When a mysterious stranger claims to own Becca's beloved zorse, Zed, the Curious Cat Spy Club fears he might be responsible for abusing Zed in the past. Kelsey, Becca, and Leo are determined to uncover the truth before they have to give him away. But when a daring rescue attempt puts Kelsey in danger, does the CCSC have enough spy skills to save her, or are they in over their heads?
About the Author
Linda Joy Singleton is the author of thirty-five books for children and young adults, including YALSA-honored The Seer series and the Dead Girl Walking trilogy. She lives in California.
Read an Excerpt
I snap steel handcuffs on my captive's wrists. "You will not escape."
"I will," he says with no fear. But he should be afraid. His legs are tied to a chair and his arms are cuffed behind his back. We're in a shack in the woods, so if he screams, only wild animals will hear — and they won't help.
"Try to get out. I dare you."
He smiles. "According to my calculations, I'll be free in seven and a half minutes."
"You'll never break loose from the cuffs without this." I wave a silver lock pick in his face, then place it on the table — far out of reach.
With a click of the overhead light, I plunge the room into darkness.
I leave and lock the door.
I'm grinning as I step outside the Skunk Shack. It's a cloudy day with a crisp spring breeze that flings my hair across my face. I push my hair back and bend over a basket where three kittens curl together, sleeping. I pet the orange kitten I named Honey. She stirs with a flick of her stubby tail, then drifts back to sleep.
I walk over to Becca, who's perched on our favorite stump that is as wide and high as a table. Her glitter-striped sneakers dangle over the prickly weeds. She taps her heels rhythmically against the stump like there's a song in her head.
"How'd it go, Kelsey?" Becca asks. "Is he locked up?"
"Snug as a bug in a jar," I say proudly. "No way can he get loose."
"You hope," she teases.
"I know." My title in our club is Spy Tactic Specialist — and I'm good at it. Let the spy games begin!
"I have something for you." I dig into my pocket for a folded piece of paper and hold it out to Becca. "A letter."
Her dark eyes widen in surprise. "You've never written to me before."
"Never had a reason," I say in a hushed tone, a twig snapping beneath my foot. "This letter reveals a big secret."
Becca stops tapping her heels against the stump as she leans closer to me.
"From your collection?"
I nod. Becca is the only person who knows I collect secrets the way other girls collect shoes. Most of my secrets come from being observant — like when I saw Trever Auslin destroy a school textbook. I don't tattle or gossip. Instead, this became secret twenty-seven in my notebook of secrets. No one has ever seen my notebook — not even Becca.
"Here." I hold out the letter. But as Becca reaches for it, I pull it away. "No. I've changed my mind."
I rip the letter into pieces that float to the ground like tiny parachutes.
"Kelsey!" Becca exclaims. "I can't believe you did that!"
"Believe it." I press my lips together firmly.
"But I wanted to read it."
"So read it." I smile. "Put the letter back together, girl sleuth. Here's some tape."
"Oh." Becca nods in understanding as she takes the tape. "This is a spy lesson, like what our captive, Leo, is getting."
"Good deduction." I nod. "Imagine you're trailing a suspect. He sits on a park bench and a woman sits beside him. They act like they don't know each other, but the woman sneaks a note to the suspect. After she leaves, he reads the note, rips it, and tosses the pieces into a trash can. Your challenge is to put the letter back together. Make sure all the pieces fit perfectly before taping them." I look at my wristwatch. "You have ten minutes."
Becca jumps off the stump and chases after the scraps of paper, a few dancing away from her on the wind.
I squat beside the kittens to watch the show. While Becca captures paper, I listen for sounds from inside the shack. Leo should have chair-hobbled to the table by now. If he's really flexible, he'll wiggle his feet through his arms so his cuffed hands are in front of instead of behind his back. I would love to watch, but Leo insisted on working in the dark to make the spy lesson more challenging.
So I cuddle with Honey while Becca chases after wind-blown paper. The pieces of paper swirl out of her reach like fluttering moths. As she grabs for a tiny piece, the wind steals it away and she stumbles to the ground. Instead of getting mad or quitting, she jumps back up, laughing. Even dusted in dirt, with hair falling out of her ponytail, she looks chic.
