographic memory, not to mention an IQ somewhere in the stratosphere, had told us that Dionysus Streckting is considered the most nefarious, despicable, and just-plain-nasty criminal mastermind in all of Europe, including the island country of Cyprus, where a band of thugs had kidnapped our mom.
Streckting kept saying that if we helped him find a certain treasure map, he’d help set Mom free.
He’d also been dropping some pretty heavy hints that he knew something about what happened to our dad.
“Tell me where the map is and, perhaps, I may give you some valuable information my spies have collected about your father! Then again, maybe not. As I said, I am enormously evil.”
It seemed as if my hunch could be correct: Dad hadn’t been swept overboard when our treasure-hunting ship, The Lost, nearly capsized in a tropical storm off the coast of the Cayman Islands. He didn’t drown or get devoured by sharks.
I wasn’t absolutely, positively certain that Dad was alive and well and working undercover for the CIA. But Dionysus Streckting, the infamous criminal mastermind, was looking for him, too!
We couldn’t both be wrong, could we?
“Um, excuse me, Mr. Strepthroat?” said our big brother, Tailspin Tommy.
“Streckting! Dionysus Streckting. My mother liked grapes.”
“Sorry. My bad. Anyway, could you untie us for a couple minutes? I haven’t scrunched my hair in hours. Need to apply some product, pronto.”
“Nein!” snarled one of Streckting’s goons. (I got the feeling Streckting never did his own snarling; he paid people to snarl for him.)
“Nein?” said Tommy. “Is that German for no?”
“Yes, I can go fix my hair?”
Streckting stepped forward. His boots creaked. “No one is going anywhere until one of you four children tells me everything I need to know.”
“Fine,” said Storm, who, like I told you, has a photographic memory. “You want me to start with the A’s? Aardvarks are…”
“Silence, schreckliche Kinder!” shouted the head German goon.
Munch growled and bared his glistening fangs. Tommy and Storm stopped yammering.
“Your father is not dead,” hissed Streckting. “Would I be chasing him across two continents if he were dead?”
“Wait a second,” said Beck. “How do you know our father is alive?”
“I don’t. But I strongly suspect it.”
Beck laughed. “Well, I strongly suspect you got that scar on your cheek from a kitty cat who didn’t like you stomping on her tail, but I don’t go around blabbing it to everybody, do I?”
“Silence! Where is it? Where is your father’s treasure map?”
“Which one?” said Tommy, chuffing a laugh. “He had, like, a ton of them.”
“They’re stashed in safe-deposit boxes all over the globe,” added Beck. “Asia. Africa. Europe. Not to mention New York, Chicago, and LA. Dad needed a key ring the size of a hula hoop.”
“But then he fell overboard and died,” said Storm, who can be kind of blunt.
“Enough!” said Streckting, raising a pistol with a very long muzzle. His minions raised their weapons, too. Munch, the German shepherd, probably would’ve done the same thing but he couldn’t hold a pistol in his paws.
“You miserable children will tell me where your father, the great treasure hunter Professor Thomas Kidd, has hidden the information I so desperately seek or we shall shoot you. None of you will ever see your mother or your father again because you will all be dead!”
You know, maybe Beck was right.
Maybe we should start at the very beginning. I understand it’s a very good place to start.
But, first, here’s Beck with a sneak preview of coming attractions.
Keep looking at Beck’s drawings, too.
Yep. It’s been a busy few weeks for Kidd Family Treasure Hunters Inc.
And, this time, the treasure we’re after isn’t just for us.
Okay, finding Mom and Dad—that’s for us. But the other loot? Well, let’s say the number one rule of all treasure hunting, “finders keepers, losers weepers,” won’t apply this time.
Anyway, let’s go back to the start of the story.
We’d just retrieved two superold (we’re talking centuries) Ming vases out of the cargo hold of a sunken treasure ship, one of the mammoth, nine-masted, quadruple-decked vessels from the fleet of Zheng He, a Chinese explorer way back during the early Ming Dynasty. In the fifteenth century, Zheng He made seven expeditionary voyages, sailing all the way from China to East Africa.
That’s where we found the shipwreck—off the coast of Kenya.
