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"Did you hear that?" Frank hissed under his breath. I nodded. Then I realized he probably couldn't see me. The hallway was pitch black.
"Yeah," I whispered. "I think we should -- "
"Shhh! Let's go left."
He started creeping that way, staying low to the ground. I followed. It was so dark I could hardly see a thing. Just Frank's back. Not my favorite view. But what are you going to do?
We rounded the corner at the end of the hall. I clutched the big, heavy aluminum flashlight I was holding. It had been the only weapon around to grab when Frank had woken me up a few minutes earlier. I just hoped I'd have the guts to use it if and when the time came.
Up ahead I could see the pale gray outline of a doorway. It led into the mansion's cavernous kitchen.
At that moment the sound came again. Sort of a tiny, scraping noise, so quiet you could hardly catch it.
I tensed. This was it.
Frank heard it too. He crouched there for a moment. Then, in one fluid motion, he sprang up and flipped on the light switch.
The glare was blinding. I blinked furiously, clutching the heavy flashlight in both hands.
"Where is it?" I shouted.
"There!" Frank leaped forward, already swinging the Wiffle bat he was holding.
That's when I spotted it too. The mouse. It skittered away, avoiding Frank's blow. The bat landed on the tile floor with a hollow thunk.
"Gotcha!" I cried as the mouse raced toward me on its tiny legs. I lunged forward and swung as hard as I could.
That mouse was fast. I missed too. My hand stung from the recoil of the flashlight hitting the hard tile floor. I tossed my weapon to my other hand and spun around.
Too late. The mouse was running hard. All I could do was watch helplessly as its little tail disappeared under the refrigerator.
"What's going on out here?" A red-haired girl wrapped in a robe appeared in the doorway -- sly, cutthroat Olivia Gavener.
A big dude with a crewcut was right behind her. James Sittenfeld. He was rubbing his eyes and looking irritated.
"Yeah," he said. "What's your damage, dudes? If you want to fight out your differences, have some class. Do it when people aren't trying to sleep."
That was rich, coming from him. He was the last one who should be ragging on anyone else for being inconsiderate. You could sum up the dude in two words: Ob Noxious.
"Sorry." Frank tossed down his Wiffle bat. "I was on my way to the bathroom when I heard our little rodent buddy rustling around out here. Joe and I were trying to take him out before he eats any more of our food."
"Did you get him?" James asked. "If you did, Fatso will probably kiss you." He smirked. "In case you haven't noticed, he doesn't like to share his chow."
James thinks he's hilarious. The rest of us pretty much don't. Not that he would ever notice. He's not exactly Mr. Sensitive.
Luckily, Mikey Chan -- aka the "Fatso" in question -- wasn't among the crowd of seven sleepy teens now crowding the doorway, staring at Frank and me. I wasn't surprised. The kid is a pretty heavy sleeper. I should know. I've been listening to him snore like a buzz saw in the bunk below me for the past week and a half.
"Well, I'm glad you didn't kill it," Brynn Fulghum declared. "So what if it ate a few crumbs? The poor little thing doesn't deserve to die for that."
Ah, Brynn. How to describe her? You could mention her soft blond hair. Her cute upturned nose. Or the way her eyebrows kind of arch up in the middle. But even all that wouldn't begin to cover how awesome she is. Don't get me started, okay?
"Whatever." James yawned, already seeming bored by the whole conversation. "I'm going back to bed."
"Me too," Bobby T mumbled. He looked even sleepier than the others. His blue hair was sticking up on top of his head. Actually, it always does. But usually it's from mousse or something, not bedhead.
Bobby pays a lot of attention to his appearance. That's because he's famous. At least in his own mind. He's a blogger -- a pretty successful one, I guess, even though I'd never heard of him before I met him. He even had his blog optioned by Hollywood.
By now you're probably wondering what Frank and I were doing in a mansion with all these people. The answer is, we're undercover agents with ATAC -- American Teens Against Crime. That's a group our dad, Fenton Hardy, started after he retired from the NYPD. The idea behind ATAC is that there are lots of places where adults stick out like a sore thumb. Hip-hop concerts. Skateboarding rallies. That kind of thing. The solution: agents who are teenagers themselves. As soon as we heard about it, Frank and I were on board. Our life has been a total rush ever since.
The two of us have ended up in a lot of weird places thanks to ATAC. But our current mission might be the weirdest yet. We were working undercover as contestants on a new reality show called Deprivation House.
Well, back up a minute. When we first got the assignment, we didn't know the name of the show. All we knew was that it was an all-teen reality show. When we arrived at this amazing Beverly Hills mansion, we were stoked. I mean, the place is straight out of the movies. Spacious grounds. Private bowling lanes. Plush screening room. Oh, and did I mention the pool? I especially loved the pool.
But we'd barely gotten to enjoy it when the show's host, Veronica Wilmont, announced that most of it was going to be taken away. Not just the real luxuries, either. Over the course of the show, we were going to lose all kinds of stuff, from junk food to cell phones to cable TV.
That sounds bad enough, right? But don't forget, Frank and I were there on a mission. One of the other contestants was Ripley Lansing. In case you've been living under a rock for the past few years, like Frank --
Frank here. And give it a rest already, Joe. Should you really be so proud of yourself for knowing all the celebs from Gossip Tonight, anyway?
Butt out, Frank. Point is, Ripley's mother owns a big makeup company, and her dad is the drummer for Tubskull. Ripley herself is mostly famous for wearing expensive clothes and throwing things at photographers. She signed up for the show to do some image repair. But she got a death threat even before the show started, and her family called in ATAC to investigate.
So that's where Frank and I came in. We went undercover as Ripley's fellow contestants. Only trouble is, once we got here we found out that all the contestants -- including us -- got death threats. Not just Ripley.
I glanced at the others in the kitchen doorway, realizing that Ripley wasn't among them. Neither was Mikey, like I said. Along with James, Bobby T, Brynn, and Olivia Gavener, I saw nerdy Hal Sheen, quiet homeschooler Mary Moore, and new-to-the-show Gail Digby.
That meant one other person was missing besides Ripley and Mikey. I couldn't think who it was at first. My brain was still half asleep.
I was still thinking when there was a loud shriek from elsewhere in the house.
Frank and I exchanged a look. "That sounded like it came from one of the girls' bedrooms," he said.
I nodded. "Let's go."
We raced back down the hall. I was in the lead as we burst into the room.
Ripley was standing there in front of the dresser. She was staring into the mirror, a look of horror on her face.
I could see why. Scribbled on her forehead in bloodred letters was the word MURDER.
Copyright © 2008 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.