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If You're Reading This, It's Too Late
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Dangerous secrets lie between the pages of this book.
OK, I warned you. But if you think I’ll give anything away, or tell you that this is the sequel to my first literary endeavor, The Name of This Book is Secret, you’re wrong.
I’m not going to remind you of how we last left our heroes, Cass and Max-Ernest, as they awaited intiation into the mysterious Terces Society, or the ongoing fight against the evil Dr. L and Ms. Mauvais. I certainly won’t be telling you about how the kids stumble upon the Museum of Magic, where they finally meet the amazing Pietro!
Oh, blast! I’ve done it again. Well, at least I didn’t tell you about the missing Sound Prism, the nefarious Lord Pharaoh, or the mysterious creature born in a bottle over 500 years ago, the key to the biggest secret of all.
I really can’t help myself, now can I? Let’s face it – if you’re reading this, it’s too late.
Copyright © 2008 by Pseudonymous Bosch
Illustrations copyright © 2008 by Gilbert Ford
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher. (And you thought getting out of P.E. was hard!)
Little, Brown and Company
Hachette Book Group
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Visit our Web site at www.HachetteBookGroup.com
First eBook Edition: October 2008
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author. Similarity to persons in a state of half-life, however, is another story.
The Little, Brown and Company name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
A graveyard at night.
On a mountainside. By a lake.
Our vision is blurred. Rain falls in sheets around us.
Everywhere there is water. Dripping. Dripping.
A strange song starts to play. It sounds far away, yet impossibly close.
Like the singing of fairies or sylphs.
Like the ringing of a thousand tiny voices inside our ears.
Above us, a crow flaps its wings against the rain and, screeching, disappears into the dark.
Lightning briefly illuminates the tombstones at our feet, but they are so old that no trace of name or date remains. They are no longer grave markers; they are just rocks.
What lies beneath is a mystery.
A mouse scurries between the stones, frantic. As if he's trying to get out of a maze. A deadly trap.
Soon he is joined by others of his kind. They swim against a tide of mud. Clawing at each other in their desperate attempt to escape.
Automatically, we look in the direction they are running from. There is a burial mound with a broken tombstone on top. Its jagged edge silhouetted as lightning strikes a second time.
The strange, eerie song wafts through the wind — until it is drowned out by a crack of thunder.
As we watch, the broken stone topples — and lands with a thud in the mud. A gaping hole is left in the ground. Clods of dirt erupt. A mud volcano.
First one hand, then another — both very, very large — emerge out of the hole, grasping at the mud to find a hold.
And then: a nose.
At least, we think it's a nose; it could be a cauliflower —
"Cassandra . . . !"
We look down. A lone, stranded mouse is calling to us — as if from a great distance.
"Get up, Cass — it's late!"
He sounds oddly like our mother —
Shivering, Cass lifted her head off her pillow.
She was a member of a dangerous secret society now, the Terces Society, she reminded herself. Or she would be soon. She couldn't let a little dream scare her.
What had Pietro, the old magician, said in his letter? That once she and Max-Ernest had sworn the Oath of Terces, they would "face the hazards and the hardships." And that they must "obey all the orders without the questions."*
If she couldn't face her own dreams, how could she face real enemies like Dr. L and Ms. Mauvais? Like the Masters of the Midnight Sun.
Even so, the strange song lingered in her mind, haunting her.
Each night a different dream. But always the same song.
Her mother was calling up to her from downstairs. Cass couldn't hear every word but she knew what her mother was saying:
Get up — it's late! I'm off to work (. . . or to yoga . . . or to a meeting). There's oatmeal on the stove (. . . or granola on the counter . . . or a waffle in the toaster). Don't forget you have your math quiz (. . . or book report . . . or oboe lesson). Love you!
These days, Cass's mother ended nearly everything she said to Cass with Love you! — kind of like it was a punctuation mark or a nervous tick.
The front door slammed shut; her mother had left.
Unwilling to get up, Cass stared at the wall facing her bed.
