Chapter 1 LEVEL UP OR GET BUSTED TRYING.
THERE IS NO WAY THE alarm code for the McKinsey House dormitory door is wrong. I enter it again—7-A-4-3-P-X-*—but the light stays red and the door doesn’t budge. I stomp my foot in aggravation, quietly of course, because breaking out of a locked Smith School dorm on a school night, or any other time, for that matter, is frowned upon.
If I enter the wrong code one more time, the alarms will blare so loudly they will wake the dead and certainly the McKinsey House dorm mother, who will find me here in the entryway, looking guilty. Toby swore by this code sequence. When he slipped it to me on a piece of paper
in the dining hall earlier today, he even went so far as to give me a shaky thumbs-up and a slightly nauseous-looking smile. I smiled back, feeling it wasn’t appropriate to mention he looked like he’d been run over by a bus. After all, Toby’s one of my best friends and he did spend twenty-four seven for a week hacking the new alarm code generator before his dorm master noticed he wasn’t showering or changing his clothes (gross) and Toby ended up doing a lot of dancing before the interim headmaster, who remained unconvinced of his innocence.
But now it seems the effort was for nothing. I have to go out the window anyway. The dorm is dark and smells like leftover pizza and this weird organic cleanser they use in the bathroom. That was one of the interim headmaster’s changes. Plus she got rid of the gooey, creamy joy and happiness that was the dining hall’s macaroni and cheese! Who does that? It was the only eatable thing they made. So what if it had zero nutritional value? Now they serve quinoa. We might as well eat cardboard. It has more taste.
I slip into Izumi’s first-floor room. My room is on the fourth floor. To rappel out the fourth-floor window, a girl needs to tie together four sheets, increasing the risk of grave personal injury exponentially over, say, the first-floor window.
Izumi lies on her back, jaw slack, snoring like a freight train. I’m silent as the night until I trip over her rugby uniform, in a heap on the floor, and crash headlong into the bed.
“Abby!” she barks before her eyes even open. How does she know it’s me? As if reading my mind, she says, “Of course it’s you. Who else would be wandering around in the middle of the night? What happened to Toby’s code?”
“Didn’t work,” I whisper.
Izumi pulls a pillow over her head. “The sheets are in the closet. Close the window when you go. I have a calc exam tomorrow. Good night. Go away.”
I poke her in the thigh. “You’re the best,” I say.
“I know,” she grumbles. I dig through her closet and find two sheets, still tied together from the last time I had to make a midnight window exit. I knot them around the leg of the desk and climb out the window, descending in the cold March darkness to the grass below. Now, the interim headmaster got rid of the mac and cheese, and that was bad. But she also fired Betty and Barney, the drooling, vicious, bloodthirsty nighttime guard dogs, and that was good. I’m no longer at risk of being torn to bits by animals lower down on the food chain than I am. I dash around the perimeter of McKinsey House, make a beeline across the
quad, swing to the right of the slushy Cavanaugh Family Meditative Pond and Fountain, and pick the lock to one of the many doors into Main Hall.
Main Hall is the original Smith School for Children building. Everything used to happen in here. But this preppy paradise has grown. Now we have a science center and a technology building and a black box theater, and here’s a tip: if you have money and want guaranteed admission for your kid, the school needs a new hockey rink. Apparently, the old one is looking “worn.”
I creep down the corridor toward the headmaster’s office, my heart doing a furious tap dance in my chest. I cannot get caught. Getting caught means I don’t capture the Mogollon Monster, a giant smelly bigfoot with red eyes, who just happens to be a silver-level beast. More important, getting caught means I don’t level up. And I need to level up because I’m losing. And I hate losing.
Just before I round the corner, I hear voices and freeze, plastering myself against the wall. It won’t help. Sure, I’m wearing black leggings and a navy Smith School hoodie, but my sneakers are fluorescent orange and stand out against the big ugly portrait of Channing Smith, the founding father of our school, beneath which I huddle. No way I’m blending into that painting unless I’m a pheasant or a hunting dog.
I turn my smartphone facedown on my thigh so the green glow from the Monster Mayhem game doesn’t give me away. And it looks like my luck might hold despite the code fiasco, because the bodies belonging to the voices don’t turn the corner. They stop just short.
