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What's black and white and runs through traffic?
A runaway zebra.
This isn't a joke — it's really happening!
I'm waiting at the crosswalk and almost stumble off the curb when black-and-white stripes gallop through a red light. Cars honk, tires screech and someone screams. I jump away from the curb with a gasp.
What's a zebra doing on Pleasant Street?
"Stop that zorse!" a girl shouts, her pink-streaked hair flying behind her like a tail as she chases after the galloping beast.
I'm not sure if I'm more shocked to see a runaway zebra or to recognize the girl from Helen Corning Middle School. Becca Morales sits in front of me in science so I stare at the back of her head Monday through Friday, quietly wishing she'd turn around to talk to me. I love how the pink streaks shimmer in her black hair so much that once I pink-streaked my golden-brown hair. But no one even noticed.
"Stop that zorse!" Becca shouts again.
I look around, hoping someone will help her. But people are diving off the sidewalk into stores, rushing to safety. The zebra ... or zorse ... weaves wildly through traffic, skidding to avoid a truck. He whinnies, rears up, and runs toward the sidewalk where I'm standing.
Clutching my backpack with its sweet-smelling bag inside, I think about running for safety too. I could duck into O'Hara Realty or hide behind a large postal box. But when I hear Becca's panicked shouts, I remember when my pen ran out of ink and she turned around with a generous smile and offered me her glitter-tipped pink pen. And she let me keep it.
I get an idea and quickly unzip my backpack. As I reach inside and grab a paper bag, I hear hooves clattering toward me.
"Stop!" I yell, which really doesn't do much to slow the zorse.
Becca is yelling too. "Kelsey! Get out of the way!"
I should take cover but instead I stand there, grinning. Becca Morales, the nicest and most liked girl at school, remembers my name. Wow.
The zorse suddenly stops a few feet from me, eyes wide and wild as cars honk and swerve into a jumbled traffic jam. Before he can bolt again, I reach into the paper bag and then plunge into the street with my hand held out to the trembling animal.
"Here, zorsey," I yell over the commotion, but gentle and soothing, like when our dog, Handsome, used to freak out during storms and hide in the closet. That was before we moved into a no-pets apartment and Handsome moved in with Gran Nola.
"Come and get the yummy treat," I singsong, hoping the zorse likes my dad's homemade oatmeal-carrot cookies. Up close to this amazing creature, I admire his long, curly lashes. His eyes are gorgeous! Shiny, black, and intelligent — like if he could talk he'd have fabulous stories to tell.
The zorse blinks at me then looks at the cookies in my palm. He sniffs, lips the cookies, and then my hand is empty. When I look up, Becca is snapping a rope to the zorse's halter. She leads him off the sidewalk to a secluded corner between two shops, and I follow.
Holding the rope firmly, Becca bends over to catch her breath. She isn't even sweating. Though I sure am! She looks chic in a leopard-print blouse over boot-cut black jeans. Animal prints are like her trademark, probably because her family lives on an animal sanctuary. Sometimes in class I peek over her shoulder while she's showing cool animal photos to her friends.
"That was scary!" Becca shudders. "I thought Zed would be roadkill."
"He's safe now." I feed Zed another cookie, his moist lips tickling my palm.
"Luckily no one was hurt. You were really brave," Becca says gratefully. "Thanks, Kelsey."
I feel my cheeks go warm. I don't know what to say. Should I thank her for thanking me? I don't hang out with other kids much, except my older brother Kyle and my sisters Kenya and Kiana. Being the youngest means shouting to be heard or keeping quiet. I've gotten so good at listening that I taught myself to lip-read. But Becca is waiting for me to say something, and for the first time ever, silence feels awkward.
Around us, traffic resumes, although a few drivers slow to stare at us. I mean, it's not every day you see a zorse in downtown Sun Flower.
I'm curious too and study the bizarre animal. Stockier than a horse, Zed has a shiny black head with a silky dark mane waving down to a black-and-white body and sturdy legs striped like vanilla-licorice candy canes.
"He's a gorgeous animal," Becca says, offering me an encouraging smile in the same generous way she once offered me a pink pen.
