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The shadow cipher, p.17
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       The Shadow Cipher, p.17

           Laura Ruby
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  That was when four-year-old Otto Moran charged around the corner, brandishing his Wiffle bat like a sword. He stopped inches from Tess’s legs. He was dressed entirely in camouflage print all the way down to his sneakers and was wearing one of his father’s ties as a headband.

  “State your business!” Otto yelled.

  “We live here, Otto,” said Tess.

  “That’s not business!” said Otto.

  “Yes, it is. Where’s your mom? Does she know you’re down here alone?”

  “The president is napping!” Otto said. “She is tired of this nonsense!”

  The tie around Otto’s head, Jaime noted, was black with tiny little happy faces all over it. “So, who’s watching you, Otto?”

  Otto waved the bat. “I am the one who’s watching YOU!”

  “You’re just a dumb baby, Otto.” Cricket Moran came motoring toward them on her three-wheeler. “I am watching you.”

  “I. AM. A. NINJA!” Otto yelled. When his sister got close, Otto swung the bat. Cricket stood on the pedals of her trike, snatched the bat from his hands, held it over her head. Otto jumped for it, whining that he was going to wake up the president if Cricket didn’t give the bat back. Cricket’s pet—part-raccoon, part-cat, if Jaime was remembering right—chittered from his basket on the front of the trike. The cat-coon was wearing a tiny hat with antlers.

  Jaime pried the bat from Cricket’s hands. “Nobody needs to wake any presidents.”

  Cricket stared up at him through giant sunglasses. “He’s not a ninja, he just thinks he is.”

  “Is that so bad?” said Jaime.

  “Hmmph,” Cricket said. Unlike her brother, Cricket was wearing a perfectly normal pair of denim shorts and a yellow shirt with a sparkly cartoon dragon on the front. Jaime had never seen her wear anything perfectly normal. She was usually wearing scuba gear paired with a tiara or rubber fishing boots that came all the way up to her armpits. Once, she “borrowed” her mom’s wedding gown and accessorized it with a hockey mask.

  “So, your brother’s a ninja. What are you today, Cricket?”

  Cricket’s mouth curled at the corners. “Guess.”

  “You are a rich lady on her way to the beach.”

  “Who likes all that sand everywhere?” said Cricket.

  “You’re a movie star on her way to go shopping.”

  Cricket sucked her teeth. “Movie stars have people to shop for them.”

  Jaime guessed again. “A famous athlete on the way to a photo shoot?”

  Little brows shot up over the frames of the glasses. “Seriously?” said Cricket.

  “Hmmm,” said Jaime. “I’m stumped. Who could you be?”

  “You tell me,” said Cricket, “I’ll wait.” She slid the heart charm on her necklace back and forth, zip-zip, zip-zip.

  Just then, the elevator doors opened, and Mr. Stoop and Mr. Pinscher emerged pushing some kind of cart covered with a thick tarp. Next to him, Tess clenched her fists. Theo turned all the way around and presented the men his back. Otto sidled closer to Jaime. Cricket sat up straighter in the seat of her trike and . . . smiled, sweet as pie.

  “Children!” said Mr. Stoop. “How lovely to see you all again.”

  “Good afternoon!” Cricket sang. “How is your work going?”

  Mr. Pinscher grunted. Mr. Stoop said, “Our work is moving along just fine, young lady. Thank you for asking. And how is your raccoon?”

  Cricket smiled even more sweetly. “Karl is doing just fine as well. Do you need any help bringing things down from the roof?” She pointed at Jaime. “He is very strong.”

  Mr. Stoop’s filmy, colorless eyes skated over Jaime, sliming him. Jaime resisted the urge to scratch at his skin.

  Mr. Stoop looked back at Cricket. “No doubt Mr. Cruz is very strong for a boy his age. But I think Mr. Pinscher and I have things under control.”

  “Okay,” said Cricket, in a sugary voice that belonged to some entirely different child. “You have a nice day!”

  They watched as Mr. Stoop and Mr. Pinscher wheeled the cart through the lobby and out of the building. They pushed the cart to a white van parked—illegally—right in front. Two other men wearing dark suits hopped from the van and opened the back doors of the van. All four men rammed the cart into the back of the van, and the cart’s legs collapsed like a gurney’s, allowing them to slide it easily inside. Then they slammed the doors shut, leaped inside the van, and drove off.