“Headmaster Smith never called us to her house in the middle of the night to chat about school matters.” Oh, that has to be Ms. Dunne from the French department, a woman who could easily be mistaken for a parakeet. She’s tiny and squawks a lot.
“I agree. And if the new headmaster is making the old headmaster look reasonable, well, that’s saying something.” This is Mr. Lord, chair of the English department. If Ms. Dunne is a parakeet, Mr. Lord is a giraffe. I want to giggle at the thought of them together, but I’m busy not breathing and blending into the big, ugly portrait. My phone vibrates. The Mogollon Monster is close.
“Do you suppose she ever sleeps?” Ms. Dunne asks conspiratorially.
“I don’t think so,” Mr. Lord whispers. “Vampire?”
“Mon Dieu! I certainly hope not.”
“Well, vampire or not, something should be done. This is unreasonable. We have rights.” It’s the same tone he uses when we butcher Shakespeare in his class, like when
Toby burped in the middle of Lear’s soliloquy. That got him tossed out with a warning about controlling one’s bodily functions when in the presence of greatness. Did Mr. Lord mean himself or William Shakespeare? We couldn’t be sure.
“Do we have rights?” Ms. Dunne asks cryptically.
“Why, of course we do,” says Mr. Lord, although he doesn’t sound convinced.
“Perhaps that’s true, but let’s take this up in the morning. It’s late. Good night, Mr. Lord.”
“Good night, Ms. Dunne.”
I risk a peek around the corner. Mr. Lord and Ms. Dunne head in opposite directions toward their respective apartments on the upper level of Main Hall. I wait a full thirty seconds before doing a little happy dance. A good spy knows success is in the details, and this overheard conversation reliably puts the headmaster in her house across campus. And not in her office, where the Mogollon Monster hides. I can almost taste victory.
I continue quiet as a cat down the hallway. Monster Mayhem is all the rage. Earn points by capturing virtual mythical beasts. Catch enough and you level up. Level up and you can buy information about where to find more beasts and weapons to help capture them. And then you level up some more. But keep an eye on your health meter.
To stay in the green, you have to be actively capturing beasts. If it drops below red, you lose everything and bounce back to level one. It’s very stressful. Chasing the TADA! that rings out after each capture is a full-time job.
At each level, the game gets harder. Bronze-level creatures are easy and plentiful, silver ones are more rare, trickier to catch, and dwell in complicated locations. Gold takes it up a notch, and don’t even get me started on the platinum level. That’s just pure madness. No one plays platinum. Rumor has it that there are bonus rounds at platinum where you have only a handful of minutes to capture a monster and if you screw up you’re back to level one and a world of bronze. But if you win, total awesomeness. I think so, anyway.
Actually, no one knows what happens when you win a bonus round or win the game because it never happens, but either way, Monster Mayhem is perfect for spy training. This is exactly what I told the headmaster when she banned it from campus. No more TADAs.
Confused? A quick explanation: The Smith School for Children is just that, a fancy preparatory school nestled in the rolling Connecticut hills, churning out the best of tomorrow’s leaders and all that nonsense. But hiding beneath all those Izods and docksiders, literally, is a small
training facility for the Center, a government organization that uses kids to ferret out information no one else has any hope of acquiring. The theory is that kids are invisible (unless they’re behaving badly, and then everyone has an opinion) and therefore make really good spies. But there are restrictions, and one is you can’t be a proper spy until you are sixteen, which is torture because I’m ready now. And I’d make an amazing spy. Just last year, I uncovered the Center’s existence as well as a traitor in our midst. I got really close to catching a notorious bad guy and managed to get the last headmaster sent on sabbatical for using poor judgment. And I discovered my mother was, like, head spy when I thought she was just a mom. What else does a girl need to do to prove her worth?