"What is he?" I ask puzzled. "A zebra or a horse?"
"Both!" Becca laughs and pats Zed fondly on the neck. "This amazing creature is part horse and part zebra. Very rare."
"Why isn't he in a zoo?"
"He's domesticated, not wild."
"He sure looked wild running through traffic."
"Yeah." Becca winces. "He kicks up a fuss when he has to ride in a trailer so I told Mom I'd walk him to the vet. Bad idea. I should have known better than to take him on a major street."
"You call this street major?" Sun Flower is a suburban town with miles of housing developments but only three blocks residents fondly call "downtown."
"Any street with noise is major for Zed," Becca answers. "He spooked when a truck horn blasted. He's calm now. See how he eats from your hand without biting? He's such a sweetheart — it's a crime how he was treated."
"Crime?" The word piques my interest and makes me think of my bookshelf collection of spy novels and mysteries.
"Most of the animals we care for at Wild Oaks were mistreated. Zed has an interesting history," Becca says with a mysterious glint in her dark-cocoa eyes. "But there's no time to tell you. Zed is late for his check-up."
"I'm late too." I frown at the paper bag I'm holding.
"Delivering cookies to Veteran's Hall. My dad volunteers there. Cookies, cakes, breads — you name it, he bakes it." I don't add that Dad has lots of time for volunteer work since Café Belmond closed and he lost his job. "Dad asked me to deliver the cookies, only ..." I sigh and lift up the half-empty bag. "Zed ate most of them."
Zed whinnies at the sound of his name and lunges for the bag. I jump back but not fast enough. His large teeth crunch down, snatching the bag out of my hands. Cookies fly like golden Frisbees, one smacking my forehead.
"NO, ZED!" Becca yanks his rope. The bag rips, cookies spilling to the pavement, crumbling into pieces.
"Drats. Now they're all gone." I wipe crumbs from my forehead and stare in dismay at the splattered cookies. "Dad spent hours baking those. I am sooo in trouble when I get home."
"How much trouble?" Becca bites her lower lip like she really cares. "When I mess up, my parents punish me by taking away my cell phone."
"Mine won't do that to me," I say honestly. As the youngest in a family where money is scarce, I don't have a cell phone.
"What will they do to you?"
"Give me disgusting chores like scrubbing toilets." I don't want to sound pathetic so I add jokingly, "Can I move in with you for a while?"
"Sure, but you'll have to share a bed with two dogs and a goat. And my goat snores."
I'm sure she's joking too, but she doesn't laugh.
"I'm really sorry, Kelsey." Becca puts her hand on my shoulder. "I won't let you get in trouble for something that was my fault. You helped me, so I'll help you. After I drop Zed off at the vet, I'll go with you to your house and explain how you rescued Zed and prevented car crashes and probably saved lives too. I'll say that you don't deserve to be punished — you deserve a medal for bravery."
I laugh. "My parents won't believe you ... but it might help."
So I go with her.
Zed follows nicely, no more escape attempts.
We walk a few blocks, then Becca gasps and stops abruptly like she's slammed into an invisible wall.
"Don't let him see me!" Becca spins around and ducks behind Zed.
"Who?" I follow her gaze but don't see anyone until a red flash catches my eye. A boy with a fiery red ponytail stands by a corner, his hands in the pockets of his baggy jeans. I'd recognize that blazing-red-means-trouble hair anywhere — and I duck behind the zorse too.
Burton Skeet is a popular kid with a pretty face but ugly attitude. Girls seem to like him, which puzzles me because he's pure meanness. I've seen him cram small kids into lockers or toss them into basketball hoops. Since I'm on the short side, I stay out of his way. But I heard he has a major crush on Becca, so why is she avoiding him?
"We're taking a short cut!" Becca yanks my arm and Zed's rope toward an alley.
"Why? I thought you and Skeet were friends."
"He thinks so." She swerves around a decaying car tire. "Can we not talk about him, please?"
