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       Born to Spy, p.7

           Jayde Scott
 
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  "I don't understand why you didn't let me bring my jacket," Hilly said. I could see her pout in the darkness.

  "A Barbie jacket sticks out like a sore thumb, okay?"

  "Just because it's pink doesn't mean it's Barbie." She punched my shoulder. "Now I'm supposed to freeze my butt off?"

  "You're wearing your maharaja getup over your usual stuff. So suck it up," Danny said. "You should be used to the cold anyway. It's not like London's the Caribbean."

  Hilly stomped out the door and slammed it in my face, inches from my nose. "You better have ordered hot chocolate in that limo. With lots of marshmallows because otherwise I might not be of much help as an ice cube."

  By the time we jumped onto the backseat of the limousine we were freezing.

  "Sorry for keeping you out so late," I said to the driver. "In our country if we have a question, it's customary to find the North Star and ask it for an answer at midnight. The three of us hold hands and do a little ceremonial dance."

  The driver just smiled and started the engine. I let out a breath, thankful that he bought our little excuse and didn't ask which country I was talking about because I had no idea where anyone would wear something as hideous as MC Hammer pants.

  Hilly, Danny and I went over our plan one more time: keep silent and let Stewart do the talking. Danny laughed. "You mean, tape Hilly's mouth shut, keep silent and let Stewart do the talking."

  I chuckled. "Too bad I didn't bring any tape."

  Fifteen minute later, the driver halted in front of the shop and we got out, shivering some more. All lights inside were switched off. The door looked closed for the night. Hilly peered in through the window.

  "He said to wait in front of the shop," I muttered. "What time is it?"

  "Time to go in because I'm not standing here, waiting to turn into an ice cube. I bet he left the door unlocked for us," Hilly mumbled as she yanked the door open. The bell chimed, the shrill sound carrying through the silence of the night, and we walked in.

  Danny snorted. "Let's hope we haven't woken up the whole street."

  "Stewart?" I whispered.

  "Over here," someone said from the back of the shop.

  I focused my gaze, but couldn't see much in the darkness. "I don't like this."

  "Neither do I," Danny hissed. "Let's get it over with."

  We stumbled on our way forward until we reached the door.

  "Close the door behind you," the voice said. "And no lights. We don't want to attract any outside attention."

  "If I'm being kidnapped because someone thinks I'm rich, I'll totally get that leprechaun pot and smack you over the head with it because it's all your fault," Hilly whispered.

  Danny snorted. "Don't worry. Once they smell your breath they'll let you go immediately. That is, if they don't die of suffocation first."

  I closed the door with a loud thud so the guy would hear it. A light flashed, illuminating a staircase leading to the basement.

  "He's in there," I said.

  "Gee, how did you find out?" Hilly laughed. "You could give Sherlock Holmes a run for his money, Gonzo."

  We followed the light, climbing down the stairs into a room with a huge vault, a mirror covering one side and several statues lining up the other side of the wall. A naked, dim bulb cast eerie shadows across the floor.

  I turned and jumped back, startled, as every Irish legend of trolls, fairies and elves flashed through my mind. Near the wall stood a huge shape clad in black, a pair of red eyes starring right at me. It had a stick-thin nose and large ears that curled upward. Holy cow. It could stir its brew in a pot of boiling animal guts with that long nose. The contorted mouth hung open as though it was ready to tear off my arms and legs, and have them as an appetizer followed by my brain and liver as the main course. Was I hallucinating? I heard Hilly and Danny shriek. No, they were seeing it too. Hilly grabbed my arm, her entire body shaking.

  Adrenaline coursed through my veins and my heart thumped. It was fight or flight. I chose fight. I kicked at the mysterious being as hard as I could because I wasn't going to let it drag me to its lair to feast on my bones. But if it were looking for a virgin bride for some kind of offering, I'd gladly offer Hilly. Okay, so maybe I wouldn't but it sure was a tempting agreement.

  "Hilly," Danny said. "Throw your heels or bring out your secret weapons—the claws. And aim for the eyes."

  "Are you kidding? I'm not breaking a nail!" Hilly shouted back. "Just slay it!"

