Read The Order of Odd-Fish Online

Authors: James Kennedy

The Order of Odd-Fish (3 page)

BOOK: The Order of Odd-Fish
10.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

The door opened, and Aunt Lily shuffled in with a breakfast tray. “Ah! I see you’ve met Sefino.”

“What!” Jo stuttered. “You…you know him?”

“Oh, yes!” said Aunt Lily brightly. “Found him in the basement while you were in the bath. Poor dear was tied up, hanging from the ceiling. Now that’s the sign of a good party! I mean, if you’re into that kind of thing.”

Sefino narrowed his eyes. “
Madam.
As I explained, I was not tied up in your cellar for salacious amusement. My enemies—”

“Now, now.” Aunt Lily patted Sefino’s head. “You don’t have to make excuses to me.”

The insect wiggled his antennae, stamped his feet, and turned about in circles of barely suppressed rage; finally, with majestic dignity, Sefino cleared his throat, and was about to say something quite cutting, when he was interrupted by Colonel Korsakov.

“Harrumph! Hum! Ooog,” rumbled Korsakov, opening his eyes in confusion. But then he saw Sefino, and recognized Jo and Aunt Lily, and settled back weakly. “Breakfast…?”

“Right here!” said Aunt Lily, and bustled around Korsakov, plumping his pillow and setting the tray in front of him. The old Russian heaved himself up, grunted thanks, and immediately started in on a heap of bacon, eggs, toast, and sausages.

Jo had just about had enough.

“Am I the only one who thinks something strange is going on?” she nearly shouted. “Aunt Lily! There’s a huge talking cockroach standing there! Aren’t you surprised at all?”

“Yes, yes…I know, it’s strange, but…” Aunt Lily closed her eyes. “Somehow he reminds me of…You know, Korsakov and Sefino are both familiar. I’ve met them somewhere before.”

“I didn’t wish to seem overly forward, Ms. Larouche,” said Colonel Korsakov, his mouth full of eggs. “But I, too, feel I have seen you before.”

“And Ms. Larouche does not seem, ah…
entirely
unknown to me,” admitted Sefino with distaste. “Though I am quite sure I don’t know why.”

“Then why are you here?” said Jo.

“An excellent question,” said Colonel Korsakov, helping himself to more bacon. “But first Sefino and I must address a more pressing matter:
why
was I
shot
?”

Sefino looked offended. “Surely you don’t blame
me
—”

“I do!” said Colonel Korsakov, accusing him with a sausage.

“I was waylaid! Shanghaied! Bound with ropes and left for dead! I shouted for hours and no one came—except for one of Chatterbox’s lackeys, to snap some photos for the morning edition.” Sefino flung the newspaper at Colonel Korsakov. It was called the
Eldritch Snitch,
and the front page had a humiliating photo of Sefino tied up and hanging upside down in the ruby palace’s basement. Jo was startled to see her own basement on the front page of a newspaper.

“Had you come to my aid in time,” said Korsakov, buttering a slice of toast, “I would not have been shot.”

“Oh,
do come on,
” exhaled Sefino. “The proper question is, why do you
always
get shot?”

“What!”

“Come clean about it already. You’re never so happy as when you have a nice fresh bullet lodged in your belly.”

“I never!” roared Korsakov between bites.

“You seek it out!” raged Sefino. “You deliberately enrage armed lunatics! You
love
getting shot; admit it!”

Korsakov flung down his toast. “Boiling Brezhnevs! I refuse to sit here and—”

Jo broke in. “Hey! You still haven’t told us what you’re doing here!”

“Yes, yes…you’re right, of course. Explanations are in order.” Colonel Korsakov gave a final glare at Sefino. “We’ll tell you what we know—which isn’t much, I’m afraid. Sefino and I, you see, we are wanderers.”

“We meander, we drift,” said Sefino.

“We have been known to ramble.”

“I once gallivanted,” said Sefino wistfully.

“Gallivanting has occurred,” said Korsakov, frowning. “But throughout all our travels, we have faithfully obeyed one inflexible principle—the iron logic of my digestion.”

“Guess whose idea,” said Sefino.

