The new year could bring a new life. He’d go back to work . . .
His thoughts petered out when he noticed another car pull out into the road just moments after Edgar had driven past it. The black Honda had been parked on the sidewalk, idling, and wasn’t in front of a house, just a blank lot of snow-covered weeds and brush. Something about that didn’t seem right. Not at all.
Then it hit Norbert.
The person in the black car was following his new friends. That couldn’t be a good thing. No sir, that couldn’t be good one bit.
The new Norbert acted before the old Norbert could talk himself out of it. He threw on some warm clothes, a wool cap, and his faded, weather-beaten shoes. He frantically searched for his keys, forgetting where he’d put them since his last venture to town. They weren’t on his dresser, weren’t on his kitchen counter—he couldn’t find them anywhere. After five minutes of hunting, he was just about to give up when he saw them on the floor under the table; he grabbed them and turned toward the garage.
The doorbell rang, freezing his blood solid.
Trying to stay brave, he ran up the stairs to his usual spying window and took a peek. Relieved, he saw it was just a kid girl with a man who looked an awful lot like Master George—dressed in a fancy suit, shiny shoes, the works. But this guy stood a lot taller and had plenty of hair, shiny blond hair slicked back against his skull.
Must be another one of those smart kids looking for their letter.
He bolted back down the stairs, grabbed another copy of Mothball’s golden envelopes (could that really be her name?) and tore open the door. He held out the letter and was just about to drop it into the girl’s hand and close the door when he caught a glimpse of his visitor’s car parked in the driveway. It was much nicer and . . . faster than his. An idea popped in his head.
“You folks lookin’ for a clue from M.G.?” he asked.
The befuddled (Norbert’s new favorite word) strangers nodded in unison.
“Someone’s in a whole lot of trouble—friends of Mothball,” he said, then shook the envelope in front of them. “This is the sixth clue. If you want it, you’ve gotta help me save them.”
Driving slowly down Main Street, with a full tank of gas in the car, Edgar settled his bones for the long drive back to Aunt Mabel’s. He looked over at Tick, who was just pulling the sixth clue from its envelope.
“Read it, boy!” he shouted cheerfully. “I can hardly wait. What a trip, huh? What a trip!” He felt so good they’d accomplished something—not just getting the next clue, but perhaps helping poor Norbert get his life back together. Though he’d dared not admit it, Edgar had been scared to death their trip to Alaska would prove a waste, thereby nullifying his value to Tick, who’d had the courage to tell him about everything.
Tick put the white piece of cardstock down in his lap. “Nah, let’s just wait ’til we get back to Washington. What’s the rush?” Tick let out a fake yawn and stretched.
“Professor, these windows do roll down, and I am strong enough to throw you out of one.”
“Okay, okay, if you insist.” Tick read the words out loud, holding the paper up so Edgar could glance at it and follow along as he drove.
Recite the magic words at exactly seventeen minutes past the quarter hour following the six-hour mark before midnight plus one hundred and sixty-six minutes minus seven quarter-hours plus a minute times seven, rounded to the nearest half-hour plus three. Neither a second before nor three seconds after.
(Yes, I’m fully aware it will take you a second or two to say the magic words, but I’m talking about the precise time you begin to say it. Quit being so snooty.)
“Oh, boy,” Edgar said. “Can’t say my head’s in the mood to figure that one out. Glad it’s your problem.”
Tick laid the clue down onto his lap, already scrutinizing its every word. “I’ll have it figured out by the time we stop for you to use the bathroom and buy more Doritos.” He opened up his journal and started jotting down thoughts and calculations from the clue.
“Very funny,” Edgar replied, elbowing his son. “You know, I was so worried about that ‘death’ e-mail you got, but now I’m feeling pretty fat and happy.”
“Better than skinny and sad, I guess,” Tick said.
Edgar laughed. What a great kid I have, he thought. What a great kid.
Frazier waited until he and his prey were well out of town, cruising down the long and straight two-lane highway that headed back to Anchorage. He hated how short the days were this far north. It wouldn’t be as fun to watch the coming mayhem in the darkness. He looked in his rearview mirror and saw some lights in the distance, but they seemed too far back for him to be worried. Once he engaged the device, it wouldn’t take long to have his fun and be done with it.
He gripped the Chu controller in his palm, put the tip of his thumb on the button.
Then he pushed it.
Tick stared ahead at the long blank road, lost in thought about the sixth clue. The headlights revealed nothing but cracked asphalt and dirty piles of plowed ice, swallowed up in darkness on both sides. There must not be a moon out, he thought. Even the snow seemed black tonight.
“Uh-oh,” his dad said in a worried whisper.
Tick looked over and saw the tight cowl of panic on his dad’s face. He felt something shudder in his chest. “What?”
His dad had both hands gripped tightly on the steering wheel, trying to squeeze the inner lining out of it. “The wheel’s frozen!” His legs moved up and down, alternately pumping the gas and brakes as the frightening, plastic-springy sound of the pedal filled the car.
“Dad, what’s wrong?”
His dad kept yanking on the wheel, pushing on the brakes. “It’s not responding—it’s not doing anything. I can’t do anything!”
“What do you—”
“Son, the car’s out of control—it won’t let me . . .” His voice faded as he tried everything again, his look of disbelief overcoming the panic. “What in the . . .”
Tick could only watch, bile building in his throat and stomach. Something was horribly wrong, and it had to have something to do with their new enemies. “You can’t get it to stop?”
Dad looked over at him, exasperated. “Son, I can’t do anything!”
In unison, they looked forward. The road remained straight for as far as they could see, but it ended in blackness. Anything could be hiding in the darkness, waiting for an out-of-control car to smash into it.