Curse of the broomstaff, p.3
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       Curse of the Broomstaff, p.3

           Tyler Whitesides
 
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  “What was that?” Daisy whispered. “That crash! It was like someone breaking into the side of your house!”

  Spencer dug in his pocket for the vac dust and Glopified latex glove. “I’m going to check it out,” he said. “You be my backup. Do you have any supplies?”

  Daisy hoisted the hall pass. “Just Baybee,” she whispered. That would have to be good enough. Besides, Daisy had once used Baybee as a club against Dez. The doll could be quite deadly.

  Pinching out a strong dose of vacuum dust, Spencer sprinted across his driveway. He paused momentarily at the corner of the house, just long enough to take two steadying breaths. Then he leapt around the frozen downspout and came face-to-face with a pile of garbage.

  Chapter 4

  “I’m the first one here, then?”

  In truth, there were many piles of garbage littering the snow beside Aunt Avril’s house. They were heaped in tidy mounds, like a dozen multicolored molehills.

  The big waste bins that were normally tucked against the side of the fence had been tipped over, their lids askew. A week’s worth of Zumbro trash and recycling had been recklessly dumped.

  At first, Spencer thought it was an animal. Raccoons, skunks . . . any number of critters could have ventured into Hillside Estates and torn into the garbage. But that didn’t explain the sorted piles. Spencer didn’t know of a single creature that would ransack a recycle bin and then separate the plastics from the newspapers. . . .

  Spencer saw a blur of movement as something rounded the corner from the back of the house. He leapt forward, hurling his vac dust in a widespread Palm Blast. The Glopified dust struck dead-on, sending the approaching figure toppling into the overturned garbage can. The lid flopped shut and the black can quivered, pivoting in the snow and grating against the side of the house.

  Daisy appeared at Spencer’s side, Baybee raised aggressively in her hand. “Are you all right?” she asked Spencer as the vac dust subsided.

  “Fine, actually!” shouted a response from the depths of the black trash can. “I’m . . . I’m fine!” The lid of the garbage can snapped back as someone kicked from within.

  Spencer readied a second blast of vacuum dust, but the stranger who emerged from the trash can looked so peculiar that any sense of threat was momentarily forgotten.

  He was a short man, Spencer could tell once he managed to get on his feet. His striped overalls were tucked into tall yellow rubber boots that squeaked underfoot as he righted himself in the snow.

  The man tugged at his unbuttoned coat—a tan tweed jacket with patches sewn onto the elbows. It looked nice, like something a businessman might wear to a meeting. But the man’s long necktie, made entirely of duct tape, didn’t seem to match.

  To round off the whole attire, the stranger was wearing a leather aviator cap, like an air force pilot from World War II. The brown cap was worn and weathered, the straps flapping against the man’s cheeks and the buckle jingling beneath his chin.

  The man straightened his cap, twitched his pencil-thin mustache from side to side, and took a step toward Spencer and Daisy.

  “I’m the first one here, then?” His voice had an unusual accent, but Spencer couldn’t place it. New York, maybe?

  “Who are you?” Spencer asked, his fingers tightening on the vacuum dust.

  “Who am I?” He looked around, his face long with mock astonishment that no one had recognized him. “The name is Bernard Weizmann. Dr. Bernard Weizmann.”

  “Dr. Bernard Weizmann?” Daisy whispered.

  “You know him?” Spencer glanced at his shivering classmate.

  Daisy shook her head. “Never heard of him. But he sounds like a wise man.”

  The man chuckled, smoothed his duct-tape tie, and took a bow. “Call me Bern, Bernie, Bernard. Whichever you prefer.”

  “What are you doing at my house?” Spencer said.

  “Ahh!” Bernard gave an overexaggerated wink. “But this isn’t your house, is it? The Zumbro family appears to be renting here—more likely tending, free of charge. No doubt a generous offer from Uncle Wyatt and Aunt Avril.”

  Spencer swallowed a lump in his throat. He wasn’t cold, despite the frigid air. “Who sent you?” Was this common information among the BEM? “How do you know all this?”

  “I just read the piles, kid.” Bernard pointed to the multicolored mounds of trash and recycling in the snow.

