Ruby Redfort Take Your Last Breath (24 page)

it hadn’t occurred to her that she would wind up sitting in LB’s office justifying her actions. If it had, she would have chosen a different T-shirt — this one read
excuse me while I barf.

By the time they reached Spectrum, Ruby was unusually nervous, though Hitch was as cool as ever. He just headed straight to LB’s office as if nothing was about to hit the fan. LB was talking on the telephone, and she waved for them to sit down. Whoever was on the other end of the line was getting quite a grilling.

“I don’t want any more excuses — just make it happen,” said LB, abruptly hanging up.

She looked at Ruby. “So, do you want to explain what occurred out there?”

Ruby opened her mouth, but she couldn’t think of a thing to say.

Hitch came to her rescue. “As you know, the kid has been listening to the Chime Melody tapes, and there’s evidence that the interference is not interference but is actually coded communication, musical notes that can be translated into instructions.”

“All right,” said LB. “Show me.”

Ruby took the file of papers from her satchel and laid the various communications on the desk. LB leaned forward, studying them.

“You see, Chime Melody is the only radio station you can clearly receive in the Sibling waters, so it makes sense that they would hijack
particular station,” Ruby explained.

“I would agree,” said LB. “The part I’m a little hazy about is what led you to believe that the ‘she’ they refer to in the messages was the wreck of the

Ruby took a breath. “Well, that was kind of a hunch based on what I’ve been reading about in the city library. It just seemed to fit together that these pirates might be after the same treasure that the pirates were after two hundred years ago. I mean, it’s super valuable.”

“Super valuable?” LB evidently did not appreciate this description of treasure. “Well,
super valuable
it may be, but when all’s said and done, you acted on a hunch, a hunch that left one of Sea Division’s most
super valuable
agents out of action and me with a lot of explaining to do.”

“But you see, I think someone got there first. I think they already found the treasure,” said Ruby. “I found evidence of it, a gemstone that got left behind, dropped.”

LB looked up. “You did? Where is it?”

Ruby bit her lip. “Well, that’s the thing.”

“The kid dropped it,” said Hitch. “Not her fault.”

“She dropped it?” said LB. She turned to Hitch. “So, Hitch, did you see this precious stone?”

Hitch shook his head. “No,” he said, “I didn’t.”

“There were sharks,” said Ruby. “A lot of sharks. And I sorta let go of it.”

“You let go of the one piece of evidence that might make me believe this whole fairy tale?”

“It happened, OK? I’m sorry, but you might do the same if you were surrounded by a whole mob of sharks.” Ruby was feeling the anger rise up in her. Sooner or later she was going to say something everyone would regret.

“The collective noun is a school or shoal, or if you must be dramatic, a shiver,” said LB.

“Well, a mob is what it felt like to me,” said Ruby, her voice loud and firm. She was on the very verge of telling LB where she might want to stick it. But fortunately, Hitch stepped in.

“Look, LB.” His voice was calm and steady. “I wouldn’t have taken a risk like this if I hadn’t thought there was something sound in the kid’s thinking. Ruby’s a smart kid; we all appreciate that. More importantly, I trust her instincts. Maybe these guys already plundered the wreck; maybe we were just too darned late.”

“Acting on instincts is all very well. Acting on instincts without getting permission from your senior agent is reckless. Let me remind you both that you are not the ones who have to call up Agent Trent-Kobie at Sea Division and explain the actions of their renegade staff.”

“I’ll give you that,” said Hitch. “But what if the kid had been right? What if the kid
right? Shouldn’t we be trying to track these guys down?”

“Have you ever paused to consider why anyone would go to all this effort for something as corny as treasure? Is it really worth it?”

“No,” said Ruby. “It isn’t worth it.”

LB turned to look at her, speechless. She waved for Ruby to continue.

“Either the mastermind behind this is a madman or the treasure is only a part of it. To my mind, there has to be something more.”

“Now I’m interested,” said LB. “Continue.”

“I don’t know,” said Ruby. She didn’t want to mention her theory to LB yet — that someone was after the rubies in a cave that a four-year-old girl had insisted was real exactly two hundred years ago. It would sound too crazy. Too “fairy tale,” as LB had put it.

LB stared at her for the longest fifteen seconds ever recorded and then said, “Well, come back when you do.” She picked up the phone, dialed a number, and launched right into a whole ’nother conversation.

Meeting over.

Hitch closed the door behind them. “Well, I think that went well, kid.”

“She doesn’t give a person a whole lot of slack, huh?” said Ruby.

“Never has, never will.” He patted her on the back. “Come on, let’s get out of here. You need to take some time off; you’re growing dark circles around your eyes.”

Ruby sighed. They had found nothing, but that didn’t mean there had been nothing to find. Maybe, like Hitch said, they were just too darned late. Perhaps it was also too late to catch these particular sea bandits; perhaps they had found exactly what they wanted and were now miles and miles away. . . .

Or perhaps not.

Wherever they were though, they had managed to find a pretty secret hiding place. There had been absolutely no sign of them today, neither below the sea nor above.

Ruby was right back at square one. And worse still, she’d managed to get Kekoa pretty badly injured and really annoy the powerful woman who ran the secret agency she worked for.

A great day’s work,
thought Ruby.
Nice going, Redfort.

