The Eureka Key, Sample Chapter

JacketArtEurekaSam is a middle school puzzle-master, the smartest kid around. And he thinks the best use for his brain is to hack into the school’s PA system or change his best friend’s gym grade. Homework? Why bother? But when Sam wins a puzzle contest, he’s swept onto a cross-country trip that will lead him to places famous in American history…and death-defying puzzles to solve. Because now Sam’s got to find the key that Benjamin Franklin flew from his famous kite. If he doesn’t, he’ll die. And that’ll be the least of his problems.

I hope you enjoy this sample chapter of The Eureka Key, the first in the Secrets of the Seven series, combining non-stop action and baffling brain-teasers with U.S. history.



Chapter Four


Trip of a lifetime, they said! Mind and spirit alike will be altered!

Sure, if by “altered” they meant burnt to a crisp after a fiery plane crash in the middle of the desert.

“First of all,” said the air traffic controller, “you need to reduce air speed.”

“How?” Martina sounded eerily calm.

“The throttle. Do you know what that is?”

“Got it!” Martina had her hand on lever between their seats and was pulling it gently backward. The engine noise died down, and Sam tightened his grip on the control wheel and began to push it forward, away from his body.

Sam’s stomach was doing somersaults as the plane dropped swiftly out of the sky.

The woman helped Martina find the controls to lower the flaps, and guided Sam in lining the plane up with the runway. All the time the ground got closer and closer. The very hard, entirely unforgiving ground.

Sam risked the quickest glance he could manage at Martina. Her face was pale; her lips a tight line.

“Sam, grab the throttle,” she said softly. “I’m going to lower the landing gear.”

A moment later, Sam felt the thump through the skin of the airplane as the wheels went down.

“Okay, kids. This is it, you’re almost there,” said the woman in Sam’s ear. “Bring her down as gently as you can.”

The blood was hammering in Sam’s ears as they approached the runway. They were still going so fast.

“Just hold her at that angle,” said the controller. “You’re doing well. Ease off the throttle a bit.”

Sam’s hands wanted to tremble on the control wheel, but he fought to hold them rock steady as Martina pulled the throttle. He held his breath as they dropped down.

The plane bounced wildly as the wheels hit the ground. Martina screamed as she was almost tossed from her seat, and adrenaline raced through Sam’s veins, sending his heart into a frantic tap dance against his ribs. The plane righted itself after a few seconds, but kept barreling down the runway, straight for a cluster of other planes parked at gates nearby.

“Brakes! Hit the brakes!” the air traffic controller was shouting.

Sam slammed down on the pedals at his feet. The plane slewed and skidded, the wheels screeching. Martina’s hand shot out and grabbed his arm.

But finally, the plane slowed and stopped.

Sam blew out a long breath into the silence. “We did it,” he whispered. “We landed the plane.”

Martina snatched back her hand and sagged in the seat.

“You did it,” said in a shaky voice from the floor. “Kind of rough on the landing….got to take off a few points for that, but still….” Sam twisted around to see the pilot, a sheen of sweat across his head, half sitting but looking like we was about the throw up.

Within moments, two fire engines were shooting down the runway towards them, sirens blaring.

“You can let go of the controls now,” said Martina.

Sam looked down at his hands, white-knuckled from his death grip on the control wheel. It took a conscious effort of will to make them release. He heard a sound behind them and spun round to see Evangeline standing in the cockpit just behind them. Her face was still ghost-like, and she was gripping the back of a seat with her free hand, but her eyes were intense as she regarded Sam and Martina.

“Nicely done, Mr. Solomon. Ms. Wright,” she said. Then she swayed slightly. “Oh, my…” Sam jumped out of the pilot’s seat quickly enough to grab her other arm. On his way he stepped on the co-pilot, and heard the guy groan as he regained consciousness.

“What—what happened? Are we on the ground?” the co-pilot mumbled.

“These two resourceful children have landed the plane and saved us all,” Evangeline said, gripping Sam’s shoulder for balance.

The co-pilot managed to sit up, rubbing his face with both hands. “But—but I don’t understand. I was feeling just fine, and then—”

“I think there was something wrong with the water,” Martina said. “Sam and I were the only ones who didn’t drink it.”

“But what could possibly have been in the water?” the co-pilot asked, frowning.

