Name: Alanna PetersonTitle: THE CALL OF THE CROWGenre: Middle grade thrillerIn the photograph, crows filled the sky, their black bodies silhouetted against the sunset. Though Alex had always found crows vaguely ominous, she focused on this picture; it was better than looking at Marina’s family portraits. There were thirteen of these, taken once a year since Marina was a baby, so that to walk down the upstairs hall was to watch them grow older, posed in the same positions, always with sparkling smiles and matching sweaters. But their grinning faces had turned ghostly in the dark, and Alex could feel them admonishing her for staying up here to listen.
She should return downstairs, where her mother was waiting, as eager to leave this party as Alex; besides, eavesdropping was wrong, she knew. But the man’s words had carried through the closed office door, directly to Alex, as she stepped out of Marina’s room with her raincoat draped limply over her arm. When she heard the phrase clinical trials, she made her choice. She stared at the crows in flight, listening.“Tara just called. Bad news: there’s been a security breach at SILO. Someone hacked into their computers, and she’s concerned that confidential data from their clinical trials may have been taken. I’ll fill you in on the details of SILO’s research aims later—they’re essential for improving our bottom line, and might even pull us ahead of TastiCo in the snack division. But some of the experiments are… sensitive in nature. Suffice it to say, we do not want the data made public.”“Understood. Can I do anything to help?” Alex recognized this second voice. It was Mark Chu, Marina’s father.“Tara’s heading into the city tomorrow—you should be at the meeting, and we’ll go from there. We need to find out who it was, and prevent them from telling anyone. I’m sure you’ll inform us of any leads you come across right away.” The icy undercurrent of this remark gave Alex a chill.“Yes, sir, of course.”The man chuckled. “Welcome to the VP position. Damage control should be part of the job description.” He paused. “I have to get going soon—the Urban Youth Crime Prevention fundraiser starts in an hour. Emmett would kill me if I was late.”The office door flew open, leaving Alex blinking in the sudden light. There, slowly coming into focus as her eyes adjusted, was the source of the voice. Richard Caring.Alex recognized him from television: entire newscasts were occasionally devoted to his achievements as CEO of Caring Corp, which had been in his family for decades. He was locally beloved for his decision to move the food company’s headquarters to downtown Seattle, creating thousands of jobs in the region. In interviews, his voice boomed forth, confident and powerful, though the sharp angle of his square jaw hinted at his legendary ruthlessness; his eyes were alternately blue or grey, depending on the color of his shirt.Luckily for Alex, Richard’s eyes were cast downward at his phone as he stepped out of the office. Alex was about to turn and flee, but froze when she felt Mark’s gaze land on her. He opened his mouth and drew in a breath, which Alex clearly heard in the silence of that dark hallway, and for one awful moment she thought he would call out to her: Alex, what are you doing upstairs? How much did you hear? But instead, he gave a curt side-nod toward the staircase, entreating her silently to leave, as he said to Richard, “So, I hear you and Emmett were frat brothers back in the day.” Richard turned around to face Mark, without noticing the girl lurking in the hall a mere five feet away. Alex took advantage of the distraction and ran downstairs, equally grateful to Mark and to the carpet quieting her footsteps.Once in the dining room, she realized she still held her raincoat. If only she hadn’t needed to go upstairs to retrieve it; if only the day had been sunny, or at least rainless, as the last day of school should be. But it had hailed earlier, so the coat was necessary, and because of the coat she now knew that Caring Corp was doing top-secret, potentially harmful, clinical trials at SILO. This set her mind spinning.Perhaps this was the Terrible Moment she’d been dreading. Despite her uneventful life, Alex always had a generic sense of impending doom. Not wishing to appear paranoid, she generally managed to keep it covered up, the way one might hide an unsightly skin condition under long heavy fabrics. Occasionally, though, the nameless anxiety would rise up, refusing to be concealed, and she’d become tight-chested and dizzy, the way she felt now. With her free hand, Alex clutched her hair, twisting it into a thick coil. She took a slow deep breath, as her father had instructed her to do, but thinking of him only made it worse. She tried to stay positive: He’s fine. Stop freaking out about nothing. But all the while, wheeling through the back of her mind was clinical trials - clinical trials - clinical trials.Alex’s thoughts were interrupted when she spotted Marina at the snack table, alone, scooping a handful of fluorescent-orange Blazin’ Bitz onto a red napkin. The spicy-hot mini-chips contrasted with the other offerings—elegant canapés and crudités—but Marina’s mother had finally given into reason and included them on the menu. Alex and Marina couldn’t imagine a party without Blazin’ Bitz, and they were, after all, one of Caring Corp’s bestselling brands.“Where’ve you been?” Marina asked Alex, placing a single chip in her mouth and crunching it as daintily as one could possibly eat such a brightly-colored foodstuff.Alex was surprised at this question. Marina had ignored her all evening; Alex was quickly abandoned in favor of the daughters and sons of the many Caring Corp executives in attendance. Nevertheless, she wondered if Marina might know something useful. After confirming that Richard and Mark were not in the room, Alex began in a low voice, “I just heard your dad upstairs talking to Richard Caring. Has he ever mentioned something called SILO before?”“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Marina crunched another chip. Her phone buzzed, and Marina hurriedly wiped her orange fingers on the napkin and began poking at its screen. Alex fought her annoyance, not only with Marina’s distractedness during this important conversation, but also with her flaunting of the SynerG3, the phone everyone wanted, the phone that would not be officially released until next week, but that Mark had managed to procure as a gift for his daughter.Marina smirked at the text she’d just received, then clicked the phone off. Alex tried to steer the conversation back. “It sounds like they’re doing some shady research. Something they don’t want the public to know about.”“You probably misunderstood. Caring Corp does tons of perfectly normal research—we even did that focus group during our field trip. There was nothing shady about that.” After spending a morning in the food science labs, where the students had learned how plants like corn and soybeans could be miraculously transformed into ingredients like dextrose and lecithin, they had participated in a taste test of several food products still under development.“No, they’re up to something else, I’m sure of it! We need to find out what’s going on. Maybe you could try to get it out of your dad—”