“No matter what far-flung corner of the earth my digestion has indicated,” rumbled Korsakov, gaining steam, “we have gone there. No matter what outrageous task my digestion has suggested, we have done it. I have submitted to the stern authority of my kidney; I have harkened to the wild, squishy poetry of my intestines; I have trembled at the invincible wisdom of my rectum. Is this not so, Sefino?”

“I have nothing to add.”

“And thus,” continued Korsakov, “when my digestion instructed me to steal that black box and deliver it to you, courtesy of the ‘Order of Odd-Fish’—an organization, incidentally, of which I’d never heard—I did not hesitate to execute the order.”

Jo picked up the black box. “Wait, you
stole
this?”

Sefino interrupted, “Naturally, Korsakov’s digestion didn’t bother to inform us what that box actually
is.
Looks harmless? I should say not. The day we stole it, that infernal machine sprouted jets of flame and escaped from us, incinerating my
entire collection
of powdered wigs.”

Korsakov stifled a smile. “Yes, a tragedy. At any rate, my digestion has been tracking that box’s movements. And thus we knew it would fall in your garden last night.”

“But…you stole this?” said Jo. “From where?”

“Oh, you’ll enjoy this,” said Sefino. “Listen carefully, Jo, for some classic Korsakov flimflummery. Even I—”

“The box belonged to a certain Mr. Ken Kiang,” harrumphed Korsakov, drowning out Sefino. “A Chinese millionaire, a collector of curiosities, and a ruthless and powerful man. I admit that by bringing this box to you, I have put you in some danger.”

“In fact, considerable danger,” said Sefino.

“Catastrophic, almost certainly fatal danger,” agreed Korsakov. “But my digestion is not to be questioned! Indeed, my digestion has a great work before it, a mighty destiny to fulfill; you may doubt it, but I believe the fate of the world hinges upon some future act of my digestion! Therefore, when my pyloric valve bellowed, in a voice mighty enough to shake the very walls of my gastroesophageal region, that I must, first, steal that box from Ken Kiang; second, deliver it to you; and third, protect you—”

“Protect me?” said Jo. “From what?”

“Why, Ken Kiang himself. The man has been chasing us ever since we stole it. Sooner or later he is bound to track us here and wreak a horrible, violent, outrageous vengeance.” Korsakov popped an entire Danish in his mouth. “But there is no need to worry, for everything is going according to my digestion’s will. The submucosal glands of my jejunum are positively tingling.”

“The what of your what?” said Jo.

Sefino sighed loudly. “Don’t even try, Jo, it’s pure rot from beginning to end. To listen to it for thirteen years is not unlike having needles slowly shoved into one’s eyes.”

Jo gave a little start. “Thirteen years?”

“Another mystery,” said Korsakov. “Neither Sefino nor I remember anything from before thirteen years ago. I vaguely recall, perhaps fifty years ago, I was a KGB agent…then I went away, to a city somewhere. After that it becomes dim.”

Sefino said, “And so for thirteen years we’ve wandered the earth, not knowing what we’re supposed to be doing. Korsakov promised me that his digestion would lead us to an answer. Thirteen years later, needless to say, I am disappointed.”

Aunt Lily said, “But…I don’t remember anything before thirteen years ago, either.”

“And I’m thirteen years old,” said Jo.

There was a stunned silence. Colonel Korsakov, Sefino, Aunt Lily, and Jo all stared at one another. It was as though some huge invisible thing had floated into the room, prickly and electric; for a moment nobody even breathed.

“Well,” said Colonel Korsakov slowly. “That certainly is remarkable.”

“I fear,” said Sefino, “that this is the beginning of a long, complicated headache.”

Aunt Lily snapped up. “I knew it! I knew there was a reason I liked you, Korsakov. Jo—give me that box!”

There was energy in Aunt Lily’s voice that Jo had never heard before. She handed the black box to Aunt Lily, who immediately curled up with it on the floor, poking and shaking it.

“Wait, wait!” Korsakov rasped, waving at Aunt Lily. “Please, before you fiddle with that box, I must insist—do not touch that crank.”

Aunt Lily’s hand hovered over the crank. “Why not?”

“Er…I’m not sure,” admitted Korsakov, mopping his brow. “But my digestive juices swirl most excruciatingly every time anyone’s hand approaches it.”

