At the end of the cul-de-sac, a footpath wove its way through trees and brushy undergrowth until it emptied out at the edge of the town park. The path saw less use during school months, but became worn when school let out and the neighborhood children began traveling it daily—often multiple times a day.
On this particular day, at the very start of summer break, four children met between the houses where the path began.
Jaimie rushed forward to throw her arms around her best friend, Mary Cameron. It had only been a day since they’d seen each other, but today was the first day of summer freedom and this called for hugging and a full-blown happy dance.
Abruptly, Jaimie froze. A gangly boy, head-and-shoulders taller than the girls, leaned against the nearby fence with his arms crossed and a lazy grin on his face.
Jaimie felt her own face grow hot, and she gave her friend a mortified look. “Mary, who’s this?” she stage-whispered.
“My cousin…” Mary prompted, rolling her eyes at her friend. “You know, the one I’ve been telling you was coming for summer break?”
Jaimie covered her face with both hands and shook her head. She hadn’t realized the cousin was going to be there the very first day of break.
The boy pushed away from the fence and stuck out a hand. “Hi, I’m Drew. Don’t be embarrassed; summer break is exciting. If I were any good at dancing, I’d probably be doing it too.”
Jaimie shook his hand quickly, and then pocketed her own hand, still mortified she hadn’t properly introduced herself and at least toned down the happy-dance.
Drew was shaking her younger brother’s hand now.
“I’m Alan Travis and I’m 11. Don’t worry, my big sister just looks boy crazy. She isn’t really.”
“Oh, stop it, Alan!” Jaimie said, clapping a hand across his mouth.
“So are you denying that you only look boy-crazy or that you aren’t?” he asked, his voice muffled by her hand.
“Yes! No!—” As usual, Alan’s logic dizzied her and she shook her head. Drew was laughing, but at least it wasn’t unkind laughter.
Mary gave her a sympathetic look, and then diverted everyone by calling, “Last one to the swings is a rotten egg!”
All four of them took off down the path. With his longer legs, Drew was the first to reach the swings with Jaimie and Mary tying for second.
“Obviously Alan is the rotten egg,” Mary panted. “So don’t listen to a word he says.”
Jaimie appreciated her friend’s point, but she was starting to wonder why her little brother hadn’t yet emerged from the trees. “What’s taking him so long?” she wondered out loud.
“He didn’t trip did he?” Drew asked, jumping off his swing and making it rattle noisily.
“I didn’t hear anything like that,” Mary offered. “Last I knew he was right behind me.”
The three of them sprinted toward the trees and started back along the footpath. Jaimie’s skin prickled with worry. No matter how annoying or logically confusing her brother could be, she would never want anything bad to happen to him. Their woods were safe, weren’t they?
“Alan!” she called, cupping her hands.
To her relief, his voice floated through the trees. “Over here, Jaimie! Come see what I found!” He stood near a half-dead tree a few yards off the path and waved them over excitedly.
“Are you okay?” Jaimie asked. “We waited for you, but you never showed up!”
“Well, I waited for you, and you did!” Alan said, grinning.
He was obviously fine.
“You found a tree,” Mary said, stating the obvious.
“Yeah, but it’s special. Can you tell me why?” Alan asked, sounding suspiciously like a kindergarten teacher. Jaimie rolled her eyes.
Drew walked all the way around the tree and then shrugged. “It’s half-dead, but otherwise it looks pretty normal to me.”
“Haha!” Alan crowed. “It would look normal to you! You’re too tall to notice why it’s special!”
This prompted Mary to squat down and start inspecting the base of the tree. Jaimie cocked her head and regarded her brother thoughtfully for a moment.
He had to have noticed the tree when he was running along the trail. And he is the shortest one of us…
She went back to the trail and bent her knees until she estimated she was Alan’s height.
But when she shuffled forward a little more, she gasped in surprise.
“There’s a hole in the tree trunk! I can see blue sky right through it!”
She stood up to her normal height, and the patch of sky disappeared, the hole blending into the rest of the dark-colored bark.
She ran up to the tree and planted the toe of one sneaker on a knobby bump where a low branch had once grown. Gripping the rough bark, she pulled herself up to balance on it. Just above her head was the small opening in the bark. Up close, the hole was as plain as day, but from anywhere else (other than the height of an 11-year-old) it was completely impossible to make out.
