Ruby Redfort Take Your Last Breath (4 page)

She went over to where the kitchen phone sat, picked up the receiver, and dialed a number she had dialed approximately several thousand times.

“Hey, bozo, meet me, usual place, just as soon as.” She replaced the receiver.

“And they say the art of conversation is dead,” commented Hitch, shaking out the newspaper.

Mrs. Digby looked at Ruby and shook her head. “It’s a crying shame,” she said. “All life’s good manners and fine etiquette gone to pot. I tried to raise this child a nice child, but I probably got to accept failure here.”

“Ah, Clance don’t mind,” said Ruby. Which was true: Clancy Crew was Ruby Redfort’s closest friend, and they understood each other without words — though that said, they spent most of their time “nonstop yacking” as Mrs. Digby would often comment.

For this reason there was very little Clancy Crew didn’t know about Ruby Redfort, though another reason was that it was almost impossible to keep a secret from him. Ruby was good at keeping secrets, but Clancy always sniffed them out. So, despite all her efforts, Clancy had managed to find out about her recruitment to Spectrum. Ruby had been forced to assure LB that from now on she would keep her mouth shut, that she would not blab to him again, that she would keep it zipped at all times.

But Hitch was astute enough to know that this was a promise Ruby Redfort just couldn’t keep. So they had made a little agreement: LB must never know that Clancy knew everything, and Clancy must never tell anyone anything, on pain of death. He never would; there was no question about that. Clancy Crew knew how to keep it zipped.

However, Ruby did still have one secret that not even Clancy Crew was aware of.

She kept it in her room under the floorboards, and not one living creature except perhaps a spider or a bug knew anything about it. Since Ruby was just a kid of four she had written things down in little yellow notebooks. Not a diary exactly, but a record of things seen or overheard, strange or mundane. She had just completed notebook number six hundred and twenty-three, which she had placed underneath the floorboards along with the other six hundred and twenty-two. The one she was working on now, six hundred and twenty-four, was kept inside a compartment concealed in the frame of her bedroom door.

Now, Ruby went upstairs and took the notebook out.

The way Ruby saw it, you just could never be sure when something inconsequential could become the missing link, the key to everything.
RULE 16: EVEN THE MUNDANE CAN TELL A STORY.
Though usually it was just inconsequential.

She opened the notebook and wrote:

She added other important details she had noticed and replaced the notebook in its hiding place. She was just about to exit via the window when she heard Mrs. Digby calling.

“Ruby, you troublesome child, you better not be about to climb out of that window! I want you down here on the double!”

Now, Mrs. Digby was one of the few people Ruby could not always twist around her little finger. Sometimes Ruby just had to do things Mrs. Digby’s way, and today, unfortunately, was obviously going to be one of those days.

AFTER APPROXIMATELY FORTY-FIVE MINUTES
of running errands, dropping things off, and picking them up, Ruby finally pointed her bike toward Amster Green and rode the short distance to the small triangle of grass where a big old oak tree grew, its vast branches reaching off in every direction. She leaned her bike against the railings, quickly looked around just to make sure no one was watching, and then, in a blink, swung herself onto the branch above and up and out of sight before you had time to think you had seen her.

“What kept you?” came a voice from high in the tree.

“Mrs. Digby,” said Ruby, climbing up the tree.

“Oh,” said the voice. “I was about to give up on you. I’d just finished writing you a message.”

“Yeah? What did it say?” she asked, still climbing.

“Here,” said the voice, and a piece of paper fashioned into the shape of a condor came floating toward her. She unfolded it.

Ec spgkwv kxoss kzi ulabtwwyj’w klmj srv hrvjv llw emiojkevsrpoc uej xo avv eedp
*

“No kidding?” said Ruby, impressed. The paper, like most of the messages they left each other, was folded into an origami shape, the words encoded using their own Redfort-Crew code, which no one but no one knew how to decipher.

“So how did training camp go?” asked Clancy.

“Good,” replied Ruby.

“Good? That’s it?”

Silence, and then Ruby’s head appeared through the leaves. She shuffled along the oak’s limb to where a skinny boy sat, binoculars around his neck and a sun visor shielding his eyes.

“Good to see you, Clance. What’s up?”

“Truth is, it’s been kinda boring without you, but I’ve been making it work — getting by,” said Clancy.

“Glad to hear it,” said Ruby.

Clancy was eager to get back to the subject of Ruby’s agent activity, but Ruby just wanted to hear about Twinford life and what was going on with Clancy and his efforts to train his dog, Dolly, and had his sister Minny managed to get out of trouble or was she going to be grounded for life?

