Chapter 1: Activation
CIA Academy of Espionage
The summons to the principal’s office arrived in the middle of my Advanced Self-Preservation class.
Normally, I would have been pleased to have an excuse to get out of ASP, as it was my worst subject. I was only getting a C in it, even though, in real life, I had been quite good at self-preservation. Over the past eleven months, my enemies had kidnapped me, shot at me, locked me in a room with a ticking bomb, and even tried to blow me up with missiles—and yet I’d survived each time. However, my instructors at the CIA’s Academy of Espionage never seemed very impressed by the fact that I was still alive. They just kept giving me bad grades.
“There’s a big difference between running away and being able to defend yourself,” my ASP instructor, Professor Simon, had explained, shortly before the call from the principal came. Professor Georgia Simon was in her fifties and looked like someone my mother would have played canasta with, but she was an incredible warrior, capable of beating three karate masters in a fight at once. “So far, all you have done in the field is run.”
“It’s worked pretty well for me so far,” I countered.
“You’ve been lucky,” Professor Simon said. And then she attacked me with a samurai sword.
It was only a fake sword, but it was still daunting. (The academy had stopped using real swords a few years earlier, after a student had been literally disarmed in class.) I did my best to defend myself, but it was only twenty seconds before I was sprawled on the floor with Professor Simon standing over me, sword raised, ready to shish kabob my spleen.
Which was all the more embarrassing, as it happened in front of the entire class. ASP took place in a large lecture hall. My fellow classmates were seated in tiers around me, watching me get my butt kicked by a woman four times my age.
“Pathetic,” Professor Simon declared. “That’s D-grade work at best. Would anyone here like to show Mr. Ripley how a real agent defends himself?”
No one volunteered. My fellow second-year students weren’t idiots; none of them wanted to be embarrassed like I had been. Or hurt. Luckily for them, at that moment, the announcement from the principal came over the school’s public address system, distracting Professor Simon.
There were plenty of other, far less outdated ways to deliver urgent messages to the classrooms at spy school, but the principal didn’t know how to use any of them. In fact, he wasn’t very good at using the PA system, either. There were a few seconds of fumbling noises, followed by the principal muttering, “I can never remember which switch works this stupid thing. This darn system’s a bigger pain in my rear than my hemorrhoids.” Then he asked, “Hello? Hello? Is this thing on? Can you hear me?”
Professor Simon sighed in a way that suggested she had even less respect for the principal than she had for me. “Yes. We can hear you.”
“Very good,” the principal replied. “Is Benjamin Ripley in your class right now? I need to see him in my office right away.”
A chorus of “ooohs” rippled through the room: the universal middle-school response to realizing that someone else has just gotten in trouble.
Professor Simon gave the class a warning glare and the “ooohs” stopped immediately. “I’ll send him right now,” she replied. Then she looked down at me and said, “Go.”
I leapt to my feet and hurried for the door, pausing only to snatch my backpack from my seat. Zoe Zibbell, one of my best friends, was in the next seat over. She looked at me inquisitively with her big green eyes, wanting to know if I knew why I’d been summoned. I shrugged in return.
Next to Zoe, Warren Reeves snickered at my misfortune. Warren didn’t like me much; he had a crush on Zoe and saw me as competition, so he was always rooting for my downfall.
I made a show of hustling out the door for Professor Simon—and promptly slowed down the moment I was out of her sight. I was in no hurry to get to the principal’s office.
I had been summoned to the principal four other times, and it had always been bad news: Previously, the principal had sent me to solitary confinement, placed me on probation, informed me that my summer vacation plans were cancelled in favor of mandatory wilderness training—and expelled me from school. (I’d been reinstated, however.) So I dawdled, wondering what trouble lay in store for me this time.
I exited Bushnell Hall and entered Hammond Quadrangle on my way to the Nathan Hale Administration Building. It was the week after Thanksgiving. Fall had been mild and beautiful in Washington, DC, but now winter had arrived with a vengeance. Frigid winds were stripping the trees bare of leaves, and a crust of icy snow carpeted the ground.
As I meandered across the quad, my phone buzzed with a text. It was from Erica Hale:
stop dawdling and get your butt up here. we’re waiting.