She put her hand inside.
“Eep! Jaimie! What if there are spiders?” Mary squealed.
Jaimie yanked her hand back out. She hadn’t thought of that.
Drew motioned for her let him have a look. He took her place on the knobby bump and peered into the hole with a flashlight he’d removed from his pocket. “No spiders! And the hole is actually really shallow. Doesn’t go all the way through or anything.” He snapped the light off and jumped down, adding, “It would be so cool stash things up there.”
“Like pirate treasure!” Alan yelled.
“Or spy notes! Like a—” Jaimie glanced at Mary who was nodding.
“—dead drop!” the two girls said in excited unison.
“That would be beyond awesome,” Drew agreed.
“But who would we be spying on?” Alan asked practically.
Jaimie frowned and thought for a moment. “I don’t know. Nothing ever happens in our neighborhood.”
“Or our town, for that matter,” Mary said dolefully.
“Except summer visitors,” Jaimie said, shrugging. “I guess they could use watching. You never know if something nefarious is going down right under our noses…”
“Hey!” said Drew.
“Well, not you,” Jaimie added hastily. “You’re nice.”
Alan snickered, and she shot him her most lethal big-sister look.
Drew laughed. “Thanks for that. I was worried I’d have to spy on myself.”
“Here’s the deal, though,” Mary said seriously, “this is top secret. After this moment, we can’t be seen discussing this with each other in public. The only way we can communicate about the subject is by leaving notes in the tree.”
Everyone nodded solemnly. Jamie folded her arms. Drew hooked his thumbs in his pockets. Mary and Alan each fidgeted for a moment. “Oh, golly. Fine,” Jaimie said. “This is just awkward without some kind of—moment.” She stuck out her hand. Everyone else clapped a hand down on top of hers to seal the plan.
“Last one to the swings is a rotten egg!” Mary yelled.
That evening, Alan plopped down on the edge of his sister’s bed, watching as she chewed the end of a pencil and stared off into space. “Not going well?” he asked.
“Oddly, I have no story ideas at the moment,” she sighed. “I always have story ideas distracting me from my schoolwork, and now when I need one for my Summer Project… nothing.”
“At least your Summer Project is something you are always wanting to do. Mom said ‘saving the world’ didn’t count as a realistic Summer Project. I thought it was a great idea. Better than her idea of training the crazy dog to do tricks.”
“At least she gave us the opportunity to choose what our Projects should be. I hear Mary’s mom assigned her a Project. Sounds too much like school to me.” Jaimie smiled at her brother. “And—hey—maybe you can find a way to save the world while training Bugle.”
Alan shrugged. “Maybe. I have a feeling that dog will keep me too busy.”
He looked around the room furtively for a moment before whispering, “Do you suppose we can talk about it with each other?”
“I’m sure we can. My room can be our safe house.”
“Mom recently dusted in here, so I guess you could say… we’ve swept it for bugs,” Alan quipped, snapping his fingers and pointing at his sister.
Jaimie winced. “Oh, that’s sooo bad!”
“No, but seriously, let’s write a note for the dead drop!”
“Sounds great to me,” Jaimie said. “It’s not like I’m making any progress on my story right now.”
The only summer visitors they’d seen that day were the family that had moved into a for-rent house on their street. They’d unloaded a bunch of suitcases from the back of their minivan and disappeared inside.
After some debate, Jaimie and Alan decided using a code wasn’t a great idea, considering they hadn’t pre-arranged one with the Camerons.
“We could do a rhyme,” Jaimie suggested.
Alan agreed, and they got to work.
Four little birds landed two doors down.
Two were older, two had a frown.
Quickly settled into their nest,
Haven’t seemed to stir since.
It’s not a very good rhyme, but it should do the trick, Jaimie decided. They’d run it over to the tree first thing in the morning.
Surprisingly, there was already a note waiting for them when they arrived at the tree the next morning. Jaimie swapped out the slips of paper. She discretely pocketed the note they’d received, and motioned to Alan to keep quiet.
They jogged to the park and climbed up onto the playground equipment. Squatting down, they crawled into the plastic tunnel, and Jaimie pulled out the note.
“Man, they must have gotten up early!” Alan said in an undertone.
Jaimie shrugged and then read the typewritten note in a whisper.