“If only for that reason,” muttered Sefino, “turn that crank for all it’s worth.”

“I remember this box,” said Aunt Lily. “I think…I
built
it.”

She turned it over and tapped the bottom three times. With a tiny puff of dust it popped open. Aunt Lily jumped a little, and Jo sat up curiously. Something was rattling around inside. Aunt Lily carefully removed a silver ring from the box. Then she took out a gold ring. Jo leaned forward. Both rings had tiny carvings of fish, with jeweled eyes and tiny scales.

“Let me see!” said Jo, drawing closer.

Aunt Lily didn’t seem to hear her. She examined the rings, shaking her head, and whispered, “This ring…it has my name engraved on the inside.”

“No way!” said Jo. “And the other one?”

Aunt Lily stared at Jo, suddenly clutching the silver ring to her chest. Her eyes clouded over, and she seemed lost, confused; but finally she exhaled and handed Jo the ring.

The name
Jo Hazelwood
was engraved on the band.

“Hazelwood? Who’s Hazelwood?” Jo became excited. “Aunt Lily! Is that my real—”

“I don’t know,” said Aunt Lily in a small voice.

“Have you ever seen these before?”

“No, I—yes, I have. No, I haven’t.” Aunt Lily furrowed her brow. “They’re familiar, but…I have no idea where I’ve seen them before.”

Jo looked hard at Aunt Lily. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s like…I’m almost remembering something. But I can’t…” Aunt Lily squeezed her eyes shut. “Maybe it’s something I’d rather leave forgotten.”

Jo slid the ring on, admiring the twisty silver curves and wriggling fish. She didn’t know what the rings meant, either. But something about them felt like a promise.

“Ahem.” Colonel Korsakov coughed. “Now, as I mentioned…that black box is the property of Ken Kiang, a supremely wicked man. He has been chasing us ever since we stole it. If he finds us here, I shall protect you; and if we must escape, my plane is hidden in the foothills.”

Jo looked up. “You have a plane?”

“Oh, yes,” said Korsakov. He had devoured everything on his tray and now peered around with mild disappointment. “Er…I don’t wish to trouble you, but you wouldn’t happen to have three or four more eggs, would you? A half-dozen more sausages? Ham off the bone, if you could manage it? My digestion is a precision instrument, you see, and it requires proper maintenance.”

“Well…I’m a waitress down in town,” said Jo. “I was just about to go to work. You could come to the café, or—”

“Capital,” said Korsakov, rising from bed. “The day hasn’t truly started until its second breakfast. Well, Sefino?”

Sefino glanced up impatiently from a pile of papers on which he had been busily writing. “I doubt Dust Creek is noted for culinary achievement,” he snorted. “I shall remain here and work on my twelve-thousand-line epic poem on how Chatterbox is a contemptible hack and a disgrace to modern journalism.”

“Of course, of course,” sighed Korsakov. “You always do.”

J
O
backed out of the ruby palace’s garage, yanked the gearshift, and rolled Aunt Lily’s gold Mustang out onto the bumpy road. She didn’t have a driver’s license, but after Aunt Lily crashed their car through the supermarket’s front window, Jo had taken over driving between the ruby palace and Dust Creek.

Aunt Lily and Colonel Korsakov were bickering and flirting in the back. Korsakov was so huge that he took up the entire seat; Aunt Lily, to her delight, had to sit on his lap.

“Did you know, Colonel,” said Aunt Lily, snuggling up to him, “I used to be a movie star?”

“I did not,” said Korsakov, shifting uncomfortably.

“I was, I was…. Before that, a bit of burlesque. And magic shows, vaudeville. Maybe that’s where I recognize this box from?” Aunt Lily turned the black box over. “You want to see a magic show today, Colonel?”

Jo smiled at the rearview mirror, glad that Aunt Lily had recovered her spirits. She pressed the gas harder, enjoying the dusty wind in her hair. She glanced at her new silver ring, with its strange swirling fish and their jeweled eyes. For the first time in years, she felt like things were changing.

         

The Dust Creek Café was packed.

It was a grubby room crowded with metal folding chairs and simulated-wood tables, dimly lit and almost intolerably hot, swimming in the thick stink of burnt coffee, fried dough, and maple syrup. The only decoration sat next to the cash register, a plastic armadillo so dented and abused that Jo almost pitied it.

