"Even you, Mr. McIntyre?" Natalie Kabra asked in her silky British accent.
The old lawyer flushed. "That, miss, is beside the point. Now, if I might be allowed to finish -- "
"But what's this about sacrificing our inheritance?" Aunt Beatrice complained. "Where's the money? It's just like my sister to come up with some foolishness!"
"Madam," Mr. McIntyre said, "you may certainly decline the challenge. If you do, you will receive what is under your chair."
Immediately, forty people felt around under their chairs. Eisenhower Holt was so anxious he picked up Reagan's chair with her still in it. Dan discovered an envelope under his, stuck on with tape. When he opened it, he found a green slip of paper with a bunch of numbers and the words ROYAL BANK OF SCOTLAND. Amy had one, too. So did everybody in the room.
"What you now hold is a bank voucher," Mr. McIntyre explained. "It shall only be activated if and when you renounce your claim to the challenge. If you so choose, each of you may walk out of this room with one million dollars and never have to think of Grace Cahill or her last wishes again. Or ... you may choose a clue -- a single clue that will be your only inheritance. No money. No property. Just a clue that might lead you to the most important treasure in the world and make you powerful beyond belief..."
William's gray eyes seemed to settle on Dan particularly. "... or it might kill you. One million dollars or the clue. You have five minutes to decide."
Amy Cahill thought she had the most annoying little brother on the planet. And that was before he almost got her killed.
It all started when Mr. McIntyre read their grandmother's will and showed them the video.
Amy sat there in shock. She found herself holding a green slip of paper worth one million dollars. A challenge? A dangerous secret? What was going on? She stared at the blank projector screen. She couldn't believe her grandmother would do something like this. The video must have been made months ago, judging from the way Grace had looked. Seeing her on the screen like that had stung Amy worse than salt in a cut.
How could Grace have been planning something this huge and not have warned them in advance?
Amy never expected to inherit much. All she wanted was something to remember Grace by -- a keepsake, maybe one piece of her beautiful jewelry. Now this ... she felt completely lost.
It didn't help that Dan was jumping around like he needed to go to the restroom.
"One million dollars!" he squealed. "I could get a Mickey Mantle rookie card and a Babe Ruth 1914!"
His tie was crooked, which matched his crooked grin. He had a scar under one eye from when he'd gone commando-raiding at seven and fallen on his plastic AK-47.
That's just the kind of little demon he was. But what Amy really resented was how comfortable he seemed, like all these people didn't bother him.
Amy hated crowds. She felt like everyone was watching her, waiting for her to make a fool of herself. Sometimes in her nightmares, she dreamed she was at the bottom of a pit, and all the people she knew were staring down at her, laughing. She'd try to climb out of the pit, but she could never make it.
Right now, all she wanted to do was run up to Grace's library, close the door, and curl up with a book. She wanted to find Saladin, Grace's Egyptian Mau, and cuddle with him. But Grace was dead, and the poor cat... who knew where he was now? She blinked tears out of her eyes, thinking about the last time she'd seen her grandmother.
You will make me proud, Amy,
Grace had said. They'd been sitting on Grace's big four-poster bed, with Saladin purring next to them. Grace had shown her a hand-drawn map of Africa and told her stories about the adventures she'd had when she was a young explorer. Grace had looked thin and frail, but the fire in her eyes was as fierce as ever. The sunlight turned her hair to pure silver.
I had many adventures, my dear, but they will pale next to yours.
Amy wanted to cry. How could Grace think that Amy would have great adventures?
She could barely muster enough courage to go to school every morning.
"I could get a ninja sword," Dan kept babbling. "Or a Civil War saber!"
"Dan, shut up," she said. "This is serious."
"But the money -- "
"I know," she said. "But if we took the money, we'd need to keep it for college and stuff. You know how Aunt Beatrice is."
Dan frowned like he'd forgotten. He knew good and well that Aunt Beatrice only looked after them for Grace's sake. Amy always wished Grace had adopted them after their parents died, but she hadn't. For reasons she never explained, she'd pressured Beatrice into being their guardian instead.
For the last seven years, Dan and Amy had been at Beatrice's mercy, living in a tiny little apartment with a series of au pairs. Beatrice paid for everything, but she didn't pay much. Amy and Dan got enough to eat and a new set of clothes every six months, but that was it. No birthday presents. No special treats. No allowance. They went to regular public school and Amy never had extra money to buy books. She used the public library, or sometimes she'd hang out at the second-hand bookshop on Boylston, where the staff knew her. Dan made a little money on his own trading collectible cards, but it wasn't much.
Every weekday for seven years, Amy had resented Grace for not raising them herself, but every weekend Amy just couldn't stay mad at her. When they came to the mansion, Grace gave them undivided attention. She treated them like the most important people in the world. Whenever Amy got up the courage to ask why they couldn't stay with Grace all the time, Grace just smiled sadly.
There are reasons, dear. Someday, you will understand.