In position for maximum surveillance.
Will keep Short Leader apprised.
Please share any intel.
“That’s it?” Alan asked. “Huh! We really beat them to finding anything interesting. And our note was definitely more clever.”
Jaimie grinned. Short Leader. What a great codename!
Alan begged their mother to let them use her enormous electric typewriter that had been stored in the garage since before he was born. She said after he’d put in some time training the family’s beagle, she would get it out and see if it still worked.
After an hour of effort and half a pouch of dog treats, Bugle was finally rolling over on-command—at least most of the time. When he wasn’t distracted by every bird, blade of grass, and random noise.
Alan came in the back door and dropped into a chair at the kitchen table. “Mom, I know what you mean when you say I have too much energy!” he called.
Jaimie laughed and looked up from her notebook. “Maybe that’s why she assigned you this particular Summer Project. To get a taste of what it’s like!”
He grinned sheepishly and whispered, “I could see her doing that.”
Mrs. Travis entered just then, carrying the typewriter. She set it down heavily on the table. “I’d forgotten what boat-anchors these things were!” she said. “All done with Bugle?”
“Yep,” Alan said. He set the half-empty bag of dog treats on the table. “Also, we’re going to need a lot more treats before summer is over.”
Mom raised her eyebrows. “That bad, huh? I’ll add some to the grocery list. I got the typewriter working pretty well.”
She showed them how to use it. Jaimie and Alan worked together to lug it upstairs to the desk in Jaimie’s room.
“I hope they don’t mind we’re copying their idea of writing the notes with a typewriter,” Jaimie said.
Alan just shrugged and sat down at her desk. He typed with one finger as they composed their next note.
Birds don’t seem happy today.
Oldest one went on his way.
Silver fox seen at yogurt shop.
Read paper forever, didn’t seem to stop.
They received a new note the following day when they dropped off theirs. Mom had wanted them to help with some chores, so they headed back home instead of to the park.
Before starting on the chores, they read the note.
Intel acknowledged. All quiet so far. Watching several possibles on Main Street. Will be in touch about details for Strawberry Cream.
“Strawberry cream?” Jaimie echoed after she’d finished reading it aloud. “What does that even mean?”
“Mom! What’s strawberry cream?” Alan asked, popping his head into the kitchen where their mother stood at the sink.
“It’s a dessert, honey,” she said. “Jello, sour cream, strawberries—that sort of thing. Why?”
“Oh, nothing. Just wondered.”
Jaimie snapped her fingers and said in an undertone. “Mrs. Cameron and our mom have been sharing ideas about how to keep us kids busy over the summer. Mrs. Cameron assigned Mary a Summer Project of learning to cook some new recipes.”
“And apparently she’s working on learning to make strawberry cream…?” Alan rubbed his stomach. “She didn’t have to use the dead drop to tell us, but I’m not complaining about this intel.”
As the next couple weeks passed, more and more summer visitors showed up in town. Jaimie and Alan continued leaving type-written notes about their observations. The family renting the house down the street seemed to settle into their vacation, doing less arguing on the driveway.
One morning, Jaimie woke up very early to Bugle bark-howling rather loudly in the yard. Rubbing her eyes and blinking against the sunrise, she peered out her upstairs bedroom window. Bugle had his nose to the back fence.
Jaimie stared hard at the small section of the footpath visible through the trees beyond their yard. After a moment, she saw one of the visiting teen girls walk briskly down the path and pause to glance furtively behind her.
“Well, that’s trouble if I ever saw it,” Jaimie muttered, jumping into action.
Alan was already moving around in his room, so she got him and together they headed downstairs. Mom had just started working on breakfast. “You two are up early!” she yawned.
“We’re going to run to the path real quick,” Jaimie said hurriedly.
“Really? You haven’t eaten yet,” Mom said, looking sleepily confused.
“Don’t worry, we’ll be right back!” Alan assured her on his way out the door. “We have the walkie-talkie if you need us for anything.”
As they jogged toward the head of the path, Jaimie quickly explained to her brother what she’d seen. She was hopeful they would catch up with the visiting girl. The slap-slap-slap of their sneakers sounded excessively loud to her, and as they got deeper into the trees, she slowed just enough to run quieter. She put her finger to her lips to remind Alan to move as quietly as possible.
