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The Reluctant Spy

by Lois June Wickstrom

Timmy gets over his reluctance to spy on his neighbor the mad scientist after his pet rat is kidnapped.
 

Chapter One

 

The Reluctant Spy

by Lois June Wickstrom

Chapter One Ė A Rat in the Bedroom

Scritch-scritch. Skitter. Scrunch. There it was again. Something was digging under his bed. Timmy grabbed the cool metal flashlight from under his pillow, leaned over the edge of his bed and clicked the switch with his thumb.

Something moved against the wall. An indignant squeak. Timmy did his best to hold the flashlight still. Two small beady black eyes shone back at him. A hairless tail twitched. And little pink paws pulled back against a furry white chest.

It was a rat. A seven-inch long rat, with a dark brown head and neck. It looked like a hooded little bandit.

Timmy played his flashlight beam over it. The rat sat, unmoving, unafraid in front of a freshly chewed hole in his pale green wall. Now he knew what caused the scritching sound Ė and he didnít like it..

The ratís eyes sparkled. The indignant expression on its face seemed to say, "What are you doing under my bed?" The flashlight beam revealed translucent pink ears and long white whiskers. He could see now that the ratís dark hood was its own natural fur.

Grandma would be horrified if she knew a rat had invaded her meticulously clean house. There must be a trap in the garage. Timmy sat up and started to burrow his feet into his slippers. He thought with satisfaction: if he

caught the rat, he could put its dead body in the outside trash can before Grandma ever saw it.

His flashlight illuminated the poster on the back of his door: There was his hero: Michael Johnson, world famous sprinter, breaking through the victory ribbon. Seeing that picture reminded him Ė he still hadnít decided if he wanted to try out for the track team tomorrow!

Timmy was a thin boy with wiry muscles, olive skin, and jet black hair. Coach Sweet said he had the perfect build for a sprinter, just like Michael Johnson.

Footsteps came padding down the hallway. Timmy felt his toes curl up as he listened. They always curled up when he was nervous or worried. This habit tended to wear holes in to tops of his shoes Ė even his slippers.

The door to his room creaked open. Michael Johnsonís picture swung away. He aimed his flashlight at the intruder. There stood Grandma wearing her orange and pink peony-print nightdress.

The rat squeaked, again. There was no hiding it from her now. Grandma stared at Timmy and spoke gruffly. "You must be the fastest flashlight in the East. Please lower your beam."

Timmy pointed his flashlight down at Grandmaís furry pink slippers. They sparkled against his red linoleum floor. "Sorry, Grandma. I wasnít expecting you."

"Youíve got good reflexes!" Grandma praised him. "Startle the invader, I always say. How did you get your flashlight on so fast? I didnít even hear it click"

"I heard a noise under my bed." Timmy paused. "Grandma, weíve got a rat." He braced himself for what she might say.

Grandma smiled. "You found Hildegarde! Iím so relieved! I just bought her last week and I was worried that she had escaped!"

"You bought a rat?" Timmy couldnít believe it. "Then itís a good thing I didnít set a trap."

"Yes, indeed it is," said Grandma. "I think itís time I formally introduced the two of you." Grandma paused. "Please give me the light." She held her hand out for his flashlight.

"Youíre standing beside the wall switch." Timmy kept his flashlight beam aimed at his grandmotherís feet..

"Timmy," said Grandma in her Iím-trying-to-be-patient voice, "Hildegarde is late for her training. She trains in the dark. I donít want her to get used to full room light, until Iím sure of her skills in the dark. Now, please give me the flashlight."

Up close, Timmy could smell that Grandma had taken a lavender bubble bath. He handed her the flashlight. "Why are you training a rat?"

The flashlight bobbed as Grandma chuckled. "Thereís been the smell of mystery in the air. I want Hildegarde to investigate."

"What does a mystery smell like?" asked Timmy.

"Youíll learn." Grandma aimed the flashlight under the bed. "Iím going to introduce you to Hildegarde. Now sit down on the floor, facing the bed."

Timmy followed his grandmotherís instructions. There was no point arguing, or even asking questions when Grandma was intent on a project..

Grandma shined the beam on his face. He squinted, involuntarily. Timmy recalled that Grandma hadnít squinted when heíd shined the light in her eyes. Maybe his cousin Axel was right. Maybe she was a spy.

"Hildegarde, this is my grandson, Timmy." Hildegarde twitched her whiskers.

