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In which Harrumphrey goes surfing, Patti takes a breath of brilliance, and Jean-Remy receives a letter
Elliot and Leslie rushed past a green Egyptian pyramid, a green rocket ship, and a green rhinoceros. Does that sound strange? Don’t worry. These were perfectly normal things to see—in the courtyard of DENKi-3000. Pyramids, rockets, and rhinos were just a few of the elaborate topiary sculptures carved into the trees and bushes. Most people would have marveled at their grandeur and detail, but not Elliot and Leslie. To them, a privet monkey doing a headstand atop the handlebars of a yew-tree motorcycle was as ordinary as sliced bread. Besides, they were headed for a place much stranger than a few oddly trimmed hedges. They were on their way to the Creature Department.
The tumbledown mansion at the heart of DENKi-3000 rose up to greet them. A tiny figure perched elegantly atop the highest gable.
“Is that who I think it is?” asked Leslie.
“Ah! Bienvenue, mes amis!” cried the fairy-bat, Jean-Remy Chevalier.
“Yep, that’s him,” said Elliot. “But what is he wearing?”
The fairy-bat launched himself into the air and swooped down to hover in front of the children. He was dressed in a skintight, one-piece bodysuit featuring thick black-and-white bars.
“Zees?” he asked, looking down admiringly at his tiny body. “Why, it is my swimming costume, of course!”
“Swimming?” asked Elliot. “Why do you need a—”
Before Jean-Remy could answer, the front wall of the doorless building split open with a KERR-RACK, revealing its secret entrance. Standing on the threshold was Elliot’s uncle, Professor Archimedes von Doppler.
“Excellent,” he said. “You’re just in time! We are in serious need of some new ideas!”
The professor waved them into the Creature Department, Jean-Remy flapping above their heads. The secret entrance rumbled closed behind them like the mouth of a monstrous brick-and-clapboard beast.
“Is anyone going to explain why Jean-Remy is wearing a swimsuit?” asked Elliot.
“No need to explain,” said the professor. “We can show you.”
He threw open the doors of the laboratory. Towering in the middle of the huge space, dwarfing the tables and equipment that surrounded it, was an enormous hot tub! The exterior had the raw, unfinished appearance of most things in the Creature Department. The outer bowl was a patchwork of rusty iron sheets, flashing with buttons, switches, and digital readouts. Snaking out from the base were coils of corrugated tubing, all of them juddering quietly, pumping mysterious fluids in and out of the tub.
“This,” said the professor, “is the Think Tank!”
He led them up to a large wooden platform that resembled the patio at a tropical resort. There were deck chairs, colorful umbrellas, and plastic recliners in which all kinds of creatures wore sunglasses and sipped from fruit-filled cocktail glasses (which also sported colorful umbrellas).
The tub was filled with what appeared to be a bright-orange bubble bath. It was big enough to accommodate twenty or thirty of even the largest creatures. Every so often, huge tangerine bubbles, each one as big as a basketball, broke free from the surface and floated high into the air before popping with an audible THUP!
On the far side of the tub, Harrumphrey Grouseman, the professor’s “right-hand head,” floated on a sky-blue surfboard. He had a snorkel and diving mask strapped around his enormous noggin. Hugging his waist (which was basically just below his chin) was a pink inflatable inner tube shaped like the Loch Ness monster. A wave on the surface of the bubbly brew swelled up dramatically, cresting white and pushing him toward the deck.
“Cowabunga,” he grumbled.
Harrumphrey crashed into the deck, rolling across the planks like a big bearded bowling ball.
“Did you get anything?” the professor asked, helping extract Harrumphrey from the tangle of umbrellas and chairs he had toppled.
“Nothing useful,” Harrumphrey answered.
“Get any what?” asked Leslie.
“Ideas.” Harrumphrey waddled over to join the children by the edge of the tub. His pink Loch Ness inner tube squeaked with every step. “I was surfing a Brain Wave.”
“Of course you were,” said Leslie (very little in the Creature Department surprised her anymore).