“Diphenhydramine, perhaps,” Evangeline said immediately. “Though at that dosage the water should have tasted quite bitter. Gamma-hydroxybutyric acid is another possibility.”

Sam stared at her. Who is this lady?

Evangeline smoothed her hair back with one hand and adjusted the string of black pearls around her neck as Barney got unsteadily to his feet. “Up you get, Barnabas,” she said crisply. Barney had a nasty bruise across his forehead, and the big kid looked even more serious than usual. His eyes met Evangeline’s, and she nodded at him grimly.

Sam looked back and forth between the two, feeling even more certain that they’d met before today. More importantly, though—why didn’t either of them look more surprised at being the target of an assassination attempt?

Outside, the firefighters were gesticulating wildly.

“I’d quite like to get off the plane now, if that’s all right?” said Marty.

The co-pilot seemed to snap out of his confusion, and he and the pilot went about opening the doors.

His mind spinning with questions, Sam allowed himself to be led off the plane by the firefighters, his backpack clutched in his arms. Evangeline stayed behind, speaking to the pilots as Barney joined them on the tarmac. A paramedic was trying to look at the scrape on his head, but he insisted he was okay. After the paramedic left to check Martina for injuries, Sam turned to Barney.

“So. Do you want to tell me what’s going on?” he asked.

Barney jumped a little, as if he were shocked that someone was actually addressing him. “Who, me?” he said. Sam expected his voice to be deep and gravelly to match his size, but it was surprisingly soft.

“He can speak!” Sam crowed.

Barney scowled. “Funny. Anyway, how should I know what’s going on? Your guess is as good as mine.”

He turned away, but Sam grabbed his shoulder. “Look,” he said confidentially. “Someone just tried to kill all of us in that plane. And unlike you and Evangeline, who seem to think this is just another day of near-death-by-explosion, I’d like to know why.”

Barney scratched his nose—a surefire clue that someone was about to lie—and looked Sam straight in the face. “I don’t know why,” he said. “But I’m sure Ms. Temple won’t stop until she finds out. I trust her—you should, too.”

Marty walked over to them from where she had been sitting in the back of an ambulance, and Sam saw her eyes flitting back and forth between him and Barney.

“C’mon Sam,” she said. “We made it. We’re okay. Maybe it was just an accident—some kind of contaminant got into the water and no one realized it. It’s possible.”

“Sure,” Sam muttered, unconvinced. “Totally possible.” He looked back at the plane, where Evangeline was coming down the steps ahead of the pilots. She squinted along the runway, as if she was looking for someone.

When she reached their side, she spoke softly. “The authorities will be investigating this matter.”

“Oh, good,” said Sam. “At least someone’s taking this seriously.”

Evangeline looked at him like he was a second-grader speaking out of turn. “I want you to let me handle this,” she said. “You’re under the protection of the American Dream Foundation.”

“Huh, some protection,” Sam mumbled, before he could help himself.

Evangeline sighed, and something in her face betrayed a hint of fear. “Listen, Mr. Solomon, Miss Wright. We never anticipated this…unfortunate accident. But we will put it behind us. I’ll arrange a taxi to take you to the hotel, and I’ll join you there later after I finish giving my statement to the police.”

Sam opened his mouth to argue again, but a sudden wave of weariness made him close it again. What was the point? He accepted a bottle of water from a paramedic.

Nothing about this made sense, and one thing in particular niggled at him. Why hadn’t Evangeline addressed Barney as well? Just Mr. Solomon and Miss Wright. More fishy behavior. He glanced up at Barney, but all he saw was his own sweaty and confused expression in the mirrored shades.


Soon, they were speeding across a barren landscape in a taxi that had probably been white, once upon a time, but was now a dusty, desert brown. The same color as everything else, as far as the eye could see. Out the window, Sam watched the last of the sunset flaring a sulky, smoky red above the orange mountains on the horizon. Barney had chosen to sit in front, next to the driver, leaving Sam and Marty in the backseat. Marty had her headphones in and her eyes shut. Sam wondered if she was asleep or just avoiding conversation. Anyway, he didn’t really care. Sam didn’t feel much like talking either.

