This was written for my amazing roommate Betinha, who loves The Hardy Boys series. I hope our last three months together are as wonderful as our first three years.
“And that was when he heard the scritch scritch of the monster’s claws,” whispered Chad, his voice barely audible over the crackling of the campfire.
Isaac Horton leaned in, as did the other three to whom Chad was telling the story.
“He cowered in the gutter as the sound came closer, but the creature had caught his scent. It leapt upon him with a RAWR!”
At this word, Chad leaped up and roared it across the fire, which blazed up by some sleight of hand. There were two gasps and a yelp in response, and although Frankie didn’t make a sound, he started so violently that he overturned his camp chair.
Chad sat back in his chair and began to laugh with all his might.
“Dude, not funny!” exclaimed Geo.
“Zac, you were so scared!” Chad crowed.
“I was not!” Isaac snapped indignantly.
“Yeah, you were,” Chad insisted, gasping for breath.
Isaac collared the person who passed for his second best friend in all the small town of Herring Bay.
Chad grinned broadly, in spite of the fact that since Isaac was several inches taller, Chad found himself pulled onto his toes.
“Chad ….” Robbie’s voice quivered. “Zac, behind you ….!”
“Oh, sure he’s gonna fall for it twice in a row,” Chad scoffed. “Even Zac isn’t that—”
His ear caught the sound of twigs and leaves crunching behind them, but the figure came into full view before Chad could say anything. It was definitely a girl, if the long, slender legs were any indicator. Isaac couldn’t see her face because she had both hands up and was whimpering piteously. Long dark hair obscured of her face what her hands did not.
“You all right, babe?” Chad asked, once he had removed Isaac’s frozen fingers from his shirt.
She looked up. The tears in her incredible green eyes reflected the flicker of the campfire. When she didn’t say anything, Mike asked:
“Are you lost?”
She shook her head. “I c-can’t get into my h-h-house,” she sobbed.
“Don’t you have a card?” Frankie asked from where he sat on the ground. The youngest of the campers at fifteen, he was much less impressed by the legs and the tears than his older brother and his friends. Robbie shot him a disgusted look.
“It won’t work,” the girl sniffed. “The reader’s j-jammed.”
“What time will your parents be home?” Mike asked gently.
“I’m staying with my uncle,” she replied, gratefully accepting the pack of tissues from Chad. “He’s out of town.”
“We have an extra sleeping bag,” Isaac offered, glancing toward his truck. “We’re pretty close to Old Man Bec’s land. You can stay here. My brother can fix your reader in the morning. He’s a whiz with that kinda thing.”
“Thank you,” the girl said, wiping the last of her tears away.
“What’s your name, baby?” Chad asked.
“Ellie,” she replied. “Thank y’all so much.”
By dawn, Isaac was wide awake. Ellie’s sleeping bag lay neatly folded in the back of his truck. She sat on top of it holding a section of pine branch and Isaac’s Swiss Army knife.
“You’re up early,” he observed.
“So are you,” Ellie grinned back. “What time is it, actually?”
Isaac checked his watch. “Almost six.”
“Oh, yeah. Real early for Saturday.”
Isaac chuckled. “So, I figured after breakfast we’d go get my brother and drive you home. Is that okay?”
“Yeah, that’s okay. Um ….” She blushed prettily. “Speaking of which ….”
Isaac fished through his backpack and found a slightly bent granola bar. “Here.”
Two hours later, they were driving back toward the campsite. Tommy just stared mutely at Ellie, who sat in the middle seat chatting amicably with Isaac.
“Oh, turn right there,” she said suddenly, indicating a dirt road.
Isaac slowed the truck. He looked at Ellie doubtfully. “Does the sign that says ‘No Entry’ not mean anything to you?”
“That’s Old Man Masterson’s land,” Tommy chimed in, speaking for the first time.
“So?” Ellie asked, looking a little bit offended. “That’s where I live.”
“Ellie,” Isaac said slowly, “what’s your last name?”
She smirked sideways at Tommy. “Masterson.”
The truck ground to a halt in the road in front of the dirt driveway. The Horton brothers looked at her, dumbfounded.
“Old Man Masterson has a daughter?” Isaac finally said.
“Niece,” Ellie corrected. “You better get off the road ’fore someone rear-ends you.”
