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       Born to Spy, p.3

           Jayde Scott
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  The director sat behind his chair and placed his huge hands on the surface, leaning forward like a dog ready to pounce. Except that those shiny eyes reminded me of an ugly rat. I shivered.

  "Dad's been held up at work, and since we have summer holidays and nothing to do for the day, he thought he'd keep us busy by sending us here to broaden our horizons," I said, quoting our art teacher's words she used in class whenever she felt we weren't listening.

  Danny huffed but kept quiet for a change.

  "I see." The director tapped a finger on his chin. "That's certainly splendid of him. Children nowadays know nothing about the world outside their television."

  I cringed, biting my tongue to hold back a remark. Who wouldn't rather watch Superman than a dead guy's angry rant involving a bucket of paint and a canvas?

  Danny laughed. "Maybe you should have a talk with Hawk Lady out there. She asked us why we weren't watching TV. One should never encourage children to do something like that. I love art and—"

  While he rambled, I whispered to the director, "It's all he has at Shady Brook. His paint, his art." I shook my head and continued, "The paint brushes are soft. Can't trust him with anything sharp."

  The director picked up a pen as thought Danny might lunge at his neck with it. I tried not to laugh but it was hard.

  "And the phone too." I pointed. "He likes to call the fire department. They know him quite well. His nickname is Devil Boy. And I'm not even going to tell you what the police call him."

  The director hammered his fingers on the keyboard, peering up at us a few times. Finally, he sighed and shook his head. "Slot number 07013 won't be here before next week. Maybe the week after."

  I leaned in and whispered, "It's best to use a soft calm voice. We don't want to trigger an episode."

  Danny kicked my foot.

  "Oh, of course," the director said. "I understand."

  Danny looked at me, the corners of his mouth twitching. "That's bad, isn't it, Thom?"

  I nodded, playing along.

  "Why's that?" the director asked.

  Danny let out a huff of air. "You see, he's buying this thing—"

  "Replica," the director corrected.

  "Right. Well, he's buying it for my mum since they're getting married and all," Danny said.

  The director gasped and looked at me. "Are you sure it's wise to marry into this family?"

  I glared at Danny. No, his mum and my dad weren't marrying. I'd rather live with Aunt Becky's dogs and a bucket as my night companion than have Hilly roaming around the house day in, day out.

  The director shook his head. "I'm afraid there's nothing I can do to help him, young man. Tell your dad I shall call should the painting arrive sooner."

  "I've heard they hold weddings here at the art museum," Danny said.

  The director twisted uncomfortably. "Um, you're correct, but we're booked. Solid."

  "How long?" I asked, egging him on. I was going to milk this for all it was worth. "Because this place would be perfect."

  "The next century."

  "That's fine," Danny said. "My mum and his dad can have the wedding at Shady Brook's. They do weddings in the courtyard. You should come. Actually, they're looking for a best man. And you'd nail the part perfectly in that suit of yours. Thom's dad travels so much and doesn't have many friends."

  "Uh, my schedule is very busy," the director said.

  I stopped listening as the director's words kept spinning in my mind. A painting again. I threw Danny a meaningful glance. It was now or never. Hoping I wasn't shooting myself in the foot, I said, "I don't understand why Dad's giving your mum such a horrid thing anyway. I don't think she'd like something that ugly."

  "The Mona Lisa's not ugly," the director shouted.

  Yes! I yelled in my head. The sucker fell for it. Now, why would Dad buy that? I could hear the director rambling on. Oh boy, it was time to defuse things. I met the good man's gaze. "Nice, calm voice, remember? Or we'll have a Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on our hands. I can't be held responsible for what happens."

  The director's eyes popped wide open. "Oh, sure, I forgot."

  I couldn't resist some more. "He likes to be rubbed too. On his head. And he'll shake his leg when you pet him. Like my cat Socks."

  Danny elbowed me, but his lips twitched. "Maybe the Mona Lisa looked different in real life. It's not her fault the painter didn't get her nose right."

  "Can't find the off button," I mouthed.

  The director stood, face flushed as a cooked lobster. "Leonardo DaVinci was a fine artist with a keen eye for detail. Our own painter has studied with the best schools in Ireland. No difference will be noticed."

