After months of trying all manner of combinations and ideas, he’d only managed to unscramble three words: future, imminent and threat, which on their own didn’t mean much at all...
Max ran his finger along the text and read the words again. He’d scoured the library at Alexandria, looking for books on ciphers and coding and finally found this one. It was far more complex than any he’d studied to date. Perhaps it would help him to unravel the mysteries of the coded note he’d accidentally found in Headmaster Magoo MacGregor’s office last term. The page had fallen out of a book Mrs Vanden Boom had instructed Max to pull on to open a secret passage – except that he pulled on the wrong book and this one clattered to the floor. When he’d noticed his and Kensy’s names on the top of the paper, Max couldn’t help himself and stuffed it into his pocket.
No one knew he had it, not even Kensy as he didn’t want to worry her unnecessarily, although maybe that wasn’t the only reason. After months of trying all manner of combinations and ideas, he’d only managed to unscramble three words: future, imminent and threat, which on their own didn’t mean much at all. It was as if there were several layers. Plus there was always the possibility that the ciphers and codes that had been used were known only to the writer and the intended recipient. If that was the case, it might prove uncrackable. The boy turned his attention back to the jumble of letters and numbers he’d scrawled on a separate page. Max was concentrating hard and thinking about a new formula he’d studied when, almost like magic, he deciphered the word Song. And it was written with a capital ‘S’ – as if it was the person and not just a thing.
Max checked again and was convinced that he was correct. Then there was another word – birthright. He felt a tingle down his spine. Perhaps he was going to get it after all. Unfortunately at the moment he didn’t have a lot of time. They had a guest to entertain, if he ever emerged, that is. Max was focused on the text when Kensy barged into his room.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked as he quickly slipped the page and his jottings inside the book.
‘Reading the paper,’ Max said, turning to page two of the Beacon.
‘You do know we’re on holidays,’ the girl said, flopping down on her brother’s bed.
Max grinned at his sister. ‘Do trainee spies ever get to take a proper holiday? Have you seen this story about the poison-laced letters in the United States? Apparently as soon as the recipient opens the envelope they get a blast of whatever the toxic substance is and immediately fall ill. It only affects the person holding the letter – which is weird and clever. Initially the authorities thought it was anthrax, but now they believe it’s something even more powerful. One man has already died and another woman is critically ill in hospital.’
Max had read the article earlier that morning.
Kensy sat up and shook her head. ‘Sounds like something Dash Chalmers would do – the way he unleashed all those viruses he had Grandmère and Grandpère create. It’s hard to imagine there’s another human being as sick as that horrible man, but I guess you can never underestimate humans’ capacity for evil. I wonder if Uncle Rupert is any closer to finding him.’
Max frowned. They hadn’t heard any updates recently. Following Dash’s escape, a decision had been taken that Pharos would bring him in alone. His assistant, Lucy Dowsett, and the journalist, George Kapalos, who had helped investigate his evil doings were currently in witness protection given how much they knew – they believed that the people looking after them were police, but they were actually Pharos agents. Hector and Marisol did not want their return from the dead to be made public – as that would bring Interpol into the picture and Cordelia thought it would be easier to flush Dash out by letting him think he’d got away with it. There was also the delicate issue of Faye and Conrad Chalmers, Dash’s parents being two of her dearest friends. Neither had any idea of Cordelia’s ‘other life’ as the Head of Pharos. They’d both been unwell and a revelation like this could tip them right over the edge. Cordelia had to handle the whole dastardly business very carefully. At least Tinsley and the children appeared to be out of harm’s way, though she was keen for them to be found just in case. They would be safer under Pharos protection rather than going it alone.
‘Curtis should be up by now,’ Kensy said. The boy had arrived around midnight the previous evening. The twins had stayed awake to greet him, but Curtis was suffering horribly with jet lag and had barely been able to keep his eyes open. It was no wonder, considering he said he hadn’t slept for a day and half.
‘Do you think Granny will invite Curtis into the program?’ Kensy asked her brother.
‘I hope so,’ Max replied. ‘He’d make an excellent spy. I mean, seriously he’s probably done a lot more pre-training than we ever did.’ ‘Don’t be so sure about that. Did you ever wonder why Fitz insisted we learn mixed martial arts and parkour when all our friends were into ballet and soccer?’ Kensy arched her left eyebrow.
There was a knock at the door and Curtis poked his head around.
‘Speak of the devil,’ Kensy said. ‘You’re alive!’
Curtis Pepper walked into the room. ‘Good morning,’ he said, his blue eyes sparkling.
Kensy pointed at the clock beside Max’s bed. ‘I don’t think so.’
The boy did a double take. ‘Is that really the time?’ He couldn’t believe it was quarter past twelve.
Max nodded. ‘We weren’t going to wake you.’
‘Sorry, I had no idea. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow and I only woke up a little while ago. You must think I’m so rude – Mum would be mortified.’ Curtis wandered around the room then walked to the window and looked outside. ‘Whoa! That’s some garden you’ve got there.’
‘Are you hungry?’ Max asked.
‘Starving,’ the boy replied as his stomach growled on cue. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten.
There was another knock on the door and this time Song entered the room. With the sun streaming through the window, his white suit took on an almost ethereal glow.
‘Bit bright, Song.’ Kensy shielded her eyes dramatically, much to the chagrin of the butler who ignored her antics.
‘Good afternoon, Master Curtis.’ The man gave a bow and acknowledged the twins. ‘Miss Kensington, Master Maxim.’
‘Hi Song. It’s good to see you,’ the boy replied.
‘And you.’ Song smiled. ‘I came to let you know that lunch is ready. I hope lasagne and crispy baked potatoes will be to your liking.’
