Chapter 1: Declassification
“I’m afraid we have lied to you,” said Alexander Hale. “A lot.”
My parents regarded him with surprise for what might have been the twentieth time that morning. They had already been surprised when Alexander and I had arrived at their house as they were leaving for work; they had been even more surprised to learn that their bosses had already given them the day off so that we could have an emergency meeting; and they had been extremely surprised when Alexander had driven us to CIA headquarters and been allowed through the imposing gates with nothing more than a grin and a cursory examination of his ID. Their eyes had been wide and their jaws agape almost nonstop.
“What exactly have you lied to us about?” my mother asked.
“Er… Just about everything,” Alexander replied.
The four of us were sitting in a conference room on the top floor of the main building at headquarters. For security reasons, there were no windows, and the door had a coded keypad entry lock. There were no pictures on the walls, and every piece of furniture was a bland beige-like color. It was the most nondescript room ever built.
The building we were in didn’t even have a name. Everyone simply called it “the main building.” It sat in the center of the CIA campus, a sprawling tract of land in suburban Virginia, about thirty minutes from Washington, DC. There were a few smaller buildings arrayed around the main building, and all of that was ringed by acres of woods.
A box of doughnuts sat in the middle of the conference table: an assortment of glazed, chocolate, coconut, jelly, and ones with pink icing and sprinkles. My parents had each taken a doughnut but barely touched it. I had eaten two already; they were fantastic.
My parents were still dressed for their day jobs; Dad had his butcher’s clothes on for work at the grocery store, while Mom was dressed for a day of accounting. I was in my usual school uniform, shorts and a polo shirt. Meanwhile, Alexander wore a custom-made three-piece suit and shoes so polished they were almost blinding.
I said, “Remember, back in February, when I got that medal for saving the president’s life?”
“How could we ever forget?” Dad asked. “That was one of the proudest days of our lives.”
“Well, the day I saved the president, I wasn’t at the White House to hang out with his son,” I said. “I was there on a mission.”
“A mission?” Dad repeated, confused. “What do you mean?”
“Perhaps we should start at the beginning,” Alexander suggested. “As I’m sure you recall, around fifteen months ago, I came to your home and told you that Benjamin here had received an all-expenses-paid scholarship to St. Smithen’s Science Academy for Boys and Girls.”
“That wasn’t true?” asked my mother.
“Not a single word,” Alexander admitted. “In fact, there is no St. Smithen’s Science Academy for Boys and Girls. And I am not a professor of astrophysics there. Instead, I am a spy for the Central Intelligence Agency—and Benjamin was recruited to our top secret Academy of Espionage, where he has been training to be a field agent.”
My parents’ eyes grew even wider. Their jaws dropped even farther. Finally, my father managed to formulate a response, although he was so stunned, it took him a while to get each word out. “That… is… amazing.”
My mother turned to him. “You think it’s amazing that this man lied to us and that our son has been training to be a spy?”
“Yes!” Dad exclaimed. “In fact, it might be the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard!” He turned to me, beaming. “We thought you were just going to some boring science school! But you’re training to be a spy! My son, a spy!”
Alexander heaved a sigh of relief, pleased that things were going well with at least one of my parents.
On the other hand, Mom wasn’t as easy a sell. She fixed Alexander with a stern look and said, “Benjamin is only thirteen! What gives you the authority to recruit him without our permission?”
“The government of the United States of America,” Alexander replied. “Mrs. Ripley, I understand your concerns about this. But there is simply no way that we could have asked for your consent. The whole point of being a secret agent is that it’s… well, a secret. No one at the Agency can tell their family what they do.”
“Even you?” Dad asked.
“I’m sort of a special case,” Alexander said. “My father is an agent. And so was his father. And his and his and his and so on, going all the way back to Nathan Hale.”
“That’s incredible,” Dad said. “So it’s like your family business?”
“Yes. My daughter is also training to be a spy—along with young Benjamin here. And my ex-wife is a spy as well, but being British, she works for MI6. Although, to be honest, Catherine even kept that a secret from me. I only found out the truth a few weeks ago.”