  The memory of Dad's last internet searches flashed through my mind. He'd booked a ticket to Ireland to visit an antiques shop. Could it be the same? "What's the painter's name then? If he's so good we should've heard of him."

  "He's a bit shy and doesn't enjoy the attention," the director said.

  Dad's phone rang in my pocket, his silly National Lampoon song carrying through the silence. I pulled it out and peered at the anonymous caller ID when I noticed the colour draining from the director's face. I followed his line of vision to the phone in my hands, and frowned. The ringing stopped and Danny yanked my arm.

  "It was Shady Brook," I said.

  "Come on." Danny pulled harder. "Your dad's probably wondering why we're taking so long. Besides, I have to be back for some more art lessons and my meds. You know what happens if I don't take my meds?"

  I nodded. "Yep, I remember the last time."

  Danny's eyes turned in their sockets. "I hear the voices telling me my best friend's making me look like an idiot. And then I want to—"

  "Got it, loud and clear. Don't want to keep the nurses waiting." I jumped up, racing behind Danny as I called over my shoulder toward the director, "Thank you."

  "Did you notice how he stared at your Dad's phone?" Danny whispered as soon as we stood outside the gallery, backs pressed against the wall.

  "He must've heard it before." I focused on the window on the first floor, noticing a face peering out, then quickly disappearing behind the cream curtains.

  "But why'd he be so scared?" Danny asked.

  I stared at him, open-mouthed. Shocked, frightened. That's exactly how the director had reacted. Did Mr. Richards know more than he let on? I rubbed my eyes. Don't start grasping for loose straws, Gonzo.

  "I don't know, Danny, but we need to find out. Come on."

  Danny stood his ground. "You want me to come? But I have to be back at Shady Brook's. You see, the aliens plan to take over this planet and a group of us are going to stop them."

  I laughed. Danny was one big goof. "You need a straitjacket and a padded cell," I said.

  "Oh yeah? Well, next time you get to be the mental patient."

  I pulled him behind me to the bus station. The bus arrived within minutes and we rode home in silence.

  Standing in the hall, I had a flashback of Dad smiling at me less than a week ago. He had said something about a camping trip before school started.

  I pressed a hand on Danny's shoulder and smiled. "You're not going back to Shady Brook's because I have other plans. Big ones, too. No, make them giant ones."

  Danny rolled his eyes. "Don't your plans always get me in trouble? What could you possible have in mind? We already sneaked into Buckingham Palace."

  "You, mate, are going to enjoy nature, a good hike, smell fresh air and catch loads of trout. Run over to your mum and tell her Dad's invited us on a camping trip for the weekend."

  Danny groaned. "I hate bears, you know that." He paused, regarding me. "Wait a minute. I have a sneaking feeling I'm not going to run into bears, am I?" He laughed. "What are you going to do?"

  "I'm booking us a trip to Ireland," I said.

  "Not that again. I'm not into green. Or fairies. Or shamrocks. Or leprechauns. Maybe pubs. But I don't know about that yet because I'm way too young."

  "James Bond 007 was bo
rn in Ireland." I didn't tell Danny only a million actors played him. But Pierce Brosnan was born there.

  "Shocking. Positively shocking," Danny said in his James Bond voice. I laughed as he continued, "Besides, You Only Live Twice."

  "You sure know your James Bond movies." He probably watched them only a hundred times each.

  "Listen O'Thom. Mum will want to talk to your dad," Danny said.

  I sighed. "Then find excuses why she can't, mate. Or get Hilly to do it because she's coming with us."

  Danny groaned and slapped his forehead. "Either I'm going deaf, or there's something wrong with your brain because—" he held up a finger "—first, as I said before, we don't have the money to pay for the tickets. And second—" he held up a second finger "—you just said you want to take Hilly with us."

  "I'm only going to say this once." I cringed at Danny making a cuckoo sign at me. "Promise you'll never repeat what I'm about to say."

  He shrugged. "Sure. You have my word."

  I inched closer, whispering in his ear, "She's the ultimate James Bond 007 agent. Her breath might smell like rotten eggs, but she can pick locks. We can't. Like my dad says, 'Sometimes we have to make sacrifices for the greater good.' See why we need her?"

