For Ages
8 to 12

Cracking the code isn't all it's cracked up to be in this scavenger hunt adventure from a Coretta Scott King Honor-winning author.

“Delivers a truly fresh mystery — along with a heist, some heartbreak, some unforgettable characters and plenty of laser tag.” —The New York Times Book Review

Chester Keene takes great comfort in his routines. Afterschool Monday to Thursday is bowling, and Friday, the best of days, is laser tag! But Chester has one other very special thing—he gets secret spy messages from his dad, who must be on covert government assignments, which is why Chester has never met him.

Then one day, Chester’s classmate, Skye, approaches him with a clue. They’ve been tasked with a complex puzzle-solving mission. Skye proves to be a useful partner and good company, even if her free-wheeling ways are disruptive to Chester’s carefully built schedule.

As Chester and Skye get closer to their final clue, they discover the key to their spy assignment: they have to stop a heist! But cracking this code may mean finding out things are not always what they seem.

An Excerpt fromChester Keene Cracks the Code

1

Routine

Everyone probably assumes my life is very boring. Strictly speaking, they’re not wrong. It’s really just that I like things to be done a certain way.

I get up in the morning at 6:35, five minutes after my alarm goes off at 6:30. I have to take five minutes to just lie there and look at the ceiling. I’m not sure why.

A lot of thoughts fill my mind in that morning quiet, and the first thing I want to do is find a way to not think them. When my snooze alarm goes off, it plays music, which helps. My brain sings along to The Best of Motown and that’s always a good way to get things going.

“Things” being: my morning routine.

First, the shower. I wash my hair in there every other day. Brush teeth, for bad-­breath control. Put on clothes, usually jeans. I own one pair of corduroys, but I only wear them maybe every other week. Just to mix it up. On top, it’s either T-shirts, or polos with various stripes across the chest. The T-shirts feel better, but the polos do look quite a bit nicer. It all depends on whether it’s a day to be comfortable or a little more stylish. On the rare occasions when I do polo and corduroys . . . look out world, here comes Chester Keene.

By 6:55, I’m ready to roll. I scoot into the living room, plop my backpack by the door, with five minutes to spare, which is exactly how long it takes to log in on Mom’s computer and check my email. Fingers crossed.

Today, the only new email is something from school about Yearbook Club. Nothing from Dad.

Refresh.

Still nothing. It has been over two weeks since he last wrote me back.

New message.

Dad? Is everything OK?

My fingers hang over the keys. There isn’t much else to say.

Please write me back.

Wait. Am I being overanxious? Needy? Impatient?

Delete.

He’ll get back to me when he can. I’m sure of it. Two weeks really isn’t that long, considering we haven’t seen each other in eight and a half years. Knowing what I know now, though, I can’t help but worry. What if he’s in danger, or—­

Mom’s bedroom door opens. Her slippers shuffle against the carpet.

Stealth mode: activate!

By the time she emerges from the hallway, wrapped in her fuzzy green bathrobe, the computer is dark and quiet and I’m at the kitchen counter pouring a bowl of cereal.

“Hi, Mom!” My big morning smile is ready to go.

“Mmm-­hmm.” Mom kisses my forehead. The coffeepot is timed to start sizzling right about now, and it does. I milk up my Honey Nut Cheerios as Mom watches the coffee drip, drip, drip.

Observation: Mom has on a fresh coat of nail polish, already dry and shining. She must have done it last night. She’s chosen the giant Niagara Falls mug, which means she’s extra tired this morning.

We sit across from each other in silence, Mom sniffing coffee steam and me crunching away. Mom has this look on her face, the one that means she’s thinking hard about something.

“How’s my Chester this morning?” she says, once the caffeine starts to kick in.

“I’m fine, Mom.” There are other things I could say, but I won’t. The thing about Mom is that she worries a lot. Once on the phone to her friend Amanda, when she thought I was asleep, Mom said that raising me alone is really stressful. So I try hard not to give her any more problems. I can handle things myself, and when I need advice, I can always ask Dad. He might be slow at email, but he’s really smart.

“That’s good,” Mom answers. “And if you’re ever not fine, you keep me posted, okay?”

