Happy Saturday and welcome to my stop on the blog tour for CITY OF THE DEAD by James Ponti! I’m so excited because today I have an excerpt of the book to share with you! This book is truly amazing and I’m so excited to for you to find out more about it, PLUS enter for a chance to win a print copy!
Series: City Spies #4
Published on February 7, 2023 by Aladdin
Genres: Contemporary, Middle Grade, Mystery
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In this fourth installment in the New York Times bestselling series from Edgar Award winner James Ponti, the young group of spies go codebreaking in Cairo in another international adventure perfect for fans of Spy School and Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls.
Codename Kathmandu, better known as Kat, loves logic and order, has a favorite eight-digit number, and can spot a pattern from a mile away. So when a series of cyberattacks hits key locations in London while the spies are testing security for the British Museum, it’s clear that Kat’s skill for finding reason in what seems like randomness makes her the perfect candidate to lead the job.
And while the team follows the deciphered messages to Egypt and the ancient City of the Dead to discover who is behind the attacks and why, Kat soon realizes that there’s another layer to the mystery.
With more players, more clues, and involving higher levels of British Intelligence than ever before, this mission is one of the most complex that the group has faced to date. And it’s also going to bring about a change to the City Spies…
LONDON, ENGLAND—PRESENT DAY
ON A SLATE GRAY NOVEMBER DAY, one hundred years after the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, a group of five young people converged in a part of London known as Bloomsbury. Like Howard Carter, they were looking to recover treasures of Egyptian antiquity. Except they weren’t going to dig a tunnel in the desert, they were going to sneak through one in an abandoned section of the London Underground. And the artifacts they sought weren’t concealed in some long-forgotten tomb, they were on display at one of the busiest museums in the world.
This was no excavation. It was a heist.
“Testing comms, one, two, three,” Kat said into the microphone hidden in the red remembrance poppy pinned to her lapel. “Can everybody hear me?” “Loud and clear,” said Paris.
“Perfectly,” answered Rio.
“All good on my end,” Brooklyn replied.
There was a pause as they waited for a final voice to check in.
“Sydney, are you not responding because you can’t hear me?” Kat asked. “Or is it because you’re still pouting?” After a moment, Sydney replied, “I’m sorry. I was under the impression nobody cared what I had to say.” “So, pouting,” Paris commented.
“I’m not pouting,” Sydney said defensively. “I’m just . . . disappointed. All I asked was that we slide the break-in a couple hours so we could see the fireworks at Battersea Park. You know how much I love Bonfire Night. It’s going to be huge and everyone’s going to be there.”
“Which is exactly why we’re going to be here,” Kat said. “The police will be spread thin, and there are no celebrations scheduled for Bloomsbury. That means they’ll be elsewhere, which dramatically improves the probability of us not getting caught.”
Kat was the alpha on this mission, which meant she had to come up with the plan to break into the British Museum. She’d studied dozens of famous robberies and noticed that many took place on holidays or during special events, when police and security altered their normal patterns and were understaffed. She picked this date because of its connection to one of the most infamous figures in British history.
On November 5, 1605, a soldier-turned-radical named Guy Fawkes was captured before he could execute his plan to use thirty-six barrels of gunpowder to blow up Parliament. Ever since, Britons had marked the occasion with raucous public displays that included bon fires, burning effigies, and fireworks.
For Sydney, a born rebel who loved “making things go boom,” it was as if Bonfire Night had been created specifically with her in mind. And here she was in London, so close to some of the biggest celebrations in the country, yet she was going to miss out.
“Just tell me this,” Kat said. “Are you good to go with the mission? Or is this going to be a problem?”
“Of course, I’m good,” Sydney replied. “I never let anything affect our work.”
“Excellent,” Kat said. “And if it makes you feel better, I’ll try to find something for you to blow up.” “I really appreciate it,” Sydney said. “That means a lot.”
Rio cleared his throat and said, “Now that we’ve got everybody’s feelings sorted, can we please get started?” “Yeah,” Brooklyn said, “you know we can’t do anything until you give us the word.”
As the alpha, it was Kat’s responsibility to say the good luck phrase that kicked off every operation. “Okay then,” she said, surveying the museum entrance from her vantage point in the Great Court. “This operation is hot. We are a go.”
And just like that, the City Spies were in action. The five of them were an experimental team of agents, aged twelve to fifteen, who worked for MI6, British Secret Intelligence. They were called in for assignments in which adults would stand out but kids could blend in.
In this instance, the job was to steal two items on display in a special exhibition called “Wonderful Things: One Hundred Years of Tutmania.” They didn’t know why they were stealing them; after all, spies weren’t supposed to ask too many questions. All they’d been told was that it was in the best interests of the British government for them to do so.
Kat had never been the alpha for a mission this big, and she’d prepared for it like she did most things, as though it were a series of complex math equations. She split the heist into two parts so they could, in her words, “isolate the variables.” The theft wouldn’t happen until after the museum closed. But now, while it was still open, they had to set up things for later.
“Everyone good with what they’re supposed to do?” she asked.
“Yes,” Rio said with a groan. “We’ve gone over it and over it and over it.”
“Good,” Kat said. “Repetition leads to fluency, and fluency leads to confidence. It’s a cornerstone of executing complicated mathematical processes.”