They were nearly to the city park when she spotted a glimpse of color through the trees ahead. Grabbing Alan’s sleeve and nearly spinning him in a circle with the sudden stop, she hunkered down on the path and pointed mutely.
Alan wiggled his eyebrows and crept off the path into the cover of the undergrowth. They snuck forward as silently as they could.
Sure enough, there was the neighbor girl just ahead. She was perched on a low-sweeping tree branch, her back to the trunk and her feet resting out in front of her. She appeared to be reading.
“Why is she out here reading?” Jaimie whispered, trying to salvage a mystery out of the situation.
Alan shrugged. “Maybe she’s tired of her family arguing?”
“You could be right; they all seem stressed over there. Reading in peace and quiet is pretty nice—“ Jaimie said. She was interrupted by the walkie-talkie on Alan’s belt squawking to life. She gritted her teeth and waved her hands.
Alan turned the volume down immediately, and they glanced at the neighbor again. She had closed her book and was looking around, alarm showing plainly on her face. They slipped away through the undergrowth. When they were a safe distance away, they took off running toward the dead drop tree.
“Can you repeat that, Mom?” Alan panted once they reached the tree.
“I just said breakfast is nearly ready so you two should head back. I’d like you to put in some time on your Summer Projects before you go to the park today.” Their mother’s voice crackled with static.
Jaimie nodded absently as she jotted something on the notepad she kept in her back pocket. “Tell her we’ll head back.”
Alan replied over the walkie-talkie, and then silently read the note Jaimie had written.
Youngest bird has flown away
To a tree to read today.
Doesn’t like the fighting in the nest
Seems to need some quiet rest.
“That works,” Alan said. “Too bad it’s not typewritten, but they probably won’t care.”
Jaimie shrugged and slipped the note into the hole in the tree. She froze. “Wait a sec… there’s already something here!”
“What?” her brother exclaimed. “How did they make it out here before us? It’s gotta be like 6 o’clock right now!”
Jaimie unfolded the note and read it aloud.
Target identified. The Umpire has been informed. I repeat: discontinue surveillance of Birds, Yogurtland, The Old Couple, Silver Fox, Shoelace, Firebird, The Jaguar, and Babies. Initiating Strawberry Cream in 24 hours.
Jaimie and Alan stared at each other for a moment.
“I’m so confused right now,” Jaimie finally admitted. “It’s like we missed a note or—several. What are all the codewords? Are we supposed to know what they mean?”
“We’ve written about the Birds and Silver Fox before, but I have no idea about the rest… and who’s The Umpire?” Alan said. “Suddenly Strawberry Cream sounds kinda ominous instead of yummy.”
Jaimie tagged his shoulder. “C’mon!” she jammed the note in her pocket and took off for the path. They ran all the way home and burst into kitchen just as their mother was dishing up breakfast.
“Have fun?” she asked.
“Yeah, thanks,” Jaimie said, rushing past.
“Wash up!” their mother called after them.
Jaimie read over the note again briefly before taking her turn at the bathroom sink.
After breakfast, their mother wanted them to get right to work on their Summer Projects. Jaimie curled up with her notebook in the living room. She tried to work on her story, but her mind was filled with codewords and confusion. She stared absently out the window as Alan took Bugle into the front yard to meet the mailman.
Bugle used to bark at the mail truck every time it came to their house, but over the last couple weeks, Alan had been working on teaching the beagle to retrieve things… including the mail.
Alan said, “Go get the mail, Bugle!” The dog wagged his tail excitedly and approached the open door of the stopped mail truck. He dropped to a wiggly ‘sit’ and waited for the mailman to hold out their stack of envelopes. Bugle gently took the stack in his mouth and, still wagging and wriggling, trotted it over to Alan who stood a few feet back.
Jaimie watched as Alan praised the dog and exchanged a few words with the impressed mailman. He then took the dog to the backyard to work with him on other tricks.
She sighed and turned back to her mostly-blank notebook. At least Alan’s Summer Project was going well. She wasn’t very excited about the story idea she’d settled on, and this made writing it hard.
She managed to get just one page written before Alan finished working with Bugle. “Mom says we can stop working on our Projects now and go play!” he announced, rushing into the living room.
Jaimie snapped her notebook shut immediately and waved the mysterious note at Alan. “Let’s talk about this first.”
