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For Your Paws Only
Something small and white catapulted across the upper corridor of the Library of Congress. If any humans had been present to witness the object’s soaring flight, they would have been surprised to see that it was a mouse. A lab mouse, to be exact. But there were no humans present. Not this early in the morning.
The lab mouse turned a somersault and landed on the marble floor with a tiny thud. He lay there for a long moment, motionless. His skateboard—made from a Popsicle stick painted flamingo pink—lay upside down beside him, its wheels still spinning.
Finally, he sat up. “It’s no use, Glory,” he said sadly. “I just can’t do it.”
Another mouse stepped forward. A very elegant little mouse. Her glossy brown fur was impeccably groomed. Perched jauntily atop her head was a safety helmet crafted from a bottle cap and secured with a rubber band.
“Cheer up, Bunsen—it’s not that bad,” she said, reaching out a paw and hauling her colleague upright. She began to brush him off vigorously. “You’re getting the hang of it. This is only the sixth time you’ve fallen this morning.”
“Seventh,” corrected Bunsen.
“So who’s counting? You need more practice, that’s all.”
“I’ve been practicing day and night for weeks,” Bunsen moaned. “Let’s face it, Glory. I’m just not cut out for this. I should go back to work in the lab.”
“Nonsense,” said Glory crisply. “Julius had good reason to promote you to field agent. Anyway, it’s too late now. You’ve already graduated from spy school.”
“Barely,” muttered Bunsen.
“You just need to build up your confidence,” Glory continued, ignoring his glum face. “Besides, all this practice is for a good cause, remember? Lives might depend on your skill someday.” She waved a paw at one of the many quotes adorning the walls around them.
“I know, I know,” grumbled Bunsen. “The Spy Mice Agency motto. ‘The noblest motive is the public good.’ But what does some old Greek poet know about skateboarding? I’ll bet Virgil never had to do anything like this in the line of duty.”
“I’ll bet he wouldn’t have complained about it if he had,” chided Glory. “You’re getting your whiskers in a twist over nothing, Bunsen. You should have seen me when I first learned, and look at me now.”
Glory slapped her shiny silver skateboard—standard issue for elite field agents—down onto the marble floor. With a graceful leap, she landed atop it, then pushed off with one hind paw and flew down the corridor.
The tip of Bunsen’s nose turned bright pink as he watched Glory carve her way down the long passageway. Beautiful, clever, and brave, Morning Glory Goldenleaf was his colleague and friend—and the mouse of his dreams. His eyes shone in admiration as she spun around, ollied over a crack in the floor, and slapped down on the other side, whizzing to an expert stop in front of him.
“Perfect,” whispered Bunsen, gazing at her adoringly.
“Spin still needs work,” Glory replied, not catching his drift. She flipped her skateboard over and fiddled with one of its wheels. “This back one still sticks, no matter how much I oil it.” She glanced up at her colleague. “Come on, let me see you try again.”
Bunsen shook his head. “I’m calling it quits for today,” he said, rubbing his sore behind. He picked up his skateboard—Glory’s old one, on loan until he passed the agency’s Basic Skills Exam and earned an official board of his own. “Besides, it’s time we got a move on. The humans will be arriving soon, and we don’t want to risk being spotted.”
“You’re right,” Glory agreed. “Our rides should be here any minute anyway.”
The two mice gathered up their gear and climbed onto the nearest windowsill. A moment later, a gentle tap tap on the pane announced the arrival of their Pigeon Air taxis.
“Right on time,” said Glory, wriggling through a crack under the window sash onto the ledge outside. “Morning, Hank! Morning, Ollie!”
The larger of the two birds bobbed his head. “Morning yourself,” Hank replied politely. As Glory started to climb onto his back, he added, “There’s something you’d better see before we take off.”
“Can it wait?” she asked. “We’re on kind of a tight schedule. Julius will have my tail if I’m late for the Tuesday morning staff meeting again.”
“Trust me, Glory. You need to see this.”
Glory shrugged. “Okay.”
Once she and Bunsen were securely aboard their pigeons, the birds spiraled upward toward the library’s copper dome. All of Washington, D.C., spread out beneath them in the steely November light. The wind was brisk, and Glory shivered.