I stared up at the gothic Hale Building, wondering if Erica was watching me—or if she simply knew me well enough to presume I was dawdling. Either was a likely possibility.
Erica was only a fourth-year student, but she was easily the best spy-in-training at school. However, she’d had a head start on the rest of us: She was a legacy. The very building I was heading toward was named after her family. Her ancestors had all been spies for the United States, going back to Nathan Hale himself—and her grandfather, Cyrus, had been teaching her the family business since she was born. When I’d been learning how to assemble Legos, she’d been learning how to assemble semiautomatic machine guns. Blindfolded.
I picked up my pace, hurrying toward the Hale Building. If Erica was waiting for me with the principal, that probably meant I wasn’t in trouble. Plus, I was excited to see her.
I had a massive crush on Erica Hale. She was the most beautiful, intelligent, and dangerous girl I’d ever met in my life. I knew Erica didn’t like me nearly as much as I liked her, but the fact that she liked me even a little was a big deal. Erica regarded most of her fellow students—and professors—with complete disinterest. As though they were rocks. And not even pretty rocks. Boring, gray rocks. Gravel. Even though her text to me had been curt and cold, it was still a text from her, which was more human contact than Erica usually parceled out. There were plenty of guys at school who would have killed to get a text from Erica Hale.
I burst into the Hale Building and took the stairs up to the fifth floor two at a time. The security agents stationed there quickly waved me through to the restricted area. “Come right on in, Mr. Ripley,” one said. “We’ve been expecting you.”
I stopped and spread my arms and legs for the standard frisking, but the second guard shook her head. “No need for that. They want to see you ASAP.” She pointed me toward a door.
This was a different door than the usual one for the principal’s office. A piece of paper was taped to it. It said PIRNCIPAL. Given the misspelling, I figured the principal had written it himself.
The principal was very likely the least intelligent person in the entire intelligence community. We had a lot of decent teachers at school, most of whom had been decent spies earlier in their careers. Meanwhile, the principal had been a horrible spy. He had failed on every single mission. No one wanted him teaching anyone anything, so he was made an administrator instead. He mostly handled paperwork that no one else wanted to deal with.
The principal wasn’t using his normal office because I’d blown it up by firing a mortar round into it. (It was an accident.) The damage had been extensive, and since the government was in charge of the repairs, they were taking a very long time. The official completion date was set for three years in the future, but even that was probably optimistic; my dormitory had been waiting to have its septic system replaced since before the Berlin Wall fell. In the meantime, the principal had been moved down the hall.
Into a closet.
It was a rather large closet, but it was still a closet. Given the pungent smell of ammonia, I presumed that, until recently, cleaning supplies had been stored there. Instead of a nice big, imposing desk, the principal now had a card table. He sat behind it in a creaky folding chair, glowering at me from beneath the world’s most horrendous hairpiece. It looked like a raccoon had died on his head. And then been run over by a truck. The closet would have been crowded enough with only the principal and me, but three other people were crammed in there as well, waiting for me. All of them were Hales.
Erica stood beside her father, Alexander, and her grandfather, Cyrus.
Alexander Hale had been an extremely respected spy for years, despite the fact that he was a complete fraud. The Agency had finally caught on and kicked him out, but he had subsequently proved himself on an unsanctioned mission and been reinstated. Now he was back to his usual debonair self, wearing a tailored three-piece suit with a perfectly folded handkerchief and a crisply knotted tie.
Meanwhile, Cyrus Hale was the real deal, as good a spy as there was in the CIA, even though he was in his seventies. He’d been retired but had recently reactivated himself. Cyrus didn’t bother with fancy suits, which he considered impractical. Instead, he wore warm-ups, sneakers, and a fanny pack; he looked like he was about to go walk around the mall for exercise.
Erica wore her standard black outfit, her standard utility belt, and her standard bored expression. She barely glanced at me as I came in. “Nice of you to finally join us.”
“Sorry I kept you waiting.” I realized the closet didn’t have a window. Which meant Erica hadn’t seen me dawdling. She’d simply known I was doing it.
“No worries, Benjamin,” Alexander said cheerfully. “I just got here myself.”