Now Grace was gone. Amy didn't know what Aunt Beatrice would do, but they could definitely use money. It would mean they'd have some independence. They could get a bigger apartment, maybe. They could buy books whenever they wanted and even go to college. Amy was desperate to go to Harvard. She wanted to study history and archaeology. Her mom would've liked that.
At least... Amy hoped she would have. Amy knew so little about her parents. She didn't even know why she and Dan carried their mom's maiden name -- Cahill -- when their dad's last name had been Trent. She'd asked Grace about it once, but Grace had only smiled. "It's how your parents wanted it," she said. But the stubborn pride in her voice made Amy wonder if it had really been Grace's idea for them to carry the Cahill name.
Amy had trouble remembering her mother's face, or anything about her parents before the terrible night they died. And that was something Amy tried hard not to think about.
"Okay," Dan said slowly. "So I'll spend my million on my collection. You can spend yours on college. And everybody's happy."
Amy felt heartsick. Arguments were breaking out all over the room. The Holts looked like they were conducting a combat exercise. Sinead Starling was holding her brothers, Ned and Ted, apart so they wouldn't strangle each other. Irina Spasky was talking in rapid-fire Russian to that kid from the reality TV show, Jonah Wizard, and his dad, but from the way they were staring back at her, it was obvious they didn't speak Russian.
Angry voices filled the Great Hall. It was like they were tearing up Grace bit by bit, squabbling over her inheritance. They didn't care at all that Amy's grandmother had just passed away.
Then somebody right behind her said, "You'll decline the challenge, of course."
It was Ian Kabra, with his annoying sister, Natalie, at his side. Despite herself, Amy's stomach did a little somersault, because Ian was very good-looking. He had gorgeous dark skin, amber eyes, and a perfect smile. He was fourteen, same as her, but he dressed like a grown-up, in a silk suit and tie. He even smelled good, like clove. Amy hated herself for noticing.
"I would be sad if something happened to you," Ian purred. "And you so need the money."
Natalie put her hands to her mouth in mock surprise. She looked like a life-size doll in her satin dress, her luxurious black hair swept over one shoulder. "That's right, Ian!
They're poor. I keep forgetting. It seems so odd we're related, doesn't it?"
Amy felt herself blush. She wanted to say something scathing in reply, but her voice wouldn't work.
"Oh, yeah?" Dan said. "Well, maybe we're not related! Maybe you're mutant aliens, because real kids don't dress like bankers and fly around in their daddy's private jet."
Ian smiled. "You misunderstand me, dear cousin. We're very happy for you. We want you to take the money, have a wonderful life, and never think about us again."
"G-G-Grace," Amy managed, hating that her voice wouldn't cooperate. "G-Grace would want -- "
"Would want you to risk your lives?" Ian supplied. "How do you know? Did she tell you about this contest she was planning?"
Neither Amy nor Dan answered.
"I see," Ian said. "That must be terrible -- thinking you were Grace's favorites and then being left in the dark like that. Perhaps you weren't as important to the old woman as you thought, eh?"
"Now, Ian," Natalie chided. "Perhaps Grace just knew they weren't up to the challenge.
It sounds quite dangerous." Natalie smiled at Amy. "We'd hate to see you suffer a painful death, wouldn't we? Ta-ta!"
The Kabras drifted off through the crowd.
"Ta-ta," Dan mimicked. "What losers."
Part of Amy wanted to chase down the Kabras and hit them with a chair. But part of her wanted to crawl under a rock and hide. She'd wanted so badly to tell them off, but she hadn't even been able to speak.
"They're taking the challenge," she muttered.
"Well, duh!" Dan said. "What's another two million dollars to them? They can afford to give it up."
"They were threatening us. They don't want us involved."
"Maybe they'll suffer a painful death," Dan mused. "I wonder what the treasure is, anyway."
"Does it matter?" Amy asked bitterly.
"We can't look for it. We barely have enough money for bus passes."
But still she found herself wondering. Grace had explored all over the world. Could the treasure be a lost Egyptian tomb ... or pirates' gold? Mr. McIntyre had said the prize would make the winners the most powerful human beings on earth. What could do that? And why were there exactly thirty-nine clues?
She couldn't help being curious. She loved mysteries. When she was younger, she used to pretend her mother was still alive, and they would travel together to archaeological digs. Sometimes Grace would go, too, just the three of them together, happily exploring the world, but that was just silly pretending.
"Too bad," Dan grumbled, "I'd love to wipe the smiles off the Cobras' faces...."
Just then, Aunt Beatrice grabbed their arms. Her face was contorted with rage and her breath smelled like mothballs. "You two will do nothing ridiculous! I fully intend to take my million dollars, and you will do the same! Never fear, I'll put it in an account for you until you're adults. I'll only spend the interest. In return, I will allow you to continue as my wards."
Amy choked with rage. "You ... you'll allow us to be your wards? You'll allow us to give you our two million dollars?"
As soon as she said it, she couldn't believe she'd managed to get the words out.