Ruby Redfort Take Your Last Breath (7 page)

Elliot came and joined them. “Hey, where’re Mouse and Red?” he asked, looking around as if they might be under the table.

“Chess club,” said Del.

“Red plays chess?” he said.

“She’s good actually,” said Del. “Well, when she’s not knocking the pieces all over the board, she tends to win.”

Elliot nodded, surprised but impressed. “So, Rube, how was your vacation?”

“You know, good,” she replied.

“So what did you do?” he asked.

“Swim,” said Ruby.

“Anything else?” he inquired.

“Cleaned the bathroom a few times,” she said.

“Well, thank you for that detailed account of your spring break,” said Elliot. “That all sounds
really
interesting.” He turned to Clancy. “So what did
you
do?”

“Hung out mainly — with my sisters,” replied Clancy through mouthfuls of fries. “My dad’s taking this Historical Society cruise; left on Friday, so he didn’t have time for us all to go away on a family vacation before — too busy.”

“What’s the deal with that?” asked Del. “He gets a vacation and you don’t?”

“My dad says it’s not really a vacation; they’re learning about the legends and history of the Twinford coast. He says it’s good for the ambassador to be seen on a trip like this,” said Clancy. “Ruby’s mom and dad are on it too.”

“Sounds like a riot,” yawned Del.

“Actually, the Sibling treasure legend is pretty interesting,” said Ruby. “You should read up about it; as legends go, it’s a good one. Besides, it involves one of my ancestors.”

“You’re kidding,” said Clancy.

“No way!” said Elliot.

“I don’t think you ever mentioned that before,” said Del. “Well, maybe once or twice or perhaps three million times!”

“Oh, ha-ha,” said Ruby flatly. “You guys just wish you had some kinda historical intrigue in your families; ain’t my fault that you got nothing to talk about.”

The details of the legend were roughly this: Ruby’s great-great-great-great-grandmother, Eliza, was sailing to South America on the family ship, the
Seahorse
, with all her worldly goods (very valuable ones by all accounts), when the boat was attacked by pirates who slaughtered all on board. However, Eliza’s four-year-old daughter, Martha, who was a smart child, the smartest anyone could remember, escaped death by hiding in a barrel of apples.

When the pirates had finished raiding and murdering, they began collecting the spoils from the
Seahorse
. But unfortunately for them, they hadn’t quite murdered everyone on board. A few of the
Seahorse
crew who were still belowdecks took the remaining pirates by surprise, and a violent battle broke out. Most of the pirates had already returned to their galleon, but those who were left fought to the death until the
Seahorse,
engulfed in flames, sank below the waves.

Miraculously, the child, Martha, managed to escape by floating in the apple barrel before eventually washing up in Twinford.

The whole story sounded very far-fetched to Ruby, but she couldn’t deny its appeal. One intriguing part centered around something little Martha claimed to have seen. She was quite convinced of the fact that she had watched her mother being carried from the boat by the pirates, kicking and screaming. Martha would not be dissuaded on this point. She was sure that her mother was still alive, although no one else believed it.

The postscript to the story was also intriguing since it became a tale told to children all over the region. It was said that not so long after the
Seahorse
was wrecked and plundered, a beautiful woman was seen aboard a pirate vessel, raiding any ships that dared to sail in pirate waters. Some said they had seen her brandishing a cutlass and slitting men’s throats, others that she was held captive, destined never to tread dry land again.

Clancy’s day was marred by his extra French tutoring and, just to add insult to the occasion, a nasty run-in with his two least favorite Twinford Junior High pupils.

“Oh, look who it is! Nancy Drew, Redridingfort’s little helper! Look, he’s just been to his ‘French for duh brains’ tutorial.”

The girl jeering at him was Vapona Begwell (or Bugwart, as she was known by most of the school), one of the few kids who did not like Ruby. But then Vapona didn’t particularly like anyone. Vapona Begwell was an unfortunate-looking girl, sour-faced and mean with it. Tall but strangely lumpy with a sort of leery stoop that made her look very much like a cartoon bully — which was sort of what she was. She hung out with Gemma Melamare, a total viper with cute blue eyes and a snub nose, who lurked at Vapona’s side and leaked poison into the schoolyard, spreading rumors and setting friends against friends. It never worked on Clancy and Ruby; they were wise to the Melamare menace.

“So, Clancy, I notice you and Ruby haven’t been hanging out so much lately. Was it because she said that thing about you being too dumb to be seen with?”

Clancy looked at Gemma blankly.

“Oh, you didn’t know?” said Gemma, her sugary voice feigning apology.

He smiled as he pulled his bike from the bike stand; saying nothing was his secret weapon; he knew it made Gemma Melamare crazy. Still smiling, he headed off toward the torture that was an hour’s violin lesson, his face not for one second belying the hell he was about to endure or how much he wanted to sock Gemma with the aforementioned instrument.

When Ruby arrived home from school, she found Mrs. Digby singing along to the radio, which was tuned to Chime Melody. Chime Melody was her favorite station for tunes, Twinford Talk Radio for talking. Talk radio she loved, but Chime Melody was her guilty pleasure. It played the old tunes, and Mrs. Digby adored the old tunes. And what’s more, she seemed to know every one of them.

She always said,
“If I hadn’ta been so busy cooking you Redforts your every morsel, I would have sung for my supper and made a bundle on Broadway.”

“Anything happen while I was busy learning stuff?” asked Ruby, opening the refrigerator.

“Only that the fish store was all out of fish. I ask you, we live practically in an ocean, but I swear there’s not one single sprat for sale. In my day, fishermen
knew
how to fish. They could catch a catfish in a rain puddle.”