“What is this stuff?” Elliot asked. He leaned over and scooped up a handful of orange foam. “Smells like lemons.”
“Synthetic brain juice,” Harrumphrey explained.
“Yick.” Elliot flicked it back into the tub.
“Actually, it’s quite ingenious,” said his uncle. He joined them on the edge of the wooden patio. “As you know, we weren’t having the best of luck with the cerebellows, so we decided to try something new.” He spread his arm over the water. “And what’s a better way to stimulate creativity than splashing around in a hot, bubbling bath of brain fluid?”
“Have you tried Sudoku?” asked Leslie, frowning at the orange foam.
“Don’t knock it ’til you try it,” said Patti Mudmeyer, the bog nymph. She had popped out of the water, resting her scaly elbows on the edge of the deck. “It’s like breathing creativity!”
“I wouldn’t know,” Harrumphrey grumbled. “I don’t have gills.”
“Too bad for you,” said Patti, smiling brightly as orange fluid leaked from the slits on either side of her neck.
“What about you two?” asked the professor, turning to Elliot and Leslie. “Care for a dip?”
Leslie shook her head. “Us? In a tub of brain juice?!”
The professor nodded. “It might help with those clever anti-ghork devices you’ve been working on.”
Elliot’s uncle had a point. Ever since their last adventure, Elliot and Leslie had been spending all their free time at DENKi-3000. The professor had charged them with the task of designing a series of devices that could be used against the ghorks, in the event of another attack.
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” said Elliot. He was quite confident in the devices he and Leslie had designed. He pointed to the bizarre blueprints, pinned to a corkboard against the wall. “I think they’re perfect!”
“Maybe you do,” said the professor, “but let’s not forget: Sometimes, our inventions don’t work precisely the way we plan.”
“You got that right, Doc,” said Patti. “Remember my invisibility machine?”
“You mean almost-invisibility machine,” Harrumphrey corrected.
“Exactly. That definitely didn’t work according to plan.”
“All it did was make things blurry,” said Elliot.
“You got it, kiddo. And now that Sir William has promoted Charlton the cycloptosaurus to head of marketing, my poor old invention has been shrunk down and rebranded as The Impressionisticator™. They tell me it’s s’posed to appeal to interior decorators, ones who wanna make a room look like a hazy oil painting from nineteenth-century Paris.” She shrugged. “Definitely a niche market.”
“You think zat is bad?” asked Jean-Remy. “Have you seen how zey are using my beautiful Tele-Pathetic Helmet? Zey are using the technology in cinemas! Now whenever zey show ze audience a sappy movie zey can make sure ze people cry at just ze right time.”
Gügor thumped forward, a glum expression on his already glum face. “That’s nothing,” he said. “It was Gügor’s invention that was turned into the silliest one!” The knucklecrumpler pointed a thick orange finger toward the Rickem-Ruckery Room. Standing beside the entrance was a refrigerator shaped like a snowman, with three round doors, one on top of another, with a a goofy grin and a plastic carrot-nose stuck to the top. “Because Gügor’s teleportation device sent everything to the South Pole, the marketing people turned it into The Frosti-Friend™. When you open his belly, you can chill frozen peas in an ice cave in Antarctica.”
“Actually,” said Leslie, “that sounds like a pretty good idea. If Grandpa Freddy was here, I’ll bet he’d like to have one of those in his kitchen.”
“It does have a certain appeal,” admitted the professor. “In fact, Sir William has taken Charlton on a month-long tour to promote the company’s new products at technology exhibitions around the world.”
“Hold on a second,” said Elliot. “What about rocket boots? The marketing department couldn’t have rebranded those, right? I mean . . . they’re rocket boots! Everybody and their pet duck wants a pair of rocket boots!”
Leslie rolled her eyes. “Why would a duck want rocket boots? They have wings.”
“It’s a figure of speech.”
“I think you mean everybody and their dog.”
Elliot shrugged. “I like to do my own thing.”
