The falcon is gone. I didn’t see them take it. But the boys are huddled and the backpack’s being swung from the shorter kid’s shoulder. They’re stashing the bird.
“Porter!” I whisper heatedly, tugging his sleeve.
“I see it,” he says, keeping the palm frond bent to peer into the room. He radios Pangborn again, who saw it too.
“Got it all on tape,” the old stoner confirms, his words coming from the tiny black box on Porter’s shoulder. Apart from losing keys, this is probably more excitement than the two of them have had in months. “Go smoke ’em out, Porter. I’m watching from heaven.”
Heaven. The security room. I wonder if Porter really does watch me from there, or if that’s just him talking big.
The dopey-eyed kid zips up the backpack and slings it over his right shoulder, looks around, and then the two little robbers make their way beneath the bridge, strolling like it’s Sunday and they didn’t just commit a crime. The nerve!
“Time to follow,” Porter says, nudging me out of our hiding place with a tap on my wrist. “We’ll hang back at a safe distance, but not too far. There are a lot of exits, and they likely know that. Main entrance and gift shop are the fastest escape routes, but the easiest for us to track. Fire exits will set off alarms, but they could run and lose us—that’s how the cuff-link bandits beat me last summer. And then there’s the delivery door and the employee entrance.”
“They’re turning right,” I say. “Heading toward the lobby.”
“That kills three of the fire exits. Don’t stare too hard. Just act like we’re having a friendly chat. It’s good that you’re not wearing your vest. You look like you’re asking me for help. Maybe you’re just my girlfriend, visiting me for lunch.”
I nearly choke. “Dream on.”
“What? I’m not good enough for your champagne tastes?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
He snorts. “You prance around here, trying to look like a movie star in your expensive clothes, driving a Vespa, lawyer mom back in Washington, DC—”
His tone is light, almost teasing—not like our usual arguments—but it’s what he’s saying that surprises me. I stop in my tracks, but he pushes me forward. “Do you want to catch these guys? They’re turning into the Egyptian Room. Might have just seen me too. We need to be careful.”
We hang back for a second while Porter glances into the room. As he does, I say, “How did you know my mom’s a lawyer?”
“Gracie told me.”
Oh. “My clothes aren’t expensive, they’re vintage. I can’t help it if your sense of style doesn’t register anything higher than stoner chic and beach bum.”
“Ooaf,” he says, feigning offense. “You wound my tender sensibilities, Rydell.”
“And my dad bought me the Vespa. It’s restored. It’s not like it’s new or anything.”
“That model’s worth more than a new ride. Anyone who knows wheels knows that. The Cove’s a collector’s paradise for scooters. You need to keep that thing locked up at all times.”
“I’m not an idiot,” I tell him.
“What?” I angle to see around him.
“Polo Shirt definitely spotted me. They’re circling around to the main hallway.” He radios Pangborn again. “You still see them?”
“Yeah, I got ’em on the overheads in the main corridor,” Pangborn’s voice says over the radio. “Looks like they’re heading for the lobby.”
The museum closes at six, and it’s past four, so at this time of day, the main hallways on both wings begin to fill up with guests making their way back out to warm sun and fresh air. Our miscreant boys duck into the crowd and for a few seconds, we lose them in the flow. My pulse speeds as I bounce on the balls of my feet, trying to see over the heads of the slow-moving herd.
“Stop that,” Porter says. “You’re going to blow our cover. I can see them. They’re hugging the south wall, so I don’t think they’ll break for the main gate or the gift shop.”
“Maybe. Or they could head straight to Jay’s wing and try to use a fire exit there.”
Porter’s legs are longer than mine, and it’s hard for me to keep up with him without doubling my pace. “I don’t have champagne tastes. Just because I have style doesn’t mean I’m a snob. And in case you haven’t noticed, I’m not living with my mom anymore; I’m living with my dad. And I’m working this job, probably making a whole heck of a lot less money than you, Mr. I’m Eighteen; I Can Work Full-Time and All My Sexual Activity Is Legal.’ ”
“Unless it’s with someone like you, then it would be illegal, because you’re underage.”
“Right.” Before I can think of a wittier comeback, we’re at the end of the corridor, and our suspects have taken a sharp right. Porter was right: They aren’t headed to the main gate or the gift shop. But they aren’t going to Jay’s wing or the employee hall either.
“What the . . . ,” Porter murmurs. “The brats are going spelunking?”
Sure enough, the two boys stride through the back of the lobby, making a beeline to the gaping mouth of the cave. Why they’d head there, I don’t understand. There’s no exit inside, just a dark, looping path that ends up right back at the mouth of the cave. . . .
“Any cameras in there?” I ask.
“A few. The image quality isn’t great,” Porter admits.
“They’re trying to lose us.”
He thinks about this for a second and swears under his breath. We race to the mouth of the cave, where the boys have jogged down the stone steps and disappeared under the stalactites lit by creepy orange spotlights. Only problem is, the steps go two ways: left and right. The main route snakes through the cliffs, crisscrossing in the center like a pretzel where they open up into the center cavern. And the boys have split up.
“You go left,” Porter tells me. “I’ll go right. Whichever one of them you find, don’t take your eyes off him.”
“Meet you in the center.” I take off down the stairs, cool air drafting up as I jog. It’s dark and creepy down here, and the metal handrail that’s been here since the museum opened has a clammy feel to it that gives me the heebie-jeebies, so I can’t touch it. This makes running difficult, because caves are dark and damp, and the low lights around the walkway might be great for setting a mood, but they don’t provide much in the way of illumination when you’re chasing someone. Luckily, there aren’t too many people lingering in the cave—and even fewer racing through it. I spot White Polo Shirt a few yards ahead, on another landing.
There isn’t much to see in the cave, especially compared to the rest of the jam-packed museum, just a few info plaques with facts about caves in California and animals that live there, and the occasional bench for hot-blooded people to rest and enjoy the dark and gloomy view. I sail past a woman leaning against one of these benches and head around the pretzel turn toward the red-and-green glow of the main cavern.
Rocky walls lined with organically formed crevices and holes separate the cave into multiple chambers. It’s a great place for hiding, and those little bastards know it. Several people mingle around the main plaque, marking the spot where Jay and Vivian found their pirate gold. A cheesy chest overflowing with carnival doubloons sits atop a flat rock. It’s ridiculous. I’m embarrassed for everyone who has to gaze upon it, including myself.