“Just be yourself," my mother said, as if that were easy. Which it isn't. Ever. Especially not when you're fifteen and don't know what language you're going to have to speak at lunch, or what name you'll have to use the next time you do a "project" for extra credit. Not when your nickname is "the Chameleon."
Not when you go to a school for spies.
Of course, if you're reading this, you probably have at least a Level Four clearance and know all about the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women—that it isn't really a boarding school for privileged girls, and that, despite our gorgeous mansion and manicured grounds, we're not snobs. We're spies. But on that January day, even my mother…even my headmistress…seemed to have forgotten that when you've spent your whole life learning fourteen different languages and how to completely alter your appearance using nothing but nail clippers and shoe polish, then being yourself gets a little harder—that we Gallagher Girls are really far better at being someone else.
(And we've got the fake IDs to prove it.)
My mother slipped her arm around me and whispered, "It's going to be okay, kiddo," as she guided me through the crowds of shoppers that filled Pentagon City Mall. Security cameras tracked our every move, but still my mother said, "It's fine. It's protocol. It's normal."
But ever since I was four years old and inadvertently cracked a Sapphire Series NSA code my dad had brought home after a mission to Singapore, it had been pretty obvious that the term normal would probably never apply to me.
After all, normal girls probably love going to the mall with their pockets full of Christmas money. Normal girls don't get summoned to D.C. on the last day of winter break. And normal girls very rarely feel like hyperventilating when their mothers pull a pair of jeans off a rack and tell a saleslady, "Excuse me, my daughter would like to try these on."
I felt anything but normal as the saleslady searched my eyes for some hidden clue. "Have you tried the ones from Milan?" she asked. "I hear the European styles are very flattering."
Beside me, my mother fingered the soft denim. "Yes, I used to have a pair like this, but they got ruined at the cleaners."
And then the saleslady pointed down a narrow hallway. A hint of a smile was on her face. "I believe dressing room number seven is available." She started to walk away, then turned back to me and whispered, "Good luck."
And I totally knew I was going to need it.
We walked together down the narrow hall, and once we were inside the dressing room my mother closed the door. Our eyes met in the mirror, and she said, "Are you ready?"
And then I did the thing we Gallagher Girls are best at—I lied. "Sure."
We pressed our palms against the cool, smooth mirror and felt the glass grow warm beneath our skin.
"You're going to do great," Mom said, as if being myself wouldn't be so hard or so terrible. As if I hadn't spent my entire life wanting to be her.
And then the ground beneath us started to shake.
The walls rose as the floor sank. Bright lights flashed white, burning my eyes. I reached dizzily for my mother's arm.
"Just a body scan," she said reassuringly, and the elevator continued its descent farther and farther beneath the city. A wave of hot air blasted my face like the world's biggest hair dryer. "Biohazard detectors," Mom explained as we continued our smooth, quick ride.
Time seemed to stand still, but I knew to count the seconds. One minute. Two minutes…
"Almost there," Mom said. We descended through a thin laser beam that read our retinal images. Moments later, a bright orange light pulsed, and I felt the elevator stop. The doors slid open.
And then my mouth went slack.
Tiles made of black granite and white marble stretched across the floor of the cavernous space like a life-size chessboard. Twin staircases twisted from opposite corners of the massive room, spiraling forty feet to the second story, framing a granite wall that bore the silver seal of the CIA and the motto I know by heart:
And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.
As I stepped forward I saw elevators—dozens of them— lining the wall that curved behind us. Stainless steel letters above the elevator from which we'd just emerged spelled out WOMEN'S WEAR, MALL. To the right, another was labeled men's room, roslyn metro station.
A screen on top of the elevator flashed our names. RACHEL MORGAN, DEPARTMENT OF OPERATIVE DEVELOPMENT. I glanced at Mom as the screen changed. CAMERON MORGAN, TEMPORARY GUEST.
There was a loud ding, and soon DAVID DUNCAN, IDENTIFYING CHARACTERISTICS REMOVAL DIVISION was emerging from the elevator labeled SAINT SEBASTIAN CONFESSIONAL, at which point I totally started freaking out—but not in the Oh-my-gosh-I'm-in-a-top-secret-facility-that's-three-times-more-secure-than-the-White-House sense. No, my freak-outedness was purely of the This-is-the-coolest-thing-that's-ever-happened-to-me sense, because, despite three and a half years of training, I'd temporarily forgotten why we were here.
"Come on, sweetie," Mom said, taking my hand and pulling me through the atrium, where people climbed purposefully up the spiraling stairs. They carried newspapers and chatted over cups of coffee. It was almost…normal. But then Mom approached a guard who was missing half his nose and one ear, and I thought about how when you're a Gallagher Girl, normal is a completely relative thing.
"Welcome, ladies," the guard said. "Place your palms here." He indicated the smooth counter in front of him, and as soon as we touched the surface I felt the heat of the scanner that was memorizing my prints. A mechanical printer sprang to life somewhere, and the guard leaned down to retrieve two badges.