“That’s not exactly something to be proud of,” Cyrus told him disapprovingly. “Seeing as you were supposed to be here half an hour ago.”
Alexander winced, the way he usually did when his father dressed him down, then tried to save face. “I was doing some important prep work for this mission.”
“What mission?” I asked. In the cramped closet, there was barely room to move. “What’s going on?”
“You’re being activated!” Alexander announced excitedly.
Cyrus grimaced, as though Alexander had said something he wasn’t supposed to.
“What?” The principal snapped to his feet, flabbergasted, obviously unaware of this news. “You’re activating this little twerp? For a real mission?”
“It wouldn’t make much sense for us to activate him for a fake mission, now, would it?” Cyrus asked.
“Well, he can’t go!” the principal declared childishly. “He blew up my office!”
Cyrus exhaled slowly, trying to be patient. “As I have explained to you multiple times, that was not entirely Ripley’s doing. It was a setup to make our enemies at SPYDER believe that he had actually been expelled so that they’d recruit him….”
“He nearly killed me!” the principal protested, immune to Cyrus’s logic. “It’s bad enough that I had to take him back here as a student…”
“He was instrumental in thwarting SPYDER’s plans,” Alexander pointed out.
“… but now you’re going to send him out into the field again?” the principal railed on. “He hasn’t even been at this academy a year yet! He’s not qualified for the field!”
“He is,” said Cyrus. “He’s proved it.”
“But—” the principal began.
“It doesn’t really matter if you agree with me on this,” Cyrus interrupted. “Because the chief of the CIA agrees with me. And he’s the one who authorizes the missions, not you. The only reason we’re even having this meeting here is that, as the principal of this institution, you officially have to be informed when students are being sent into the field.”
If there had been anyplace to sit down in the office, I would have sat down. It was surprising enough to hear that I was being activated by the CIA. But I was completely floored to hear Cyrus defend me. Cyrus didn’t give out praise easily. In fact, it was a good bet that he’d never given any to Alexander at all.
The principal sank back into his folding chair, glowering even harder at me.
I tried to avoid his gaze, shifting my attention to Erica instead. “You’re being activated too?”
Erica arched an eyebrow at me but didn’t say anything.
“I mean, you’re here,” I explained. “And your grandfather just said ‘students’ were being activated. So it’s not only me….”
“Excellent deductive work, as usual!” Alexander pronounced, patting me on the back. “You’re right. Erica will also be with you on assignment, as will my father and I!”
Erica’s expression didn’t change. I had no idea if she was pleased with any of this or not. She might as well have just been told she needed a root canal.
I was pleased, though. Even more than pleased; the idea of being on assignment with Erica was thrilling. In the first place, there was no one I trusted more. Second, it meant I now had an excuse to spend a lot of time with her.
In theory, I should have had plenty of other excuses to spend time with Erica, seeing as we both went to the same top-secret boarding school. But Erica could be as cold and distant as Antarctica. While the other kids at school bonded over pickup games of capture the flag or James Bond movie marathons, Erica kept to herself. Even though I was considered her closest friend on campus, that didn’t mean much. A few months before, at the end of our last mission, when we were both doped up on painkillers after nearly being vaporized by a missile, Erica had said a few nice things to me and held my hand. But since then she had behaved as though that had never even happened. There had been weeks when she hadn’t so much as glanced at me.
So I was excited for an excuse to hang out with her. Even one where my life might be in danger. As far as I was concerned, it was worth the risk.
“What’s the mission?” I asked.
Cyrus produced a sealed manila envelope from the inner pocket of his warm-up jacket and handed it to me. It was labeled OPERATION SNOW BUNNY and stamped FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. My heart leapt. Getting an honest-to-God “For Your Eyes Only” manila envelope in spy school was like being named king of homecoming in regular school.
I broke open the seal and found several photographs inside. They were extremely grainy, as though they’d been taken from a long distance away with a telephoto lens. The first one was of a Chinese man with close-cropped hair wearing sunglasses.
“That is Leo Shang,” Cyrus told me. “He’s one of the richest men in China. Worth billions.”
“What’s he do?” I asked.
