"Come now, children," Alistair said. "We have much work to do without bickering. We'll have to read through these notes and -- "
"Wait." Amy's whole body tensed. An acrid smell filled the air. "Is someone smoking?"
Uncle Alistair and Dan looked around in confusion.
Then Amy saw it. White smoke was thickening across the ceiling, drifting down in a deadly haze.
"Fire!" Dan yelled. "Get to the stairs!"
But Amy froze. She was mortally afraid of fire. It brought back bad memories. Very bad memories.
"Come on!" Dan tugged her hand. "Saladin -- we have to find him!"
That jolted Amy into action. She couldn't let anything happen to the cat.
"There's no time!" Uncle Alistair insisted. "We must get out!"
Amy's eyes stung. She could hardly breathe. She searched for Saladin, but he'd disappeared. Finally, Dan dragged her up the stairs and shoved his shoulder against the secret bookshelf door. It wouldn't budge.
"A lever." Dan coughed. "There's got to be a lever."
Dan was usually good at figuring out mechanical stuff, but they groped around for a switch or a lever and found nothing. The smoke was getting thicker. Amy pushed on the wall and yelped. "The surface is getting hotter! The fire's coming from the other side. We can't open it!"
"We have to!" Dan insisted, but it was Amy's turn to pull him along. She dragged him back down the stairs. The smoke was so bad now they could barely see each other.
"Get as low as you can!" Amy said. She and Dan crawled through the library, desperately looking for another exit. She had no idea where Uncle Alistair had disappeared. The bookshelves were combusting -- old dry paper, the perfect kindling.
Amy pulled herself up on a table and found the jewelry box.
Don't take valuables.
She knew that was one of the first rules for getting out of a fire alive. But she scooped up the box and kept going.
The heat was getting worse. The air filled with ash. It was like breathing in a poison fog. Amy couldn't even crawl fast because she was wearing her stupid funeral dress.
She heard Dan coughing and wheezing behind her. His asthma -- he hadn't had an attack in months, but this smoke might kill him if the heat didn't.
Think, she ordered herself. If she were Grace, she would never make a secret room with only one exit.
Amy sank to the floor, coughing and choking. All she could see was the oriental carpet -- a parade of woven silk dragons.
Dragons ... like the one on Grace's necklace. And they were all flying in the same direction, like they were leading the way. It was a crazy idea, but it was all she had.
"Follow me!" Amy said.
Dan was wheezing too badly to answer. Amy crawled along, looking back now and then to make sure he was still behind her. The dragons led them between two burning bookshelves and dead-ended in front of an air grate about three feet square. Not very big, but maybe big enough. Amy kicked at the grate with her feet. On the third try it rattled off, revealing a stone shaft slanting up.
"Dan!" she yelled. "Go!"
She pushed him through and realized with a start that he was holding Saladin.
Somehow, he'd found the cat, and the cat was not happy about it. Saladin clawed and growled, but Dan held him tight. Amy followed, gasping for breath. Her eyes felt like they were being sandblasted. They climbed up the dark shaft, and after what seemed like ages, Dan stopped.
"What are you doing?" Amy demanded. The heat wasn't as bad now, but the smoke was still thickening around them.
"Blocked!" Dan wheezed.
In total darkness, she crawled up next to him and together they pushed on a flat smooth stone that was blocking their path. It had to open. It had to.
And finally, it did -- popping up like a lid. Daylight blinded their eyes. They crawled out into fresh air and collapsed on the grass. Saladin got free with an indignant
"MRRRRP!" and shot off into the trees. They were lying in the cemetery, not fifty feet from Grace's newly filled grave. The slab they'd pushed aside was somebody's tombstone.
"Dan, you okay?" she asked.
Dan's face was streaked with soot. Steam rose from his hair and his clothes were even blacker than they had been before. He was breathing heavily. His arms bled from a hundred cat scratches.
"Think ..." He wheezed. "Don't want ... collect tombstones ... after all."
Smoke poured out of the tunnel like a chimney, but that was nothing compared to what Amy saw when she looked up at the hill. Her throat constricted. "Oh, no."
The family mansion was a roaring inferno. Flames winked in the windows and lapped up the sides of the building. As Amy watched, one stone tower collapsed. The beautiful stained glass windows melted. The family crest above the main entrance -- that old stone crest Amy had always loved -- crashed down and shattered on the pavement.
"Amy ..." Dan's voice sounded like it was about to break to pieces. "The house ... we can't let it... we have to ..."
But he didn't finish. There was nothing they could do. A section of the roof crumpled, belching a fireball into the sky. Despair crushed the air right out of Amy's lungs, like the house was collapsing on top of her. She reached for Dan and hugged him. He didn't even protest. His nose was runny. His lower lip trembled. She wanted to comfort him, to tell him it would be all right, but she didn't believe it herself.
Then she noticed something that jolted her out of her daze. In the driveway lay a collapsed figure, a man in a gray suit. "Mr. McIntyre!" Amy cried.
She was about to run to his aid when her brother gasped, "Get down!"
