Inside the renovated barn and home of the new Liberty Post, Snoops Keeley tapped the computer screen in disbelief. The data blinking before her didn’t make sense. A low, whistling breath streamed from her lips.
Behind purple-framed glasses, her black bean eyes snapped. Maybe she was only in junior high but as the town’s smartest resident with computers and social media, she was a cyber-force worthy of respect.
Last year when her best friend had been dodging the Grim Reaper and in need of a bone marrow transplant, Snoops had built websites and blogged relentlessly to draw national media attention to the cause. People from across the U.S. donated enough money for Blossom Perini’s medical expenses and then some. Now Blossom wasn’t just healthy—she was the youngest reporter in Ohio. Maybe she wasn’t a journalist exactly, but her online blog for the Liberty Post was read in lots of cool places like Miami, Los Angeles and Seattle.
Snoops leaned close to the computer monitor with an icky feeling pooling in her stomach. All of the grown-ups were out chasing stories, including the new reporters Hugh had hired. They’d left Snoops and Blossom in charge for an hour, mostly because calls rarely came in this late in the day. The new receptionist would start next week. Snoops looked around helplessly.
The barn had a new oak floor but the faint odor of horse poo drifted past her offended nose. She liked horses all right, but wished they hadn’t left evidence of their occupancy in a newsroom now serving a three-county area and a large online following. At her knees, Blossom’s golden retriever squirmed.
“Sweetcakes, stop bugging me.” Something was wrong with the files, and she needed to focus. “Stupid dog. Go away.”
“Don’t yell at my dog.” Blossom, busy typing two desks away, puffed up her cheeks then blew out a stream of air. “How many times do I have to tell you? Sweetcakes bugs you because you haul food around like a gypsy. She wants whatever’s stashed in your pocket.”
“I lug food because I eat when I’m nervous.”
Or worried—the computer files looked like they’d been messed with. A data snatch-and-grab was enough to have her withdrawing a sandwich from the roomy folds of her sweatshirt. She bit with relish. The yummy aroma of roast beef and cheddar made Sweetcakes quiver.
Not that Snoops presently cared about Blossom’s dog.
From the looks of it someone had crept past the firewall, a notion so surprising she sat blinking in a desperate attempt to reboot her brain. Birdie’s middle name was deleted from one form. Her work history had a weird new entry for a clothing store in New Mexico, and some of the articles she’d written were missing—only the date of entry remained. Was this a hoax? Or something worse?
The second possibility sprouted goosebumps on her arms. She tossed down the sandwich and sent her fingers streaming across the keyboard.
Blossom spun around in her chair. “You don’t look so good. What are you working on?”
“I’m tracking something. Don’t bug me.”
“I like bugging you. It gives my life purpose.”
Opening a second screen on the computer, Snoops made a split second decision that left a bitter taste in her mouth. Some things were sacred, and she wasn’t supposed to even know the password. Of course, only someone as careless as Birdie would leave the password Free2roaM in a file entitled My Stuff. Jotting it down, she logged into the bank where the Liberty Post sent payroll.
Corkscrew curls bouncing, Blossom leapt from her chair. “Are you looking at bank accounts?” She peered at the columns of numbers glowing on the screen. “You don’t have permission!”
“I have to look. The website was compromised, and the hack targeted Birdie. What if someone also broke into her account?”
“You can’t snoop in her private stuff. We aren’t even supposed to work here. We’re in junior high.”
“Are you for real? Without me, this place would operate with typewriters.” She tipped her head at the window, and the green hills surrounding the barn. “This isn’t exactly a metropolitan area. There isn’t anyone else with my skill set.”
The ready defense didn’t placate Blossom. “What if you get us in trouble?” she asked.
“Since when do you care about trouble?” Mischief flowed in her best friend’s veins. Blossom had collected enough detentions from the school principal to paper the walls of her bedroom. “I have to check this out. It looks like someone hacked the system.”
“Geez, are you looking at Birdie and Hugh’s bank accounts?”