Mrs. Beezy grabbed Jo as she walked in. “Jo! You’re over an hour late!”

“Sorry, Mrs. Beezy!” Jo rushed to the kitchen, punched in, and tied on her apron. Then she took a deep breath and started her workday.

Soon Jo was so busy that she almost had no time to think of that morning’s events. She had to be everywhere at once, washing dishes, taking orders, settling fights—and Jo had to do everything herself, since the only other waitress, Ms. Quince, was one hundred and seven years old and seldom moved from her wobbly stool.

“Jo! Jo!” shrieked a dried-up, insect-like woman with huge ears and tiny yellow teeth. “Jo!”

“Yes, Mrs. Cavendish!” Jo finished drying a dish and rushed over.

“Where’s Mr. Cavendish’s birthday hat?” demanded Mrs. Cavendish, and poked her husband violently. “On my husband’s ninety-ninth birthday, he’s entitled to a birthday hat! I mean, he hasn’t got much longer to live! Do you, Mr. Cavendish?”

“Don’t bury me yet,” said Mr. Cavendish slowly.

“Not
quite
yet! But soon, eh?” said Mrs. Cavendish with relish. “Every minute’s a roll of the dice, eh, Mr. Cavendish?”

“I’ll get the birthday hat,” said Jo.

“And more waffles!” cried Mrs. Horpness.

Jo ran to find the birthday hat for Mr. Cavendish. The senior citizens loved wearing the cardboard crown on their birthdays; Jo could never understand why. The withered Mr. Cavendish sat at the “birthday table,” immobile and glassy-eyed, with Mrs. Cavendish, the plump, flowery Mrs. Horpness, the stern-faced Mr. Tibbets, and the undertaker, Mr. Pooter. Colonel Korsakov sat with them, but he was ignored, for he was only seventy-five years old—a child by Dust Creek standards.

“Here’s your hat, Mr. Cavendish!” said Jo, placing the yellow crown on his head. Mr. Cavendish’s jaw trembled, as if his head couldn’t support the weight.

“Adorable! It looks so precious on Mr. Cavendish!” said Mrs. Cavendish. “Why, he should wear it at his funeral!”

“Don’t bury me yet!” said Mr. Cavendish desperately.

Jo trotted over to another table to take an order. The café hummed with the familiar din of old people, mostly complaining: about the wretched food, about their painful and embarrassing illness, about their good-for-nothing grandchildren…

And about Aunt Lily. As usual, Aunt Lily was bullying the other old people, snatching waffles off plates, “accidentally” spilling people’s orange juice, and gobbling everyone’s medication. The old people squawked in dismay, and some feebly tried to stab Aunt Lily with their plastic forks.

“Aunt Lily, behave yourself!” said Jo, pouring out some coffee. “I’m busy enough as it is.”

“But they won’t let me do my magic show!” pouted Aunt Lily. “You said I could, Jo!”

“We want to watch the Belgian Prankster!” said Mr. Pooter.

Jo heard someone else say her name, but the room was loud and the TV was turned up. The Belgian Prankster’s theme music jangled, his giant face filling the screen. Jo caught a glimpse and shivered. She turned away from the TV, looking out the window, and was startled to see storm clouds rapidly darkening the desert. The Belgian Prankster’s face was reflected in the window, grinning back at her. Jo spun away and stared at the wall.

“Hey! The Belgian Prankster’s on!” said Mr. Tibbets. “Turn it up!”

“I can’t see! Move the television!” said Mrs. Horpness.

Jo stood still, her eyes closed, trying to block out the noise of the Belgian Prankster.
The Belgian Prankster Hour
was everyone’s favorite TV show. Even Aunt Lily was addicted to it.

But Jo simply couldn’t watch the Belgian Prankster—a blubbery old man who wore nothing but dirty fur pelts and a rawhide diaper, with gray hair that frazzled in all directions and oversized green ski goggles. It was the goggles that creeped Jo out most. Every time she looked at the TV, she felt the Belgian Prankster staring right back at her.