“Wow,” Dad said. “She sounds a lot more interesting than my wife.” The moment the words were out of his mouth, he realized they had been a mistake, and he turned to Mom apologetically. “Which isn’t to say that you aren’t interesting, darling…”
“You should probably just stop talking,” Mom told him. Then she shifted her attention to Alexander. “So what changed?”
Alexander looked at her blankly. “Excuse me?”
“For the past fifteen months you’ve been keeping all this a secret. And now it’s not secret anymore. What changed? Does it have something to do with the events at the White House?”
“In part,” Alexander said. “You see, Benjamin’s experience at the academy hasn’t exactly been… traditional. Normally, our students study and train at the school for seven years before moving on to work at the CIA. But Benjamin has already been activated for several missions.”
“Several missions?” Dad swiveled toward me in his chair, glowing with excitement. “You’ve done more than just save the president? What else? Have you faced any bad guys?”
“A few,” I admitted.
“A few?!” Alexander crowed. “Mr. and Mrs. Ripley, your son is being humble. He has faced a great number of miscreants. In fact, he recently helped defeat SPYDER, the most nefarious organization of evildoers on earth!”
“Wow!” Dad exclaimed again. He was grinning from ear to ear.
Meanwhile, my mother wasn’t happy to hear this at all. She glared bullets across the table at Alexander. “You let my son confront the evilest organization on earth before he even finished his training?”
Alexander shrank under her gaze. “It wasn’t like this was standard CIA policy,” he explained. “Benjamin kind of got roped up in all this by accident.”
I winced, knowing this was only going to make things worse. Alexander wasn’t a very good spy, and he was prone to making mistakes. But he looked like a good spy, and since he had been the one who had recruited me in the first place, the CIA had felt it made sense for him to deliver the bad news to my parents. Plus, no one else at the Agency wanted to do it.
Ordinarily, my mother wasn’t so prone to anger. She was merely being protective, like a mother bear who had just learned that her cub had been recruited by a shadowy organization and sent out on covert missions against hunters. She was gripping the arms of her swivel chair so tightly that her knuckles were white. “Are you telling me that this agency is so incompetent that you accidentally allowed my son to confront evil enemy operatives?”
“Yes and no.” Alexander took out a silk handkerchief and mopped his brow with it. “It’s complicated. But I assure you, Mrs. Ripley, that young Benjamin here was rarely without adult supervision in the field…”
“Rarely?” Mom echoed crossly.
“… and he has proven to be an extremely adept young agent!” Alexander said quickly. “In fact, if not for his keen intellect and quick thinking, we wouldn’t have thwarted SPYDER’s evil plans on multiple occasions.”
Dad riveted his gaze on me. “Like what? Let’s have some details!”
“Well,” I said, “remember how, a few weeks ago, you thought I stayed at school over spring break to work on a science project? I was actually in Mexico, preventing SPYDER from melting Antarctica and flooding the earth. And then I went to England and France to help defeat SPYDER once and for all.”
After all that, my friends and I had been forced to lie low in France for a while until the CIA said it was safe to come home. We had only returned to Washington a few days before. I had thought my life was going to return to normal—or at least, as normal as spy school got—until I had received a coded message from Alexander the previous afternoon, detailing how the time had come to reveal the truth to my parents.
“Benjamin also saved Camp David from being blown up in a missile attack,” Alexander added proudly. “And prevented the nuclear annihilation of Colorado.”
“Oh right,” I said. “I forgot about that.”
“You forgot about preventing Colorado from being nuked?” Dad asked, stunned.
“It’s been a busy year,” I said.
Finally being able to tell my parents the truth was a massive relief. Lying to them had been one of the worst things about being a spy. (It wasn’t as bad as having people try to kill me on a regular basis, but still, I didn’t enjoy it.) However, it was also gratifying to let them know about everything I had accomplished, and the pride in my father’s eyes made me feel wonderful.
