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       Born to Spy, p.4

           Jayde Scott
 
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  "It's called research, dummy. Have you ever heard of MapQuest? I've been here a million times. One day, when I marry a rich man and live in a big posh house, I'll have to know where to shop," Hilly said.

  Danny laughed. "You'll live in a big, posh house all right—" he winked at me "—as the dog sitter."

  She turned with a frown perched between her thin brows. "Do you see the guy with the knock-off stuff over there?" She pointed to an unshaved man in a dodgy grey coat and a little table lined with glittery watches and knock-off handbags. "That's you in a few years."

  "There's you." Danny pointed to a stray dog passed out on the corner. "So at least I'm working for a living while you're just waiting to be fed."

  People turned to stare at us like we were a three-ring circus. Three arguing teens on a posh street is never going to go unnoticed in London.

  "How far away are we?" I asked.

  "Are your feet hurting? Need Daddy to carry you?" Hilly smirked. "Over there, cry baby."

  I bit my tongue and followed her to a glass building on the other side of the road. It didn't differ from any of the others to the left and right.

  "How do you know this is it?" I asked.

  "Because I do." Hilly pointed upwards. "It's the same number as on the diploma. Duh!"

  Finding it had been the easy part, but now came the impossible. "Who's going in?"

  Hilly snorted. "It's your dad who needs help so, obviously, you are."

  "But what will I tell them?" I felt self conscious at the idea of talking to people. Never been the chatty type, but these were professional spies and probably human lie detectors. They'd see through my fibs in a heartbeat.

  Hilly shrugged and retrieved her iPod, pushing the earphones into her ear as she cranked up the volume.

  I smirked. "Okay, I guess that means she's not going to help."

  "Nope." Danny shook his head. "I don't know, mate. Just make something up."

  Weren't my so-called friends great? Geez, so many suggestions to choose from. I rubbed a hand over my face as I always did when I was nervous and, taking a deep breath, I pushed the heavy door open and walked into a tiled hall with a gleaming lift and tiny reception desk.

  Chapter 5

  "Can I help you," the blonde woman behind the desk asked, a soft smile playing on her glittery lips.

  I wiped my sweaty palms on the back of my jeans and thought for a moment. She was young and pretty, and didn't look like the fire-spitting dragon I expected. Yeah, I could do it.

  "My dad, Alex Gonzo, sent me to pick something up for him."

  Her smile disappeared. "And what'd that be?"

  "A—" I wavered, voice catching in my breath, so I cleared my throat, and then tried again. "The Leonardo files. Dad says Dr Hodgkin called earlier because it's pretty urgent."

  For a moment, she peered at me intently like a hawk and I felt more cold sweat dripping down my back. Boy, this was worse than that time at school when the headmistress gathered the whole class, letting us stand in a row like soldiers, because she couldn't find the Christmas pudding and thought we ate it. Turned out, she forgot it in the car.

  "Why's your dad not coming to pick it up himself?" the receptionist asked.

  I should've seen that one coming. Why I hadn't I prepared a little Q&A? Now I was doomed. This plan might've worked on the dopey museum guy, but not here. Crap! "He's in a meeting." It came out sounding more like a question. Would she buy it?

  The receptionist shook her head. "I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do for you because it's private and confidential information."

  "Please." I took a step forward. "Dr Hodgkin will get really, really mad if Dad doesn't pick up the files."

  "I'm sorry," she said. "If your dad wants the package, he'll have to pop over himself and show us his ID."

  With my shoulders slumped I marched out again.

  "Dude, you came out empty handed? What kind of spy are you?" Danny asked.

  I shook my head. "That receptionist has some kind of superpower."

  "Then get back in there, troll. I didn't come here for nothing." Hilly rolled her eyes and pushed me toward the door, but I stood my ground. What was the point in barging in there again? To look like Dad I'd need to grow a foot and at least thirty pounds of muscles.

  "I can't do it," I said.

  Hilly let out a huff of air. "Okay, let me think. All we need is a distraction so one of us can sneak behind the counter and snatch the files. Your dad's boss said they were ready for pick up, right?"

  "Well, yeah," I said, wondering what she was up to.