“Of course.” But my smile isn’t quite enough reassurance, I can tell. She really does worry A LOT.

At 7:16, it’s time to move.

The last of the Honey Nut Cheerios milk goes down like sweet nectar. Yum. I pop my bowl into the dishwasher and head to the door.

Sneakers, jacket, backpack on. I whisper my checklist while Mom stands in the kitchen doorway, lightly fanning her second cup of coffee with gentle breaths.

“Homework, check. Gym clothes, check. Lunch card, check.”

“Got everything?” Mom says, which is part of the routine.

Spy gear, check.

“Yep.” The silent addition is not for Mom’s ears. It’s our secret, Dad’s and mine.

2

Observation, Conclusion

The walk to the bus stop takes two minutes. One minute to walk along the balcony and down the stairs from our second-­floor apartment, through the parking lot and out the driveway, and a whole other minute to go all the way down the sidewalk to the second driveway entrance to our apartment complex.

It’s weird. I’m the only kid that gets picked up at this location, but the stop is still all the way on the other side. Mom says they simply haven’t updated the routes in a few years. There’s a kid on the other side that used to ride this bus, but he’s in high school now.

I have a plan, though. Every day I stand a few yards closer to my side of the complex. I figure the bus driver isn’t looking for the driveway itself, he’s looking for the kid that needs to get picked up. So I’m thinking I can train him over time to just pick me up at my own driveway. So far, so good.

When the process is done, I’ll be able to leave the house one minute later. I don’t know yet what I’ll do with the extra time. Linger over the Cheerios? Lie in bed for six minutes? Maybe I could start wearing a belt or some sort of accessory. That might use up some time.

Observation: Mrs. O’Leary’s car is not in its spot. She goes to yoga class on Thursday, but it’s Friday. Interesting. There is a city work crew opening a manhole on the next block. Sewer work? Mr. Carson didn’t clean up after his dog this morning, and he’s usually very diligent. His sciatica must be acting up.

The bus ride itself is a jouncy, bouncy, jaw-­rattling experience. My row is the fourth up from the back, so we get extra height flying over all the potholes. I slouch down low and prop my knees up on the seat back in front of me. No one ever sits with me, so I put my backpack next to me and hook my arm through the straps so it doesn’t bounce off the seat. I prefer the corners of my textbooks not get dented.

Observation: Marla’s braces bands are a new color. She’s been to the orthodontist. Kevin is wearing the same pants with that ketchup stain on the knee that he’s been wearing for three days. Maybe their washing machine is broken. The gas station on the corner finally fixed the typo in their lettered sign. For two weeks it has read, By 1 get 1 free Pizza buy the slice. Guess someone finally pointed out the error.

Keen observation skills are a hallmark of effective spycraft. The history of espionage book Dad sent for my birthday tells all about it. You have to know everything, see everything. Observation, conclusion. Observation, conclusion. When you make an observation and can’t make a conclusion, and you’re left with more questions, you have to keep observing. Information is power. A small detail can tell an entire story.

It’s too bouncy to write on the bus, so once I get to school, I will add all these notes to my spy notebook from Dad. Making the notes is a key part of my training, and it also makes me feel closer to him, even though he’s far away.

Dad’s a real spy. He can’t come right out and say that, of course, but he’s given me enough clues that I’ve figured it out. The gifts he sends, for Christmas and my birthday, often have something to do with espionage. When I was smaller he sent LEGO sets and other random things, of course, but lately the theme is pretty clear. Binoculars, brain teaser games and logic puzzles, a lockpick practice set, The Knowhow Book of Spycraft, a utility belt with some cool gadgets, and the notebook and the history book, which is basically a training manual.

Dad’s always been pretty clever about keeping his life a secret from me and Mom. His work makes him very busy, which is why he can’t come visit. We don’t even know where he lives, because it seems like he’s always on the move. His packages come from all over the place. I started investigating them over a year ago, and nothing. This summer, though, he slipped up. The packing slip from my birthday present box had a sender’s email address. It took me a month to get up the nerve, but I finally emailed Dad.

Under the Cover