Conversely, my mother was giving me the same skeptical look she’d given me when I was six and had claimed burglars had broken into the house and eaten all the chocolate cookies. She was obviously having a hard time believing the stories Alexander and I were telling. “You did all that?” she asked doubtfully. “No offense, Benjamin, but you’re not the most coordinated person in the world. When you played Little League, you had a negative batting average.”
“I wasn’t the one who handled the physical stuff,” I explained. “Alexander’s daughter, Erica, did most of that. She’s really good at beating people up and defusing bombs and that sort of thing. I do more of the figuring out what the bad guys are up to.”
“He’s extremely good at it,” Alexander said. “Which is why the bad guys want all of you dead.”
The suspicion instantly vanished from Mom’s face and was replaced by fear. “What?!”
Alexander paled as he realized he had made yet another mistake. “Er… You asked what had forced us to admit the truth about Benjamin being a spy-in-training. Well, this is it. Regrettably, Benjamin’s identity has been compromised. Which means that your identities have been compromised as well. And thus, any of Ben’s enemies can potentially get to you.”
To my relief, Alexander did not tell my parents that this had already happened. When I was in France, SPYDER had posted operatives outside our house, threatening to harm them unless we aborted the mission. Thankfully, my friends from spy school had captured the killers without my parents ever knowing they had been in danger.
However, my parents were still very shaken by the idea that this could happen.
“So… ,” Dad said, getting his head around the idea. “We’re potential targets for assassination?”
“Yes,” Alexander replied.
“Can we tell our friends?” Dad asked.
“No!” Alexander exclaimed. “This is highly classified.”
“I wouldn’t tell everyone,” Dad said. “Only a few people. Like the Petersons.”
Mom looked at him, confused. “The Petersons? Why would you tell them?”
“They think they’re so much better than us,” Dad said. “Bob’s always going on about his fancy golf club and how they went to Hawaii for vacation. I bet no one’s ever targeted him for assassination.”
“You can’t tell anyone, Dad,” I said.
“All right,” Dad agreed, though he sounded almost as upset about this as he had about finding out his life was in danger.
“The bigger issue here is your safety,” Alexander said. “I’m afraid the only way to protect you is to place you both in the Federal Witness Protection Program.”
Mom, who had finally taken a bite of a doughnut, spit it right back out again in shock. “You mean, we would have to give up our lives here, move to a different place, and pretend to be entirely different people?”
“Yes,” Alexander said gravely.
Mom considered that a moment, then shrugged and said, “I’m cool with that.”
The fact that my parents would have to go into the Witness Protection Program had not been news to me. I had suggested it myself, after their lives had been threatened. But my mother’s reaction threw me—and Dad, too.
“You are?” Dad asked her.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Mom told him, “but our lives could use a little shaking up.” She turned to Alexander. “Is there any chance we could be relocated to Florida?”
“That’s definitely a possibility,” Alexander replied. “From what I understand, there are entire communities down there that are nothing but relocated federal witnesses.”
“I’ve always wanted to live in Florida,” Mom said dreamily.
Dad looked at her curiously. “You do realize that we’d have to give up our jobs?”
“We don’t like our jobs,” Mom told him.
“And you would never speak to your family again?”
“That just might be the best part of all this,” Mom said.
I had always known that my mother didn’t get along with her parents or like her job, but even so, her response to all this surprised me. Just as my father’s response to learning that I was a spy-in-training had surprised me. I wondered if my parents were thinking clearly. It was possible they were in shock. I tried to imagine how I would have reacted if I had suddenly discovered that they were covert operatives; I probably would have been dumbfounded.
Two CIA agents suddenly entered the room. They were women I had never met before. Both wore suits and clutched coffee cups from the CIA Starbucks. One was stick-thin with severe features, while the other was heavyset and round. Next to each other, they sort of looked like the human version of the number 10.
“Good morning!” the rounder one said cheerfully. “I’m Heather Durkee, the CIA liaison to the Witness Protection Program.”