Cass's Wall of Horrors, her mother called it.
Hundreds of magazine and newspaper clippings covered the wall — all describing disasters, or potential disasters:
Earthquakes. Volcanoes. Tsunamis. Tornadoes.
There were pictures of seabirds blackened by oil spills, and of starving polar bears standing on shrinking icebergs. There were mushroom clouds and poison mushrooms, killer bees and killer mold.
Posters and diagrams showed How to Treat Frostbite . . . The Heimlich Maneuver . . . THREE SIGNS THAT YOU HAVE A THIRD-DEGREE BURN . . . The ABCs of CPR . . .
And in the center of the wall: an article about a bear haunting campers in the mountains. BEAR OR BIGFOOT? the headline read.
Most people — people like Cass's mother — would find a wall like this very disquieting. Cass found it comforting.
As a survivalist, she liked to be prepared for the worst at all times. She could face anything, she felt, if she knew it was coming.
Hurricane? Board up the windows. Drought? Save water. Fire? Don't panic, avoid smoke inhalation, look for a safe way out.
And yet these were all natural disasters. What would she do, she couldn't help wondering now, if she ever confronted a supernatural disaster?
That was what upset her about her dreams. They were strange and irrational. They didn't make sense, as her friend Max-Ernest would say. (Max-Ernest talked compulsively, but he was always very logical.) An earthquake might not be totally predictable but at least it obeyed the laws of nature.
Most of her dreams involved a monstrous creature and a spooky old graveyard. How do you prepare for that?
Not that she thought her dreams were going to come true; she wasn't superstitious. It was just that they felt so real.
"There must be something in the graveyard you want," Max-Ernest had said when she finally told him about the dreams. "A dream is the fulfillment of a wish. That's what Sigmund Freud says. How 'bout that?"*
"But why would I wish for a monster?" Cass had asked. Max-Ernest's parents were psychologists — so she figured he knew what he was talking about.
"Well, I don't know if it means you wished for it, exactly. I think dreams are like things you can't admit you want because you feel guilty or embarrassed or something. It's called the unconscious," Max-Ernest had concluded. "It's kind of confusing."
Still in bed, Cass thought about what he'd said. She reached under her pillow, pulling out the small stuffed creature she'd hidden beneath it.
"Who are you? What are you?"
Cass's sock-monster was a little, odd-shaped thing made out of old socks and scraps from her grandfathers' antiques store. She'd sewn it together in a kind of fever one day, obsessed by the creature from her dreams. It was green and purple and troll-like with a big, sock-heel nose, bulging bottle-cap eyes, and floppy ears made from tennis-shoe tongues. Cass liked the ears especially — ears almost as big but not nearly as pointy as Cass's own.
Since it was 100 percent recycled, the sock- monster was a super-survivalist, and Cass found that if she held him tight she absorbed his survival powers.
Other times, he just felt good to hug.*
Maybe, thought Cass, her bad dreams would end when her new life — her secret life, her life with the Terces Society — began.
Like any serious survivalist, Cass followed a rigorous routine every morning:
As soon as she was on her feet, she pulled her backpack out from under her bed and double-checked its contents. The backpack was a custom-made model that Pietro had sent her; it had special secret capabilities, like converting to a tent or a parachute. Even so, Cass kept some of her old survivalist supplies in the backpack — like chewing gum, for its sticking value, and grape juice, which she liked to use as ink.
She didn't know what her first Terces Society mission would be — all she knew about the society was that it was dedicated to protecting the Secret — but she would be ready.
Next, Cass examined every corner of her house to see if anyone had entered overnight — whether friend or foe.
1. The tiny threads of dental floss she tied to the handles of her desk drawers so she'd know if anybody ever opened them.
2. The dried bee corpse she'd discovered one day and left strategically on her windowsill.
3. All the windows and mirrors and doors to see whether someone had written a coded message in dust, toothpaste, or shaving cream.