  Danny started kicking into the black robe. I punched with my fist, hitting something hard. A rip pierced the air and a loud bang echoed in the room. The thing fell back like a giant ore collapsing to the ground. I picked up a long stick and held it over my head, imagining myself to be a great knight going in for the kill. A flashlight beamed in my eyes and then on the ground.

  "I take it you don't like the painting?" Stewart asked.

  The black cloth lay in a ripped heap, revealing a giant portrait of a demonic face with two glowing eyes. The wooden stand had broken in half. I shook my head in disbelief. I had killed an innocent portrait with the leg from the stand. Had it been covered with a white cloth, I probably still would've attacked it thinking it was a ghost. I was such a dummy.

  "Painting?" Danny scratched his head. "You attacked a stupid painting?"

  I peered at him in disbelief. "You did too."

  "That thing was ugly!" Danny said. "It looked like Hilly when she wakes up in the morning."

  Hilly smacked his head. "I knew there was a reason you remind me of trolls. They're dumb, just like you."

  "Was it expensive?" I asked, feeling like a complete and utter idiot, and even more so because now I might have to foot the bill.

  "A local artist donated it after you left," Stewart said. "We never got a chance to put it away. She brings us the same stuff every week. There's a pile of them in the basement because they don't sell. You did what we've been dying to do for months."

  I nodded, praying Hilly wouldn't forget our agreement and keep her mouth shut.

  "You said you want something original." Stewart cocked an eyebrow. When I nodded he continued, "I can offer you the perfect present for the maharaja. Something he's only seen hanging in a museum."

  "What would that be?" Hilly asked. I nudged her, but she just scowled at me.

  "I'll show you in a minute." Stewart walked over to the vault and opened it. Grunting, he retrieved a large painting. The light shone on it and I gasped.

  "That's the Mona Lisa," I stammered.

  "It's magnificent, isn't it?" Stewart smiled. "Why don't you have a closer look?"

  Danny and I stepped nearer to inspect it. I had never seen the ugly thing in real life, but I'd heard enough about it to know that it was expensive and didn't just gather dust in some guy's inconspicuous shop in Ireland.

  "This isn't the original, obviously," Stewart continued. "But for the right money, you could have the real deal, if you know what I mean."

  I stared at him. Was he suggesting he get us the original thing by stealing it?

  "Dad would so love it," Hilly said. "How much do you want?"

  Stewart hesitated. "Ten million up front, then another forty or so when I have it ready for you."

  Was that supposed to be a bargain? Dad only gave me twenty bucks a week plus a bit of a top up for doing chores around the house, so to save a few million I'd have to work day and night for way longer than I could count. Shaking my head, I peered at Danny because things were getting out of control here. No way would I be associated with stealing an ugly painting. Dad would ground me for the rest of my life and probably sell my Xbox too.

  "How do we know you're not getting us just another knock-off?" Hilly asked.

  "You don't trust me." Stewart nodded. "Fair enough. Why would you, young lady? You can have any curator in this world inspect it. Should he decide the painting's a fake, I'll pay back the money."

  I huffed. Yeah, if he wasn't sipping margaritas or whatever adults drink on an island in the Carib
bean.

  "Throw in that thing over there, and I might consider your offer." I pointed to a huge casket that reached almost as high as the ceiling. It was meant as a joke because that thing with its black and gold carvings and horns was even uglier than the painting, but Stewart didn't seem to get the joke.

  Stewart narrowed his eyes. "I'm afraid the sarcophagus has been bought already." His phone rang. Peering at the caller ID, he held up a finger. "I'll be right back."

  Danny waited until Stewart left the room before he spoke. "Dude, is that what your dad was trying to do? Buy the Mona Lisa?"

  "He must've smelled something was wrong here." I shook my head as I watched Hilly walk over to the mirror on the wall and apply another layer of lip-gloss.

  "Just face it, Gonzo," Hilly said, smacking her lips. "Your dad was probably as much a crook as this Stewart guy."

  I felt the heat rising in my cheeks. "Dad wasn't a crook. He was a spy on an undercover mission, you idiot."

  Danny slapped my shoulder. "That's it. Don't worry. We both know he was pretending to buy the Mona Lisa from this guy. A good spy never ever jumps to conclusions."

