Authors: F. T. Bradley
To Tyne and Nika
HAVE YOU EVER WATCHED A REPORT ON THE
news and wondered what
happened? And I'm talking about the true events, not the made-for-TV version.
Like this January, there was a big presidential ball at the White Houseâcostumes and allâand supposedly there were rats in the East Room. They had to evacuate the place. It was panic time! “Rats at the White House,” they called the story.
The truth? It was a total lie. There was a rat at the White House, all right, just not the kind with whiskers and a tail, if you know what I mean. Nobody is supposed to know what really happened at the presidential ball. It's the stuff they think the public (that's us) can't handle.
But I've got the scoop. It's a top secret case, and it involves the president of the United States.
PLACE: JUST OUTSIDE SAM'S HOUSE
TIME: SUNDAY, 5:41 P.M.
Here's how it all went down.
YOU KNOW THE DAYS WHEN EVERYTHING
is going perfectly? I was having one of those that Sunday. I'd just creamed Sam and Daryl at Racing Mania Eight, I was on track with school stuff (or close enough anyway), and Mom was cooking dinner since she had no classes and only one shift at the hospital that day. I would be home before six to set the table, so extra dessert for me. Life was good.
I rode my skateboard away from Sam's house, going extra fast down the hill. But when I saw the black sedan at the end of his block, I slowed. Wondered if maybe my gut was wrong.
Maybe this was some guy who was really into tinted windows. Maybe I should cross the street (safety and all that) and speed up. There was a plate of spaghetti and meatballs
waiting for me. Chocolate cream pie for dessert. Just because there was a black car parked on my expected route home didn't mean that Pandora had come for me.
But then the driver's side door opened. A black lace-up shoe stepped on the pavementâa woman's shoe, but not the girlie type. Sensible footwear, made to catch a bad guy. Secret agent shoes.
Agent Stark got out of the car and gave me a little nod. And I knew my gut was spot-on:
Pandora was back.
I got off my board and carried it as I walked toward her. “Hey, Agent Stark. You must be here for my mom's spaghetti dinner.”
“Afraid not.” She scanned the street, but the place was quiet. “Why don't you get in, and I'll drive you home.”
Now, ordinarily it's a really bad idea to get into someone's car, even if you know who they are. Any kid knows that. And my board was just fine for getting me where I needed to be.
But this was Pandora's Agent Stark. If she came all the way to Lompoc, California, to talk to me, something had to be up. I had that familiar sense of dread and excitement in the pit of my stomach as I got into the dark sedan.
I put on my seat belt and tucked my board in the back of the car. “If you think I'm coming with you to pretend to be Benjamin Green again, you can forget it.” Ben Green is this junior secret agent who looks just like me. On my first mission for Pandora, I took his place when he went missing.
“I wish I could forget it.” Agent Stark sighed and put the car in drive. She doesn't really like hanging out with kidsâin fact, she doesn't really like anything as far as I know. Agent
Stark is one of those humorless government agent types: brown hair always in a bun and never a smile. “But Albert Black sent me.”
“Why didn't he come himself?” I asked, even though I knew he was Pandora's head honcho.
“He's meeting with the president.” Agent Stark stopped at a yellow light.
“President of what?”
“The United States of America.”
My jaw dropped. “President Griffin
“Why is that so surprising to you?” Agent Stark gave me an irritated glance. “Pandora is vital to national security. Black and President Griffin are going over mission strategy.”
I almost asked her what the mission was but then stopped myself. The last time I joined Pandora, I was chased by bad guys in Paris and ended up jumping from an airplane. I know secret agent life sounds really exciting, but almost getting skewered by the Eiffel Tower is not. “I thought you had Benjamin Green for this.”
Agent Stark hesitated. I could see she was thinking about what to say as the light turned green. “He's on another case. In fact, all of Pandora's other teams are on vital missions. We're it.”
“So you need Agent Linc Baker, huh?”
“That's right. We need your special skills.”