  "What're we going to say?" Danny asked. "That an ice cream truck fell out of the sky?"

  "That's perfect!" Hilly seemed impressed. "Follow my lead."

  Perfect? It sounded retarded. Did I give Hilly too much credit when I said she was the perfect spy with egg breath?

  We followed her as she started screaming and waving her hands. "Oh my gosh! An ice cream truck just crashed." If I didn't know any better, I'd have bought it hook, line and sinker. Would she pull it off?

  "It's raining Fudgesicles, ice cream bars and Sundae cones," Danny yelled. "In every colour. But hurry up, the red ones are going fast."

  "And sprinkles!" I shouted. "With a cherry on top."

  The receptionist peered out the door. "What?"

  "I was on my way out and saw the whole thing. It did a pop a wheelie and flipped twenty feet in the air. Come look quick."

  "I'll call the police," she said.

  Danny shook his head. "Somebody already did."

  "Well, they'll handle it then. This is an important place of business and I can't leave. Let alone have a bunch of screaming kids in here. Get away from the door. Now." She returned to the desk with us following and pressed a red button near the phone. "I've just called security."

  I knew I had to act fast. I looked around her desk when something caught my attention: pictures of her with a potbellied pig! It was her pet. No joke. In one picture she held up a big blue ribbon at a fair. In another, she was kissing the squirming thing. It gave me an idea.

  "Listen, lady, there's a squealing pig trapped under the tires. I petted it, and he was so soft. And you should see its poor eyes. It reminded me of Babe or Gordy," I said.

  Her face turned white and she gasped. "Here in London?"

  I shrugged. "Maybe a runaway pet? I don't know. I saw a leash snapped in half. The poor thing might've caused the accident."

  Hilly jumped in. "There's people fighting over it. I heard a man say he was going to turn it into a ham dinner and pig out tonight."

  The woman looked mortified as she let out a long shriek.

  "Some horrible-looking lady asked me if I knew any good recipes for pigs-in-the-blanket," Danny said.

  "Pigs are smart and friendly animals." The receptionist grabbed Hilly's arm. "Us girls have to stick together. Come with me."

  "Better not," Hilly said. She was probably scared the imaginary animal would ruin her new shoes.

  The receptionist let go of Hilly and ran out of the office screaming, "This is a nightmare. The poor animal. I'll save you."

  "It's clear. Do it," Danny hissed. "Get the files."

  Peering left and right, I retrieved a thick padded envelope from behind the desk. It was marked LEONARDO FILE. I clutched it to my chest as we ran out of there as fast as we could, turning the corner. My heart thumped in my ribcage so bad I thought it might jump out any second. With Hilly and Danny on my tracks, I didn't stop until we'd been running for at least five minutes. Panting, Hilly ripped the envelope out of my hands and tore it open.

  "Be careful with it," I said. She didn't seem to hear as she pulled out a bundle of loose sheets. Standing on my toes, I glanced over her shoulder.

  "What're those?" Danny asked.

  "A bunch of printed digits. This is hog wash," Hilly said, tossing them into my open hands as she pulled out her iPod. She was losing interest again. And, frankly, I was tired of pig jokes.

  "I hate to agr
ee with her, but she's right on that one. What a load of bollocks. Come on. Let's get back before Mum finishes her beauty routine." Danny yanked my arm, pulling me down the street.

  I scanned the long horizontal rows until my eyes connected with a number that rang a bell. "Dad's flight."

  Chapter 6

  Why did Dad's flight number feature on a list from his boss? I spent the entire night tossing and turning, but I figured the only way to find out was by calling Dr Hodgkin, and that was not an option. So I decided to make do with another mystery and just continue with our plans.

  After less than half an hour of Hilly's begging, arguing and sulking, her mum decided to let Danny and her go on our camping trip. And so we met to prepare our knapsacks while their mum returned to bed with a bad headache.

  Courtesy of Dad's hidden stack of money, Hilly, Danny and I arrived at Heathrow Airport by cab the following day. We had no baggage to check in so we breezed through security where no one paid any attention to us and decided to split up and then meet again at boarding time. Eyes glinting, lips curled into a smile, Hilly headed for the shops while Danny and I bought some ice cream and waited at the gate in silence.