Timmy laughed. Heíd been thinking about protecting Grandma from finding out she had a rat in her house, and now they were being introduced, like people who are expected to become friends.

His cousins Axel and Joey had warned him that Grandma was odd, but heíd thought they were just trying to freak him out. Before his parents disappeared last month, he only knew Grandma from his once-a-year visits to Pillow, Pennsylvania.

Now she was his family until his parents returned from their mysterious mission Ė if they ever returned. Grandma said the government used to think children needed their parents. They only sent childless people on dangerous missions. But now, the government thinks its projects are more important than children or anything else. She often called the government a big baby.

Timmy was afraid to talk about his parents and their mission Ė for fear he might jeopardize their project, and he might never see them again..

 

Chapter Two Ė She Lives Here Now

Grandma shined the light beam under the bed. "Timmy, this is Hildegarde. Sheís learning to be a spy."

"How can a rat be a spy?" he asked. "And how did you hide her in the house for a whole week without my seeing her?

Grandma smiled and clicked off the flashlight. Hildegarde squeaked again.

Grandma bragged, "Sheís been all over Ė exploring our house Ė itís her territory now." Grandma kneeled down on the floor and peered under the bed. "Hildyís very quiet, except when sheís hiding things."

"Is she hiding something in my room?" Timmy didnít like the idea of a rat using his bedroom as a storage bin.

"If you heard her, you can be sure she was gnawing a hole in your wall to hide something.

Grandmaís house was Spanish-style adobe with an open floor plan. The living room, dining room and kitchen were one large open space divided by kitchen cabinets and several strategically placed tables. The only walls in the house created the two bathrooms and three bedrooms.

Each bedroom had a laundry chute to the large open basement. Timmy and Grandma sometimes slid down the chutes for the fun of it. Grandma called it a drill, in case they needed to hide.

"Hildy has hiding places in every room of this house Ė including the garage." Timmy could tell Grandma was proud of that sneaky rat.

"What does she hide?" Timmy asked, uneasily. He pictured the rat hiding dead bugs and other disgusting things under his bed.

"The same things as you Ė carob, crackers Ė and some nutritious foods, too.

Timmy did not like being told that this rat was just like him. He was better than a rat! "Doesnít she shed hair and track mud in the house?"

"Sheís so little and sweet Ė I donít mind cleaning up a few hairs and tiny footprints."

Grandma sat on the floor and patted the linoleum beside her. "Come here, Hildy. Time for a snuggle." Hildegarde poked her nose out from under the bed. Grandma patted the linoleum again.

"Youíve seen dogs sniffing luggage at the airport. They could replace all those big ugly dogs with sweet little rats like Hildy. She can sniff out anything better than a dog. Rats can pick up smells much better than you or I."

Grandma was comparing him to a rat again. And he was coming up second best. Timmy didnít like that at all.

"You can help me train her," said Grandma. "It can be our special project."

Timmy didnít want a special project. He still hadnít decided if he was going to try out for the track team. But he didnít want to disappoint his grandmother, either.

"Maybe this weekend. Iím awfully busy with school." Timmy paused. He didnít really want to train a rat. The cold of the floor had seeped through his thin cotton pajamas. He stood up, sat on the edge of his bed, and gave a fake yawn.

"Iím going to train her right now." Grandma put her hands beside the bed. Hildy climbed into her cupped palms. Then Grandma lifted Hildy up to her face and kissed her on the forehead.

"Yuck," said Timmy. He lay down on his bed and pulled the warm covers up over his shoulders.

"Itís time for her nightly lesson. Iím training her to push buttons and toggle switches." Grandma sounded like she expected him to be interested. Like she was giving him a treat. "Come on! I know a fake yawn when I see one. Itíll be fun!"

Timmy grimaced. "Whereís her cage? Iíll go get her cage!"

"Hildy doesnít have a cage. Cages are for pet rats, or maybe lab rats." said Grandma. "Hildy is going to be my assistant. Sheíll need to know every nook and cranny of this house better than we do."

"Why do you need help pushing buttons and toggling switches?" Timmy asked.

"When they are in places I canít reach." Grandma had the ability to say the most unreasonable things in a calm voice.

"Get a ladder. Iím going to sleep." Timmy pulled the blanket over his head.

"A ladder wonít help when the switches are in other peopleís houses." Grandma put Hildegarde on the bed beside Timmy. She snuggled her warm body up against him, and tickled him with her whiskers. He tensed.

"Grandma, why do you want to press buttons and toggle switches in other peoplesí houses?" Timmy stretched the way heíd seen sleepy people do in movies.