The driveway was over a mile long. None of the town’s children would go near the Masterson property—not even the teenagers had ventured near enough to see the house itself through the trees. Tommy trembled visibly as he climbed out of the truck.
“Aw, geez, Tommy,” Isaac growled. “How old are you, five?”
“You know I’m fifteen!” Tommy retorted.
“Yeah, for two days.”
“It still counts!”
“Uh, guys?” Ellie had pulled her ID card from her back pocket. “Y’all done?”
Isaac and Tommy glared at each other. “Yeah,” they said reluctantly.
“By the way,” Isaac said as Ellie showed Tommy the card reader, “how old are you?”
“I’m eighteen. You?”
“You’re the oldest, then?”
“Nah. We have a brother away at college.”
“There,” Tommy said after a few minutes. “It’s open.”
“Are you serious?” Ellie exclaimed.
“Yeah, it wasn’t—” He blushed violently. “—too hard.”
Isaac winked at Ellie behind his brother’s head. Ellie smirked.
“Y’all wanna come in?”
“Wh-what about your uncle?” Tommy sputtered.
“He’s out of town,” Isaac told him. He turned toward Ellie. “Right?”
“Yeah. He was supposed to come home tomorrow, but he called last night—you know, before everything happened?”
“How long is it gonna be now?”
“He didn’t say,” Ellie said quietly.
“Do you need anything?” Isaac asked.
Ellie looked down. They had both stopped on the porch, a few inches from the doorsill. She looked back at them, her eyes harboring a little hurt.
“No, I’m okay. Thank you for everything. It was nice to meet you, Tommy.”
“Yeah,” Tommy said, not meeting her gaze.
“We’ll come back later to check on you,” Isaac said, covering for his brother’s timidity. “You sure you don’t need anything?”
Ellie smiled. “I’m fine. Thanks.”
Once they had left, she went inside and got some water. She didn’t notice until a few hours and several glasses later that the water was cloudy.
Isaac tapped lightly on his steering wheel. He had been introduced to country music three years earlier by his first construction boss. It made good driving music. The twenty-minute drive was soon over, and he pulled up to the house.
When he got to the door, he wished for his gun. The umbrella stand had been overturned in the doorway, propping it a couple inches open. Isaac picked up one of the walking sticks and pushed the door open with his foot. There was a no other sign of entry.
The house was eerily quiet. Though it was beginning to get dark outside, none of the lights had been lit, obscuring the furnishings in murky half-light. What he could see was simple—a coffee table between blue couches and a worn blue recliner. The kitchen was visible over an open bar, but it was empty. There were stairs the other way; Isaac headed up them.
“Ellie?” he called softly.
There was a metallic banging in response, two doors away. Ellie’s voice faintly formed the first syllable of Isaac’s name before dissolving into a loud retch. The toilet flushed as Isaac reached the bathroom door.
“Ellie, are you okay?”
She appeared, holding a wad of toilet paper to her mouth. “Yeah,” she said haltingly. “I think the filter broke.”
“My uncle warned me about the groundwater. Some chemical left over from the war.”
Isaac knew what she was talking about. The local tourist shop sold the antidote proudly; the town residents carried it for emergencies.
“I’ll be right back,” he said. When he returned with a vial of the greenish antidote, she drank the contents without hesitation. “How long ago did you drink the last of it?” he asked, warmed by her trust.
“About two hours. I switched to orange juice when I noticed that the water was cloudy. How fast does this stuff work?”
“Ten, maybe fifteen minutes. But even after it absorbs, the chemical will still make you sick for a day or two.”
Ellie closed the bathroom door, and Isaac called Tommy so that he wouldn’t have to listen to her vomit.
“Is she all right?” Tommy asked immediately.
“She drank unfiltered water.”
“Oh,” Tommy said, a grimace in his voice.
“I need you to cover for me.”
“I’m spending the night.”
“What?! Mom an’ Dad’ll kill you!”
“Not if they don’t find out.”
Tommy sighed loudly. “Fine. But you have to drive me wherever I want for the next two months.”
Ellie opened the door again. “What’s a deal?”
“I’m gonna stay and make sure you’re okay.”
Ellie looked like she wanted to protest, but a pained look crossed her face, and she closed the door again.
