He opened up the envelope and pulled out four pieces of cardstock, exactly the same as all the other clues. Each card had its own message typed in the middle of the page, with a number written in blue ink directly above it with a big circle around it, indicating its place in the sequence—seven through ten. Tick wondered about the significance of the order as he spread everything out on his desk in front of him, then read the first one, the seventh clue:

Go to the place you have chosen wearing nothing but your underwear. Oh, calm yourself, I’m only giving you a bit of rubbish. Don’t want you to think I’m without a sense of humor. No, quite the contrary—you must dress warmly because you never know where you’ll end up.

Tick paused, thinking. The first line had made his stomach turn over before he realized Master George was just kidding around. That’s all Tick needed was to go running across town in his undies to hang out at a graveyard in the middle of the night.

Nothing else about the clue seemed mysterious or riddle-like at all, giving weight to the little note that had been stapled to the front of the envelope. This one seemed like nothing more than a warning to dress warmly. But according to the attached note, everything was a clue, so it had to have some kind of hidden message.

Just when I think I’m getting the hang of it, he thought, shaking his head. He moved on to the next one, the eighth clue:

Eventually you will fail. I say this because the vast majority of those who receive these letters will do so, utterly. For those extreme few of you who may succeed, I will conveniently explain away this clue as a small typing error. For you, it was meant to say, “Eventually you will not fail.”

Tick surprised himself by chuckling out loud. This Master George guy had quite the sense of humor and sounded like he was as quirky as an elf in Santa’s workshop. Tick couldn’t wait to meet him.

As for the clue itself, there was nothing to figure out, no mysteries—not even any advice this time. More and more, Tick was beginning to think he’d missed something important he was supposed to get from these messages.

He moved on to the ninth clue:

Ordinary kids would’ve given up by now. I know what is haunting you, what is chasing you, what is making your life miserable. Cheer up, friend, much worse lies ahead.

This one made Tick sit back in his chair and pause for a very long time. It was the shortest clue yet, but packed with so much. The kindness of Master George showing empathy for what Tick was going through and the terrible things he’d seen. The encouragement that Tick wasn’t just an ordinary kid. The pride knowing he’d stood up and endured. And finally, the almost humorous warning that he’d only seen the beginning and “much worse” was still to come.

Tick felt like three starving warthogs had been unleashed inside his brain, grunting and thrashing to find food. He wanted to know the truth, to know everything, so badly it made his head hurt, and he felt frustrated to no end. He’d just read the next three clues, and yet seemed no closer to discovering the magic words. If his family hadn’t been downstairs, Tick would’ve screamed at the top of his lungs.

Almost reluctantly—almost—he read the final piece of paper from the envelope, the tenth clue:

Remember to bring two items with you, stowed carefully away in your pockets, while you say the magic words. Sadly, I must refrain from telling you what the items are. I can only say this: they must be impossible to pick up, no matter how strong you are, but small enough to fit in your pockets, since that is where they must be, on penalty of death (or at least a particularly nasty rash). I realize this riddle is very easy, but my cat just messed on the Peruvian rug in my parlor, so I haven’t much time to think of a better one. Good day.

Messed on the Peruvian rug in his parlor? Tick was beginning to like Master George more and more every second.

And the man was right—this one was too easy. Tick got up from his desk, excited to e-mail Sofia. Then he would show all the new clues to his dad.

It took him ten minutes to finally persuade Kayla to quit playing her Winnie the Pooh computer game, and another couple minutes to clean the sticky spots off the keyboard from her fingers. She’d broken the no-food-at-the-computer rule and helped herself to a Popsicle while maneuvering Pooh and Piglet through the horrible dangers of the Hundred Acre Wood.

He finally logged in to his e-mail and opened up the INBOX, hoping that Sofia had sent him something as well. His hand froze in midair, hovering over the mouse like a cloud when he saw what waited for him.

An e-mail from someone named “shadowka2056.”

The subject line said, “Master George is crazy.”


The Third Musketeer

Tick clicked open the e-mail, his heart pounding.

Dude, what’s up with all this stuff, man? I couldn’t believe it when I was finally non-stupid enough to search the Internet to see if there were any others like me. Can you believe all this is for real? Actually, I guess I should ask first if you’re still doing this whole mess. For all I know you burned the letter a long time ago.

My name’s Paul Rogers and I live in Florida. Ever been here? I can see that you’re from Washington—man, we’re like on opposite corners of America. How cool is that?

I don’t know what to say until I know more about what you’re up to. Have you gotten everything? Have you met Mothball and Rutger? They kept telling me I needed to go to one of the postmarked places to get another clue. I said, what do I look like, King Henry the Eighth? I ain’t made of money, dude. I finally talked the little fat man into giving me the clue anyway. Looks like there’s more than one way to skin a cat in this game.

Anyway, I’m up to Number Ten, how about you? If you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about and think I’m totally bonkers, go ahead and delete this e-mail. Trust me, you don’t wanna know.



Tick, excited, immediately hit REPLY and typed out his answer.

Dear Paul,

I’m really glad you wrote me. I’m totally still in it, and I’m up to the tenth clue as well. Pretty easy one, right? Hands. Our hands. You can’t really pick up your own hands, but they can fit in your pockets nice and easy. It’s about time we had one that was simple, huh?

I actually did go to Alaska—it was my dad’s idea. We almost got killed, but it wasn’t too bad. We met a funny guy named Norbert who’s met Master George! And he also met some crazy lady named Mistress Jane. From what Norbert said, I don’t think I want to meet her.