After saving her father and the world, twelve-year-old Lola Benko and her new best friends, Jin and Hannah, are a true treasure-hunting team. But after botching a huge job, they are looking to redeem themselves.
They decide to try their luck at Camp Timberwood, where teams will compete to join the legendary Task Force, a group that gets plumb assignments around the globe. When their former nemesis, Lipstick, shows up unexpectedly, she makes an offer they can’t refuse: help her find the legendary Helm of Darkness and she will help them come out on top in the competition—and be the first team in line for the Task Force.
They just have to go to the mysterious Midnight Market, where the Helm is rumored to be. But Lola, Jin, and Hannah still aren’t fully back in sync after their recent failure. Can they prove to the Task Force—and themselves—that they still have what it takes?
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Chapter 1: Blame The Flying Horse CHAPTER 1 BLAME THE FLYING HORSE
IT’S BEEN EXACTLY THREE MONTHS since a mythical flying horse and his stupid bejeweled necklace ruined my life. Yes. You heard that right. Things were going fine. We had saved the famous globe-trotting, treasure-hunting archaeologist Lawrence Benko, who is also my dad. Better yet, I no longer had to live out of a suitcase while I followed him around on his crazy adventures. I had my own room, plastered with cute kitten posters, at Great-Aunt Irma’s place. I went to an okay school (as far as schools go), but, most importantly, I had friends. Real ones! Friends are not easy to make and keep when you’re living out of a suitcase. Like I said, everything was fine. But in zooms the flying horse, who rudely stomps all over my life, reminding me I am nothing special.
For any of this to make sense, let’s backtrack a year to the botched burglary of a valuable statue. I would never have entered the thieving business, except my father was missing. Everyone said he was dead, but knowing that was impossible, I was intent on finding him. However, a search and rescue mission required resources I didn’t have. Enter the ugly statue of spindly ballerinas worth a million bucks, which would have funded my exploits for quite some time... until I broke it with my butt falling out a window.
They could have sent me to the slammer for crimes committed against my fellow citizens and innocent works of art, but instead the judge decided on a different sort of punishment. I was enrolled at Redwood Academy, a fancy private school in the Presidio. It was to be my second chance (or third or fourth or fifth, but who’s counting?) to be a good law-abiding citizen. But Redwood turned out not to be any sort of punishment at all. At Redwood, I met my best friends, Jin and Hannah, and it’s a good thing I did because life got so much more interesting when they showed up.
Together (kind of by accident, if I’m being honest), we discovered that my father had been kidnapped by an insane person who wanted help finding and using the Stone of Istenanya, a magical rock from an old Hungarian folktale, which was not supposed to exist. But the rock turned out to be real. (Believe me, we were surprised too.) And to make matters worse, whoever possessed it had the power of mind control. Not okay, especially when you factor in that insane person I mentioned. We called her “Lipstick,” and she was pretending to be a supernice, generous billionaire tech genius named Benedict Tewksbury (actually, she was a tech genius and a billionaire, but she was not nice). Her goal was to use a chat app she’d invented called EmoJabber, along with the stone, to control the minds of all her chatting minions. Had she succeeded, it would have been a real problem.
But she didn’t! We stopped Lipstick, rescued my dad, and retrieved the stone. Yes, you heard that right. We saved the world. Sometimes when you are a kid, you feel like things are happening to you, without your permission or anyone even asking your opinion. It doesn’t matter if you yell or scream or protest—the adults get the only vote. When we were treasure hunting the stone, however, it was the complete opposite. We were making things happen.
But then I threw the stone into the San Francisco Bay and everyone got really mad at me, especially Lipstick. In my defense, that stone was bad news, and humanity doesn’t always make good choices. All you have to do is look at history to know that.
In the process of saving the world, I discovered a few things. First, I like having friends. It gives me a buzzy feeling inside that is hard to explain. And second, my father works, on occasion, for the International Task Force for the Cooperative Protection of Entities with Questionable Provenance. I know! What a name! Don’t even try to say it when you are sleep-deprived. Your tongue will end up in knots. Called the ITFCPEQP for short (not much of an improvement, if you ask me), the Task Force hunts for artifacts that might possess qualities “uncommon on Earth.” You know, magical stuff that is not supposed to exist, things that us flawed humans can potentially find and use to make a mess of things. Dad says if you give people unexpected otherworldly power, they go berserk. Us humans like to believe the world is a certain way, and if suddenly that’s not true, things get complicated. The Task Force is meant to stop the chaos before it happens.
I’m not inclined to argue with him after seeing what happened when the Stone of Istenanya turned out to be real. But I did argue that he never should have kept his Task Force treasure hunting a secret for, well, let’s see, my entire life. He apologized all over himself, but only later did I realize he never promised he wouldn’t do it again.
Parents. What are you going to do?
So there we were, world-saving, fearless-in-the-face-of-evil rock stars. But what next? Once you get a taste for missing magical mythical potentially dangerous treasure hunting, you cannot go back to the life of an ordinary middle school student for all the doughnuts in the world. And let me be clear, I love doughnuts.
Of course, that was the exact moment Agents Star and Fish, Task Force treasure hunters, swooped in and asked us to come on board as honorary, temporary, supplemental members, specifically to help find another treasure.
And that was just the opening the flying horse and his fancy jewelry needed to ruin my life.