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Authors: James Kennedy

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BOOK: The Order of Odd-Fish
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The empty box was still on Mr. Cavendish’s shoulders. Jo stuffed the struggling head into it, even as he pleaded, “No, not my body again! Please, no, I’ll be
good
!”—then slammed shut the box’s door. The box sprang off Mr. Cavendish, hit the ceiling, and clattered to the floor.

Mr. Cavendish’s head was somehow stuck back on his body, blinking in surprise.

“Oooh! Again!” said Mr. Cavendish happily. “Jo, do it
again.

Jo had already dashed over to Aunt Lily. “Don’t worry, I’m fine,” groaned Aunt Lily, waving away Jo’s support. “Man! Did you see that sucker fly?”

Jo helped her up anyway. “Did you build the box to do
that
?”

“I don’t know!” Aunt Lily grinned. “Still, Jo…what a morning, huh?”

Just then, the front door of the café swung open, and a fellow in rumpled overalls walked in—a big, shambling pudding of a man, with a shaggy mustache and a genial, slightly stupid expression. It was Jo and Aunt Lily’s handyman, Hoagland Shanks.

“Heck! What’s all the hoot and holler? Hey, Miss Jo, whaddya say! Any good pie today?” Hoagland Shanks mussed Jo’s hair and tipped his hat to Aunt Lily. “Afternoon, Miss Lily. Just finished spraying your place.”

Aunt Lily looked as if she’d swallowed a grasshopper. “Spraying? Spraying…my house?”

“What are you talking about?” said Jo.

“Industrial-strength insecticide,” said Hoagland Shanks. “You shouldn’t go back for eight hours or so, but I’m sure you won’t have any more problems with those cockroaches.”

“What!” said Jo. “We never asked you to spray for cockroaches!”

Hoagland Shanks chewed his lip. “But I got a phone call…”

“Who called?” said Jo.

“Some fella…Ken Kiang, I think it was?”

Korsakov let loose a strangled cry:
“Ken Kiang?”

Shanks shrugged. “Old friend of Miss Lily’s, he said. Anyhoo, this Ken Kiang fella told me to go and exterminate all the insects at your house, and—”

Colonel Korsakov leaped up—for a man of his size, quite a feat—and choked out, “Sefino!”

“No, I don’t remember any Sefino,” said Hoagland Shanks. “So, Jo, any good pie today?”

But Colonel Korsakov had already dashed out the door. Jo stumbled after him, with Aunt Lily hobbling behind. Outside rain was pattering down, faster and faster—lightning cut the sky open, thunder blasted through, and all at once the rain was furiously pouring everywhere. Jo threw open the Mustang’s door and jabbed her key into the ignition as Korsakov and Aunt Lily squeezed in the back. The engine roared to life and they took off into the storm, speeding back home.

T
HE
gold Mustang tore up the winding desert highway, crashing through the storm. Jo hadn’t had time to put up the convertible’s top, and rain spattered everywhere, soaking through her clothes, blinding her. Jo still had the black box, squeezed between her knees, but it frightened her now. Even the silver ring on her finger seemed threateningly tight. A stab of lightning, the world lit up, Jo looked for the ruby palace—

It wasn’t there.

The palace was gone, replaced by a furious mass of green smoke. A bolt of shock went straight down to Jo’s toes. Her home was gone. No—she saw pink parapets, or a crimson arch or turret, poking out of the mist—but they looked out of place, as if all the architecture was scrambled, floating crazily in the fog. Too late, she hit the brakes and the Mustang slid into the rippling, roiling, blinding cloud of green.

Jo choked, coughed, her eyes stung. She couldn’t see a thing—and the Mustang crashed into the palace. Jo was thrown forward, and then all was still.

Jo sat in the slashing rain, buried in the emerald smoke, in a daze. Aunt Lily and Colonel Korsakov were gabbling in the backseat, but Jo just stared ahead dully, her insides tightening into a hard lump of fear.