"You never know." Grandma put her hand on his shoulder. "You can pet her. Sheís soft and warm. She wonít bite you."

"I donít want to touch a rat!" Timmy pulled the soft warm covers firmly over his head.

"She lives here now. Sheís family." Hildegarde snuggled her head up against his chest. Timmy tensed some more.

"If sheís family, is she going to go off on a secret mission and disappear?" Timmy almost said "like my parents."

"Sheís family, so you can love her." Grandma stroked Timmyís hair.

"Iím really sleepy." Timmy turned his face to the wall. Hildegarde snuggled her warm little body up against his back.

"Okay," said Grandma. "Good night. Iím taking Hildy for her lesson now." She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead, through the blanket and picked up Hildegarde.

As Grandma turned to leave his room, the drinking glass on his bedside table clinked and jiggled a little dance.

Chapter Three Ė The Earthquake

Was Grandma doing something to make him change his mind? Timmy poked his head out from under the covers. Street lamps all down the block blinked in unison. His bed shook. Timmy rolled over to see if Grandma was jumping. Grandma stood almost still as a statue, cuddling Hildegarde in in the middle of his room..

"Wha?" Timmy started to ask.

Grandma held a finger to her lips. "Shh!"

The glass skittered across his night stand. Grandma took a swift step, holding Hildy in one hand, and caught his glass just as it slipped over the edge of the table.

She held the glass to her nose and sniffed. It was lemonade Ė not the water he was supposed to have. But Grandma didnít say anything. On a normal night sheíd have ordered him to brush his teeth again Ė immediately!

The room shook. Books toppled from their shelves and clattered to the linoleum floor. The little hooded rat made a series of rapid high-pitched squeaks, and nestled its brown head into a fold of Grandmaís nightdress.

In the dim light from the street lamp, he saw Grandma touch her wrist, where she kept her braille watch. Grandma wasnít blind. She liked to be able to check the time without looking at her wrist.

"Itís 10:13. Do you smell anything?" Grandma asked.

"Smell what?" asked Timmy.

"The smell that comes after an earthquake." Grandma said, calmly.

"Earthquakes donít smell." Timmy pulled the covers over his head again.

"Just take a deep breath with your nose and tell me what you smell."

Timmy poked his head out from under the covers again, and sniffed deeply several times. "It smells like the time you overheated your cast iron sauce pot on the stove."

"Thatís what I thought," said Grandma. "We have a mystery. The Case of the Hot Metal Earthquake."

"Ms. Mulisch says earthquakes are natural disasters." Ms. Mulisch was his sixth grade teacher. She had been a schoolmate of Grandmaís. Timmy knew there was still a rivalry between them.

"Old Ding-Ding doesnít know everything," said Grandma.

"Ding-Ding?" asked Timmy.

"We used to call MaryBelle Mulisch, Ding-Ding."

Timmy laughed. Then he said, "She does know a lot about earthquakes."

"Weíll see," said Grandma. "I have a hunch that this was more than an ordinary earthquake."

"Iíll ask about it in school tomorrow." Timmy was in no mood for one of Grandmaís impromptu science lessons.

"Listen!" said Grandma.

What now? thought Timmy. But he listened, his toes curling up. He heard a distant beepity beeple beep beep beepity.

"Thatís the Morse code machine in the garage. Somebody is sending us a message."

"Canít it wait Ďtil morning?" asked Timmy. "I want to go to sleep."

Grandma tapped her head. "I almost forgot. Our neighbor Mr. Richter is giving a science demonstration at his house tomorrow afternoon. He says heís got a new invention."

"Whoís Mr. Richter?" Timmy tried to sound bored.

"Heís our new neighbor. The one who put up that funny looking house suspended from a pole up the middle. Iíll bet his house really jiggled tonight."

"Oh, you mean the mad scientist." Timmy pulled his covers up to his ears.

"Now, Timmy." Grandma gave him an amused smile.

"Thatís what the kids at school are calling him."

"All the more reason to go check him out." Grandma petted Hildegarde. "Isnít that right, Hildy?"

The rat boggled her eyes. Then she reached a pink paw up to stroke Grandmaís neck.

"Iíll think about it," said Timmy. Heíd seen enough kiddie magic shows to last a lifetime. Science was either really simple stuff like Ms. Mulisch made them do, or it was too hard to understand.

And he still hadnít decided about track tryouts. He didnít want to tell Grandma, in case he didnít make the team.