  An old lady with her hair in a bun, half moon glasses and a cane hobbled over. She yelled at the top of her lungs in my ear, "Francis, is that you?"

  I shook my head. "Um, no."

  She grabbed my ear and pulled. "Don't play games with me."

  "You have the wrong person, lady," Danny said, laughing. He seemed amused that this was happening to me and not him.

  The old woman let go and I nudged Danny. "She's going to break our cover. Let's ditch her."

  "Francis," she yelled. "I'm telling your mother. You'll be grounded for a week, mister."

  Danny and I walked to the other side of the waiting area as other travellers started to arrive. The gate opened. Craning my neck, I scanned the gathering crowd. Where was Hilly?

  "The toad's bailing out on us," I said.

  A flight attendant announced the last boarding call for our plane. Danny stomped his foot and glared around him. "Remind me to rip that ugly purse of hers to shreds when we get back."

  I grinned. "That won't be much of a punishment. She probably bought a few duplicates."

  Danny turned toward me. "Huh?"

  Laughing, I pointed to the long narrow hall with glass on either side. Danny slapped his forehead. "No way, she didn't."

  "You see that girl over there? That's his sister," I said to the waiting flight attendant.

  Danny shot the woman an apologetic look as Hilly finally reached us. Her breath sounded like whistling, red strokes marked her bare arms where the countless shopping bags had cut in.

  Shaking my head, I held out our boarding tickets. The flight attendant hesitated.

  "Are you traveling alone?" she asked.

  Hilly rolled her eyes. "Did Grandma go in again without waiting for us?"

  I nodded shyly.

  The flight attendant cocked an eyebrow as she regarded Danny and me. "Sorry boys, but I'm not letting you on without an adult. I'll call the cockpit and have your grandmother come get you."

  Crap. That wouldn't work because I didn't have a granny. I looked around and spotted the old lady still hovering in the waiting area. An idea struck me. Why didn't I pretend she was my grandmother?

  "Grandma," I yelled running over and giving her a big hug.

  The flight attendant smiled, buying my bluff. "So she didn't board leaving you here by yourselves after all."

  "Oh, Francis. My dear boy." The old lady squeezed both of my cheeks and planted a wet kiss on my forehead.

  "Grandma, don't forget Hilly and Danny," I said.

  "I wouldn't dream of it. Have you ever ridden a flying bus?" the lady asked.

  I nodded. "A few times."

  "Huh? What did you say?" She leaned closer. "It wouldn't cross your minds? Don't you worry. Grandma will hold your hand the entire flight."

  She gave Hilly and Danny a big kiss. They had giant lipstick marks on their cheeks. I rubbed my forehead. Ew. Did Hilly have any lipstick remover in that purse of hers?

  The old lady started chatting away as we boarded the plane. "This is my Francis and his buddies. Francis just switched dog foods and his stomach gets touchy. But if I give him a good rub he purrs. Wait, that's my cat. And sometimes he piddles when he's nervous. And I say, 'Bad dog!' But we love him anyway. Oh, no, dear. That's my dog. My Francis doesn't bark. Francis, did you bring your pimple cream and the pharmacy stuff to clear up that nasty rash? I told you we better see the doc about that. It's getting pretty scary. I hope it's just hives and not the scabies. Are you still itching and—"

  My cheeks were on fire as I peered around me. Everyone was staring.

  "Come on Grandma," I said pulling her along.

  Hilly elbowed me. "Where did you pick up the old bat?"

  I grinned. "I'll explain later."

  "Don't worry, Grandma. I packed his rash ointment," Hilly called over her shoulder.

  I scowled. Breaking my cover wasn't an option. I had to find Dad, I reminded myself, but boy would I pay her back later. Hilly was right. The lady was an old bat. An old deaf bat. But somehow I kind of liked her. She was the grandma I never had.

  A flight attendant helped the old lady to her seat. Hilly tossed half of her bags into Danny's arms, raised her chin and marched past. Another stunned attendant gawked after her.

  Since Hilly took us to the right place to get the Leonardo files, she got her first class seat while Danny and I got two at the back of the plane. My stomach tied into knots as we walked down the aisle, countless eyes staring at us. Eventually we reached our seats and my jaw dropped. The old lady from before was sitting at the window, mumbling, "There you are, Francis."

