You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Barbour Books (March 1, 2010)
Erica Rodgers lives outside of Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and two children. She loves reading, singing in front of her bathroom mirror, and being outside. She currently writes juvenile and young adult fiction.
Visit the author's website.
List Price: $5.97
Reading level: Ages 9-12
Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Barbour Books (March 1, 2010)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Alexis Howell jolted up in bed. She sat for a moment while her shocked heart slowed down.
Who on earth is banging doors this early in the morning? She thought. It’s only—
She looked at the clock on her wall.
“Nine thirty!” Alexis exclaimed.
She knew she had set her alarm for eight o’clock, but she reached over and saw that someone had unplugged it. Alexis threw the covers off and flew out of bed. Why did her little brothers always mess with her on important days? She’d be late!
She yanked on a pair of shorts, slipped on a pair of flip-flops, and scurried toward the door. Alexis passed her desk and reached out, but her hand closed on thin air.
“Where’s my paper?” she yelled.
“You mean this one?” her brother asked. He was standing at the top of the stairs waving a paper airplane. The boys were twins, and at first glance she sometimes couldn’t tell them apart, which made them even more annoying.
“You made it into an airplane?” cried Alexis. “Give it to me!”
“You should have said please,” her brother said. He drew his arm back and flung the airplane down the stairs.
“No!” cried Alexis. She bounded toward the stairs.
She could see the important paper circling toward the living room. Here, like everywhere else in her house, were countless stacks of paper. Her mother and father were both lawyers. They worked in the same office, and since that office was being renovated, all of their work had migrated to the Howell house. If that tiny paper airplane landed in the middle of that mess, she would never find it!
Alexis leaped down the first three stairs. On the fourth, however, her foot landed on a remote-control race car and flew out from beneath her. Alexis crashed down the rest of the stairs and slammed into the closest pile of files. It was a paper explosion.
“What on earth?” cried Mrs. Howell. She ran in from the kitchen and found Alexis knee deep in paper, searching. More paper still fell like rain from the ceiling.
“Oh no!” said Alexis. “Where is it? Where is it!”
“Calm down, Alexis,” said Mrs. Howell. “Where is what?”
“The e-mails! I printed out Kate’s e-mail and wrote her flight information on the back. If I can’t find it, we won’t know when to get her! And I’m running late!”
Her mom placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Calm down,” she said. “We have plenty of time. Here, I’ll help.” Alexis’s mom began stacking her files. In no time she uncovered a small, crumpled airplane. Alexis flattened it out and took a deep breath.
“Thanks, Mom.” Alexis read the page again just to be sure it was the right paper airplane.
Camp Club Update
From: Alexis Howell
Hey girls! How is everyone? I’m great, but things have been boring since I got home from camp. I have two more weeks until cheerleading starts, so I’m at home with my brothers way too often! The only investigating I’ve done lately involves a missing Spiderman sock and the cat from next door. Isn’t that sad?
Oh! I almost forgot! A lady at my church could use your prayers. Her name is Miss Maria, and she runs a nature park outside the city. It’s a great place to see the local plants and animals, but lately not many people have been visiting. If Miss Maria can’t get some big business she’s going to have to close the park. The park is all she has. It would be awful if she had to sell it. She rented some fake dinosaurs that look real and really move, like the animals at Disneyland. Maybe this will bring more business! Pray that it does!
It was so good to get your update! I’m sorry to hear about Miss Maria. Is she really getting mechanical dinosaurs? That is so awesome! Are you up for a visitor? Sounds like you could use a little excitement, and I can get there easily. My grandpa is a pilot and gets me great deals to fly all over the country. That really comes in handy when I get the urge to visit California! LOL!
I would love to see you, and besides, I’ve never seen animatronics that close up before! Do you think Miss Maria would let me touch them? Let me know what your mom says!
Alexis must have read Kate’s e-mail forty-three times, but her heart was still racing. She had thought she wouldn’t see any of the other Camp Club Girls until next summer, but in less than an hour Kate would be there! Alexis was sure this week would be amazing. How could it not be? They would find some crazy case to solve; maybe a stolen piece of art, or a break-in at the Governor’s Mansion. Whatever they did would be ten times better than doing nothing—as she had done for the last month.
On her way to the kitchen Alexis poked her head into the bathroom to glance in the mirror. She pulled her loose brown curls into a quick ponytail and wiped the sleep from her eyes. They were an electric blue, and Alexis knew they clashed with her hair, but she liked being a little different.
