“Do I look like the kind of person who’d make funnies about an old woman knocking ’er own sweet husband over the head with a teapot?”

“Well . . . no, I guess.”

“Sad, it was.” She stared at an empty spot past Tick’s shoulder for a few seconds, then looked him in the eyes. “You’ll be all right. S’long as you can run, they’ll never catch you. Just avoid ’em if you can.”

“Don’t worry, I will.”

A long pause followed, and Tick began to panic that Mothball would leave without telling him anything else. “So . . . what do I do? What are the messages for? Who is M.G.? What’s supposed to happen on the day he talked about in the first clue?” The questions poured out, even though he knew what her answer would be before she said it.

“Sorry, can’t speak about it. Master’s orders.”

Tick wanted to scream. “Well, then I guess there’s not much more for us to talk about, is there?”

“Not much, you thought right there, little man.”

Tick shivered, staring absently at the world of white surrounding them. “O . . . kay. So, what do we do now?”

“Best be on me way, then.” Mothball bowed her head, as if she felt just as awkward as he did. A few seconds later she snapped her fingers and looked up. “Ah, me brain must’ve shut off there for a moment. I forgot something.” She pulled out a small writing pad and a pencil from her pocket. “What’s yer name—if you don’t mind me asking?”

Her question surprised Tick. “You don’t know? How did you find me if—”

“Just be needin’ to verify, I do.” She held her pencil at the ready, waiting for his answer.

“Atticus Higginbottom. But everyone calls me Tick.”

She scanned the pad with the tip of her pencil. “Ah, there you are.” She wrote a big checkmark where the pencil had stopped, then reached into a different pocket and pulled out a crumpled yellow envelope. She held it out for Tick. “’Ere ya go, little man. Congrats to ya on makin’ a very wise and brave choice not to burn the Master’s first letter. Now this should keep you occupied for a spell.”

Nothing was written on the front of the envelope, but Tick took it, knowing it had to be the second clue. He didn’t know why he felt so surprised. M.G. never said all the messages would come through the mail. But it did seem odd to receive two on the same day. Maybe M.G. was sending another kind of message altogether: Never assume anything, expect the unexpected.

He folded the envelope and put it in his pocket, anxious to go home and read it. “Thanks. I guess I won’t bother asking you any questions about it.”

“Shapin’ up right nicely, you are.” Mothball smiled. “Very well, until next time, then. Best of luck to you and yours and all that.”

Tick felt an overwhelming feeling that if she left, he’d never understand anything that was going on. He desperately wanted her to stay, to talk, to help. But having just met her, he didn’t know what to do or say. “You really have to go?” he asked, like a small child begging Grandma to stay just a little while longer.

Mothball’s face softened into the nicest, kindest expression Tick had ever seen. “’Fraid so, little man. Got others to visit, ya know. Quite weary on me legs, it is, but not much choice in the matter. You’ll do well—me bones tell me as much.”

“Will I ever see you again?”

“I hopes ya do, Master Tick. I certainly hopes ya do.”

And with that, the tall woman turned and walked back into the thick copse of trees, her large shoulders sending an avalanche of snow off the limbs where she brushed them.

Tick stared for awhile, half-expecting to see a magic poof of smoke or the fiery blastoff of an alien spaceship, but nothing happened. Mothball had simply vanished into the trees.

His life had turned completely crazy and for some reason it made him more excited than he’d felt in a very long time.

He set off for home with a smile on his face.

Mothball waited until the boy went around a bend in the snow-covered road before she stepped out from behind the thick tree where she’d been hiding. She shook her head, bewildered by the exuberance and innocence of youth. He was a fine one, this Atticus Higginbottom, and though she knew she wasn’t supposed to do it, she’d settled on the one she’d be rooting for in this whole mess.

She walked the half-mile to the designated spot that lay deeper in the forest. No one in these parts probably remembered that this place had once been a burial ground, its wooden grave markers long since decayed and crumbled to dust.

Poor deadies, she thought. No one comin’ to pay respects and such.

She triggered the nanolocator signal for Master George, then waited for her boss to work his navigation skills. Funny little man, he was. A good man, really. As nervous as a midge bug caught in a toad paddy, but a kind and gentle soul when you dug down deep. Why, he’d saved her life, he did, and she owed him for it.

Several long moments passed. Mothball fidgeted back and forth on her feet, wondering if the restless man had messed up a thingamajig or whatchamacallit on the Barrier Wand. He was a very precise old chap, and usually responded in a matter of seconds, especially when expecting the nanolocator signal, as he should be now. Mothball had been right on schedule.

A small deer bounced along nearby, leaving delicate little footprints in the thick layer of snow. To Mothball’s delight, it stopped to examine the unusually tall visitor. She was so used to scaring creatures away, it felt nice for a change to see something not turn and take flight.

“Watch out for the little man, won’t you?” she said, glad no one was around to see her talking to a deer. “Tough times ahead, he’s got. Could use a friend like you.”

The animal didn’t respond, and Mothball laughed.

A few seconds later, she felt the familiar tickle at the back of her neck. As she winked away from the forest, vanishing in an instant, she couldn’t help but wonder what the deer would think of such a sight.


A Very Important Date

Tick tore open the envelope from Mothball the second he’d left the odd woman’s line of vision. He had to pull his gloves off to do it, and the cold bit into them with tiny frozen pinpricks. With no surprise, he pulled out a single piece of cardstock that looked exactly like the others. His fingers growing stiff in the frigid air, he read the single paragraph.