  The doors closed, the motors revved and the seatbelt lights blinked on. Flight attendants started the usual safety instructions. I'd never been the nervous kind, but then I'd never flown without Dad. Nothing would scare a royal spy, but I soaked in every detail nonetheless. It couldn't hurt, right? In the case of an emergency, oxygen masks will drop from overhead. Place the mask over your mouth and nose. Pull your strap to tighten. Pull down on the hose to start the flow of oxygen.

  "Bring on the laughing gas," the old lady yelled. "Okay, Doc, pull that tooth out nice and fast."

  "We're not at the dentist," I said. "This is Flight 2301."

  "Oh, that's right. I have dentures." The old lady's eyes widened as she turned to face me, hot garlic breath hitting my nostrils. "I remember now. We're going to the Emerald City. Oh, dear, that's the Wizard of Oz. I'll rephrase. We're going to the Emerald Isle. That's the poetic name for Ireland, named for its rich green hills. Back in 1930—"

  I slumped deeper in my seat. Oh, man, this was going to be a long trip. I was strapped in with no escape.

  "You know, that's where the fairies are. I've come to find them so I can show the whole world they exist. I even have a giant net in my suitcase," the old lady continued.

  Fairies? Maybe they should take that butterfly catcher and drag her to the nearest loony bin.

  "There are no fairies, lady," I mumbled.

  "I hope she doesn't spoil our day," Danny said.

  "Oil of Olay? No, sunny, I'm all natural. I don't believe in beauty products. When I look in the mirror I don't see those nasty wrinkles." She nudged me. "But it helps to take off my glasses." Gazing at Danny she said, "Doesn't your friend like me? I think we should ditch him like we ditched the chick that was with us."

  I shot him an imploring look. "Danny, just be nice. We need her in case the flight attendant comes back. Pay her a compliment or something."

  Danny peeked over me, quivering with laughter. "Nice hat."

  The old lady screeched. "Rat? I never met a nice rat I didn't bang over the head with a broom."

  I glared at Danny. Why did I get to sit next to her? "I'm so mad...at you."

  "God bless you," the woman said.

  "No," I said. "I didn't sneeze. Ah,
never mind." Why was I even bothering to explain? She wouldn't hear it anyway. "Hilly's living it up in first class while we have to deal with Granny here."

  "Beer?" The old woman glanced around. "Where? I want one."

  I elbowed Danny who was laughing his head off. "See what I mean?"

  "We're taking off," Danny said. "I like this part best."

  "I'm not a pest!" the old lady hissed. "Tell him your grandma's not a pest."

  I looked at her and shouted, "He said this is his favourite part."

  "I do have a heart. You're just as mean as your father," she screeched.

  A man coughed in the next row, startling me, and I jumped in my seat. The plane shook. Sweat dripped down my back. "Do you think Hilly's switched off her phone? I don't want to crash and die because of her."

  "Crash? Are we sinking?" the old woman yelled. "Have we hit an iceberg? Where's the skipper? First dibs on the lifeboat goes to old ladies and kids." She elbowed me. "That's us!"

  I shook my head. "Look out the window, lady. We're on a plane, not on the Titanic."

  "Watch out," Danny said. "She might see pink elephants...flying herds."

  "What did you say? Mining for turds?" She made a cuckoo sign at me. "Who does that? They don't turn into diamonds, do they?"

  I glared at Danny. "Wipe that grin—"

  "Gin? Thank you, dear. I'll do a shot." The old woman patted my hand and closed her eyes. A few moments later, her loud snoring carried through the silence, right into my ear.

  "She sounds like a chainsaw," I mumbled.

  The old lady leaned her head on me, snuggling into my shoulder. What was I? Her pillow? I was going to gently move her when Danny said, "Don't you dare wake her up. We all have to make sacrifices for this mission, Francis." He burst out in laughter.

  "She better not drool when she sleeps."

  Danny pointed to her puckered lips. "Drool's not the problem. It's her lipstick."

  I peered down and moaned at the garish red stripes all over my shirt. "Want to switch seats?"

 
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