Secrets Are Revealed
K-1 went straight over to Maddy. He took the envelope and held it out to her. She cowered in fear.
“Take it,” he said. There was no hint of hatred in his voice. “It’s yours.”
Maddy was dumbfounded. She could tell Corbyn and Aaden were also in complete shock. Not surprisingly, so was Sarah.
“I don’t care who you think you are,” Sarah threatened. “That envelope is mine. Give it back or else!”
K-1 turned to Sarah and sneered. “Or else what?”
Sarah’s rage poured out. “It’s four against one! We’ll destroy you!”
“Four against one?” K-1 looked around the room. “How do you figure? I only see three losers here.”
Sarah’s face got redder by the minute. “Get him Zhang!”
But K-1 simply laughed. He made no move to defend himself.
Mr. Zhang looked at Maddy. She glared at him with fire in her eyes. She had trusted him for so many years. She was torn apart by the drama that was playing out in front of her.
“Thanks, but I’ll pass,” Mr. Zhang said.
Maddy was stunned. What is going on here?
“How dare you?” Sarah shouted even louder. “When Janet finds out about this, she’s going to—”
“She’s going to what?” Mr. Zhang was not intimidated. He stared Sarah down before turning to K-1. “Shall we end this?”
K-1 nodded once.
Mr. Zhang gave K-1 instructions as he faced Sarah. “Use my phone to get the authorities here. I’ll make sure these three stay put until they can be removed properly.”
Sarah lost it. “I’m going to kill you!”
Mr. Zhang smiled. “Guess I’ll just have to take that chance.”
Sam and J.J. weren’t going to go down so easily. They pushed Sarah aside and charged straight at Mr. Zhang. Despite their size advantage, the two did not stand a chance. Because of his extensive background in the martial arts, it didn’t take him long to incapacitate both men. As Sam and J.J. came around the table, he simply reacted on instinct. Before a single punch could be thrown, both thugs took chops to their necks and were pinned face-down before they knew what hit them. Mr. Zhang looked up at K-1 and spoke as if nothing had just happened. “How long for the police?”
K-1 put Mr. Zhang’s phone in his pocket. “I had the security guard make the call. Police should be here any minute. Think you can keep those two secure until then?”
Mr. Zhang smiled. “I think I can manage.”
Standing in front of the door, K-1 stared Sarah down. “Guess that means I’m in charge of making sure she doesn’t go anywhere.”
Isaac was dumbfounded. Who is K-1?
Infuriated, Sarah charged at K-1, knife at the ready. “You’re dead!”
K-1 calmly sidestepped Sarah and forced her to the ground. Pinning her down with his knee, he removed the knife from her hand and held her in place. “I don’t think so.”
The teens didn’t know what to say or do. Despite his apparent change of heart, there was still no way they could trust K-1. The spy seemed unaware of their suspicions. He looked up at the team.
“Could one of you check on Isaac?”
Confused, Maddy rushed over to her grandfather and helped him up. “Are you all right?” she asked quietly. “Your neck….”
Isaac looked at his granddaughter and smiled. “I’m fine. Nothing a couple bandages won’t fix. Good to finally see you again after all these years,” he added with a twinkle in his eye.
A tear ran down Maddy’s cheek. “I’m sorry things got so out of hand.”
Isaac wiped the tear away tenderly. “Nothing to be sorry for.”
“You have no idea how many years I’ve longed to hear you call me that.”
Isaac walked over to Sarah and stood over her. “As for you, you’ll get what you deserve. I’ll see to that.”
Without another word, Isaac turned his back on Sarah for the final time.
Sarah now knew it was over: she was trapped by K-1, she had been double-crossed by Mr. Zhang, and her payday was not going to come. Somebody is going to pay for this, she promised herself.
The door to the room suddenly burst open. Five policemen entered guns at the ready.
