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The black circle, p.12
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       The Black Circle, p.12

           Patrick Carman
 
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  Inside a stall, she tucked up her legs and balanced her backpack on her knees. Toilets flushed, faucets ran, and suitcases on wheels trailed feet in a big hurry. The airport in Sydney, Australia, was a busy place.

  Busy was good. Busy was cover. If you wanted to ditch surveillance, a bathroom could offer you a perfect opportunity. If you didn’t mind crouching on a toilet for fifteen minutes.

  Ditch surveillance. Only weeks ago, that would have meant not letting her little brother, Dan, read her diary. Now it was all too real. Too real for a fourteen-year-old.

  Amy peeked over the stall. A tour group of teenagers had entered the bathroom a few moments ago, and now they chattered in French as they washed their hands and primped at the mirror. The guide cried, “Allons-y!” Still talking and laughing, they began to wheel their suitcases toward the exit.

  It was a perfect opportunity. Amy slipped out of the stall. Smiling at a pretty French girl, she melted into the group. Women streamed in and out of the doors, and the tour group got entangled with an Australian woman with four daughters. Amy slid into the middle of the crowd as they exited.

  She kept the tour group between her and the gate opposite. As soon as they headed off toward baggage claim, she ducked into a coffee bar. She scanned the corridor, searching out anyone familiar … or a suspicious stranger.

  Everything looked normal. The only problem was that normal wasn’t necessarily good. Because the new normal meant anyone at all could be a threat.

  How about that Japanese family in super-cool footwear? The backpacking American boy and girl in matching SMELL U T-shirts? The middle-aged woman munching a muffin, the mother with a stroller, the man stopping to dial his cell phone.

  Any one of them could be after her and her brother, Dan. Any one of them could be Cahills. Amy had never dreamed that her own last name would send such a chill down her spine.

  Ever since her grandmother’s will had been read, she’d been chased from one continent to another … by her own relatives. Her grandmother Grace Cahill had laid down a challenge to every branch of the Cahill family—either join the race for the 39 Clues and become the most powerful person in the world … or walk away with a million dollars. Amy and Dan had chosen the chase. Not that a million dollars wouldn’t be pretty sweet. But they knew their grandmother wanted them to win.

  They had no idea what they were getting into.

  Sometimes Amy wondered what the scariest thing about being involved with the hunt for the Clues was. Maybe it wasn’t being buried alive or almost creamed by a train or locked in a mummy’s tomb. All those things had actually happened to her … and she’d survived. Maybe it was this — having to be suspicious of every single person on the planet. Amy and Dan had learned the hard way that any one of them could be an informer.

  Would the rest of her life be like this? Looking over her shoulder all the time? Don’t wig out on me now, Dan would say. He was three years younger, but sometimes she needed him for a reality check. Amy hurried on.

  They were supposed to meet at ground transportation. As soon as their plane from Moscow had touched down, Amy, Dan, and their au pair, Nellie Gomez, split up. Instead of rushing for a taxi, they would wander the airport and give any possible pursuers the slip.

  They had come to Sydney on a hunch. Back in Russia, they’d discovered that their parents had traveled under false names on Australian passports. As Amy walked down the busy corridor, she thought of the photo of her parents the Lucian Nataliya had sent them. She and Dan traded it back and forth because they both wanted to sneak looks at it. Since their parents had died in a fire at their family home, all the photographs of them had been destroyed. All except one, and Dan had lost that back in Paris.

  Ever since she’d seen that photo, little pieces of memory kept drifting back to her. Suddenly, she remembered silly things, like how they’d had “breakfast for dinner” on Thursday nights, or how her mother had always carried different colored markers in her purse so they could draw on place mats if they went somewhere to eat. How one day they’d made jewels out of aluminum foil … and wore their crowns to the grocery store. She’d almost forgotten what a goofball her mother had been.

  Her parents had been in this airport more than eight years ago. They’d walked these corridors. Mom, Dad … what were you doing here?

  She and Dan could be off on a tangent. This trip might not lead to a Clue. They had no evidence that it would. But they had both known the moment they saw those passports where they were headed next. They didn’t even have to exchange a word.

