Chapter 1: Debriefing
Office of the Principal
Nathan Hale Building
The Academy of Espionage
The principal was acting stranger than usual.
In my sixteen months at the CIA’s Academy of Espionage, I had seen the principal display many aspects of his personality, none of which were good. He had been angry, bitter, paranoid, churlish, jealous, contemptuous, ornery, disdainful, mercurial, obnoxious, flummoxed, confused, passive-aggressive, and just plain mean. But the day I was assigned to Operation Deadly Manatee, his behavior was the most unsettling of all.
He was trying to be nice.
With most people, of course, this would have been a good thing. But with the principal it felt wrong, as though he was fighting every natural instinct he had. Watching him try to be nice was like watching a tiger try to eat a salad.
“Benjamin!” he exclaimed upon opening the door to his office, with what was obviously forced enthusiasm. “Such a pleasure to see you!”
“Er… thanks,” I said warily.
“Please come in. Make yourself comfortable. Everyone else will be here soon.” The principal waved me into his office and attempted to smile. It was evident that the man hadn’t smiled very much and wasn’t quite sure how to do it. Instead of appearing friendly and welcoming, he looked like someone suffering from a bad case of indigestion.
I cautiously stepped into his office—or rather, what remained of it. Nine months earlier, I had accidentally blown up the principal’s office with a mortar round. (Which explained some of the principal’s general ill temper toward me, but not all of it.) Budget issues and red tape had kept the repairs from proceeding quickly, forcing the principal to temporarily relocate his office to a broom closet, which he had been extremely peeved about. When I had been notified to report to his original office, I expected to find that it had been restored to its previous condition.
This was not the case. In fact, almost no work had been done on the office at all. The entire exterior wall was still missing. A haphazard attempt had been made to reinforce that side of the room with a spindly framework of two-by-fours, but there was still a gaping hole—and since we were on the fifth floor of the Nathan Hale Administration Building, this meant that a misstep could result in a quick plummet down to the campus quadrangle. The furniture hadn’t been replaced and was all slightly charred, while what remained of the carpet smelled like a doused campfire. The principal’s beloved desk, which had been incinerated in the blast, had been replaced by a wobbly piece of plywood laid across two sawhorses—although the principal had managed to procure a new rolling chair.
“I recognize that it’s still a work in progress,” the principal said weakly. “They won’t be able to start the repairs until December. But I just couldn’t take working in that broom closet anymore. And now that it’s spring, it’s not so bad. I kind of like the open design. All the fresh air is invigorating.”
“I can see that,” I said as supportively as I could. The hole in the wall certainly let in plenty of fresh air. And pigeons. A dozen of them were roosting in what remained of the ceiling, which meant that a good amount of the floor was speckled with pigeon droppings.
The principal ignored them and made a show of taking a deep breath. “Ah. It’s far better than all the stale, recirculated air you’d get in a normal office. I suppose, in a way, I ought to thank you for destroying this place.” He attempted another smile for me, although I had the sense that he didn’t feel like smiling at all, and that he was only playing at being nice to mask his natural enraged state.
I wondered what was going on.
There was a knock at the door. The principal started back for it, intending to open it, but this proved unnecessary when the hinges simply tore free from the damaged frame, and the door toppled into the office.
This revealed four more people standing in the doorway, all of whom had apparently also been summoned to the meeting.
Two were fellow students from spy school: Mike Brezinski and Erica Hale. Mike had been my best friend in my normal life, back before I had been recruited to the academy. I was supposed to keep the academy’s existence a secret from Mike (as well as everyone else on earth), but he had eventually figured out where I was really going and been rewarded for his cleverness by getting recruited.
Meanwhile, Erica had known about the academy for her entire life, as she was a legacy. She came from a long line of spies and had been training since a very young age to follow in her family’s footsteps. Thus, she was significantly more talented than any of her fellow trainees at school—and most actual spies as well.
The other two invitees were Erica’s parents. Catherine Hale was an exceptionally talented agent for Britain’s MI6—and a doting mother. Somehow she found a way to balance both lives and was as adept at thwarting criminals as she was at baking cookies.
Meanwhile, Alexander Hale was a fraud. Until very recently, his greatest skill as a spy had been convincing people that he was skilled as a spy. This had worked for him for quite a long time, and he had been respected and admired by his peers, until he was finally found out and disgraced. Since then, he had managed to redeem himself slightly, after ending up on a few missions with me—along with Catherine, Erica, and Mike.
“Greetings!” the principal exclaimed as pleasantly as he could. “Welcome, everyone! I’m glad you could make it!”
