Once they got back to Norbert’s, Tick’s dad called Aunt Mabel and told her they wouldn’t be back until the next day, then he called the police and began the long process of dealing with the car accident. Frupey and Norbert scrounged around in the kitchen, trying to find food for everyone. Car chases evidently make people hungry, Tick thought as his own stomach rumbled.

Tick and Sofia sat together on the pitiful couch in the front room, discussing the latest clue they’d received. They had to use Sofia’s copy because Tick’s bit the bullet along with the rental car—he’d failed to slip it back into his journal during the frantic rush of excitement. The only light in the room came from a junky old lamp without a shade, its bare light bulb blinding if you looked at it directly.

“Well, it’s obviously just like the first clue,” Tick said as Sofia scanned the words again. “Except this one tells us the time instead of the day.”

“You Americans are so smart,” she replied. “How did you ever figure that out?”

“Man, you sure are smart-alecky for a rich Italian girl.”

“Girl?” she asked, her eyes narrowing. “Do I look like a little baby doll to you?”

Tick laughed. “I never would’ve guessed you’d actually be scarier in real life than in the e-mail.”

Sofia elbowed him hard in the stomach. “Just remember what I told you—I beat up seventeen boys last summer. No one messes with a Pacini.”

“It’s okay, I don’t usually go around picking fights with gi—, I mean . . . young women . . . who own spaghetti companies.”

“That’s better, Americanese Boy. Now let’s figure this out, huh?”

“Sounds good, Italian . . . ese . . . Woman.” Tick didn’t understand why she could call him boy, but he couldn’t call her girl. He wanted to laugh again—for some odd reason, he felt really comfortable around her—but he didn’t particularly want another jab to the stomach. He took the sixth clue from her instead and read through it again while she stared into space for a minute, thinking.

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.)

Once again, M.G.’s sense of humor leaked through the message, and Tick found himself eager to meet the man Norbert had already met. At least now they knew his real name.

Master George. Sounds like something from Star Wars.

“How long did it take you to figure out the first clue?” Tick asked.

“How long it take you?” Sofia responded. Every once in a while, she messed up her English, but for the most part, she knew it perfectly.

“Once I sat down to do it, maybe an hour.”

“Then it took me half an hour.”

“Yeah, right.”

Sofia gave him an evil grin and raised her eyebrows. “Should we race on this one? Like a . . . Master George Olympics.”

Tick had assumed they’d work together to solve it, but her idea suddenly sounded very fun. If I was a nerd before, I’ve hit rock-bottom geek stature by now, he thought.

“You’re on,” he said, ready for the challenge.

“I’m on what?” she asked. “Speak English, please.”

Tick rolled his eyes. “Here, we’ll put the clue on this little coffee table, where we can both see it, okay? Neither one of us are allowed to touch it. I’ll run and get some paper and a pencil from Norbert so you can have something to write on.” He stood up.

“What about you?” she asked.

Tick held his journal out. “I’ll write in this—why didn’t you bring yours?”

Sofia shrugged. “I got tired of carrying it around. Who needs it?” She tapped her head with a finger. “It’s all stored up here anyway. So, what about a prize? What does the winner get?”

“Hmm, good question.” Tick scratched his neck, faltering when he realized he wasn’t wearing his scarf—he must’ve lost it in the wind after they busted the windshield.

“What’s wrong?” Sofia asked.

“Huh? Oh, nothing.” He paused. His scarf was gone, and Sofia hadn’t said a thing about his birthmark—maybe he could actually survive without . . . no. He had an extra one at home, and deep down, Tick knew it would be around his neck when he returned to school.

“Tick,” Sofia said, staring up at him, “did your brain freeze?”

“No, no . . . it’s just . . . never mind.” He snapped his fingers. “I’ve got it—the winner gets to visit the house of the loser next summer. But, uh, you have to pay for it either way because you’re rich.”

“Wow, what a deal.”

“I’ll be back in a sec with the stuff.”

A couple of minutes later, pencils in hand, the race began.

Just as he’d done with the first clue, Tick jotted down the phrases from the sixth clue that seemed to go together logically. Once he’d done that, he assigned letters to them to indicate the order they should be calculated. It seemed easy now that he’d gone through the process before.

The biggest problem was determining which midnight the clue referred to—the one that began the day of May sixth or the one at the end of it? Then he realized whatever time he ended up with probably wouldn’t be midnight, so it really didn’t matter.

He nervously glanced over at Sofia, who was doing a lot more thinking than writing, tapping her pencil against her forehead, staring at the clue.

I’m way ahead of her, he thought, then continued his scribbles.

A couple of minutes later, the page in his journal looked like this:

Beginning Time: Midnight.

A. six-hour mark before midnight = 6:00 p.m.

B. quarter hour following A = 6:15 p.m.

C. seventeen minutes past B = 6:32 p.m.

D. C plus 166 minutes = 9:18 p.m.

E. D minus 7 quarter hours = 7:33 p.m.

F. E plus a minute times 7 = 7:40 p.m.

G. F rounded to nearest half-hour = 7:30 p.m.

H. –G plus three half-hours = 9:00 p.m. on May 6