Leslie’s eyes moved down to Elliot’s bright green fishing vest. “Have you ever thought of doing someone else’s thing—just for once?”
Elliot narrowed his eyes. “Why are you staring at my vest?”
“Have you ever considered not wearing it every day?”
Elliot folded his arms tightly across his chest, almost as if to challenge anyone to even try to take off his most prized piece of clothing. “I thought we were talking about rocket boots,” he said defiantly.
Leslie rolled her eyes again. All she could think of to say was “Ugh!”
“Indeed,” said Elliot’s uncle. “Rocket boots. I’m certain they’ll be a huge hit, just as soon as they’re approved by the Federal Aviation Authority. Unfortunately, that could take years.”
“Patience,” said Gügor. “There’s an old saying in Gügor’s family. It goes like this: Crumple, crumple, crumple, crumple, crumple . . .” He went on like this for quite a while, counting off “crumples” one by one on his enormous fingers. “. . . crumple, crumple, crumple, crumple—come to think of it, maybe there isn’t enough time to finish this saying.” He scratched his head. “It has something to do with patience.”
“Yes,” said the professor. “Patience. Very important! In the meantime, however, we’ll need some new ideas. Let’s see what we’ve come up with.” He pointed a remote control into the shadows of the ceiling. With the press of a button, a view-screen descended out of the darkness. On it was a list of strange inventions:
Karate Chop Sticks
“What’s a ‘shoehorn horn’?” asked Leslie.
“Isn’t it obvious?” harrumphed Harrumphrey.
“Probably only to the person who invented it. Wait. That was you, wasn’t it?”
Harrumphrey nodded proudly.
“Well, to me it just sounds kooky.”
Harrumphrey put on the glowering expression for which he was renowned.
“You do know,” he said, “what a regular shoehorn is. Right?”
Leslie nodded. “One of those little plastic tongue-thingies, for slipping your heel into a shoe.”
“Exactly. That’s a shoehorn. A shoehorn horn is a regular shoehorn with a little trumpet at the top.”
“Why does it need a little trumpet?” asked Elliot.
“Duh! So you know when your shoe’s on. The moment your heel touches down, the shoehorn horn plays ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’!”
Leslie folded her arms. “Do people really need an alarm to tell them their shoes are on?”
Harrumphrey nodded gravely. “I’m still working on the practical applications.”
“How about a Fright Bulb?” asked Elliot. “That sounds interesting.”
“It’s one of mine,” said Patti.
The bog nymph pulled herself out of the Think Tank and onto the deck. “You know how everyone’s kinda scared of the dark?”
“Not me,” said Leslie. She spun side to side to show off her black tights, black dress, and black T-shirt. “For me, dark is the new pink.”
“Trust me, hon, you’re in the minority there.” Patti wrung out her kelp-like hair. Rivulets of her clay-colored scalp resin ran down her scaly back. “Most people hate the dark. They’re afraid of it. Hard to believe, I know. But that’s where the Fright Bulb comes in.” She leaned over the edge of the deck. “Show ’em the prototype, Gügor.”
From a nearby cabinet, Gügor took a small wooden box with a lightbulb screwed into it. On the bulb’s glass was a stylized drawing of a face with ghostly features, angry eyes, and a snarling mouth. When Gügor flicked the switch on the box, the bulb blossomed an eerie phosphorescent green, and the face said:
“Y’see?” said Patti. “The Fright Bulb is the opposite of a regular lightbulb. It scares you when you turn on the lights.”
“That one might need some work, too,” said Leslie.
Patti sucked her teeth. “Another niche market, right?”
“I’d say so.”
Elliot sighed. “Are any of these actually good ideas?”
“Mais, bien sûr! You have not yet talked about my idea!” Jean-Remy flew forward to hover halfway between the view-screen and the orange bubbles of the Think Tank. He pointed to the last invention on the list. “Ze Flying Pan!”
“Do you mean frying pan?” asked Leslie. “I hate to tell you, but those have already been invented.”