When she came downstairs, Isaac stood with his back against the open bar, staring at the wall. Now that the lights were on, the message spray-painted there was clearly visible.
YOUR UNCLE IS GOING TO DIE
“Not much for decorating walls, is ’e?” Ellie said, opening the fridge.
“How long has that been there?”
“It was there when I got back inside this morning.”
“Why didn’t you call me?” Isaac demanded.
“You didn’t give me your number,” Ellie retorted, hurt.
Isaac closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. “I’m sorry. I just ….” He sighed. “Is it for real?”
“The people in your town are none too friendly.”
“I guess I can’t argue with that. Masterson’s supposed to be some great heister from after the war. Old timers around town say he moved here with a woman. They never saw her again after the trucks stopped rolling in. You can’t blame them for being suspicious.”
Ellie pointed to the corner table by the recliner. “Her?”
Isaac looked. The face was familiar. “She’s the one who died in the accident at the quarry. No one ever figured out what she was doing there.”
“She was my uncle’s sweetheart.”
Another picture frame sat beside the one with the Brazilian beauty from twenty years ago. Ellie’s eyes grew sad as she looked at the other woman.
Isaac stepped over to get a closer look. A youngish man stood beside the woman. “Isn’t that your uncle?”
“And my mom,” Ellie replied softly.
Isaac looked at her silently. Her green eyes had lost the sparkle that Isaac had instantly been charmed by.
“Um …. Can I sleep on this couch?”
Ellie looked at him for a moment. Isaac’s heartbeat quickened, but the sadness faded from Ellie’s eyes and a hint of the sparkle came back.
“I’ll get you a blanket.”
In the morning, Isaac was awakened by a shriek of surprise. He lurched off the couch and staggered toward the stairs.
“I’m fine!” she yelled back. The shower cut off. “The hot water’s out again.”
“It’s been going in and out since Friday.”
Ellie emerged wearing a way-too-big plain green T-shirt. Her dark blonde hair hung in dripping tendrils around her shoulders, leaving trails of wet spots down the T-shirt.
“The blue towel is clean,” she offered. “There’s a new toothbrush too.”
Isaac washed up quickly. When he got downstairs, Ellie had gotten breakfast on the stove. Tommy stood meekly by the frying pan, watching the eggs. Ellie was flitting around setting the table. As she reached for coffee cups, Isaac saw his brother’s gaze roving to Ellie’s hips. Before he could catch himself, Isaac found himself seeing that she was wearing white shorts.
“When did you get here?” Isaac snapped at his brother. “How’d you get here?”
“While you were brushing your teeth,” Tommy replied roguishly. “On my dirt bike.”
Ellie giggled. “I’m surprised you’re up so early on a Sunday.”
“I came to check your security system,” Tommy explained. He blushed suddenly. “Y-you know, since it would be bad if you got locked out again.”
“Well, thank you, Tommy,” Ellie said. “That’s very sweet.”
Tommy’s mouth curled into a crooked grin. After they had eaten, Tommy got to work on the security system. Isaac and Ellie cleaned up breakfast and sat on the couch.
“Why do you have the fire on?”
“It was cold when I got up,” Ellie explained, “and the cold shower didn’t help.” She pulled her knees up to her chin and her T-shirt over them down to her ankles. They sat in silence for a few minutes.
“You in yet?” Isaac finally asked his brother.
Tommy sat by the security console, wires running from his laptop to the control panel and back again.
“I’m almost in. It’s pretty advanced for home security. And there’s weird codes mixed in.”
“What do you know about your uncle, Ellie?” Isaac asked, turning his attention to her.
“I know he was a diamond miner in Brazil,” Ellie replied.
“He was? I’ve never heard that one.”
“Brazil, Africa, Australia—he’s been everywhere. The stories he can tell, Isaac! You should hear him talk about being in the Amazon. The rainforest mostly grew back now, you know.”
“Boy, I’d like to see it,” Isaac said, leaning back.
“Sometime. You oughta go see it. And I wanna see it too. Let’s go.”
Tommy snorted in disgust. His blue eyes narrowed in on his laptop screen. “Zac?”
Isaac was gazing intently at Ellie. “Are you for real?”
“Isaac!” Tommy squeaked. “The fire!”
