Go on an adventure with John Jenkins as he joins an elite team to save a national monument in Andrea Jo Rodgers’ Saving Mount Rushmore.
When John Jenkins’ parents ship him off to stay with his aunt, he’s certain it will be the worst summer ever—until he learns he’s been accepted into a top-secret school. St. Michael’s Academy is home to gifted students with extraordinary talents. Although John has no idea why he’s there, he’s assigned to Team Liberty, who assist authorities with solving low-level crimes. Their first mission: stop a trio of mischief-making teens from vandalizing Mount Rushmore.
John battles feelings of inferiority as he and Team Liberty compete against Devlin Black and his cronies to track down clues and solve puzzles at Mount Rushmore. Along the way, John makes several key contributions, and his self-confidence grows. When he discovers he was admitted to the school due to a clerical error, he’s mortified. Now, he’s strictly an “observer” until the mission’s end. But when his teammates run into trouble, John must summon up the courage to save Mount Rushmore, and he learns an invaluable lesson: every person has special God-given gifts—including him.
Read the first three chapters below!
“There’s been a change in our summer plans. We’re going to Africa.”
Upon hearing his father’s words, John Jenkins’s jaw dropped, and he nearly tipped backward off his kitchen stool. Struggling to regain his balance, he lurched forward and grabbed onto the edge of the granite countertop. “Really? Africa?” He’d be the envy of all his classmates.
“I’ve been offered a terrific opportunity to spend the summer at a dig site called Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania,” John’s father, an archeology professor, explained as he pushed his glasses farther up onto the bridge of his nose.
John’s mother, an emergency room physician, placed her hand on her husband’s shoulder. “And I’ve decided to go with him. There are many people in Tanzania who need medical help. The hospital has agreed to let me take a leave of absence, and they’ve donated a bunch of medical supplies for the cause.”
“Awesome. I want to help, too,” John said. “I know CPR, and I took a basic first aid course at school a few months ago.”
John’s mom gave him an “isn’t-that-so-sweet-of-you-to-offer” smile as she pulled her long, dark hair back into a ponytail. “Actually, I’m bringing Kaycee to help.”
Kaycee was sixteen but acted like she was already eighteen. She flashed him a superior look. “Your way too little to go on a mission trip. Mom and Dad are sending you to stay with Great-Aunt Martha in South Dakota.”
Kaycee was a big-time eavesdropper. She didn’t seem surprised by their parents’ announcement, so John figured she must have previously overheard them discussing it. He glared at her. “No, I’m not. I’m only three years younger than you. I haven’t even seen Aunt Martha in ten years,” John protested. “Why send me there?”
Kaycee shrugged. “They’re sending Wyatt to spend the summer at Grandma and Grandpop’s house in Maryland.”
At the sound of his name, Wyatt paused from playing with his toy trucks. “Hurray! Grandma and Grandpop’s house.”
“Why does he get to go to Grandma and Grandpop’s?” John frowned as he sprung to his feet. It didn’t seem fair that his four-year-old brother would get to visit his grandparents, while he was being sent to a state more than halfway across the country.
“Now Kaycee, that’s enough. John, you know Wyatt still wets his bed. I’ll have to remember to send a mattress protector with him.”
“Why can’t I go with him?”
“Your aunt really wants to see you. She said she has big plans for you.”
John eyed his mother suspiciously. “What kind of plans?”
“Oh, you know, this and that,” his mother replied vaguely as she began unloading the dishwasher and putting dishes away.
“You’re going to fly to South Dakota with me, right?” John had never traveled by himself before.
“I’m really sorry, but your father and I are busy with work, so we don’t have time to fly all the way to South Dakota and back. We need to tie up a bunch of loose ends before we can travel.”
“I’m only thirteen. I can’t go on a plane by myself.”
“You’ll be what’s called an unaccompanied minor. It’s a special program for kids ages five to fifteen. We’ll drive you to the airport and get you safely on the plane. A flight attendant will help you with whatever you need.”
“So, he’ll have a babysitter,” Kaycee said, obviously relishing the discussion.
John ignored her. “If you take me with you, I promise I won’t get in the way,” he said, clinging to the hope that he could somehow change their minds.
“I’m sorry, but it’s all settled. Like I said, your aunt needs you.”
John highly doubted this statement. Why on earth would Aunt Martha need me? John loved his parents. He really did. However, because of their careers, they were always busy. As the middle child, sometimes he felt downright invisible.
“Can Ranger go with me to Aunt Martha’s?” John asked. Ranger, a jet-black Belgian Shepherd (one of the smartest dogs to ever live, in John’s opinion), went with him everywhere.
“I’m sorry, but no,” Mr. Jenkins replied. “It’s too hard to put a dog on a plane. We’re sending him with Wyatt to your grandparents.”
“And anyway, dogs aren’t allowed to travel with unaccompanied minors,” Mrs. Jenkins added.
On the morning that they were supposed to drive him to the airport, his mother was called in to work at the hospital. “I’m really sorry, but it’s an emergency. Your father is going to bring you to the airport. He’ll take you all the way to the gate.” She kissed him on the forehead and hugged him goodbye. John’s stomach sank to his toes as he watched her disappear out the door.