4. And a few other places I won't give away, in case the wrong person reads this.
Only after she was sure that nothing had changed upstairs did she allow herself to go downstairs, where her first stop was usually the kitchen cupboard. Cass had a hunch she might find the next secret message from the Terces Society in a particular old box of alphabet cereal.
But this morning, when she walked through the kitchen door, Cass let out a very un-survivalist-like gasp of excitement: the magnets on the refrigerator had been moved. They weren't arranged the way she'd left them the night before (by color rather than letter); she could tell from the doorway.
She covered the distance in two leaps and stood breathless in front of the refrigerator, ready to decipher a coded message or to read directions to a secret meeting place or to take instructions about a new mission. Or all three.
Then her heart sank.
The magnets spelled: LOVE YOU
Clipped underneath was a handwritten note:
7 a.m. Off to work. There's a waffle — the whole wheat kind — in the toaster. Don't forget you have your field trip to the tide pools tomorrow — do you know where your windbreaker is? I can't find it.
M being for Mom or Mother. But also for Mel.
Mel being short for Melanie, her mother's name.
Hardly a secret code.
Cass crumpled the note in her hand, despondent: why did her mom have to be such a mom?
And when was the Terces Society going to come?
The Xxxxxxxxx School. City of Xxxxx Xxxxxx. Lunchtime.
I'm sorry — I still cannot tell you the name of Cass's school. Or where the school was located. Or what it looked like. Or almost anything else about it.
Of course, I trust you. But there's always the possibility that, through no fault of your own, you will toss this book out the window and it will fall into the wrong hands.*
I can tell you this: it was a school that lived by strict rules.
There were, first of all, the principal Mrs. Johnson's rules, which were strict enough, but usually understandable. Like no skateboarding in the hallways, for example. Or no wearing your underpants outside your clothing.
But there were also many other, unspoken rules that were made by nobody in particular, and that made no sense at all.
One of these pointless rules was that you ate lunch at the same table and with the same people every day; if you changed tables it could only mean that you were in a fight or something truly drastic had happened.
The lunch tables were clustered outside in a part of the school yard known as the Grove (even though there weren't any trees nearby). At the center table sat Amber and her friends. Amber, you may remember, was the nicest girl in school, and the third prettiest. At least, that's what everybody said.
Other tables spread out from there — like planets orbiting a sun.
Cass and Max-Ernest, I am sorry to report, did little to rebel against this system. In fact, their table, located on the very outermost fringes of the Grove, was so well known it had a name: the Nuts Table.
"The name doesn't make any sense," Max-Ernest complained almost daily. "It should be the No Nuts Table, since it's for kids with nut allergies."
"I think people think the Nuts Table sounds funnier," Cass told him.
But she stopped short of a full explanation: if Max-Ernest didn't understand that the other students thought that the kids at the Nuts Table were, well, nuts, then good for him.
Cass had no allergies herself; nonetheless, her diet was very restricted. Because she saw lunch as part of her survivalist training, everything she ate had to be capable of lasting for months without spoiling, whether in an underground bunker or an outer-space escape pod. Thus fresh fruit was prohibited, but Fruit Roll-Ups were permissible. Sandwiches were out, but cup-o-noodles was OK.
Trail mix was the most ideal food of all; it was a whole meal in one.*
Today, however, Cass hesitated before digging into her trail mix. A handwritten note was sitting on top.
Cass grimaced in annoyance. She hated it when her mother put notes in her lunch — it was so embarrassing. Not to mention, the notes usually consisted of lists of not-very-fun things Cass was supposed to do or remember.
She pushed the note back into her reusable waterproof lunch sack. She would read it later. Maybe.
Unlike Cass, Max-Ernest did have several nut allergies (to which nuts he was never sure) as well as a host of other food-related ailments. But what was more remarkable, he always brought two lunches to school: one made by his mother, and one by his father; he was always careful to eat the same amount from each. Max-Ernest's parents were divorced, and everything in his life was doubled or divided. (When Cass first visited his house, she couldn't believe it: the house was split down the middle, each side designed and decorated differently, with neither parent ever stepping onto the other parent's side.)