Ruby’s parents were probably out at their tennis club, unaware that their daughter had almost been swallowed by a whole batch, shiver, or mob of murderous sharks.

It had been a sobering experience, and it made Ruby want to talk to one person above all. She dialed the number, but it went straight to the answering machine.

“Look, Clance, sorry for what I said, OK? Sorry for being a complete pain in the behind and a total duh brain. No excuses, just sorry. Call me.” She replaced the receiver and went to change her clothes. Before she had made it four steps across the room, the telephone rang. She picked up the donut phone.

“Hey, Rube, you’re forgiven. Wanna hang out?”

“Sure I do, Clance my old pal. What have you got in mind?”

It was Elliot’s idea. Bike out to Far-West Beach and spend the night telling ghoulish stories under the stars. No one took a whole lot of persuading, but it was Elliot who was the true campfire kid. He liked nothing better than collecting driftwood and frying things out in the open.

Elliot, Mouse, Red, and Del were already there by the time Clancy and Ruby arrived. It had been a last-minute sort of plan, but like all the best last-minute plans it had come together easily. There was no danger of running out of supplies since Mrs. Digby had packed them off with way too many homemade burgers, ingredients for hot chocolate, marshmallows, and everything else that made an evening cookout satisfying.

It was a pretty perfect night for such a plan and once they had gotten themselves settled, they rolled out their sleeping bags and sat warming their hands by the fire’s glow. Gradually, the talk moved from school to current Twinford events: the fleeing crabs, the dangerous dolphins, the confused sharks, and the sea strangler that had killed the fisherman. All of Twinford had read about it in the papers — it was big news.

“Who do you think he is?” asked Elliot.

“Or she,” said Mouse.

“Yeah, that’s right,” agreed Del. “It could be a female strangler.”

“How do you think she does it?” asked Red.

“Or he,” added Clancy.

“I reckon she or he climbs aboard the boat while the victim is looking the other way and takes the poor old fisherman by surprise,” said Del.

“I don’t think so,” said Elliot, shaking his head. “It’s just not realistic. The strangler’s already in the boat — hiding under a tarp or nets or something.”

“So what’s the perpetrator’s motive?” said Mouse, finally asking the question no one had gotten around to asking.

“He’s a psychopath,” said Clancy firmly.

“Or she’s a psychopath,” said Red.

“Did anyone ever think,” said Ruby, the merest hint of drama in her voice. “Did anyone ever think that this he
she might be an

Her words hung in the air. No one had thought this thought because it didn’t really seem possible.

“What,” said Clancy, “like you mean some kind of creature?”

“What kind of creature?” asked Del.

“I get it,” said Mouse. “I see where you’re coming from, like maybe this creature they talk about in the legends of Twinford.”

“That kinda thing,” said Ruby.

“Wow!” said Red. “You really mean there’s an actual sea strangling-monster!”

A short grunting snort came from Elliot’s nose, then silence. His face was contorted, his eyes shut tight. There was a twenty-second pause before Elliot Finch finally erupted into uncontrollable giggles, barely audible at first but gathering volume.

“You mean . . .” He was almost unable to string the words together as he gulped in air. “You mean you think . . . You think the strangler has to be some kinda . . .” He fell off the rock he was perched on. “Giant squid or humongous lobster or something? Oh boy, I think . . . I think I’m gonna pass out.”

“Laugh all you like, sucker, but I don’t see you getting in a boat and heading out to sea.” Ruby had had a great deal of practice when it came to keeping a straight face around Elliot, but it wasn’t easy. Elliot’s giggles were very infectious, and sooner or later they would get you.

“I think Ruby is most probably right,” said Red, trying hard not to succumb to the Elliot influence. She had great faith in Ruby: Ruby knew most things and was right about
a lot
of things. That said, Red
to believe in monsters and ghosts, pixies even; she was what some would describe as fanciful, but others might describe as gullible. To her this was not far-fetched — she was quite prepared to believe in a monster squid or a humongous lobster. For this reason, she wasn’t exactly helping Ruby’s argument.

“Could you put a sock in it, bozo!” Ruby threw a burger bun at Elliot. “I’ve been reading up on all this stuff at the city library, and it’s all beginning to hook together. The Twinford treasure — I reckon that’s true. I reckon the
went down exactly where Martha Fairbank said it did. So what if she was also telling the truth about the sea monster?”

“Wasn’t she like four years old when that happened?” said Mouse.

“Yeah, but she was the smartest kid around — that’s well documented. Besides, everything else she described is actually so.”

“You’re just saying that because she’s your great-great-however-many-greats-grandmother,” said Elliot.

“So who wants to go for a dip?” said Del, who was losing interest in the discussion. “I dare ya.”

Elliot shook his head. “No way. You’re not getting me in that water.”

“How about you, Crew?” said Del, elbowing him in the ribs.

are kidding,
I hope,” replied Clancy.

None of the others volunteered either, so Del stood up. “OK, it looks like it’s just me and old Bug here. Come on, boy.”

The girl and the dog walked purposefully toward the sea; the moonlight was so bright that the ocean shone silver. Del started to wade in, but then something very curious happened. Bug did not follow. Bug never missed an opportunity to plunge into water of pretty much any kind. He loved to swim, but not tonight it seemed.

“Come on, fella!” called Del, but Bug stood there very still, a strange low growling coming from his throat. Del waded out farther and Bug became more agitated. He started to bark.

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