“No-no-no! Not ze frying pan, ze flying pan. It is just like ze regular pan, only with ze flapping wings! Like mine.” Jean-Remy demonstrated by fluttering in an elegant loop.
Elliot rolled his eyes. “Wings on a frying pan? That makes even less sense than putting rocket boots on a duck.”
Jean-Remy covered his heart as if he had been wounded. “Oh! How can you say such a thing?!”
Leslie shrugged. “You have to admit, it’s hard to see the sense in a flying pan.”
“Let me explain. You know ze times when you flip ze crêpe in ze pan, but you flip it too high or too much to one side? What can you do? Do you run after ze beautiful crêpe, carrying ze hot pan? No-no-no! C’est trop dangereux! But zees pan—zees beautiful flying pan—it can glide through ze air, as graceful as . . . as . . . as ze fairy-bat! It catches ze crêpe—perfectly flat—every time!” Having concluded, Jean-Remy tipped in the air to fall into a low bow.
Leslie looked at Elliot. “Actually, that sounds almost . . . useful.”
“We do have a flying pan prototype in development,” said the professor, “but let’s face it—it’s yet another product with only a niche market. What we need is something more universal, something that would appeal to everyone, to the whole wo—”
The conversation was interrupted by the sound of an old bell. It was followed by a pair of shrill voices, crying out in unison.
Elliot and Leslie looked down from the deck. They saw Bildorf and Pib, the two rat-like hobmongrels. They were both wearing blue caps with shiny black visors, the sort of uniforms worn by postal workers. Pib, the taller (and mangier) of the two, was pushing a huge cart loaded with envelopes and packages, while her companion, Bildorf, marched out in front of it. In his hand he carried a golden bell, which he shook again for added emphasis.
Harrumphrey groaned. “Whose bright idea was it to give them a bell?”
“Quit gripin’,” said Patti. “Just be glad they decided to take on some responsibility for once.”
“It’s Reggie we have to thank,” said the professor. “Ever since those two befriended him, they’ve given up devoting their lives to mischief and wisecracks. Thank goodness!”
“We’ll see how long it lasts,” Harrumphrey harrumphed.
Bildorf and Pib pushed the mail cart around the laboratory, delivering postcards, envelopes, and packages to delighted creatures of all shapes and sizes.
They handed Jean-Remy a delicate envelope. The moment he saw it, his face went even paler than usual. He flew up to perch on the edge of the Think Tank, staring at the envelope.
“Whatcha got there, JR?” asked Patti.
Jean-Remy didn’t answer. He opened the envelope and tugged out a single page. The moment he began to unfold it, there was a swell of music, the mournful whine of a hundred violins. He slapped the paper shut. The music stopped.
“What was that?” asked Elliot.
“Sounds to me like a singing telegram,” said Harrumphrey, “and judging by the tone of those violins, it’s not good news.”
Jean-Remy slid the folded page gently between his fingers. “It’s from my sister,” he said. He opened the letter all the way, and the same keening music filled the laboratory.
Then the telegram began to sing. . . .
In which Reggie’s paunch packs a punch
Deep in the tunnels below the Creature Department, Colonel-Admiral Reginald T. Pusslegut was listening. He was quite adept at hearing things. He was a regimental bombastadon, after all, native to the vast white wastes of Antarctica. When you were swatting away berg-biters in the midst of a blizzard, you certainly couldn’t rely on your eyes to save you.
There were no berg-biters here, however. What Reggie heard was something else, but something just as unsettling.
This came as a surprise. Over the past few weeks, the tunnels below the Creature Department had fallen eerily quiet. Prior to the great melee the creatures now called the Battle of Bickleburgh, Reggie could expect at least a weekly scuffle with the odd ghork. But he hadn’t drawn his ceremonial saber in ages! Now, however, he placed one hand on the hilt.
They were coming closer. Clomping, clumping, lumbering footsteps. This wasn’t the sound from just one pair of feet. No, this sounded more like . . .
“Oh, dear,” Reggie whispered to himself.