“We have no idea,” Cyrus admitted. “The truth is, we know almost nothing about him: where he grew up, how much education he has, what he owns. He simply appeared on the scene five years ago, loaded with cash.”
Erica shifted closer to me to get a better look at the photos. As usual, she smelled incredible, a combination of lilacs and gunpowder. She stared at the pictures in a way that suggested she’d never seen them before, which was unusual. Normally, Erica knew everything way before I did. I wondered why Cyrus hadn’t shared these with her yet.
“Anyone with an untraceable background and that much money is suspicious,” Cyrus continued. “So the CIA has tried to investigate him. However, the man has the tightest security I’ve ever come across. His organization is almost impossible to infiltrate. He keeps himself cloistered, interacting with only a few select people, each of whom is also extremely well protected. We’ve been trying to get an agent close to him for years with virtually no success.”
“Why?” Erica asked. It was only the second time she’d spoken since I’d entered the room. “If he’s a Chinese criminal, that’s China’s problem, isn’t it?”
“We have reason to believe his crimes are not merely limited to China,” Cyrus replied. “He seems to be plotting something in the United States. The last agent who investigated him reported he’s working on a scheme known as Operation Golden Fist.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“We don’t know,” Cyrus confessed. “Our agent was unable to learn any more before he was uncovered and the mission was terminated. However, in his final transmission to us, he did indicate suspicions that Golden Fist might be a Level Eleven threat.”
Erica stiffened slightly in response to this, which was her exceptionally calm way of expressing great concern. “Level Eleven?”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Well,” Erica replied, “a Level Ten threat would be extreme, causing the most chaos, danger, and destruction you can imagine. A Level Eleven threat is even worse.”
I gulped, unsettled by the thought of this.
“Given this, it’s of critical importance that we determine what Golden Fist is,” Cyrus said. “That’s where you kids come in.”
“Us?” I gasped. “How are we supposed to get close to this guy when the entire CIA hasn’t been able to do it?”
“Because everyone has a chink in their armor,” Cyrus explained. “No man is an island. And Leo Shang’s weakness is his daughter, Jessica.”
I shifted to the next photo. It was of a Chinese girl about my age. It was even grainier than the first photo, so bad that I could barely make out anything about her except that she had hair. She appeared to be either baking a pie or holding a cat.
“You want us to get close to her,” Erica said.
“Exactly!” Alexander cried. “Leo Shang might be suspicious of any adult who tries to get near him, but we doubt he’d ever suspect a teenager would be a CIA agent. And if you can get close to Jessica, you might be able to get close to her father.”
“All right, I’ll do it,” Erica said. “It won’t be easy, but I can handle it. With a few hours of extensive makeup, I can pass myself off as Chinese. If you give me the proper identification, I can then insert myself as a new student at Jessica’s school….”
A flicker of unease passed between Cyrus and Alexander, as though there was a subject both of them were afraid to broach. Finally, Cyrus seemed to realize he would have to do it. He cleared his throat and said, “Erica, you’re not the one we’re assigning to get close to Jessica.”
Erica’s eyes narrowed angrily. “Ben is the primary agent on this? You must be joking.”
Cyrus signaled her to calm down. “Sweetheart, the objective here is to befriend Jessica. And the key to making friends with someone is actually being, well… friendly. You have a lot of wonderful qualities, but being nice to other people isn’t one of them.”
“Other people are usually idiots,” Erica muttered.
“See what I mean?” Cyrus asked. “That attitude is exactly what I’m talking about. Now, when it comes to espionage, I know you have tremendous talents, while Ben here doesn’t have many at all….”
“Hey!” I said.
“But he is good at making friends,” Cyrus went on. “People like him. And that’s nothing to sneeze at. Which is why he’s going to be the primary agent on this operation, while you’ll be his main handler.”
“He was the primary agent last operation!” Erica snapped. “And I was his handler then! He’s barely had any training, while I’ve been studying for this since I was a baby!”
“I’ve learned some things,” I protested.
Erica fixed her angry gaze on me. “I can speak fluent Chinese. In Mandarin and Wu dialects. Can you speak fluent Chinese?”
“Er, no…,” I confessed meekly. “But I can order dinner in a Chinese restaurant.”
