Read an Excerpt
The 100-Year-Old Secret
The Sherlock Files Cases: Unsolved
By Tracy Barrett
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2008 Parachute Publishing, LLC
All rights reserved.
If they hadn't been playing the Game that day, if the ballet dancer hadn't happened to walk by, if Xander's dimples and big dark blue eyes hadn't been so appealing, and especially if Xena had waited only five minutes before reading the mysterious note, perhaps none of it would have happened. But it did happen.
To anyone watching Xena and Xander Holmes it might seem like an ordinary Friday afternoon — a sister and her younger brother passing time on the steps of the Dulcey Hotel in London. But to twelve-year-old Xena the day was anything but ordinary. For one thing, they were Americans who had arrived in England only the week before with their parents. For another, the whole family was sharing two very small hotel rooms until they found an apartment. Not to mention that she and Xander had to start at a new school on Monday.
No, the only thing normal was that Xena and Xander were playing the Game. The rules were simple. Whoever guessed something correctly about a passerby — like his job or where he was from — got a point. Today they had a good lookout spot on the front steps with a box of what the doorman called "biscuits." They'd been confused about why they would want to eat biscuits in the middle of the day, but their mother had explained that cookies were called biscuits in England.
Xander noticed a couple strolling past, the man consulting a map while the woman clung to his arm, extending her left hand to admire the gold band on the fourth finger. "Tourists," he said, and then added, "honeymooners."
"Duh," Xena answered. "I wasn't even going to do them. They're too easy. How about him?" She pointed.
Xander took the binoculars and peered at the tired-looking man standing on the corner, waiting for the light to change. Xander shrugged and looked at his sister.
"Gardener," she said. She always enjoyed this part. "Muddy boots." But she knew this wasn't enough. Anybody can have muddy boots, especially in a damp city like London. "Calloused hands. Sunburn on the back of his neck as if he works bent over a lot."
"There's not enough sun here for anyone to get burned," Xander objected.
Xena tried not to think about that. Even in London the sun had to come out some time. They would be living there for a whole year and if it was going to be gray and cold every day, well, Xena would rebel and convince her parents that they had to go home to the States. She didn't care if their father had a great job teaching music and composing here. She didn't care if their grand-parents had been Londoners. It wasn't fair to make her and Xander come all the way across the ocean if they were going to be cold and damp all the time — especially since they had to leave all their friends back home in sunny Florida.
The man put down his bag, and it gaped open at the top. Xander trained the binoculars on the opening. A trowel and one of those little rake things were poking out. "Darn!" he said. He handed the binoculars back to his sister.
He perked up as a slender girl neared them. Her brown hair was in a neat ponytail, and she moved gracefully. He leaned forward. Aha! "Ballet dancer!" he cried.
"How can you tell?" Xena asked. "A lot of girls in my martial arts classes and on the track team move like that. Maybe she's an athlete, not a dancer." Xander said nothing, but he had a smug look on his face. Xena squinted at the girl. Nothing. She looked like an ordinary teenager going to meet her friends. "No way," Xena said.
"Way," Xander answered. He hopped off his perch and trotted along next to the girl. She slowed and then stopped.
That's the way it always was. Xander was ten years old and killer cute. Nobody could resist those dimples, that smile, those enormous eyes. Even the blond streak in his brown curls seemed charming on a boy, whereas Xena thought the same streak looked freaky on her.
The girl laughed at something Xander said and then dug a card out of the bag slung over her shoulder. She gave it to him, tousled his hair in a way that Xena knew he found annoying, and then waved at him as he bounded back up the stairs.
"What is that?" she asked, and he tossed the card in her lap. MISS ROSE'S SCHOOL OF DANCE, she read. CLASSES, PRIVATE LESSONS, CONSULTATIONS. And then an address and phone number.
"I told her I was interested in ballet and asked her where I could get lessons," he said, not even trying to hide the smugness in his voice.
"Okay," she said, "how did you know?"
"Easy." He took a bite of his cookie. "The way her feet pointed out when she walked — you know, not pigeontoed, the other one."
Xena groaned. She hadn't picked up on that.
"That's how dancers walk. And her bag," he went on. "It had a picture of those shoes on it, the ones they dance in. And —"
"Okay, okay," Xena said. He didn't need to rub it in.
It used to be that she always won the Game. Her father had taught it to her when she was in second grade. He would pick her up from school, and as they sat in the car waiting for Xander to finish his Pee Wee Soccer practice, he'd show her how to look for clues.
Xena had been great at the Game from the beginning, sometimes even beating her dad. He'd love it when she'd get one right and would brag about it to her mom.