Evangeline had said they were heading to Furnace Creek Ranch, which would be their base for the trip. She’d even given them an itinerary. Sight-seeing, mostly, tomorrow by jeep and the following day a helicopter ride. After the near-death plane trip, Sam could have done without being airborne for a few days. Other than that, though, the planned trip seemed almost…normal. There was another little note about looking for “clues leading to our next destination,” so at least that sounded interesting. Sam settled back in his seat, staring at the scenery passing by. Maybe the whole plane fiasco had been and accident, and everything else on the trip would go by without a hitch. He was probably being paranoid about nothing; seeing puzzles to solve where there were none.

“Nice,” Sam whispered to himself once Furnace Creek Ranch came into view. It was a sprawling, fancy looking place, the palm trees surrounding it making it seem like a lush oasis of green in the vast empty desert. Maybe this vacation isn’t a total bust after all, Sam thought, dreaming of late-night room service.

Once they got inside, cheerful people whisked him off to a room so big he could have gotten lost in it. He’d hardly had a minute to sit down on the bed, making the billowy blue comforter swoosh up around him, before his cell phone rang.

He recognized the ring tone and put the phone to his ear. “Hi, Mom.”

“Hi, honey. Where are you?”

“At the hotel. I’ve been here for roughly six seconds. Do you have a spy drone following me, or what?”

“Ha, ha, Sam. So, is it nice?”

Sam glanced around. About fifteen pillows on the bed, widescreen TV, free wi-fi, teeny-tiny fridge with chocolate inside, bathtub big enough to do laps in. “Yeah, pretty nice.”

“Good, good. How was the flight?”

“Oh, you know, just a regular flight.” In person she would have seen right through the lie, but from a thousand miles away he managed to get away with it. If he told his mom what had really happened on that plane, she’d have him home so fast the soles of his shoes would be smoking.

After promising to call again soon, and to wear sunscreen, and not to keep his wallet in his back pocket—geez, Mom—he said his goodbyes. Evangeline had told him there’d be dinner downstairs in a few minutes, but even though Sam was hungry, he didn’t move. Instead he stood at the window, watching stars begin to appear in a sky the color of the quilt on his bed at home, the same sky he’d almost fallen out of not so long ago.

He hadn’t even been on this trip a day, and he’d already had a brush with death. On the other hand, he had also landed a plane, which—though terrifying—was pretty awesome. All in all, it kind of evened out.

What would tomorrow bring? Sam wondered.


*                      *                      *


Sam was falling, and as he fell, he was staring at a bank of dials and lights and monitors, all flashing dire warnings at him while alarms shrilled their panic in his ears. But he couldn’t understand what the displays were saying, and the ground was rushing up at him, and the alarms kept beeping and beeping and beeping—

With a gasp, Sam wrenched himself awake to find his arms and legs tangled up in the hotel’s bedspread. Only a dream. He flopped back on his pillows in relief. But something was still beeping like crazy. He lifted his head to gaze with bleary eyes at the alarm clock on the bedside table. The display read 8:05. He was late! Again!

Sam rolled out of bed and staggered to the bathroom to throw cold water on his face, shocking the rest of the nightmare out of his brain. Shirt, jeans, hiking boots, baseball hat, backpack, and he was ready. He burst out of the room, almost bowling over a maid and her neat stack of towels. In the lobby, he grabbed a gigantic cinnamon roll and a banana from the buffet before skidding to a stop beside Evangeline, Martina, and Barney, as they waited just outside the front door.

“Is this going to become a habit, Mr. Solomon?” Evangeline asked coolly.

“Um, no. Sorry.” Sam felt his face getting hot. Martina was looking up something on her phone. Sam got a peek at the screen and saw a heading: Death Valley—Not Just For Death Anymore! Barney was too busy doing his statue impression to take notice of anything.

Sam shuffled along after Evangeline as they approached a group of tourists who were waiting for the same sightseeing tour they were taking—a family with two bored-looking teenagers, a pair of old ladies in red hats, and a man in a loud Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts who was already taking pictures of everything with his smart phone. They all climbed into an open-backed, weather-beaten safari truck that was parked in front of the ranch, and settled into the seats along the sides. A minute later, the engine rumbled to life, and they took off in a cloud of dirt.

