Righto, Mr. Chu.

“Mom,” Tick said, “people stopped calling each other ‘Tiger’ a long time before I was born. Why don’t you just call me ‘Tick’? Everyone else does.”

His mom let out an exaggerated sigh. “That’s the worst nickname I’ve ever heard. Do you even know what a tick does?”

“Yeah, it sucks your blood right before you squish it dead.” Tick pressed his thumb against his pant leg, twisting it with a vicious scowl on his face. Kayla looked up from her tea set, giggling.

“Lovely,” Mom said. “And you have no problem being named after such a creature?”

Tick shrugged. “Anything’s better than Atticus. I’d rather be called . . . Wilbur than Atticus.”

His mom laughed, even though he could tell she tried not to.

“When’s Dad gonna be home?” Tick asked.

“The usual, I’d guess,” Mom replied. “Why?”

“He owes me a rematch in Football 3000.”

Mom threw her arms up in mock desperation. “Oh, well, in that case, I’ll call and tell him it’s an emergency and to get his tail right home.”

Lisa stopped playing her music, much to Tick’s relief, and, he suspected, to the relief of every ear within a quarter mile. She turned around on the piano bench to look at Tick, her perfect teeth shining in an evil grin. Wavy brown hair framed a slightly pudgy face like she’d never quite escaped her baby fat. “Dad whipped you by five touchdowns last time,” she said sweetly, folding her arms. “Why don’t you give up, already?”

“Will do, once you give up beating that poor piano with a hatchet every day. Sounds like an armless gorilla is playing in there.”

Instead of responding, Lisa stood up from the piano bench and walked over to Tick. She leaned forward and gave him a big kiss on the cheek. “I wuv you, wittle brother.”

“I think I’m gonna be sick, Mom,” Tick groaned, wiping his cheek. “Could you get me something to clean my face?”

Lisa folded her arms and shook her head, her eyes set in a disapproving stare. “And to think I used to change your diaper.”

Tick barked a fake laugh. “Uh, sis, you’re two years older than me—pretty sure you never changed my diaper.”

“I was very advanced for my age. Skilled beyond my years.”

“Yeah, you’re a regular Mozart—well, except for the whole music thing.”

Mom put her hands on her hips. “You two are just about the silliest kids I’ve ever—” A loud buzz from the kitchen cut her off. “Ah, the cookies are done.” She turned and scuttled off toward the kitchen.

Kayla screamed something unintelligible then ran after her mom with a huge smile planted on her face, dropping tea cups all over the floor and hallway.

Tick looked at Lisa and shrugged. “At least she’s not burning things.” Kayla had been caught several times at the living room fireplace, laughing with glee as she destroyed important objects in the flames. Tick headed for the staircase. “I’ll be back in a minute—gotta use the bathroom.”

“Thanks for sharing that bit of exciting news,” Lisa quipped as she followed Kayla toward the kitchen.

Tick had his hand on the banister when his mom called back for him. “Oh, I almost forgot. You got a letter in the mail today. It’s on your bed.”

“Ooh, maybe it’s a love letter,” Lisa said, blowing a kiss at Tick.

Tick ignored her and ran up the stairs.

The bed squeaked as Tick flopped down next to his pillow where a tattered yellow envelope rested, his full name—Atticus Higginbottom—and address scrawled across it in messy handwriting. The stamp was an old picture of the Eiffel Tower but the postmark smeared on top of it said, “Macadamia, Alaska.” The upper left corner of the envelope had no return address. He picked up the envelope and flipped it over—nothing there either. Curious, he stared at the mysterious letter for a moment, racking his brain. Who could possibly have written him from the state of Alaska? No one came to mind.

He wedged his finger under the sealed flap on the back and ripped the envelope open. A simple rectangle of white cardstock that barely fit in the envelope held a long message on one side, typed by what appeared to be an old-fashioned typewriter. Baffled, Tick pulled the card out and began to read.

Dear Master Atticus,

I am writing to you in hopes that you will have the courage of heart and the strength of mind to help me in a most dreadful time of need. Things are literally splitting apart at the seams, as it were, and I must find those who can assist me in some very serious matters.

Beginning today (the fifteenth of November), I am sending out a sequence of special messages and clues that will lead you to an important, albeit dangerous, destiny if you so choose. No, dangerous may not be a strong enough word. Indubitably and despicably deadly--yes, that’s better.

I will say nothing further. Oh, except several more things. If ever you want the madness to stop, you need only to burn this letter. I’ll know when you do and shall immediately cease and desist.

However, if this letter remains intact for one week after you receive it, I will know you have chosen to help me, and you will begin receiving the Twelve Clues.

Know this before you decide, my friend: Many, many lives are at stake. Many. And they depend entirely on this choice that you must make. Will you have the courage to choose the difficult path?

Do be careful. Because of this letter, very frightening things are coming your way.

Most faithfully yours,


P.S. I recognize that, like most young people, you probably love sweetened milk and peppermint sticks. Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor practical means to send you any as a welcoming gift. Please do not think me unkind. Good day.

Tick stared at the letter for ten minutes, reading it over and over, wondering who could’ve played such a trick. His sister Lisa? No—he couldn’t see her using words like “despicably” and “indubitably.” His mom or dad? Certainly not. What would be the point? Tick had no true friends to speak of, so the only other option was that it was a trick from the bullies at school. But again, such an idea made no sense. Plus, how would anyone he knew manage to get an Alaskan postmark on the envelope?

His dad did have an old aunt who lived up there somewhere, but Tick had never even met the lady as far as he could remember, and doubted she even knew he existed. Plus, Tick didn’t think her initials were M.G.