  “Wow!” Daisy said. “You’re like some kind of garbagereading fortune-teller?”

  Bernard shook his head, aviator straps flapping. “Garbologist,” he said. “I’m a garbologist.”

  “Wait,” Spencer said. “Garbologist? Like someone who studies . . . garbage?”

  Bernard held up a hand. “Don’t act so disgusted. The garbage is my friend.”

  “What does it tell you?” Daisy asked.

  A smile flashed across Bernard’s face. “Anything I want to know.” He took a knee in the snow, surrounded on all sides by organized piles of Zumbro trash. His eyes, stark blue in the bright reflection from the snow, danced from mound to mound.

  “Your mum’ll be back in a flash,” Bernard said, glancing briefly at Spencer. “Not yet noon and she’s had quite a hectic day. Preparing a birthday party for a younger sibling.”

  Bernard’s hand darted out, scattering one of the piles. He lifted a shred of orange gift wrap and let it flutter back to the snow. “Max, I assume. Judging by the gift receipts, I’d say he’s turning four, maybe five.”

  Bernard picked up an empty sugar box. “Max won’t settle for a party without cake.” Bernard’s tongue came out, carefully licking a dark smudge on the side of the box. “Chocolate cake. Your mother hoped to have enough sugar for the recipe.” He tossed the box. “And indeed she did. But it was the eggs . . .”

  Bernard lifted an egg carton from the trash and opened it to reveal jagged shells still glistening from a fresh crack. “She needed three eggs. And she only had two.” The garbologist shrugged. “So she ran to Food Mart. Be back in a flash, though.”

  A sudden, prolonged honking rang out from the street. Spencer swiveled to see the Zumbro SUV trying to pull into the blocked driveway.

  “That was amazing!” Daisy said. “Is it really Max’s birthday?” Spencer could only nod. “How’d you do that?”

  Bernard Weizmann stretched his hands over the trash and grinned. “It’s all here. You just gotta know what you’re looking for.”

  The SUV finally parked against the roadside. Spencer saw Alice and Max climb out. His mom had a Food Mart bag in one hand, the clear outline of a rectangular egg carton hanging gently in the bottom.

  “So what if you guessed it right,” Spencer said. “That doesn’t explain what you’re doing here, sorting through my family’s trash!”

  Bernard clucked his tongue defensively. “I wasn’t sure if this was the right place. I can’t go ringing doorbells without doing a bit of research on the family.” He stood up, dusting the snow off his striped overalls. “Turns out that it is the right place, though. So we can go inside now, if you please.”

  “No, I don’t please,” Spencer said. “Not until you clean up this mess!”

  “This is not a mess!” Bernard shouted back. “This is scientific research!” The garbologist took a deep breath. “Look, Spencer. Your dad handpicked me to be on this team. The pieces are moving. So we can stand out here and bicker like schoolgirls,” he turned to Daisy. “No offense.” Then back at Spencer. “Or, we can get inside and figure out who called the team.”

  “What team?” Daisy said. “I thought Alan didn’t play baseball.”

  “It’s not about baseball,” Bernard said. “It’s about saving the world.”

  “I thought we were trying to save education,” Daisy said.

  “Destroying education is only the BEM’s first step toward world domination. If education fails, the rest of the nation will follow too easily,” Bernard continued. “But we have a chance to stop them this very day!” The garbologist turned his blue eyes on
Spencer. “Didn’t you hear? Someone found the package.”

  Chapter 5

  “You are a stranger.”

  Spencer and Daisy led Bernard Weizmann through the back door of the house. They entered directly into the kitchen, taking Alice Zumbro by such surprise that her fingers slipped on the eggbeaters, spraying chocolate cake batter everywhere.

  “Spencer!” Her eyes went to the clock on the wall.

  “What are you . . . ?” Then she saw Bernard, standing in the doorway with his dripping yellow boots. “Who is . . . ?”

  “Dad’s in trouble,” Spencer said. “The BEM’s going for him. They have a group of . . .” He stopped, not knowing how to describe what he’d seen at Leslie Sharmelle’s prison cell. “It’s bad, Mom. I’ve got to warn him!”