A man with a sunburned face and a impressively white polo shirt grabbed an intercom and brought it to his lips. “Welcome, travelers, to the amazing Death Valley National Park! My name is Randy, and I’ll be your guide through today’s tour. Our first stop is the beautiful Golden Canyon. This natural wonder…”

Sam tuned Randy out. He’d see the canyon for himself in a few minutes; this desert was dry enough without all those boring facts to listen to. But it turned out he didn’t have a choice.

“Did you know that Death Valley is the lowest, hottest, and driest area in the United States?” Martina asked brightly.

“I do now,” Sam muttered under his breath.

“Two hundred and eighty feet below sea level,” Martina continued. “And the second-hottest temperature in the world was recorded here! One hundred and thirty-four degrees.”

Sam tried to ignore her, and instead concentrated on wolfing down his cinnamon bun and looking at the world around him. Rippling sand dunes stretched out in all directions, and the sky was such a deep electric blue that it almost felt like they were on a different planet. Sam imagined an alien bristling with tentacles crawling over the ridge of a dune as they drove past. Or maybe Barney’s head would pop open, and the extraterrestrial life form animating his body would come out, demanding that Sam take him to his leader. It definitely seemed plausible.

“They also have iguanas, rattlesnakes, and kangaroo rats,” Martina was saying, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Sam wasn’t listening. “Did you know that the kangaroo rat lives its whole life without drinking a drop of water? Isn’t that amazing? And did you know…”

Sam began to consider stuffing her nerdgirl baseball cap down her throat the next time she said, “Did you know.” But then she moved on to something that actually caught his attention. She was talking about the sailing stones.

“Hey! I know about that!” he broke in. “They’re huge boulders, and they move across the ground by themselves. It’s an unsolved mystery.”

“Not anymore.” Martina looked delighted to prove him wrong. “Scientists discovered that ice deposits underneath the rocks coupled with the high winds cause the boulders to slide across the land very slowly. Extraordinary, but not a mystery.”

“Fine,” Sam grumbled. “Go ahead and ruin that too. Ruiner.” He nudged Barney on his other side. “That Marty—thinks she’s always Wright.”

Barney stared at Sam through his sunglasses, stone-faced.

“Get it? Wright? Because her last name…is…”

Sam could have sworn he saw the edge of Barney’s mouth twitch—but maybe he was just imagining things.

At least Martina seemed to get the hint. She went back looking at her phone and was silent the rest of the trip, until they stopped at the Golden Canyon.

As he jumped off the truck, it was Sam’s turn to speak. But all he could say was: “Wow.”

The walls of the Golden Canyon rose above his head in rippling layers. The burning yellow sun made the stone glow as if it had a heart of fire. Sam took a few steps down the path between the curving walls of rock, feeling like he was walking through a frozen river. A golden, frozen river.

Man, what a great place this would be to skateboard!

Sam followed the tour group a little ways up the path, barely paying attention as Randy droned on about this landmark and that point of interest. After a while, the canyon walls widened. Smaller canyons branched off on all sides, like a natural labyrinth that spread out for miles. “Feel free to explore on your own,” Randy told them. “Just make sure to be back here in forty-five minutes.”

“I think I’ll take a short rest,” Evangeline said, sitting down on a rock. “I’m still a little weak from yesterday’s…ah, adventure. But you all go on without me. Just be careful—and stay together.”

Sam’s heart sunk. He had hoped to escape Martina’s lecturing for a while and go off on his own.

Besides, he wanted to keep an eye out for clues. The itinerary had reminded Sam that Evangeline’s letter had said that, in each destination, they’d find clues about where they were going next. It’s like one of those reality TV shows, Sam thought, except I guess the American Dream Foundation is too cheap to bring a cameraman along. Wouldn’t it be great to be the first one on the tour to find a clue? Maybe he’d even be the one to figure out where they were going next. That would show old Always-Wright.

He’d just have to keep an eye out. And if he found anything, he’d keep his mouth shut.

“The walls are mudstone, with some conglomerates,” Martina chattered as she followed Sam and Barney along a path that led up a smaller, winding canyon.

Sam tried to keep an eye out for clues, but he didn’t really know what he was looking for—something out of the ordinary? This whole desert felt out of the ordinary to him. And Marty’s constant chatter was a distraction. Sam could feel his blood pressure start to rise as she went on and on.