“Afternoon, gentlemen,” K-1 said brightly. “You’ll want those two.” He pointed to Sam and J.J. then turned his attention to Sarah. “And this one. We’ll give our statements at the station later on today if that works.”
Knowing and trusting Isaac fully, the policemen agreed. Before they left, they were informed that three employees of EIS had been kidnapped and would be found in Janet’s house. Promising to send the message to the authorities in Colorado Springs, the policemen handcuffed Sarah, Sam, and J.J. without incident, read them their Miranda rights, and hauled them away.
Isaac looked around the room and smiled. He thanked K-1 and Mr. Zhang while absentmindedly rubbing his chest, dissipating a mild pain that had recently developed in it. Hugging his granddaughter tightly, he spoke to everyone in the room. “Well, that was unexpected. It seems we have much to discuss now. Am I right?”
Everyone sat together around the conference table.
Isaac wiped sweat from his brow. “That didn’t quite go according to plan, did it?”
Mr. Zhang shook his head. “Sorry I didn’t arrive sooner.”
Isaac waved him off. “I’m sure you had good reason.” He extended his hand out to K-1. “I’m Isaac Rutherford, CEO of this facility.”
K-1 returned the handshake. “Nice to meet you.”
Isaac turned to the twins. “And I don’t believe we’ve met either. Welcome to both of you. My granddaughter appears to have two incredible friends in her life.”
“Thank you.” Corbyn introduced himself and his brother.
“Well, then.” Isaac took a deep breath. “I’m sure we’re all dying to know what just happened. I will start off by explaining a few things to you. I will then require information in return. Do we all agree?”
“Very well. I’d like to start off with an apology.” Isaac faced Team SoNaR. “I’m sorry. I was played for a fool. I had no idea my secretary was operating against me the entire time. And I also had no idea how far my sister would go to take me down.”
“It’s not your fault,” Maddy replied.
“Even so, you deserve an apology for what happened.” Isaac smiled. “On a more positive note, I’d like to also congratulate you. You used your brilliance, teamwork skills, and ingenuity to conquer a very difficult series of challenges this past week.”
Maddy blushed. Corbyn and Aaden nodded in thanks.
Isaac rubbed his hands together. “So, before we get to seeing what’s inside that envelope, I’d like to clear a few things up. First, I must make it clear that I was not aware the quest was going to begin when it did until it was too late. Janet did a very good job of pulling the wool over my eyes.”
Maddy gave her grandfather a quizzical look. “But you sent me the letter.”
Isaac shook his head. “Unfortunately, I didn’t. I’m pretty sure Sarah…through Janet’s orders…was behind that.”
Maddy couldn’t believe her ears. “But if the quest wasn’t supposed to begin yet, why didn’t you stop it once you realized what was going on?”
Isaac sighed. “Because I couldn’t. An ingenious little idea of mine from years ago backfired on me. Do you remember who the official time-keeper for the quest was?”
“Right. Programmed him myself.” Isaac smiled to himself, lost in thought. “Anyway, I also gave TESLA remote control over the time control lock in the safe. The moment TESLA officially started the quest, the timer in the safe also began counting down.”
“What was the point of doing that?” Maddy asked.
“Because of a longstanding rule our company wrote for the quest: if the potential heir does not have the secret in his or her possession within one week’s time, the plans will remain locked up. So, we decided long ago to remotely pair the start of the quest to the countdown inside the safe. Helped keep the official time consistent.”
“Which is why there was no way to stop the quest,” Corbyn concluded.
Isaac nodded. “As much as it pained me to know the quest began sooner than intended, there was nothing I could do. Once the timer in the safe started its countdown, I was powerless to stop it.”
“But I don’t get it,” Maddy admitted. “The safe is in your office. Why couldn’t you just open it up and reset the timer?”
Isaac smiled. “You are a very clever girl. The answer to that is very simple: I didn’t…still don’t…know the combination.”