Birdie and Hugh had sealed their engagement within days of hiring some part-time staff and opening the Liberty Post. They spent most of their time chasing stories. The rest of the time they traded barbs and kisses—Snoops wished they’d stop fighting and get married already.
“Hugh’s accounts look okay. Birdie’s stuff is a different story.” She studied the withdrawals blinking on the screen. “Look. Someone has been taking money from her checking account.”
Blossom lifted her shoulders in a careless shrug. “It’s Birdie’s account. She’s making the withdrawals.”
“Guess again. She doesn’t know how to use checking.”
“Sure she does. It’s a rule. Grownups learn everything about money.”
“Trust me, she’s clueless. She dumped money into checking and left it there. She lives on cash.”
“That’s dumb. Why open an account and not use it?”
“To get Hugh to stop bugging her.”
The way he tried to teach Birdie was sweet. Her previous life hadn’t prepared her for basic stuff, like dealing with alarm clocks or staying put in one place. But she was making progress.
Blossom twirled one of her curls. “I don’t care if Birdie opens ten accounts,” she said. “It won’t stop Hugh from getting on her case. Nagging is his favorite pastime.”
“He’s only trying to teach her to be responsible.” Actually it was cool how Birdie had lived by her wits before opening the Liberty Post. Now she’d gone straight, but she hadn’t figured out how to use a bank for anything but breaking and entering. Well, maybe her past didn’t involve bank robberies, but she had been a pickpocket. “Someone’s been taking out small amounts of cash from her checking. Twenty, thirty bucks at a time.”
Blossom flashed pearly teeth. “If it were me, I’d take it all,” she said. Splotches of red climbed her cheeks. “Kidding.”
“Remind me not to teach you how to access the bank.”
“Like I want to learn. Math is boring.” Blossom snatched the sandwich from the desk and tossed it into her dog’s waiting chompers. Sweetcakes ran off, tail wagging a victory salute. “I don’t get it, Sensei. Why is someone snatching small amounts of dough from Birdie?”
“To see if she’s watching her bank account. Small withdrawals are easy to miss.”
“What about the other accounts? I got paid last week.” Blossom hung over the desk. “Tell me no one has touched my money. I’m saving for an iPad. If someone has taken my loot there’ll be hell to pay.”
“It isn’t loot if you earned it. And I already checked. The other accounts are fine.”
“Then why are you worried?”
“Grabbing small amounts of cash from Birdie’s account is one thing. What if someone goes hog wild and messes up the newspaper?”
Fingers dancing across the keyboard, Snoops darted in and out of the newspaper’s main files. She found a photograph missing in one file and half of an article deleted in another. The hacker knew what he was doing—none of the altered files were of current news stories.
Someone was playing around with reports published weeks ago by Birdie, the kind of stuff you’d never find unless you consciously looked for it. Not that the prospect of someone tampering with old files made Snoops feel any better. Tomorrow the cyberpunk might alter the Liberty Post’s online edition ten minutes before it went live. Or tamper with the print edition before it was transmitted to the printer.
A sharp poke in the ribs nudged her from her thoughts. “What should we do?” Blossom asked. She began biting her nails. “Call Birdie and Hugh?”
“You know the rule. We aren’t supposed to bug them when they’re working a story. Not unless it’s an emergency.” Which this was, but Snoops had a better idea. She grabbed her backpack from beneath the desk and slid her laptop inside. “Close up here, okay? Don’t forget to lock the door on your way out.”
“Where are you going?”
“To The Second Chance Grill.”
“Without me? You know I’m always game for a chocolate sundae with extra sprinkles.”
“You promised your dad you’d be home for dinner, remember?”
“What about your parents?”
“They’re visiting my grandma. They’ll never know I’m late.” Snoops puffed out her chest. Even if she was a year short of the official teenage years, she knew when she smelled the stinky odor of trouble. It was worse than horse poo and twice as dangerous.
With trouble this big, there was only one person in Liberty tough enough to beat it back.
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