One thought kept banging through her brain: her life was finally becoming dangerous.

         

Jo, Aunt Lily, and Korsakov found their way to the kitchen. It still hadn’t been tidied up: crepe paper hung from the ceiling, dirty and damp, and half-filled glasses and stale desserts scattered the tabletops.

Jo opened all the windows to clear the air. She was too shaken to think straight. A package falling from the sky, a talking cockroach, Mr. Cavendish’s head flying around, and now this…Aunt Lily stood at the window, looking shell-shocked, and Colonel Korsakov openly wept, overflowing his chair, panting and wheezing.

“Why did Sefino have to die!” Korsakov moaned, holding Jo’s arm. “Gladly I would have laid down my life for him! My digestion would’ve found a way to carry on—I can just see my intestines crawling out of my mouth and slithering off into the horizon—perhaps to join Sefino in some grand new adventure?—
But no, why Sefino, to die?
Why not me—a worthless old man—an unworthy dwelling of a noble digestion!”

Jo patted Korsakov’s head awkwardly. “He could still be alive…we could look for him….”

There was a shuffle of footsteps in the hall. Korsakov looked up hopefully—“Sefino?” he said, craning his neck—and in sauntered Hoagland Shanks.

“Howdy!” The handyman beamed around the room. “Heck, what’s with all the long faces?”

Her mouth dry, Jo managed to stammer, “Mr. Shanks…what—what are you doing here?”

“Y’all lit out of the café so quick! So I thought I’d fly the old crop duster over and be neighborly. Who’s the Russian fella?” Hoagland Shanks stuck out his hand. “Name’s Hoagland Shanks. Pleased to meet ya!”

“You are the man responsible for this?” Korsakov’s mustache quivered. “You have killed my best friend, sir.”

“Come again? Must be the old trick ear, can’t hear a danged thing.” Hoagland Shanks winked at Aunt Lily. “Big job of exterminatin’, makes a fella hungry. Got any eats?”

“Mr. Shanks,” said Jo, her anger rising, “why did you spray our house without
asking us
?”

“Just following orders,” said Hoagland Shanks. “That Ken Kiang fella, he called me up, said he was an old friend of Miss Lily’s. Well, any friend of Miss Lily’s a friend of mine.”

“We don’t even know who Ken Kiang is!”

Hoagland Shanks scratched his head. “Well, I can’t tell you much about that, Miss Jo. But what I
can
tell you is I see an apple pie on that table.”

“What?”

“Is that an apple pie there on that table?”

“Yes, but—”

“Why, I’d
love
a piece of pie!” Hoagland Shanks went over to the table and cut himself a generous piece. “And what’s an apple pie without a scoop of delicious ice cream?”

“Put that back!” said Jo. “I didn’t say you could have any pie!”

“Tell you what, I’ll have some pie and we’ll call it even.” Hoagland Shanks scooped out half a box of ice cream and plopped it next to his pie. “Pie, pie, pie! Darned if I don’t like anything, after a hard day’s work, better than a nice apple pie! Don’t you?”

Colonel Korsakov sprang to his feet. “Sir, you are a scoundrel!”

Hoagland Shanks blinked at Korsakov. “Beg pardon?”

“I will use plainer terms, if you wish. You are a knave.”

“Huh?”

“A rapscallion, sir. A rogue.”

“Come again?”

“A cur, a reprobate! A blackguard, a villain, a rascal! No, silence! There is nothing more between us, sir, but honor and the sword. As for now—I must find my partner.”

Hoagland Shanks chewed his pie thoughtfully, staring at Korsakov; finally he leaned over to Aunt Lily and whispered, “Is it me, or is he not really talking American?”

Luckily, Jo had already pulled Korsakov away.