“To the safe house!” he reminded.
They headed upstairs to Jaimie’s room where she read the note aloud once more. “I was going to circle the parts that didn’t make sense, but then I realized that would be most of it. I don’t remember them saying anything about identifying a ‘target.’ I have no idea who The Umpire is—“
“—unless that’s what they’re calling Mr. or Mrs. Cameron,” Alan interjected.
Jaimie nodded. “Could be. And then the codenames are all completely confusing except for Birds and Silver Fox. Those are ones we came up with. Yogurtland must be the yogurt shop, but we never called it that.”
“Didn’t one note of theirs mention ‘Babies’?” Alan said, sitting up straight.
“Hmm… you’re right. But the others names—I just feel like we’re missing something or several somethings.”
“And I don’t like the sound of ‘initiating Strawberry Cream,’” Alan said with a shiver.
“Yeah, me neither. It’s like they’re not playing a game anymore. It seems too real.”
“Maybe they’re real spies. Maybe it isn’t a game!” Alan suggested, his eyes widening.
Jaimie considered that for a moment. “There’s no way Mary is a spy!” she said, resting her chin on her hand.
“What about Drew?”
“I don’t know… he’s a little older than me, but isn’t he still too young to be a spy?” she frowned.
Both children jumped when the doorbell downstairs rang. In a moment, their mother called up the stairs, “Kids, Mary and Drew are here to see you!” They heard her add more quietly, “Go ahead and go upstairs. They’re probably in the loft or their bedrooms or something.”
Jaimie shoved the note into her pocket before rushing out of her room and into the loft. “Hi!” she said a little too loudly.
“Hey!” Mary said. She plopped down on one of the beanbags in the loft. “We wanted to talk to you guys.”
“Funny,” Alan said, “we sorta wanted to talk to you guys too.”
Jaimie gave him a look, but he just shrugged as if to say, Well, we did, didn’t we?
Everyone clustered in the loft and Mary took a deep breath. “I know I said we shouldn’t talk about the spying and the dead drop in person, but you guys have totally lost us.”
Jaimie glanced at Drew and found he was nodding his head. “Wait—“ she said, “we’ve lost you?”
“I’m usually pretty good at figuring out codes and cryptic things, but you guys have me confused.” Drew looked impressed.
Alan raised his eyebrows meaningfully at Jaimie.
She whispered to her brother, “Just because he likes codes doesn’t mean he’s a spy, goofy.“
“So, we’re either nowhere near as good at this as you are, or we’re missing a note,” Mary said. “Something isn’t lining up.”
Jaimie looked at her friend curiously. “What—what do you mean? Because that’s exactly what we were going to say to you…”
The four children exchanged perplexed looks.
Drew removed a folded note from his pocket and smoothed it out on the carpet between them. “This note seems to answer a question we didn’t ask.”
“Well, that’s weird,” Jaimie said, leaning forward to read the note. A moment later she looked up, her eyes wide. “Also weird: we didn’t write this note.” She glanced up at Drew, trying to gauge his expression. He’s surprised. I don’t think he’s a real spy.
She took a quick look at her mischievous younger brother. For once he had nothing to say, and he looked a little scared.
Jaimie took their note from her pocket and laid it next to the one the Camerons had brought. “Can you explain this one?”
Drew and Mary looked at it and then exchanged bewildered looks.
“We didn’t write that,” Drew said, nervously rubbing his palms on his jeans.
Mary was biting her lip. “So if you didn’t write this note and we didn’t write yours—who did?”
“Real spies?” Alan whispered.
“Something is not right here,” Drew said, setting his jaw. “We need to talk to the grownups.”
The children arranged for their parents to all meet up at the Travises’ house after dinner. Starting at the beginning, they explained the story of their game and laid out the notes each team had received in the order they’d received them. Everyone read through the notes.
“When you lay everything out like this, it’s pretty clear we weren’t replying to each other,” Jaimie said. “We each only had half the conversation, though, so we didn’t notice at first.” The other children nodded, waiting in silence for one of the grownups to speak.
“We need to call the authorities,” Mr. Cameron finally said.
Mr. Cameron and Jaimie’s father ended up talking to the FBI on the phone for a long while. Swallowing her nervousness about interrupting such an important phone call, Jaimie laid a hand on her father’s sleeve. He raised a questioning eyebrow and she whispered, “Based on how early in the morning we found some of these notes, I think they’re leaving them in the dead drop while it’s dark.” He nodded and relayed the information to the agent on the phone.