Today, he didn't seem to be in a hurry to eat either of his lunches.
"So, I learned a new trick. Wanna see?" he asked, already laying out his playing cards. "It's called the Four Brothers."
Max-Ernest had been reading up on magic for several months now, not just how-to books but also histories and biographies of famous magicians. Every time Cass saw him he had a new story about an Indian sword-swallower or a nineteenth-century flea circus or an essay on the first time a magician made an elephant disappear.
For today's trick, Max-Ernest removed the four jacks from his deck and fanned them out in front of Cass. "See these four jacks? They're brothers and they don't like being separated."
He gathered up the jacks and placed them in different places in the deck, separating them — or seeming to. Then he cut the deck.
"Now, watch how the jacks all come back together —"
He riffled through the deck and showed her how they'd moved next to each other — or seemed to. "How 'bout that?"
He was getting better, thought Cass. But not that much better.
It didn't help that Max-Ernest had a big pimple on the tip his nose. Between the pimple and his spiky hair — each strand, as always, cut exactly the same length — he looked more like a hedgehog than a magician.
"Pretty good," said Cass diplomatically. "But I think I've seen the trick before — only with kings. And they weren't brothers, they were friends."
"That doesn't make sense. Four kings would never be friends — they would be rivals, fighting over their kingdoms. And even if they weren't fighting — I doubt they would have that many friends. It's not very realistic —"
Cass was about to point out that sometimes brothers could be rivals. Like Pietro and Dr. L. They were twins — but also mortal enemies. At the same time, plenty of people had four friends or even more. Amber, for instance. Amber considered herself to be friends with their entire school.
But Cass decided not to say anything. You had to choose your battles with Max-Ernest. Otherwise, you would be arguing all day.
Besides, neither of them had very many friends; in that respect, he was correct. In fact, she was Max-Ernest's only friend. And, as much as she hated to admit it, he was her only friend as well. (Unless you counted their old classmate, Benjamin Blake. But his parents had put him in a special school this year. And he'd never said that much anyway — at least that you could understand.)
"Well, I still wish you would concentrate on training for the Terces Society instead of magic tricks," she said.
"We don't even know what we're training for!" said Max-Ernest, a little exasperated. "Besides, Pietro was a magician, wasn't he?"
"You mean, he is — he's still alive, remember?"
"We don't know for sure. Somebody else might have written the letter who had the same initials. Or who was pretending to be him. Or maybe he died after writing it. I mean, it's been four months. Why hasn't the Terces Society contacted us again, if they even —"
Cass gave him a look. She hated it when he suggested that Pietro might be dead. Or that the Terces Society might not exist. She'd spent too much time preparing to contemplate such a thing.
"The letter said that Owen would come get us, and he will!" she said with more confidence than she felt.
Owen was the man who'd helped rescue them from the clutches of the Midnight Sun. He had a habit of switching identities, so for months Cass and Max-Ernest had scrutinized every face they encountered. But they'd never detected a single false mustache or fake accent. Or even any suspicious car accidents. (Owen was a terrible driver.)
"Well, maybe he already came," Max-Ernest offered conciliatorily, "but it was like an abduction. We actually took our oaths under hypnosis, and now we're operating under secret instructions —"
Cass laughed. If nothing else, Max-Ernest was always willing to consider all the possibilities.
"Was that funny?" he asked in surprise.
Cass nodded. He grinned. "How 'bout that?"
(To Cass's chagrin, Max-Ernest's magical aspirations had done nothing to diminish his previous, even more unlikely desire: to be a stand-up co-median.)
"Is that from your mom?" Max-Ernest asked, changing the subject. He was looking at the note still sticking halfway out of her lunch bag.
Irritated, Cass pulled it out. This is what it said:
Cass, here's the grocery list for tomorrow —
MEAT — no need for A quality
DUCK (3) — tell butcher you owe — he'll
12 Potatoes, Mashed
Now that she was looking at the note, it seemed strange to Cass for several reasons:
First, her mother had gone to the grocery store yesterday.
