Norbert smiled, a barely noticeable crack in his still-panicked face. “Those are some good questions you’re
a-spouting out, boy, good questions indeed. I reckon they’re in the same boat as you and your daddy, here. Back at the house, I’d just noticed a suspicious car pull onto the road to follow you folks when this fancy man and his little girl showed up, a-looking for the same stuff as you. Let’s go talk to them.” He gestured to the destroyed car. “Gazing down there won’t fix a thing. What’s done is done. Come on.”
They walked back to the car and to the people who had saved their lives. The driver’s side door popped open when they were still a few feet away; a tall, nicely dressed man stepped out, smoothing his greased blond hair back as he did so.
He bowed slightly as they approached, closing his eyes for a long second. “Good evening, sirs.” His accent was thick, maybe German. “I apologize that we have not formally made acquaintance—if you’ll excuse me.”
Tick’s dad had moved forward to shake the man’s hand, but stepped back in surprise as the stranger hurriedly walked around the car and opened the passenger-side door, bowing in deference to the person inside. Baffled, Tick stared as a girl about his age got out of the car and waved at them. Even though they’d been a couple of feet apart during the few crazy seconds it took to save his dad, Tick had not gotten a good look at the girl until now, thanks to the car’s headlights that were still shining brightly in the darkness.
She had an olive complexion and long dark hair framing her brown eyes and thin face. She was maybe an inch or two shorter than Tick and wore clothes that seemed like nothing special—he’d almost expected a princess the way her blond companion acted toward her.
“Hi there,” she said, her gaze focused on Tick.
She also had an accent, but very subtle. “Hi,” he answered. “Uh, thanks for saving us—to you and your . . . dad.”
The girl laughed. “Oh, he’s not my dad. He’s my butler.”
The man jerked his head stiffly in another bow. “It is a pleasure. My name is Fruppenschneiger, but you may call me Frupey.”
It took every ounce of willpower for Tick not to laugh. Frupey?
His dad lumbered forward, his legs obviously sore from the car ordeal, and vigorously shook the hands of Frupey and the girl. “Thank you, thank you so much. I still can’t believe how all this happened. Thank you for saving us.”
Frupey answered in his formal voice. “It was our pleasure, so that Miss Pacini may receive the sixth clue.”
Tick felt his stomach lift off from its normal position and lodge itself in his throat. “What?” he croaked. “Did you just say . . .” He looked at the dark-haired girl, who was smiling like she’d just been crowned Miss Universe.
“Hello, Americanese Boy,” she said, holding her hand out. “It’s about time we finally met face to face, huh?”
Tick couldn’t believe it.
It took only a few seconds for Tick and Sofia to break past the thin wall of awkwardness; they did, after all, know each other very well from their e-mail exchanges. They sat in the back of the car and talked nonstop during the drive back to Norbert’s home. Tick’s dad squeezed in the backseat next to them, butting in every now and then to ask a question or two.
Sofia had never given Tick a hint in her e-mails that she was from a wealthy family, and nothing about her screamed it out, either. She said she’d planned all along to surprise Tick in Alaska, figuring she might as well go along, too. The cost of the trip was no problem for her family, and as long as Frupey the Butler went with her, Sofia’s parents pretty much let her do whatever she wanted.
“So how in the world did you get so rich?” Tick asked when they reached the town.
“My ancestors invented spaghetti.”
Tick laughed, but cut it short when Sofia looked at him with a stone-dead face. “Wait . . . you’re serious?”
Sofia finally let out a chuckle and slapped Tick on the shoulder. Hard. “No, but I got you good, didn’t I? Actually, my grandfather would say his father did invent it, or at least made it perfect. Ever heard of Pacini Spaghetti?”
“Uh . . . no. Sorry.”
Sofia huffed. “Americans. All you eat are hamburgers and French fries.” She pinched all five fingers of her right hand together in a single point, shaking it with each word; it was just like something Tick had seen once in a mafia movie about an Italian mob boss. Sofia even made a small “uh” sound after her words sometimes, like “and-uh” and “French-uh.”
“Hey, I eat spaghetti all the time,” Tick argued. “With authentic Ragu Sauce.”
“Authentic . . .” Sofia pursed her lips. “Then I guess you’ve also never heard of Pacini Sauce. What is this . . .
Rag-oo? It sounds like some kind of disease.”
“It tastes pretty good, but, I tell you what,” Tick said, “you send me some of your stuff and I’ll try it.”
“Frupey!” she barked at her butler, driving the car.
“Yes, Miss Pacini?” he said, looking into the rearview mirror.
“Please send three cases of our noodles and sauce to these poor Americans.”
“I’ll do it the second we return, Miss.”
“Thank you.” She looked back at Tick. “He’s such a good butler. You really should get one.”
“Yeah, right,” Tick said, sharing a laugh with his dad. “The only thing my family’s invented is Edgar Stew, and trust me,”—he lowered his voice into a pretend whisper—“it wouldn’t sell.”
“At least your mom’s a good cook,” his dad chimed in, ignoring Tick’s insult. “I bet we could get rich off her if we knew how.”
“What,” Sofia teased, “does she make a good hamburger and French fry?”
“Do you really think that’s all we eat?” Tick asked.
“Oh, sorry, I forgot. She makes a good hot dog, too?”
Even as they laughed, Tick couldn’t get over the craziness of it all. Here he was, joking around with a girl from Italy in the back of a butler-driven car, in the state of Alaska, having just escaped from a runaway Oldsmobile.
His life had certainly changed forever.