She stepped back and scrunched her face. If only she could make her freckles disappear! They stood out on her pale skin like spots on a snow leopard, and she could never decide if she liked them or not. She had tried once to cover them with her mom’s makeup, but it had been the wrong color, and waterproof so she couldn’t remove it easily with water. She hadn’t known that her mother had special make-up remover. That day she had gone to school looking like a pumpkin.
Oh well. Sometimes she was proud of her freckles. They measured how good her summer had been. The more fun she had in the sun, the darker they got.
“Lots of fun in the sun this year, I guess,” she said, then she spun out of the bathroom. Her toasted blueberry waffles were waiting for her in the kitchen.
“Thanks, Mom,” Alexis said as she ate.
“You’re welcome, but do you really need to say it with your mouth full?”
Alexis swallowed. “Sorry.”
Her twin brothers, who were seven, had freckles just like Alexis but had also inherited the red hair from her mother’s side of the family. The boys finished eating and began playing hide-and-seek among the towering files in the living room. Alexis ignored the possibility of disaster and ate quickly. She was counting down the minutes until she would see Kate at the airport.
Twenty minutes until they left.
Forty minutes until they parked.
Forty-five minutes until—
The television caught her eye. She usually ignored the news, but the anchorwoman with big hair was showing a shot of her friend, Miss Maria, standing in front of the nature park. Alexis grabbed the remote and turned up the volume just in time to hear the introduction to the story.
“Let’s go to Channel 13 reporter Thad Swotter for more about this story.”
“Thank you, Nicky,” said the news man. He flashed the camera a cheesy smile. “Yesterday one more company refused to sponsor Aspen Heights Conservation Park. That makes them number 10 on the list of people who have denied the park money this year. You may ask, Thad, who’s counting? And I would say no one—except the park’s owner.”
Thad Swotter laughed into the camera, his mouth still stretched into a wide, fake smile.
“As a last-ditch effort to revive the park,” he continued, “Maria Santos has scattered a stampede of mechanical dinosaurs throughout the park. The exhibit opens to the public today and will be there through the end of this month.”
“Well, Thad,” said the woman with the big hair, “do you think this will bring in more visitors?”
“I know Miss Santos hopes so,” said the reporter. “It looks like she’s spent her life’s savings on the project. It certainly is creative, but I think it will take more than a bunch of toy dinosaurs to keep that park from becoming extinct!”
“Thanks, Thad. Now over to Chris for last night’s sports report.”
Alexis had forgotten about her waffles. None of her friends had ever been on the news before, but she wasn’t excited. She was worried. Had Miss Maria really spent the last of her savings on those dinosaurs? If so, things must be pretty bad.
Alexis whipped out her bright pink notebook and scribbled:
Mission: find a way to help Miss Maria.
Step One: Visit park with Kate and ask how we can help.
Going to the park was a great idea. It seemed like the perfect place to find an adventure. Kate really wanted to see the dinosaurs, and maybe they could help Miss Maria while they were there. Alexis shoved her notebook into her pink camouflage backpack. She never left home without it. Taking notes was one of the most important things an investigator could do, and Alexis considered herself an investigator. After all, the Camp Club Girls were regularly finding cases to solve.
Half an hour later Alexis and her mom were at the airport, waiting for Kate to pop through the exit gate of the security checkpoint. Mrs. Howell said that she used to be able to meet people at the door of the plane. Alexis couldn’t imagine that. For as long as she could remember she had waited for visitors here—next to the gift shop, and at a safe distance from the burly security guards. It would have been fun to meet Kate at her gate—they would already be having a blast. But Alexis was stuck waiting near a rack of over-priced California coffee mugs.
The first thing Alexis noticed was Kate’s new pair of glasses flashing through the crowd. They were bright green and came to a point at the sides. They made Alexis think of the Riddler, one of the best Batman villains. She laughed at the thought and met her friend with a hug.
“It’s so good to see you!” said Alexis. “How was your flight?”
“Long, and they wouldn’t let Biscuit sit with me! He had to go under the plane! Do you have any idea how cold it gets down there?”
Alexis caught her breath and stopped abruptly. She’d forgotten about Biscuit! How many times when the boys begged for a dog had Mrs. Howell firmly told them their house, especially now, with all its stacks of paper, was no place for a dog! Alexis suspected the real issue was that her mom didn’t like dogs. At all. She frowned when people walking their dogs didn’t clean up their droppings in the yard. She’d also opposed a neighborhood park being turned into a dog park.
What will Mom do! Alexis thought. Will she make Kate send Biscuit back home? Will she make Biscuit stay in the garage? But then Biscuit will cry all night.