The other four responded to this in varying ways. Catherine and Erica both regarded the principal suspiciously, probably wondering what could explain his friendliness, while Mike was more cautious, as though he suspected that perhaps the real principal had been kidnapped and replaced with an impostor. Alexander didn’t appear to notice any difference at all.
“It’s good to see you, too,” he said, shaking the principal’s hand. “I like the new layout of the office. Very spacious. So, what’s the reason for this get-together?”
“I’d be happy to explain that.” A woman I had never met brusquely swept into the room. She appeared to be in her forties, wore a tailored business suit, and had a briefcase handcuffed to her right wrist. She didn’t seem at all surprised by the state of the principal’s office, which indicated to me that she had been there before. “I’m Indira Kapoor, deputy director of operations at the CIA. I’ve been paying close attention to your careers, and I must say, most of you have done some very impressive work.” She turned slightly away from Alexander as she said this, as if to make it clear that the phrase “most of you” didn’t apply to him.
Alexander appeared not to notice this, either. “Why, thank you,” he said, flashing Indira a suave smile.
Alexander was a very handsome man, and I had seen his smile make other women go weak in the knees, but Indira was impervious to it. Instead, she kept her gaze locked on Erica, Mike, and me. “I recognize that, due to many mistakes on the part of the Agency, the three of you have ended up on missions far earlier than would normally be recommended for young agents. But you have all handled yourselves capably and acted with ingenuity and skill, which is obviously a testament to the education you have received at this institution.” She shifted her attention to the principal. “So I suppose I owe you congratulations as well.”
The principal now flashed what appeared to be an actual smile. “Thank you, Deputy Kapoor. I’ve done my best to whip these junior agents into shape.” He plopped down into his desk chair and waved the rest of us to a charbroiled sofa.
I suddenly understood the reason for the principal’s shift in personality. We were making him look good.
To my side, Erica bristled with anger. There were plenty of good things about the Academy of Espionage, but the principal wasn’t one of them. If anything, he’d been a deterrent to our education. The idea that he was getting credit for anything we had accomplished was upsetting enough to me; for Erica, who had achieved her excellence in espionage with zero help from the principal, it was infuriating.
Her mother was aware of this as well. I saw her catch Erica’s eye and mouth, Let it go.
Erica petulantly sat on the blackened sofa, sending a small puff of soot into the air. Mike and I took spots beside her. The sofa still reeked of burnt leather from the mortar blast.
Catherine sat primly in a gently seared armchair close by.
Alexander stayed by the makeshift desk, reaching into a bowl of jelly beans that the principal kept there. Then he made a face of disgust. “Er… do you have any other snacks? A pigeon appears to have pooped in these.”
Deputy Kapoor ignored this, setting her briefcase on the desk and unlocking it from her wrist. “The reason I’m here with all of you now is directly related to the lead you discovered on your most recent mission, indicating the latest whereabouts of Murray Hill.”
I sat up at the mention of the name. Murray had been a fellow student at spy school when I had arrived, but I had discovered he was working as a mole for a covert organization known as SPYDER. Over the next sixteen months, Murray had double-crossed both the CIA and SPYDER multiple times, doing everything he could to stay alive and get rich. I had last encountered him making a shady deal for an organization known as the Croatoan, which we had subsequently defeated, although Murray had escaped. However, I had recovered a piece of evidence that indicated where he might have been spending his time.…
“Is he in Nicaragua?” Erica asked, intrigued.
“We believe so.” Deputy Kapoor entered a combination to unlock her briefcase, then lifted out five dossiers. “We’ve had a team working down there, following up on your lead, and while they haven’t seen Hill, they have heard rumors about his whereabouts.” She began to hand out the dossiers, first to Catherine, then to Mike, then me.
My dossier was a thickly stuffed manila envelope stamped with TOP SECRET. HIGHLY CLASSIFIED INFORMATION. HAND-DELIVER ONLY TO BENJAMIN RIPLEY. OPERATION DEADLY MANATEE.
“Deadly Manatee?” Mike asked, sounding disappointed. “Manatees aren’t even remotely deadly.”
“Of course they are,” Deputy Kapoor replied. “They have razor-sharp teeth, and schools of them have been known to skeletonize a human being within a minute. You don’t get much deadlier than that.”
“I’m afraid you’re thinking of piranhas,” Catherine said diplomatically. “Manatees are rotund, herbivorous mammals also known as sea cows. They’re quite docile.”
“Oh,” Deputy Kapoor said, looking slightly embarrassed. “Really?”
“The only way one of them could ever kill a human is if you dropped it off a tall building onto someone’s head,” Mike informed her. “Don’t you have any biologists at the CIA?”