He plopped down onto the kitchen floor next to Ranger and scratched him behind his ears. John felt queasy at the thought of spending the summer at his Great-Aunt Martha’s ranch in Middle-of-Nowhere, South Dakota. What would he do without his buddies, Chloe Armstrong and Jackson Miller? The three had had big plans to go surfing at the New Jersey beaches and visit the boardwalk amusements parks, just like they did last summer.
“I’ll miss you,” Wyatt said, interrupting John’s thoughts.
“I’ll miss you too, buddy,” John replied, patting his brother’s head. He found a small lollipop stuck in one of Wyatt’s red curls and pulled it out with a gentle tug.
“Time to go,” Mr. Jenkins said, but then took a work-related phone call just as they were about to depart. That made them leave twenty minutes later than they planned, so then it was rush, rush, rush. John hated every second of the ride. No Mom. No Chloe or Jackson. No Ranger. Just the prospect of what promised to be a long, boring summer with nothing to do on an out-of-the-way cattle ranch.
His dad seemed pre-occupied with whatever he’d talked about on the phone call and with the heavy traffic. As they got closer to the airport, he turned down the radio and said, “Don’t worry. We’ll get you there on time.”
John wasn’t worried. He wouldn’t mind missing his flight. Maybe then his parents would change their mind and take him to Africa after all. But no such luck.
Mr. Jenkins, tall and lean, used to run track in high school. Now, as they rushed through the airport, John had to practically run to keep up with his father’s long, effortless strides.
They passed through airport security, and before John knew it, they were standing at the departure gate. His dad waited until it was time to board the plane, and then gave him a rib-cracking kind of hug. “I love you, and I’ll miss you. Be good for your Aunt Martha.”
John nodded, too choked up to speak. He watched as his father’s narrow shoulders disappeared from view as he melted into the crowd.
A kindly flight attendant escorted John to his seat, which was next to a window. After listening to various safety instructions, they flew high up in the sky. He enjoyed gazing out into the clouds and watching as the buildings and cars grew smaller and smaller until they were just distant specks. He passed the time by watching a movie until the pilot said it was time to land. As the plane approached Rapid City Regional Airport, John felt like his stomach was flipping and flopping. What if I get lost? What if Aunt Martha forgets to pick me up today?
* * * *
As it turned out, John didn’t need to worry after all. Aunt Martha’s ranch foreman was standing at the airport arrival gate, holding a sign that read, “Welcome, John Jenkins.” Dusty Furman was a true-blue cowboy from his wide-brimmed Stetson to his dusty leather boots. He tipped his cowboy hat, firmly shook John’s hand, and simply said, “I’m Mr. Dusty. Welcome to South Dakota.”
“Thanks,” he replied. The airport was bustling with people walking in many different directions. Dusty led him through the crowd to the luggage terminal and effortlessly grabbed hold of John’s new gray suitcase and duffel bag. He couldn’t help but notice it would take about four or five of his arms to equal one of Dusti’s.
As soon as they climbed into Dusti’s big brown truck, John texted his parents. Landed safely. Love you. After a half-hour drive from the airport, Dusty pulled into a long tree-lined driveway. A wooden sign with the name “Winding River Ranch” hung near the entrance.
Now, John found himself gazing up at his aunt’s large, sprawling white farmhouse. It had a big, wide front porch with a neat looking wooden swing on the right side. There were large green fern plants hanging from the porch ceiling and lots of flower pots with colorful flowers lining each side of the porch steps. Just to the right of the bottom step was a large bronze statue of St. Michael the Archangel. An American flag, anchored on one of the porch columns, waved proudly in the breeze.
There were several outbuildings, too, like a white garage with black shutters, which matched the ones on the house. Just a short distance away was a red barn with white trim work. Next to the barn was a chicken coop with a bunch of brown chickens strutting around and pecking at the ground. Overall, the ranch seemed warm and inviting.
Martha Jenkins rushed down the walkway toward John, reminding him of a battleship moving swiftly through ocean waters. “Why, just look at you, John Jenkins. Aren’t you a scrawny little thing,” she exclaimed, engulfing her great-nephew in a giant bear hug until he gulped for air. “The last time I saw you, you were only knee-high.” She flashed a brilliant smile, her white teeth contrasting sharply with her very tan, extremely wrinkled face. Ever since her husband died a few years ago, Martha ran their small South Dakota cattle ranch on her own, with help from Mr. Furman.
John hated to admit it, but he was rather scrawny. At his home in New Jersey, he was the skinniest boy in his class and the second shortest, too. He figured he probably wasn’t any taller by South Dakota standards. Other than his underwhelming stature, he was an average kid. He had short brown hair, brown eyes, and a bunch of freckles on his nose, which he hated. Last year, in what he liked to describe as a “science experiment,” he’d tried to scrub them off with bleach spray. It hadn’t worked, he wrecked his favorite T-shirt trying, and his mother had an absolute fit when she found out. She’d taken him straight to his pediatrician, Dr. Hornsby, who’d made him wear a Band-Aid on his nose for an entire week.
Four horses from a nearby corral came to the split-rail fence and nickered. “Always looking for a hand-out.” Aunt Martha laughed, pulling a few carrot pieces out of her floral apron pocket. She handed one to John, and he promptly fed it to a brown and white horse that nuzzled his forearm. “Cosmo’s a paint horse,” Aunt Martha said. “I think he likes you. Of course, the carrots might have something to do with it.”
John tentatively reached out and rubbed his neck. Although he’d taken a few riding lessons, he was more used to surfing waves than being around horses.