  “What was that about?” Tess said.

  “They think the building is going to give them something, but they’re wrong.”


  Cricket didn’t answer. She tucked her necklace under the collar of her shirt, put her hand in the basket, and rooted around underneath Karl. She pulled out a notebook and a pencil. She licked the tip of the pencil and scratched a few notes. Then she shut the notebook and tossed it back into the basket.

  “So,” said Jaime, “you’re just a regular kid today.”

  “Am I?” said Cricket.

  “A regular kid keeping an eye on certain people, maybe?”

  Cricket lifted her glasses and peered up with big dark eyes. “The word is INCOGNITO.”

  “That’s a big word,” said Tess.

  “Maybe for you it is.” Cricket lowered her glasses. “Come on, Otto. Karl needs his snack.”

  “I’m a ninja?” Otto said.

  “Whatever,” said Cricket.

  Once the kids were gone, Tess tugged at Jaime’s arm. “Did she say that those guys were bringing things down from the roof?”

  “That’s exactly what she said.”

  “What was up on the roof that could be loaded onto a cart and taken out of the building?”

  They didn’t bother stopping at either Jaime’s or the Biedermanns’ apartment, they went right up to the roof. The elevator took a leisurely route, drifting sideways, then rising, then falling, then rising again till it reached the penthouse. Once they were on the penthouse floor, they had to climb a short set of cement stairs that led to the rooftop garden, a lush green space that mocked the ugly air-conditioning unit as well as the beat-up, graffitied water tank that loomed so large on the roof of the building next door. All of the tenants were welcome to plant things here, but the tomatoes, vegetables, herbs, and flowers mostly belonged to Mima and Mr. Biedermann, the only people who could be counted on to make things grow in places they weren’t supposed to.

  To Jaime’s surprise, Mima was sitting in a lounge chair facing the Hudson. She nodded when she saw them but didn’t say anything.

  Finally, Jaime said, “Mima, what are you doing?”

  “Those men asked me to bring them up here. You know who I mean. The tall one and the short one. Those terrible people. I could have told them to come up here all by themselves. They didn’t need me. But I did it because I wanted to know what they were looking for.”

  “What were they looking for?” Tess said.

  “Do you remember that optical viewer that was in that corner? The one bolted down? Like the ones they have at the Empire State Building?” She gestured to the edge of the roof. “They took it. They tore it right out.”

  “My grandfather used that all the time!” Tess said. “It’s been here since our family moved in. The left lens was always blurry. Why did they want that old thing?”

  “Who knows? They ripped this seal right off the hallway window on the fifth floor.” She gestured to the small medallion in her lap, encrusted with old white paint. “The tall one said that I didn’t have to worry about the building or anything in it anymore, but I took this right back. I said this is my building until it is not. They didn’t care.”

  Tess tugged at the end of her braid, and Nine nudged her fingers. “Are they allowed to do that? They shouldn’t be allowed to do that!”

  Mima sighed but said nothing, which meant she was saying, Yes, those men are allowed to do whatever they want to do and who can stop them? She lifted her chin toward the river. “Do you know what kinds of thi
ngs have been found at the bottom of the water around New York City over the years?”

  Jaime glanced at Tess, who glanced at Theo, who shrugged. “No, we don’t,” said Jaime. “What kinds of things?”

  “Shipwrecks,” she said. “No one official will tell you exactly where they are because these wrecks are considered archeological sites. There are also a lot of stripped cars in the water. A lot of rebar just lying around. A grand piano. A complete set of table and chairs sitting on the bottom as if someone were coming to tea. A giraffe.”

  “A giraffe?” said Theo.

  “It escaped a zoo and ran right off the island, probably trying to get back to Africa, and who could blame it? Some ice cream trucks, a bunch of slot machines, a whole train, more than a thousand silver bars that fell off a barge and got buried in the silt. A lot of dead bodies.” She took a deep breath, released it. “That is all very sad to me. What’s been lost.”

  This time, Theo glanced at Tess, who looked at Jaime, who raised his palms—I don’t know what she’s going on about either. Mima was not the cryptic sort; she always said what she meant and meant what she said, no matter what language she was using. But Jaime had no idea where she was going with this.