Then Xander learned how to do it too. Dad had been so proud the day a man in a blue uniform walked by, putting letters into mailboxes, and Xander had yelled, "Mailman!" Dad had cheered as though Xander had done something really amazing. Once when some kids overheard Xena and Xander playing the Game and called them weird, their dad told them that Grandpa had taught it to him, and that Grandpa had learned it from his own dad, so it was a family legacy and something to be proud of.
But now Xander was starting to catch up with Xena. She was furious with herself for missing the ballet shoes stenciled on the girl's dance bag. How obvious can you get?
So when a man came hurrying down the steps next to them and pressed a piece of paper in her hand, she was preoccupied and didn't even think to look at him or call after him or anything. When she heard him mutter "It fades fast," she looked up, startled. She got an impression of someone short and round, with white hair sticking up on the top of his head, and then he was gone.
"What's that?" Xander tried to snatch the paper from her hand, but she held it out of his reach until he settled down. Then she opened it and started reading. Xander leaned against her shoulder, breathing cookie breath into her face.
My dears, the paper read. My very, very dears. I speak for the whole Society for the Preservation of Famous Detectives (SPFD) when I say that we are thrilled beyond words to welcome you to England, the home of your ancestors.
Xena stopped reading. She exchanged a puzzled glance with Xander, then turned her eyes back to the paper.
Please allow the SPFD to welcome you more formally. Go to The Dancing Men (if you're hungry, they make an excellent ploughman's lunch) and ask for a saucer of milk for your snake. Then all will be revealed.
"The ink's fading!" Xander exclaimed. Xena read the last few words hurriedly.
Please do not delay. We long to make you welcome. Time, as your illustrious ancestor used to say, is of the essence.
The pale blue ink disappeared before she could read the signature.
"What does it mean?" Xander asked.
Xena shook her head. She had no clue.
But they were about to find out.CHAPTER 2
Xena refolded the paper and stared at it. "What's with this disappearing ink?" she asked.
"I thought that was something made up in spy movies," Xander said.
"And what does this mean, milk for our snake?" Xena wondered aloud. "We don't even have a snake."
"Snakes don't drink milk anyway," Xander said. He screwed up his face, his eyes closed, and Xena could tell that he was putting his photographic memory to work. In another minute he spoke as though reading from an encyclopedia, which, in a way, he was.
"Most snakes are carnivores," he recited, "or insectivores." He paused, and Xena knew that he was mentally skimming the next few paragraphs. He opened his eyes. "Nope," he said. "No milk."
"And I don't think they drink out of saucers," she said. "Do they?"
He scrunched up his face again. Then he opened his eyes and shrugged. "No mention of saucers. It's got to be some kind of code ... or a password," he said, his eyes growing even larger with excitement.
"Who was that guy?" she asked. "Did you get a good look at him?"
Xander shook his head. "Nope," he said. "I wasn't paying attention. Why would he want us to go see some dancing men? And what did he mean about our illustrious ancestor?"
"Well, illustrious means 'famous,' right? So maybe he thinks we're related to the famous detective Sherlock Holmes," Xena said with a laugh.
"I wish," Xander said. He loved reading mysteries, especially the ones about Sherlock Holmes because they shared the same last name. Plus they were great stories.
"The note sounded as if the person who wrote it knows us," Xena added. "How did it start, again?"
"My dears. My very, very dears," Xander recited.
"And what's a plooman's lunch?" Xena asked, pronouncing the first syllable of ploughmanas if it rhymed with through.
"I think it's a pluffman's lunch," he answered, rhyming the first syllable with rough.
"Actually, it's pronounced plowman," said a voice behind them. Xena and her brother turned. It was the doorman, the friendly one who had given them the cookies.
"So what's a plowman's lunch?" Xena asked.
"Oh, it's a nice piece of bread and some cheese and pickle. Standard pub fare." He smacked his lips. "They do a good one at The Dancing Men."
"The Dancing Men?" Xander asked. "But that's —"
Xena dug her elbow into his ribs to keep him from saying anything about the letter. After all, there was nothing left to read, and the doorman would think that they were nutty Americans if they showed him a blank piece of paper. Xander poked her back with his own pointy elbow.
"The pub over there," the doorman said, leaning forward and pointing down the street. "They'll fix you right up. It's about lunchtime now, isn't it?"
Xena and Xander looked at each other. "Well," Xander said, "Mom did give us money for lunch. All she said was that we had to be at the hotel by the time she got back from her meeting with the real estate lady."
"Mom thinks we're going to eat at McDonald's," Xena objected. "And, anyway, a pub is a kind of a bar, isn't it? Can we even get in?"
They turned to the doorman, who nodded. "Oh, sure you can. Just don't order a drink, not even a shandy!" He laughed.
"Let's go, Xena!" Xander was hopping from one foot to the other.
Xena considered. What could be wrong with going? Their mother hadn't said anything specific about McDonald's, after all. "Okay," she said. "Come on!" She was as curious about the note as Xander was.