Maddy looked at her two best friends in confusion. “But how—”
Isaac put his hand up so he could explain further. “The way we ensured the secret would remain safely locked away until the time came to be rightfully claimed was to have a combination that was not known to anyone, yours truly included. Though I have a general idea that the combination was four terms gathered at each of the locations you visited, I have no idea what the exact terms were.”
“Risky,” Maddy noted.
Isaac nodded in agreement. “But also secure. Each word of the combination was independently and secretly determined by one of four scientists: a physicist, a biologist, a geologist, and an astronomer. I’ve been meeting with them for months now. I gave each the task of coming up with a term that relates to his or her branch of science and then writing a cipher that had to be figured out for each term. Each of the scientists then secretly and independently entered their chosen term into the safe to collectively create a combination that was known to no one.”
“And you never knew the terms were that were used?” Maddy asked.
“No. The combination was genuinely secret and could’ve only been figured out if gathered together one piece at a time.”
Maddy turned to the twins. “Yet another reason we couldn’t’ve just come straight here.”
“Good thing Sarah, Sam, and J.J. weren’t paying attention to us every time we solved a cipher,” Aaden noted. “Or else they might’ve figured out the combo before us and beat us to the secret.”
“I wouldn’t have bet on them being smart enough to put two and two together,” Isaac replied. “Criminals aren’t usually the brightest crayons in the box. But yes, we are fortunate in that respect.”
K-1 jumped into the conversation. “Having a combination that nobody knew was quite the gamble.”
Isaac sat back. “As I already admitted, it was risky. But doing so was necessary to ensure proper security of something so valuable.”
K-1 nodded in understanding.
Isaac remained focused on K-1. “I’d like to know your story now. Particularly who you are and how you got involved in all of this.”
K-1 took a deep breath. “It’s a long story. I ask that you give me the chance to tell it all. If you despise me afterwards, I’ll understand.”
Isaac urged him on with a nod of his head.
K-1 described how he had been hired by Charles Bronson to put an end to the quest at any cost. “I initially approached the job as business and nothing more. Turns out I completely underestimated these three.” He gestured to the team. “They made me look like a complete fool. And I deserved it.”
Isaac was now getting agitated.
“When I ran into the team in the cave, I allowed my feelings to cloud my judgment. I became a monster and did the unthinkable. I kidnapped Corbyn, assaulted him, tossed out the life vests, and tied the team up. It was no longer business for me. It was personal.”
Isaac was now visibly irate. K-1 explained how the stalactites buried him and knocked him out cold.
“When I finally woke up, I knew right away that they,” K-1 looked at the teens, “saved my life. I deserved nothing more than to be left for dead. For some reason, they didn’t feel the same. Fighting off a massive headache and a few sore ribs, I somehow managed to make it back to ground level. By that time, the team was long gone.”
Isaac said nothing.
“I hitchhiked to the nearest town and pretended I had amnesia to protect my identity. I soon found myself in the hospital for the next two days with plenty of time to think.”
“That was when we were at the planetarium,” Corbyn realized.
“Why didn’t you just call someone to help you after you left the cave?” Maddy asked. Her voice was thick with sarcasm.
“Because my cell phone was dead. And because Charles would’ve had my head. Anyway, after I left the hospital, I tracked you all down while you were headed here.”
“How’d you do it?” Maddy questioned. “Track us everywhere we went, I mean.”
K-1 looked at Isaac. “You sure you want to know?”
“Know what?” Isaac folded his arms tight.
“That one of your employees is also a spy for Charles. He’s been feeding Charles information left and right for years. He also placed a tracking device on the bottom of your helicopter before the quest started. Just to be clear, I have no idea who this guy is.”
Isaac was on the verge of losing it, but he remained calm. “So we have Janet conspiring against us on one side and Charles on the other. Simply great.” Fuming, he asked K-1 what caused his apparent change of heart.
“It happened when I was in the hospital. I had nothing to do for two days but reflect on my choices. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why the kids saved me. I deserved to remain buried in that cave and die alone.”
Isaac had trouble arguing that point.