“They’re sending some agents over,” Mr. Travis said when they ended the call. Everyone made uneasy small talk and fidgeted nervously until they heard a knock on the door. Jaimie’s father showed in two serious men in black suits.
They introduced themselves as Agents Walker and Willis. A stream of people carried cases of radio equipment upstairs where they set up a command center near the large window in the Travises’ master bedroom. It had a good view of the beginning of the footpath.
Agent Walker approached the two families congregated in the living room. “We have agents reconnoitering the general area of the dead drop as you described it. However, we need the exact location of this tree. Have any of you children left a note there this time of day?” He gestured to the sinking sun. Jaimie hadn’t realized it was nearly suppertime.
“We have before,” Mary said, gesturing to herself and Drew.
“We usually leave our notes earlier in the day,” Alan added.
Agent Walker nodded and then turned to Mr. and Mrs. Cameron. “We need them to make one last stop at the tree. They’ll leave a note and a beacon so our agents can locate the tree since I understand it’s well camouflaged and difficult to spot unless you’re an 11-year-old.”
Alan grinned at the reference.
Mary’s parents exchanged worried glances. “It seems so unsafe,” Mrs. Cameron said.
“The chances of anything happening are slim, and the area is full of our agents, ma’am. They’ll be watching.”
After a brief pause, Mr. and Mrs. Cameron nodded their consent.
“YES!” Drew whispered, pumping his fist.
“Are you nervous?” Jaimie asked her best friend in an undertone.
Mary hugged herself. “Yeah, I guess so. They say we’ll be safe, but it does make me a little—shivery.”
“Just think, though,” Jaimie said, “you’re getting to help the FBI!”
Mary took a deep breath and nodded. She gave Jaimie a tight smile.
Agents Walker and Willis had been upstairs directing the people setting up equipment. Agent Willis walked briskly down the stairs and said, “Okay, it’s time for the dead drop team to move out. Drew, Mary? Here’s the note you’ll be leaving.” He passed a folded slip of paper to Mary. “And here is the beacon we need you to leave. Just drop it at the base of the tree.” He handed Drew a small black object no larger than a pinky fingernail.
“I’ll just let it slip through my fingers when I reach up to put the note in the dead drop,” Drew said.
“Excellent,” Agent Willis said. “Remember, you don’t need to be nervous; the area is full of agents even if you can’t see them.”
“Yes, sir! We’ll get it done!” Drew said. Mary simply nodded.
Agent Willis regarded her for a moment. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay doing this? The safety of you two will be our men’s highest priority.”
Mary took a deep breath and nodded again. “Sure. Yes. It’s just another trip to the tree, right?”
“That’s the spirit!” the agent said.
“Now, you two be careful,” Mrs. Cameron said, giving her daughter and nephew a tight hug. “We’ll see you back here in just a few minutes.”
After Drew and Mary exited the front door, Jaimie and Alan raced up the stairs to Jaimie’s bedroom window. It didn’t have as good a view as their parents’ room, but they could still see a section of the path. The daylight was failing rapidly, and they stared hard at the darkening path until they saw Drew and Mary appear. They walked with what Jaimie assumed was intentional leisureliness. Drew leaned over and said something to Mary.
“He’s probably reassuring her,” Jaimie said quietly. Now that it came down to it, everything felt less like fun and games. Jaimie realized she was hugging herself and continuing to stare at the path even though her friends were out of sight beneath the tree cover. She said a quick prayer for everything to go as planned, for Mary and Drew to come back safely, for the FBI agents to stop Strawberry Cream.
In the background, she heard low, crackly voices coming from her parents’ room. The agents had filled the room with radio equipment and were keeping in constant contact with their people on the ground. The children couldn’t quiet make out what was being said, and they knew they shouldn’t eavesdrop.
They were just about to head back down the stairs to wait with everyone else when they heard a crackly radio voice, louder than the others calling, “Red Riding Hood down! I repeat: Red Riding Hood down!” Jaimie and Alan froze just outside her bedroom.
The noise level erupted as the radio chatter increased. Agent Willis jerked the master bedroom door open, rushed past the children, and down the stairs to the living room.