That was when they emerged from the darkness around the corner. Not three, not four, not even six, but seven nose-ghorks! They pumped their arms and raised their knees high with every step, thumping their feet so hard their ample reserves of snot were shaken loose. With every second step, a long pendulum of mucus swung a little lower.
All seven ghorks snorted in unison, and each string of slime was vacuumed up into their tremendous schnozzes.
“Halt!” Reggie drew his ceremonial saber (at last) and brandished it at the group. “Identify yourselves!”
“What’s the matter?” said the leader. “You’ve never heard of Whiffer and the Sniffle-Snufflers?”
“It is my great pleasure to inform you that I have not.”
The nose-ghork who called himself Whiffer seemed shocked. “You’re kidding! We’re famous.”
“Your entirely self-proclaimed renown,” boomed Reggie, “is no concern of mine. Your destination, however, is of the utmost consequence!” To demonstrate his seriousness, he puffed out his chest and raised his ceremonial saber even higher. “I cannot let you pass.”
Whiffer, seeing he outnumbered Reggie seven-to-one, was unfazed by this warning. His beady eyes scanned up and down the bombastadon’s bulky body. “Like I’m gonna take orders from a blubbery butterball dressed up like a shopping mall security guard.”
Reggie’s jowls trembled with indignation. “Security guard?! Outrageous! This is the very uniform I wore while bringing peace to the vast wilds of—”
Whiffer snapped his fingers. “Would somebody please pop this air bag?”
The six other ghorks leapt at Reggie. Three of them latched onto his arm, rattling his ceremonial saber until it clanged to the cold stone floor.
“Scoundrels! You might’ve cracked its immaculate golden finish!”
“We’ll crack a lot more than that,” snorted one of the ghorks.
All seven of them strained to push Reggie against the wall. He indeed cracked the back of his head against it—though the sound was less of a crack and more of a splodge. That was because Reggie’s skull was covered with just as much blubber as the rest of him. Instead of being knocked unconscious, he was merely dazed. He slumped to the floor, where the ghorks piled on top of him, pinning him down. At last, Whiffer leapt right on top of Reggie’s belly.
The lead ghork leaned forward and flared his bottomless nostrils. Two strings of snot dangled above Reggie’s face, ready to drop at the merest sniffle.
“Get away from me, you putrid, mucilaginous scamp!” Reggie tried to wrestle free, but it was no use. “You can not, and will not, pass!”
Whiffer sloorped the twin boogers back up his nose. He peered down the tunnel where Reggie was looking. It was the one that led to DENKi-3000 Headquarters. “Down there? Who ever said we wanted to go down there?”
Reggie was confused. “You mean you’re not here to besiege the Creature Department, to imprison my friends, and steal our wondrous inventions?”
Whiffer snorted. “Besieging is so last week.” He stooped even closer to Reggie’s face. “This time we’ve got a much better plan.”
“And what might that be?”
Whiffer chuckled. “Like I’m gonna tell you.”
Oh, but you must, thought Reggie. It is imperative! As the Creature Department’s honorary part-time security guard, it was his solemn duty to extract information. But in his current position, he couldn’t do it with force. No, this called for . . . what was the word? (Reggie had never paid much attention to the subtler forms of combat, back at the Antarctic military academy. He was a bombastadon, after all. They were hardly known for subtlety.) What was it again? Diverse psychology? No, that wasn’t it. Perverse psychology? Definitely not! Oh, yes, now he remembered. . . .
“Ooooooh!” he said to Whiffer, rolling his squinty bombastadon eyes. “Now I get it. You don’t have any plan at all. Well! I should have known. Ghorks never do!”
Whiffer stomped one foot into Reggie’s gut.
“Yes, we do! Our plans are the best! Right, guys?”
The other ghorks produced nasally murmurs of agreement.
Reggie shook his head in feigned disappointment. “Is that so? And when was the last time a ghork plan worked? Tell me that.”
Whiffer looked to his friends. “Remember that time we planned a surprise retirement party for old Nostrildamus?”
The other ghorks laughed.
“That was some bash!” said one of them.