  Their only contact in Australia was a cousin of their father’s, Shepard Trent. He’d grown up with their father, so they’d always called him “uncle.” They knew he lived in Sydney. There was no way their parents would have traveled here without seeing him. Uncle Shep would be their first stop.

  The only problem was, they still hadn’t been able to get in touch with him. His phone had been cut off. Nellie had managed to grab an address off the Internet, but they had no idea if it was current.

  Amy headed for the rendezvous point. They had already decided that public transportation would be better than a taxi. If they kept a low profile, they should be able to hide in the crowds of tourists.

  “Throw a roo on the barbie, mate!”

  Amy winced as the bad Australian accent crashed against her ears. Then she cringed as she saw Dan dressed in an Australian bush hat and a safari jacket. He had a fake rubber snake wrapped around his neck.

  “You call this is a low profile?” she hissed, swiping the hat off his head and stuffing it in the side pocket of her pack.

  “What was I supposed to do in the airport shop?” Dan asked. “I had to buy something. Did you know that Australia has more deadly creatures than anywhere else in the world? Look at this snake — it’s called a taipan. Its venom can kill, like, two thousand sheep. Or maybe it was two hundred. Anyway, if you get bit by one of these babies, you have to, like, get airlifted to a hospital for antivenom or else die a horrifying death right there.” To demonstrate, Dan clutched the snake and began to emit choking noises, bug out his eyes, and hold his breath. “Arrggghhhh,” he yelled.

  “Here you are, right on time. It’s a miracle.” Nellie walked up. She completely ignored Dan’s popping eyes, red face, and strangle noises. “I like this place already, don’t you? I just had the best lamington,” she said, licking chocolate off her fingers. “Beats a donut any day.”

  On their last night in Moscow, Nellie had trimmed her hair with nail scissors. Now tufts of her jet-black-and-platinum-streaked hair stuck out from her head like exclamation points. She ran her fingers through it, making it stick up more than ever.

  Dan fell on the floor, one leg twitching. “I bought some postcards,” Nellie continued, stepping over Dan to show Amy. “Australia is gorgeous. I wonder if we have time to hit the beach.”

  Dan popped up. “The blue-ringed octopus!” he cried. “Instant death!”

  “There’s a bus that takes us into central Sydney,” Nellie said, unfolding a map. “Then we can transfer to another to get to your cousin’s place. I think that’s our best bet. I mapped out the route.”

  “Great,” Amy said.

  “Even a platypus can kill you if you’re not careful,” Dan added. “This place is awesome.”

  They walked out into the bright Australian sunshine and joined the line for the bus. After the gray clouds of Russia, they were cheered by the soft breeze and blue skies.

  Nellie held the cat carrier up to her face and purred at Saladin. “G’day, mate,” she said in an Australian accent. “You’ll be eating snapper soon, I promise.”

  In answer, Saladin let out a mrrp as the bus pulled up with a squeal of brakes. The cat-screech startled the elderly woman standing in front of them. She turned around. “What is that, dear? Some exotic Australian bird?” She peered at the cat carrier nearsightedly as she fished in her purse for a tissue.

  “It’s just a cat,” Amy said apologetically. “He’s hungry
, I guess.”

  “Ooo, I love kitties.” She pulled her red suitcase on wheels as the line of tourists shuffled forward.

  Amy spoke in a low tone to Dan. “I hope Uncle Shep is still at this address. I don’t know how to find him otherwise.”

  “We can just hang out at surf shops,” Dan said. “We’ll find him eventually.”

  Shep was a surfing bum. They’d met him when they were little, but Amy only had a hazy memory and Dan didn’t remember him at all. He hadn’t made it to their parents’ funeral seven years before. But one of Dan’s collections back in Boston was a stack of postcards Shep had sent them over the years, from places like Bali or Oahu. There was always a big wave on the front.

  They boarded the bus and stowed their backpacks under their seats. The elderly woman with the red suitcase opened up her map behind them as the bus took off.

  The map bounced off the back of Amy’s head. “Oops, sorry dear,” the woman said. “I just bopped you with the Blue Mountains.”

  “It’s okay,” Amy said. “No worries.”