Something had happened to Mary.
With the master bedroom door open, Jaimie and Alan could clearly hear and see what was going on.
The radio crackled. “Confirmed, sir. Red Riding Hood appears to have injured her ankle.”
“All agents stay in position,” Agent Walker ordered. “We’re working on a natural extraction plan.”
“May not be necessary, sir. Huntsman is carrying her,” said one of the radio voices.
“Is he headed back to base?” Agent Walker asked tensely.
“Negative, sir. They’re proceeding to the dead drop.”
“Good boy,” Agent Walker said quietly.
Agent Willis returned with the parents in tow. “If you’ll just stay right here in the loft area, that would be perfect,” he said. One of the men in the room gave him a thumbs-up and he nodded. “Looks like everything is under control out there.”
Mrs. Cameron heaved a sigh of relief, and Mr. Cameron took her hand.
Suddenly, the radio started to buzz with activity again.
“Rapunzel—aka Strawberry—sighted, sir!”
“Rapunzel in view! I repeat: Rapunzel in view!”
“What!” Agent Walker cried, jumping away from the now-dark window. He keyed his radio. “The Marshals Service has been looking for those guys for weeks now—ever since they disappeared from Witness Protection. Give me more, what are you seeing?”
“It’s only Rapunzel; no sign of the rest of the family. She’s moving toward Red Riding Hood and Huntsman… They’ve made visual contact… Rapunzel has stopped to talk with them… She’s helping them. Huntsman and Rapunzel are supporting Red Riding Hood between them now… Continuing to dead drop location…”
“Do we have a contingency plan for this, sir?” asked one of the other men in the room. “How do we proceed?”
Jaimie whispered to her brother, “These guys really have a thing for fairytale names. It’s starting to sound like some really weird fairytale mashup story out there!”
“No kidding,” Alan said. “But did you notice they also mentioned ‘Strawberry’? I wonder what that means.”
“It sounds like Rapunzel and Strawberry are the same person. But—wait… maybe ‘Rapuzel’ is their codename for this person and ‘Strawberry’ is the bad guys’ codename for her!”
“Then ‘Strawberry Cream’ means—” Alan said.
“Everyone hold your positions,” Agent Walker radioed sternly. “Keep eyes on all three.”
A second later, a radio voice said, “Huntsman has made the drop, sir.”
Agent Willis checked something on a laptop and then nodded, saying, “Beacon is live. Dead drop location confirmed.”
Agent Walker came to the doorway and spoke to the two families gathered in the loft. “They’re headed back now. They did an excellent job.”
He motioned to a couple other FBI men to follow him, and everyone headed downstairs.
After what seemed like an eternity, they opened the front door. Jaimie peered out the curtain of their front window and saw Drew and the teen girl from down the street helping Mary hobble down the walk toward the Travises’ house.
“Rapunzel-Strawberry is the Youngest Bird?” she whispered, glancing at Alan.
He laughed. “That’s a lot of code names for one person.”
Suddenly a commotion arose outside and the three FBI agents rocketed out the door. Jaimie peered out the window again. A tall shadowy figure had joined her friends on the walk. She couldn’t see exactly what was going on, but there was some type of scuffle. The tall man was clutching a piece of paper in one hand.
“FBI! Freeze, and put your hands on your head!” Agent Walker shouted as he and his men ran toward the group.
The tall man froze, looked over his shoulder, and then took off running toward the footpath. The FBI men followed, all three disappearing into the dark, talking rapidly into their radios.
Mr. Cameron and Mr. Travis hurried Drew, Mary, and Rapunzel-Strawberry-Bird inside. Jaimie gave Alan her place at the window and threw her arms around Mary. “I’m so glad you’re back safely! What happened?” she asked her friend.
Mary rolled her eyes. “I’m apparently a klutz in the dark. I stepped in a hole, and my ankle gave out. It’s sore, but that’s about it.”
Jaimie patted her friend’s hand. “We were all so worried when the agents in the woods reported you were hurt— Alan? What are you doing? Alan!” Jaimie jumped up from the couch where she had been sitting next to Mary.
Alan had just dashed from the front window to the back door and into the yard where Bugle was barking and howling.
“What’s going on?” their mother asked worriedly.
“I’m not sure,” Jaimie said. She ran to the back door which Alan had left open. She slipped through and quickly realized the yard was empty.