The pigeons landed outside one of the dome’s stained-glass windows, and the two mice slid off their backs.
“Take a look,” said Hank. “The table nearest Father Time.”
Glory and Bunsen cupped their paws around their eyes and pressed their noses to the window. They peered down into the library’s magnificent Main Reading Room far below.
“There’s no one there,” Glory reported.
“He’s there all right,” said Hank. “We spotted him earlier when we paused for a breather. Keep looking.”
“He?” Glory’s heart skipped a beat. “You mean—”
“Yep. I’d know that ugly snout anywhere.”
Glory peered through the window again, more urgently this time. She gasped. “There! On the floor by the third desk from the end! Hank, you’re right—it is him!”
“Roquefort Dupont, in the fur,” murmured Bunsen, eyeing the large gray rat with distaste. “What on earth is he doing here?”
“And where has he been for the past month?” added Glory.
In the wake of his humiliating defeat at the paws of the Spy Mice Agency on Halloween, the leader of Washington’s rat underworld had vanished without a trace. Rumors of Dupont’s whereabouts had circulated like wildfire, but for weeks now the mice had seen neither hide nor hair of him.
Glory and Bunsen watched as Dupont struggled to drag something out from underneath the desk. Something that looked suspiciously like—
“A book?” cried Glory in disbelief.
“Impossible,” echoed Bunsen. “Can’t be.”
But it was. The two mice exchanged a glance. What could Roquefort Dupont, Lord of the Sewers and supreme commander of Washington’s rat underworld, possibly want with a book?
“Maybe somebody accidentally smeared ketchup on it?” ventured Bunsen. “Or used a sandwich as a bookmark?”
What other explanation could there be? Rats were famous both for their gluttony and for their contempt for the written word. Dupont and his kin were illiterate and proud of it. They had nothing but scorn for their mouse rivals, who had forged a sophisticated society through shrewd use of human knowledge and technology. “Not fit to be rodents!” the rats sneered, clinging stubbornly to their primitive ways.
“We’ve got to go in for a closer look,” Glory said. “Hank, you and Ollie wait here—we won’t be long. Come on, Bunsen.”
The two mice squeezed through a crack in the stained glass, emerging onto a plaster windowsill. Bunsen crept forward cautiously and peered over the edge. He gulped. It was a long, long way down to the floor.
Glory rummaged in her backpack. “Right tool for the right job, as Julius always says,” she said, pulling out what looked like a ballpoint pen. “I’ve been wanting to test this.”
Bunsen inspected it closely. “I see the lab’s been busy while I’ve been at spy school,” he said. “What kind of range does it have?”
“Let’s find out.” Resting the pen on her shoulder, Glory aimed it toward the window behind them, sighted expertly along its barrel, and pulled the pocket-clip trigger. What looked like a shiny arrowhead (actually the nib of a discarded fountain pen, sharpened to a razor’s edge) shot out, trailing a length of dental floss. The tiny harpoon arced across the sill, then buried itself silently in the wood of the window frame.
Glory nodded her approval. “Now let’s see how this floss performs.” The Spy Mice Agency had recently upgraded from yarn to dental floss at the suggestion of Glory’s brother Chip, who worked as a forager. Floss was sturdier than yarn, he’d argued, and easy to come by from the city’s many dentists. Less labor-intensive, too. The yarn required for field operations had involved many tedious mouse-hours unraveling discarded sweaters.
Glory tugged on the line of floss to make sure it was secure, then clipped it deftly through a carabiner (the metal tab from a soda can) on her utility belt (a discarded watch strap). She strode across the ledge and carefully and quietly lowered her harpoon gun toward the Reading Room floor. Bunsen watched as the floss was slowly unspooled. Lots and lots of floss. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard.
Glory looked at him. “This is what we live for, Bunsen!” she said with a grin. “You’re a field agent now, remember?”
The lab mouse tugged unhappily at his ears. “This field agent nearly flunked rappelling,” he confessed.
Glory gave him a comforting pat. “Don’t worry—you’re in good paws. I won’t let you fall. Wait here for my signal.”