“We were just discussing that,” Alexander said. “Mrs. Ripley here is very open to relocating to Florida.”
“Also,” Mom said, “I’d like to work with animals, if possible. Maybe at a veterinarian’s office?”
“Ooh!” Agent Durkee exclaimed. “That sounds fun!” She turned to my father. “And what would you like to do?”
“I still can’t believe we have to move,” Dad said. “Is it really necessary?”
“I’m afraid so,” said the extremely thin woman. She spoke in a tone as sharp as her features, like she was perpetually annoyed. “My name is Agent Nora Taco. I’m in charge of—”
“Did you say ‘Nora Taco’?” Dad interrupted.
Agent Taco gave him a severe look. “Yes.”
“That’s a pretty unusual name,” Dad observed.
“So I’ve been told.” Agent Taco spoke as though she had gone through this every day of her life and was sick of it.
My father didn’t pick up on this. “Is it weird, being named after a food?”
“My family is not named after a food,” Agent Taco said curtly. “The food is named after my family. My ancestors invented it.”
“Your family invented the taco?” Mom asked, astonished. “I had always thought…”
“Tacos always existed?” Agent Taco said. “They didn’t. The same way that sandwiches didn’t exist until the Earl of Sandwich invented them. There were no tacos until Don Diego Taco came along.”
“Wow,” Dad said, impressed. “You learn something new every day.”
“As I was trying to say,” Agent Taco went on, “I’m in charge of internal investigations concerning double agents here.” She grabbed one of the neon pink doughnuts with sprinkles and then shoved the box toward Agent Durkee.
“None for me, thanks,” Agent Durkee said. “I don’t eat gluten. Or refined sugars. Or anything that’s a color that doesn’t exist in nature.”
“More for me, then,” Agent Taco said, grabbing a second pink doughnut.
“Unfortunately, we’ve had a bit of a mole problem here at the CIA,” Alexander explained to my parents. “SPYDER, the evil organization that Benjamin was instrumental in bringing down, had corrupted a great number of our agents. That’s how Benjamin’s identity—and yours—were leaked. Thankfully, Benjamin managed to not only thwart SPYDER but also recover a list of the moles…”
“Which I’m currently using to root out corruption throughout the Agency,” Agent Taco concluded. There was now a tiny fringe of frosting on her upper lip that made it look like she had a thin pink mustache.
“How could the CIA have let so many agents get corrupted?” Mom asked accusingly.
“Obviously, mistakes were made,” said Agent Taco, then added, “By other people. Not me. That’s why I have been tasked with cleaning up this mess. And, to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again, I am creating a new division at the CIA with the sole purpose of policing the Agency. I’m calling it the Double Agent Detection Division.”
“DADD?” I said.
“Yes?” my father asked.
“Sorry,” I said. “I wasn’t talking to you. I was referring to the acronym of the division: DADD.”
“Yes?” my father asked again.
Agent Taco sighed. “I might have to rethink the division name.”
“Ooh!” Agent Durkee said excitedly. “You could call it the Mole Patrol!”
“I will do no such thing,” Agent Taco said flatly. “Anyhow, I’m assembling an elite team to track down and neutralize any agents who have been corrupted.”
“But the damage has already been done where you’re concerned,” Agent Durkee told my parents. “The best we can do now is to relocate you. I apologize for the inconvenience.”
“Inconvenience?” Dad echoed. “It’s a bit more than that. You’re asking us to give up everything!”
“I know,” Agent Durkee said. “But I promise we are going to do everything possible to protect you from now on. That’s why we decided to have this meeting here, at CIA headquarters, rather than at your home. This building is the most secure facility in America. You’re as safe as—”
The air was suddenly split by the scream of something moving very fast, after which came the sound of an explosion extremely close by. The entire room shook. A lighting fixture fell out of the ceiling and landed on the doughnuts with such force that all the jelly-filled ones exploded.
“Take cover!” Alexander Hale shouted. “We’re under attack!”
Apparently, we weren’t nearly as safe as the CIA had hoped.