Mr. Hightower snorted. “At any rate, it’s only you, dear Rachael, that we need, not these others. They can go.”
Returning home again after the terrible events at Xanadu House, Rachael Baptiste has learned not to trust humans…because they might be part of the Lighthouse Parents, a hostile group out to arrest and destroy the Exotics.
Her parents do nothing about argue. Her Exotic friends pretend to be normal. Her human friends hint that it might be better if the Exotics just disappeared. And now the horrible Mr. Hightower wants her to spy for him…on her mom.
Rachael doesn’t know what she should do…but she knows that if she doesn’t keep an eye on Mr. Hightower and his group of Exotics, she won’t be able to stop them…
As soon as she read all the way to the bottom, the bright pink piece of paper hanging on the wall made Rachael feel sick to her stomach. Nobody was looking, so she ripped the paper off the wall and stuffed it inside her backpack.
She started running toward her classroom.
Her teacher, Mr. Miller, said, “Slow down!”
She slowed down so quickly her shoes squeaked on the tile floor, then walked slowly enough to make the pickiest teacher happy, slow-motion slow.
Mr. Miller laughed. “Okay, okay, not that slow!”
Rachael sped up to a normal walking speed, went around the corner, then ran all the way to class.
* * *
“Read this,” she whispered as she shoved the pink paper in front of Babra.
“What is this?” her friend said. Babra Monn was an Exotic like Rachael, someone who could turn back and forth from an animal into a human. Babra’s dad, who was a captain of The Floating Menagerie, a boat that was one of the Exotics’ secret hideouts, had decided she would be safer staying with Rachael’s family for the moment. Their friend Digger was an Exotic, too; nobody would talk about his parents at all, though. Captain Monn, his guardian, wanted him to stay with Rachael’s family for now.
“Just read it.”
Babra read it. “It’s a roller skating party! Can we go? It’s on Wednesday!”
“Shh!” Rachael clapped her hand over Babra’s mouth, watching her face as she continued to read.
Babra’s hands started to shake and she whimpered like a puppy through her nose. Rachael pulled her hand back.
“The Lighthouse Parents,” Babra whispered.
Digger walked by Babra’s desk and snatched up the paper, crumpling it as he walked. He didn’t even look at it before he hurled it into the trash can so hard it bounced out again. He picked it up again and threw it straight down so it didn’t come back out again.
Mr. Miller looked up. “What are you doing, Digger?”
“Throwing away trash,” he said.
* * *
During recess, the three friends went into a corner to talk about the paper. Mr. Miller was standing on the hill above them, looking down into the playground from above. Their corner wasn’t a great place to hide, but at least they could talk without a bunch of people seeing them.
“The Lighthouse Parents are here?” Babra said. “We were supposed to be safe here.”
The Lighthouse Parents was a group that had attacked the three of them while they were living in Oregon with Rachael’s Aunt Kitty, who was still in the hospital after almost being killed when the Lighthouse Parents burned down her house.
One of Rachael’s friends from before she’d turned into an Exotic, Makayla, ran by, saw them, and ran back. “Hi, Rachael!”
Rachael liked playing with Makayla even more than she liked playing with Babra and Digger, but she had important things to talk about at the moment. “Hi, Makayla,” she said.
“Are you guys okay?” Makayla said.
Digger looked angry, and Babra already had tear streaks down her face. Rachael nodded, thinking quickly. “Babra’s upset because she fell.”
“Oh,” Makayla said. She walked up to Babra and gave her a hug. “I hope you feel all better soon. Wanna come play?”
Babra shook her head.
“Okay. Want me to wait with you?”
Babra shook her head again.
Makayla laughed. “You don’t have to be afraid of me! I won’t bite. You’re so shy. But you’re soooo cute, too. You should play with me more, okay?”
Babra nodded, and Makayla hugged her again. Babra was turning red from blushing.
“Makayla!” Mr. Miller yelled. “Hands off!”
Makayla laughed. “Sorry! No more hugs for you. But remember to come play, okay?” She ran toward the swings, where the best swing had just been emptied. A girl had just jumped out of it, flying across the playground and causing Mr. Miller to start shouting again.