Curtis licked his lips. ‘That sounds great. Yours is the best lasagne I’ve ever eaten.’
The butler grimaced. ‘This time I only placed the order, Master Curtis. Mrs Thornthwaite has made the meal in honour of your visit. I told her it was one of your favourites.’ He then lowered his voice. ‘I suspect it won’t be nearly as good as mine, but please don’t tell her. She doesn’t take well to criticism.’
Curtis gave the man a wink and tapped the side of his nose. ‘It’s our secret,’ the boy said.
Max hurried into his walk-in wardrobe and returned with a pair of sandshoes. He would have preferred to stay in his room and keep working on the note, but he couldn’t abandon his friend on his first day. It would just have to wait a little longer – though he was intrigued about the idea of a birthright and why Song was mentioned too.
‘What about a tour after lunch then?’ Kensy asked.
Curtis’s face lit up. ‘Yes, please.’
Song dallied at the door. ‘I’m afraid that will have to wait until after you see your grandmother. She has requested a meeting as soon as you finish your meal.’
Kensy and Max looked at one another. Surely she couldn’t have made her decision already.
Cordelia Spencer sipped her tea and nibbled on a shortbread biscuit. Minutes ago she’d received a call about a business award that had come as quite a surprise and she was still thinking about it when there was a knock on the door.
‘Come in,’ the woman called, trying to suppress the smile that kept tickling her lips. Max entered first followed by Kensy then Curtis.
‘Hello Granny,’ Max said. ‘Song sent us. He said that you wanted a chat.’
‘Hello darlings,’ she stood up and walked over to greet them and ushered everyone to the armchairs and lounge that were arranged around the fireplace. ‘How are you enjoying Alexandria, Curtis?’
The boy took in a deep breath then exhaled loudly. ‘Well, I’m afraid I slept in very late, but from the little I’ve seen so far, it’s incredible. You must love living here. If I lived here, I don’t think I’d ever leave. Thank you so much for having me. And it’s a real honour to finally meet you – even though we are technically next-door neighbours in Sydney.’
‘Yes.’ Cordelia smiled. The boy’s enthusiasm was endearing. ‘Kensy and Max told me that you’re something of an amateur sleuth.’
The twins wondered where their grandmother was taking the conversation. Surely she wasn’t just going to ask Curtis if he wanted to join Pharos – the world’s most important secret spy organisation. She’d have to do a lot of explaining first, and Fitz and Song said that Curtis had to pass a series of tests before he’d even be considered and that would take weeks.
‘I like to know what’s going on around the neighbourhood,’ the boy said, nodding earnestly. ‘It’s important to pay attention.’
‘I completely agree. You never know when something might be awry,’ the woman said, matching the boy’s seriousness. ‘I’ve had a few concerns with staff recently.’
‘Really, Granny?’ Kensy leaned in closer. ‘Who? Because I’ve always had my suspicions about . . .’ Max gave his sister a sharp kick in the ankles and glared at her.
‘Ow!’ the girl complained, unsure about what she’d done to deserve it. Now seemed the perfect time to tell her grandmother what she thought about Shugs – although to be fair he hadn’t done anything lately – but she was still convinced he was the taxi driver in London who tried to kidnap her and Max before they knew anything about Pharos. And the identity of the person who planted the bomb that destroyed 13 Ponsonby Terrace before they were sent to Sydney remained a mystery too.
‘Be quiet,’ Max mouthed. ‘This might be part of the test.’ Finally Kensy understood.
Cordelia ignored her grandchildren’s antics. ‘Perhaps while you’re here, Curtis, you can keep a watch on things for me – let me know if you notice anything out of the ordinary.’
The boy’s eyes lit up. ‘I’d be happy to. It’s not Song, is it?’ A deep frown line appeared at the top of his nose. ‘I’d hate for it to be him because he’s become one of my favourite people in the world. And he’s an excellent cook.’
Max smiled at the thought of Curtis suspecting Song of any sort of bad behaviour – the man was a pillar of the family, which made the reason his name was in that note from Magoo’s office even more curious.
Cordelia stood up and walked to her desk. She picked up a small leather-bound notebook and a pen then passed them to the lad. ‘In case you’d like to make some observations.’
Curtis turned the book over in his hands. ‘It’s beautiful. But what are those markings on there?’
‘Perhaps you’d like to see if you can work them out,’ the woman said.
‘Do Kensy and Max have notebooks too? I mean it would be better if we were all on the lookout for strange behaviour, wouldn’t it?’ Curtis asked.
‘Of course,’ Cordelia said. ‘They’re already well equipped.’
The children were wondering exactly what their grandmother was playing at. They didn’t have notebooks like the one she’d given Curtis. Kensy was beginning to feel a little miffed that the woman hadn’t asked her and Max to keep an eye on things as well – maybe she’d just do it anyway.
The girl was deep in thought when she noticed that the eyes of the brass monkey paperweight on her grandmother’s desk had begun to glow.
‘Granny,’ Kensy said then motioned towards the light.
The woman stood up and peered over the top of the children’s heads. Suddenly there was a crackling noise and a voice.
Cordelia rushed to her desk and immediately the static ceased, the voice along with it.
‘Right, sorry to have to hustle you out, but I have something urgent to approve for this evening’s edition of the Beacon,’ Cordelia said. ‘Why don’t you go for a walk? Show Curtis about. I’ll see you all at dinner.’
Curtis turned and looked over at the desk. ‘That’s a very cool ornament.’
‘Yes, it is, isn’t it?’ Cordelia said, shuffling the children towards the door.
But Kensy didn’t miss the strange look in her grandmother’s eyes. There was something going on and she was almost certain it was more than just a newspaper story.