Thirteen-year-old Ben Ripley has been caught in the snares of SPYDER more than once and knows well enough to be suspicious of anything that seems too good to be true—despite needing special tutoring in advanced survival techniques. So when Murray Hill finally breaks his silence with an offer to hand over the SPYDER elite, Ben knows that there must be something going on. But his hesitation doesn’t stop the assignment.
The mission: Follow Murray Hill to an undisclosed location with no one else but Erica Hale to identify SPYDER leadership.
However, as Ben suspected, nothing goes as planned, and what should be an easy mission quickly turns deadly. Ben and Erica will have to face rogue agents, trained killers, and even very hungry crocodiles in a race against the clock to find out what SPYDER is up to this time—and thwart their evil plans.
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Spy School Goes South
Streets in proximity to the Academy of Espionage
“Stop that man!”
Alerted by the cry, I glanced back over my shoulder. Five storefronts away, an extremely tall man with muscles the size of cantaloupes was charging down the sidewalk, clutching a leopard-print purse. Behind him, an elderly woman lay sprawled on the ground.
My first reaction was to think that it was a test.
That might not seem like the correct reaction for a normal thirteen-year-old boy, but then, I wasn’t a normal thirteen-year-old boy. I was a spy-in-training at the CIA’s top secret Academy of Espionage, and it was standard practice at the school to spring fake emergencies on the students to see how we handled ourselves. This happened surprisingly often. Three days earlier, I had to defuse a phony bomb and survive an attack by ninjas before I even got to breakfast.
These pop quizzes rarely took place off campus, though. And they usually concerned serious criminals like terrorists or assassins, rather than plain-old muggers. But I wasn’t completely sure about this.
“Someone please help!” the elderly woman cried.
Even though the sidewalk was crowded with people, no one was trying to stop the thief. This was somewhat understandable, as the thief was built like a brick wall and looked as mean as a wounded bear. He was bowling over anyone who happened to be in his way; therefore, people were scrambling to clear a path for him. Trying to stop him would only be asking for trouble.
He was now three storefronts away.
I glanced at Erica Hale for guidance.
Erica was two years ahead of me at spy school and by far the most accomplished student. In fact, she was probably more accomplished than most of the teachers. She was a legacy, a descendant of Nathan Hale, whose entire family tree was chock-full of secret agents, and she’d been learning the ropes from her relatives since she was old enough to wield a billy club. In addition, she wasn’t above springing a sudden sneak attack on me herself.
The whole reason we were off campus together was that Erica was giving me extra tutoring in advanced survival techniques. I was only in my second year at the academy, but due to an unusual set of circumstances, I had managed to thwart the plans of SPYDER, our main enemy, four times so far. SPYDER was a covert organization dedicated to plotting chaos and mayhem for a price, and its operatives were getting rather annoyed at me for thwarting them. Now they wanted me dead.
Unfortunately, the CIA wasn’t great at adapting to unusual circumstances. School rules specifically stated that, as a second-year student, I wasn’t allowed to take classes beyond Self-Preservation 202, even though I could really have used some more advanced training. So Erica had stepped in. She was tutoring me without permission, on her own time.
Now, out on the street, watching the incoming criminal, she shook her head. It was a very small shake, almost imperceptible, but I understood both meanings of it:
1) This wasn’t a test. It was a real crime.
2) I shouldn’t get involved.
The biggest problem with being a secret agent was the “secret” part. Once your cover was blown, there was no getting it back. My own parents didn’t even know I was a student in spy school. In fact, the very existence of spy school itself was a secret. (There was quite obviously a campus, only a few blocks away, but it was hidden behind a great stone wall and claimed to be St. Smithen’s Science Academy for Boys and Girls.)
Erica was insanely talented at martial arts. She could have flattened the thief in less time than it took most people to tie their shoes. But then she’d have to explain how a sixteen-year-old girl like her could do such a thing, which would open up a dozen cans of worms.
Erica Hale wasn’t going to do anything that would jeopardize her potential career as a spy. Even if that meant letting some jerk get away with stealing a poor old lady’s purse. And she wanted me to know that I ought to do the same.
There was only one problem with that:
It didn’t seem right.
“All my money is in that purse!” the old lady wailed, a desperate last-ditch attempt to get some bystander to actually do something.
The thief was almost on top of me. Close enough to look me in the eye. It was a look that said he was considering shoving me into the street merely for being within arm’s reach.
