Liam had ordered each of us a simple meal of scrambled eggs, bacon, and two pancakes without syrup. The others dug in with gusto, inhaling the meal in five bites. I gave my pancakes to Zu, before Liam had the chance to.
After some semblance of calm had settled back over us, he pulled his map up and spread it out over the wheel. The dashboard clock beside him said 7:25 a.m., and when he turned to face us, it was with an expression of determination I had never seen someone wear so early in the morning.
“Okay, team,” he began. “We need to get back on the right track. I know our last East River was a total bust, but we have to keep looking. So let’s review the facts those Blues gave us: Eddo.”
It was only after a full minute of silence that I realized that was the extent of the “facts.”
“We should have tried to bribe them for more information,” Chubs said.
“With what?” Liam said, setting the map down. “They wouldn’t take you, Chubs, and you’re our most precious commodity.”
Chubs, unsurprisingly, did not find that funny.
“Did they spell Eddo out for you? Was it one ‘d’ or two?” I asked. “Because if it’s an actual clue, that could make a difference.”
The two boys shared a look.
“Well…crap,” Liam said, finally.
I felt a sharp tug on my arm, and turned toward Zu, who was holding up her notebook for us to see. She had written the letters E-D-O.
“Nice job, Zu,” Liam said. “Good thing one of us was listening.”
“And that was it?” I said.
“The only other thing they coughed up was that if we hit Raleigh we’d gone too far south. And we had to beg for even that,” Liam confessed. “It was really pathetic.”
“They could have been pulling our legs, too,” Chubs said. “That’s what irritates me the most. If East River is so great, why were they leaving?”
“They were going home; remember, the Slip Kid—”
While they were arguing, I slipped the map out from under Liam’s hands and squinted at it, trying to make sense of the lines. He had given me a very vague rundown of how to route a path from point A to point B, but it was still overwhelming.
“What are you guys thinking?” I asked. “What theory were you working with?”
“We ran across the kids right around the Ohio state line,” Liam said. “They were coming from the east, headed west. If you add that to the other bit about D.C. and Raleigh, the likely candidates become West Virginia, Virginia, or Maryland. Zu said Edo is another name for Tokyo, but it seems a little far-fetched he’d be there.”
“And I think it’s a code,” Chubs said. “A cipher of some kind.” He sat up a little straighter, turning to face me fully. The way the smile spread over his face made me think of a nature documentary we watched once in school, about the way crocodiles flash their teeth as they skim through the water toward their prey. “Speaking of codes, didn’t you say the League broke you out because you were a world-class code breaker?”
“I didn’t say world-class…”
“Oh yeah!” Liam’s face lit with the most heartbreaking expression of excitement. “Can you take a stab at it?”
“I—er, I guess,” I said, careful to keep my face neutral. “Zu, can I see the notebook again?”
They were all staring at me; they might as well have been sitting on my chest for how paralyzing it was. It was near freezing in the van without the heat on, but my body felt heavy with hot, sticky panic. I was holding on to that notebook like it was a prayer from heaven.
I knew there were kids out there who could plug in a few dozen letters into their brain and spew out complex coordinates or immediately spot a riddle hidden in a puzzle, but I definitely was not one of them.
Chubs snorted. “Looks like the League picked a lemon.”
“Hey,” Liam said, his tone sharp. “We’ve been mulling over the damn thing for two weeks and have figured out exactly nothing. You can’t even give her an hour to think about it?”
Could I sub out the letters EDO for numbers? 5-4-15? God, what other kinds of codes were there? A railroad code? No—that wasn’t right. Or was it not a code? That would make a hell of lot more sense, actually. The riddle had to be something that kids both in and out of camps could figure out, and it couldn’t be too difficult, otherwise no one would ever get it.
Lie, I thought, reaching up to smooth a stray piece of hair back from my face. Just lie. Just do it. Just say something! What did three-digit numbers usually represent? A price, a time, an area code—
“Oh!” If I was right, Oh God was more like it.
“Oh?” Liam repeated. “Oh what?”
“I’d forgotten—well…” I corrected myself. “I could be remembering it wrong, so don’t get too excited, but I think it’s a Virginia area code.”
“There’s no area code that’s four digits,” Chubs said. “Five-four-fifteen doesn’t work.”
“But five-four-zero does,” I said. “People sub out O for zero when they talk sometimes, right?”
Liam scratched the back of his head and looked over at Chubs. “Five forty? Does that sound familiar to you?”
I turned toward Chubs, suddenly seeing him in a new light. “You’re from Virginia?”
He crossed his arms and looked out his window. “I’m from Northern Virginia.”
Well, that figured. “Five forty is western Virginia,” I explained to Liam. “I’m not sure how far north and south it extends, but it should be right around this area, I think.” I showed him on the map. I didn’t just think, I knew. 540 had been my area code when I lived with my parents in Salem. “There are a number of cities and towns, but there’s also a lot of undeveloped land—not a bad place to hide out.”
“Is that a fact?” Liam kept his eyes on the road and his voice even, but there was something maybe a little bit too casual about it. “Did you grow up near there?”
I looked down at the notebook in my hands again, feeling something clench in my chest. “No, I didn’t.”
“Virginia Beach, then?”
I shook my head. “Not any place you’ve been or heard of.”