  Spencer crossed to the table, grabbed the phone, and began dialing.

  “No way he’ll answer,” said Bernard, clomping to the center of the kitchen in his shiny boots.

  “Excuse me?” Alice said. “Who are you?”

  He smoothed his tie and took a bow. “The name’s Dr. Bernard Weizmann.”

  Daisy stepped forward. “He’s a garbologist.”

  “A gar-whoola-what?” Alice said.

  “Come on!” Spencer started dialing again. “Pick up the phone, Dad! He’s not answering.”

  “Of course not,” Bernard said. “The whole team’s been off the grid for almost twelve hours already.” He glanced at the clock on the wall. “Since midnight last night.”

  “Off the grid?” Daisy said. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  Bernard crossed the room, and Spencer let him take the phone. He’d dialed the number three times, but Alan’s phone was definitely turned off.

  Bernard seated himself at the head of the kitchen table. Wordlessly, the others filed around him. The garbologist cleared his throat, as though he were some college professor about to begin a sophisticated lecture.

  “Since Alan’s return last November, the Rebels have been pouring everything into his mission. Top priority is to find that package. Problem is, nobody knows what’s in it. Last thing Alan remembers was mailing it to you,” Bernard pointed at Spencer. “But that was more than two years ago, and you clearly never got it.”

  Spencer nodded in agreement. That misunderstanding had led him to New Forest Academy and a series of dangerous events.

  “A few months ago, Alan assembled a small Rebel team—specialists devoted full-time to searching for the package,” Bernard continued. “But we knew that the BEM would have eyes and ears on us at all times. So if one of us actually did find the package, how could we gather the team without bringing half the BEM on top of us?”

  Bernard reached inside his tan tweed jacket and unclipped something. It was a two-way radio. Spencer had seen them at school. The front office used similar walkie-talkies to contact the custodians about messes or other problems.

  “Walter Jamison set up a communication grid of Glopified walkie-talkies. They operate on a modulating frequency over any distance. That makes it hard for the BEM to listen in, but easy for us to communicate with each other. Everybody on the team has a walkie-talkie. They’ve got everlasting battery power and unlimited range, so the radios stay on at all times. But here’s the catch. If one person switches off his walkie-talkie, the whole grid comes down. All the walkie-talkies shut off.”

  “Why?” Spencer said. “That doesn’t make sense.”

  “Of course it does!” Bernard picked up the walkie-talkie. “It makes scads of sense! If one of us finds the package, we don’t go blabbing it over the radio for any BEM spy to hear. We quietly switch off the walkie-talkie and head to the nearest predetermined rendezvous point.” Bernard reached inside his jacket and clipped the radio back in place.

  “Who found the package, then?” Daisy asked.

  Bernard shrugged. “Won’t find out till we get the whole team together.”

  “Here?” It was the first thing Alice had said since sitting down. “The team’s coming here?”

  “There are three rendezvous locations,” Bernard said. “Zumbro household on Hillside Estates is number one. We have twelve hours to get here, hoping that everybody shows. If not, we move quickly and quietly to the second rendezvous, and so on to the third. Once everybody makes it, we open the package and do whatever it takes to complete the mission.”

  “Who else is coming?” Spencer asked. “Who’s on the team?”

  “Alan Zumbro, mission leader and Toxite scientist.” Bernard said it like he was reading a roster. “Walter Jamison, Rebel warlock. Penny Jamison, Glopified weapons specialist.” He paused for effect. “And of course, the one and only . . . Dr. Bernard Weizmann, garbologist.”

  “Four of you?” Alice said.

  “Four? No, no,” Bernard said. “Six.” He pointed across the table at Spencer and Daisy. “You two have been part of the team since Alan handpicked it in November.”

  “Hold on a minute,” Alice cut in. “My husband picked a couple of twelve-year-olds to be part of a top-secret mission?”

  Bernard made a nonconfrontational expression. “They saved his life, you know. The man has serious trust issues. He’s just surrounding himself with people he can depend on.” Bernard shrugged. “Besides, we’ll need Spencer for his . . . visions.”

