Five minutes before she died, Grace Cahill changed her will.
Her lawyer brought out the alternate version, which had been her most guarded secret for seven years. Whether or not she would actually be crazy enough to use it, William McIntyre had never been certain.
"Madam," he asked, "are you sure?"
Grace gazed out the window, across the sunlit meadows other estate. Her cat, Saladin, snuggled beside her as he had throughout her illness, but his presence was not enough to comfort her today. She was about to set in motion events that might cause the end of civilization.
"Yes, William." Her every breath was painful. "I'm sure."
William broke the seal on the brown leather folder. He was a tall craggy man. His nose was pointed like a sundial so it always cast a shadow over one side of his face. He had been Grace's adviser, her closest confidant, for half her life. They'd shared many secrets over the years, but none as perilous as this.
He held the document for her to review. A fit of coughing wracked her body. Saladin meowed with concern. Once the coughing passed, William helped her take the pen.
She scrawled her weak signature across the paper.
"They're so young," William lamented. "If only their parents -- "
"But their parents didn't," Grace said bitterly. "And now the children must be old enough. They are our only chance."
"If they don't succeed -- "
"Then five hundred years of work have been for nothing," Grace said. "Everything collapses. The family, the world -- all of it."
William nodded grimly. He took the folder from her hands.
Grace sat back, stroking Saladin's silver fur. The scene outside the window made her sad. It was too gorgeous a day to die. She wanted to have one last picnic with the children. She wanted to be young and strong and travel the world again.
But her eyesight was failing. Her lungs labored. She clutched her jade necklace -- a good-luck talisman she'd found in China years ago. It had seen her through many close calls with death, many lucky misses. But the talisman couldn't help her anymore.
She'd worked hard to prepare for this day. Still, there was so much she'd left undone ... so much she had never told the children.
"It will have to be enough," she whispered. And with that, Grace Cahill closed her eyes for the last time.
When he was sure Grace had passed away, William McIntyre went to the window and closed the curtains. William preferred darkness. It seemed more proper for the business at hand.
The door opened behind him. Grace's cat hissed and disappeared under the bed.
William didn't look back. He was staring at Grace Cahill's signature on her new will, which had just become the most important document in the Cahill family's history.
"Well?" a brusque voice said.
William turned. A man stood in the doorway, his face obscured by shadows, his suit as black as oil.
"It's time," William said. "Make sure they suspect nothing."
William couldn't tell for sure, but he thought the man in black smiled.
"Don't worry," the man promised. "They'll never have a clue."
Dan Cahil thought he had the most annoying big sister on the planet. And that was before she set fire to two million dollars.
It all started when they went to their grandmother's funeral. Secretly, Dan was excited, because he was hoping to make a rubbing of the tombstone after everyone else was gone. He figured Grace wouldn't care. She'd been a cool grandmother.
Dan loved collecting things. He collected baseball cards, autographs of famous outlaws, Civil War weapons, rare coins, and every cast he'd ever had since kindergarten (all twelve of them). At the moment, what he liked collecting best were charcoal rubbings of tombstones. He had some awesome ones back at the apartment.
His favorite read:
I'M DEAD. LET'S HAVE A PARTY.
He figured if he had a rubbing of Grace's tombstone in his collection, maybe it wouldn't feel quite so much like she was gone forever.
Anyway, the whole way from Boston to the funeral in Worcester County, his great-aunt Beatrice was driving like a very slow lunatic. She went twenty-five miles an hour on the highway and kept drifting across lanes so the other cars honked and swerved and ran into guardrails and stuff. Aunt Beatrice just kept clutching the wheel with her jeweled fingers. Her wrinkly face was made up with Day-Glo red lipstick and rouge, which made her blue hair look even bluer. Dan wondered if she gave the other drivers nightmares about old clowns.
"Amy!" she snapped, as another SUV careened down the exit ramp because Beatrice had just pulled in front of it. "Stop reading in the car! It's not safe!"
"But, Aunt Beatrice-"
"Young lady, close that book!"
Amy did, which was typical. She never put up a fight with adults. Amy had long reddish-brown hair, unlike Dan's, which was dark blond. This helped Dan pretend his sister was an alien imposter, but unfortunately they had the same eyes -- green like jade, their grandmother used to say.
Amy was three years older and six inches taller than Dan, and she never let him forget it -- like being fourteen was such a big deal. Usually, she wore jeans and some old T-shirt because she didn't like people noticing her, but today she was wearing a black dress so she looked like a vampire's bride.
Dan hoped her outfit was as uncomfortable as his stupid suit and tie. Aunt Beatrice had thrown a fit when he tried to go to the funeral in his ninja clothes. It wasn't as if Grace would care if he was comfortable and deadly, the way he felt when he pretended to be a ninja, but of course Aunt Beatrice didn't understand. Sometimes it was hard for him to believe she and Grace were sisters.
"Remind me to fire your au pair as soon as we return to Boston," Beatrice grumbled.