Isaac and Ellie snapped toward the fireplace. Ellie screeched in horror—the fire had roared up out of the fireplace and was billowing up over the mantelpiece.
“Isaac, turn the gas off!” Ellie shouted, darting into the kitchen. “There’s a key on the right side!”
She was running for the fire extinguisher. Isaac grabbed the key and turned the gas totally off. He barely jumped out of the way in time to avoid being doused in white foam. Ellie sprayed the mantel and surrounding flames thoroughly.
Isaac sat back, gasping in shock. “What the heck was that?”
Tommy started toward them. “Fellas? Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Ellie nodded, panting as she set the fire extinguisher down.
Isaac nodded too. “Yeah.”
“Oh, good,” Tommy said, slouching in relief. “Hey, Ellie, you’ll never believe this.”
Ellie, who of course had no idea how surprising it was for Tommy to coherently address a girl, walked over to him.
“What is it?” she asked as Isaac got up and made his way over.
“There was a remote signal right before the fireplace sparked.”
“So?” Isaac said.
“Everything in this house is connected to the security system,” Tommy replied. “Whoever controls the matrix controls the house.”
“And a remote signal means that someone is controlling it,” Ellie murmured. “From the outside! Can you track it?”
Tommy shook his head. “It wasn’t active long enough.”
Ellie looked at Isaac. Then she pivoted and started for the stairs.
“Where are you going?” Isaac hollered after her.
“I’m gonna take another shower.”
Tommy stared at his brother. “Didn’t she just get out of the shower? Why is she getting back in?”
“Get back on your computer, doofus,” Isaac said, swatting his brother. “She’s inducing a signal.”
Tommy, perplexed, obeyed. His eyes widened. “It did come back.” He typed furiously. “It’s coming from Vegas City.”
“C-can I g-get out-t-t now-ow?” Ellie hollered.
“Yeah,” Isaac hollered back.
She reappeared a few minutes later. “Did you find the source?”
“It’s coming from Vegas City.”
“That’s where my uncle’s conference was,” Ellie said slowly. “Something must have happened to him.” She looked slyly at them. “What time do you have to be home on a school night?”
“Curfew is ten,” Isaac replied, “but we can push it a little. Why?”
“Let’s go to Vegas City,” Ellie said, green eyes glinting.
“How?” the Hortons chorused.
“JetCruiser,” Ellie replied matter-of-factly.
Tommy snorted. “Where are we supposed to get one of those?”
Ellie just grinned.
Ellie laughed. “It’s my uncle’s.”
“Who’s gonna fly it?” Isaac asked, taking in the smooth lines of the Hammond TriStar-28. “I’m taking lessons, but I just started.”
“Too bad Jared’s not here,” said Tommy, practically drooling over the bluish silver metal.
“I’ll fly it,” Ellie replied. “My uncle taught me. C’mon.”
The TriStar-28 was a surprisingly comfy three-seater. Isaac and Ellie climbed into the pilots’ pods on either side, and Tommy climbed into the passenger seat in the center.
“Control, this is Beckett 8-8-1,” Ellie said steadily, after hooking her earpiece on. “Requesting permission to take flight. Over.”
Isaac had just finished untangling his fifth strap when the answer came. He clicked into the hexagonal anchor buckle as one of the town’s three airstrip employees replied.
“Beckett 8-8-1, this is Control. Permission granted. Laser guides are charging. Proceed to docking point. Over.”
Ellie clicked her own last buckle home. She handled the cruiser well on the ground and onto the laser strip; once in the air, however, the cruiser began to tremble more violently than it should have been.
“Is it supposed to shake this much?” Tommy hollered, his eyes screwed shut.
“Don’t yell,” Isaac groaned. “We can hear you on the radio.”
“No,” Isaac snapped. “Ellie, how long have you been flying?”
She hesitated. “Two weeks.”
“Do you mind if I fly it?”
“Knock yourself out.”
“No, don’t!” Tommy squealed.
“I’m not serious,” Ellie laughed.
Tommy calmed down and Isaac grasped his joystick. He had a much steadier hand.
The flight to Vegas City took an hour and a half. Ellie took the controls again to guide the JetCruiser onto the laser strip.
“Where was the conference?” Isaac asked.