  “And there are also some strange creatures down there. I’m not talking about giraffes or even things like sharks. I’m talking about teredos, four-foot-long worms with nasty teeth. And Limnoria tripunctata—gribbles—tiny, tiny little bugs. The teredos eat wood and the gribbles eat wood and concrete both—amazing if you think about it, except they’re eating away at the pilings that hold up the city. Worms and bugs taking one tiny bite at a time until the whole place slides into the water. Another thing that makes me very sad.”

  Theo reached up to scratch his neck, but his hand never made it, hung in the air, frozen. Jaime wasn’t frozen; he shifted from one foot to the other as if he couldn’t quite reach equilibrium. Nine walked over to Mima and put her head on Mima’s lap.

  Tess said, “That’s not going to happen, Mrs. Cruz.”

  “No?” Mima said, idly petting the cat.

  “No,” Jaime said. “Someone will figure out a way to stop the bugs. Or protect the pilings. Or both.”

  “Well, maybe you’re right. But sometimes it feels like we’re about to sink into oblivion.” Mima finally looked at Jaime, eyes so tired, so very tired, that Jaime felt his own lids going heavy. “Your father’s company told him that they would help us with a new apartment. A better apartment. Three bedrooms. A view.”

  Jaime swallowed hard. “Well, that’s not so bad, is it?”

  “In New Jersey.”

  Tess and Theo said, “Oh.”

  Mima murmured to herself in Spanish, something about her parents not wanting her to come to this city, they already had to leave Cuba, why would anyone leave Miami, too, they were so angry, but one visit to New York City and she realized she’d found her place. At least, that was what Jaime thought she was saying. He opened his mouth to tell Mima about their possible discovery of a new line of clues, but then, they hadn’t discovered anything yet, not really. What if he told her and it didn’t pan out? What kinds of bugs would they be talking about then?

  “We still have weeks, Mima,” he said.

  “True,” she said.

  “Anything could happen in a few weeks,” Tess said.

  “Things I probably can’t even imagine,” said Mima, smiling just a little. “I am not the one with the imagination in our family.”

  “You could win the lottery,” said Tess.

  “I’ll have to start playing, then,” Mima said.

  “We could dig up the silver bars at the bottom of the river,” said Theo.

  “You have a submersible lying around?”

  “Darnell Slant could be abducted by aliens,” said Tess.

  Mima nodded. “I would very much like to see that.”

  “A new superhero could capture him and lock him in a jail in outer space,” said Jaime.

  “As long as it’s very, very outer.”

  “Or Slant could join a cult and give all his worldly possessions to the teredos and the gribbles,” said Theo.

  Mima was silent for a moment and Nine started to purr, a low rumble. Then Mima said, “I’d rather he left them to someone who knew what to do with them.”

  Jaime looked from their own green roof garden to the top of the building next door. Someone had impaled a disco ball on the top of it. On the side of it, someone else, or maybe the same someone, had spray-painted the words: YOU GOT IT ALL WRONG, TOOTS.

  Well, Jaime thought, I hope not.

  He sat on the deck next to the lounge chair. Theo and Tess did the same. Mima put her hand on the back of Jaime’s neck, and they all watched the water together, imagining giraffes loping gracefully beneath the surface, making their way home.



  As they sat up on the roof with Jaime’s grandmother, all Tess could think about was what she didn’t want to think about: Do not think about teredos or gribbles eating the city. Do not think about teredos or gribbles eating the city, TEREDOS AND GRIBBLES ARE TOTALLY NOT EATING THE CITY RIGHT NOW.

  “I should have named my hamster-hogs Teredo and Gribble,” said Jaime.

  “Ugh,” said Tess.

  “Are you guys getting hungry?” Jaime said.

  “Ugh,” said Tess.

  “I’m hungry,” said Theo.

  “UGH,” said Tess, holding her stomach.

  “I’m making arroz con pollo for dinner,” said Mrs. Cruz.

  Tess let go of her stomach. “You are?”

  “You guys want some?” said Jaime. “Mima always cooks enough for an army.”

  Tess said, “We should go see our dad. My mom’s probably working late again, and Dad gets all mopey when he’s by himself.”