Of course, as you’ve probably figured out, the Monster Mayhem ban did not stop us from playing. It is simply a sick twist of fate that the Mogollon Monster virtually resides in the headmaster’s office. Most of the monsters around campus are bronze-level werewolves. We rarely get something as exciting as the Mogollon, who’s worth one hundred points and puts my health meter solidly back to green. It might even be enough to bump me to level six—still pathetic, but it’s not our fault. We are trapped here,
and that limits our opportunities to monster hunt beyond school. And while everyone freaked when the Mogollon appeared, no one has tried for him yet, not even Toby. Something about sneaking into the headmaster’s office is so very unappealing. But if I can capture him, not only do I level up, I also get serious bragging rights.
After careful study, I determined Wednesday nights to be the only time during the week that the headmaster goes home at a reasonable hour. I think she reserves Wednesday nights for binge-watching 1980s movies on Netflix.
The massive door to the office suite is locked, but Smith recently got a 3-D printer, and Toby can’t get enough of it. He made me a fine replica of the delicate filigreed key that the headmaster wears around her neck. He also made me a model of a kidney, which I did not ask for. This is just further evidence that Toby is weird. I slide the key into the massive oak door and wait for the sweet sound of the lock turning over. Click. I push the door open a few inches and slide in. It’s pitch-black in the secretary’s alcove. With my hands stretched in front of me, zombie-style, I take a tentative step and collide with a leather couch I could have sworn was against the far wall. I right myself and navigate around an end table and two bulky armchairs.
With trepidation, I open the door to the inner sanctum, the headmaster’s sacred space and the location of the Mogollon Monster. I tap my screen and scan the room, trying to find his exact location. My bronze cage is ready. It looks like he’s behind the desk. I take one small step and another. I stub my toe on a table and catch the toppled lamp a mere millisecond before it crashes to the wood floor. Sweat gathers on my forehead. This seemed much easier in theory.
But I’m committed! They might not let me be a spy, but I can capture Monster Mayhem beasts like nobody’s business. I scan again. The Mogollon Monster is definitely behind the desk. And he knows I’m coming for him. He bares his teeth and growls. Gobs of saliva drip from his mouth. His eyes flash red. I know he’s not real, but he scares me a little anyway.
I’m almost to the door when a cold hand covers my mouth from behind. Naturally, I scream and drop the phone, frantically trying to bite the hand, but it’s clamped on too hard. What do I know about defending myself against an attacker coming from behind? Oh, right. Nothing. I kick my feet and flail my arms. A ceramic container flies off the desk and smashes on the floor. Paper
clips scatter everywhere. I scream again and continue to struggle uselessly.
“I think you’re overreacting,” my attacker says calmly.
Wait. What? The grip on my mouth loosens and I gasp for air, turning slowly to face the interim headmaster But she just met with Ms. Dunne and Mr. Lord at her house all the way on the other side of campus. There is no way she could have gotten here this fast. The nervous adrenaline drains away, and my shoulders sag. Maybe she is a vampire? It doesn’t matter. I’ve failed. The Mogollon Monster is gone.
“Oh, come on,” the headmaster says. “It’s not as bad as all that. It’s just one beast.”
“An important beast,” I mutter, leaning into her desk, defeated. “Can I go?”
“No.” She paces in front of the large windows. She never used to pace. She used to chew her cuticles. She’s changed. “You’ve got to stop breaking the rules. It makes me look bad.”
“I’d behave if you let me be a spy,” I say.
“You’re too young,” she snaps. “Be patient.”
I’m really bad at being patient. “But . . .”
“But nothing,” she says, her eyes narrowing. The
interim headmaster is not inherently scary, but when she looks at you a certain way, your mouth goes dry regardless.
“Okay,” I say quietly. I await the verdict on my punishment for sneaking out of my dorm, breaking into Main Hall, and chasing monsters.
But the headmaster’s eyes soften. “Go to bed,” she says with a sigh. “It’s the middle of the night. And please use the dormitory door. The next time you climb out a window after curfew to play this ridiculous game, or for any other reason, I’ll have you scrubbing algae off the bottom of the pond with a toothbrush next to Tucker Harrington.”
Boy, that’s low. Tucker Harrington is a big dumb bully whose popularity I just don’t understand. She lessens the blow by planting a kiss on my head. “I love you, sweetie,” she says. “Even though sometimes you drive me crazy.”
And I say, “Good night, Mom.”