"I thought we'd understand everyone in England because they speak the same language," Xander said as they pushed open the door to the pub with the dancing stick figures on the sign above it. "But English English is confusing. They spell plow differently and they call cookies biscuits and they drink something called a shandy ..."
The pub seemed like a cross between a bar and a restaurant. There were small wooden tables all over, and a lot of people stood or sat at the bar, eating lunch. The ones who weren't talking were watching soccer on the large TV. A rushed-looking waitress waved them to a table, and when she had a chance to come over to them, she seemed pleased that they knew already what they wanted.
"You'll like that," she said. "It's my own kids' favorite."
After she had taken a bite, Xena said, "Yum! And it costs even less than what Mom gave us for McDonald's."
"I'll have a shandy," Xander said when the waitress came back to check on them.
The waitress laughed. "I'll bring you one without the beer in it," she said. A few minutes later she returned with two glasses of lemon soda, which she called "lemonade."
"So a shandy is a mixture of lemon soda and beer?" Xena asked, wrinkling her nose. "Yuck."
She took a sip of her soda. "So what do you think this society thing is?" she asked.
"The Society for the Preservation of Famous Detectives," Xander said.
"I know that's their name," said Xena. "But I mean, I wonder what they do. And why did they ask us to come here?"
"Maybe it's some publicity stunt," he said. "The Society gives those mysterious notes to random people and when the ink disappears they get curious and come see what it's about."
Xena looked around at the bustling room. "I don't think this place needs publicity," she said.
Xander shrugged and finished his lemonade. "So what about the snake thing? Shouldn't we ask for the milk for our snake?"
"I don't know." Xena was reluctant. "Don't you think that's some kind of a joke? I don't want the waitress to think we're crazy."
"Oh, come on," Xander urged her. "Let's take a chance. If she thinks we're nuts, we don't have to come back."
They were finishing up when the waitress came by and asked if they wanted anything else. They hesitated and glanced at each other.
Xena took a deep breath. "Just some milk," she said.
"A glass of milk, coming right up," the waitress said, and she started to walk away.
"No," Xander piped up. "Not a glass of milk. A saucer."
The waitress froze.
"For our snake," Xena said, and held her breath.
The waitress turned back to them, and the expression on her face was hard to read. Was it confused? Excited? Before Xena could decide, the waitress nodded and put down her order pad. "Follow me," she said. "It's in the back here." She started off at a brisk walk toward the rear of the pub.
Now it was Xena's turn to freeze. She didn't know what she was expecting, but it certainly wasn't this. "Maybe we shouldn't —" she started, but Xander hopped up and darted after the waitress.
"Wait!" Xena called after him. He either didn't hear her or was ignoring her, so she pushed back her chair and flew after the two figures as they disappeared through a curtain at the back of the room. By the time she caught up with them they were at the end of a long bare corridor.
"In there," the woman was saying as she pointed at a dark brown wooden door with a gleaming metal knob.
Before Xena could stop him, Xander opened it and stepped into a dimly lit room.
Xena leaped in after him and grabbed his wrist. "What are you doing?" she demanded. "Following a stranger like that? Mom is going to kill —"
But before she had the chance to finish her sentence, the door slammed shut, the thud followed by an ominous click. Xena tried the knob but knew even before it refused to turn that it was no use. That click told her what she didn't want to know. She rattled the knob. Nothing.
The door was locked. They were trapped.CHAPTER 3
What's the matter?" Xander asked. Why was Xena messing with the door when they could be trying to find out what that snake message meant?
Xena didn't answer right away. Her long brown hair hung over her face, hiding her expression. She knew they shouldn't have come in here. "The door is locked," she said.
"Let me try," Xander said, pushing her aside.
The knob turned smoothly, and the door moved a fraction of an inch when he yanked on it. But then it stopped.
"Yup. It's locked." He fought back a surge of fear and turned to take in their surroundings.
"What is this, a storeroom?" he asked. It was filled with boxes in uneven piles on a concrete floor. Dust swirled in the weak afternoon sunlight slanting down from the only window, set high on one wall.
Xena didn't answer, but instead said, trying to sound calm, "I'm sure the waitress didn't mean to lock us in. I'm sure she's on her way back to let us out."
"Bless you," Xena said automatically.
Xander turned back to the door and pounded on it. "Help!" he shouted. No answer, so he kicked it. "Ow!" He hopped on his other foot and sneezed again.
"It's no use," Xena said. "That hallway we came through was deserted. No one will hear you unless they happen to be standing right outside the door. We'll just have to find another way out, that's all." They both gazed up at the window.
Excerpted from The 100-Year-Old Secret by Tracy Barrett. Copyright © 2008 Parachute Publishing, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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