  Mima stood and dusted herself off. “I’ll bring the food to your place, then. It’s bigger than ours. We can all mope together.”

  Tess was right; their mom was out catching burglars, so Jaime carried his grandmother’s giant red pot already filled with chicken and vegetables into the Biedermanns’ kitchen. On the stovetop, Jaime’s grandmother added rice and a little beer, letting it cook for a few minutes before putting the whole thing in the oven. As soon as she smelled the food, Tess’s appetite killed any remaining images of teredos and gribbles. She ate three helpings of chicken and rice as Mr. Biedermann practiced his chewy, New York–accented Spanish with Mrs. Cruz, and Mrs. Cruz practiced her wincing. Mrs. Cruz tried to teach him German instead. Which went just as well. Instead of speaking, Mr. Biedermann sounded as if he were sucking things out of his teeth.

  Tess thought about the clue left by Ava Oneal. Home for Ava Oneal was this building, but which part of this building? Where were her rooms? She had owned the entire structure but had lived here alone. No personal items or papers had ever been found, no evidence that she spent more time on any floor or in any particular area.

  “You are very quiet, Tess,” said Mrs. Cruz, spooning some rice onto Tess’s plate.

  “Yeah,” said Mr. Biedermann. “Usually she’s asking all sorts of questions. What if right was left and left was right?”

  Theo said, “What if a person could grow an extra arm?”

  “Or an extra head?” said Mrs. Cruz.

  Mr. Biedermann said, “What if cats could talk?”

  Nine mrrowed for her share of rice.

  “Cats can talk,” said Tess. “It’s not their fault some of us don’t speak their language.”

  Jaime said, “What if cars could talk?”

  Theo said, “Cars already talk.”

  “What if they understood?” said Jaime. “What if the walls could talk?”

  Even though Tess’s mouth was full of chicken, the words popped out: “Then maybe we’d know how to solve the Cipher.”

  No one said anything for a full minute.

  Then Mr. Biedermann said, “This chicken is muy bien.” Moo-ee bee-in.

  Mrs. Cruz wince

  There was a knock on the door. Everyone stared at it.

  “Those men again,” Mrs. Cruz spit.

  “I’ll get it,” said Mr. Biedermann. He started talking as soon as he stood up. “We are not legally required to leave for weeks, so I suggest you stop this harassment.” He threw open the door.

  “Edgar! Omar!” said Mr. Biedermann. “Come in!”

  Edgar Wellington held out a box. “We were working upstairs and decided to take a dinner break. We brought back cupcakes.”

  Jaime said, “I wouldn’t say no to a cupcake.”

  Mr. Biedermann pulled up some chairs for Edgar and Omar and introduced them to Mrs. Cruz. Without asking, Mrs. Cruz piled plates high with chicken and rice and set it in front of the men. “This looks delicious,” Edgar Wellington said.

  “It is delicious,” said Mrs. Cruz.

  Omar sampled the rice. “You are right about that,” he said, smiling. Mrs. Cruz beamed.

  To Mr. Biedermann, Omar said, “We managed to catalog some of Benjamin’s items today. Not as many as we wanted to, of course. His collection is magnificent.”

  Tess didn’t want to hear about what they were doing in Grandpa’s apartment. She busied herself with the box of cupcakes.

  “We found opera glasses that likely date back to the nineteenth century,” said Edgar. “But the glasses can be transformed into a small pellet gun.”

  Vanilla, chocolate, red velvet, carrot.

  “And a lipstick case that doubles as high-powered microscope,” said Omar.

  Lavender, caramel, peach, something beige and unidentifiable.

  “Oh! And what appear to be the original plans for the Morningstarr caterpillar.”

  Tess plucked the beige and unidentifiable cupcake from the box. She imagined her grandpa’s opera glasses and his lipstick case and his plans for the Morningstarr caterpillar in the display cases at the archives and popped the whole cupcake into her mouth.

  Later, she didn’t remember what the cupcake tasted like.

  That night, Tess pretended to sleep. Her mom came home after eleven, rummaged around in the kitchen, and went to bed. When she heard the soft snores coming from her parents’ room, Tess crept from her room to Theo’s, where he was turning the pages of Penelope and picking at the Morningstarr seal on the window.

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