“What are we going to do?” Babra asked. “I don’t want to have to hide again—”
There was a tiny tick as a tiny twig snapped.
“Shh!” Rachael said. “I hear something.” She peeked around the corner. Standing right around the corner, with a snapped stick in his hand, was Raul, another Exotic.
Digger grabbed Raul by the front of his jacket and pulled him around the corner, glaring at him.
Rachael pulled Digger’s hand away before Mr. Miller could see them. “Digger! What are you doing?”
“He’s spying on us. Raul’s trouble. He’s always trouble.”
“Don’t be mean,” Rachael said. “What is it, Raul?”
Raul shook his head. “I wanted to ask if you were going to the roller-skating party.”
“Are you crazy?” Rachael asked. “You saw who was going to be there.”
Raul nodded. “I had to know if you were stupid enough to go.”
“We’re not stupid,” Rachael said.
“If you’re not going, then you should meet me in the park over by the lake. By the big tree.”
“Why?” Rachael asked.
“I want to show you something. About the Animal Lovers’ Club.”
“But—” Rachael’s mother used to be one of the leaders of the Animal Lovers’ Club, which was a secret club for Exotics, but she’d turned against them for reasons that Rachael didn’t understand.
“The Animal Lovers’ Club didn’t die when your mom left,” Raul said. “Wednesday. Six o’clock.”
Rachael looked at Digger. He was frowning. She looked at Babra. She looked frightened. She looked at Raul. He looked like he didn’t want to talk to her at all but someone had made him do it.
“Okay,” Rachael said.
The three of them came back around the corner just as Makayla went flying through the air, laughing.
“Makaaaaaaaaylaaaaaaa!” Mr. Miller yelled.
Makayla landed, stuck her arms up in the air, and bowed to her adoring fans, that is, a bunch of giggling third graders, before Mr. Miller led her back into the school building.
On Wednesday night, Rachael asked her mom if she, Digger, and Babra could go to the park.
“Are you sure? I thought tonight was the roller-skating party, ” her mom asked. She was typing away on her computer so quickly that Rachael could see the words forming as fast as a normal person could talk. Her mom caught her staring at her computer screen and turned it off.
“No spying, please,” she said.
“Um,” Rachael said, “You didn’t read the whole paper for the roller skating party, did you?”
Her mother shrugged. “It looked normal. I filled out the permission slip. What?”
“At the very bottom, it said, ‘Pizza provided by the Lighthouse Parents.’”
Bea’s mouth dropped open. “What? They’re here? It can’t be. It can’t be the same people.”
Rachael shrugged. “We don’t want to go rollerskating. We just want to go to the park.”
“At night,” her mother said.
“Everybody else is getting to do something fun,” Rachael said.
Her mother sighed. “All right. Just make sure your dad knows where you’re going. And take my cell phone, so I can call you.”
Rachael knew her mother had two cell phones—her regular one, and a new one she’d started carrying around lately. A Shadow Dogs phone that she’d been given when she left the Animal Lovers’ Club and joined the Shadow Dogs instead.
“Okay.” Rachael took her mom’s regular cell phone and checked to make sure it was charged.
“Your butt had better be inside the front door at eight…and your homework had already—”
“I’m already done,” Rachael said.
“What about Babra and Digger?”
“I made sure they were done, too,” Rachael said.
“Okay, okay,” her mother laughed, hugging her. “Go ahead. Call me if you have any problems, and tell your dad where you’re going.”
“Why don’t you tell him?” Rachael asked.
Her mother turned her monitor back on and started typing. “I’m busy. Just tell him.”
* * *
The three of them walked toward the park, Babra holding Rachael’s hand as they crossed from street to street. “Was your mom mad?”
“No,” Rachael said.
“You look sad.”
“Her and dad are still fighting, I guess,” Rachael said. “He’s still mad that she disappeared last year.”
“Ohhh,” Babra said.