“Great,” Erica growled. “When you meet Jessica Shang, you can ask her for some egg rolls. I’m sure that’ll go over well.”
“That’s enough,” Cyrus told her.
Erica fell silent. She was obviously still angry, though. Which was unsettling. Erica rarely displayed much emotion at all. She was normally as calm and relaxed as a person at a day spa, even in the midst of a gunfight. But now she was so upset, it felt as though the room was heating up around her.
“This decision was not made to be an insult to you,” Cyrus informed her. “It was made because it is in the best interests of this country. If you can’t handle that, I’m sure we could find another student willing to be Ben’s handler.”
Erica shifted her glare to her grandfather. “You know there’s no one here better than me.”
“Welcome aboard, then,” Cyrus said. “Now, here’s the skinny: In a few weeks, the Shangs are actually leaving China for the first time in as long as we’ve been tracking them. Better yet, they’ll be coming to the United States. Jessica Shang wants to learn how to ski.”
“They can’t do that in China?” the principal asked. “They have snow there, don’t they?”
“Of course they have snow,” Cyrus said curtly. “However, their resorts aren’t nearly as good as ours yet—so Jessica wants to go to Colorado. Vail, to be specific. They’ve already rented a hotel there and—”
“A hotel room,” I corrected.
“What?” Cyrus asked.
“You said they rented a hotel,” I told him. “Instead of a hotel room.”
“That wasn’t a mistake,” Cyrus snapped. “They rented the entire hotel.”
“For one family?” I asked, stunned.
“Actually,” Alexander said, “Mrs. Shang isn’t coming. We’re not sure why, but we suspect that she’s even more secretive than her husband. Or maybe she just doesn’t like cold weather.”
“So they rented an entire hotel for only two people?” I asked, even more stunned.
“Plus their security staff, which is quite large,” Alexander explained. “Leo Shang doesn’t like being around strangers. And like we said, he’s very rich.”
“Still,” Erica said, “if he’s so cautious, why’s he coming to America at all? He must suspect the CIA is tracking him.”
“We’ve been wondering that ourselves,” Cyrus replied. “Our best guess is that the ski vacation is a cover for Operation Golden Fist.”
“So this doesn’t have anything to do with SPYDER?” I asked.
“Why should it?” Cyrus replied, in a way that suggested my question had been idiotic.
“Er…,” I stammered. “Well… SPYDER’s kind of our main enemy, isn’t it? I mean, every time I’ve confronted an evil organization, it’s been that one….”
“The United States has lots of enemies,” Cyrus informed me. “Including hundreds you’ve never heard of. And we haven’t heard a peep out of SPYDER since their headquarters blew up. That was a huge setback for them—financially and organizationally. So perhaps there’s a chance they’re out of the game.”
“I guess,” I said, though I didn’t believe it. SPYDER wasn’t the type of evil organization that quit being evil after a few setbacks. And we’d never captured most of the high-ranking members. Or even figured out the real identities of any of them.
“Now, Leo Shang might be only one man,” Cyrus told me, “but he controls an empire that appears to be just as powerful and dangerous as SPYDER. Perhaps even more powerful and dangerous. If he is truly plotting something with a Level Eleven potential for danger and destruction, there are many possible targets in the Rocky Mountains. The U.S. government has dozens of extremely critical facilities there: the headquarters for North American Aerospace Defense, Strategic Missile Command, the Air Force Academy….”
“The Central Food and Seed Reserve,” Alexander suggested helpfully.
Cyrus frowned disdainfully at this, but he didn’t discount it, either. “Shang could be targeting any one of them. Or something else entirely. It is imperative that we find out what—and that we do it quickly. Which is why you need to get close to Jessica Shang, Benjamin.”
“How am I supposed to do that?” I asked, unable to hide how daunted I felt. “I won’t even be able to get into her hotel.”
“You’ll be attending ski school with her,” Alexander explained. “Leo Shang originally enrolled her in private lessons—but those were recently changed to group lessons. We’re not sure why, but we assume that was Jessica’s doing.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Erica muttered. “Why would anyone not want private lessons? In public lessons, you have to be around other people.”
