Before I could ask exactly what they might have missed, I stopped midstride and studied the wall, staring at a piece of molding used to twist and open into a passageway to the barn where we had Protection & Enforcement. The entrance was covered now - a solid wall of stone blocking it forever.
In the first-floor corridor, we passed the place where a grandfather clock used to stand, concealing a trapdoor to the mansion's original ventilation system . . .
Near the library, I looked for the bookcase that used to swing open to reveal a rope ladder that ran from the mansion's basement to its roof . . .
But it was gone. They were all gone.
Professor Buckingham must have read my mind, because she stopped at the top of the Grand Staircase and studied me.
"I think, Cameron, that you'll find a lot of things are different."
Armed guards stood in the foyer below us, scanning the fingerprints of my classmates, rifling through their luggage. The stained-glass windows I loved so much were covered with bulletproof glass. The Gallagher mansion had endured hundreds of years of storms and termites and overzealous seventh graders, but in that moment I knew my school was wounded, and all I could do was stand there, staring at its scars.
"They did all this for me?" I wasn't sure how it was supposed to make me feel - flattered or sfe or just really, really guilty.
The hallways were quiet. The Hall of History was dark. Below us, the last of our classmates were being cleared to come, home, but nothing of the place around me felt like the home I'd left.
Well - that is, until I heard the screaming.
* * *
There was no mistaking Liz's voice. Her accent was stronger, like it always was after a break. And yet as I turned and looked at the incredibly tiny blonde who stood in the mouth of the Hall of History, hands on hips, I was totally not expecting what I saw, because Elizabeth Sutton, supergenius and amazing friend, was angry.
Not the kind of angry that she gets when she oversleeps and wakes up to study at 6:05
a.m. and not at six sharp - not like how she gets when Bex teases her about her patented system of color-coded flash cards. Not even the kind of angry that comes with hearing that a teacher won't be offering assignments for extra credit.
Liz was angrier than I've ever seen her as she looked between the two of us, then threw out her arms. "I have been so worried!" She shot toward us like an eighty-five-pound bullet, grabbing us both, squeezing with more strength than I thought humanly possible (well- when Liz is the human is question). I would have felt pretty lame, except Bex was totally thrown too.
"Hey there, Lizzie," Bex said with what little breath she could draw. "Have a nice holiday?"
But I doubt Liz even heard.
"Why didn't you two call me? Why didn't you e-mail or write or . . ." She pulled back, then looked from me to Bex. "I told myself that you were probably bust having fun and . .
. were fine. And then I got back and I saw all the new security measures and I was so worried!"
Before I could say anything, we were back in a dual head-lock, and Liz was breathing deeply. And then, just as quickly, she jerked away.
"So what happened? Where'd you go? What'd you see?"
"Liz, we -"
"I'm afraid that classified." Buckingham shot me a look as she spoke.
"All of it?" Liz asked.
"All of it," Bex and I answered.
"Patricia!" Mr. Smith was running up the stairs. "We're ready to start the -"
"Coming!" Buckingham called without even a glance. She was too busy looking at me.
"Three things," I told her. "You said there were three things."
"Yes, Cameron, I've been asked to tell you that your mother has been temporarily detained."
"She's fine - I can assure you. Just a little delay. But she's not back quite yet."
"Patricia, Harvey seems to think we'll only have one shot at this so . . ." Our Countries of the World teacher motioned as if to say let's hurry this along. And, with that, Professor Buckingham made a move toward the stairs.
"The Welcome Back Dinner will begin shortly," she told us. "You girls go on."
"But . . ." I started, but then forgot what I was about to say. Because, in the foyer below us, Madame Dabney was helping a senior explain to the guards why she had fifteenth -
century saber in her duffel bag. At the end of the hall, Dr. Fibs was complaining that the entrance to the seventh-grade labs had been moved and he couldn't find it. The Gallagher Academy was stronger than it had ever been - technically. Physically. And yet, in a way, I could almost feel it crumbling around me.
"And, Cameron," Professor Buckingham said from the top of the stairs. "Welcome home."
Climbing the stairs to our room, I tried not to count the secret passageways that we should have passed, but didn't (4); or the underclassmen who suddenly stopped whispering as soon as they saw me (6); or even the number of fingerprint-sensitive doors we had to pass through to reach our suite (9).
I tried to concentrate on how cute Liz's hair looked (because, unlike me, she can totally pull off a bob). I focused on my jetlagged body and my growling stomach (because while MI6 safe houses might be incredibly safe, they do not come particularly well stocked foodwise, let me tell you).
"So I came back a day early to show the formula for my new truth serum to Dr. Fibs," Liz said, eyes shining. "It's ten times more effective than Sodium Pentothal . . . and it makes your teeth whiter . . . and -"
"Wait," I said, stopping in the door to the suite that we'd shared since seventh grade, knowing - sensing - that . . .