Blackthorne was a school! That Mr. Solomon had gone to! A school where they make more Mr. Solomons! It was officially the strangest day of my entire covert life. (And that includes the time Dr. Fibs’s lab was temporarily gravity-free.)
I told myself that maybe it was just coincidence that Tina Walters had been swearing for years that there was a boys’ school in Maine. After all, Tina also swore that Gillian Gallagher was a direct descendant of Joan of Arc. Tina swears a lot of things. Tina is frequently wrong.
But by the time Professor Buckingham took the podium and announced, "Today we will be reviewing the origins of the clandestine services, beginning with the Montevellian Theory of Operative Development," I knew I wasn’t going to be waking up anytime soon.
I love Professor Buckingham. She’s cool and strong and the most amazing role model, but her teaching style could probably best be described as … well…boring.
"Since its publication more than two thousand years ago, The Art of War has been the definitive thesis in warfare and deception …" she read from her notes as warm sunlight drifted through the windows and lunch grew heavy in my stomach. Her voice was soothing, like white noise, and my eyelids felt like they weighed about a ton, since, for obvious reasons, there hadn’t been a whole lot of sleeping in our room the night before.
(Have I mentioned that we had evidence that strongly suggested there is a boys’ school? For spies!)
But was Professor Buckingham filling us in about our long-lost band of potential brothers? No. She was talking about the 1947 Council of Covert Operatives, which, let me tell you, isn’t nearly as interesting as it sounds.
Then Buckingham stopped talking. The sudden silence jolted me awake as my teacher looked over the top of her reading glasses. "Yes, Ms. McHenry?"
And then, maybe for the first time that semester, Patricia Buckingham had our full attention.
"I’m sorry, Professor," Macey said. "I was only wondering— and I’m sorry if everyone else already knows this—I’m still a little new, you know."
"That is fine, Ms. McHenry," Buckingham said. "What is your question?"
"Well, I was just wondering if there are other schools." Macey paused. She seemed to study our teacher a moment before adding, "Like the Gallagher Academy."
Liz almost fell out of her chair. Tina’s eyes got really, really big, and I’m pretty sure the entire sophomore class stopped breathing.
"I mean," Macey went on, "is this the only school of its kind, or are there—"
"There is only one Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women, Ms. McHenry," Buckingham said, throwing her shoulders back. "It is the finest institution of its kind in the world."
Buckingham smiled and returned to her notes, totally not expecting Macey to continue.
"So there are other institutions?"
Buckingham sighed, and an almost pained expression crossed her face as she carefully chose her words. "During the Cold War, the concept of recruiting and training operatives at a young age was not an uncommon practice. And there may have been institutions formed for that purpose." Then she straightened her glasses and looked around the room as if to see exactly how far off course we’d forced her to stray. "For obvious reasons it is impossible to determine if any such schools are in existence now. If they ever existed at all, of course."
"So there could be other schools?" Tina exclaimed.
"Could and are, Ms. Walters," Buckingham said, her voice as strong as steel, "are two very different things." She gave us a cold smile that signaled that the Q&A portion of the program was officially over.
Buckingham went back to her notes. "This theory was the fashion until 1953, when a group of retired agents…" Eva and Tina’s attention drifted back out the window. But my roommates and I remained on high alert.
There have been other schools.
It doesn’t mean there are any now.
I thought of the way Mr. Solomon and my dad had been smiling in the picture. There was no date on it, no place. It was almost like it was a fake—part of some legend the CIA had manufactured in a lab, an alias of my father’s that I had never known.
And then there was a knock at the door.
"Yes?" Buckingham said as she removed her glasses and the door eased open.
Every head in the room turned, and Mr. Solomon said, "Pop quiz."
I hadn’t exactly slept. I hadn’t really eaten. It was maybe the worst possible time for a CoveOps assignment, and yet, three minutes later, as I buttoned my winter coat and ran down the Grand Staircase with the entire sophomore CoveOps class, I stopped thinking about the picture and the file. I stopped thinking. And sometimes, even at the Gallagher Academy, that can be a very good thing.
The cold wind blew in our faces as we dashed through the front doors. A familiar van sat idling in the driveway, so we headed toward it until Mr. Solomon called, "That’s not our ride, ladies," and eight highly trained operatives skidded to a stop.
I looked to my right, expecting another van to appear from around the corner of the mansion, but all I saw were eighth graders on their way to Protection & Enforcement class (P&E), their ponytails swaying back and forth as they ran. I turned to my left and saw nothing but snow in the vast open field that lay between the mansion and the woods.
"Then how are we …" I started, but then I trailed off. Bright sunlight bounced off slushy piles of half-melted snow. I squinted and blinked, making sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me, because I could have sworn the ground’s shape began to shift.