I couldn’t beat this guy in a fight. I had the martial arts skills of a box turtle. (That was a direct quote from Professor Simon after my latest self-preservation exam.) But I did have other talents that could come in handy.
For starters, I was extremely good at math. I could do advanced calculations in my head, I never forgot a phone number, and I could instantly work out complicated concepts like trajectories or gravitational forces with relative accuracy.
In addition, I was learning to be hyperaware of my surroundings. This was one of the things Erica had been teaching me. It was much easier to escape an attack by evil assailants when you knew they were coming, as opposed to being caught by surprise. As it was, I had clocked everyone on the sidewalk ahead of me, and thus had registered:
1) The heavyset man walking toward me with a bulldog on a six-foot leash.
2) The waiter wheeling a loaded dessert cart out of the sidewalk café just ahead and to my right.
3) The three young women dining at an outdoor table at the same café. The one closest to me had a triple-decker club sandwich.
Erica, who was even more aware of things than I was—hyper-hyperaware—registered that I had registered all of this and shook her head again, more firmly this time, meaning that she really didn’t want me to get involved.
I did anyway.
As the thief bore down on me, I made a show of leaping out of the way, banging into the table with the three young women hard enough to upset their water glasses into their laps. While they were distracted by this, I deftly snatched two strips of bacon from the club sandwich and tossed them to the ground at my feet.
The bulldog, being a dog, lunged for the bacon, snapping its leash taut right in front of the thief. If I had done this with a smaller dog, such as a toy poodle or a bichon frise, my plan wouldn’t have worked, but the bulldog was the size and weight of a sack of concrete. When the thief ran into the leash, the bulldog held fast like an anchor. The leash caught the thief at shin height, tripping him and sending him flying.
At this point, I gave the dessert cart a small “accidental” nudge, just enough to knock it from the waiter’s grasp—and place it directly in the thief’s path.
The thief landed on it so hard that a Boston cream pie exploded on impact, coating a few nearby diners with custard. The thief himself ended up face-first in a double-chocolate torte, which caught him by such surprise that he dropped the purse. However, the force with which he landed made the dessert cart roll faster than I’d expected. (In the few seconds I’d had to concoct a plan, I hadn’t been able to calculate everything.) The cart now raced down the sidewalk, which sloped gently downhill, increasing the cart’s speed even more. Startled pedestrians scrambled out of the way as it careened past them. The thief, though blinded by chocolate, was still aware that something bad was happening, and he screamed as he hurtled along. The cart gained more and more speed—until it slammed into a fire hydrant at the corner and stopped abruptly. Meanwhile, the thief didn’t stop. He was large enough to have considerable inertia, and his body was now greased with various mousses and gelatins, so he shot right off the cart and flew through the air.
It was only now that I noticed something about my surroundings I had failed to register before:
The street beyond the corner was under construction.
Several utility workers in bright orange vests were overseeing a project that required three major pieces of construction equipment. A trench had been gouged into the road to allow access to a large sewer pipe, which had been cut open as well. The thief tumbled right through the gap and plunged headfirst into the sewage. He landed with a sickening squelch, which was followed by his cry of abject disgust.
Every person around had recorded the entire incident on their phones.
However, no one had noticed my involvement. I had been cautious enough to make it look like a freak accident.
Erica grabbed my arm and dragged me away before anyone even realized we were there.
The waiter picked up the purse and returned it to the old lady, who had struggled back to her feet.
Everyone else began to either forward the videos they had recorded to friends or upload them to the Internet. It didn’t seem to have occurred to anyone that they could use their phones to call the police.
Thankfully, the old lady didn’t appear to be hurt. In fact, she was laughing so hard at the fate of the thief that her false teeth had come loose.
I tried to head toward her, just to make sure she was all right, but Erica kept her iron grip locked on my arm and hustled me across the street. “That was an unnecessary risk,” she said angrily under her breath.
“The man was a criminal,” I argued. “We’re supposed to stop criminals.”
“Major criminals,” Erica corrected. “International arms dealers. Terrorists. Lunatics determined to cause chaos and mayhem. Not common thieves. That’s a job for the police.”
“I didn’t see any police around. And besides, I was subtle about the way I did it.”
“Subtle? You call sending a man cannonballing down the street on a dessert cart subtle? Why didn’t you just trip him?”
“I was trying to look like I wasn’t involved! You can’t trip someone without them noticing.”
“Of course you can.”