Nobody knew exactly who the Belgian Prankster was. Some said he had been an anonymous executive in an Antwerp fish-stick company, where he had quietly embezzled billions for his pranks. Others maintained the persona was a hobby of Prince Poodoo, a wealthy and mysterious Sri Lankan playboy. And a few swore that the Belgian Prankster was nothing less than the Devil himself, come to unleash a new era of chaos upon the world.

The Belgian Prankster’s pranks vexed scientists the world over. Nobody knew how the Belgian Prankster caused Vladimir Lenin to rise from his grave and stroll the streets of Moscow, offering free makeovers to startled ladies—makeovers the embalmed dictator performed with expert skill. Nor could anyone fathom how (as the Belgian Prankster had threatened) everyone in New York woke up to find the entire city covered with hideous orange carpet. And it was the Belgian Prankster who, in the work of a single night, had flooded the Houston Astrodome with piping hot clam chowder.

The Belgian Prankster’s pranks could be as playful as releasing ten thousand bichon frise puppies onto the streets of Osaka, or as deadly as turning the Eiffel Tower upside down. The Belgian Prankster was as admired as he was feared, especially by children—parents around the world could discipline their sons and daughters just by saying, “Do you want me to call the Belgian Prankster?”

“Jo!
Jo!
” shouted Mrs. Beezy. “Are you okay?”

Jo shook herself awake. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” she mumbled, and looked around the restaurant uneasily. “Wait, does anyone know where Aunt Lily went?”

The women’s restroom door banged open, and Aunt Lily danced out in her “magic show” costume (gold top hat, red bustier, glittering miniskirt), waving a wand around, shouting, “Magic tricks! Magic tricks!”

“No! No!” said Mrs. Beezy, hastening from behind the counter. “I told you I don’t want you to do your shows here anymore!”

“Magic tricks!” Aunt Lily pranced to the center of the room. “Magic tricks for Christmas! For Mr. Cavendish’s birthday! Everybody likes magic tricks!”

“I don’t!” said Mrs. Cavendish testily. “And Mr. Cavendish certainly doesn’t—how could he?—why, he’s half dead!”

“Don’t bury me yet!”

Jo steeled herself for trouble. Everyone in Dust Creek had seen Aunt Lily’s magic show a million times, and everyone hated it. Last year, Aunt Lily had put on her show at the café almost every day, until Jo had forbidden her to do it anymore. Aunt Lily had sulked for weeks, but Jo was firm. For as frail as the senior citizens were, Jo had seen murder in their eyes.

Aunt Lily was already doing a card trick. “Now, where’s that ace of spades?”

“It’s in your hat!” shouted everyone.

Aunt Lily raised her eyebrows. “Clever audience today!”

“We’ve all seen your tricks a hundred times!” snapped Mr. Tibbets.

Jo would’ve felt embarrassed, but Aunt Lily seemed to enjoy this kind of abuse; she winked at Korsakov and said, “Now, for my next trick, I’ll need a volunteer! Who’s up for it?”

There was a soft cough.

Everyone turned.

Mr. Cavendish had raised a quivering hand.

“Out of the question, Mr. Cavendish!” said Mrs. Cavendish. “Why, at your age! And your fragile health!”

“Don’t bury me yet,” said Mr. Cavendish with determination.

“Marvelous! First, let’s stick Mr. Cavendish’s head in this box!” said Aunt Lily, and in a flash crammed the black box onto Mr. Cavendish’s head.

“Stop! Mr. Cavendish will suffocate!” said Mrs. Cavendish.

“Aunt Lily, what are you doing?” said Jo. “Didn’t Korsakov say—”

Aunt Lily waved her silent. “Don’t worry, Jo. I think I remember what this box is for!”

Korsakov’s eyebrows twitched like two panicking caterpillars. “But you won’t touch that crank, yes?”

“Ladies and gentlemen!” announced Aunt Lily. “You will now witness an illusion beyond the human imagination! If you have weak health or heart problems, I advise you, do not watch!”

“We all have weak health!” yelled Mr. Tibbets.

“We’ve all had heart attacks!” groaned Mr. Pooter.

“For this final trick,” said Aunt Lily as a waffle flew past her, “I will CUT OFF MR. CAVENDISH’S HEAD! But silence, please—I need absolute silence for this difficult illusion.”