“Except this isn’t math,” Rio said. “It’s a break-in.” “You’re so funny,” Kat said. “Everything’s math. Now blend in and disappear. Do your best to stay invisible.” “Don’t worry,” Sydney replied. “We’ll be ghosts.” “Yeah,” Rio added. “Math ghosts.”
With so many kids at the museum, they had no trouble blending in as they went to work on their specific assignments. Kat had even managed to get uniforms which matched those of schools visiting on field trips. This let them enter with large student groups which bypassed the normal security line.
“We’re at the west stairs, and there are no surprises,” Sydney informed the others.
She and Rio were double-checking the route they needed to take later that night. The team had plotted it using a virtual tour of the museum they found online. This let them carefully study every room and look for vulnerabilities. Now, they had to make sure that nothing had changed or been added in the time since the tour was filmed.
“There’s a CCTV camera on the ceiling,” Rio said. “And the entrance to the Egyptian gallery is protected by a roll-down gate that’s operated by a keypad next to the doorway.”
“We’ll be able to control those once Brooklyn hacks their computer system,” said Kat.
“Grab a photo of the keypad,” Brooklyn said. “Make sure it shows the name of the manufacturer so I can download an operator’s manual.”
“Got it,” Sydney answered.
She motioned for Rio to stand near the pad so it would look like she was taking a picture of him and not the device.
“Smile,” she said, and he flashed a goofy grin. Next, they walked through the Egyptian sculpture gallery, where they noted and took pictures of three different security features. There were motion detectors along the wall, closed circuit television cameras on the ceiling, and sensors eighteen inches above the floor that were part of a laser trip-wire system.
They made special note of these locations because, unlike in the movies, there wouldn’t be brightly colored beams of light they could dance around. The lasers would be nearly invisible and tripping any one of them would mean disaster for the mission.
As they mapped the location of two sensors near a giant statue of Rameses II, Rio noticed a security guard standing nearby. His nametag read officer hawk, although his droopy moustache and lumpy physique seemed more walrus than bird of prey.
“Target acquired,” Rio said in a low voice to Sydney. “Why him?” she asked.
“Two things,” Rio answered. “He’s friendly and he’s awkward.”
Sydney gave him a curious look.
“Security guards are supposed to be standoffish to intimidate you,” Rio said. “But notice how he smiles and makes eye contact with people. He wants to connect and be liked.”
“His tie’s crooked and his shirt’s tucked in unevenly,” Rio explained. “Not only that, but his ID badge is clipped to his belt instead of his shirt pocket, which makes it easier to lift.”
“It’s scary how well you read people,” Sydney said. “I’ve got skills,” Rio said. “Nice of someone to notice for a change.”
For years, Rio’s ability to read people had been essential to his survival. He’d lived on the streets of Rio de Janeiro and made money by performing magic for tourists on a sidewalk near Copacabana Beach. To do that, he had to know how to read an audience and be able to perform amazing sleight of hand maneuvers. He was about to do both to steal a security card they’d need later.
The lift was a two-person job that they’d done many times. Sydney’s role was to be the diversion. “Excuse me,” she said, approaching the guard. “Do you think you could take a picture of me with this statue in the background?”
According to regulations, the guard wasn’t supposed to do anything except keep an eye on the gallery. However, like Rio said, he was friendly and had trouble saying no. “Of course,” he replied with a smile. “Let’s make it quick.”
She handed him her phone and struck a pose. He snapped the shot and gave it back to her, but when she looked at the picture, she frowned.
“Ugh,” she said. “I’m sorry, could you do it again. My eyes are closed, and it’s backlit so you can’t see my face.” She directed him to move over a few feet, and as she became more difficult, the guard became more distracted. This was when Rio brushed past him and deftly slipped the badge off his belt. Next came the tricky part. Rio had to copy the badge and put it back before the guard noticed it was missing. If it was reported lost, the protocol was for that card to be deactivated, which would render it useless.
Rio slid it into his pocket and pressed it against his phone, which had a built-in scanner and cloning app. After a few seconds, he heard a single beep that told him it was done. Then he moved back to them, where Sydney was unsatisfied with another picture and the guard’s patience was running thin.
Rio nosed into their conversation. “The problem is the light from that window,” he said pointing at the photo on Sydney’s phone. “You need to be on the opposite side of the room.”
The guard wanted no part of this. “I’m not moving to . . .”
“Why don’t I take it?” Rio offered.
“Good idea,” said the guard.
As he handed Sydney’s phone back to her, Rio clipped the ID badge back to the guard’s belt.
“Here you go,” said the guard.
“Thank you for your help,” said Sydney.
They walked away, and once they were out of earshot, Rio whispered, “friendly and awkward, my two favorite traits.” They crossed the room to take the picture with better lighting so as not to draw suspicion from the guard, and then they went directly to another gallery and found a door marked staff only. They waited until no one was around, and then Rio held up his phone next to the ID sensor. A light on the sensor turned from red to green and they heard the lock click open.
“We’re all set with the security doors,” Rio said proudly.
“Nice job,” answered Kat.
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What do you think about City of the Dead? Have you added it to your tbr yet? Let me know in the comments and have a splendiferous day!