“Okay, I’ll see you two around supper time,” Foreman Dusty said, swinging John’s suitcase, duffel bag, and navy-blue backpack out of the rear of the pick-up truck. “There’s a fence that needs mending in the far pasture,” he explained, waving one of his big, burly arms in the general direction he was heading. “We sure are pleased to have you visit, Joh
“Thanks,” John managed to say as he took hold of his bags. Suddenly, it hit him how very far away he was from home. He knew he could text his parents with his cell phone. They had even bought him a laptop so they could have video chats, but it wasn’t nearly the same as being with them in person.
“Let me show you to your room and you can settle in,” Aunt Martha said kindly, apparently sensing that he was fighting off a sudden wave of homesickness. “Then we’ll have a nice afternoon snack.” It just so happened that the word snack was one of John’s very favorites.
After eating a delicious slice of warm, homemade apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream, John wandered along the brick path which connected the ranch house to the garage. Aunt Martha’s longhaired miniature dachshund, Custer, “velcroid” himself to John’s heels. Custer was small and skinny, just like John. Aunt Martha had adopted him a few years ago, after someone had abandoned him in nearby Custer State Park, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Petting Custer made John think of Ranger, and he hoped his buddy was faring okay at his grandparents’ house.
“Wow,” John murmured as he pushed the barn door open. It was chock-full of just about anything you could imagine: a horse carriage, a tractor, knick-knacks and bric-a-brac, and a whole bunch of dusty antique furniture. He was magnetically drawn to a six-foot tall, wood-framed antique mirror. He glanced into the mirror and, for a second, he saw the reflection of someone else! He stared briefly at a young girl with shoulder length pigtails and a bright smile. Custer barked twice, and then the girl vanished. Now, all he could see was a skinny kid with a bunch of freckles. It’s just me.
He tapped the mirror and ran his fingers slowly along its frame. He didn’t notice anything unusual, except it wasn’t dusty like the other furniture in the garage. In fact, the mirror appeared amazingly spotless, like someone had recently cleaned it. Puzzled, he stepped back and looked at it from a distance. It appeared to be a normal mirror—the kind you might see in a big dressing room or walk-in closet.
He spent the next hour investigating some of his great-aunt’s antiques. He checked all the nooks and crannies in an old roll-top oak desk, hoping to find a secret compartment. He climbed up into the horse carriage to see what it might have been like to travel back in the 1800s. When he heard his aunt calling him, he jumped down from the carriage and headed back along the brick path toward the house. Custer, taking his lead, followed close behind. He found Aunt Martha in the kitchen, placing a pot roast, mashed potatoes, and corn on the table. The delicious aromas wafted into his nostrils, and his stomach growled loudly in anticipation.
“Did you find anything interesting out there?” she asked, gazing inquisitively at him.
John almost asked about the mirror but thought better of it. After all, he didn’t want her to think he was totally crazy by asking, “Aunt Martha, when you look into the
mirror in your barn, do you see your own reflection or someone else’s?” Instead, he decided to play it safe and said, “You sure have a lot of antiques.”
“Oh yes, your Uncle Geoff was a big collector. I don’t have the heart to get rid of them. A few of them are quite special…” Again, Aunt Martha paused and looked him straight in the eye. He got the strangest feeling she wanted to ask him about the mirror, but he was determined not to take the bait.
Mr. Dusty entered through the back door, hung his hat on a hook, and joined them at the kitchen table. “John, since it’s your first day here, why don’t you lead us in grace?”
John bowed his head and murmured a short prayer of thanks. When he finished, they dug in. “Remind me where your parents are off to this time,” Aunt Martha said, dishing him out a helping of mashed potatoes. He used his fork to dig out a hole in the center and then poured in so much gravy that it spilled over and ran down the sides of his “potato-volcano.”
“They’re at a dig site in Tanzania, excavating fossils. I’m sorry they sort of dumped me on you,” John added, trying not to sound full of self-pity, like the poor kid whose parents didn’t want him around.
“Is that what you think, child?” Aunt Martha asked, wide-eyed. “Why, I told your parents I needed you here with me this summer. Otherwise, they would have sent you with Wyatt to spend the summer with your grandparents.”
John was astounded. Why on earth would Aunt Martha need me? He’d honestly thought his mother made that up just to make him feel better. He glanced at Mr. Dusty, hoping he might cast some light on the subject. However, Mr. Dusty was too busy chomping on a large mouthful of pot roast to add to the conversation. John’s mouth flapped open and closed like a freshly caught flounder, but no words came out.
“Didn’t they tell you about St. Michael the Archangel Academy?” Aunt Martha asked, a frown crossing her face and giving her even more wrinkles.
“St. Michael the Archangel Academy?” John echoed, now thoroughly confused. Custer nudged his shin under the table. Without thinking, he reached down and gave him a small piece of pot roast.
“Yes, St. Michael the Archangel Academy. We call it St. Michael’s for short,” she explained patiently. “It’s a top-secret school that helps authorities fight crime. Since you’ve turned thirteen, the academy has invited you to participate in your first mission.”
“Aunt Martha, I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” John said, flabbergasted. Mission? What kind of mission?
“Haven’t you ever noticed there’s something special about you?” Aunt Martha asked. “You know, a special gift? A God-given talent?”
John gave her a blank, confused stare. “Aunt Martha, I hate to break this to you, but look at me. I’m just a regular, average kid. There’s nothing really special about me.” He
sneaked another look at Mr. Dusty. He was still chewing away, seeming to find nothing unusual about their conversation.
“Nonsense,” She clucked. “You wouldn’t have been selected for St. Michael’s if you didn’t have some sort of extraordinary God-given talent. I suppose it’s just hidden really well.” She seemed to emphasize the word really. “No worries, we’ll figure it out, by and by. And now, you must be exhausted from the long trip. Time for bed. We have to get up early tomorrow so I can take you to the academy.”
Before he went to bed, John texted his parents to say goodnight. He decided not to mention St. Michael’s yet. I wonder why they didn’t tell me anything about the school.
John climbed into his cozy bed, which had a cool stars-and-moon quilt. He went to sleep that night with his head spinning. He couldn’t imagine why he had been chosen by St. Michael’s. Is it possible there’s something truly special about me?
John didn’t sleep well. At first, he couldn’t fall asleep because he kept thinking about missing Jackson, Chloe, and his family. After he finally dozed off, he kept tossing and turning, waking up and thinking about St. Michael’s. He knew that St. Michael wasn’t actually a saint, but rather an archangel. In fact, he was the leader of all the angels in God’s army. He remembered reading in the book of Revelations that he successfully led God’s army against Satan’s forces during the war in Heaven. Questions swirled around in his head. Why was the school named after him? Where is the academy? Will there be lots of other kids? Will the people there have super-cool special talents? He wasn’t convinced yet that he truly had a special gift. He figured that if he did, he would have noticed it by now.
After an amazing breakfast of pancakes, sausages, and fruit salad, Aunt Martha announced it was time to go. She paused to study John’s faded blue “I Love the Jersey Shore” T-shirt, which had a large, toothy shark face on the front. “Well, the dress code at the academy is on the casual side,” she said, trying not to smile. “I suppose your outfit will do.”
John glanced down self-consciously and tried to smooth out some of the wrinkles from his shirt and dark blue shorts. He supposed they had been rather crumpled in his suitcase on the way to South Dakota.
“But I do have something to make your outfit complete,” she said. She reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a silver chain with a quarter-sized medallion on it. “Your Uncle Geoff wore this every day. Now it’s your turn. It’ll help keep you safe.” She placed it around his neck. One side had an engraving of St. Michael the Archangel, sword in hand. On the other side were the words, For God and Country.
“Gosh, Aunt Martha, thank you so much,” he said, slipping the chain around his neck and sliding the medallion under his T-shirt to keep it safe and close to his heart. “I’ll take good care of it,” he promised.
“I know you will, child. And now we really must go.”
“Is St. Michael’s far away?” he asked, trying to sound confident but feeling rather nervous. He tried to quell the butterflies that were dancing around in his stomach. He felt like a little kid on his first day of kindergarten.
“Yes and no, depending on your perspective,” Aunt Martha replied. Custer hopped along next to her, begging to go. “Oh, not this time, Custer. John’s going to school to get oriented.”
John noticed they were heading towards the garage, but he hadn’t seen any cars parked in there yesterday. Are we taking the horse buggy?
Aunt Martha walked directly over to the strange mirror that John had studied earlier. “Grab my hand,” she directed. “It’s faster than driving.” Then, just like that, they stepped directly into the mirror. John felt his entire body get sucked into a giant wall of gelatin. His fingers slipped out of Aunt Martha’s and his arms flailed as he was pulled forward and downward through a long, brilliantly lit tunnel. He bounced from side to side against the squishy walls, and then began twirling so he didn’t know whether he was right-side up or upside down.
Suddenly, before he could steady himself, his body came to a screeching halt, and he was abruptly shoved out of the tunnel. He struggled to regain his balance but failed miserably. He landed ungracefully with a loud thump on his hands and knees, skidding along a hard tile floor. When he glanced up, Aunt Martha was standing calmly in some sort of hallway, looking like she launched through Jell-O-tunnels every day. She gave him a hand and pulled him unceremoniously to his feet.
“Oh, I’m so glad you’re here. When you looked into the mirror, I thought for sure you were coming yesterday,” a girl with blond shoulder length pigtails said, pausing only long enough to blow a large pink bubble with her gum.
So, this was the girl he’d seen in the mirror yesterday afternoon. When he saw a glimpse of her, she must have seen him, too. She looked to be about John’s age, and he was glad to note she wasn’t all that much taller than he was. “I’m Annabelle Johnson,” she said, grabbing hold of his hand and pumping it vigorously. For a rather petite girl, she had a mean handshake.
John worried his super-sweaty hand would give away that he was feeling nervous. Really nervous. He tried to surreptitiously wipe the palms of his hands on his shorts. If Annabelle noticed, she was too polite to mention it.
John blinked as his eyes adjusted to the brightness, and he took a moment to soak in his new surroundings. They’d landed in a large, white, sterile-looking hallway. Behind him was a floor-to-ceiling mirror, which he assumed was what they’d stepped through to get here. The hallway walls were painted white and the floor was made up of big, white square tiles. Even the ceiling was white, relieved only by a bunch of long fluorescent lights. John thought the place needed some serious interior decorating.
“Let’s get you checked in and registered at the front office,” Aunt Martha said. “Annabelle, why don’t you join us?”
“I’d love to,” Annabelle replied. “Let me show you the way.” She led them down the hall, made a left turn, and then a quick right turn. “Here we are, straight ahead. Mrs. Albert is the secretary. She’ll help you to get settled in.”
The door to the office was propped open with a wooden doorstopper. John stepped across the threshold into a room that was bright and sunny, thanks to a pair of large windows. He nervously held his breath, willing his fingers to stop fidgeting.
Alicia Albert, an elderly looking woman with short, snow-white hair, sat behind a long desk that was covered from end to end with towering stacks of papers. She quickly
stood when she spotted them. “Oh, Martha, what a pleasure to see you. Hi, Annabelle. This must be John, I presume.”
“Yes, it sure is. John, meet a dear friend of mine, Mrs. Albert.” Alicia Albert firmly squeezed his hand, making him wonder if she was younger than she looked.
“I can take it from here, Martha. But let’s do lunch soon, okay?”
“That sounds wonderful. Are you all set, John? Good,” Aunt Martha said before he could even answer. “I need to get back and do some work at the ranch.” She patted his shoulder and stepped back toward the doorway. “Annabelle, thanks for all your help.”
John’s gut clenched. He wanted to blurt out, “No, please stay for a little while.” However, he didn’t want to look like a complete wimp in front of Annabelle and Mrs. Albert. So, instead of asking her to stay, he simply nodded. In the blink of an eye, Aunt Martha stepped back into the hallway and was gone. Is this really happening to me? He pinched himself hard to make sure he wasn’t dreaming, but then bit back a yelp because it hurt.
“Please sign these forms,” Mrs. Albert said, pulling John from his thoughts. “And here’s a copy of the school’s rules.” She handed him a red, three-ring binder. “When you’re done with your orientation, Annabelle can bring you back, and I’ll get you your school backpack and cell phone.”
“Okay,” Annabelle said. “We’ll see you in about an hour.” Annabelle stepped into the hallway and gestured for him to come along. She was calm, confident, and self-assured. All the things that John knew he wasn’t. “How much do you know about St. Michael’s?” She paused less than a second, then chattered on. “It’s named after the archangel who fought against Satan. We fight against evil to protect our nation. Our school’s motto is For God and Country.”
For God and Country. Those are the words on the medallion that Aunt Martha just gave me. Is that a coincidence?
“We’re on Team Liberty, along with Raphael Perez and Shaniqua Forrester,” she continued, taking his arm and leading him down the hallway. “They’re both thirteen, too. Raphael’s from Boston, and Shaniqua lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. There’s also Team Freedom, Team Truth, Team Justice, and others. Oh look, there’s some of our classmates now,” she added, pointing to a bunch of kids who bustled noisily along the far end of the hallway before disappearing into a room.
“Do you go to school here year-round?” John asked. He hoped not. He loved his school back home in New Jersey.
“No, this is a summer program. Think of it as an internship with classwork as well as working to help the community. Sometimes, we might get called here over the holiday breaks, when our regular schools are closed for vacation.”
“Do you live here all summer?”
“No, I come here each morning through the mirror portal, the same way you did. I live in Sedona, Arizona with my parents, little brother and sister, and my cat, Mittens.”
“Oh, neat. I’ve always wanted to visit the Grand Canyon. So, are you new here like me?”
“Good grief, no,” she replied. “I’ve been doing mishes since I turned seven.” She said it matter-of-factly, without sounding arrogant or snobbish. John found himself starting to like her. Like her like a friend, that is. Not the mushy-kind of like.
“Mishes?” he asked, trying his best not to sound dumb, but at the same time wanting to make sure he had a clue what she was talking about.
“Mishes. Short for missions. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it,” she said, twisting her fingers around the end of one of her pigtails. “So, if you don’t mind my asking, what’s your special gift?”
“It’s-I-err, what’s yours?” John asked. Really smooth, Einstein, he thought. Great way to impress her.
“Well, I’ve been told I’m a history whiz,” Annabelle said modestly. “How about you?” she asked, obviously not deterred by his attempt to stall by answering her question with another question.
John briefly thought about making up a talent, but he knew she’d figure out the truth soon enough anyway. “Well, I’m not sure what mine is,” he admitted. “My great-aunt says I’ll figure it out.”
“Oh, that’s interesting. Usually, it’s obvious by the time a person turns five or six. Everyone here has one. But don’t worry. I’m sure your aunt is right. We’ll figure it out,” she replied.
John liked that Annabelle said, “We’ll figure it out” and not “You’ll figure it out.” It seemed that she already thought of him as a part of Team Liberty.
“Here we are,” Annabelle said, pausing in front of Room 101.
When they stepped inside, John quickly noted the room was the opposite of the super-white hallway. One part of the room had colorful thick foam mats on the floor. Another part had metal desks with attached seats, a SMART board, and a regular white dry-erase board for drawing things like diagrams. Toward the front of the classroom was a wide oak door with a wooden cross adorning the wall above it. He figured they must be in some sort of multi-purpose classroom.
“There’s Raphael,” Annabelle said, pointing to a stocky boy with short black hair. “He just got here about a half hour ago.” It was difficult to get a good look at his face, since he was busy doing back handsprings across the length of the gym mats. “Raphael,” she called out, “come over here and meet John.”
Raphael seemed to stop flipping almost in mid-air, gracefully landing on his feet. “Nice to meet you,” he said pleasantly. “You have forty-seven freckles on your nose.”
“Oh, stop showing off,” Annabelle chided. “As you may have guessed, Raphael’s gift is that he has amazing eyesight and a keen eye for details. It comes in really handy on our mishes.
John couldn’t help but wonder what hidden talent he possessed that would help Team Liberty. Fortunately, Raphael didn’t ask, and he found himself breathing a sigh of relief. “Those flips you do are amazing. Is gymnastics another one of your special gifts?” John asked, impressed by Raphael’s acrobatic skills.
Annabelle giggled. “Oh, he learned those from his pet monkey.”
“You have a pet monkey?” John asked, suitably impressed.
“Yes, and as a matter of fact, Mr. Gibbons is a great gymnastics instructor,” Raphael announced, glaring at Annabelle.
“That’s not what your mom said that time she caught him swinging from the chandelier in your dining room,” Annabelle replied. “As I recall, she said that…”
“Oh, never mind what she said. Mr. Gibbons would never do anything wrong.”
“Is he a gibbon? Aren’t they really apes?” John asked.
“He’s actually a capuchin monkey. I just named him Mr. Gibbons because I liked the way it sounded.”
“You really think he would never do anything wrong?” Annabelle asked. “I guess that’s true, unless you count the time he got hold of your sister’s paint set and put hand prints all over your living room walls and floor.”
“He knew the room needed a little spicing up. What can I say?” Raphael replied. He tried to look serious but couldn’t quite manage to keep a big grin from erupting across his face. “In fact, I think he’s almost ready to join Team Liberty.”
“I’m sure Mr. Jorgenson will approve him any day,” Annabelle said with a laugh. “I just wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.”
“Who’s Mr. Jorgenson?”
“He’s our team leader. He’s really nice but comes across as very serious. He’s a no-nonsense, by-the-book kind of teacher. He’ll spend some time orienting you and teaching us to work together as a team. It’ll give you some practical knowledge that’ll help you in the field,” Raphael explained.
As if on cue, Mr. Nate Jorgenson entered the room. He was tall with broad shoulders, like he could be a quarterback on a football team. He wore a navy-blue suit with a white shirt and red striped tie. He had short dark hair, and his glasses gave him an air of intelligence and authority. He studied John closely, and when he was done, John couldn’t help but think by his facial expression that he had somehow come up short.
Mr. Jorgenson suddenly smiled and shook John’s hand. “A nephew of Martha Jenkins is a true pleasure to meet. You have big shoes to fill. Your aunt is something of a legend here.”
“Your aunt is the Martha Jenkins?” Raphael asked incredulously.
John nodded and smiled. He could tell Raphael’s opinion of him had just risen a few notches. Mentally, he thanked his Aunt Martha for helping him make a good first impression. His family hadn’t visited Aunt Martha since he was three. He didn’t
remember much of anything, although he’d seen photos of the trip in their family photo albums. His parents had explained that Aunt Martha couldn’t visit them in New Jersey because it was too difficult for her to leave her ranch, what with taking care of the animals and all the work that went with it. She sent Christmas cards and gifts and always called on John’s birthday. Now, he found himself wishing his parents had somehow found the time to visit Aunt Martha more often over the past years.
“Have a seat,” Mr. Jorgenson directed. “We’ll start with a pre-test to get a general idea of your knowledge.” He rustled through a manila folder and pulled out some sheets of paper.
Uh-oh. A pre-test? This can’t be good. He wasn’t exactly what you’d call a superstar at school. He had a respectable A-B average, but no one was telling him he’d be a future rocket scientist.
Annabelle flashed John a reassuring smile. He took a deep breath and decided to take this one step at a time. They picked me to be a student at the St. Michael’s. How bad could the test be?
As it turned out, it could be pretty bad! Mr. Jorgenson sat on a tall swivel stool behind a honey-oak podium as he graded John’s test. A few times he looked up with his piercing gaze, almost as if to determine if John was actually an alien life form masquerading as a boy. John thought he did okay on the multiple-choice questions, but some of the essay questions were tough. For example, question number two had been, “Explain in detail how you would react if you were on a roller coaster which becomes stuck and you are left hanging in an upside-down position in one of the loops. You think you can hang on until the fire department comes to rescue you, but then someone announces via loudspeaker that the cars are beginning to derail. Please describe an action plan that is both realistic and achievable.” He wished Mr. Jorgenson would realize that he was only thirteen years old and not exactly what you’d call muscle-bound. I’m not trying to make excuses or anything, but let’s be real. My first instinct would be to try not to wet my pants! However, I’m sure that’s not what Mr. Jorgenson is looking for in a good answer.
John nervously studied Mr. Jorgenson’s facial expressions as he graded his test. He breathed a sigh of relief when his teacher took off his reading glasses and announced, “Let me fill you in on your mission.”
John squirmed in his chair. Why is Mr. Jorgenson already talking about missions? Aren’t they going to train me first?
As if reading his mind, Mr. Jorgenson said, “John, think of this mission as on-the-job training. Sometimes it’s helpful to get some solid field experience first so you can better understand the classroom lessons.”
Well, it is summertime, after all, John thought. The idea of classroom lessons didn’t exactly excite him, so he decided a field trip sounded good in comparison.
“Devlin Black and his cronies have turned up in South Dakota,” Mr. Jorgenson said, clearing his throat as he used his laptop to project an image of a young teenager onto a large screen in the front of the classroom. The boy had long, greasy-looking dark hair, which he wore pulled back into a ponytail. He had a tattoo of a venomous-looking snake on his extremely muscular left upper arm. He looked at least twice as big and wide as John, and he appeared to be all muscle. Yikes. Some small print at the bottom of the screen stated Devlin was fifteen years old and that last year he’d spent a few weeks in a juvenile detention center. “A few days ago, we gleaned information from social media that he has plans to target our country’s national treasures, monuments, and parks with mischief.”
“Are Malicia and Slade with him?” Anna
John had often tried to raise one eyebrow at a time. He thought it made people look thoughtful, cool, and intelligent all rolled up into one neat package. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been able to master the skill yet. The last time he’d tried, he’d stood in front of his bathroom mirror practicing. His mother had finally knocked and said she was wondering if he’d somehow accidentally flushed himself down the toilet since he’d been in there so long.
“Yes, Malicia Stone and Slade Smudgebottom have been seen with him. They arrived in Rapid City last night,” Mr. Jorgenson confirmed.
“How did they get here? Airplane?” John whispered to Annabelle.
“I’m not sure exactly. Our mirrors let us help people, but I think they use portals to make trouble,” she whispered back.
Mr. Jorgenson flashed two more images onto the large screen. The first was of a slim girl with gleaming wavy black hair, which she wore pulled back from her face with a jeweled headband. John figured she must be Malicia Stone. The second image was Slade Smudgebottom. He had very close-cropped blond hair and wore tinted glasses, which masked what John imagined to be beady little eyes. He was short and squat. His tank top didn’t quite reach his shorts, exposing a few inches of his tummy. His upper arm was bigger than John’s thigh.
According to the small print on the screen, Malicia was thirteen, and Slade was fourteen years old. John glanced over at Raphael, whose gaze seemed to be literally devouring every detail on the screen.
“We currently have one of our adult teams trying to determine who Devlin is taking orders from. They’ve narrowed it down to several possibilities. When I learn more, I will pass it on to you,” Mr. Jorgenson said. “In the meantime, I want you to focus on figuring out their current goal.”
“Mount Rushmore,” Raphael mused aloud. “Do you think that could be their target?”
John had seen photos of Mount Rushmore, but he’d never been there in person. He’d been hoping Aunt Martha would take him. Now it sounded like he’d be visiting the historic landmark even sooner than he thought.
“It makes sense,” Mr. Jorgenson said, his forehead wrinkling as he pondered Raphael’s question. “You’re going to need to check it out.”
“Do you have any leads? Anything for us to go on?” Annabelle asked.
“Just one. Our intelligence intercepted a message about a ‘star key.’ It was quite garbled, so I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you. Maybe it will make more sense when you get there.”
John wondered what a star-shaped key might unlock. Something at Mount Rushmore? His heart beat faster in anticipation of what they might find.
“Be safe and the Lord be with you,” Mr. Jorgenson said. With that, he stood abruptly, nodded, and exited out the door toward the front of the classroom.
“That’s it?” John asked. “That’s our briefing? It seemed so…well…brief.”
“Yes. Mr. Jorgenson tells us our mission, but after that, it’s up to us as to how to proceed,” Raphael explained. “No worries, though. We’ll show you the ropes.”
Annabelle glanced at her watch. “Shaniqua should be here any minute. She missed our meeting with Mr. Jorgenson because she got delayed at her home.”
“Is her grandmother okay?” Raphael asked.
“Shaniqua’s had a tough time lately,” Annabelle explained, turning toward John. “Her father died in a car accident last year.”
“Hit by a drunk driver,” Raphael added, shaking his head.
“Then a few months ago, her grandmother had a bad stroke. She was in the hospital for a week and then a rehab center for a month. Now, she’s home again, and Shaniqua and her mom have been taking care of her. She texted to say she’s running late because she was helping her grandma eat breakfast. She’ll meet us here before we head out.”
“She said she’s really looking forward to being back here again. I think it’ll help her to take her mind off her troubles.”
“Yes, it’ll be good for her,” Annabelle agreed. “Remember when we saw the other teams in the hallway? They’re getting ready to head out on missions today, too, but we all meet here several times per week for our Introduction to Forensics class.”
So, it sounds like I’ll have some studying to do this summer after all. John grimaced. “What’s Shaniqua’s special talent?” he asked aloud, unable to contain his curiosity.
“She’s really good at cracking codes. She could solve any magazine puzzle by the time she was four. She just got better and better from there. Once in a while, I think she even helps the CIA, but she’s not allowed to talk about it.”
“Wow, that’s really impressive,” John replied. “I love reading about secret codes and stuff in books and magazines.” His parents had gotten him a subscription to a puzzle magazine for Christmas, and he really looked forward to getting a new issue each month.
“Well, Shaniqua’s truly amazing,” Raphael said. “I’m not sure what we’d do without her.”
“Cute shark,” Annabelle said, switching subjects as she glanced at John’s T-shirt. “But, for starters, maybe Mrs. Albert can help us find something in the closet that’ll help you blend in a little better without screaming, ‘I’m from New Jersey.’ No offense, but that shirt makes you memorable. Rule number one is don’t stick out in a crowd. You want to melt into the background. Devlin doesn’t know your face yet, so we might as well keep it that way as long as possible.”
“Are these missions ever, you know, dangerous?” John asked, trying to sound casual rather than wimpy.