The chattering in the room died down. The senior citizens decided to buckle down and sit quietly through it. And then might Lily Larouche go away? It was a wild and desperate hope, but it was all they had. For a moment the café was so quiet that the only sound was a rumble of thunder outside and the first spatterings of rain on the window.

Jo suddenly guessed what Aunt Lily was going to do. “Aunt Lily—”

Colonel Korsakov struggled to his feet. “Ms. Larouche! I implore you, do not touch—”

But it was too late. Aunt Lily grasped the black box on Mr. Cavendish’s head—and with a devilish grin, she turned the silver crank.

At first nothing happened. Then a faint click—and Aunt Lily gasped, staggering backward, and collapsed as though she had been punched in the stomach.

“Aunt Lily!” Jo rushed to her. “
Aunt Lily!
Are you okay?”

Aunt Lily was breathing fast. “It’s nothing, Jo. I…I…”

The senior citizens muttered in confusion.

Jo turned to the audience and forced a smile. “Aha…No need for alarm! Our magician is just a bit overwhelmed by the magic…. Hey! Let’s all have a big hand for Miss Lily Larouche!”

Scattered and hesitant applause. Something had gone wrong, and everyone knew it. Jo stared at the black box on Mr. Cavendish’s head—jostling, as if something was bouncing around inside.

“Aunt Lily,” whispered Jo anxiously, “Aunt Lily, I—”

But she never finished, for the black box’s side door burst open and something utterly astonishing flew out.

“FREE! I’M FREE!” Mr. Cavendish’s head shot out of the box, flying around the room. “OH, SWEET FREEDOM! OH, GLORIOUS RAPTURE! I’M A FLYING HEAD! LOOK AT ME! NO ONE CAN STOP ME! I’M ALIVE, ALIVE, ALIVE!”

Jo was floored. The café erupted into pandemonium. Those who could, leaped up and bolted for the door; tables overturned, plates smashed, the Belgian Prankster laughed deafeningly; Mrs. Cavendish sat gaping, Mr. Pooter dived under the table, and Mrs. Horpness was rapturously throwing waffles everywhere. Of all the things that could’ve happened by turning the crank, Jo least expected this—that Aunt Lily’s magic trick would actually work.

“WOO HOO!” shouted Mr. Cavendish’s head, bobbing like a balloon. “Goodbye, Mrs. Cavendish—goodbye, Dust Creek! I’m livin’ in the sky like the mighty eagle!”

“Great galloping Gorbachevs!” Colonel Korsakov doubled over in agony. “Oh, my delicate enzymes…Jo! Do something!”

“What can I possibly do?” shouted Jo, watching Mr. Cavendish’s head zigzag through the air.

“Mr. Cavendish, you come back down here this instant!” squealed Mrs. Cavendish.

“Not a chance, Mrs. Cavendish! Where’s the window? I’m long gone! RELEASE! SWEET RELEASE!”

Jo stared, the coffeepot hanging limply from her fingers. The seniors were shrieking, throwing their silverware, on the verge of a riot. Somebody was going to get hurt. Jo grabbed a tablecloth and shakily climbed onto a table.

“Catch me? Oho, Jo, you’ll never catch me!” taunted Mr. Cavendish’s head. “I’m going to live in outer space! I’ve decided! With the moon men, and the…the
hydrogen
!”

Jo hopped to another table, half slipped on a pancake, and nearly caught Mr. Cavendish’s head in the tablecloth, but he rocketed away just in time, whooping.

“Good girl, Jo! Almost got him,” cheered Mrs. Horpness, waving a waffle.

“Go, go, Mr. Cavendish! She’ll sneak up from behind! Look out!” yelled Mr. Tibbets.

Jo jumped from table to chair to countertop, lunging with the tablecloth, as Mr. Cavendish’s head streaked around the café. Then she saw her chance and leaped, the tablecloth spread before her, tackling the flying head in midair. The floor rushed up much too quickly, Jo broke through a flimsy plastic chair, and she hit the tiles with a painful smack. But she had Mr. Cavendish’s head, squirming in the tablecloth.

BOOK: The Order of Odd-Fish
10.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Wrath of a Mad God by Raymond E. Feist
The Ghost House by Phifer, Helen
Lucky Horse by Bonnie Bryant