“Alexis!” Mrs. Howell called. Kate realized that her mother and friend were far ahead of her. She glanced at her mother’s face. Mrs. Howell looked cheerful and friendly. Apparently she either hadn’t heard Kate’s words clearly or didn’t know that Biscuit was a dog.
Lord, please help Mom be nice about Biscuit! Alexis prayed silently.
Alexis’s mom led the girls to the baggage claim. They picked up a neat little suitcase and a not-so-neat black and white puppy. At the sight of Biscuit, Mrs. Howell’s smile faltered.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” said Alexis. “Biscuit can stay in my room—away from your files.” Mrs. Howell said that she wasn’t worried, but her face relaxed a bit. Alexis knew that she had been thinking of the endless stacks of paper that could easily become chew toys and chaos.
Thank You, God! Alexis mentally murmured. She knew if Mom didn’t say anything now, she never would. Now, if only Alexis and Kate could make sure Biscuit didn’t get in Mom’s way or cause trouble!
“We’re going straight to the park,” Alexis said to Kate as they arrived at the family’s green Durango. They buckled themselves into the back seat, and Mrs. Howell dug around in her purse for some cash to pay for parking.
“The dinosaur exhibit opens today, so tons of people should be there,” Alexis added as her mom pulled onto the highway.
Alexis was wrong. A half-hour later Mrs. Howell drove through the two towering redwoods at the entrance to Aspen Heights and frowned. Theirs was only the second car in the parking lot.
“I don’t understand!” said Alexis. “Where is everyone? It was on the news and everything!”
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” said her mother. “I’m sure more people will come. It’s not even lunchtime yet.”
Lunchtime came and went, though, and only a handful of people were enjoying the park. Alexis and Kate walked the shade-speckled trails with Biscuit on his leash.
“Wow!” said Kate. “There are so many plants here!”
“I know,” said Alexis. “Miss Maria tries to keep a little of everything. She especially likes the endangered ones.”
“Oh look! Another dinosaur!” Kate ran up to a triceratops that looked like it was eating the fuzzy leaves of a mule ear. A miniature triceratops was feet away near an evergreen bush. Alexis figured it must be the baby.
Miss Marie had certainly arranged the dinosaurs well. Alexis and Kate had to look hard to see the electrical cords and power boxes hidden among the plants, feeding power to the animatrons.
Alexis had never been easily able to imagine what dinosaurs looked like. But these animatrons were full-sized. They had been meticulously fashioned to resemble the original animals as closely as possible. Alexis began to understand the fascination some people felt for the extinct creatures.
“They’re a lot different than in the Jurassic Park movies,” Alexis noted. “I thought they’d be taller than this. Some of them aren’t too much bigger than a large man.”
Kate laughed. “Alexis, you’re the one from California! You should be the first to know that movies aren’t always true to life!”
Alex grinned. “Actually, most of the movie stuff goes on around Los Angeles, and that’s quite a ways down the coast. We see movie crews around shooting sometimes. But other than that, we don’t have much more to do with the entertainment industry than you probably do in Philadelphia.”
“Well, most of the dinosaurs were actually probably smaller than the ones in those movies. And sometimes the movies weren’t accurate in recreating the dinosaurs.
“Like these velociraptors,” Kate said, pointing at the herd of creatures with their waving arms. “See how they’re kind of feathery looking? This is more accurate than the portrayals that show them with scaly, lizard-like skin. Just a couple of years ago some paleontologists found a preserved raptor forearm in Mongolia that proved it had feathers.”
“How in the world do you know all that?” Alexis asked.
“Discovery Channel,” Kate said with a grin. “And a teacher who spends her summer looking for dinosaur footprints!”
The girls walked along the pathway to the next creature, a dromaeosaurus lurking near a nest of eggs that looked like they came from a much larger beast.
“This one is even better than the raptor!” said Kate. “Look! Its eyes blink!”
“Actually, Kate, I think it’s winking! The other eye is stuck!”
The girls’ laughter was cut short. They jumped in alarm as another dinosaur nearby, a dilophosaurus, raised its head and bellowed. As the animatron swung its head around, Alex gasped.
“It spit at me!” she cried. “I’ve been assaulted by dinosaur spit! That must have sent out a gallon of water, and all on me! My shirt is soaked!”
Kate clutched her sides, laughing. “Well, at least they used water instead of adding more component to make the expectorant more realistic!”
“What?” Alexis asked.
“At least they didn’t make it slimy and mucusy like real spit might have been!”
“Oh, I’m sorry I asked,” Alex said. “Wait a minute while I throw up at that thought—and it wouldn’t be water, either!”
The rest of the animatron trail passed uneventfully. More bellows and eye blinks and movements, but thankfully, no more assaults by spitting dinosaurs.