Lately, I've started wearing my hair in a ponytail too. It's not pink-streaked and curly black like Becca's; it's plain brown and too straight. Becca's the coolest girl I know, and so creative, she designs her own wild-animal-print outfits. She's in my science class at school, but we didn't become friends until I helped catch her runaway zorse (an animal that is part zebra, part horse). When we found kittens trapped in a dumpster, Leo joined in the rescue, which led to a secret club and three secret kittens.
Well, just two kittens after today.
Leo is taking his calico kitten home. He can finally have a cat because his allergic dad moved out. Not a happy reason, although Leo says his parents are happier apart. Leo is so lucky that he can keep his kitten. Becca can't because her mom already fosters too many cats. I can't because I live in a cramped apartment with two adults and four kids. But Dad will hear about a new job today, which could mean moving into a house where we can have pets.
"Got it!" Becca announces and holds up a scrap of paper.
I glance at my watch. "Three minutes left."
"I can do it!" Becca carries the tape and papers over to the stump, spreading out the scraps like puzzle pieces.
While I watch her, I think how much I love being in the Curious Cat Spy Club. Becca, Leo, and I created the CCSC to care for our three kittens, but now our goal is to help all animals — and solve mysteries. Last week we unmasked a pet-napper, and we have two more mysteries to solve: Why did someone leave a broken grandfather clock in the Skunk Shack? What really happened to Zed the Zorse?
I feel sick whenever I think of Zed's ugly scars. The sweet zebra-horse has been at Wild Oaks Sanctuary, run by Becca's mother, for over six months. No one knows where he came from, but he has scars from being beaten. Becca thinks he ran away from an abusive owner. She freaked out last week after a man called, saying he's the owner and wants Zed back. But the man didn't leave his name or number and hasn't shown up. Becca is relieved because she loves Zed and hopes he can stay at Wild Oaks forever.
I glance at my watch. "Two minutes."
"But I'm missing a piece!" Becca finally finds the paper stuck to the bottom of her sneaker.
She finishes the challenge with thirty-five seconds to spare.
"Great work!" I pat her shoulder.
Becca doesn't answer because she's already reading the taped letter.
What will she think of the secret I revealed? I've learned lots of secrets because I'm so quiet that people don't notice me. It wouldn't be right to reveal someone else's secret to Becca though, so I shared something terrible I did when I was five. I got mad at my mom and hid so well no one could find me, then I fell asleep. I didn't know everyone was looking for me until I woke up hours later and saw the police car.
"Wow." Becca looks up from the letter. "You must be really good at hiding."
"No one beats me at hide-and-seek. But I still feel guilty for what I did," I add more seriously. "When I saw my parents talking to a policeman, I was scared I'd get into trouble, so I made up a story about being kidnapped. I don't know if my parents believed me, but I felt guilty for lying to them. I've never told anyone the truth."
"Until now." Becca squeezes my hand. "I won't tell anyone — not ever. Thanks for trusting me with your secret." She tilts her head toward the Skunk Shack. "Should we go free Leo?"
"According to his calculations, he should have unlocked the handcuffs by now," I say lightly.
"He won't escape that easily," Becca says.
I chuckle. "He's a whiz with robots but not handcuffs."
"Poor guy needs rescuing." Becca playfully tugs my arm. "Come on. Let's help him."
We enter the shack, which is dark until I turn on the lamp. "Game over, Leo," I call as light brightens the room.
The chair I left him tied to is empty.
Leo is gone.
"Where is he?" Becca turns in a circle to look around our clubhouse.
I check under the table, behind the grandfather clock, and even inside a rusty metal cabinet too small for anyone to hide in.
"I don't understand." I twist my ponytail around my finger. "There's no way he could get out. The door was locked. We would have seen if he'd come outside."
"He must have crawled through the window," Becca says with a gesture toward the only window in the clubhouse, which is darkened by shutters.
"Impossible. The shutters are locked from the outside."
"Look!" Becca points to the table.
I follow her gaze to the pair of shiny silver handcuffs. Grabbing them, I check to see if they're broken. But they look as good as when they arrived in the mail from Spy Guys.
"The lock pick is gone." I tuck the cuffs into my pocket. "Leo must have it. But where is he?"
I whirl at Leo's voice. He's standing in the doorway, grinning. His blond hair is swept back neatly, and there's not a speck of dirt on his white button-down, vest, or black slacks.