“We’re not a zoo,” Deputy Kapoor said testily. “We’re an espionage organization. And besides, I’m not in charge of naming operations. That’s the Department of Mission Nomenclature. If you have a problem, you can take it up with them.” She quickly handed off the remaining dossiers to Erica and Alexander.
“Um…,” the principal said meekly. “I think you forgot me. I didn’t get a dossier.”
“Why would you get a dossier?” Deputy Kapoor asked. “You’re not going on assignment. They are.”
“I just figured, since they’re my students, and I’m responsible for their education—”
“That’s not the way it’s done,” Deputy Kapoor interrupted. “The nature of this mission is highly classified. In fact, I’ll need you to leave this office while we discuss it.”
“What?” The principal snapped to his feet so quickly that his brand-new desk chair rolled across the room behind him and tumbled through the gap in his wall. The principal was so upset, he didn’t even notice. “But this is my office!”
From outside, there was a distant yelp of surprise, followed by the distinct sound of an office chair thudding into the quadrangle lawn.
Deputy Kapoor said, “We need a secure place to discuss this mission. When you volunteered your office, I thought you understood how these things worked.”
The principal was definitely upset to be cut out of the meeting; I could see the rage in his eyes. He simmered for a moment, then managed to tamp down his emotions in front of Deputy Kapoor and forced a smile. “I do understand,” he said through gritted teeth. “I just thought that I might be included this time, seeing as I have molded these students into the fine agents that they are today.”
“No,” Deputy Kapoor said firmly. “Now, if you’ll please leave us, I’d like to proceed with this debriefing.”
“Fine,” the principal said peevishly. He stormed out of the room, shooting me an angry glare on the way. If his office door had still been attached to the doorframe, he probably would have slammed it.
While all this had been going on, everyone else had opened their dossiers and begun examining the contents. Even though we were all going on the exact same mission, Erica and Catherine were pointedly holding their official orders so that no one else could see them, indicating that we might not all be getting the same information. I noticed Erica look up from hers and give me a glance of concern.
“Oh,” Catherine said suddenly. “This is intriguing.”
She was holding a big, glossy brochure. I found one in my dossier as well and pulled it out.
It was for a cruise ship. The Emperor of the Seas. There was a photograph of it on the front cover, docked at a tropical island. The ship was absolutely enormous, eighteen stories tall and nearly a quarter mile in length. It looked like a floating office building.
“I’ve heard about this ship!” Mike exclaimed. “It’s the biggest cruise ship ever constructed!”
“That’s correct,” Deputy Kapoor agreed, looking pleased by Mike’s knowledge. “It’s the first of a line of mega-cruisers being built by a Chinese conglomerate in Beijing. The Emperor launched last winter and has been cruising in the South Pacific, but it is currently en route to the Caribbean. Its last port of call, ten days ago, was in Hawaii, and it will be making some stops in Central America before passing through the Panama Canal.”
“I assume one of those stops is Nicaragua,” Erica deduced.
“Yes. Our agents on the ground have learned that Murray Hill plans to board that ship in the port of Corinto tomorrow morning.”
“Why?” Alexander asked.
“We have no idea,” Deputy Kapoor admitted. “Which is why we are sending all of you to Nicaragua. It’s a joint operation between us and MI6. You’ll be boarding that ship in Corinto tomorrow as well.”
“We get to go on the Emperor of the Seas?” Mike exclaimed. “Awesome! It’s supposed to be the most amazing ship ever built! There’s a bunch of swimming pools and miniature golf and a ropes course and a rock wall and a water park!” He excitedly pointed to a photograph from the top deck of the ship: a spaghetti tangle of waterslides that dumped into a large pool.
It looked like a whole lot of fun.
Deputy Kapoor gave Mike a sharp look. “The purpose is for you to be investigating Murray Hill, not going on waterslides.”
“Do you want us to blend in and look like normal tourists?” Mike asked.
“Well, normal tourists go on waterslides.”
Deputy Kapoor frowned. “I suppose you have a point.”
“Are you sure this is prudent?” Catherine asked her, then looked to Mike, Erica, and me. “I know that you children have served your country well and faced considerable danger on several other missions. But you’re still… well, children. Michael, you’re only in your first year of training here. And Benjamin, your instructors still won’t let you carry a firearm for fear that you’ll accidentally shoot yourself with it.”
I didn’t take offense at this. I was in no hurry to carry a firearm for the exact same reason. And while I had been proud to serve my country on those missions, I hadn’t been a big fan of the “considerable danger” portions of them.
It was only four weeks since I had thwarted the last enemy plot, in which I had nearly been blown to pieces—along with a significant chunk of Washington, DC. That had landed me in the hospital for a few days with some cracked ribs. They had healed, but I was still supposed to be taking it easy.
