Chapter 1 SAVING THE WORLD IS NO EXCUSE.
IF YOU WANT TO BE a spy, and possibly save the world, you have to practice. Take advantage of every opportunity to improve your skills. Me and my best friends, Charlotte and Izumi, are serious about spying, which is why we’ve spent the last month of summer on the Smith School for Children campus perfecting a karate move we call Deadhead the Rose, where we roundhouse kick the withered flowers from their stems to make way for new blooms. As a gardening technique, it is much faster than pruning shears. We’ve gotten pretty good. I can deadhead an entire rosebush in under a minute.
We’re kicking roses outside Headmaster Smith’s office
window, in New England heat so unrelenting Charlotte keeps pretending to faint just to get a break, when Izumi whispers, “You guys. Come here.”
We peel off our gardening gloves and squeeze in tight next to Izumi under the window, wide-open in hopes of catching a passing breeze. The air is a thick, humid blanket we cannot throw off. Staying low, we peer over the window ledge. Inside, Mrs. Smith alternately studies a piece of paper and fans herself with it. These original Smith School buildings have no air conditioning. Global warming is now in a race with tradition to see who breaks first. Mrs. Smith wears a headset and her resting expression, which is total annoyance.
“It’s not without precedent,” she says into the headset. “I started with the spy school well before sixteen, as did others. If I want to let this girl in early, I’ll do it. She could be our next Veronica Brooks. She has a brilliant mind. We don’t want to lose students who are truly exceptional.”
Everyone knows Veronica Brooks is the gold standard in spying, but who is the other girl Mrs. Smith is talking about? There’s a pause in the conversation. Izumi elbows me, eyes wide.
“I’m not asking you,” Mrs. Smith continues. “I’m informing you. As a courtesy. Now, you have a lovely day.”
She tosses the headset on her desk in a way that leaves
the lovely day sentiment in doubt. We crawl away from the window on our hands and knees, to a safe distance, and all begin talking at once.
“Is it us?” I whisper. Me? Is she finally going to let me into the spy school?
Before this gets really confusing, an explanation. The Smith School for Children is exactly as it sounds: a preppy paradise of redbrick buildings, climbing ivy and students in uncomfortable uniforms. We have a Latin school motto, which loosely translates to “don’t be a jerk,” and a coat of arms featuring a roaring lion (not kidding). Our hallways are lined with portraits of former headmasters, none of whom look like they can take a joke.
But get closer. Go deeper. Look underneath the school. And I don’t mean that metaphorically. Below the buildings in the old tunnels and passageways, the Center hides the spy school, a secret training facility for teenage girl spies, kids who are innocent-looking on the outside but sharp on the inside. These are the girls getting done what the adults cannot. Because, after all, who suspects a kid? Unless we are noisy or badly behaved, we are invisible. We can move through the world without warranting so much as a second glance. By the time you realize the Center spies have come for you, it’s too late.
Mrs. Smith was a founding member of the spy school. As was my mother, Jennifer Hunter. Yes. My mother was a spy. Is a spy? Being as I didn’t find out until I was twelve, and then only by accident, I’m still a bit fuzzy on the details. Right now I could not tell you where Jennifer is or what she is doing. At home in our tiny New York City apartment reading the latest Stephen King or apprehending a notorious arms smuggler in Yemen? Your guess is as good as mine. A proper teenager would rebel against all this spy nonsense and possibly choose a life of crime just to spite her spy mom. But I’m not ordinary. I want in on the spy gig. Badly.
Alas, spying is only for those sixteen and older, which means too bad for me, despite having saved the world twice on behalf of the Center. But this new evidence suggests that Mrs. Smith might have changed her mind about the age limit.
“We need to get in that office,” says Charlotte. “As in right now.”
Izumi puts her hand on Charlotte’s shoulder. “Is this a good idea?” she asks. “I mean, the whole reason we’re here working the grounds during vacation is because we’re being punished. Remember?”
Oh. Right. True. A few months ago, a disgruntled ex–Smith School student named Zachary Hazard tried
to take over the world. We had to stop him. I’ll admit we didn’t follow our orders exactly, but the situation called for immediate action. Who knew that saving civilization as we know it was not a good enough excuse for breaking the rules?
“How could I forget?” Charlotte replies.
“But you don’t care,” Izumi says flatly.
“She cares a lot,” I say.
Charlotte grins. “I do. So much. About who Mrs. Smith was talking about.”
“We’re going to spend the rest of our lives cleaning this campus,” Izumi mutters.
We crawl back to the window and glance inside, making sure Mrs. Smith is gone. “Boost me up,” I whisper. Izumi and Charlotte give me a shove over the window ledge. I fall headfirst into Mrs. Smith’s office and freeze. What if she comes back? I can’t very well say I’m pruning her desk fern. Quickly, I swipe the paper and throw myself back out the window. I have a lot of experience throwing myself from windows, so this is no big deal. The mound of decapitated rose heads cushions my landing. “Got it!”
We dash to the gazebo next to the Cavanaugh Family Meditative Pond and Fountain. It has shade, and if we sit in the corner we get a little bit of spray from the fountain.
Desperate times. Sweat drips from my forehead, making damp splotches on the paper.
“What does it say?” Charlotte asks, wedging in for a better view. I stink like mulch, and yet she manages to smell like rose petals. How does she do that? Izumi lies flat on the gazebo brick floor, blowing her straight dark bangs out of her eyes.
The girl on the paper is not me. Or any of us. That’s bad. What makes it infinitely worse is whose name is on the paper.