“I thought about the choice the team made to save me and how difficult it must have been for them. After much reflection, I finally realized the error of my ways. I’ve been working for the wrong side all along.”
“Meaning what?” Isaac asked directly.
“Meaning I took a job that nearly turned me into a kidnapper and murderer…all in the name of money. The thought disgusted…disgusts…me.”
K-1 now spoke to Team SoNaR.
“I make no excuses for my behavior. Yes, I convinced myself at first that my actions were justified because I was just doing a job. But not anymore. Your kindness is something I cannot overlook. I would be dead otherwise.”
Maddy could not believe her ears. “I don’t buy it. After what you did to us? There’s no way you changed that quick.”
K-1 nodded in understanding. “I don’t blame you for not believing me. But I assure you: I am no longer the person I was. One moment can change a man forever. I know that now. I suppose only time will tell the true story.”
“Looks like your jealousy worked to our advantage,” Corbyn said to his twin.
Aaden’s eyes narrowed. “How so?”
Corbyn smiled. “Had you not sent me down the wrong tunnel, I might’ve never run into K-1, we wouldn’t’ve saved his life, and he wouldn’t’ve shown up today to save us in return. Everything happens for a reason, right?”
Aaden understood. “At least the way I acted was good for something.”
“Just make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Corbyn jokingly punched his brother’s shoulder.
Isaac looked hard at K-1 for a long moment then said, “I suppose I understand what led you to make the choices you did. I may find them repulsive, but at least I have a clear picture of the situation.”
“I still don’t get how that led you here.”
“Like I already said, I followed the tracking device on the helicopter.”
“I get that. But that doesn’t explain how you ended up in the conference room at just the right time. Much less how you got past Phil in the first place.”
K-1 nodded. “When I landed at the airport, I caught a ride into town and asked the driver if he knew of any scientific buildings in the area. Of course he brought me here. I sat down in front of the building to contemplate my next move.”
“And what made you so certain you’d find my granddaughter here?”
“Sometimes my instincts are my best ally,” K-1 replied coolly.
“So you’re sitting outside EIS wondering how to get in,” Isaac said. “Continue.”
“So, lost in thought, I briefly let my guard down. Out of nowhere, somebody suddenly grabbed me from behind and pinned me face-first to the ground.”
Isaac’s brows rose in surprise.
“While I was pinned, I was able to get a brief look at my assailant. I immediately recognized the face of the person I’d tussled with behind the theater in Chippewa Park: Mr. Zhang.”
Isaac looked at Mr. Zhang. He nodded.
“So that my arm didn’t get ripped out of its socket, I did my best to convince Mr. Zhang that I was here to help.” K-1 rotated his arm in large circles to emphasize the ache in his shoulder. “It took me some time, but I was finally able to get Mr. Zhang off of me. He offered me one chance to prove myself.”
“So you entered the building with him and came up here,” Isaac surmised.
“Yes. As soon as we were let in by the security guard, Mr. Zhang led me to this floor and sent me into the conference room. He said he was going to your office first to check on the safe and see if it had been opened or not.”
“Which it had,” Isaac said.
“Right. Before we split up, I was told I might find three crooks in the conference room that wanted the secret. It was my job to keep it from them. When I entered, they were obviously easy to spot.”
“And the rest is history.” Isaac sighed deeply. He took some time to process what he’d heard. He finally looked K-1 in the eye and said, “Despite your egregious actions this week, I can’t ignore what you did for us today. I’d say you made up for your poor choices and then some.”
“After what these kids did for me, they deserve nothing less.” K-1 extended his hand. Isaac hesitated a moment. He finally shook it.
“Thank you.” As far as Isaac was concerned, the matter was now put to rest.
However, given what K-1 had put the team through, Maddy still had great reservations about him. She couldn’t deny what he had done for the team that day. But that wasn’t enough to convince her fully that he had permanently changed for the better. She knew it would take much longer than her grandfather to come around.