As Alex’s shirt started to dry in the hot sun, the girls started giggling again about the spitting dinosaur.
“Sounds like a rock band,” Alex said. “The Spitting Dinosaurs.”
“Yeah, or maybe a little kids’ T-ball team!” Kate added.
The girls laughed all the way back to the visitors’ center. The entrance from the walking trails looked like an old log cabin with a green roof. That led into another larger building with the same log design. The larger building housed more exhibits and displays about nature and animals.
Alexis noticed that more cars were now in the parking lot, and her smile stretched even wider. It would be horrible if the dinosaurs turned out to be a waste of Miss Maria’s money.
When they walked into the visitors’ center, a lanky teenager greeted them from behind the desk.
“Hey, Alex, who’s your friend?” he called out.
“Hi, Jerry. This is Kate.” Jerry was tall and a little thin, as if the summer between eighth and ninth grade had stretched him out. His dark hair had light streaks from spending plenty of time in the sun. Between that, his flip-flops, and his tan, he looked as if he’d stepped right out of a surfing movie.
“Hi, Kate,” said Jerry. “It’s good to meet you!”
“You, too,” said Kate, looking at her shoes shyly.
Bam! The door to the visitors’ center flew open and Miss Maria stormed in.
“That news man from Channel 13 just got here,” she said. “Try to ignore him.” She stopped to hug Alexis with her wiry, suntanned arms and shook hands with Kate.
“But Miss Maria,” said Jerry, “don’t you want to be on the news? It might get more people to come to the park.”
“Yes, it might, but that young reporter isn’t very pleasant.” Miss Maria tucked a piece of short salt-and-pepper hair behind her ear. “More than toy dinosaurs, huh?”
Miss Maria grumbled to herself until a visitor stuck his head through the open door and called to her.
“Hey, Maria! Good job with the triceratops and raptor footprints. They’re so realistic! And I’m glad you put a raptor by the fountain. He looks good there. I’ll be back with my family, and I’ll encourage my students to come!”
Miss Maria thanked the man, who introduced himself as a biology professor from one of the local colleges. “But I’ve always longed to be a paleontologist!” he confessed.
As the professor waved good-bye, Alexis noticed that Miss Maria didn’t look too happy.
“He liked the dinosaurs!” Alexis said. “What’s wrong, Miss Maria? Didn’t you hear? He’s bringing his whole family! And he’s sending his students over!”
Miss Maria looked out the window and tapped a finger on the sill.
“Yes, I heard him,” said Miss Maria. “The question is, did you? He said he liked the footprints—what footprints is he talking about? Alexis, did you and your friend notice any footprints this morning?”
Alexis shook her head. “But we weren’t looking that closely,” she said.
“And there shouldn’t be a raptor near the fountain at all,” said Maria. “I put them all in the dogwood grove.”
“Someone must have moved him,” said Alexis.
“But why would they do that?” asked Kate.
“Why would anyone dig up my pansies, or carve their initials in a hundred year-old redwood tree?” said Maria. “Sometimes they do it because they have no respect for God’s creation. Sometimes they do it to cause trouble. And sometimes they do it to show off to their friends. Who knows why else they do it! But moving around some of those dinosaurs isn’t easy, and they’re liable to mess up the wires—to even get electrocuted. Let’s go take a look.”
Miss Maria had placed the six raptors together in a little herd. Sure enough, when they rounded the corner to the dogwood grove, the smallest one was missing. Little footprints led away through the trees. They had three toes, like a bird had made them, with two of the toes being longer than the third. The group followed the tracks along the trail until they reached the fountain. Then they saw him.
The diminutive dinosaur was posed on the edge of the fountain. Fortunately, he was one of the models that wasn’t animated or electric. He was about two feet tall and bright green. His long tail kept him balanced on his back legs as he leaned toward the water. He looked as if he’d simply left the herd to get a drink.
“Weird!” said Jerry.
“Yeah,” Alexis agreed.
She walked carefully around the fountain. She and Alexis had been laughing too hard earlier to notice the footprints if they’d been there. And this raptor hadn’t stood out when they’d seen it earlier—they didn’t know Miss Maria hadn’t put it by the water. Her mind kicked into overdrive just like it always did when she found something strange or out of place.
How did he get there? She wondered. If someone moved him, why are there only dinosaur footprints in the mud? Shouldn’t there have been human prints, too? Alexis pulled her notebook out of her backpack and instinctively began writing things down.
“Interesting, and irritating,” said Miss Maria. She scooped up the raptor and walked back toward the path holding him beneath her elbow. “You all go back to the visitors’ center to greet people as they arrive,” she said. “I’m going to go check around.”