It was still light out, but the sky was getting dark as the sun went behind the mountains. They crossed into the park. One huge tree rose over everything else around it. In the summer, it had beautiful leaves that were green on one side and silver-green on the other, and they all turned bright orange in the fall, and fell in piles and piles, so you could spend hours jumping in them.
All kinds of playground equipment had been set up under the tree, too, with lots of swings and slides and monkey bars. It was great place to play pretend, although sometimes the older kids made fun of Rachael for the stories that she would make up and tell to anyone who would listen.
“What now?” Digger asked.
“We wait,” Rachael said. “I guess.”
They waited for what seemed like a long time but was only ten minutes when Rachael checked the time on her mom’s phone. She stuck the phone back in her jacket pocket and said, “It’s six-oh-seven.”
“I think he forgot about us,” Babra said.
At the far end of the park, a dog barked.
“Just a minute,” Rachael said. She watched as a man threw a stick, the dog chased it and brought it back, and the man threw the stick again. The biggish dog looked sleek and wild, with a thin head, pointed ears, and a curling tail.
“It’s a wolf,” Digger said.
“It’s him,” Rachael agreed. “Babra, put your tongue back in your mouth.”
Babra scratched behind her ear. “I want to play.”
The pair walked up to them; it was Raul, in wolf form, and a man Rachael kind of recognized. “Do I know you?” she asked.
The man shrugged. Raul said, “He’s the janitor at school, dummy.”
Rachael looked at the man again—it was the janitor, Mr. Larssen. He didn’t talk much; Rachael was pretty sure he didn’t like kids. There used to be another janitor named Bob—one of the few adults that wanted kids to call them by their first name—that had been a spy for the Shadow Dogs, but he hadn’t been there at all since they got back.
“Where do we go from here?” Rachael said.
Raul ran around the tree, and Rachael heard the chains on one of the swings shaking, then a thump and a click. A ladder made of wood and rope dropped out of the tree.
“Go on up,” Mr. Larssen said.
Rachael climbed first, then Babra, then finally Digger.
At the top of the ladder, she looked around. Even though it was the beginning of spring and the leaves had just started to come out, she could barely see the ground or anything else. Underneath her feet was a big branch with a flat top. A rope hung at about chest height. She held onto the rope, then grabbed Babra’s hand as she came up. Digger was next.
Mr. Larssen came up last and pulled the ladder after him.
“What about Raul?” Rachael said.
“Not your problem,” Mr. Larssen said.
Yeah, Mr. Larssen really didn’t like kids. Rachael wondered what he was doing, hanging around so many kids at his job and now, with the Animal Lovers’ Club, if he hated them so much.
Using the rope for balance, Rachael scooted sideways toward the base of the tree. It would have gone a lot faster if she’d been able to change into a gecko, but she didn’t want to either lose her clothes or leave her friends behind.
Mr. Larssen said, “Shh!” and they all stopped.
Below them, a small, dark shape—a kid—was walking around the playground, stepping on rotten, gray leaves left over from last year. They waited, not moving, until he left.
“Who was that?” Rachael asked.
“Xavier,” Digger said. “New boy.”
Mr. Larssen waved his hand, and they all scooted closer to the trunk of the tree. Rachael reached out her hand and touched the trunk. As her fingers brushed against it, part of the trunk pushed inward, becoming a door.
“Wow,” she breathed.
“In,” Mr. Larssen said.
Rachael pushed forward into the dark, walking carefully forward to find a set of small stairs that went around and around in a tiny circle inside the huge trunk of the tree.
Rachael walked slowly down the stairs in the dark, shifting her eyes from human to gecko so she could see better. The stairs went down for a long time—it felt like they must be under the ground after a while. She steadied herself with one hand and held onto Babra’s with the other. She wondered how the tree was able to live with a stairway inside it. Maybe it was a fake tree…but it smelled like wood.
Finally, she reached the bottom. There was dirt under her shoes and a door in front of her. This door wasn’t made out of wood, but out of flat, cold metal.
The three of them had to squish out of the way as Mr. Larssen pushed them aside. He banged on the door with his fist; his knock sounded tiny. Rachael knocked on the door closer to the ground and could barely hear the tink tink of her hand hitting the door.