Second, they'd never had a duck in her house — let alone three.
Third, her mother always bought potatoes whole, then mashed them at home. Cass wasn't even sure you could buy premashed potatoes if you wanted to.
Fourth, her mother never signed her notes "Mother." Usually, she just signed "M." If she was feeling especially loving or playful she might write "Mommy." Sometimes, when she wanted to show Cass she was treating her like a grown-up, she signed "Mel."
But Mother? Not that Cass could remember.
A little feeling of excitement started tingling in her toes, bubbled through her stomach, then burst out of her mouth:
"Hey, look at this —" she whispered to Max-Ernest. "It's from them. I know it. It's in code. Can you believe they got it into my lunch?! It was only in my locker for an hour! Do you think Owen is here right now?"
She looked around. The only person she didn't recognize was an Asian boy sitting at the next table, plugging his guitar into a little portable amplifier.
A frown appeared on Max-Ernest's face as he studied the note.
"What — you don't think it's in code? It has to be. It's definitely not from my mom."
"No, I agree — it looks like it's in code. It's just kind of weird. . . ."
Surreptitiously, Max-Ernest pulled out what looked like a game player of some kind from his pocket. Sent to him by Pietro, the handheld device was actually the ULTRA-Decoder II. Specially designed for decrypting codes, it contained over a thousand languages and even more secret codes in its memory.
Holding the grocery list under the table, Max-Ernest pointed the Decoder at it and scanned.
"I dunno, the Decoder doesn't pick up anything," he whispered. "If it's in code, there's, like, no system to it. . . ."
Cass sighed. Could the note be from her mother after all?
"The Skelton Sisters gave it to me as a prize when I joined the Skelton One Hundred," said a familiar, sugary voice.
It was Amber, walking by with her friend Veronica (the second prettiest girl in school, and not even the fourth or fifth nicest). As far as Cass knew, neither girl had yet turned thirteen. But somehow, over the summer, they'd aged by several years. It was the glittery makeup, Cass decided. (She couldn't believe Mrs. Johnson let them wear it — never mind their mothers.) And the tight clothes.
Amber held up a sparkling pink cell phone decorated with a big red heart. "The ring tone automatically changes to a new Skelton Sisters song each time!" she bragged loudly enough so the entire school yard could hear. "So I'll know all the songs by the time I go to the concert. If I get in — it's almost sold out."
(Romi and Montana Skelton were teenage twins who'd risen to fame on television and video but who now commanded a vast commercial empire — — that produced everything from fuzzy pink backpacks to stinky sticks of lip gloss. Cass had a particular hatred for them — partly because Amber had a particular love for them.)
"Here, listen —"
Amber started pressing buttons on her phone, but before she could make it ring, the school yard was filled with the sound of feedback — and the twisting, sliding whine of an electric guitar. It was the new boy at the next table — channeling Jimi Hendrix.*
Cass laughed aloud. The timing was perfect — interrupting Amber just as she was about to subject them all to some awful Skelton Sisters song.
She looked over at the young guitarist. He was strumming and staring out into space, as if he were alone in a garage and not in school with hundreds of other people. He was tall for his age and he had a thick mop of long black hair that fell over his eyes. He wore bright green tennis shoes and a T-shirt bearing the words:
We rock so hard they hear it on Mars!
"I bet that's that new kid — from Japan," Cass said to Max-Ernest. "Remember Mrs. Johnson made that announcement?"
Cass's laugh, meanwhile, had not gone unnoticed by Amber.
"Hey, Cass . . . are you OK?" asked Amber, stopping at Cass's table — but not without taking a good look at the guitar player first.
"Uh, yeah, I think so. . . ."
"Oh, good!" said Amber sweetly. "I was worried maybe that guitar hurt your ears —"
"No . . ." Cass didn't like where Amber was heading.
"I just thought they would be really sensitive 'cause they're so — you know."