Becca shakes her head, puzzled. "How did you escape?"
"Utilizing strategy and logic," Leo says with a shrug. "I couldn't climb onto the table withhandcuffs on. But the table is lopsided, so I tilted it until the lock pick slid into my hands. As I calculated, I had the handcuffs off within seven and a half minutes."
"But how did you get out of the room?" I demand. "We were outside the door. And the window shutters are locked."
"This lock pick you taught me to use is an efficient tool." He holds up my silver pick. "I used the flat end to pry off the window screen. I reached around to unlock the latch, then crawled outside and onto the roof. The hardest part was not laughing while Becca chased after those papers."
"You sneaky spy!" Becca accuses.
"I'll take that as a compliment." Leo bows.
"Great job, both of you," I say. "You've proven your spy skills."
"It was super fun," Becca says. She picks up an empty kitten food packet and tosses it in the trash. "We have to leave soon. Let's tuck the kittens inside for the night."
Leo grins as he scoops up his calico. "Lucky is coming home with me."
"Lucky you," I say enviously.
As Becca reaches the door, her cell phone rings. She glances down at the screen and rolls her eyes. "It's my mother."
"Again?" I raise my brows.
"Mom probably found more chores for me. She could ask one of the volunteers, but no, she'd rather work me to death — sweep out the monkey cage, refill the rabbit feeders, pick up bird feathers. Wish I could ignore this ..." Becca shrugs and answers.
She holds the phone to her ear, listening. Her lips pinch like she's biting back her temper. Suddenly she tenses. Her eyes go wide, and she clutches the phone with both hands. "No! You can't let him do that!"
Can't let who do what? I wonder, coming over to stand beside Becca. I want to give her a hug or say something soothing, but I have no idea what's wrong.
A touch on my hand makes me look up to find Leo standing beside me. His hand brushes mine as we wait.
"Mom, tell him no ... Please don't let this happen," Becca pleads, close to tears. "Don't you even care that he could die?" Shaking her head, she shoves the phone into her pocket.
"Are you okay?" I ask.
"I am — but Zed won't be."
Leo lifts his brows. "The zorse is in trouble?"
"The worst." Becca scowls. "The man who claims to own him, the same man who probably beat him, wants him back."
"Oh no!" I gasp.
"If he hurt Zed once, he'll do it again," Becca says furiously. "He's coming to take Zed away in two days. And there's nothing we can do to stop him."
While the kittens chase each other around the dismantled grandfather clock, we pull our chairs close to the table.
"Tell us what your mom told you," I say to Becca.
"Don't leave any details out," Leo adds.
"Mom said his name is Caleb Hunter and he lives over a hundred miles away on a ranch in Nevada. His grandma owns Zed, but she's really sick and in a nursing home." Becca grabs a berry juice packet from our snack box and takes a sip. "On the night Zed disappeared, his grandma had a stroke and was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Caleb thinks the siren spooked Zed and that's why he broke out of his corral."
"How did Zed end up in California?" Leo asks, wrinkling his brow.
"No one knows. Everyone assumed he was dead until Caleb recognized Zed in an online news photo." Becca rubs her finger on a stain on the table, her dark eyes narrowing. "At least that's what he told Mom."
"You don't believe him?" I ask, surprised.
"Zed has been with us for over six months. His photo was posted all over the Internet and even on TV news. If Caleb Hunter cared so much for Zed, why didn't he find him sooner? I won't let that man have Zed," she says with the fierceness of a mother zorse protecting her foal.
"He has a legal right to take the zorse," Leo points out in his usual, practical tone.
"Doesn't Zed have any rights?" Becca argues. "You didn't see Zed when he came to stay at our sanctuary, but I did and my heart broke. One eye was swollen shut, his coat was matted with dried blood, and he had stripes of scars from being whipped. He looked like a wild beast, but we knew he was someone's pet because he was wearing a fancy fly mask. He let Mom and me touch him but trembled if a man came near, so I know it was a man who beat him."
"That doesn't mean it was Caleb," I put in, trying to be fair.
Becca purses her lips stubbornly. "He probably knows who did it."
"Not if Zed was hurt after he ran away," Leo points out.
"How do we know Caleb's grandma even owns Zed? He says Zed's real name is Domino Effect, which doesn't fit Zed at all. He could have made up the whole story about a sick grandma to get our sympathy, so we'll hand over Zed. What if he's scamming us so he can sell Zed for lots of money?"
