“I just hope Macadamia isn’t a dead end.”

His dad reached over and patted Tick on the leg. “No, we’ll find something. It couldn’t have been a ghost that sent that letter, now could it?”

“Judging by what I’ve seen lately? Maybe.”

“Good point.”

Tick studied the map. “Looks like you turn into her neighborhood up there to the right.”

Edgar flipped on the blinker as he slowed the car.

A mile or so behind, Frazier Gunn pulled off the road and stopped, not wanting to take any chances of being spotted. He’d wait an hour or so, then find himself a discreet parking space where he could watch the house. The boy and his father would probably spend the night, saving their planned expedition to Macadamia for tomorrow.

Frazier wanted to see what they discovered there before he put his plan into action. Every little bit of information on what Master George was up to might help Mistress Jane’s cause, and Frazier meant to find out everything he could. When the two adventurers drove back to Anchorage after their investigation, he’d implement the device that sat in his pocket, ready and hungry to get to work.

He grinned at the thought.

Tick and his dad stood in front of the door to Aunt Mabel’s home, staring at the plastic flowered wreath that must’ve hung there for two or three decades—its every surface covered in dust. The house itself was a cold and weary pile of white bricks, but the warm light shining through colorful curtains in the windows made it seem like the coziest place on Earth. However, neither of the Higginbottoms moved to push the doorbell just yet.

“Well, here we are,” Dad said. A thick layer of snow and ice covered the yard around them; it looked like a miserably frigid wasteland that hadn’t seen the full sun in years.

“Here we are,” Tick repeated, gripping his suitcase.

“Now, one last warning.” Dad looked at his son. “Aunt Mabel is at least one hundred and fifty years old, she laughs like a hyena, and she smells like three tubes of freshly squeezed muscle ointment.”

Tick grinned. “Good enough for me. I love ancient history and watching nature shows, and I don’t mind the smell of peppermint.”

His dad nodded. “That’s the spirit. Let’s do this thing.” He reached out and pushed the doorbell button.

Three seconds later, Aunt Mabel pulled the door open.


Old, Funny, and Smelly

Little Edgar!” she yelled, a shriek that sounded like fighting cats. The intense smells of peppermint and homemade cooking wafted out of the house with the warm air, and Tick had to suppress a laugh.

Aunt Mabel looked as ancient as Tick’s dad had indicated, her heavily wrinkled but thin face covered in at least three pounds of makeup, capped off by bright red lipstick covering a lot more than her lips, as if she’d been jumping rope when she applied it that morning. Her small body seemed too frail to support the loud burst of excited salutations that came from her lungs as she hugged both Edgar and Tick.

“So good to see you! So glad you made it safe! About time you came to visit your poor old Auntie!”

Tick returned the hug, suddenly feeling very relieved and at home. She was family after all, and this trip obviously meant the world to an old widow who lived alone. Despite the icy cold weather, Tick felt warm inside and looked forward to getting to know his great-aunt Mabel—though he had to admit she did scare him a little.

“Well, come in, come in!” she said, her fake teeth sparkling as her face lit up like a giddy clown. “I need to sit these bones down—my bunions are inflamed like you wouldn’t believe. Take off your coats and such—especially that hideous scarf, young man.” She gestured to the side of the foyer where they put their coats and bags—Tick left his scarf on by habit, despite what she’d said—then Mabel led them into a small living room where a couple of couches covered in orange velvet beckoned for them to sit. A dusty lamp with beads hanging from the shade glowed a dull yellow from its stand on a chipped wooden end table. The entire house looked like it had been decorated with props from a really old TV show.

Once they were settled, Aunt Mabel brought in three steaming hot cups of herbal tea; it tasted like boiled cardboard but warmed Tick very quickly. He leaned back on the soft couch and put his foot up on his knee, eager to see Mabel in action.

“Well, land’s sake, it’s a delight to see you boys,” she started. “Living up here at the North Pole with nothing but seventeen quilts and a couple of icicles to keep you company makes a woman grow old quicker than she should. And let me tell you, when you were born before any of your neighbor’s grandparents, you can forget having friends come over to play pinochle and watch reruns of Andy Griffith.” Mabel paused, but only long enough to take in a huge gasping breath. “There’s this boy that lives down the corner—mean as a snake, I tell you. He came over to shovel my driveway after the last storm, but he didn’t put salt on the sidewalk to melt the ice. The nerve of that young troublemaker . . .”

After coming from the wintry air into a nice warm house, and after a long day of busy travel, Tick felt his eyelids dropping as Aunt Mabel continued to rant about each of her neighbors and their various faults and crimes. He tensed his muscles in an attempt to wake himself up.

“ . . . and Missus Johnson down the road—I’m pretty sure she’s a spy for the Homeland Security International Espionage and Intelligence Spy Division. Always snooping, asking questions, you know. Just the other day, I was taking my garbage out to the road as she was walking by. Do you know what she said to me?”—Mabel didn’t pause long enough for anyone to answer—“She had the nerve to ask me how my health was doing. I tell you right here and now I bet she wants to set up a sting operation from this house once I’m dead and gone, buried like a sack of dirty clothes in the town dump. And Mr. King up by the corner—did you know he has thirteen children? And every last one of them the spawn of the devil or my name isn’t Mabel Ruth Gertrude Higginbottom Fredrickson.”

And so it went for at least another twenty minutes, Tick finally having to pinch himself to stay awake. His dad seemed pleased as could be, smiling and nodding the entire time, throwing out a few “Hmms” and “Uh-huhs” every now and then. Finally, as though she’d exhausted her capacity to use her frail body’s vocal cords, Mabel stopped talking and leaned back in her seat.