"No, we don't know!" said Max-Ernest hotly. "Her ears are totally normal, Amber. She hears the same stuff you do."
Cass's ears, as everyone knew, were a sore subject for Cass. Not only were they big and pointy, like an elf's, they also tended to turn bright red when she was angry or embarrassed or in any way upset.
Or when people talked about them.
At the moment, they were turning a violent shade of scarlet.
"Oh, hi, Max-Ernest!" said Amber, as if she'd only just seen him. "I totally didn't mean it as an insult. But that's so sweet the way you defend her! Are you guys, like, a couple now?"
Max-Ernest choked on the two identical carrot sticks he was eating. And then he turned very pale.
Amber glanced covertly at the guitar player to see if he was taking this all in. He didn't seem to be.
"We are not a couple," Cass said as calmly as she could — considering so much blood was rushing to her ears it felt like a firestorm. (The difference was, she had an asbestos blanket to ward off a real firestorm.)
"Oh, that's too bad. You guys make such a cute couple," said Veronica. "C'mon, Am —"
Stifling laughs, they sauntered away.
"Sorry. Forgot to check the volume, yo!" said the guitar player, sounding decidedly un-Japanese. He reached down to disconnect his instrument from his amplifier and turned his head toward the Nuts Table. "I heard that girl Amber was the nicest girl in school. Didn't really seem like it."
"Yeah, that's kind of f-f-funny, huh," stammered Cass, trying to cover her ears with her hair (which was very difficult because her hair was braided). "Anyway, don't worry about it. I thought your playing was —" she searched for the word "— cool."
"Thanks," he said with a big smile. "I'm Yoji. You know, the new guy."
"Yeah, we kind of guessed," said Cass, desperately hoping her ears were turning back to normal.
"You can call me Yo-Yoji. If you want. That's what my friends call me. . . ."
"OK. Hey, um, Yo-Yoji, I hate to break it to you, but you may have a little more apologizing to do —"
She nodded toward the principal, who was striding across the yard in Yoji's direction, her big yellow hat flapping with each step.
Yoji made a face of exaggerated fear. "Uh-oh . . . Well, it was nice knowing you. Or meeting you — or whatever."
"Yeah, nice to meet you, too. . . . Oh, I forgot — I'm Cass. And this is Max-Ernest. . . . Say hi, Max-Ernest."
She tugged on her friend's sleeve.
"Hi, Max-Ernest," said Max-Ernest, who'd been stewing in tormented silence ever since Amber had asked if he and Cass were a couple.
Before Yo-Yoji could reply, Mrs. Johnson arrived at his table.
"Up!" she said. "Now march —" She pointed in the direction of her office. Yo-Yoji shrugged and headed off, guitar on his back.
Cass watched him go, wondering how this new, unexpected element might change the carefully controlled social environment of their school: did she need to take any precautions?
Suddenly, Max-Ernest sat up very straight. "That's it!"
"What?" asked Cass, distracted.
"Meet. Look at the note. See how it says 'Meat — no need for A quality'? What if that means no need for letter A? Because meat means meet. With an E."
"So we have to meet somewhere? I knew it!" said Cass, forgetting all about Amber and Yo-Yoji and even her red ears. "What about the next line — 'Duck (3)'?"
"'Tell butcher you owe,'" Max-Ernest finished for her. "Well, that could be about the letters, too, I guess. If you was the letter U. And owe was O."
"So then it's MEET DOCK 3?"
Max-Ernest nodded. "And the rest is easy: '12 Potatoes, Mashed' has to be 12 p.m. And Peanut Butter — that must be P.B."
"How 'bout that," Max-Ernest said. "But I still think it's weird he didn't use a more normal code. There's not even really a key."
"So what — you figured it out, anyway! Just like I knew you would."
Max-Ernest nodded, smiling, and wrote the decoded message next to the grocery list.
Meet Dock 3, 12 p.m., Pietro Bergamo
- On Sale
- Oct 1, 2008
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers