“Something electronic, I think,” Tiff said, wrinkling her nose. “Like maybe a bug?”

“No,” Brittany said. “Bug is blue, remember?”

“Oh yeah.”

“It has to be a chip of some kind then, right?”

They seemed to be approaching this whole conversation with the same solemnity with which they considered fall colors. No more, no less.

Brooke, however, snapped to attention. “Somebody get a scalpel. Now.”

If you’ve never heard a cheerleading captain speak these words, then you have never felt true terror. A scalpel? And just what was she planning on scalpeling? Because she had to know that I wasn’t letting her come anywhere near me with something of the sharp and pointy variety.

Lucy with the knives had been more than enough.

“Got one!” Somehow, I wasn’t surprised that Miss Knives-Are-Interesting had a scalpel handy. I wasn’t going to ask about that. I really didn’t want to know.

“Who do you want cutting it out?”

“Cutting what out? There will be no cutting! None. Lucy, step away from the scalpel.”

Lucy rolled her eyes and handed the scalpel to Tara.

“You have a chip in your shoulder,” Tara said softly, like she was talking a stray puppy out from underneath a car. “Most likely a tracking chip of some kind, just below the skin. The shower gel reacts to certain alloy metals and electrical currents. That’s why you’re itching, and that’s why your shoulder’s pink. You’ve been tagged.”

Okay, now this day officially sucked.

“We have to take it out, Toby. For all we know, someone may be tracking you to the Quad as we speak.”

I didn’t respond. I was too busy thinking. There was a chip in my shoulder. A chip in my freaking shoulder. A freaking chip in my freaking shoulder. Someone was tracking my movements.

“Amelia may be tracking you to the Quad as we speak.” Brooke amended her original statement.

“She never touched me. She never even came close to me. She was across the room the entire time. She couldn’t have done this.”

In the privacy of my own mind, I came up with an alternative theory. Not one, but two of the missions I’d gone on in the past two days had gone badly, both times because of the presence of a third party. Someone had blown up Kann’s car, and someone had stolen the nanobots. I’d wondered how the intruder could possibly be an unknown player, how they could have known to come to Ross’s lab, and now I knew.

Whoever the figure in black was, I’d led them straight to the TCIs. Straight to the weapon. Some independent operative had tagged me to piggyback on our operation, and now that person had some seriously scary technology. And, to add salt to the wound, if I’d used the twins’ stupid shower gel before now, we might have discovered this fact before we’d lost the nanobots and before the aforementioned figure had sold them to Anthony Connors-Wright.

“Got it.” Tara’s words snapped me back to reality, and I realized that she’d already made a small incision in my skin, so small that it barely bled and didn’t hurt until I realized that it should have.

“Chloe.” Brooke didn’t say more than Chloe’s name, but our gadget girl snapped into motion, and carefully bagged the chip, leading me to question whether or not she typically carried evidence bags around in her sports bra.

“I’m on it,” Chloe said. “I’ll have the sample analyzed by lunchtime at the latest.” She smiled half of an ironic grin. “Guess our stunting technique is going to have to wait.”

“Our stunting technique is already flawless,” Brooke said. “Right now, we have other priorities.”

Sure, I thought. I got blackmailed by a TCI, and Brooke was all about practicing our cradles, but the moment it turned out that I had a tracker chip in my shoulder, she admitted that we’d already outpracticed ourselves. It figured.

Everyone else was so concentrated on the chip that I was the only one who noticed when the data on the screen in front of us changed. A second, automatic search had just revealed that Anthony Connors-Wright’s father was in Bayport, protecting a senator who was scheduled to speak at four that afternoon.

Without a word, Chloe set about examining the chip from my shoulder, and the others went back over our files, looking for evidence that Amelia had led me astray.

Then one by one, they reported back, confirming everything Amelia had told me.

I took in the information and came to my own conclusion. “Game on.”


Code Word: Issues

I’d finally talked the others into stepping up and accepting Amelia’s challenge, but nothing I’d said could dissuade Brooke from trying to get authorization to do so. As she pointed out, Amelia had said that we couldn’t tell our superiors what she’d told us, or what we were doing. She never said we couldn’t make up a reason why we needed to be reinstated on the case.

“Hi…Mom? It’s me. Listen, there’s been a development on the thing.” Brooke paused, and walked away from the rest of us a little. “You know, the thing thing.”

I could hear the voice from the other end of the phone, but couldn’t make out the words. Based on whatever Mrs. Camden said, Brooke dropped the cheer-tone in her voice and switched over to operative mode without so much as a bat of her eyelashes. “We’ve reanalyzed all of the data we collected during the course of this case, and we have reason to believe that somebody should still be keeping an eye on—”

This time, the voice from the other end was louder, and I wondered what exactly it was that finally got a verbal rise out of Brooke’s mother, despite her I’m-just-a-sweet-PTA-mom façade.

“We think there may be more to this weapon than previously realized, and that it would behoove us to have as much surveillance on the TCIs as possible until…”

Brooke frowned as she listened to the other end. “What do I want you to do? I want you to get us back on this, or short of that, to tell your bosses that we could be looking at something major here.”

Hearing Brooke talk to her mother that way cheered me up significantly. She’d just lain down and taken it the day before. At least now she was arguing.

“Yes, I’m aware that the votes for homecoming are cast tomorrow, Moth-er.” Brooke broke the last word down into two syllables. “But—”

More talking from the other end of the line.

“What’s wrong with my hair?” Brooke asked plaintively. Then she let out a breath. “What about the extra security?” she asked. “Can you at least…no, I’m not going to hire a bunch of freshman boys to pretend to be pirates. I don’t care how effective you think that would be. Are you even listening to me?”

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