“No you can’t—” I began, though I didn’t get to finish the thought, because Erica tripped me. At least, I thought she did. It happened so fast, I didn’t actually notice her doing it. One moment I was arguing with her; the next I was sprawled in a flower bed.
“See?” Erica asked.
“Point well made.” I got back to my feet, brushing mulch off my shirt. “Okay, maybe it wasn’t subtle. But it was effective.”
“Sending the man flying into the open sewer was a bit much.”
“Er,” I said uncomfortably. “Well . . .”
Erica sighed. “Let me guess. You didn’t notice the open sewer until it was too late.”
There didn’t seem to be any point in denying it. “Yes.”
“You didn’t notice a giant, gaping hole in the street with a dozen men in bright orange vests surrounding it?”
“It was almost a block away. And there were other things going on. Like a robbery in progress.”
“There are always going to be other things going on, Ben. But you need to be on the alert at all times. People are trying to kill you.”
I probably should have been upset by Erica’s exasperation with me. But I wasn’t. Despite the fact that my life was in constant danger and Erica was berating me for my lack of skills, I couldn’t help but feel pleased.
Because Erica Hale was worried for my safety. Which meant she cared about me.
In addition to being the most competent spy at school, Erica was also the most beautiful girl I had ever met. She had hypnotic eyes, lustrous hair, and the intoxicating scent of lilacs and gunpowder. Plus, she could beat a man twice her size senseless.
However, Erica generally didn’t like other people. Until recently, she had considered having any friends at all a liability. This had earned her the nickname “Ice Queen” at school. But over the past year, I had earned her respect—and, even more importantly, her affection. Or the closest to affection that Erica could allow herself. She wasn’t willing to go on a date, or even consider the idea of being my girlfriend, but she had once kissed me when we thought we were going to be vaporized by a nuclear bomb. And now she was teaching me to survive, rather than leaving me to the wolves.
However, she still had some work to do where basic social skills were concerned.
“Why are you smiling?” she asked me.
“Am I smiling?” I asked, then realized that I was, given how thrilled I was that Erica cared about my safety. “Sorry, I’ll stop.”
“Good. This is serious stuff.” Erica still hadn’t released her vise grip on my arm. She hooked me around a corner, aiming me back toward campus. “You already have enough problems with SPYDER being after you. If you pull another stunt like that and get outed as a spy, the CIA will cut you loose, and then no one will be able to protect you anymore.”
“You will,” I said.
“No I won’t. It’ll be against the rules.”
“You’ll still do it. Because any attempt SPYDER makes on me will be a lead to SPYDER.”
“You’re smiling again,” Erica said.
Which was true. However, Erica was also dodging the subject.
Even though we had thwarted SPYDER four times, we still didn’t know much about them—and neither did anyone else at the CIA. In fact, until a year before, no one at the CIA had known that SPYDER even existed. We didn’t know who ran the organization or where they were holed up. We didn’t know how many moles they had in the government or who they might be. And we didn’t have the slightest idea what they were plotting next. The few slim leads we’d found had come up dry.
Until that very moment.
Erica’s phone buzzed in her pocket.
This struck me as odd, because only three people on earth knew Erica’s phone number: her grandfather, who was a very good spy for the CIA; her mother, who was a very good spy for MI6 (so good that even Erica’s grandfather didn’t know about her); and me. Even then, Erica had only given me her number grudgingly, insisting that it was exclusively for life-and-death emergencies. Her own father, who was also a spy, didn’t even have it. This was because Alexander Hale was a lousy spy—although he had been clever enough to hide this from most of the CIA until recently.
Erica seemed moderately concerned that anyone was calling her. She pulled out the phone, checked the caller ID, then answered curtly. “What’s the situation?”
She listened for a few seconds, then said, “I’m with him now. I’ll bring him right in.” Then she hung up and said, “Granddad wants to see you. Immediately.”
“Murray Hill says he’s finally ready to talk.”
That caught me by surprise. Murray Hill was only a year older than me, but he was one of SPYDER’s most devious operatives. He had been a mole at spy school for months and nearly succeeded in blowing the place up. Since then, he’d been caught and had escaped several times. For the past month, he’d been incarcerated at spy school, during which he had steadfastly refused to say anything he knew about SPYDER, no matter how much he was offered in return.
“Why’s he ready to talk now?” I asked.
“Granddad didn’t know. He said Murray just decided to do it.”
“And what’s this got to do with me?”
Erica rolled her eyes, the way she always did when I wasn’t putting things together fast enough. “Isn’t it obvious? You’re the only one he’ll talk to.”