“They used to mine for borax around here. They called it ‘white gold.’ And—”

Sam’s patience finally snapped. “And enough already!” he shouted, way louder than he actually meant to.

Martina jumped in surprise. Barney raised his sunglasses and regarded Sam with thoughtful brown eyes. Sam felt his face heat up, and not just from the sun.

“I’ll just go on alone, then,” Martina mumbled, dropping her gaze to the ground. She stalked past them both and disappeared around a curve in the canyon up ahead.

Barney was still looking at Sam. “She was just trying to be friendly,” he said.

Sam harrumphed. “Once again, the Great Barney honors us with his wisdom.” He mock-bowed to Barney.

“I only talk when I have something important to say,” Barney said, and one corner of his mouth quirked in that same minute smile that Sam had spied before. “Unlike some people.”

Sam found himself relaxing a little. “You know what, Barney? You’re a weird kid, and I’m a little afraid of you. But you’re okay by me.” He gave Barney a serious look. “So, c’mon man. Come clean with me. How did you end up on this trip? You don’t really seem like the puzzling type.”

Barney shrugged and looked away as they started to walk again. “American history’s kind of a family thing, I guess you could say.”

“Your parents really into history, huh? Are they teachers or something?”

Barney looked at the ground. “A little like that.”

It was weird—this trip had Martina, who wouldn’t shut up, and Barney, who barely had a word to say, and right there in the middle was Sam.

He was starting to feel a little bad for yelling at Martina. Not that she wasn’t the Queen of Annoying, but she did kind of save his life yesterday. He’d saved hers too, so it wasn’t like he owed her anything, exactly, but—

Suddenly, a scream echoed through the canyon.

Sam turned to Barney. “That sounded like—”

Barney broke into a run.

“Marty,” Sam finished, and took off to follow.

The two pounded up the narrow path along the canyon. Then Barney stopped short, and Sam nearly plowed into him.

“Don’t move,” said a quiet, shaky voice.

Sam peered around Barney’s massive shoulder blades to see Martina backed up against a stone wall. At her feet was something that looked like an old coil of dusty rope.

A rattlesnake.

Its head was swaying back and forth, eyes locked on Martina, its forked tongue flicking out to taste the fear in the air.

“I never saw it coming,” Martina whispered, wide-eyed. “I was just walking along and it came out of that crack and lunged at me.”

The snake hissed, and began undulating closer to Martina’s leg.

“If it bites me,” Martina whispered in panic, “first I’ll swell up, then it will start to hurt, then—”

“Stop talking. Don’t move,” Barney muttered.

Sam bent down picked up a fist-sized rock from the rubble at his feet. “Get ready,” he warned Martina.

“You can’t make it angry!” said Barney, putting his hand over the rock.

“Trust me,” Sam said.

Barney looked Sam in the eye for a moment before reluctantly withdrawing his hand. Sam pulled his arm back, took aim, and threw the rock at the canyon wall a few yards away from Martina.


The snake whipped its head toward the impact. Martina recognized an opportunity when she saw one, and scrambled up the rock face to the top of a huge boulder, well out of the snake’s reach.

Barney had the idea now. He tossed another rock, and Sam added a few more, keeping the snake distracted. It hissed in disapproval and uncoiled itself, writhing across the rocky ground before disappearing into a dark crack in the wall.

Sam dropped the last rock in his hand, and exhaled in relief. “You okay, Marty?”

She nodded briskly, then slid down the boulder, her hands still shaking. “I bet it has a den under there. We’d better move away from here—we don’t want it to come out again.” Martina brushed herself off, and with the dust she seemed to brush away her fear as well. “Actually, even if it had bitten me, did you know that only a small percentage of rattlesnake bites prove fatal?” she told them.

“Right.” Sam snorted. “That’s why you practically levitated up that boulder.”

“Quick thinking, Sam,” Barney said calmly. “With the rock.”

Barney’s voice was casual, but Martina blushed. “Um, yeah. It was,” she said, looking everywhere except at Sam. “Thanks.”

Sam shrugged.

“I usually know what to look out for in the desert, you know, from reading about it,” Martina said. “But I got distracted—by that.” She pointed up at a patch of stone a few feet above them on the canyon wall. “It looks like some kind of rock carving, but I didn’t think there were any petroglyphs around here. I was trying to get a closer look when the snake attacked me.”