  “Americans! I knew it! So friendly. I traveled to Kansas City once. Delicious barbecue. You’re not from Kansas by any chance? No? Pity.” The woman began to murmur to herself as she looked over the map. Every so often it would smack Amy on the head again, but she ignored it.

  As the bus hit the city center, traffic swirled around them, and they rumbled from block to block. The change from Moscow was startling. Outside the people walked with brisk athletic strides, dressed in bright summery clothes, chatting and laughing with their companions. Everybody in Sydney seemed fit and happy.

  “No wonder they call it Oz,” Dan said. “This is unreal.”

  Nellie kept her eyes on the map and on their various stops. Amy peered at the signs.

  “Doesn’t Shep live near Darlinghurst?” Amy asked.

  “Dude, don’t call me darling,” Dan said. “Ever. That’s an absolute rule.”

  “Darlinghurst is an area of Sydney, you dork,” Amy said.

  “Dork, acceptable. Darling, un.”

  The friendly woman behind them stood up as they rolled to a stop. Dragging her suitcase and folding her map, she waved at them. “Cheerio! Enjoy your trip!”

  “You, too!” Amy waved. The doors hissed shut.

  Nellie consulted the map again. “We’re near Circular Quay. Only a couple more stops before we transfer.”

  Amy leaned over to look at the map. Something was different. A familiar weight was missing….

  “Grace’s necklace!” Amy felt weak as her hands flew up to her neck. “I lost it!”

  “Are you sure?” Nellie asked, looking on the seat.

  Amy couldn’t answer. There was a huge lump in her throat, and she fought back tears. The necklace wasn’t just a necklace. It was something that Grace had cherished. Every time Amy touched it, it brought back her grandmother’s bracing presence, and she felt a connection to Grace’s own courage.

  The bus turned a corner as Amy frantically scrabbled on the floor. “It’s not here!”

  “When do you remember it last?” Nellie asked.

  “When we were waiting for the bus,” Amy said, thinking hard. “I tucked it underneath my T-shirt.”

  “It’s not missing,” Nellie said. “It was stolen. That old woman!”

  “Really? She was so sweet. She kept hitting me in the head with the map and apologizing….” Amy’s mouth dropped open.

  Nellie nodded. “Yup. Distracting you.”

  Dan began to stab at the STOP button on his armrest. “Come on. Let’s go kick some little-old-lady butt!”

  CHAPTER 2

  Dan’s backpack thudded against his spine. It felt good to run after being on a plane for a million hours. The only problem with traveling so much was … traveling.

  That, and the lack of Cherry Garcia ice cream on airplanes.

  Nellie passed him easily, even with Saladin’s cat carrier swinging back and forth in one hand, her overstuffed pack on her back, and their duffel slamming against her hip with every step. Nellie seemed to spend her time napping or eating, but she was in awesome shape. Nothing like having a commando for an au pair.

  They reached the bus stop where the old woman had gotten off. They looked around wildly, but there was no sign of her. Pedestrians swirled around them, walking quickly, smiling, laughing, and chatting. A tall, elegant woman in green suede heels strolled over to look at an interesting building. Nobody hobbled around waving a map.

  Dan spotted a splash of red in the middle of some bushes. He hurried over.

  He pulled out the red suitcase the old lady had carried. It was surprisingly light. Dan flipped it open; it was empty.

  Two red splotches appeared on Amy’s pale cheeks, as though somebody had slapped her. Dan knew that sign. Amy was trying not to cry.

  “I l-l-lost Grace’s necklace. I can’t believe it!” Amy collapsed on the stairs in front of a stone building.

  “It could turn up,” Dan said. He thought he knew how Amy felt. When he’d lost the photograph of their parents in the train tunnel in Paris, he’d cried like a little kid. Right in public.

  Dan looked up at the building Amy had collapsed in front of. He saw the word museum on the sign. Normally, that would cause hives to break out on every inch of his body as he waited for his sister to drag him inside, but maybe a museum would distract her. Amy was blinking back tears so fast she was causing a breeze.

  “Hey, look, a museum,” he said. “Want to go in?”