“Don’t sweat it,” said Ruby. “I’m not in a fishy frame of mind tonight.”

“I don’t care what frame of mind you’re in, child. It’s what you need that counts, and you need fish or that little brain of yours is going to shrivel up like a raisin.” Mrs. Digby was a great believer in fish oil.

“So what are we having instead?” asked Ruby.


You
will be having a spoonful of cod-liver oil and some cabbage soup,” said the housekeeper firmly.

“You have to be kidding!” said Ruby.

“Your mother’s orders,” said Mrs. Digby, her hands on her hips, prepared for the inevitable argument. “Your ma said fish or cabbage and I gotta abide by her rules.”

“But what you are actually saying is fish
and
cabbage — that’s not the deal,” said Ruby.

“I’ll grant you that.” Mrs. Digby nodded. “Cabbage it is. Cod-liver oil will have to wait.”

Mrs. Digby was a stickler for abiding by Sabina Redfort’s dietary rules, so there was no getting away from it: cabbage was on the menu and that was that.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” said Mrs. Digby. “That Elaine Lemon stopped by wondering if you’d like to babysit Archie.”

Ruby made a face. “No way, no day,” she said firmly. “Uh-uh.”

Mrs. Digby chuckled and started chopping cabbage.

It was at supper that night that Ruby got the message. She looked down into her unfortunate cabbage soup to see a fly struggling to make it to the rim. It was making good progress, but just as it was about to reach the bowl’s edge, it would change direction and stupidly end right back where it started.

“There appears to be a fly in my soup,” said Ruby, looking directly at Hitch, who had joined them for supper and was taunting Ruby by devouring a steak cooked medium rare, fries on the side.

He winked back. “I had a premonition that that might happen. Let me substitute it for something less cabbage,” he said, removing the offending liquid and replacing it with food that told her all she needed to know.

It was a slice of toast, and into it was grilled a message:

The note had been toasted into the bread by the Spectrum-issue toaster fax machine. A discreet way of conveying information — and what’s more, you could eat the evidence, which Ruby promptly did.

Finally, the toast she had been waiting for: Spectrum had a mission for her.

AT 2:30 A.M. RUBY GOT OUT OF BED,
pulled on her jeans, sneakers, a T-shirt printed with the words
excuse me while I yawn,
picked up her jacket, pushed open the window, and climbed down the eucalyptus tree. Its limbs stretched toward the west side of the house, providing a perfect ladder for the able tree-climber.

Hitch was already sitting in the silver convertible, its engine turning over so quietly you hardly knew it was running.

“Nice of you to show up,” he said.

Ruby looked at her watch. It was 2:32 a.m. “Give me a break,” she said.

“Lives have been lost in two minutes,” said Hitch.

“Oh, come on, man. What’s the big deal?”

“The ‘big deal’?” pondered Hitch. “Let me think . . . well, I hear you can only breath-hold for one minute and one second, so imagine if you were waiting for me to rescue you, and you were stuck underwater, and I took a whole two minutes to get there. You’d be all out of air, kid.”

“You were waiting in the car. You weren’t exactly in total mortal danger.”

“You didn’t know that.”

“OK, OK,” said Ruby. “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”

“I wouldn’t bet on it,” said Hitch. “Listening to advice isn’t what you do best.”

“Well, since we are busy ‘sharing’ here, then might I suggest that giving people the benefit of the doubt isn’t one of your strengths?”

Hitch pointed at Ruby’s T-shirt and said, “Your T-shirt is on the money, kid. So zip it.”

He backed out of the driveway and they drove in silence to Desolate Cove. As the name suggested, no one really visited this place — it had no sand and was nearly always windswept and rarely warm. Hitch parked behind a steep bank of pines, the vehicle hidden from view, and he and Ruby set about zipping their jackets and pulling on the rubber waders that had been stashed in the car’s trunk. In silence, they walked across the pebble beach until they reached the place where the cliffs met the water.

“Stay close to the rock, kid,” warned Hitch. “There’s a sudden drop to the left — very deep water, and I’m not sure I can be bothered to fish you out.” The sound of his words was almost drowned out by the sound of the sea as it dragged through the stones of the beach, relentlessly pulling and pushing, almost like a chorus of whispering voices.

Here you could almost believe in fishermen’s legends of sea devils and sea witches.

The water reached almost to the top of Ruby’s waders, and she just barely managed to keep from getting soaked. She had no idea where they were headed or why, but she guessed there must be a pretty good reason for this little jaunt.

They made it around the next sharp corner, and there it was: a hidden low opening in the cliff, not so much a cave, more like a large niche, just big enough to conceal . . .

a scuba-sub.

“Kinda cool,” said Ruby.

“You have no idea,” said Hitch.

A metallic pod-like thing, the sub had a reflective glass dome on top.

“The glass is four inches thick,” said Hitch. “Allows the sub to dive to depths of five miles. When submerged, the light bounces off it in such a way that it is just about invisible.”

“Even cooler,” said Ruby casually, like she’d seen a whole bunch of scuba-subs in her time.

Hitch raised his eyes heavenward and depressed a button on his watch, and the glass lid slid back. There looked to be enough space to seat three passengers comfortably and four at a squeeze. It looked worryingly unstable, and Ruby was concerned that it would tip as she climbed in.

“Plenty of agents bigger than you have found themselves jumping into this thing, trying to make a fast getaway,” said Hitch. “And I can assure you, kid, it never rolls over . . . so long as you don’t slip, you won’t drown. If you do, it’s anyone’s guess.”

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