The Northern Spy Club was waiting in the barn when Zoe Elwood entered. Five boys sat there in the hay, their pockets bulging with green apples. Their tin badges gleamed in the July sun that slanted through the loft window. The old barn was thick with dust and mold and the ripe smell of apples. Zoe sneezed and heard the boys snicker. Planting her feet wide, she stared up at the rafters, and at the wood beam that spanned the width of the barn overhead. It overhung a mound of hay, her father's broken tractor, and a couple of jagged saws. The sun rays bounced off the half-rusted steel like knives.
She heard the whispers in the hay. They echoed through the gloom. "She can't do it. A sissy girl?"
"I can," she said, the words thick in her throat. "I can walk that beam."
You had to do two things to get into the Northern Spy Club. You had to walk the beam and you had to solve a crime. Her brother Kelby had made those rules. He had named the club Northern Spy because its headquarters were in the hut under a Northern Spy apple tree, one of a hundred trees in their father's apple orchard. When Kelby declared himself Chief Detective right after the close of school, the neighborhood boys had rushed to join up. They had all walked the beam (they said), and now they were busy solving a crime.
It was the Bagley sisters' pea soup that had poisoned Tiny Alice Fairweather's grandmother, Kelby said; the police had found a trace of a poison in it, and the Spy Club was out to prove that the old ladies had done it. Zoe liked the Bagley sisters. She was sure someone else had put the poison in that soup. She wanted to prove the sisters innocent.
But to prove them innocent she would have to find the real culprit. How was she going to do that?
Well, tomorrow she'd go investigate the scene of the "poisoning": the Bagley sisters' kitchen. But before she could solve the crime, she had to walk the beam.
"I can, too, do it," she whispered, and started toward the rickety ladder that led up to the beam.
The rungs were thin and worn. She glanced up as she climbed. The beam looked frail, as if it were attached to the wall by nothing but cobwebs.
The ladder jiggled under the weight of her body. She could fall and kill herself before she even reached the beam! She imagined the funeral: her mother sobbing into a tissue, her father's face red and sorrowful. Her nose filled at the thought, and for a moment she couldn't see.
A few feet from the top she felt herself swaying. A tiger kitten rubbed against the foot of the ladder. A swallow swooped low overhead. She gasped. If it struck the ladder she'd go down. And that would be the end. She'd be in a black hole somewhere, like Tiny Alice's grandmother.
Somewhere far below she heard them teasing her.
"Uh oh-baby Zo-eeeee..."
She took a stabbing breath and went the last two rungs to the top. She wrapped her arms around the splintery beam. She heaved herself up, the way she did on the jungle gym at school -- until she was standing, her face to the side of the barn. A wave of nausea flushed through her body.
When she managed to twist herself around, she saw how narrow the beam was. It was wide enough for only one foot at a time, and her left foot was in front of the right. She cursed those long feet she'd inherited from her grandmother Elwood. Slowly she found her balance, staring down at her shoes to keep from looking into the void. It was a long way across, maybe thirty feet. She remembered the saws lying in wait below, their rusty points aimed at her heart.
"Oh woe -- there goes Zo-eeeee," the Spies chanted.
Biting her lip she took a blind step out onto the beam. The third step out her left foot landed on top of her right. She lifted it up and balanced there on one foot; the other crooked out like a dancer.
"She's gonna fall!" the Spies cried out below.
Her left leg scissored in the air. Then it dropped down on the beam to rest, trembling, just ahead of the right.
The beam was rougher toward the middle, full of bumps and hollows that caught her sneakered toes. Pulling out a caught foot, she looked down and was giddy. She wasn't yet halfway.
She couldn't do it.
"I can," she told herself. "I can."
She inched onward. The beam was smoother now, she moved faster. Her heart beat everywhere: in her head, her knees, her feet. She was almost a third of the way. She glanced ahead. The end was a blaze of sun; her eyes were full of it. She couldn't see her feet. She couldn't see the beam! The air was filled with shouts. She had to go forward. She took a step -- and met air.
There was a sharp pain in her thigh where she'd fallen onto the beam. The next she knew she was upside down, arms and legs cradling the beam like a monkey. The beam seemed to gallop away with her. Her chest was cramped, she could hardly breathe.
She had to get up again, up!
But she wasn't monkey enough. Something grabbed her; she felt herself being lifted away, onto a ladder. A voice boomed in her ear, her father's voice. She saw his brown hair standing on end as he bore her downward. He was shouting. She heard the others arguing, Kelby's voice shrilling above the rest.
"It was not dangerous," Kelby shouted. "You know you like the Spies, Dad. It was nothing. We all did it. She's a baby, that's all. You'll never make the Spy Club, baby! You'll never solve a crime."
"I'm not. I will. I can do it. Let me back up!"
But the arms pulled her relentlessly down.