         

Jo and Colonel Korsakov raced down the foggy, twisty passages, searching for Sefino. The deeper they plunged into the palace, the thicker the clammy clouds of insecticide became, until they had to hold handkerchiefs to their noses to breathe.

“Sefino!” shouted Jo. “Where are you, Sefino!”

“Sefino!” bellowed Korsakov, and shook his head. “Jo, the worst has happened. Doubtless Ken Kiang himself will soon appear. We must escape—”

Jo was going to answer when, behind the poisonous mist, she heard the clear ring of silver, the patter of voices and laughter, the sound of tea pouring…she opened a door, and stepped into the fresh air of the greenhouse.

And Jo stopped—for the greenhouse had also filled up with residents of Dust Creek.

They had followed Jo back to the palace out of curiosity. Now Mr. and Mrs. Cavendish were crowded around the Victrola bickering over what record to put on, Mrs. Horpness and Mrs. Beezy were devouring the leftover sweetmeats, and Mr. Tibbets and Mr. Pooter were energetically trampling the begonias. More old people from the café streamed in through the greenhouse’s back door.

Sefino sat in a red velvet chair, surrounded by senior citizens prodding him with their canes and asking where in tarnation he came from. Sefino looked well pleased with himself; in fact, a little too pleased; in fact, drunk.

“Come in, come in!” Sefino slurred, his cravat dangling limply around his neck. “How lovely of you to drop in on our little, ahem, party. Why you felt the need to multiply, I have no idea…I thought one Jo was quite enough…and three Korsakovs is something else entirely…hello?”

“He’s a funny-looking little bugger,” said Mr. Tibbets.

“Where you from, son?” said Mrs. Beezy.

“Canada, obviously,” said Mrs. Cavendish. “They’ve got all kinds of funny-looking folks up there. Barely human, Canadians.”

Jo whispered, “Sefino, are you okay?”

“Oh, they’re from all the best families, I assure you,” said Sefino with sudden earnestness; he clung to Jo’s arm to keep from falling. “Only the very cream of the…crust of the…upper crop of the…you know, who’s who of all’s worth…”

“What’s got into him?” said Korsakov.

“The insecticide just made him drunk,” said Jo.

“He’s wasted!” shouted Mrs. Beezy triumphantly.

Mrs. Cavendish nodded. “From Vancouver to Ottawa, a race of ignorant savages.”

Mr. Tibbets approached Colonel Korsakov. “I’d like to know just what the heck you think you’re doing, cutting off heads and bringing drunk Canadians into a decent town like Dust Creek.”

“Canadian? Drunk?” roared Sefino. “I invite you to my tea party, and all you do is hurl abuse?”

“Well, as far as I’m concerned, it still adds up to the worst Christmas ever,” said Mr. Tibbets.

“Ooh! You’ve ruined Christmas!” said Mrs. Horpness excitedly.

Sefino climbed onto a table. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he declared. “At times like this, the soaring oratory of a gentleman may be the only way to assuage the fears and anxieties that the modern world engenders! I may not be a Canadian—”

“Lies!” hissed Mrs. Cavendish.

“—but it is true, I am not of your fair city, and as a guest here, I apologize for any irregularities I may have committed—”


Canadian
irregularities,” said Mrs. Cavendish.

“—in the diligent discharge of the duties that I have undertaken for the general benefit of my fellow citizens, and yes”—Sefino brushed away a tear—“my friends.”

“He always makes speeches when he’s drunk,” muttered Korsakov.

“But is it not the true spirit of Christmas,” continued Sefino, spreading four of his arms wide, “to accept into your community, and yes, your hearts, the outcast, the stranger—even, dare I say, the Canadian?”

“No!” yelled Mrs. Cavendish.

“Yes!” shouted Mrs. Horpness happily.

“Can we not put our differences behind us, to feast together in brotherhood? In short, good citizens of Dust Creek”—Sefino swayed, and weakly put a claw on a tree branch—“can you find it in your hearts, the tender recesses of your souls, to accept us as we are, and forgive us for the inconveniences and the—ah, er, what? decapitations?—that we have caused this morning?”