Anyway, the Chinese Navy, assisted by our weird uncle Timothy (who was Dad’s spy chief at the CIA, and who, I think, is a double or maybe triple agent), was right there in the Indian Ocean waiting for us when we surfaced with our two priceless artifacts.
Well, that’s not completely true. The Ming vases do have a price. One had just been sold in Hong Kong for $21.6 million.
Go ahead. Do the math.
Yep. We’re talking $43.2 million worth of pottery.
And not because of the money. (Okay, a little because of the money.)
See, we needed one of the Ming vases to set our mother free.
And so we flew with Uncle Timothy and several assorted Chinese dignitaries to Beijing, hoping we could plead our case at the highest level. All we wanted was one vase.
No, we needed it.
Otherwise, we might never see our mom again.
China is absolutely incredible.
Everywhere you look, new buildings are popping up. All sorts of creativity is being unleashed. The economy is booming. It’s definitely a twentyfirst-century superpower.
After a quick tour of Beijing, we were ushered in to meet China’s high cultural minister.
There was a really cool painting of the Great Wall hanging on the Pretty Ordinary Wall of the minister’s office. We brought the two vases and, in a brief ceremony, officially turned them over to the People’s Republic of China.
“As you see, Mr. Minister,” said Uncle Timothy, “anything you want, I can deliver. Anything. I look forward to our future cooperation as I pursue other cultural acquisition projects for our mutual benefit.”
Everybody shook hands and bowed.
“Um, when you said ‘I,’” Tommy whispered to Uncle Timothy, “you meant America. Right?”
“Oh, yes. Of course.”
“Cool.” Tommy started chanting and pumping his fist. “USA! USA!”
And everybody in the office stared at him.
Beck, who is our chief negotiator, stepped forward.
“Mr. High Cultural Minister, your exalted eminence, not to mention comrade of the people, sir.”
A translator repeated all that in Mandarin.
“As you know, my brothers and sister and I are the ones who actually found the long-lost Zheng He treasure ship at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. We are also the ones who hauled those two barnacle-encrusted old flowerpots up from the deep.”
“These are my nieces and nephews,” Uncle Timothy added proudly. “Not really, but officially.”
More translation. Lots of head bobbing.
Beck cleared her throat and shot Uncle T. a look.
“All we are asking for in return,” she continued, “is that we be allowed to take one of those Ming vases—maybe one with the ugly dragon faces all over it—to some kidnappers in Cyprus, because we need it to barter for the release of our mother. Surely, sir, you understand. If your mother were being held captive by a gnarly group of scallywags, you’d want to set her free, too.”
“Uh-oh,” muttered Storm, who understands Mandarin. “The translator just told the minister that you called his mother a gnarly, scallywag dragon face.”
“But—but—” Beck stammered.
The high cultural minister held up his hand. Said something kind of brusque.
“We will think on this,” said his translator. “Thank you, Mr. Timothy, for bringing us this treasure.”
“That’s it?” Beck called after him. “You’re not giving us the vase?”
“Not now,” said the translator when the minister marched out the door. “But, to express our eternal gratitude, we will give you something much, much better!”
“But all we want—”
Before Beck could finish, a mob of people twirling ribbons flounced into the room followed by a group of synchronized dancers who had more moves than a marching band.
“We are very honored to present you with something much grander than a Ming vase,” shouted the translator over the thundering drums. “Your very own yóu xíng!”
“What’s that?” I asked, afraid it might mean very loud traffic jam.
“A government-sponsored, officially sanctioned parade!”
Okay, I’ll admit it—the Chinese definitely know how to throw a parade.
We were on a float—a miniature model of a Zheng He treasure ship—riding through Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing. The public square (the largest in the world) was filled with military bands and thousands of soldiers in crisp uniforms standing at attention, their eyes following us as we drifted past.
A government official led our parade. He stood with his head poking out of a limousine’s sunroof so he could bark things into a bank of microphones mounted on top of the car. Every time he shouted, the soldiers shouted in reply.
“Tuōmsī! Lìbèik! Dgōu!”
“They’re chanting your names,” reported Storm. “Thomas, Rebecca, and Tick.”
“Tick?” I said.
Storm shrugged. “There’s no Mandarin word for Bick or Bickford.”
