“Now,” Rutger said, clearing his throat, “could we please move on? I believe you’ll be wanting the next clue.”
A Bundle of Clues
The air had grown cooler as the sun made its way across the sky and toward the horizon. The drip-drip-drip of the melting snow slowed considerably, and Tick shivered as he eagerly waited to see the next clue.
Mothball pulled out a familiar yellow envelope, though this one seemed thicker than the others, and a separate piece of white paper had been stapled to the upper left corner, its edges flapping loosely as she handled it. After a long look at Rutger, Mothball handed the package over to Tick, who snapped it out of her hand without meaning to look so anxious.
“Thanks,” he said, fingering the note attached to the envelope. “What’s this?”
“Flip it over and read it,” Rutger answered. “Thought you could at least figure that out by yourself.”
“Very funny,” Tick muttered as he did what he was told, lifting the paper to read the few sentences typed on the back:
Within you will find the next four clues in the sequence, numbers 7, 8, 9, and 10. Now, most certainly you will read these and conclude to yourself that I, your humble servant, have gone batty because they don’t seem like clues at all. I will only say this: EVERYTHING you receive is a clue.
Tick looked up at Mothball then down at Rutger, whose folded arms were resting on his huge belly. “Four clues at once?”
“He’s a bit hasty,” Mothball said. “You see, has to be twelve clues, there does, and we’ve only got a short time to go, ya know.”
“Why does there have to be twelve?”
“’Tis part of the riddle, Master Tick.” She winked at him. “There you are, I’ve just given you my own bit of a clue. Quite clever, I am.”
“Yeah,” Rutger grumbled. “A regular Hans Schtiggenschlubberheimer.”
Mothball snapped her fingers as her face brightened with recognition. “Ah, I remember that name now! Yeah, me dad taught my sis and me all about him, he did. That bloke invented the very first version of the Barrier Wand.”
Rutger shushed Mothball. “Are you crazy? I thought we were done giving out secrets the boy doesn’t need to know yet.”
Mothball shrugged as she winked at Tick again. “It’s got nothing to do with the clues, little man. Give the sir somethin’ to think about, it will.”
“Barrier Wand?” Tick had heard those words before from Mothball. “I won’t even bother asking.”
Rutger turned to Tick, rolling his eyes as he nodded toward Mothball, as if he were shrugging off the escapades of a little kid. “Solve the riddle of Master George, be where you’re supposed to be on the special day, do what you’re supposed to do, go where you’re supposed to go—then you’ll know very well what a Barrier Wand is, trust me.”
“Sounds good . . . I guess.” Tick couldn’t wait to tear open the envelope of clues, but he also wanted to stand there all day and ask them questions. “Isn’t there anything else you can tell me? Anything?”
“Done opened our mouths quite enough, we have,” Mothball said. “Master George will probably step on his cat he’s so nervous about it all.”
“You mean . . . he can hear us? Do you have a microphone or something?”
Rutger laughed, a guffaw that echoed through the trees, like he’d just been told the funniest joke of the century. “You have much to learn, kid, much to learn.”
Tick looked down with mixed confusion and anger. “What’s so funny?”
Rutger stuttered his laugh to a stop, wiping his eyes with pudgy hands. “Oh, nothing, sorry. Nothing at all.” He cleared his throat.
“Well, off we go, then,” Mothball said. “Best of luck, Master Atticus.”
“Yes, yes, indeed,” Rutger added, reaching up to shake Tick’s hand vigorously. “Please, don’t take anything the wrong way. I’m a little funny in the head sometimes.”
“Yeah,” Tick said. “I noticed.”
Rutger’s face grew very serious. “Mothball and I . . . well, we’re rooting for you, kid, a great deal. You’ll make it, and we’ll meet you again very soon. Okay?”
“It’s in one month,” Tick blurted before he knew what he was saying. “May sixth. I have to go to a cemetery and stomp my right foot on the ground, at nine o’clock at night, and say certain words and close my eyes. I just have to figure out what to say, and—”
Rutger held up a hand. “Sounds like you’re on the right track.” He and Mothball exchanged a look, and there was no doubting the huge smiles of pride that spread across their faces.
So far, so good, Tick thought. I just need to know the magic words.
“We really must be going, now,” Rutger said. “Good luck to you, and be strong.”
He and Mothball folded their arms in unison, staring at Tick.
“Okay, see ya,” he said, then paused, waiting for them to turn and go. They didn’t move. “Aren’t you leaving?”
“Better we wait for you to be off,” Mothball said. “Just tryin’ to be proper and all.”
“Man, you guys are weird.” Tick smiled then, hoping they knew they had become two of his favorite people on the planet. He felt the familiar pang of good-bye, then gave a simple wave. “See ya later, I guess. Will you be there if I . . . make it—whatever that means?”
“We’ll be right there waitin’ on ya, we will,” Mothball said. “Be the grandest day of yer life, bet yer best buttons.”
Tick nodded, wishing he could think of a way to extend the visit, but knowing it was time to go. “Right. Okay. Bye.” He turned and walked away, heading back through the trees toward the road.
Tick ran all the way home, his sadness at saying good-bye to Mothball and Rutger quickly melting into anticipation of opening the next four clues.
He closed the door to his room and sat at his desk, wishing he could somehow transport Sofia from Italy so they could rip this thing open together. The thought made him want to kick himself for not asking Mothball and Rutger about their interactions with Sofia or any other kids. He wondered if Sofia had received this package yet. He’d have to e-mail her as soon as he was done taking a look.