“So I guess that leaves just one,” Isaac declared. “Mr. Zhang, would you like to share your story with everyone?”
“I shall.” Mr. Zhang turned to Maddy. “As you know, I’ve been employed by Janet for some time now.”
Maddy nodded. “You’ve worked for her since I was six.”
“And that was not by accident. I’ve also secretly been a trusted friend of your grandfather’s for well over twenty years.”
Maddy looked surprised. “I didn’t know you knew Grandpa.”
“Indeed. Approximately eight years ago, Isaac approached me and told me he suspected his sister was up to something. He didn’t know exactly what it was; he just suspected she wanted to undo his life’s work somehow.”
“I can see that.”
“Anyway, when I asked him why he was telling me this, Isaac told me he needed someone to keep a close eye on Janet. When I agreed to help, Isaac somehow convinced his sister to hire me as her caretaker.”
“Which wasn’t easy to do, by the way,” Isaac interjected.
Maddy’s eyes were full of surprise. “You spied on Aunt Janet?”
“And did you know anything about the secret and the quest?”
Mr. Zhang smiled. “Of course. Like I said, I’ve been a trusted friend of your grandfather for many years. He’s always kept me well informed on his company’s progress. In return, I was able to gather info that proved to be useful to him from time to time.”
Mr. Zhang thought for a moment. “For one, I told Isaac how you, Corbyn, and Aaden met on a weekly basis to solve puzzles and ciphers.”
“How was that useful?”
“Because,” Isaac answered, “knowing that you were practiced in the art of deciphering puzzles suggested that selecting you for the quest would prove to be the right choice.”
Maddy nodded. “Since the quest was full of them.”
“Because I was secretly working for Isaac while in Janet’s employ,” Mr. Zhang explained, “I was essentially playing the role of double agent.”
Maddy shook her head in disbelief. “You pretended to be on Aunt Janet’s side but were really on Grandpa’s the entire time.”
Mr. Zhang nodded. “In fact, during the quest, I called your grandfather many times to update him on how you all were doing.”
“Which was very much appreciated, by the way,” Isaac added.
“You were following us, too?” Corbyn asked.
“I was,” Mr. Zhang confirmed.
“How’d you know where we were?” Aaden asked. “Did you also use a tracking device?”
Mr. Zhang shook his head. “Let’s just say I have my ways and leave it at that. Though it didn’t hurt that I was asked to attend the meeting between Janet and her three thugs as they worked out the details to start the quest early.” He turned to Isaac. “Sorry I wasn’t able to tell you about that meeting. Janet kept a very close eye on me after that night.”
Isaac waved him off. “Not to worry, old friend. Janet would’ve found a way to start the quest regardless.”
Maddy was suddenly irritated. “You knew Aunt Janet was setting me up to go on the quest and you didn’t tell me?”
Mr. Zhang replied carefully. “Answer me honestly. Had I come to you and told you that your aunt was planning on sending you on a life-threatening quest to find a secret that she was going to steal from you, what would you have said?”
Maddy nodded. “Good point.”
Mr. Zhang continued. “Although I struggled with my decision, I allowed Janet’s scheme to continue as planned. I knew doing so would possibly put you in harm’s way, so I reconciled my guilt by following you and nudging you in the right direction a time or two. I also knew you were going to do the quest later on anyway, so I saw no reason to stand in your way.”
“I’d still like to know how you knew where to go,” Maddy said.
Mr. Zhang looked to Isaac for permission. Isaac nodded.
“I knew where to go because I was the one that placed all the canisters. It was earlier this year when I was gone for a week. I think I told Janet I had personal business to attend to and left it at that. After placing them, I reported to the four scientists that their parts of the quest were ready to go.”
“I remember that week,” Maddy replied. “Aunt Janet was crankier than usual.”
“I’m sure,” Mr. Zhang replied. “Mind you, I never knew what was inside each canister. I only knew where each was supposed to go.”
