“So . . .” Tick started, “you quit your job because you were scared of her?”
Norbert looked down at his feet as if ashamed of himself. “You got me all figured out, boy. Poor Norbert Johnson hasn’t been the same since the day I met that golden devil. Quit my job, went on welfare, borrowed money. I been hiding in this house ever since. Only reason I met the tall lady who gave me the letters is because I heard a noise out in the backyard.”
“I thought you said she came out of a graveyard,” Dad said.
“She did. Like I said, back behind my house is an old, old cemetery. Got too old, I reckon, so they built another one closer to downtown.”
“Mothball,” Tick said quietly.
“Huh?” Norbert replied.
“Her name is Mothball. The lady who gave you this letter.” Tick slipped it from his journal and held it in his hand.
Norbert looked perplexed. “Well what in the Sears-and-Roebuck kind of name is that?”
“She said her dad was in a hurry when he named her, something about soldiers trying to kidnap them.”
Norbert did nothing but blink.
“Never mind.” Tick turned to his dad. “Why in the world would she have given him the sixth clue?”
His dad furrowed his brow for a moment, deep in thought. “Well, maybe it’s like I said—I think they wanted us to be proactive and seek out information, not just wait around to find it. Maybe they went back to all the towns they mailed the letters from and gave copies of the clues to the postal workers who would cooperate. They knew if we did some investigating, going to the source would be the most logical step.”
Tick thought for a second. “Dad, I think you nailed it.”
“I’m brilliant, my son. Brilliant.” He winked.
Norbert cleared his throat. “Excuse me for interrupting, folks, but what in the name of Kermit the Frog are you guys a-talking about? You came here asking me questions, but it sounds like you know a lot more than I do.”
Dad leaned over and patted Tick on the shoulder. “My boy here, the one who’s receiving these letters, is trying to figure out the big mystery behind them. We think it was a test of sorts to see if we’d seek you out, which is why you were given the sixth clue to give to us.”
Norbert nodded. “Ah. I see.” He rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders.
“Look,” Tick said. “Do you know anything else about Master George, Mistress Jane, Mothball, anything?”
Norbert shook his head in response.
“Well, then,” Tick said. “I think we’ve got what we came for. Dad, maybe we should get going. I can read the clue while you drive.” Tick tried his best to hint that he didn’t feel very comfortable in Norbert’s house.
“Just a minute.” His dad looked at their host. “Mr. Johnson, you’ve done a great service for us and we’d like to return the favor. Is there, uh, anything we can do to help you, uh, get your nerve back and go back to work?”
Norbert didn’t reply for a long time. Then, “I don’t know. It’s awfully kind of you to offer. I guess I’m just too scared that woman is gonna come back for me and string me up like a fresh catch of salmon.”
“Well, let me tell you what I think,” Dad said, holding up a finger. “I agree with you one hundred percent. I think this Mistress Jane person must be evil, because we wholeheartedly believe what M.G.—Master George—is doing must be a noble cause because he wants my son’s help. And we’ve committed to that cause heart and soul, as you can tell.”
“I reckon I can see that. What’s your point?”
“Well, if this . . . yellow-dressed, bald, nasty woman made you quit your job, shun society, and hole up in a house all by yourself, then I think she’s won a mighty victory over the world. She’s beaten the great Norbert Johnson once and for all, and will move on to her next prey.”
Tick liked seeing his dad try and help this poor man and decided to do his part. “Yeah, Norbert, you’re doing exactly what she wanted you to do—give up and be miserable. Go back to work, show her you’re the boss of your own life.”
Norbert looked back and forth between Tick and his dad, his face a mask of uncertainty. “And if she does come back? What then?”
“Then by golly,” Dad said, “stand up to her. Show her who’s in charge.”
“And call us,” Tick chimed in. “By then, maybe we’ll have figured everything out and know how to help you.”
Norbert scratched his head. “Well, I don’t know. I’m
a-gonna have to think about this.”
Dad smiled. “Listen, we’ll exchange phone numbers and keep in touch, okay? How’s that sound?”
Norbert didn’t answer for a very long time, and Tick wondered if something was wrong. But then he saw moisture rimming on the bottom of the man’s eyes and realized the guy was all choked up.
Finally, their new friend spoke. “I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you folks care enough to give me your phone number. I just wished you a-lived up here in Alaska. I could use a friend.”
“Well, hey,” Dad said. “In this world, with the Internet and all that, we can keep in touch just fine.”
And with that, their new friendship was sealed and Tick felt mighty proud of himself.
Frazier watched as Tick and his dad stepped out of the house, then shook hands and embraced their new little buddy. They said a few more sappy words, just like they had inside, and headed for their vehicle.
What is this, a soap opera? I might need a tissue for my weepy eyes.
He snickered at his own joke, then put the car into drive, ready to follow, the twilight of midday having long faded into the full darkness of late afternoon.
Frazier pulled out his half of the special device, fingered the big button in the middle of its shiny gray surface.
In just a few minutes, he thought. Just a few minutes and the show begins.
Pedal to the Metal
Norbert stared out his frosty window, watching the boy Tick and his father climb into their rental car, warm it up, then begin their long trek back to Anchorage. Norbert hadn’t felt this good in weeks, like he was doing something right, finally taking a stand against the yellow witch who haunted his dreams. He couldn’t explain it—the boy and his dad seemed to pulse with some invisible force, strong and magnetic. Norbert felt like a new person, as if powerful batteries had replaced his old junky ones, revved him up to face the world like he’d never done before.