“Stop that,” he said.
A voice came out of the darkness above the door. “Speak.”
“Larssen, with the three kids he wanted.”
“Let us in.”
“What are you even using that door for? We’re using the new door now.”
“Showing off for girls, probably.”
The voice started grumbling. It sounded a little different over the microphone, but Rachael thought she recognized it. She squeezed Babra’s hand hard.
The door opened, swinging into bright light. Mr. Larssen stepped back and pushed Rachael through.
She stumbled at the edge of the door where the dirt changed into cement and let go of Babra. She caught herself on the back of a computer chair and looked up.
“Wow.” She turned around in a circle, trying to see everywhere at once. Circular rows of computers and desks surrounded a wall full of huge computer screens. It was like being in a movie theater where every seat had its own computer desk. On the wall behind the desks was a balcony where several people dressed in black uniforms looked down at the three kids.
“Miss Baptiste,” a voice called down. “We cannot say how glad we are to see you.”
Rachael shivered. It was Mr. Hightower. But wasn’t he supposed to be a Shadow Dog, an enemy of the Animal Lovers’ Club?
But then again, her mother was supposed to be part of the Animal Lovers’ Club and had switched over to the Shadow Dogs. Maybe he’d switched, too.
For a moment, Rachael thought her mother must have been right to betray the Animal Lovers’ Club if Mr. Hightower had joined it. She touched her eye where a man named Tapeworm had hit her last year, at Mr. Hightower’s orders. She should get out of here.
Then another figure stepped out onto the balcony, giving a little wave. It was Raul.
Rachael gulped and waved back.
Raul backed away from the railing and went out of sight, reappearing at a door under the balcony. He was wearing the same kind of uniform as the others; it had a snake twisted into the shape of a heart on one shoulder—probably the symbol for the Animal Lovers’ Club.
A second later, Mr. Hightower joined him. “So you’re here to join our little club.”
“Maybe,” Digger said, spitting out the words. “Maybe not.”
“How did you get down here?” Rachael said. “There must be another entrance.”
Behind them, Babra whimpered. Rachael looked around to see that she’d turned into a dog and was huddled inside her clothes. Rachael picked up Babra and held her in her arms while Digger grabbed her clothes.
Mr. Hightower snorted. “Perhaps some of you would like to join more than others. At any rate, it’s only you, dear Rachael, that we need, not these others. They can go.”
“I’m your prisoner?” Rachael said.
“Don’t be ridiculous. We want you as our agent. As our spy.” Mr. Hightower started walking down the floor toward the big screens, and Raul followed him. Raul wasn’t saying a word; he was barely making a sound as he walked. Rachael didn’t know whether he was angry or sad or what.
“Raul?” she said.
He looked over his shoulder at her and gave a tiny shake of his head.
Rachael hugged Babra a little closer and followed Mr. Hightower to a door underneath the big screens. Mr. Hightower stopped at the door and typed in a code. Just before she went through the door, she looked back. Mr. Larssen was gone.
“Are you an Exotic?” she asked Mr. Hightower.
“Isn’t it obvious?” he asked.
Rachael made a face. If it had been obvious, she wouldn’t have asked. She decided that no matter what, she wasn’t going to try to make friends with Mr. Hightower, no matter whose side he was on now, no matter how much he was trying to help defend Exotics throughout the world. He was just a jerk.
On the other side of the door was another balcony that looked down onto cave filled with what looked like playground equipment or something out of a movie. The cave was huge and went down into darkness that even her gecko eyes couldn’t see through. Babra whimpered with worry as Rachael leaned over the railing.
There were climbing walls with dangling ropes, narrow ledges, cables crossing from side to side, and an upside down car suspended in the middle of the air on wires. There were even three hang gliders in a row at the far side of the balcony, past where the railing had stopped. Rachael wanted to change into gecko form and play.
Raul stood next to Rachael at the railing and looked down. She thought he looked sad.
Mr. Hightower said, “Raul?”
“We want you to join us,” Raul said. “Join the Animal Lovers’ Club. So you can spy on your mom for us.”
“Don’t put it like that,” Mr. Hightower said.