  “Absolutely not,” Alice said. She muttered Alan’s name under her breath. “This is unbelievable.” Alice leaned forward, and Spencer could see a monologue brewing at her lips. Dr. Bernard Weizmann was about to see his mother’s fury.

  “I try very hard,” Alice began, “not to judge people. I like to consider myself fairly tolerant.” She took a deep breath. “Then you show up. A garbologist. You walk in here with your yellow boots and duct-tape tie and expect me to turn these kids over to you?” She pinched her lips together. “Oh, no, sir! First it was Garth Hadley. Then it was Slick at New Forest Academy. Now it’s you. You are a stranger. And you are a strange stranger!” She slammed her hand against the table for emphasis.

  Bernard remained surprisingly calm in the face of mother Zumbro. “I assure you, my allegiance is with the Rebel Underground,” he said. “And you can verify that with anyone you trust.”

  Alice smirked. “Conveniently for you, everyone I trust is now off the grid.”

  Spencer and Daisy watched the debate unfold. Alice was a thorough interrogator, but Bernard’s composure and self-confidence did not betray him. But even though Spencer’s first impression of Bernard was that he was genuine, the BEM was ever sly and manipulative.

  “What about the visions?” Bernard pointed at Spencer. “I’ve heard the kid can see the warlocks. Is it true?”

  Spencer shifted under the sudden change in conversation. The debate had fallen out of his mom’s hands and into his own. He stammered, unsure now if he should trust Bernard with any information about his special Auran powers.

  “Do your thing,” Bernard said. “Check on Walter. If I’m telling the truth, then he’ll be making his way to one of the rendezvous points to meet with the team.”

  Spencer looked at Daisy, then at his mom. He felt the weight of the bronze medallion in his left pocket. He’d tried to see Walter earlier, but that vision had led to something really frightening and upsetting. Spencer didn’t want to risk seeing Mr. Clean again. But Bernard had a point. The only way to verify his allegiance would be to check on Walter.

  “Okay,” Spencer said. He reached into his pocket, digging until he came to the hard, cold medallion. His fingertips brushed the metal, and the kitchen instantly went white.

  Spencer braced himself for the worst and was pleasantly relieved to find himself in the driver’s seat of a familiar janitorial van. Walter’s old hands turned the wheel, guiding the big vehicle around a corner.

  He glanced at his watch and muttered something. “This is a message for Spencer. I’m repeating it every three minutes, in case you’re watching me. I’m too late to reach the first rendezvous point in Welcher. Hopefully Alan, Penny, or Bernard will mak
e it. Go with them. I’ll meet you at the third site.”

  Spencer didn’t need anything more. He released the bronze medal in his pocket, instantly reviving to the Zumbro kitchen table. With everyone watching him, Spencer realized that he was about to resolve everything by stating Bernard’s loyalties.

  He looked at his mom. “Bernard’s with us,” he said. “Walter said we should go with him.”

  Alice gave a defeated moan while Bernard let out a victorious chuckle. “That’s some talent you got, kid.” He grinned at Spencer. “I see why Alan wants you on the team.”

  “Look,” Alice said, “it doesn’t really matter what Alan wants. The mother in me isn’t going to let you take these kids.”

  “Too late,” Bernard said. “The kids are already here. Already off the grid.”

  “To be honest,” Daisy said, “I never really felt like I was on the grid.”

  “Yeah,” said Spencer. “If we’ve always been part of the team, then how come nobody told us about the walkietalkies?”

  Alice pushed away from the table, her face flushed. She stalked out of the kitchen. Bernard watched until she was out of earshot. “Pass me the beaters,” he said.

  Spencer glanced at the eggbeaters propped against the mixing bowl, still sticky with chocolate cake batter. “You’re not licking the beaters,” Spencer said. He shivered at the thought of Bernard contaminating the whole cake with his spit.

  Bernard held up a finger. “Just one?”

  Alice appeared around the corner and Bernard dropped his plea. Her jaw was tight as she reseated herself beside Bernard. Alice leaned forward and set something on the table in front of Spencer.

  It was another walkie-talkie. Just like Bernard’s.

  “I was supposed to give it to you,” Alice said. Her voice was tight, her eyes watery. “Your dad said that if you found the package you should turn off the radio and stay home.”

 
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