Annabelle and Raphael exchanged a look with each other, as if they were trying to figure out the best way to answer his question. “Nothing too dangerous,” Raphael replied. “St. Michael’s sends us into situations we can handle. Sometimes, it’s easier for
kids like us to blend into the background than it is for adults. But, if it’s something truly dangerous, they’ll send in an adult team or call in a different government agency, depending on the type of situation.”
“Team Liberty helps the police solve low-level crimes,” Annabelle added. “Now, about that shirt,” she said, taking John by the elbow and steering him out of the classroom and back to the main office. “Time for Mrs. Albert to give us a hand.”
Mrs. Albert took them to a hallway closet just around the corner from the school office. She pulled out a black backpack with a small blue and white patch sewn to the front pocket. The words “St. Michael the Archangel Academy” were stitched on it, along with an image of St. Michael. She grabbed a small flashlight from another box in the closet and tossed it into the backpack. Next, she put in some fishing line, a long length of rope, several carabiners, a small pair of scissors, a compass, and hand sanitizer.
Annabelle rummaged through a box on one of the closet shelves, pulled out a plain, light gray T-shirt, and handed it to John. “At least now you’ll seem more like a local.”
“Next stop, the kitchen.” Mrs. Albert led them through a large cafeteria with long rows of tables and plastic chairs. At the far end, they stepped through a doorway into a spacious kitchen with numerous ovens, several stainless-steel refrigerators and freezers, and many white cabinets. She reached into one of the cabinets and took out a water bottle and a couple of granola bars. After placing them in his backpack, she pulled an apple out of the fridge and tossed that in as well.
Finally, some snacks, John thought, mentally taking a big bite out of the apple.
“Now all you need is a cell phone and radio. I know you probably have your own cell phone, but you’ll get a school-issued one to use for academy business. Annabelle and Raphael, could you please take John to the dispatch room?” She handed John the backpack, and he slipped it on over his shoulders. Wow, it’s heavy.
The dispatch room was a small, dimly lit room toward the end of the long white hallway. Raphael punched in a code on the panel next to the door and when the light turned green, he quickly swung the door open. “You can never be too careful with security,” he explained.
A middle-aged woman with long grayish-blond hair swept back into a high bun sat behind a desk with a bunch of computer monitors. She was wearing a headset over her ears and wore a second one around her neck. She glanced up and held up one finger, indicating she’d be with them in a minute. Then she quickly turned her attention back to the monitors.
“That’s Teesha,” Annabelle whispered. “She’s our main dispatcher.” She and Raphael walked to a side table, pulled their radios out of their chargers, and unplugged their cell phones. Next, they opened a logbook on the counter and signed out their equipment for the day.
Teesha stood up and smiled. “Sorry about the delay. You must be John. Mrs. Albert told me you’d be stopping by. I’m assigning you radio number fifty-three.” She took it
from its charger and motioned for John to sign his name next to the corresponding number in the log on the counter. “If you call Dispatch with this radio, you’ll reach me or whoever is working that shift. Try to call only in emergency situations. We’ll send help, like a back-up team. If it’s a non-emergency, you can call Dispatch with the cell phone to keep the radio waves clear. It’s set to number one on your speed dial.” She briefly explained how to work the various knobs and channels. John tried to make a mental note about everything Teesha was teaching him. Boy, it’s a lot to remember.
Next, Teesha handed him a cell phone and pointed once more to the log. “Sign here.” He was glad to see it was a smart phone, so he’d be able to look stuff up on the internet while they were on their mission. He slid off his new backpack and placed both the radio and cell phone in the front pouch.
“Well, that’s enough of that. It’s time to go,” Annabelle said, barely able to suppress her excitement that they were starting a mission. They stopped by a large staff room lined on one side with tall metal lockers. After punching some numbers into the combination locks, Annabelle and Raphael quickly grabbed their backpacks. “Mrs. Albert will assign you a locker when we get back,” she said.
“Thanks. How are we going to get to Mount Rushmore? Will someone drive us?”
“No, we’ll get there the same way you got here. The mirror works only for missions. I mean, you can’t use it to go to Disney World or the Caribbean or something like that just for fun. But it’ll take us where we need to go for now.”
As Annabelle and John walked the length of the long hallway toward the mirror, Raphael did back handsprings alongside them. Just as they reached the mirror, a girl wearing beige cargo shorts and a green T-shirt was stepping through it into the hallway. She had lots of small French braids with colorful beads interspersed throughout them. John noticed that she had a short pencil tucked behind her right ear. She flashed them a bright smile, which showed off her metal braces. Raphael and Annabelle charged toward her and engulfed her in a giant group hug. “We missed you, friend!” they exclaimed simultaneously.
“Me too.” Her eyes briefly shone with unshed tears, but she resolutely fought them off before they could slide down her cheeks. Turning toward John, she said, “Hi, I’m Shaniqua Forrester. You must be our newest recruit.”
“Yes, that’s right. Nice to meet you,” John said politely. He could tell from a glance that she was a solid team member: passionate, smart, and determined.
“We better hurry. We’ll fill you in once we get there,” Annabelle said, handing Shaniqua her backpack. “Everyone hold hands.” They stepped into the mirror, and in an instant, Whoosh! As John felt himself being sucked along the tunnel, he couldn’t help but wonder what adventures lay ahead.