There was a long silence.

“I’ll be jiggered,” said Mr. Tibbets. “But dang it, that little Canadian has touched my heart.”

And at this the crowd roared with approval, and Sefino passed out, tumbling into the welcoming arms of Dust Creek.

Colonel Korsakov watched this all with anxious impatience, wincing and massaging his belly. Finally, he took Jo aside, whispering, “Jo, my digestion warns me Ken Kiang is quite near. We have no choice—we must escape,
now
—go to your room, pack what you need, and meet Sefino and me in the garden. I will get your aunt.”

It was all too fast for Jo. “What are you—”

“Go!” barked Colonel Korsakov. But Jo saw the worry in his eyes, so she obeyed and ran as fast as she could to her bedroom.

         

Jo knew the twisting maze of the ruby palace by heart. Coming out of the greenhouse, go to the end of the arched hallway, turn right, up the spiral stairs, turn right again into the gallery, take the second left into the library, up more stairs—she could find her way around blindfolded.

But as soon as she stumbled into the foggy hallways, everything went wrong. The green fog had scrambled the ruby palace into someplace she didn’t know. She ran into walls where there should have been doors, stumbled into huge rooms where she expected stairways. The green smoke swirled thicker, blinding her, her eyes prickled with needles, her throat tightened, and her ears flooded with—
organ music
?

Someone was playing her organ. No, torturing it, forcing out clashing chords, blasting up and down caterwauling scales—Jo had inhaled too much of the gas, and everything spun around, zigzagging violently—she stumbled through the green smoke, hotter and darker and heavier now, and suddenly realized the palace was on fire.

Flames licked out of the steaming green shadows, leaped up to the ceiling, flew across the papery walls. Far above, something crumpled, collapsed, and all at once an entire room was tumbling onto her head.

Jo threw herself against a brass door, stumbled through the threshold, and fell. She heard the hall fill with debris behind her. She couldn’t move—but she was out of the green smoke. Her eyes stung too hard to see, and her ears were pounded by the squall of the organ, discordant and scrambled and too loud to endure.

She was in the ballroom, her face on the dance floor, just a few yards away from the organ and whoever was playing it.

The organ stopped in mid-tune.

Jo opened her eyes.

A man was sitting at the organ—a small, slouching Chinese man with a delicate face. He wore a dandyish white suit and a white wide-brimmed hat, so elegant he seemed to have drifted in from another planet. He studied Jo carefully.

“So this is the ‘dangerous’ girl,” said Ken Kiang softly. “But where is my black box?”

Jo couldn’t answer; her throat was swollen and tied up in knots, her head swimming with a hundred half-thoughts desperately trying to connect into some kind of sense. She faintly heard the crackle of the ruby palace burning down, splintering and collapsing. But in this room, there was still a kind of menacing quiet, as the last of the organ’s notes echoed in the corners.

“You have tangled with the wrong man,” said Ken Kiang. “You should have considered more carefully, Jo Larouche, before crossing me.”

Jo managed to say, “I don’t…I have no idea who you are!”

“Where is my black box?”

“I don’t know!”

Ken Kiang stood up. Jo wanted to crawl away but she couldn’t move. Very slowly Ken Kiang approached her, his shiny white shoes clicking precisely across the floor. “I don’t care how evil, how
dangerous
you think you are, Miss Larouche—”

“But I—I
don’t
think I’m—”

“Whoa! Am I interruptin’ somethin’?” said Hoagland Shanks, zipping his pants. He noticed Ken Kiang and said, “Well, I’ll be diggly-danged! Who’s this fella, Jo?”

The ballroom was periously silent. Hoagland Shanks gave a little “oh!”, dug into his pocket, and took out a crushed glob of pie.

BOOK: The Order of Odd-Fish
2.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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