Clancy saw Ruby wasn’t in the mood to talk about herself, and if she wasn’t in the mood, then there was no point trying.

So instead they talked about Clancy’s week, and after that they discussed Redfort home affairs: in particular how Consuela, the brilliant if temperamental chef loathed by Mrs. Digby, had resigned in the most dramatic of ways and left to go work for the Stanwicks.

And when they had exhausted these topics, they talked about the amazing events of just one month ago, the museum, the bank, the gold, and the Jade Buddha of Khotan. They talked about Nine Lives Capaldi and the diamond revolver she had held to Clancy’s temple.

They talked about Baby Face Marshall, now safely incarcerated in a maximum-security prison somewhere far from Twinford. And they shuddered when they remembered the Count, still at large and free to practice his evildoing. Where in the world was he?

When the sun had gone down and it was beginning to get chilly, Clancy and Ruby climbed back down the oak, picked up their bikes, and set off in opposite directions.

“So see you tomorrow!” shouted Ruby.

“My place or yours?” Clancy shouted back.

“Mine!” called Ruby as she disappeared around the corner.

THE NEXT DAY WAS A SCORCHER.
It came out of nowhere, and the whole of Twinford seemed to have unfolded their lounge chairs and lit their barbeques.

Ruby Redfort and Clancy Crew were sitting on the roof, reading comics. It was late afternoon, but the sun was still warm and Clancy was sporting a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses; they were his sister Lulu’s. Nothing wrong with a thirteen-year-old boy wearing heart-shaped sunglasses, nothing at all; plenty of hip boys his age might want to express their sense of style and individuality by wearing heart-shaped sunglasses. But Clancy wasn’t wearing them as a style statement: he didn’t know what a style statement was; they were simply the first thing in the form of eyewear that came to hand. No one could accuse Clancy Crew of vanity — he always wore exactly what he felt like wearing. Didn’t matter how ridiculous he looked. It was one of the things that Ruby liked most about him.

“Hey, Rube,” he said. Ruby was concentrating hard on the RM Swainston thriller she was reading and didn’t respond.

“Rube! Can you hear me?” He prodded her with a stick.

“Huh?” She peered up at him. The large red floppy sunhat obscured most of her face, and she managed to appear at the same time comical and stylish — neither look, however, was intentional. Like Clancy, she wore what she liked; unlike Clancy, she had an innate sense of style. Style was just something she had. She even managed to lend a certain chic to her T-shirt, which bore the less-than-elegant words
shut your piehole.
Most of Ruby’s T-shirts were emblazoned with upfront messages of this kind; her mother, in particular, loathed them.

“So?” said Clancy.

“Huh, what?” said Ruby.

“You were gonna tell me about your training in Hawaii, remember?”

“Oh, that,” said Ruby. “It’s kinda confidential. I’m sure you understand.”

Clancy started flapping his arms. “What are you saying, confidential? You promised me you were gonna tell me — you promised, Ruby, you weasel.”

“I’m just kidding with you. Don’t get your underwear in a bunch,” said Ruby.

She put the book,
The Strangled Stranger,
under her chair, took a breath, and paused; she did this not only for the sake of drama, but also because, well, everything she was about to tell Clancy was strictly confidential. Classified information. Spectrum had forbidden her to tell
anyone
anything
about the code breaking and undercover work she was doing for them, but then Clancy Crew was not
anyone
. Clancy Crew knew how to keep his mouth shut. Clancy Crew would rather die a painful death than betray a secret.

Ruby sucked the last dregs of her banana milk up the clear curly straw sticking out of her glass, swallowed, and said, “OK, the training basically involved scuba diving.”

“Really?” said Clancy. “That’s kinda cool. So you actually went in the ocean?”

“Yeah, Clance,
I went in the ocean
. Where’d ya think I went, a kiddie pool?”

Clancy had a deep fear of the ocean: it wasn’t just the sharks, it was everything.

Though it
was mainly
the sharks. He had once read a book when he was younger, a novel, that had given him cause for many sleepless nights. Admittedly, the book had been one his mother was reading and not recommended for fourth graders. He had spotted it on her nightstand and was lured in by the image of the huge shark’s head shown on the front cover, its dead eyes staring up at a lone swimmer. It had made quite an impression. Clancy had found it to be unputdownable and read all six hundred and forty-nine pages in four sittings while locked in the bathroom. He had paid for this every night of his life for the next 1,366 days — his dreams invaded by this great white monster.

Ruby always did her best to reason with him.

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