Tick felt dumb when Sofia told him the answer.

I only ask that the name of the place begin with a letter coming after A and before Z but nowhere in between.

Tick already suspected the clue pointed them to a cemetery, but it was Sofia who explained that cemetery began with a “C,” a letter that was certainly after A and before Z in the alphabet. Also, the letter was nowhere to be found in the word “between.” That’s what the sentence had meant, which now seemed painfully obvious to Tick.

They wondered about which cemetery to go to, since any decent-sized town had more than one. But the wording of the clue made it clear that the particular place they went to didn’t matter, as long as it was a cemetery. Sofia would choose one in her hometown at the appointed time, and Tick would do likewise.

Of course, both of them recognized how strange it was that they had to go to a graveyard but that it didn’t matter which one. But everything about the whole mess was odd, so they were getting used to it.

Tick was really happy to have found Sofia; for the first time in a long while he felt like he had a friend. Yeah, she lived in Italy and liked to beat up boys, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. He couldn’t wait to get the next clue and talk to her about it.

On Christmas Day, he got his wish.

It had been a perfect couple of days. Snow fell in billions of soft, fluffy flakes, blanketing the yard and the house in pure white, covering up the dirt and grime that had begun to show up after a couple of weeks without a fresh snowstorm. The classic songs of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra floated through the house like warm air from the fire. Tick’s mom went all out in the kitchen, cooking up everything from honey-baked ham to stuffed bell peppers, cheesy potatoes to fruit salad, chocolate-covered peanut butter balls to her famous Christmas cookies, which were full of coconut, butterscotch, pecans, walnuts, and several other yummy surprises.

Tick was stuffed and happy, remembering once again why the holiday season had always been his favorite time of year. And it only helped matters that he’d be heading to Alaska in a couple of days. Life was sweet.

After the hustle and buzz and laughter of Christmas morning, tattered wrapping paper lying about in big colorful piles, Tick sat back on the couch, staring at the new goodies he’d received: three video games, some new books, a couple of gift certificates, lots of candy. He usually felt a twinge of sadness once all the presents had been opened, knowing it would be 365 long days until the next Christmas. But today he felt none of that. He felt content and warm, excited and happy.

The mystery of M.G. and his Twelve Clues had brought a new light to Tick’s life and, despite the dangers that came with the letters, he’d never felt more alive.

He looked up at the decorated tree, its dozens of white lights sparkling their reflection in the red metallic balls and silver tinsel. Something square and bulky tucked behind a large nutcracker ornament caught his attention. He’d looked at this seven-foot tree a thousand times in the last month, and he knew the thing buried in the branches hadn’t been there before this morning.

Instantly alert, he looked around to see what his family was doing. His mom had her nose in a book, his dad was in the kitchen, Lisa had earphones on listening to her new CDs, and Kayla played with her kitchen set, making pretend pancakes and eggs. Trying to look nonchalant, Tick got up from the couch and walked over to the tree, staring at the spot that had caught his eyes.

A box, wrapped in an odd paper with pictures of fairies and dwarves and dragons, was snuggled between two branches, held up by a string of lights. The words, “From M.G.” were clearly scrawled across the box in blue ink. Tick looked around one more time before he snatched the unopened present and stealthily placed it with his other things. Then, grabbing a big armful of stuff, including the mystery box, he headed upstairs to his room.

He sat on his bed and stared at the strange wrapping paper. The present itself was very light and he felt certain the next clue must lie inside. But who had put it there, and when? He ripped the paper off a plain white cardboard box. After flipping open the lid, Tick saw exactly what he’d expected.

The fifth clue. He pulled out the cardstock paper and read the message.

Everything will fail unless you say the magic words exactly correct. It behooves me to remind you that I cannot tell you the words, nor will I in the face of any amount of undue pressure you may apply toward me. Which, of course, would be quite difficult for you to do since you don’t know who I am and since I live in a place you cannot go.

Best of luck, old chap.

Tick read the clue a couple more times, then glued the cardstock into his journal. He thought about the trick used in the fourth clue with the word between. Something similar could be happening here.

Everything will fail unless you say the magic words exactly correct.

Say the magic words exactly correct. Could “exactly correct” be the magic words? Tick thought it would be really dumb if that were the answer; plus, he’d been told the first letter from M.G. would reveal the special words, not one of the later clues.

Tick closed the book, frustrated. This new message told him nothing he didn’t already know, only that he had to say something specific when the day came, something magic. Other than that, M.G. just seemed to be rubbing it in that he wouldn’t tell Tick what the words were—neener, neener, neener.

Disappointed, wondering if he was missing something obvious, and still baffled at how the present had gotten into his family’s Christmas tree, Tick went downstairs and

e-mailed Sofia about the fifth clue. Knowing she probably wouldn’t respond for awhile, he joined his dad in the kitchen, sharing the news as he started snacking on everything in sight.

Sofia wrote him back that night, which would have been early the next morning her time. His heart lifted when he saw her name in the INBOX and he quickly clicked on the message.

Dear Tick,

I got the Fifth Clue, too. Doesn’t say much, does it? I think your idea that the magic words are “exactly correct” is just what you say. Stupid. No way, too easy.

I’m sure you’re excited for the big trip to Alaska with your dad. You’ll probably get lost and eaten by a polar bear. Your funeral will have the coffin closed because all that will be left is your right pinky finger. Just kidding. I hope you escape alive.

I thought I saw a man spying on me yesterday. He looked mean, but disappeared before I got a look. Not good.

Have fun in Ice Land. Write me as soon as you return.