  Hilly rolled her eyes. "You haven't changed your socks in days. But I won't jump to the conclusion that you're a gross slob."

  "If I changed it daily, I wouldn't have enough to last me until the next wash. Mum's too cheap to buy me more socks," Danny said.

  Hilly crossed her arms over her chest as she peered at him. "Then stop packing on the pounds."

  Danny glared. "I'm growing."

  "You downed two sodas like it was the last drink on Earth," Hilly said.

  "Mum won't buy any at home."

  "Guys, let's focus." I let out a long sigh. "We're here to save Dad. I still don't understand why he'd get in touch with Mr. Richards at the art gallery."

  "Maybe to find out who the replica guy is," Hilly called over her shoulder.

  I nodded, seeing the possibility. "What if Stewart's the guy? Dad found him and disappeared, and now we've found him."

  "You think we'll disappear too?" Danny asked, wide-eyed.

  A cold shudder ran down my spine as I shook my head. "Let's not jump to conclusions. We look like a bunch of teens, not spies."

  "He's bluffing anyway," Danny said, "because he could never get the real Mona Lisa out of a museum without someone noticing. He doesn't look like the kind of guy to go on a mission through a crawlspace and dangle from a cable hanging from the ceiling."

  "Yeah, Stewart doesn't fit the part of a big time art thief. Maybe just a small time crook." I tapped my finger on my chin, thinking. "But what if he could steal the real thing and replace it with a replica and no one would ever notice the difference?"

  Danny walked over to Hilly and tapped on the mirror. "Do you know what's really bugging me?"

  "What?" I asked.

  "Why would anyone have a mirror in the basement?" Danny said.

  "Yeah, that's strange." I remembered something Dad once told me. "Could it be a—"

  Danny stared at me. "Two-way mirror?"

  I stood next to him, holding my fingernail against the shiny surface. And there I had my proof, exactly like Dad once explained: the tiny gap that should be between my nail and the reflection wasn't there.

  "Get away from it," I whispered. "He's probably watching us this very minute."

  "What should we do?" Danny asked.

  Hilly rolled her eyes. "Get out of here. What else? Wait." She shook her head as she glared into the mirror. "Hey, moron. I'm not just another pretty face. I've got brains too. You've been busted so why don't you go jump in a lake?" She stuck out her tongue as though anyone cared to see it. It was something she always did when she wanted to prove her point.

  Somewhere outside, a siren wailed.

  "Good going, Hilly," Danny said, slugging her.

  "Run." I turned and bolted up the stairs, hoping it wasn't too late.

  Chapter 10

  Stewart had left the door open, so we squeezed through into the dimly lit hall. Voices carried over from the front of the shop. I pressed my finger on my lips, signalling Danny and Hilly to keep quiet.

  Leaning forward, I strained to listen. If only I had the ears of a hawk, the eyes of a cat, the strength of a bear and the speed of a cheetah, I'd be in good shape.

  "There's no sign of a forced break-in," the deep voice of a man said. "Maybe you forgot to lock the door?"

  "Impossible. I heard the alarm," another man said. I recognised Mr. Hussain's strange accent.

  "The lock wasn't forced," the first man said.

  So Mr. Hussain had called the police because he thought someone was burgling his shop. Did Stewart forget to switch off the alarm, or did he leave it on purpose?

  "Move it or lose it," Hilly whispered behind me. I felt a jab in the back. Ouch.

  "Where to, genius?" I asked. "I favour the north and south corner. But the east and west ones look good too. Or perhaps we can give up and just turn ourselves in. I hear the reward's fantastic—a pair of silver matching bracelets you can only unlock with a shiny key."

  Danny puffed. "Cuffs don't suit me. There's got to be a back door."

  I nodded and turned on my heels, heading for a closed door marked EXIT I hadn't noticed before. Hilly rattled it before I could stop her. It was locked.

  "Hand it over, Gonzo." Hilly pointed to my pocket. "How does it feel not being able to deny me your dad's credit card?"

  "Just pick the lock before we're wearing black and white stripes while making license plates." I fished in my pocket for Dad's credit card.

  Hilly's eyes lit up as she slid it between the frame and the door, jiggling it about until the lock snapped open. "And that's how it's done, boys," she said.