Sam squinted up at the wall and saw a long, wavy line etched into the face of the cliff. It seemed to be broken into eight pieces. The piece closest to the top of the canyon had a thinner line sticking out of it, like the tongue of a snake. In fact, the whole thing looked a lot like a snake, chopped up into sections. Strange thing to find in the middle of the desert.

A strange thing! Sam thought, brightening. Maybe it’s a clue? Rats. And Marty had been the one to find it!

“Join or die,” Martina murmured, staring up at the image in the stone.

Sam glanced at her. “What?”

“It was the title of a famous cartoon from the time of the American Revolution.”

“They had cartoons back then?”

Martina rolled her eyes. Sam should have known better than to ask her. “Not like your comic books, no,” she said. “A political cartoon in a newspaper. It showed a snake chopped up into eight pieces, representing the American colonies. And the caption was ‘Join or die’. It meant that no state could survive without the others—just like a snake couldn’t go on living if it were cut up into pieces. It had to be whole.”

“Okay,” Sam said. He was surprised—old Marty had actually said something interesting. Why hadn’t his history teacher ever talked about snakes? If she had, Sam might actually have paid attention in that class.

“I have no idea what it would be doing here, though,” she said, shaking her head. “Nevada wasn’t even part of the United States at the time of the Revolution.”

Ha, that dope. Sam thought, chuckling to himself. She doesn’t even remember that we’re supposed to be looking for clues out here. “So maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with the Revolutionary War,” Sam hinted. “Maybe it’s—”

“A clue!” Martina beamed with realization. “The first clue! The one about the next place we’re going! And I found it!”

“Ding ding ding!” Sam said. “But what does it mean? A clue isn’t any good if you don’t know what it means.”

The two of them studied the carving. Barney gazed at it above their heads. Seconds ticked into minutes, until something caught Sam’s attention.

“The tongue!” he said. Martina and Barney both turned to stare at him.

“The tongue?” Martina squinted as she peered closer. “What about it?”

“Snakes have forked tongues, right?” Sam said. “But look—it’s not a fork. It’s an arrow.”

Martina’s eyes widened. “You’re right.”

“And there are two letters up there,” Sam pointed. “See? An N and an E, right above the snake’s head.”

“Yeah, ‘New England,’” Martina said. “At least, that’s what it stood for in the original cartoon.”

Sam thought for a second. Then he asked Martina a stupid question. “Do you have a compass in that backpack of yours?”

“Of course I do. Why?”

“What if N.E. stands for northeast?”

“There’s a path to the northeast,” Barney said, startling them both. Sam had been so absorbed in the engraving that he’d forgotten about him. “Right here.”

Martina and Sam looked at each other. “It could be a clue,” Martina said.

“It’s got to be,” Sam agreed.

“The first clue.”

“You found it,” Sam pointed out, reluctantly. But he did want to be fair.

“You noticed the arrow and the letters, though,” Martina said. Maybe she was actually trying to be fair too.

They turned down the new path with Barney in the lead. “A scavenger hunt in Death Valley!” Sam exclaimed. “Awesome!” This trip was looking up, he thought—or it was until he heard a voice from behind them.

“Hey, kids! Wait a second!”

All of them turned to see the tourist in the Hawaiian shirt coming down the path after them. “You guys down here all by yourselves?” the guy panted once he reached them. He wiped sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief. His pale, doughy face was flushed red with exertion, and his bulgy blue eyes squinted against the sun. The guy looked about as well-suited to the rough terrain as a balloon in a nest of porcupines. “Shouldn’t go off so far on your own,” the guy said. “It could be dangerous, you know.”

“We know,” Martina said. “But I’ve got everything we might need in my backpack. I’m an experienced traveler. You can tell the tour guide we’ll be back in—”

“What’s this about another path?” the man said, ignoring Martina’s not-too-subtle attempt to get him to go away. “I heard you talking about that rock carving up there. Sounds fascinating! Lead the way, young lady! I’m sure we’ll get some great pictures!” He brandished his smart phone.

Sam and Martina shared a glance. She was exasperated, and he was annoyed—but for the first time since this trip started, it wasn’t with each other. This guy was one of those grown-ups who just couldn’t take a hint. Shrugging in defeat, Sam said, “Sure, why not?” and followed Barney down the northeast path. Martina came after him, and the man in the Hawaiian shirt brought up the rear, snapping pictures and pointing at things.