Ellie hiked her backpack over her shoulder with a deep frown. “I don’t remember.”
“Then how are we supposed to find him?” Tommy asked.
Ellie walked over to the tourism desk. “Excuse me, ma’am, I’m looking for the Carbon Miner Association’s annual conference. Can you tell me where it is?”
“L’Hotel Blanche,” the attendant replied, picking up a street map and a highlighter. “This is the airport, and this is the hotel right here.”
“That’s pretty close, isn’t it?” Isaac said. “Can we walk there?
“Mm-hmm,” the woman replied. She gave them directions, high-lighting as she went. As they thanked her, an odd look crossed her face. “Miss? I think the conference ended on Friday.”
“My uncle is still at the hotel,” Ellie explained. “Thank you so much.”
Isaac was placed in charge of the map; they reached L’Hotel Blanche in fifteen minutes.
“Wow …” Ellie whispered.
Tommy pushed his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose. “This hotel was built in 2053 as the home of Admiral Talley.”
“The Talleys lived here?” Ellie whispered in awe.
“It was converted into a hotel after he died in 2101,” Tommy added.
“Oh, shut up,” Isaac said impatiently. “Let’s go find her uncle.”
They decided that Ellie should ask for her uncle alone. They found out his room number easily enough, but the occupants were a newlywed couple outraged at being disturbed.
“So sorry,” Ellie said again, pushing the Horton brothers down the hall. Once they rounded a corner, she turned to them anxiously. “Now what do we do?”
Tommy leaned against the wall. “If I had the hotel passcode for the Etherweb, I could probably hack into the hotel system.”
“How much money do you have?” Ellie asked them.
“Why?” asked Isaac.
“We’ll rent a room and get a passcode.”
Isaac saw a teenage boy about their age sitting on the floor at the end of the hall. He was playing a game on a laptop computer, ears obscured by headphones.
“I have a better idea,” Isaac said. “See if you can get that fella to let you check your email on his laptop.”
Ellie looked puzzled until Isaac handed her his cell-phone and a wireless earpiece. She hooked the earpiece on and smooth her hair down over it,
“Perfect,” Isaac said. “Tom, call my netcell.”
Ellie charmed the boy into letting her use the laptop, after which she followed Tommy’s prompts on how to hack into the hotel’s computer system. They discovered that Mr. Masterson’s room keys had been returned by a Mr. de Silva. Only one de Silva was on the guest list, and his room was prepaid until Tuesday.
“This is it?” Isaac said.
Ellie nodded. She motioned for them to hide before she knocked on the door.
“What?” answered a low, gruff voice.
“Suite service,” Ellie called back, in a voice that raised gooseflesh along Isaac’s arms.
The door opened. A burly man with a shaved head leaned against the doorframe. He inspected Ellie casually, starting with her psychedelic Johnson sneakers and working his way up her bare legs to her olive green miniskirt and her earthy dark green ruffled T-shirt.
“They’ve sure lowered their standards,” he concluded, pushing the door open.
Ellie held a piece of stout rope behind her back. She let one end fall outside as she walked through, and even more discreetly, dropped the other end inside. When the door closed, it didn’t latch.
Ellie followed Muscles into the main room.
“Hey, boss. You call a hotel girl?”
The man standing was lean and tall and held a concussive revolver. He wore slacks and an untucked dress shirt. He had the clearest blue eyes Ellie had ever seen.
The man sitting was a battered, dark-skinned man with dark hair just beginning to gray.
Ellie gasped, but bit back her involuntary cry of “Uncle Beck!”
Beck’s right eye widened for just half a second; his left eye remained swollen shut. He sat only slightly hunched over in a metal chair, arms tied to the chair back behind him. His blue shirt hung open at the neck, revealing chafe marks.
“What’s your name, honey?” the lean man asked.
“Ellie,” she replied demurely.
The lean man gestured to Beck with his gun. “We’re a little busy here, Ellie.”
“I won’t come back,” Ellie retorted brazenly. “And the complimentary offer is only good the first time.”
Muscles watched the lean man attentively. He seemed just as willing to throw her back out into the hallway as to throw her on the bed.
“Ghost,” Beck implored, “she has nothing to do with this.”
“Of course she doesn’t,” the lean man retorted. “You didn’t see anything, did you, babe?”