  Danny nodded. "Good luck prying her lips off her new boyfriend."

  I grinned. "You have a wrench, don't you?"

  "Yeah, but how're you going to pay for this? Did you win the lottery or something?"

  "It's simple. And I told you earlier. Are you getting all senile on me? I can tell you in one word—plastic," I said, wiggling Dad's card in his face.

  "Your dad's credit card? Now I remember. You know, you and Hilly are soul mates."

  Ew, disgusting. I'd rather kiss Aunt Becky's terriers. "After what you just said, I should have a Licence to Kill."

  Danny guffawed like a hyena. "See! You're getting into James Bond." After a few seconds, he peered at me. "How will we sneak on the plane? Dude, they're so going to ask for our parents."

  "I'll figure something out."

  "You're bonkers." With an exaggerated sigh, Danny trudged out the door. I marched down to the basement and switched on Dad's computer.

  "Here's to the land of the shamrock," I mumbled as the screen loaded.

  There were three economy seats left on a British Airways machine flying out the following day, so I paid for them and looked up the hotel Dad picked and paid for. It was close to the antiques shop.

  The telephone rang again. This time I was fast enough to press the green response button.

  Chapter 4

  Holding my breath, I pressed the tiny phone to my ear.

  The deep voice of a man boomed on the other end of the line, startling me. "It's your boss, Dr Hodgkin. Remember me? The guy who signs your paycheques? You'd better pick up when I call. No more games, Alex. I need you to get here this very minute."

  My brain jumped into gear, considering options. I could make myself known and say Dad wasn't here. Or I could just pretend I was Dad. The guy had been pestering me for the last twenty-four hours. I definitely needed to find out what he wanted.

  "Humph," I mumbled, covering the mouthpiece with my sleeve like people do in movies.

  "What was that? Reception's bad," Dr Hodgkin said.

  I made my voice a notch deeper. "The flu."

  "You have the flu?" he asked, impatiently.

  I coughed, then mumbled, "Yes, sir." I coughed some more, which sounded painfully fake, but Dr Hodgkin seemed to buy it because he resumed his yelling.

  "I don't care if you're in the hospital wrapped in a body cast. Do your job, or as your boss I'll have your walking papers. We're fighting against the clock and every second counts. You know this whole mission depends on you. So get your butt to the office. I won't be there, but tell the new intern I gave you permission to pick up the Leonardo files. Got it?"

  "Yes, sir," I mumbled.

  "Don't you 'sir' me. I know what you're up to," he said.

  My heart did a flip-flop. How did he find out? I opened my mouth to explain when Dr Hodgkin cut me off.

  "You want to do this on your own terms. Fair enough, but don't screw up. Be here in an hour, Gonzo." And with that he hung up.

  Breathing out, I slumped in Dad's chair, cradling the phone to my chest. Phew, the guy almost gave me a heart attack. What did he say his name was? Dr Hodgkin. Never heard of him. But Dad must have. I searched the room, scanning the files. Nothing there. I looked up at Dad's spy diploma and there I saw it in tiny red fonts: Dr Andrew Hodgkin, Head of the Royal Spy Academy. So he was Dad's boss and not the most pleasant guy to have around. No wonder Dad was always stressed and mumbled in his sleep.

  Upstairs, the entrance door slammed shut and two pairs of feet stomped down the stairs. I peeked up from my notes where I jotted the flight number and times.

  "You'd better be looking into first class because I'm not flying economy," Hilly said. "I have long legs and need my space."

  Danny grinned from behind her, mouthing, "I talked her into it."

  No idea how Danny did that, but boy was I glad. "The flight's tomorrow," I said. "We need to be at the airport by three thirty."

  "I'm not taking the bus or train," Hilly said. "Last time, I sat next to a wino who stunk like he swallowed ten skunks and then threw them back up."

  "The poor man probably couldn't take the toxic fumes from all that nasty perfume you wear." I glared at her. "Suck it up, Hilly, because I'm not paying for a limousine."

  She shrugged. "Cab, then. And I want something green. It's not every day a gal gets to visit Ireland."

  "Well, I'm not picking my nose," I said.

