Kayla laughed out loud, then yelled in a sing-songy voice, “Tick had tooty-buns! Tick had tooty-buns!”

That broke everyone up, and dinner continued like normal.

“Anything happen lately with your Pen Pal account?” Mom asked.

Tick almost choked on his potatoes, for a split second worried that somehow his mom had logged into his account and seen the e-mail from Sofia. But then he realized he was just being a worrywart, her question totally innocent. He’d been doing the Pen Pal thing for a couple of years, still having never really connected with anyone for more than a few letters here and there. No one had ever seemed interesting enough for him to want to stay in touch—or maybe it was the other way around.

“Not really. I got an e-mail from some girl in Italy, but she seems kind of psycho.”

“Psycho?” Dad asked. “Why, what did she say?”

“She called me an Americanese boy and asked me a million dumb questions.”

Mom tsked. “Last time I checked, not speaking English well and being curious did not make someone a psycho. Give her a chance. Maybe she likes chess.”

“Maybe she’s cute,” Lisa added. “You could marry her and join the mafia.”

“Sweetheart,” Dad said. “I don’t think everyone from Italy is in the mob.”

“Yeah, it’s probably only like half,” Tick said. He expected Lisa to laugh at his joke, but was disappointed to see she thought he’d been serious.

“Really?” she asked.

“It was a joke, sis.”

“Oh. Yeah, I knew that.”

“Well, anyway,” Dad said, moving on. “I think this weekend we should all go see a movie, go bowling or something. Who’s in?”

By habit, everyone around the table raised their hand. Kayla shrieked as she waved both arms in the air.

“All right, plan on it. Everyone meet right here at noon on Saturday.”

For some reason, right at that moment, the thought hit Tick that he should tell his dad about everything. Keeping the secret was eating away at his insides and now with nothing but silence from Sofia, the feeling was getting worse, not better. Just thinking about telling someone seemed to take a thirty-pound dumbbell off his shoulders.

Next time Mom’s out shopping, he thought. I’ll tell him. Maybe he can help me figure everything out. If he believes me.

Tick put his dishes away, then watched some ridiculous game show on TV with his family. The whole time, he thought of one thing and one thing only.


It was time for bed, but Tick wanted to check his e-mail one more time. He felt obsessed, checking it constantly in hopes that Sofia would finally write him back.

He sipped a cup of hot chocolate as he logged into the computer in the living room, almost spilling his drink when he saw Sofia’s name in the INBOX. He put his cup down and leaned forward, clicking on her e-mail.

Dear Tick,

Someone needs to teach you how to answer a stinking question. I asked you many and all you did was write back asking me more. If I lived in the USA, I would smack your head with a pogo stick. I am a good, smart Italian girl, and so I will actually answer your questions.

First, I have to tell you that I had a very hard week. Something is chasing me, and I’m very scared. I almost burned the letter five times. Well, not really. When a Pacini makes a decision, a Pacini never goes back. I made my choice, and I’ll stick to it like butter on a peanut, or whatever you crazy Americans say.

Anyway, I will now answer your questions.

I have four clues now. I got the last one last night. Maybe you did, too. It’s about dead people, which doesn’t sound good.

We should definitely help each other.

Saw the ghost thing, but not the rat thing. Don’t want to talk about it.

I’m twelve years old, almost thirteen.

I like your journal idea. I made one, too. Hope it’s okay to steal your name. Mine is called Sofia Pacini’s Journal of Curious Letters. I even used English to make it seem like yours.

I joke a lot, and if we meet you will think I’m crazy. Last summer I beat up seventeen boys. Glad we can be friends.

Ciao (that’s Italiano, smart boy)


He’d just finished reading the e-mail when his dad told him to log off and go up to bed. Grumbling, he obeyed, hating that he’d have to wait until tomorrow to write Sofia back. He thought about sneaking downstairs after his parents were asleep, but he knew Edgar “Light Sleeper” Higginbottom would catch him as soon as he heard the buzz of the computer fan. It was going to be hard enough to tiptoe through the house and open the door to the front porch at midnight without waking him.

He brushed his teeth and said good night to everyone, then got into bed, his lamp on for reading. He decided to take a break from the fantasy novel he had been reading and pulled out the book by Savage, flipping to Chapter One.

Twenty minutes later, he did the worst thing he could possibly do.

He fell asleep.


Little Ball of

Bread Dough

Tick snapped awake a half-hour after midnight. His alarm clock glowed with evil red numbers, as if they wanted to make sure he knew his mistake was unforgivable.

Jumping out of bed with a groan, he ran to his window and looked outside for any sign of the supposed visitor. He couldn’t see the entire porch from his angle, but the steps were visible in the bright moonlight that poked through a break in the clouds. No one was there, and Tick felt his heart sink.

I’m such an idiot!

Maybe he’d messed the whole thing up and lost the trust of M.G. He didn’t know who’d painted the sign, but he had no doubt it was related to the M.G. mystery, and he even suspected it was Mothball or maybe her friend Rutger. She’d said he might come visit him. Sofia mentioned in her e-mail that she’d received the fourth clue, but Tick hadn’t seen his yet. What if the midnight meeting was supposed to provide it?

Hardly able to stand the frustration and worry, Tick put on some warm clothes, determined to go outside and search for his visitor.

Stepping only on quiet spots in the house, avoiding the most obvious creaks and groans he knew from years of experience, he crept down the stairs and to the front door. After quietly slipping into his coat and boots, then wrapping his scarf tightly around his neck, he very carefully unlocked the deadbolt, then turned the handle. Knowing if he opened

the door slowly, it would let out a creak that would wake the dead, he jerked it open in one quick motion, preventing almost any sound at all.