  The hinges squeaked, and for a moment I held my breath, scared that Mr. Hussain might have heard us from the front of the shop. When nothing stirred, I squeezed through the open door and peered left and right, then up, almost expecting to see a roaring helicopter shining down a beam of bright light while people yelled, "Stop. This is the police."

  But the backyard was bathed in darkness.

  I let out a breath and hissed, "Come on. Hurry up."

  A high fence stood just a few steps away. I shrugged out of my shirt and wrapped it around my hands so the spikes wouldn't cut into my skin, then started climbing up the post using the rows of wire like steps on a ladder. Once I reached the top, I hung onto the top of the barbed wire as I swung my leg over. A cold breeze ruffled my hair and slipped under my clothes. I swear I could feel the chill in my bones. Holding my shirt in my hands, I worked my way down until my feet touched the pavement.

  Danny gave me a high-five. "We're like the dynamic duo."

  I grinned, then realized there were three of us. Turning, I looked up and saw Hilly stuck on the top. Her sleeve was caught in the barbwire and she was flapping her arms like a bird. I couldn't resist chirping.

  "What?" Danny asked, following my line of vision. "Is that some kind of spy signal, like somebody's coming?"

  "No." I laughed and pointed. "Check out the bird on a wire. And try not to chirp."

  Danny guffawed. "Hey sis, do you need a map or something? What're you doing?"

  "Just hanging out because the view's fantastic," Hilly yelled. "Obviously, I can't move. So help me down, troll."

  "We're the dynamic duo. She's the dynamic dummy," I whispered.

  Hilly glared at me. "One word of this to anybody and you're dead. Got it, Gonzo? I'm not going topless for anyone so find a way to get me down here."

  "Don't duck." I threw her my shirt.

  She caught it and sniffed. "It reeks."

  "It matches your breath," I said. "Now, cover the barbs up like I did, then climb over."

  "Ew. Have you ever heard of deodorant, troll?"

  I rolled my eyes. "I'm thirteen. It doesn't feature high on my shopping list."

  "Stop being a drama queen and just climb," Danny said. "You're such a big chicken. Bawk, Bawk."

  I nudged
Danny. "She can pick a lock but can't climb a fence to save her life."

  Danny laughed. "What do you expect? She's a girl."

  "Watch it, or I'll beam you into space," Hilly said.

  I caught hold of her leg and yanked as she hung onto the fence. "I think the cold's getting to her because she thinks she's in a Star Trek episode."

  Danny laughed again, this time harder. "Too bad we aren't, then we could beam her up—"

  "Scotty," I finished and we both guffawed in a fit of laughter. "Hey, Hilly. This'd be a great Facebook shot, princess. I could title it, Big Bird."

  "No, make it, Bird on a Wire," Danny said.

  "Do it, Thom, and I'll tell everyone how you dressed up like a big yellow banana here in Ireland and attacked a painting you thought was going to roast you over a fire and eat you." She jumped off and threw my shirt at me. "Your gross stench is all over me. I need a shower." She coughed and gagged.

  "Are we going or are we waiting for you to spit up a hairball?" I asked, shrugging back into my shirt.

  Danny gave me a nudge. "She might not spit up hairballs, but she does have some wicked claws on her."

  We headed down the streets as I said, "What good are they when she won't use them because she might break a nail?"

  Hilly snorted. "Oh fearless leader, please lead the way."

  "That's not funny," I said. "You were fooled by the troll painting just as much."

  "I wasn't," she said. "I just wanted to see who'd win—you or the portrait. Next time, try not to tangle with something so tough."

  I made a sound like a chicken. "Yes, Big Bird."

  She whacked the back of my head. "Troll killer."

  "It's hard work being a spy and all," Danny said, puffing. "How does James Bond make it all look so easy?"

  "He has tons of money," Hilly said. "Besides, I make a great spy, but that Stewart guy set us up."

  "I don't think that was his intention all along." I turned to peer at the empty street, waiting for the blue lights to appear around the corner. "He must've watched us through the mirror, then set off the alarm before he disappeared."

  "You don't have any proof he saw us through the mirror," Hilly said. "For all we know, he could've left to take a whiz."

 
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