Every morning we would drive. Every second there were guards.
Sure, you might think that full access to that many covert strongholds would have made Bex and me the envy of the entire student body; but as a rule, we Gallagher Girls don't envy anything that involves guards (when you're the guardee) and spiders (and MI6 safe houses have a lot of spiders.)
On the sixth night I woke in a narrow bed to the peaceful sound of Bex's breathing and something else - a muffled word: "Caven."
For a moment, I lay there, then I slipped out of the lower bunk.
The floorboards were surprisingly quiet beneath my feet. It was freezing, but I didn't stop to rummage through the duffel bags and suitcases that sat open but neatly packed, ready for a quick escape. Instead, I walked out to the hall and eased toward the narrow, crooked staircase that led from the second story to the small landing outside the kitchen.
Perched on the landed, I could see Mr. Baxter's legs as he sat at the kitchen table, shifting slightly as he spoke. "Have you seen Rachel?"
"Yes," a woman said in a hoarse whisper.
"I'm surprised that was possible," Mrs. Baxter said.
The woman laughed softly. "Well I wasn't in the mood to hear that it was impossible."
"I see," Mrs. Baxter said.
"Grace, how is she?" the woman asked.
"Fine," Mrs. Baxter said. "Should I go get her?"
I stood in the dark listening, while the wind blew and the castle moaned and the woman said, "Let the squirt have her sleep."
There was only one person in the world who ever called me Squirt, so I didn't think - I just stood, ready to bolt down the narrow stairs toward my aunt Abby. But then an arm was around my waist, and a hand clasped over my mouth. I glanced over my shoulder and saw Bex's wide eyes gleaming in the dark.
She shook her head once, quickly. No, she was telling me. Think. We might not get this chance again.
My best friend's smile was especially mischievous (which believe me, is saying something) as she whispered, "I have a better idea."
Three minutes later I was standing on the top floor of the castle, looking at a small wooden box and a less-than-sturdy-rope, listening to my best friend insist, "You should do it."
"Why me?" I whispered, watching as the ancient box dangled in midair over a dark, empty shaft that disappeared into the cold stone of the castle walls.
"You're shorter," Bex said. (Which I am.) "And I'm stronger," she said. (Which she totally could be.) "And I'm . . ."
"Afraid of spiders?" I guessed.
But Bex plowed on, " . . . still a little deaf from the percussion grenade incident during final week."
So, yeah, that's how I ended up in the dumbwaiter.
I felt myself descending through the castle walls, lower and lower, while the noises in the kitchen grew louder and clearer.
"Are you sure you don't want some tea?" Bex's father asked.
"No thanks, Abe." My aunt's voice sounded weak - almost frail. "I haven't been sleeping all that well, to tell you the truth."
"Neither have we," Bex's mother added.
The kettle began to whistle. A chair scrapped across the floor.
"How close was it really, Grace?" Aunt Abby asked. "Was she in any danger?"
"Cammie is in contest danger," Mrs. Baxter said as the whistling stopped.
"You saw him, Abe?" Abby asked. Even though there wasn't a doubt who he was, it seemed to take forever for Mr. Baxter to answer.
"How was he?" Abby asked.
"Desperate," Bex's father answered.
"Do you believe it?" Abby asked.
"This is the way the Circle has worked for more than a hundred years . . ." Mr. Baxter started.
"But, Abe, we knew him," Abby pressed again.
After another long pause, Mr. Baxter said, "I believe Joe Solomon is the sort of man that no one will ever truly know."
Three seasoned and decorated operatives sat on the other side of the wall. Between them they'd probably mastered a hundred identities in a dozen countries. Names were just covers. Just legends. Hanging in the darkness, I wondered if anything about Joe Solomon was ever real at all.
It felt as if the truth were slipping away from me, falling, until . . .
Wait, I realized too late, I was slipping - literally.
Through a crack in the top of the dumbwaiter, I could see Bex holding the fraying rope, trying hard to pull me back up, but the rope slipped again.
Outside, the adults kept talking. I heard Mrs. Baxter saying, "We can't tell Cammie until we're absolutely certain . . ."
"We can never tell Cammie," Aunt Abby said.
"Hold on!" Bex's frantic whisper echoed down the shaft as the dumbwaiter dipped again.
This is not good, I told myself. This is not . . .
But outside the shaft, Mrs. Baxter's voice was calm. "She's almost seventeen, Abby. And the more she knows, the safer she'll -"
"Cammie will never be safe!" Abby said, and I remembered that a semi-stable dumbwaiter was the least of my problems.
"Hang on, Cam," Bex whispered from above. "I'm -"
"We don't know that Cammie would do something foolish," Mrs. Baxter went on.
"Of course she would," Aunt Abby laughed. "I would. Trust me, Grace, Abe. Cammie can never know -"
Before she could finish, I felt the bottom of the dumbwaiter dropping out from under me as, ten feet up the shaft, the old rope broke and I went hurling toward the kitchen floor.
"What the -" Mr. Baxter started to yell.
With a groan, I rolled over and found myself staring at a pair of gorgeous high-heeled boots, long legs, and a familiar face looking down at me, saying, "Hey, Squirt."