Sam wanted to talk more about the rock carving and what kind of a clue it might be, but not with Aloha-shirt guy back there listening. He trudged on in silence as the canyon wound through the earth. Now that it was late morning, the sun was beating down on them in full force. Sam could feel the heat prickling across his face. He pulled a water bottle from his backpack, and tilted his head up to drink. After a long swig, he stared at the mountains ahead of them and stopped dead in his tracks.

“Hey!” Martina complained as she bumped into him from behind. “Why did you stop?”

“Because of that.” Sam pointed.

Martina followed Sam’s finger with her eyes. “I don’t see anything but rocks.”

“Do you have some binoculars?”

“Obviously. So do you still think my backpack’s full of ‘junk’ now, hmm?”

“Oh, stuff it and hand me the binoculars,” Sam said.

Martina smirked and putting a small but heavy pair of binoculars into Sam’s hand.

Sam brought the binoculars up to his eyes and focused them. “That’s it! It’s the next clue! Here, look!”

Martina took the binoculars surveyed the area. “Let’s see…rocks, rocks, aaand more rocks.”

“Ugh,” Sam groaned, and took a step toward her. “How could you miss it? It’s right—”

Sam stumbled as his foot came down on an uneven edge, and he looked down to see what he had tripped over. He had been standing on a smooth, white stone—almost perfectly circular in shape. That’s weird. It didn’t look natural, so why was it here? Curious, he looked back up at the rocks in the distance, hopping on the rock, and then off again. On, and off. Then he grinned.

Whoever planned this puzzle sure was clever.

“Okay, you have to stand right here to see it. Here.” Sam reached back and grabbed Martina’s arm, pulling her forward until she stood on the white rock where his feet had just been. “Good. Now turn your head that way.” He grabbed her on both sides of her head and twisted her face into position.

“Ow! What do you think you’re—oh!”

She’d seen it too. Those three rocks, just visible above the canyon’s rim. At first, they’d looked like any of the other rocks scattered over the landscape, until Sam’s eye had fallen on them as he passed over that white rock.

From that angle, the three rocks seemed to join together, to line up perfectly and look like one long, solid rock. A rock that looked like a writhing snake.

“Another snake,” Martina whispered.

“Yeah,” Sam agreed. “Just like the first one. Different pieces, joining up to make one great big snake. See the head?”

Barney had backtracked and now took a turn standing on the white rock too. He stared through the binoculars for a few moments in silence. Sam thought he saw his eyebrows go up—as if something had actually gotten him excited—but only for a second. “I see it, too,” he said, his voice level.

“We’ve got to get over there!” Sam cried. This was a puzzle, and the rock formation was the next clue. A current of electric excitement was pulsing inside him, the kind he always got when all the elements of a puzzle were falling into place. “It’s just like the head of the carving. I bet you both twenty bucks that there’ll be a tongue—and that tongue will be an arrow. It’ll show us where to go next!”

“Wait. Wait!” Martina had his arm. “Sam, hold on! That’s miles away. We can’t just run across the desert like this.”

“Why not? It’s part of the contest, right? This is what we’re supposed to do! And anyway, you’ve got half a supermarket in that pack, and we’ve got plenty of water.”

“But I don’t have a good map—we could get lost. And how can we be certain these are the clues we were meant to find? It seems so strange that they would expect us to march out in the middle of the desert like this, after the tour guide told us to be back in forty-five minutes. We should at least ask Evangeline if we’re on the right track.”

“Okay, okay.” It was easy to act annoyed, but the truth was, she was right. Sam was getting ahead of himself. The desert could be dangerous—hadn’t they already seen that when Martina got up-close-and-personal with that rattler? They needed to be sure. “Fine. We’ll go back.”

The three of them turned to retrace their steps down the path.

The man in the Hawaiian shirt stood in their way, his mouth pressed into a hard, thin line. His goofy, excited demeanor had dropped off him like a mask, exposing something much more sinister underneath.

It took Sam a few seconds to register that the small, black thing in the man’s hand wasn’t his smartphone. It was a gun.

“Sorry, kids,” the man said. “Change of plans. You’re coming with me.”