I nod. Not talking is easy. Cutting through the alley is hard — especially if you have a nose and can smell the stinky sewage and rotting food. I don't complain, though, because my brain buzzes with questions. Why is Becca avoiding Skeet? Does she really share a room with a snoring goat? And what is Zed's mysterious history?
We're almost through the alley, which is a relief. The smell alone is enough to knock over a herd of zorses. And it's worse as we near a huge metal dumpster surrounded by gross litter. Are those white sticks actually bones?
Becca doesn't seem to mind though she carefully steps over the bones. Zed's hooves clatter, echoing off the tall buildings on each side of us. I hurry to keep up until I hear a cry from inside the dumpster.
I stop to listen. Nothing ... Wait ... what was that? Shutting out sounds of Becca, Zed, and nearby traffic, I focus my hearing like it's my secret weapon. There it is again — faint crying sounds. Definitely coming from the dumpster. Something alive. A homeless person? Rats? (I imagine blood-thirsty, fanged monster rats.) Shivers crawl up my skin. I am so out of here.
I turn to run fast and far from this creepy alley but I only get a few feet before I stop again. I clearly hear mewing. Not just one mew but a chorus of shrill, scared mews — trapped inside the dumpster.
"Becca!" I shout as I run toward the sound of crying kittens.
"What?" she calls from farther down the alley.
"Get over here! Now!"
My heart is racing faster than my feet as I approach the dumpster. It's almost as tall as me. (Which isn't saying much since I'm not quite five feet.) I hear footsteps and hooves coming closer. But I don't wait for Becca because the kittens are mewing desperately. They need help now.
Broken glass crunches under my sneakers as I lean against the dumpster, grabbing the lid with both hands. I summon all my strength and push up. But the metal lid is so heavy and I'm not strong enough.
"What are you doing?" Becca ties Zed's rope to a pipe sticking out from a building and hurries over to me.
"Help me lift the lid!"
"Are you nuts? Why would anyone want to get inside that stinky thing?"
"To rescue the kittens trapped in there!" I shove harder but it's like I'm an ant trying to lift a truck. The lid won't budge.
"Kittens?" Becca tosses her tangled dark curls from her eyes as she stares in horror at the dumpster.
"I hear them mewing!" I cry. "Help me get them out!"
Together we heave and shove at the lid. The left side lifts an inch but the right side has a smashed-in corner and won't budge. Still, we keep trying, all the time my heart breaking at the sound of kitten cries. Can they breathe? Are they smothering in garbage? Are they injured? And the biggest question — who could be so cruel to dump kittens in the garbage?
"We're not strong enough," Becca says, wincing as she examines her scraped palms.
"They'll die if we don't free them! We can't give up!"
"Did I say I was giving up? No way." Becca purses her plum-frosted lips in determination. "But we need help."
I look up and down the alley and shake my head. "There's no one here to help."
"But there's a basketball court around the corner where some hoop players I know practice most Saturdays. If we're lucky they'll all be there and we'll have a whole team to help."
Of course jocks would want to help Becca. She has a smile that makes you feel good inside, and people just naturally like her. I'm not unpopular — not like Greta Ying who has a short fuse and gets into fights or geeky Leo Polanski who mumbles to himself and writes on a tablet while he eats lunch alone. Kids just don't notice me, which is a good thing since I want to be a spy someday.
"Stay here with Zed," Becca says as she turns to leave. "I'll bring back some muscle."
It's creepy being alone in a shadowy alley but I'm more afraid for the poor trapped kittens. Their tiny mews break my heart yet give me hope. They're still alive ... for now. Is it my imagination or have their mews grown softer?
"Stay strong, little ones," I whisper into the cracked-open corner of the dumpster lid. "Don't worry. Everything will be okay."
That's what Dad said to us after he lost his job. "Everything will be okay." Only everything sucked. We lost our wonderful two-story house with the half-acre backyard. A new family lives there now. I rode past on my bike once and saw a smiling mother beneath my favorite oak tree, pushing a toddler in my rope-swing. I haven't ridden past there again.