He wasn't as strong as she was, but he must've been desperate, because he tackled her with so much force she just about ate the lawn. He pointed up the road that led through the hills -- the only exit from the property.
About five hundred yards away, half hidden in the trees, a man in a black suit was standing very still. How Dan had spotted him so far away, Amy didn't know. She couldn't make out the man's face, but he was tall and thin, with gray hair, and he was holding binoculars. With a chill, Amy realized he was watching them.
Amy said, "Who -- " But she was distracted by the chirping sound of a car alarm being deactivated.
Alistair Oh, sooty and smoky, burst out of the mansion's main entrance and hobbled toward his BMW, cradling something against his chest. He looked terrible. His pants were ripped and his face was white with ash. Amy had no idea how he'd managed to get out. She almost called to him, but something held her back. Alistair staggered past William McIntyre with hardly a glance, jumped in his car, and peeled out down the driveway.
Amy looked back toward the woods, but the man with the binoculars had disappeared.
"Stay here," she told Dan.
She ran toward Mr. McIntyre. Dan, of course, didn't obey orders. He followed her, coughing the whole way. By the time they got to Mr. McIntyre, the entire mansion was collapsing. The heat was like a new sun. Amy knew there would be nothing left to salvage -- nothing except the jewelry box she was still clutching.
She set down the box and rolled Mr. McIntyre over. He groaned, which at least meant he was alive. Amy wished she had a cell phone of her own, but Aunt Beatrice had never allowed them to have one. She fished around in Mr. McIntyre's pockets, found his phone, and dialed 911.
"He took it," Dan wheezed.
"What?" Amy wasn't really listening. She sank to her knees and watched as the only place she'd ever cared about went up in flames. She pictured Grace telling her stories in the library. She remembered running down the halls, playing tag with Dan when they were little. She thought of the secret nook in the bedroom where she liked to read with Saladin on her lap. All gone. Her whole body shook. Tears welled up in her eyes. For the second time in her life, fire had robbed her.
"Amy." Dan sounded close to tears, but he put a hand on her shoulder. "You've got to listen. He took it. Alistair did."
Amy wanted to tell Dan to shut up and let her mourn in peace, but then she realized what he was talking about. She got unsteadily to her feet and stared into the distance, where the BMW's taillights were disappearing around a hill.
Alistair Oh had tricked them. He'd stolen the
Poor Richard's Almanack with their mother's notes -- their only lead in the quest.
Dan had always wanted to ride in a police car, but not like this.
His chest still hurt from the smoke. He sat in the backseat of the police car with Saladin on his lap and tried not to wheeze, but every breath was like inhaling sand.
"If you'd just brought your inhaler..." Amy chided. But he hated his inhaler. It made him feel like Darth Cahill or something. Besides, he hadn't had an attack in forever, and he didn't know they were going to get caught in a stupid fire.
He couldn't believe the family mansion was gone. He'd woken up this morning sure that Amy and he would inherit the place. Now there was nothing left -- just a smoking mountain of rubble.
The police detectives hadn't given them many answers. It looked like arson, they said.
The fire spread too quickly to be an accident. They said William McIntyre would be okay. Amazingly, no one else had been hurt. Dan had told the police about Alistair Oh leaving the mansion in a big hurry.
He figured he might as well try to get the old creep in trouble. But Dan had said nothing about the thirty-nine clues or the secret library or the strange guy with the binoculars.
"Who was the man in black?" Amy whispered, like she'd been thinking the same thing. She had Grace's jewelry box on her lap, and she was twisting her hair the way she always did when she was nervous.
"Don't know," Dan said. "Alistair?"
"He couldn't have been in two places at once."
"Mr. Holt's not that old, and he's a lot more buff."
"Aunt Beatrice dressed as a man?" Personally, Dan liked this idea, because Beatrice definitely had the "evil" factor going for her. After all, she'd just left them at the mansion without a second thought. But Amy rolled her eyes.
"He wasn't anybody we know, Dan. At least, I'm pretty sure. But he was watching us, like he wanted to see if we got out. I think he set that fire to trap us."
"Mrrp," Saladin said.
"I agree with the cat," Dan said. "After that man in black and Uncle Alistair, I say we make a new RESOLUTION. Stay away from old guys."
"We'll have to be more careful about everybody." Amy lowered her voice even more.
"Dan, our mother was involved in the thirty-nine clues. That writing -- "
"Yeah, but that's impossible. The contest just started!"
"It was Mom's writing. I'm sure. She said, Follow Franklin, first clue. Maze of Bones. We have to find out what that means. This is just the kind of mystery Mom would've loved!"
Dan knew he shouldn't have felt annoyed, but he hated that Amy remembered more about their parents than he did. He would never have recognized their mom's handwriting. He had no idea what kind of person she'd been.
"We lost the book," he grumbled. "We kind of failed already, didn't we?"
Amy traced the monogram on top of Grace's jewelry box. "Maybe not. I have an idea, but we're going to need an adult. Alistair was right about that. We'll never be able to travel without one."