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Come follow this trail of riddles lined with popcorn and drawn in invisible ink!Pants that walk by themselves . . . Secret messages that pop up in the toaster . . . A mysterious factory that plants already-popped corn and makes invisible ink . . . or is it inc?What is going on in South Wiggot? It all started when Mr. Keen arrived in the dusty little farm town-in a wooden crate. Strange things have been happening ever since, and Bryan Zilcher is determined to find out why, before things can go from strange to sinister.This compelling adventure is like nothing else you've ever read. Part Saturday morning cartoon, part secret agent mystery-and all zany fun!
Joni Sensel is the author of two picture books and various things for adults. She lives in Washington State.
Christian Slade worked on several animated films for Disney. This is his first book for children. He lives in Orlando, Florida.
People did not usually travel down Route 64 stuffed inside wooden crates. Yet here was a crate, a big one, squatting atop the road's dotted line, and somebody odd was about to climb out.
From his LemonMoo stand by the highway, eleven-year-old Bryan Zilcher gaped. Just a minute before, he'd been gazing sadly as a big white semi sped past. He'd been hoping the brake lights might blink. The driver could still turn back to buy a cool drink. He didn't. As the truck bounced over a pothole, the trailer's left rear door had flung itself wide.A large wooden crate slid from the shadows and tumbled out to the road.
Bryan had braced for an explosion of splinters. Instead of busting on the blacktop, the crate flipped twice, then clunked flat in the center of the road. The truck never slowed. It roared toward the horizon and was gobbled by shimmering heat waves.
Bryan looked both ways down the highway. It stretched along empty, as usual. He eased out to the wooden box, as big as an oven, for a closer look. Nothing hinted at what was inside, but one end of the crate bore a bright orange sticker that said WARNING: DO NOT LICK.
"Why would you want to?" Bryan wondered aloud. Licking a crate seemed a sure way to get slivers in your tongue.
The crate, of course, had not answered. Bryan decided the warning must be in truck-driver slang. Maybe licking was something you did with a forklift. Beneath the orange sticker was a name: Acme Inc. Keeping his tongue safely behind his teeth, Bryan ran his fingers along one wood slat.
The crate might have been waiting for that. Bryan heard thesnickof some invisible latch. Without even a creak, the lid swung open wide.
Bryan had nearly jumped out of his sandals. Now, from a few yards away, he watched first an arm and then a long, spindly leg crook over the crate's open edge. Slick as scissors, a man clambered out. His white suit and shoes made Bryan think of a preacher or perhaps Colonel Sanders, the fried chicken king. The shiny, gold object he had in his hand was no drumstick, though. It could have been a small flashlight, except one end tapered to a sharp, curly point like the tail of a mechanical pig. The device reminded Bryan of something unpleasant a dentist might use. He shivered despite the July heat.
The tall man looked directly at him. For an instant, Bryan could have sworn that tiny green spirals twirled in the man's eyeballs. Then those eyes blinked and the spirals vanished. The stranger's eyes were simply an odd green. They made Bryan think of bitter olives without the red pimento stuffed in.
Bryan shook his head. He had to stop spooking himself. It was only some weird-looking guy who'd shown up by accident. It had to hurt to be dumped out of a truck like that, too.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
When the man grinned, Bryan wished he would go back to staring. That grin had too many teeth. It made the stranger look a bit like a jack-o'-lantern.
"Greetings," said Mr. O'Lantern, or whoever he was.
Bryan licked his lips. He considered fleeing to the gas station behind him, but he did not want this man to guess that he was even a bit scared, so he grabbed a paper cup and asked, "Um ... would you like to buy a glass of my delicious LemonMoo?"
The man twisted his neck slowly to the right, then the left. He pointed his metal device here and there across the farmland and tumbleweeds of SouthWiggot. Used to being ignored, Bryan juggled the cup and wondered if the strange tool took spy photos or measured radiation. He nearly dropped the cup when the creepy visitor finally turned back and replied with a question of his own.
"At what price, may I ask?" The man's voice sounded like he might have a metal gear in his skinny throat instead of an Adam's apple.
Bryan gulped. He usually charged a dollar a cup. But a man in such a well-ironed suit might pay a bit more. He took a deep breath and said, "Two dollars, with ice." He hoped the stranger didn't notice how nervous he felt.
The man tucked his pointy tool into his spotless jacket. When his hand slid back out, he held a small black pouch.
"Of course. Acme Inc. is happy to support local business."
Surprised and excited, Bryan hurried back behind his card table. He felt safer there. He grabbed hisLemonMoopitcher fromhisdad's ice chest, filled a cup, and dropped in two cubes of ice.
"Archibald Keen, at your service," said the man, waiting. "President of Acme Inc." He unfolded his long fingers and reached to shake hands. Bryan, reminded of a praying mantis, put the cup there instead.
"Uh, hi. My name's Bryan." Hoping to sound as smooth as the stranger, he added, "President of LemonMoo Enterprises."
Mr. Keen looked into the cup, his sharp nose nearly dipping into the yellow milk. For a moment Bryan feared he might suck the drink through his nose. Then he realized Mr. Keen was merely looking at it closely.
"It's like chocolate or strawberry milk. Just lemon instead," Bryan explained.
"LemonMoo. My own recipe," Bryan added.
"Clever," said Mr. Keen. He took a sip. "Mmm." Or he might have said "Hmm." But he handed Bryan two crumpled bills from his pouch.
Bryan unfolded the bills before he realized what they were--play money from some game. "This is fake," he said.
"Nonsense," said the man, drinking the rest of his LemonMoo in one gulp. "But would you rather have this?" He handed the cup back to Bryan. At the bottom, in a few drops of lemony milk, rested two large gold coins where the ice cubes had been.
Bryan tipped the heavy coins into his hand. Could they be real? He cut off his excitement with a snort. The stranger was just trying to cheat him.
"There's no such thing as gold doubloons," Bryan said. "Or pieces of eight."
"Wrong again," said Mr. Keen. "These, however, are pieces of seven. More lucky than eight. But if you insist--" He reached back into his pouch and pulled out two ordinary dollars. "Perhaps you're not as clever as I thought," he added, handing over the cash.
Ignoring the insult, Bryan took the bills. He offered the coins back to Mr. Keen.
"Keep them," the man said, waving his hand. "Check them out if you like." He looked at his watch. "I must be off. Which way to City Hall, may I ask?"
A laugh and a groan both tried to escape Bryan at the same time. The noise that came out made him sound like a goat. His cheeks hot, he pointed to the gas station, which was stuck with the embarrassing name of Zilcher's Zoom-Juice.
"Right over there. In the office. The mayor's my dad." He quickly bent to replace the pitcher in the ice chest so he wouldn't see Mr. Keen laugh about a gaspumping mayor. When he peeked up, the stranger was gone.
That wasn't so odd, Bryan decided. With such long legs, Mr. Keen could probably walk pretty fast.
What was strange was the middle of Route 64. The crate was gone, too.