  "I'm talking about a new outfit, moron. It's Ireland's national colour. But since you grossed me out big time, you'll just have to throw in a pair of cute shoes. Keep talking and I'll be getting a new haircut, too."

  "What?" I rolled my eyes. "You're nothing but a high maintenance drama queen."

  "Looks like I'm getting the spa package. Do you have anything else to say?" She had a smug look on her face and I wanted to slap it right off. But Dad always said a boy never hits a girl. Besides, she had the upper hand right now because we needed her. So I shut my mouth, or else she'd be ordering room service up the ying yang. What did I just get myself into?

  "Hey, we have to make a pit stop before we leave," I said.

  "Does your brain need an oil change?" Hilly asked. "Maybe you could get a two for one since the troll next to you—" she pointed at Danny "—needs one too."

  "I heard you got a brain transplant and the brain rejected you." I laughed.

  Danny stepped in between us. "Enough, you two. What pit stop, Thom?"

  "Dad's boss just called me to pick up the Leonardo files."

  Hilly grinned like she always did when she was about to say something nasty. "What're you, an errand boy?"

  "No, goofy. I was undercover. He thought he was talking to my dad. And I am brilliant because I played it off perfect." I hadn't but she didn't need to know that tiny detail.

  "So what do you want, then?" Hilly asked. "The Spy of the Year award? My dog's more likely to get it."

  "Whoa, did you just say Leonardo?" Danny's eyes grew wide as saucers. "Leonardo as in Leonardo DaVinci, you know, the guy who painted the Mona Lisa?"

  I nodded, suddenly seeing the connection.

  "Big coincidence, huh?" Danny said.

  "Well, what are you waiting for? Let's meet Leo. I hope he's hot. And after that I'll have my nails done for tomorrow. A girl's got to travel in style." Hilly slung her bag over her shoulder and marched out the door without so much as a glance back.

  Danny shrugged and followed. I stood my ground, calling after them, "Ah, guys. We have two tiny problems."

  Hilly popped her head back in. "What now? Can't you do anything on your own? You're like a second little brother when my hands are full with one troll already. I'm not taking care of both of you."

  I took a deep breath. She wasn't the brightest star, was she?
"I don't mind your plan of just jumping onto a broom and taking off through the British sky, but we don't know where Dr Hodgkin's office is. And then the other thing, we don't have a broom to ride there."

  "Humph." Hilly rolled her eyes. "Listen, troll. First, we don't need a broom because mum will take us. And second, I'm perfectly aware you wouldn't know how to track down a person. But I do."

  "How?" I asked.

  Hilly laughed. "Why would I want to teach you?"

  Danny squinted behind her. "She's bluffing."

  "Am not," Hilly yelled, glaring at him, eyes almost popping out of their sockets.

  "Okay, then tell us," Danny said.

  Turning to face me, Hilly asked, "If I take you to the right place, will you pay for first class? I've heard Virgin has a five course meal with ice cream sundaes for dessert."

  I hesitated. Dad would cut all presents until I turned thirty-five—but maybe not if I saved his life first and then reminded him when the credit card statement arrived. "It's a deal." I held out my hand to high-five, but Hilly just ignored it.

  "I don't know what kind of treasures you've been pulling out of that nose of yours, so just keep your hands to yourself." She scoffed and walked past.

  "She's a bit of a turd," Danny whispered on the way upstairs. "I hope you know what you're doing."

  Obviously, I didn't since I was just a teen and all. But like some clever guy once said, mistakes are there to teach us a lesson. Of course, the saying could've been in a fortune cookie from a Chinese takeaway Dad ordered recently, but never mind because it's true all the same.

  Hilly and Danny's mum, Mrs Simmons, drove us to London because she had an appointment with her posh friend who also owned a hair salon and usually cut her hair for free. Mrs Simmons never missed out on a bargain. And so she dropped us off on Bond Street. Hilly said, from there it was only a stone throw to St James Park and the Royal Spy Academy. She lead the way while Danny and I trudged a few feet behind her, gawking at the tall buildings and expensive stores with their security guards standing outside, barely paying any attention to us as we walked past.

  We'd been going for at least fifteen minutes when I asked how she knew the way because I swear it was like she had an invisible GPS planted dab smack in the middle of her brain.

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