Her parents were right behind her. “Where is he?” her mother asked fearfully.
Together they rounded the back corner of the house and discovered the side gate ajar. Just ahead, crouched in the shadow of the house was Alan, holding their highly excited beagle by his collar.
“Bugle,” the boy whispered, “go get the mail!”
“What—?” Mrs. Travis began.
“Shh! Look!” Jaimie said, pointing.
The tall man had returned, slinking through the shadows on their street, having somehow evaded the agents chasing him. He still clutched a piece of paper in his hand, and Bugle made a joyful beeline for it.
When the dog caught up to the man, he sat down politely in front of him and waited. The man froze. Bugle stared at the paper and cocked his head.
Just then, the Travises’ front door opened, spilling golden light onto the walk. Agent Willis and another man charged out.
The man with the paper quickly sidestepped Bugle and took off running down the street.
With a grunt, Bugle stood and followed, easily catching up. He again circled in front of the man and sat. Unable to stop fast enough, the man’s feet got tangled in the waiting beagle and he went down hard. The paper flew up into the air and then floated down gracefully to land in front of Bugle’s nose.
Ignoring the shouts of the FBI men as they cuffed the man sprawled on the ground, Bugle loped back to his boy, the paper in his mouth flapping as he ran.
“Good boy! Good boy!” Alan cried, jumping up from his position near the house.
Jaimie and their parents rushed forward to join him and the dog on the front lawn just as Agent Walker and his two men returned from the footpath.
“What are you all doing out here? It’s not safe! The suspect evaded us. He could be—anywhere. Oh…” Agent Walker panted. He stopped abruptly when he noticed his partner bringing the man in question toward him wearing handcuffs.
“Good work, Agent Willis. He must have hidden and doubled back at some point. And the paper he was holding? Did you get it?”
“No sir, I didn’t, but I believe the dog has something for you,” Agent Willis said, nodding amusedly to Bugle. “The dog was a crucial part of the takedown, sir.”
Agent Walker knelt down, and Alan told Bugle, “Give!” The agent stood, inspecting the note with the help of his flashlight. He looked pleased.
Jaimie glanced at the man they’d captured. He had a nasty red scrape along one side of his face. “Apparently takedown by beagle-tripping is rough,” she murmured.
Alan beamed at Bugle. “Good boy!” he whispered. “Guess we did save the world for my Summer Project after all!”
The FBI carted off the tall man and began packing up to leave the Travises’ house. In the midst of the flurry, Agent Willis paused to explain to the families.
“We’ll be out of your hair soon. The note contained a meeting location where we expect to apprehend the other suspect.”
“And keep him from ‘creaming’ Strawberry?” Jaimie asked.
Agent Willis looked slightly startled. “Not much gets past you kids, does it? If any of you see the FBI in your future, be sure to look me up.”
Rapunzel – Strawberry – Bird shook everyone’s hands. “They say you helped keep me and my family safe tonight. Thank you so much.” She bit her lip like she wanted to say more, but instead she just gave a little wave before being whisked out the door by the agents.
“Well, that was an adventure” Alan said to nobody in particular as the door closed behind the last agent. He yawned hugely, waved goodnight to the departing Camerons, and then dragged himself upstairs to his room.
The next morning when Jaimie woke up, the sun was shining brightly around the edges of her curtains. She rubbed her eyes and looked at the clock.
She hopped out of bed and rushed through getting dressed. Everyone else was still sleeping off their late night, so she quietly grabbed an orange from the kitchen and headed back to her room.
“Okay,” she said, opening her notebook to a blank page, “one month of summer break may be gone, but I finally have a good story idea for my Summer Project. This is going to be fabulous.”
She began to write.
FBI agent Andrew Smith checked his watch and squinted in the bright afternoon sun…
Perry Elisabeth Kirkpatrick lives in an undisclosed location outside of Phoenix where she and her husband chase their four little boys and a silly dog. They don’t chase their cat, however, because cats hate that. She is the author of “The Kitten Files” mysteries, “The Accidental Cases of Emily Abbott” spy series, and multiple short stories. In addition to her writing, Perry enjoys graphic design, playing a number of musical instruments, and watching movies that make her laugh. Find her books, newsletter, and free stories at perrykirkpatrick.com.