"You two have been entirely too spoiled."
"Nellie's nice!" Dan protested.
"Hmph! This Nellie almost let you burn down the neighbor's apartment building!"
Every couple of weeks, Beatrice fired their au pair and hired a new one. The only good thing was that Aunt Beatrice didn't live with them personally. She lived across town in a building that didn't allow kids, so sometimes it took her a few days to hear about Dan's latest exploits.
Nellie had lasted longer than most. Dan liked her because she made amazing waffles and she usually cranked her iPod up to brain-damage level. She didn't even hear when Dan's bottle rocket collection went off and strafed the building across the alley. Dan would miss Nellie when she got fired.
Aunt Beatrice kept driving and muttering about spoiled children. Amy secretly went back to her huge book. The last two days, since they got the news about Grace's death, Amy had been reading even more than usual. Dan knew it was her way of hiding, but he kind of resented it because it shut him out, too.
"What are you reading this time?" he asked.
"Medieval European Doorknobs?
Bath Towels Through the Ages?"
Amy gave him an ugly face -- or an uglier-than-usual face. "None of your business, dweeb."
"You can't call a ninja lord dweeb.
You have disgraced the family. You must commit seppuku."
Amy rolled her eyes.
After a few more miles, the city melted into farmland. It started to look like Grace country, and even though Dan had promised himself he wouldn't get sappy, he began to feel sad. Grace had been the coolest ever. She'd treated him and Amy like real people, not kids. That's why she'd insisted they simply call her Grace, not Grandmother or Gran or Nana or any silly name like that. She'd been one of the only people who'd ever cared about them. Now she was dead, and they had to go to the funeral and see a bunch of relatives who had never been nice to them....
The family cemetery sat at the bottom of the hill from the mansion. Dan thought it was kind of stupid they'd hired a hearse to carry Grace a hundred yards down the driveway. They could've put wheels on the coffin like they have on suitcases and that would've worked just as well.
Summer storm clouds rumbled overhead. The family mansion looked dark and gloomy on its hill, like a lord's castle. Dan loved the place, with its billion rooms and chimneys and stained glass windows.
He loved the family graveyard even more. A dozen crumbling tombstones spread out across a green meadow ringed in trees, right next to a little creek. Some of the stones were so old the writing had faded away. Grace used to take Amy and him down to the meadow on their weekend visits. Grace and Amy would spend the afternoon on a picnic blanket, reading and talking, while Dan explored the graves and the woods and the creek.
Stop that, Dan told himself.
You're getting sentimental.
"So many people," Amy murmured, as they walked down the driveway.
"You're not going to freak out, are you?"
Amy fiddled with the collar of her dress. "I'm -- I'm not freaking out. I just -- "
"You hate crowds," he finished. "But you knew there'd be a crowd. They come every year."
Each winter, as long as Dan could remember, Grace had invited relatives from all over the world for a weeklong holiday. The mansion filled up with Chinese Cahills and British Cahills and South African Cahills and Venezuelan Cahills. Most of them didn't even go by the name Cahill, but Grace assured him they were all related. She'd explain about cousins and second cousins and cousins three times removed until Dan's brain started to hurt. Amy would usually go hide in the library with the cat.
"I know," she said. "But ... I mean, look at them all."
She had a point. About four hundred people were gathering at the grave site.
"They just want her fortune," Dan decided. "Dan!"
"Well? It's true."
They had just joined the procession when Dan suddenly got flipped upside down.
"Hey!" he yelled.
"Look, guys," a girl said. "We caught a rat!"
Dan wasn't in a good position to see, but he could make out the Holt sisters -- Madison and Reagan -- standing on either side of him, holding him by his ankles. The twins had matching purple running suits, blond pigtails, and crooked smiles. They were only eleven, same as Dan, but they had no trouble holding him. Dan saw more purple running suits behind them -- the rest of the Holt family. Their pit bull, 14
Arnold, raced around their legs and barked.
"Let's fling him into the creek," Madison said.
"I wanna fling him into the bushes!" Reagan said. "We never do my ideas!"
Their older brother, Hamilton, laughed like an idiot. Next to him, their dad, Eisenhower Holt, and their mom, Mary-Todd, grinned like this was all good fun.
"Now, girls," Eisenhower said. "We can't go flinging people at a funeral. This is a happy occasion!"
"Amy!" Dan called. "A little help here?"
Her face had gone pale. She mumbled, "Dr-dr-drop ..."
Dan sighed in exasperation. "She's trying to say 'DROP ME!'"
Madison and Reagan did -- on his head.
"Ow!" Dan said.
"M-M-Madison!" Amy protested.
"Y-y-yes?" Madison mimicked. "I think all those books are turning your brain to mush, weirdo."
If it had been anybody else, Dan would've hit back, but he knew better with the Holts.
Even Madison and Reagan, the youngest, could cream him. The whole Holt family was way too buff. They had meaty hands and thick necks and faces that looked like G.I.