When they reached the center, Jerry’s younger sister, Megan Smith, ran out to greet them. She was going into the seventh grade, like Alexis, and looked just like her brother, only with longer hair.
“Hi, guys!” Megan said. She pointed toward the parking lot. “Did you see the news crew?”
“Yeah,” said Alexis.
“Maria wants us to stay away from them,” said Jerry. Was Alexis imagining it, or was Jerry irritated?
“Oops. . .,” said Megan. “I gave the guy with the funny hair a tour. He said he was interested in seeing all of the dinosaurs.”
“That’s okay, Meg,” said Alexis. “A tour couldn’t have done any harm. Maybe he liked the park enough to do a big story for the evening news.”
Kate pushed her glasses up on the bridge of her nose and pointed toward the parking lot.
“I wonder why he’s coming back,” she said.
Sure enough, the reporter was striding across the parking lot. The wind tossed his bright blue tie around and lifted his hair up at an odd angle. Alexis wondered if he was wearing a wig. She would have thought he was too young for that, but then again, she also knew teachers and men at church who were way younger than her dad and hardly had any hair.
“Hi, kids!” he said. “I’m Thad. Thad Swotter—investigative reporter for Channel 13.”
Not quite as impressive as he is on TV, thought Alexis.
“Some place you guys have here,” Swotter said, looking around. His tone reminded Alexis of how her father greeted her great-aunt Gertrude. They visited her in Phoenix sometimes for Thanksgiving. He always said he was glad to be there, but Alexis didn’t think he meant it.
“Miss Maria has worked very hard to share California’s indigenous plants with our community,” said Alexis. Thad Swotter smiled, and Alexis thought his perfect teeth might be a little big for his mouth.
“Indigenous, huh?” said Swotter. “That’s quite a big word for such a little girl. You know, I was sure I saw some specimens that were definitely not native to California.”
“Well, yes,” said Megan. “On the tour I showed you the olive and the fig tree. Miss Maria works very hard to keep those alive through the winter. She likes to give people glimpses of other parts of the country, and even the world, too.”
“Yes, I remember,” said Swotter. “And the thorns were creepy. I’m glad we don’t really have those in the foothills of the Sierra-Nevada Mountains!”
“Thorns?” asked Kate.
“Yes,” said Alexis. “Miss Maria’s favorite plant is the Christ’s-thorn in her greenhouse. It’s planted next to a replica of the crown of thorns Jesus wore.”
“Cool it may be,” said the reporter. “But I don’t see how those thorns have anything to do with us. They’re out of place.”
“That’s not true,” said Megan. “God created all of it, so everything belongs.”
“God created?” Swotter lifted his eyebrows in amusement. “You kids are almost as bad as the bat that runs this place!”
Alexis reared up, ready to defend Miss Maria, but she took a deep breath instead. She knew it would be disrespectful to argue with Mr. Swotter. She even resisted the urge to roll her eyes—which was not easy when she was annoyed.
“This is exactly why nobody comes here!” Swotter laughed. “No one wants to come to a park to get preached at!”
“No one’s preaching, sir,” said Jerry respectfully. “People don’t have to believe in God or Jesus to appreciate the plants. If it really bothers them, they can stick to the other parts of the park.”
“They could,” said Swotter, “but it’d be easier for them not to come at all. Look, kids, California has enough theme parks. If I want to hear a fairy tale, I’ll go to Disneyland.” He snickered again and walked off to examine a clump of poppies.
“He’s rude,” said Kate. “Good thing he doesn’t act that rude on TV.”
“He practically does,” said Alexis. She looked around the empty park entrance. Where was Miss Maria? She had been gone for a long time.
“Those footprints were weird, weren’t they?” Jerry laughed. “It’s like the dinosaurs just woke up and decided to explore the park!”
Thad Swotter stood up and scribbled furiously in his notebook. He headed toward his van, almost stomping on the poppies as he went. Alexis heard him yell something at his cameraman, who had fallen asleep on the steering wheel.
“What’s up with him?” asked Megan.
“Maybe he’s late,” said Alexis. The group turned back toward the visitors’ center. “I think we should check on Miss Maria.” Before anyone could agree with her, a scream ripped through the trees.
Then all was silent.
“It came from over there.” Jerry pointed toward the trail that led to the triceratops.
“Oh no! Miss Maria!” Alexis tore off through the trees and the others followed.
When they came around the last corner, Alexis almost screamed herself. Miss Maria was lying on her back in the mud, next to the mother triceratops. She wasn’t moving.
Her large eyes stared unblinking into the cloudless sky.