“He was the only person I trusted fully enough to do that job for me,” Isaac added.
“Do you think TESLA ever picked you up on its radar?” Corbyn asked. “When we were flying to Chippewa Park the radar picked up on someone following us.”
“Wasn’t me. I actually arrived in Ontario just before you did that day.”
“But you were still at Aunt Janet’s house when I left that morning,” Maddy replied. “How did you get there before we did?”
“Since your aunt thought I was working for her, she made me leave right after the taxi picked you up. While you were picking Corbyn and Aaden up, I was already heading to the airport. I beat you to Ontario by a half hour.”
“It was me,” K-1 confirmed. “I tailed you there.”
“I knew it,” Aaden replied. “You were staring at us through a window in the airport that day, weren’t you?”
K-1 nodded. “Sizing you up. Little did I know at the time how wrong my assessment of the three of you was.”
Maddy turned the conversation back on Mr. Zhang. “Did you go to every location we went to during the quest?”
“Somehow I managed to, yes.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“During the quest, I had to keep up my cover as Janet’s spy. When I sat in on the meeting at your aunt’s house, I was instructed to follow you and report back to her on your progress. Your aunt wanted to be kept in the loop the whole time since she had a vested interest in your success.”
“That worked out since you were doing the same thing for Grandpa.”
“At first I thought so, too. But it actually complicated things for me.”
“Because Janet’s paranoid about technology. Only uses it when she has to. Thinks someone’s always listening in.” Mr. Zhang shook his head. “So get this: she actually instructed me to fly back to Colorado Springs to update her in person multiple times during the week. I ended up having to juggle two jobs at once: keeping tabs on you while flying back and forth to report to Janet.”
“You were very busy,” Maddy replied.
“To put it mildly. To make things worse, I first ran into K-1 near the back of the theater at Chippewa Park. We skirmished a bit before he ran off, but I knew he was going to complicate things further.”
“No wonder we didn’t run into you again that day,” Corbyn said to K-1.
K-1 looked down in shame.
Mr. Zhang continued. “So at that point, I knew I was in for a long week. I had to split my time between keeping an eye on your progress, updating Isaac, flying back to Colorado Springs to meet with Janet, and watching out for K-1.”
“So if you knew we were in danger,” Aaden said, “why didn’t you just call Isaac and tell him to suspend the quest until K-1 was taken into custody or something?”
“Remember what Isaac just said about the timer in the safe?”
Aaden nodded. “Oh, yeah.”
“Not that that means I didn’t look out for you when I could.” Mr. Zhang looked sheepishly at Isaac. “Doing so helped my cover with Janet because I was able to report to her that I was keeping you headed in the right direction. It also helped keep you safer since you weren’t taking as much time wandering around aimlessly searching for clues.”
“What exactly did you do?” Maddy asked.
Mr. Zhang looked hesitant, but finally replied. “At the rollercoaster, I bent the fence out to tip you off. At Biosphere 2, I set off the fire alarm when I put two and two together that you might be in trouble. And before you started your tour at Mammoth Caves, I put the bug in Aaden’s ear to take the path on the right that led to the river. I know someone could blame me for cheating, but I’d rather have cheating on my conscience rather than far worse alternatives.”
Maddy looked troubled.
“Mind you,” Mr. Zhang continued, “I didn’t do all that because I thought you couldn’t succeed on your own. I just figured giving you a little nudge here and there would keep you safer in the long run. I’m sorry if I made the wrong choice.”
With a tear in her eye, Maddy walked over to Mr. Zhang and hugged him.
“There’s no way to thank you enough for what you did for us. We won’t ever forget it.”
Mr. Zhang and Maddy hugged silently for some time.
“Well,” Isaac finally said while rubbing his hands together, “thank you all for sharing your stories. I appreciate it very much.” He looked around and smiled. “But I believe we’ve all revealed enough of ourselves for the time being. Shall we have a look at what’s in that envelope now?”