I glanced at my teacher, saw the faintest hint of a smile grow on his lips while, behind him, a great hollow opening appeared in the middle of the field. Twin blades of a helicopter rose steadily from the huge hole, and wet snow whirled over the frozen ground as the blades started to spin. Mr. Solomon pointed over his shoulder and said, "That’s our ride."
When I was five, Mom brought me to the Gallagher Academy for the first time. I’d thought it was the biggest building in the world; but today I looked through the helicopter’s windows and watched the mansion grow smaller and smaller until it looked like it was in a snow globe that someone had given a good shake.
We flew so low over the woods that I could almost touch the trees. I thought about how my school had taught me chemistry and biology and even a very real appreciation for calligraphy. But helicopters were completely new territory! Was there going to be jumping? Or rappelling? (Hello—our uniforms have skirts.)
I don’t know if it was turbulence, nerves, or the sight of the blindfolds in Mr. Solomon’s hands, but my stomach did a little flip.
"I’m afraid this isn’t a sightseeing tour, ladies," Mr. Solomon said as he cinched the bands over our eyes. "If I were you, I’d get comfortable. We’re gonna be up here a while."
Well, it turns out "a while" is exactly forty-seven minutes and forty-two seconds, because that’s how long it was until I felt the helicopter’s quick descent. During that time, Mr. Solomon had warned "No peeking, Ms. Walters" twice, but other than that and Bex’s snoring (she can sleep anywhere!), there wasn’t a single sound on our mysterious ride.
I had no idea how fast we’d been going, or in what direction. All I knew was that we’d been in the air for almost forty-eight minutes and I really had to go to the bathroom.
We touched down. I heard the helicopter doors open, then someone guided me out onto concrete and into a waiting van. Soon we were off again. Destination unknown.
I smelled Bex’s perfume beside me and drew some small comfort in the familiar scent.
"Blindfolds off," Mr. Solomon said.
I tugged at the black band that circled my head, and soon I was squinting, trying to adjust to the light, the situation, and most of all, the sight of seven Gallagher Girls with very questionable hair. Static electricity filled the van. Eva’s long black mane was practically standing on end. But I was riveted by the state-of-the-art equipment that lined the windowless walls. Gadgets two generations better than anything we’d ever had were at our fingertips. I didn’t need Joe Solomon to say, "Today we’re playing with the pros, ladies" to know that it was true.
Mr. Solomon turned to Courtney. "Countersurveillance has three functions, Ms. Bauer, name them."
"Detect and evade surveillance procedures?" Courtney said, her answer sounding more like a question than a direct quote from page twenty-nine of A Covert Operative’s Guide to Surveillance Countermeasures.
"That’s right," Mr. Solomon said. He didn’t smile. He didn’t say good job. Instead, he looked at the screens that filled the walls of the van, the wires and keyboards that were locked carefully into place. "It’s a big world, ladies, but that doesn’t make it easy to hide. If you stay on this course of study, you’d better be ready to look over your shoulders for the rest of your lives.
"Countersurveillance isn’t something you learn from a book—it’s not about theory," Solomon continued. "It’s about the prickly feeling on the back of your neck, the little voice in your head that tells you when something isn’t quite right." The van came to stop.
"Last semester, some of you"—he looked directly at me—"proved that you’re pretty good at not being seen when you don’t want to be. Well, today you go from being tailers to tailees. And, ladies…" Mr. Solomon paused. My classmates were so still, so quiet, I could almost hear our pounding hearts. "…this is harder."
I thought about our first mission last semester, how Mr. Smith had used every countersurveillance measure known to man simply to enjoy a night in the Roseville town square. It had been exhausting just watching him, and I knew Mr. Solomon was right. The bad guys could be anyone, they could be anywhere, and the odds would always be in their favor.
"Split up into four teams of two—and remember— I don’t know exactly how many operatives are out there waiting today, ladies, but if they’re good—and you should assume they’re very, very good—then it will take every trick you know and every ounce of luck you can muster to identify them and lose them and make it to this location before five o’clock." He pulled an envelope from his coat pocket and placed it in Tina’s hands.
He eased toward the back doors of the van. "Oh, and ladies, surveillance might help you do your job, but countersurveillance keeps you alive. If this Op is hard"—Mr. Solomon’s voice trailed off, and for a second he wasn’t just a teacher, he was my father’s friend—"it’s supposed to be."
The doors swung open, bright sunlight streamed inside, and by the time we heard the heavy metal clank of the doors again, Joe Solomon was already gone.
We could have flown two hundred miles, or we could have gone in circles and were now back in our school’s driveway, twenty feet from where it had all began. Anything was possible, but one thing was sure: this quiz wasn’t about grades—nothing at the Gallagher Academy ever really is.
"Do it, Cammie," Bex said. I eased toward the doors and opened one a crack.
A sliver of bright light sliced through the dim van as I peered outside and let my eyes adjust to what I saw. "It’s the Mall."
"Cool," Bex said, sliding toward me.
I threw the door open wider. "Not that kind of mall."