But the worst was giving up our dog. I call Handsome a "Golden Whip" since he's a golden retriever–whippet mix. He's so high energy he'd ping off the walls if our apartment allowed pets. Still, the no-pets rule really sucks. Sure, I can still see Handsome when I visit Gran Nola, but it's not the same. I miss his warm body curled up against me at night and his sweet doggie kisses.
Ever since the move I've been troubled by reoccurring dreams. You'd think I'd dream about Handsome coming back to us. But no, these dreams are all about cats. A crying cat in the night wakes me, so I climb out of bed to look out the window. Yellow-gold eyes stare at me through the glass — a skinny stray cat with fluffy honey-orange fur. His long whiskers tickle as I carry him into my room. I give him food. I let him sleep on a pillow on my bed. And when I cuddle him, he purrs contentedly. In my dream my parents are more understanding than in real life and they let me keep him. He'll be my cat forever and sleep with me every night. Then my door opens and the apartment manager, a sorrow-eyed widow named Mrs. Bledsoe, snatches the cat from my arms. I run after her, crying for my cat ... and that's usually when I wake up.
But my dreams never included a filthy, littered, stinky alley. I hear a whinny and go over to Zed and pet him and tell him to be patient. Then I return to the dumpster and try pushing the lid again. I take a break to catch my breath, listening for more mewing. The dumpster is deathly quiet. No rustling. No mews. Silence.
"Please be alive," I whisper into the small crack.
It seems like hours but it's probably only ten minutes before Becca returns. I see someone hurrying behind her and my heart soars with hope — until I recognize the guy. Not a tall, muscular basketball player. The total opposite.
OMG! Leo Polanski?
Why in the world would Becca bring him for heavy lifting? He's almost as short as me and tapping on a tablet seems to be his only sport.
"Look who I found, Kelsey," Becca says, like she's delivering a present all wrapped and shiny with ribbons.
I don't know what to say. Leo seems nice enough, but he's useless. He's not even wearing normal clothes. I mean, who wears formal slacks with a black vest over a white long-sleeved buttoned shirt on a Saturday morning?
"Um ... hi, Leo," I say with zero enthusiasm.
"Wow. You know my name!" His huge grin is a little lopsided but kind of sweet in an eager-puppy way.
I glance away guiltily. I only know his name because I've overheard kids mocking him with mean names. Loser Leo and Leo-Nerdo. I don't want to be a mean kid even in my thoughts. But I can't help feeling disappointed. We need someone with the strength of a super hero, not a wimpy sidekick.
"Leo knows how to get the kittens out," Becca says confidently.
I'm doubtful but with three of us pushing we have a better chance of opening the lid. I ignore the stinging pain in my palms and resume the lifting position.
But Leo comes over and nudges me out of the way. "According to my calculations, you're doing it all wrong," he says.
"Oh?" I lift my brows, annoyed. "I suppose you can open it all by yourself."
"Actually, I can," he says matter-of-factly. "If you'll move aside ..."
Excerpted from "The Curious Cat Spy Club"
Copyright © 2015 Linda Joy Singleton.
Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Dumped,
Chapter 2: Alley Cats,
Chapter 3: Mews and Clues,
Chapter 4: Shack Attack,
Chapter 5: The Zorse's Tale,
Chapter 6: Kelsey the Spy,
Chapter 7: Secret Friends,
Chapter 8: A Fishy Clue,
Chapter 9: Mis-Stake-Out,
Chapter 10: Dog Gone,
Chapter 11: Bird-Drone Blast-Off,
Chapter 12: Clue or Coincidence?,
Chapter 13: Wild Times at Wild Oaks,
Chapter 14: Lost and Found,
Chapter 15: Secrets and Lies,
Chapter 16: Grave Suspicions,
Chapter 17: Spies and Lies,
Chapter 18: Accusations,
Chapter 19: Cat-Tastrophe,
Chapter 20: Follow That Pet-Napper!,
Chapter 21: Mysterious Mama Cat,
Chapter 22: What Kelsey Found,
Chapter 23: Guilty and Innocent,
Chapter 24: Caged,
Chapter 25: Rescue,
Chapter 26: Interrogated,
Chapter 27: A Little Bit of Justice,