"Easily verified. I'm on it," says Leo, our club Covert Technology Strategist. He taps quickly on his cell phone, then reports, "Caleb Hunter, age thirty-six, resides in Nevada, divorced, no kids, and works as a horse trainer for D. S. Ranch. His parents moved to Arizona, but his younger sister, Carol Hunter-Bowling, and grandmother are in Nevada. His grandmother, Eloise Hunter, resides at Golden Meadows Senior Care Home."
"Okay, so he's not lying." Becca crumples her juice packet, red juice squirting on her fingers. "But he still could be the brute who abused Zed. And since Mom won't protect Zed, it's up to me." Becca wipes her hands with a napkin, then holds them out imploringly to us. "Will you help me? Caleb's coming on Saturday and I could use your support."
"Nothing could keep me away," I say, placing my hand over hers.
"Me either," Leo adds his hand on ours.
We make sure the kittens have plenty of food and water, then leave the Skunk Shack. Becca only has a short hike down the hill to her wild-animal-sanctuary home, but Leo and I live a few miles away. Leo's kitten is snug in a pet carrier as Leo rolls off on his techno gyro-board (a speedy robotized skateboard that bends in the middle), and I walk the wooded trail back to my bike.
As I pedal home, I wonder how Zed got all the way from Nevada to California. It's amazing he survived. But his injuries are suspicious. He wasn't clawed by a bear or cougar; he was beaten by a human. Becca suspects Caleb, but I'm not so sure. If he hated the zorse enough to beat him, why drive over a hundred miles to get him? Sure, Zed is valuable, but he's a lot of work. He's stubborn and doesn't like to ride in the trailer, so traveling with him won't be easy.
Is Caleb Hunter a nice guy trying to reunite his sick grandma with her favorite pet? Or is he a liar and a fraud?
I'll find out on Saturday.
My spokes whirl as I coast into small-town Sun Flower, spinning my thoughts in a new direction. Soon I'll know if Dad got the job at the bakery where he interviewed last week. Working at a bakery is the most perfect job in the world for him. And he's so talented, how could anyone not want to hire him? When Dad bakes, he's like a sculptor creating a masterpiece. Mom teases that he should change his name to "More" because that's what people say after they taste his cookies, cakes, and homemade bread.
I roll up to my apartment complex, lock my bike in the rack, and sniff the air for a whiff of celebratory dessert. When Dad bakes, he opens all the windows so yummy smells sweeten the air. In our old neighborhood, people found excuses to stop by.
As I walk up the stairs, I don't smell anything baking. I unlock the front door and cautiously peek inside the living room. The TV is off and no one sits at the computer. I check the kitchen, and it's empty too.
Voices murmur from down the hall, so I slip into spy mode and investigate. My twin older sisters, Kiana and Kenya, share the first room. I don't hear them, so I check inside and see the usual mess — beds unmade and clothes scattered on the carpet. My sisters are probably hanging with their friends. I peek into my brother's room too. Kyle is a neat freak, so everything is where it belongs, from the pillows on his bed to the pens on his computer desk. All that's missing is Kyle.
Voices rise then fall in my parents' room.
I creep over to their door to listen.
Excerpted from "The Mystery of the Zorse's Mask"
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
ContentsChapter 1: Spy Games,
Chapter 2: Secret Twenty-Nine,
Chapter 3: Sparkling!,
Chapter 4: Good-Bye, Zed,
Chapter 5: Missing Mask,
Chapter 6: A Plan,
Chapter 7: Sunflower Mary,
Chapter 8: Shadows,
Chapter 9: Monster Mash,
Chapter 10: Clue in Blue,
Chapter 11: Staged,
Chapter 12: Dizzy Izzy,
Chapter 13: Dragon Flying,
Chapter 14: Ditzy Dog,
Chapter 15: Real or Fake?,
Chapter 16: Spying on a Spy,
Chapter 17: A Puzzling Clue,
Chapter 18: A Shocking Call,
Chapter 19: Shake, Rattle, and Ride,
Chapter 20: Whipped,
Chapter 21: Return of the Zorse,
Chapter 22: All That Glitters,
Chapter 23: An Old Photograph,
About the Author,