Ellie sat on the edge of the bed and crossed her legs. “Did I?” she asked, her tone hard and challenging. “I see a helpless old man tied to a chair.”
“Honey, this man is not helpless.”
Ellie rolled her head back a little, exposing her tanned neck. “I see a man who looks like he can bench four hundred.”
“Four-fifty,” Muscles said proudly.
“And a man with a gun,” Ellie added loudly.
Ghost frowned. “Why did you say that?”
Ellie got up and slipped her hand into her pocket. “Why did I say what?”
Ghost’s clear blue eyes were narrowed to slits. “Why did you say I had a gun?”
Ellie now stood behind her uncle. “Well, you do, don’t you?”
“Ellie,” Beck hissed.
“Zac!” Ellie yelled, pulling the box cutter from her pocket. She dropped to her knees behind Beck, cutting his bonds on the way down.
Isaac burst through the door, downing Ghost with the beautiful flying tackle for which he was Herring Bay High School’s football star. Ellie jumped to stomp on the arm that held the gun; Ghost let go with a roar of pain. Ellie grabbed the gun and leveled it at Ghost’s head. Isaac continued to straddle Ghost’s stomach just to be safe.
Ellie turned now, and began to laugh. Muscles’ face had turned beet red—Tommy was hanging down his back, arms clenched tightly around his neck.
“Take—that—you—monster!” Tommy grunted with effort.
Muscles gave a final groan and dropped to his knees. Tommy let go, and the man fell the rest of the way down like a sack of potatoes.
Ghost called his name twice, then swore loudly.
Beck stood shakily. “Ellie …. how did you find this place?”
“Tommy traced the hacker signal,” Ellie replied, hugging her uncle with one arm while keeping the gun pointed at Ghost with the other.
Tommy was looked at the computer equipment. “This is incredible!”
“Stop drooling, Toms,” Isaac growled. “Get me some of that rope.”
Tommy reddened and retrieved the rope that Ellie had cut from her uncle. Beck knelt to help tie Ghost up.
“What happened, Uncle Beck?” Ellie asked anxiously, allowing him to take the gun.
“They found my weak spot,” Beck replied simply, gazing back at her.
“What did he want with you?” asked Isaac.
“He killed my sister!” Ghost shouted into the hotel carpet.
All three teenagers turned to stare at Beck. Beck groaned impatiently.
“For the last time, I didn’t kill her.”
“You may as well have,” Ghost snarled, rolling onto his knees. “Why didn’t you stop her from going into the bank mine?”
“She wouldn’t listen to me! She heard about the Kirathium at the bottom of the shaft.
“Why would she go in for that?”
“She wanted it for the Minnow!” Beck shouted. “It was a gift for your birthday!”
Ghost was struck silent. “No. No!” He began to laugh maniacally. “You’re lying, Beckett! Liar!”
He was still muttering it half-heartedly when the police arrived to haul him away.
“Are you hurt?” Beck asked, gripping his niece by the shoulders.
“Me?” Ellie exclaimed incredulously. “Are you hurt?”
“It’s her, isn’t it,” said Isaac, observing the look on Beck’s face. “Your weak spot.”
Beck smiled. “Can you blame me?”
Ellie was blushing a little as she unrolled her waistband and pulled the skirt’s hem back toward her knees. “Nobody touched me, Uncle Beck,” she assured him.
They walked to the waiting police care.
“How did he manage to keep you with only your hands tied?” Ellie inquired as Isaac helped Beck into the front seat.
“He hacked into my house matrix.”
“The shower,” said Tommy, sliding across the back seat.
“The filter,” Isaac realized, closing Beck’s door behind him.
Ellie slid into the car beside Tommy. “The fireplace,” she said.
Beck sounded guilty. “I didn’t believe him at first. After that, he decided it was fun.”
Isaac got in next to Ellie and closed their door. “We’re not in trouble, are we?”
“Once you all give your statements,” replied the policeman who was driving them to the station, “you’ll be free to go.”
Ellie sighed in relief. She knew that being charged with assault could carry a heavy price. “Thanks, you guys, for helping me out.”
“Zac never could leave a girl in trouble,” Tommy snickered.
Isaac hit him with Ellie’s clutch.