“You can’t do that!” Babra yipped. Her paws scratched on Rachael’s arm, and Rachael put her friend down. “Even if your mom is doing something bad, you can’t spy on her. She’s your mom.”
Digger was shaking his head, too.
“Why?” Rachael asked Raul.
“Because…” He looked at her with one eyebrow raised, looked at Mr. Hightower, then looked back at her. He must not be able to tell her the truth in front of Mr. Hightower.
Rachael looked out into the cave, looked at Raul, and looked back into the cave—trying to give him a hint. “Tell me later. Right now, I want to go play.” She shifted into gecko form, climbed out of her clothes, and ran off the edge of the balcony, spreading her feet wide. She grabbed a metal cable as she fell past it and ran along it toward the car hanging in the middle of the cave.
“You can’t catch me,” she called in her tiny gecko voice. She knew the others would hear her. Most animals—and most Exotics—had better hearing than most humans.
She heard a howl. A shadow passed over her head, and Raul, in wolf form, landed on the car hanging in the cave, his claws screeching as he almost slid off. Rachael stopped running toward the car; underneath her was a sheet of shiny metal tilted at a sharp angle. She jumped off the cable and landed on the metal, her strange, feather-shaped feet gripping the slippery surface easily. Raul barked at her, jumped, and slid past, snapping at her.
Rachael laughed and followed Raul off the side of the metal. He landed with a thump on cement, and she landed on his back. He growled and pretended to try to shake her off, then ran into a small, dark cave to one side.
“We can talk here,” Raul said.
“What is it?” Rachael whispered.
“I don’t trust him,” Raul said. “I think he’s still working for the Shadow Dogs, with your mom.”
“I don’t trust him either,” Rachael said. “But why do you need me to spy on my mom?”
“Rachael, I used to trust your mom with everything,” Raul said. “I used to tell her everything. And now I’m worried that she’s doing something really, really bad.”
“I don’t want to tell you.”
“Because if she’s not doing it, I don’t want you think bad about her. What if she’s innocent?”
Rachael yanked the hair on his back in frustration. “Raul, seriously? If she’s innocent, she’s innocent. Just tell me what you’re afraid of.”
“I’m afraid she’s helping the Shadow Dogs sell Exotics into slavery.”
“But we know the Shadow Dogs aren’t selling Exotics into slavery.” Rachael tried to remember where the story that the Shadow Dogs were kidnapping kids and selling them into slavery came from, but couldn’t. “They weren’t selling people into slavery on The Floating Menagerie. They were protecting Exotics kids who didn’t have a safe home.”
He shook his head, pacing the tiny cave with her still on his back. “For real, this time. Do you remember Cassie?”
Cassie had been Rachael’s roommate on The Floating Menagerie. She’d been a Shadow Dogs spy. “Sure.”
“She disappeared a month ago. When they found her, she was in a cage in Somalia. Pirates were shipping her to Thailand to get sold in an animal market in Nakhon Si Thammarat.”
“Um…” Rachael said.
“It’s the name of a town. But when we rescued her—when we rescued her, not the Shadow Dogs—she said your mom had sent her to Somalia to try to find a poacher.”
“So? Cassie said that her uncle gives her missions like that, too. She’s a good spy.”
“Nobody came to get her out like they were supposed to. They just left her there.”
Rachael sighed. “And you think it’s my mom’s fault.”
“Look, if there’s anything that would make the Animal Lovers’ Club and the Shadow Dogs join forces, it’s saving Exotics from being turned into slaves or worse. I’m not saying that we have proof that your mother’s…selling Exotics into slavery. But we need someone to find out for sure.”
“Fine,” Rachael said. “I’ll keep an eye on her.”
“Join us,” Raul said. “And we’ll train you how to spy on your mother, so we can find out for sure.”
“Okay,” Rachael said. “Okay, okay, okay!”
She dropped off Raul’s back and ran out of the little cave, almost banging into Digger. She hid behind him for a second, then went scampering off again. Playing in the cave might be just a trick to get away from Mr. Hightower, but she was determined to have fun, anyway.