  “Uh, Dan? Have you noticed? It’s a museum,” Nellie said. “I think I recall you saying you’d rather have spiders suck out your eyeballs than step foot in another museum again.”

  Dan jerked his head toward his blubbering sister, letting Nellie know what he was up to. Nellie gave him an appreciative nod.

  “That’s just silly,” Dan said. “Spiders can’t suck out eyeballs.” He thought a moment. “Though maybe they can in Australia. Cool. Anyway, it’s the Justice and Police Museum. That could rock. Come on, Amy, let’s check it out. Maybe the thief ran in here to get away from us. You can read labels,” he coaxed.

  Nellie sat on the stairs. “I’ll wait here. They probably wouldn’t let me bring in Saladin, anyway.” She opened her Dictionary of Australian Slang. “I’ll just put on my sunnies,” she said, slipping on sunglasses. “I’ll spit the dummy if you ankle biters take too long, but if you don’t, she’ll be apples!”

  “Speak English, please,” Dan said.

  “If you take too long, dude, you’re toast.”

  “Got it. C’mon, Amy, I bet they have weapons.” Dan bounced up the stairs while Amy followed more slowly. At least she was coming.

  After they paid admission, Dan paused at a wall lined with photographs of criminals from the 1890s. They all looked like they were about to eat your face for breakfast. Incredibly cool.

  “Amy, listen to this! Once, this guy went missing, and then one day this shark in an aquarium coughed up his arm! I love this place!” But Amy had wandered off to look at a courtroom.

  Dan bent over to examine the death mask of Captain Moonlight. For once, he’d found a museum that made sense.

  Amy didn’t get her brother. Didn’t they have enough mayhem in their lives? Why did he find a place like this so fascinating?

  She saw the elegant woman in the green suede shoes lean forward to examine the wall of mug shots. She looked intently at the wall, but Amy couldn’t tell what she was looking at. Whatever it was, it was fascinating.

  The woman turned and reached into her purse, and something about the motion pinged inside Amy. Something familiar … like she knew this woman. But she didn’t know anyone in Australia.

  By now she was used to following her instincts, no matter how strange they seemed. When the woman moved off down the hall, Amy followed. But when she turned the corner, the woman had disappeared.

  A re-creation of an old cell caught her attention. Amy stepped inside. It would be so handy to have a place like this to lock
away little brothers when they got obnoxious. Which would be every five minutes …

  Suddenly, she heard the door behind her clang shut. She spun around. The woman was smiling pleasantly at her through the bars of the cell. She was beautiful, with huge amber eyes and gleaming dark hair that feathered against her face. Her skin was so smooth and perfect that it looked like a china doll’s.

  “Don’t be alarmed. This was the only way I’d get to talk to you,” she said in a British accent. Her voice was thick and creamy, as if she was holding a spoonful of yogurt in her mouth. She leaned closer, as though confiding in Amy. “We Cahills have a way of running away from each other, don’t we.” She winked.

  Amy wanted to kick herself. The woman was a Cahill! Amy casually looked around for another exit.

  “Still a worrier, I see.” The woman’s smile didn’t waver. “You never trusted your own courage. Grace used to say that.”

  Amy felt a stab of pain at those words. She lifted her chin. “D-d-don’t tell me about my grandmother. Who are you?”

  She cocked her head and studied Amy, an affectionate smile still on her lips. “Ah, the regal stare. Now I see Grace in you. I’m Isabel Kabra.”

  “Ian and Natalie’s mother?”

  She nodded. “I’ve tried to stay out of the hunt for the thirty-nine clues. Tried to keep Ian and Natalie out of it, too. Unfortunately …” She gave an elegant shrug. “They pay more attention to their father. But things have gone too far. My children need me to step in. So, I’ve tracked them here.”

  “They’re in Sydney?” That wasn’t good news.

  “They’re checking into the Observatory Hotel right now. Natalie is probably going through the complimentary bath products, and Ian … well, Ian is probably thinking about you.”

  Amy hated the spurt of pleasure that made her heart race. Even though she didn’t believe it for a minute. She rolled her eyes. “Please.”

  “His behavior has been disgraceful, I admit. He’s afraid of his feelings. He confessed to me how much he admires you.”

 
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