“And it's just me, no Ben.”
“Yes.” Agent Stark pulled over at the end of my street. “Can we count on you?”
“What's the case?”
Stark reached to the backseat and grabbed a blue folder. There were CLASSIFIED stamps all over it. “Here.” She tossed it on my lap.
I opened it and got confused pretty quick. I learned from my previous run with Pandora that there's lots of boring paperwork and forms with mumbo jumbo no one outside the government gets.
“Flip to the printout of the email,” Stark said.
I did and read the page:
On schedule for Thurs @7 termination of POTUS and family.
Weapon will be retrieved in 48. The Washington is within reach.
“I have no idea what this means,” I said. “What's POTUS?”
“That's what we call the president.” Stark glanced to her rearview mirror, like someone out on Sam's street could be following us. “The email was intercepted and reported in the Presidential Daily Briefâit came straight from the director of National Intelligence.”
“Something's planned for Thursday.
Then it hit me. “Dagger wants to kill the president!”
Stark nodded. “And her family.”
From watching TV, I knew President Griffin had a husband and a daughter, Amy, who was roughly my age. “Don't they have Secret Service and the FBI or whatever to protect them?”
“They do,” Stark said. “But cutbacks have left them with reduced manpower. And this is serious enough that the president personally requested Pandora's help. There's a costume ball planned for Thursday at seven, in honor of Celebrating America's History Week. We think that's when Dagger plans to strike.”
“Why did the president request Pandora?”
Stark shifted in her seat. “I don't know. Albert Black is keeping this case close to the chest.” She sounded a little annoyed. “I'm sure we'll find out more once we get to Washington.”
“So I'm supposed to just come along, without knowing what the case is.”
“It's a few days in Washington, DC,” Agent Stark said. “A vacation on us. You'll be back on a plane by Friday. And I'll even call your school so you won't get in trouble.”
Something told me it wouldn't be that easy. But then I was reminded of this big history test I had on Wednesday. It was a killer, on the Revolutionary War and the Founding Fathersâand I'd studied for roughly five minutes so far.
This could be the break I needed. “I'll do it,” I said. “I want just one thing.” I told Agent Stark about the test.
“Consider it done. I'll get you an A.”
“Make it a B-minus.” I reached for my skateboard in the
back and opened my door. “Can't have Mom getting suspicious.”
Mom and Dad.
“Waitâhow am I going to explain this trip to Washington, DC, to my parents?”
“Say it's a science fair.”
“I stink at science.”
She cocked her head, like she was thinking. “Spelling bee?”
I shook my head. “Even worse.”
you're good at?”
Racing Mania Eight. Skateboarding. Eating ten fries in one bite. Getting into trouble. “Not really.”
Agent Stark shook her head. “I don't know, Linc. You're a smart kid.”
“Creative, too. So make something up.”
I SHOULD PROBABLY MENTION THAT
making stuff up is something of a specialty of mine. Sure, I get into trouble sometimes, but I have good reasons. Someone had to prove to Mr. Finch that if you put more Mentos in a Coke bottle, the soda sprays higher. And I've talked my way from a D to a C-minus a few times already, so when Agent Stark told me to make something up, she knew I had the chops to pull it off.
Need a story? Leave it to Linc.
But for some reason, I couldn't think of one excuse that would convince Mom and Dad to let me take off to Washington, DC, for a week. As I chomped down on my third juicy meatball at dinner that night, the lies weren't coming to me.
It was kind of alarming, to tell you the truth. Like Spider-Man losing his superpowers.
“You're quiet tonight, Lincoln.” Mom smiled at me from across the table. “Everything okay with your friends?”
Grandpa muttered something cranky next to me. He thinks playing Racing Mania Eight on the Xbox is a waste of timeâtypical attitude of people who don't know the skill it takes to level up twice in an afternoon. Grandpa is more into old-school entertainment. Like five-thousand-piece puzzles and watching ancient movies with gangsters in them.