Deputy Kapoor said, “The Agency is not taking this decision lightly. However, we have our reasons for activating the children. First, they have faced Murray Hill many times and are familiar with his behavior.” She turned to me. “In fact, Agent Ripley, you probably understand Murray Hill better than anyone else at this agency.”
“That’s right,” Mike said supportively. “You probably know what Murray’s thinking before he knows what he’s thinking.”
I started to deny this, as Murray Hill had hoodwinked me plenty of times, but Deputy Kapoor continued talking before I could. “Secondly, this cruise ship has been designed for families. It turns out, there are many places on the ship where adults aren’t even allowed to go, such as the teen clubs. And Murray is a teenager—albeit an extremely unscrupulous one. If he ventures into any of these adult-free areas, we need agents who can follow him without causing alarm.”
“Good thinking,” Alexander Hale said. “Only… don’t you think it will look suspicious for the children to be traveling alone?”
Deputy Kapoor gave him a stern look, indicating she was disappointed that he hadn’t grasped the nature of the mission yet. “They won’t be alone. They’ll be posing as part of a family. With you. You and Catherine will pose as the parents, while Erica, Mike, and Ben will pretend to be your children. Er, well, Erica won’t be pretending, as she actually is your child. But the boys will be posing as your sons.”
“We get to be brothers?” Mike asked, thrilled. “Best mission ever!”
“But we don’t look alike,” I pointed out. “And we don’t look like the Hales, either.”
“You’re adopted,” Deputy Kapoor replied. “Which also explains how you can be so close in age.”
“This is so cool!” Mike exclaimed. “I always wanted a brother!”
“You have a brother,” I reminded him.
“A good brother,” he corrected. “One who doesn’t pin me down and fart on my head.”
Inside all of our dossiers were elaborately detailed biographies of the characters we would be portraying. I quickly perused them. We would all be posing as the Rotko family, since the Hales already had aliases under that name. Erica would resume being Sasha Rotko, who she had impersonated on previous missions, while her parents would be Bill and Carol. Mike’s alias was Jack Rotko, a gifted middle-school athlete, while mine was Quincy Rotko. I was thirteen—which made sense, as it was my own age—and I was captain of the math team at St. Smithen’s Science Academy for Boys and Girls—which also made sense, as St. Smithen’s was the cover for spy school, and I was quite gifted in mathematics. (Among other things, my math skills gave me an unusually accurate sense of time, and so I knew that we had been in our meeting for thirteen minutes and twenty-seven seconds without even looking at my watch.)
“I’m an accountant?” Alexander said disappointedly, perusing his own file. “That doesn’t sound very exciting.”
“It’s not supposed to be exciting,” Catherine told him. “You’re supposed to blend in and not draw attention to yourself.”
“So what are you?” Alexander asked.
“You’re a doctor?” Alexander cried jealously. “Awww. Can’t I be an ophthalmologist too?”
“Do you know what part of the body an ophthalmologist studies?” Deputy Kapoor asked.
“The spleen?” Alexander guessed.
“Not even close,” Deputy Kapoor said. “Which is why we made you an accountant.”
“This is going to be great!” Mike was so thrilled, he was practically vibrating. “We get to go on another mission—on the coolest cruise ship in the world. And I get a fake brother.” He turned to Erica exuberantly. “And a fake sister, too!”
Erica gave us a faint smile in return, as though she wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about this as Mike.
Which was understandable. Erica and I had an unusual relationship. I’d had a crush on her since the very first moment I saw her at the academy. Meanwhile, she had thought I was a pathetic loser who’d wash out within a week—if I didn’t get killed first. Over the ensuing months we had ended up on several missions together, during which she had slowly come to respect me—and even consider me a friend. However, this made her extremely uncomfortable, as she believed relationships were a liability in the spy business. (Her parents were a prime example of this; being spies had been hard on their relationship, leading to a divorce, although they had recently been trying to work things out.) So Erica often dealt with her feelings by pretending they didn’t exist. On our last mission, she had actually hugged me, but since then, she had been avoiding me completely.
So, in theory, going on a cruise with her should have been a good thing. As my fake sister, she would be forced to spend plenty of time with me—and I had heard that cruises could be very romantic. The glossy brochure for the Emperor was filled with photos of loving couples walking hand in hand on tropical beaches and standing at the railing of the ship, staring out at the sunset.
But going on a cruise with Erica wasn’t a good thing. Not at this point. In fact, it promised to be a disaster.
Because, for the first time since I had met her, I wanted to avoid Erica Hale.