When the crowd shouted “Sīdìfēnnī!,” Storm’s eyes turned as dark as a thunderhead. Yep. That’s why Mom and Dad nicknamed her Storm.
“Stephanie?” she muttered. “Who told one point three-five-one billion people my real name?”
“Chillax,” suggested Tommy, who was winking at every female ribbon twirler or fan flipper who glanced his way. As we neared the Tiananmen Gate (The Gate of Heavenly Peace), close to the Forbidden City, a million red balloons were let loose. A squadron of jets soared overhead to spray red, yellow, and white smoke trails.
It was like our very own Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The only thing missing was a jumbosized Bart Simpson balloon.
It was awesome to have that many happy people cheering for us, even if they were butchering our names while munching on candied bugs. That’s right. In China, instead of hot dogs, the street vendors sell skewered grasshoppers, grilled cicadas, and deep-fried scorpions.
“Do vegetarians eat bugs?” asked Tommy, scratching his head.
“No,” I said. “Usually, it’s the other way around.”
As much fun as the parade was, none of us could forget the dark history of Tiananmen Square.
And, even if we could, Storm was there to remind us with her ready supply of tour-guide factoids.
“This is where, on June 3, 1989, Chinese college students gathered to demand free speech and economic justice. The students built a thirty-three-foot papier-mâché statue and called it the Goddess of Democracy, which kind of looked like our Statue of Liberty.”
“Could you climb up to its crown?” asked Tommy.
Storm ignored him. “Then, of course, there was the ‘tank man,’ who stood alone to block a column of tanks sent into the square to crush the protest.”
If you ask me, that guy was the real hero of Tiananmen Square, but I bet the Chinese never gave him a parade.
“N ho, měin !” Tommy shouted at all the Chinese girls, who were treating him like a rock star. “N ho, měin!”
Storm rolled her eyes. “I never should’ve taught him that.”
“What’s it mean?” asked Beck.
While Tommy was flirting, I was wishing Mom and Dad could’ve seen our parade.
They would’ve been so proud.
The four of us had done pretty well since both our parents mysteriously disappeared. We’d followed in their footsteps. We’d discovered some awesome treasures and, best of all, when the going got tough, we always had one another’s backs.
Mom and Dad had taught us a bunch of stuff when they homeschooled us aboard The Lost. We had read a ton of books, studied everything from math to martial arts, and learned how to take care of ourselves (yes, I’m talking laundry). But the most important lesson was pretty simple: Family comes first.
Family even outranks Chinese girlfriends. But, before our parade was over, Tommy had swapped contact information with about three dozen Beijing teenagers, including a pretty girl named Wang Xiu Ying.
“Her name means elegant and brave,” s
“Good,” said Beck, “because she’d have to be brave to date you.”
Since we were “Heroes of the People,” the Chinese government put us up in a swanky, five-star hotel.
When we stepped out of our chauffeured car, Beck saw something across the street.
“Impossible,” she muttered.
“What?” asked Tommy.
“It can’t be.”
“What can’t be what?”
“Over there. The Naked Woman on the Beach!”
Tommy was definitely interested.
Beck hurried through the bicycles, rickshaws, and motorcycles clogging the busy street.
“Where’s the naked woman?” said Tommy, hurrying right behind her. “I don’t see any beach, Beck!”
Storm and I were bringing up the rear as we hustled through the congested traffic.
“She’s in the window right across the street,” shouted Beck.
“Oh, man,” said Tommy. “Naked women in windows? I love China!”
“It’s a painting, Tommy,” explained Beck, coming to a halt on the sidewalk in front of an art gallery.My twin sis isn’t just a great artist. She’s also a pretty amazing art historian.
Which, I guess, is why she made me look like a cube head in that last picture.
“That’s a woman?” said Tommy, staring at the giant watercolor.
“Yes,” said Beck. “Pablo Picasso was famous for his cubism, a style of painting where the subject is broken up and repainted in abstract form.”
“Chyah,” said Tommy. “Total abstraction. I wouldn’t even know where to talk to her.”
“If I’m not mistaken,” said Beck, “Pablo Picasso painted this particular watercolor way back in 1923. It was stolen from his art dealer by the Nazis during World War II.”