Bunsen’s stomach did a flip-flop as Glory leaped fearlessly off the ledge, hooked one paw around the line of floss and rappelled swiftly down, down, down the high wall. She landed atop Father Time, whose statue adorned the fancy clock above the Reading Room’s main entrance. Setting her backpack down, she gave the line a sharp tug to signal Bunsen that it was his turn.
Reluctantly, Bunsen grabbed the dental floss with both paws—winding his tail around it too, for good measure—and clipped it to his utility belt. Then he inched his way backward off the ledge. His hind paws waved wildly in the air for a moment as he eased into the first drop. He swung in toward the wall and would have crashed, but Glory held the line taut, and he managed to steady himself. He pushed off and dropped again. Too fast! With a squeak of alarm, he toppled backward and dangled upside down.
“Come on, Bunsen, you can do it!” Glory called softly.
With an effort, the lab mouse wiggled himself upright again. Hesitantly, he pushed off and dropped again, more successfully this time. Push, drop, push, drop—slowly at first and then faster as he found his rhythm. Finally, panting hard, he landed beside Glory. His pale face was flushed with pride. “I did it!” he whispered excitedly.
Glory slapped him a high paw. “Of course you did, Bunsen. You are true-blue. It’s like I said before: You just need to build up your confidence.”
She pulled a second ball of floss from her backpack and fastened one end to Father Time’s sickle. “Remind me to tell Chip that he was right—this floss works much better than the yarn.” She dropped the ball over the side of the clock, waited for it to hit the floor, and then rappelled the rest of the way down. Bunsen followed silently.
“We need to get close, but not too close,” whispered Glory. “Dupont has a nose like a ferret.”
Camouflaging themselves in the shadows, the two mice edged nearer to where the gray rat was squatting on the floor. Dupont had the book in front of him now, and he was turning the pages with his mangy snout. Glory and Bunsen watched, speechless, as he squinted at the words, using his tail as a pointer.
“G-R-A-N-D,” he spelled. Then, slowly and laboriously, he sounded out the word: “ ‘Grand.’ ” Dupont grunted. He sat back on his haunches, and a look of surprise crept across his hideous face. He chuckled to himself. “Well, what do you know,” he muttered softly. “The little beggar was right. It’s not so hard.”
Glory and Bunsen looked at each other in horror. This was worse than they could possibly have imagined! Dupont didn’t just have a book—Dupont was reading!
The power of the written word in the paws of a megalomanirat like Roquefort Dupont? Glory’s heart clutched in fear. The prospect was terrifying. Books were the mice’s secret weapon. Outsized, outclawed, and outfanged by their rat rivals, mice had no choice but to rely on brains rather than brawn when it came to dealing with Dupont and his kind. Reading gave them the power to do just that. It allowed them to retain a small edge over the rats, to stay a whisker’s length ahead of their deadliest enemies. If the rats learned to read, it would tip the balance of power forever. Literate rats would be lethal rats. It would spell the end of civilization as they knew it.
“Julius must be told at once,” Glory whispered. She turned to go.
Bunsen motioned her to stop. He slipped off his backpack and pulled out what looked like a small key chain. Slinging it around his pale neck, he held the black rubber key fob up to one pink eye and pointed it at Dupont.
“C-E-N-T-R-A-L,” the rat spelled, once again sounding out the word. “ ‘Central.’ ” He grinned again, pleased with himself.
Click! Click! Click! went Bunsen’s key chain. He looked over at Glory. “Right tool for the right job, remember?” he said softly. “Subminiature Tropel camera. CIA issue. No one will believe this unless they see it.”
Glory nodded, and the two mice melted back into the shadows. They retraced their steps, scampering swiftly up the trail of dental floss to the stained-glass window in the library’s dome.
“Well?” asked Hank as they emerged into the open air.
“It’s bad, Hank,” Glory replied grimly. “Worse than bad—catastrophic. We need to get back to Central Command on the double.”
“What is it? What’s wrong?” asked the pigeon.
Glory shivered. This time it wasn’t the November wind sending a chill down to the tip of her tail. “Dupont can read.”