“We suspect that might be the whole idea,” Cyrus said. “Leo has kept Jessica very cloistered her whole life, so perhaps she’s chafing at that.” He gave Erica a pointed look. “Sometimes teenage girls like to challenge authority.”
Erica rolled her eyes.
“Whatever the case,” Cyrus went on, “we have an opportunity here. We’ve already been in touch with the Vail Ski School, and they’ve agreed to enroll both of you in the same class as Jessica.” He turned to me. “Do you have any experience snow skiing?”
“Uh… no,” I conceded.
“Excellent!” Cyrus said, to my surprise. “Neither does Jessica. You’ll both be beginners. That will give you something to bond over right there. Erica will also be enrolled with you, as she’s never skied either.”
“Really?” I asked, stunned. Erica could do everything from martial arts to safecracking to infiltrating enemy compounds; it was hard to believe there was anything she hadn’t tried, let alone mastered.
“It hasn’t been a priority,” Erica explained, then turned to her grandfather. “And what happens if Jessica decides to bond with someone else in the class other than Ben?”
“We’ve already taken that into account,” Cyrus replied. “The other students in the class will be under orders to not befriend her.”
“How?” I asked. “You can’t give a bunch of random kids orders like that….” As I spoke, however, I noticed Erica sighing, as though I was being dense. It took me another moment to realize what she had figured out instantly. “Unless they’re not a bunch of random kids.”
“Exactly,” Alexander said. “Some of your classmates are going to be activated too.”
“Now, wait one second!” the principal barked. “Even more of my students are being put in the field?”
“Who else is coming?” I asked.
“We haven’t decided yet,” Cyrus told me. “We’d like input from both of you before building the team. We want to make sure you’re surrounded by people you trust.”
A smile spread across my face. Not only was I being activated as a primary agent for an official mission, but I’d get to bring some of my friends along as well. And Erica would be there too. Sure, she was upset at the moment, but once she cooled down, I was looking forward to working with her. And at a ski resort, no less. I’d heard those places were chock-full of hot tubs and roaring fireplaces, all of which sounded very romantic. “When does this mission begin?”
“Leo Shang scheduled the vacation over his daughter’s winter break,” Cyrus reported. “That coincides with our winter break as well. You’ll be enrolled in ski school at Vail for a week, beginning the day after Christmas.”
My smile spread even further. My family hadn’t made any plans for winter break; I’d feared I was going to spend it stuck at my house, staring at the walls. A ski vacation sounded a thousand times better.
“It’s not going to be a vacation,” Erica said, reading my thoughts.
I turned to her, trying to conceal my surprise. “That’s not what I was thinking.”
“That’s exactly what you were thinking,” she said testily. “You were smiling like you just won the lottery. Well, this isn’t going to be fun. It’s going to be dangerous. Extremely dangerous. Grandpa and my father have been sugarcoating things. Leo Shang is far more vicious than they’ve let on. I know all about him.”
“How?” Alexander asked.
“I’m studying to be a spy. It’s my job to know things.” Erica turned back to me. “The reason Leo Shang is so hard to get close to is that he tends to kill anyone he’s suspicious of. Like the poor sap who learned about Operation Golden Fist. The reason that mission was terminated was because the agent got terminated. And he probably wasn’t the first we’ve lost.” She looked to Alexander and Cyrus accusingly.
Cyrus held her gaze, not giving anything away, but Alexander averted his eyes, indicating Erica had guessed the truth.
Erica returned her attention to me. “So while this might sound like a dream vacation, we’re being sent into the lion’s den here. And believe me, Leo Shang’s going to be doubly suspicious of anyone trying to get close to his only daughter. I’ll do all I can to protect you as your handler, but you better bring your A game to this mission. Because if you screw this up, you’re gonna end up dead.”
With that, she stormed out and slammed the door behind her.
I looked back to the others in the cramped room. Cyrus simply nodded his agreement, displeased that Erica had spoken the way she had but not about to lie to me either. Alexander gave me an apologetic shrug.
Now the principal was the one smiling. Apparently, he was quite pleased by the thought that I might die.
Suddenly, being part of Operation Snow Bunny no longer seemed like such a great idea.