“He never saw it coming!” cried another.
Reggie smiled. “A surprise retirement party? That’s the finest thing you’ve ever planned? Pitiful! I believe you’ve just proved my point—you ghorks can’t plan anything!”
Whiffer gritted his teeth. He leaned close to Reggie’s face. “Not this time,” he whispered. “See, this time we’re not going to boring old Bickleburgh.” He pointed into the darkness of the other tunnel. “We’re going down there, to Simmersville. It’s all been planned. That’s where we’re gonna have the Great Hexposé!”
Reggie was pleased at having loosened Whiffer’s tongue, but he had no idea what the ghork was talking about. “I beg your pardon,” he said. “The great what?”
Whiffer’s eyes clouded with a misty brand of madness. “The Great Hexposé!”
Reggie raised his head off the floor. “Look here! I would appreciate a straight answer, you loony! You can’t simply repeat the name of the mysterious event in a dreamy voice and expect me to understand! In any case, I’m quite certain you’re mispronouncing the word. I believe what you mean to say is exposé.”
“No, I mean Hexposé.” Whiffer straightened himself, still atop the plump summit of Reggie’s belly, and tapped his temple. “We ghorks, we’re smarter than we look, see?”
“Smart?” said Reggie. “You, sir, look about as intellectually adept as a warm stream of your own snot-rocketry!”
Whiffer stomped his other foot.
“Hex has two meanings,” said Whiffer, puffing out his narrow chest. “First, it means the number six, get it? And second . . .” He held up two fingers. “It means a curse. It’s the curse of an ancient Ghorkolian prophecy. The prophecy of the Sixth Ghork!”
Reggie now found himself in what was (for him) an unusual situation. He didn’t know what to say. How could there possibly be a Sixth Ghork? In all of creaturedom, there were only five kinds of the despicable villains. Nose-ghorks, like these ones pinning him to the floor, along with the mouth-ghorks, eye-ghorks, ear-ghorks, and hand-ghorks. One, two, three, four, five . . . but a sixth? Preposterous!
“The prophecy says that when we find him, we’ll be unstoppable!” Whiffer leaned even closer to Reggie’s face. “And guess what, blubber-butt? Grinner and the others have found him! They’re going to unveil him at the Great Hexposé and that’s only the beginning.”
The beginning of what? thought Reggie.
“Of course,” said Whiffer, “now that we’ve told you, we have to make sure you don’t tell anyone else.” The ghork sniffled, and two pillars of snot slithered toward Reggie’s face like a pair of glistening green pythons. Reggie yanked on his arms and legs, but the ghorks pinning him down wouldn’t budge. For a regimental bombastadon, however, arms and legs played only a small role in hand-to-hand combat. In fact, at that very moment, Whiffer was crouched on top of Reggie’s greatest weapon.
It had been a long time since Reggie had performed a Bombastadon Belly Bounce Maneuver. It was potentially quite a dangerous (not to mention mathematically challenging) defensive technique, and ought to be employed only in the most desperate of situations. This was surely one of them, wasn’t it?
He took a deep breath, casting his eyes over the cave’s geography. Without a blackboard and an abacus, he couldn’t be certain the math was correct, but he would have to chance it.
“What’s the matter?” Whiffer sneered. “You scared? That why your face is all red? Don’t worry. It’ll all be over in—”
Reggie exhaled and flexed his monumental belly muscles. Instantly, Whiffer bounded off Reggie’s paunch and somersaulted up to the ceiling of the cave. When he came back down, Reggie angled his belly to bounce him straight into two of his compatriots. The trio flew off in three different directions, ricocheted off the walls, and returned to hit the remaining four. Soon, all seven ghorks were flailing across the room, bounding off Reggie’s belly as if it were a fiendish trampoline.
At last, Reggie altered the angle and sent all seven ghorks thumping into the wall, where they slumped down into a bruised and dizzy heap. Then Colonel-Admiral Reginald T. Pusslegut climbed to his feet and retrieved his ceremonial saber from where it had (unceremoniously) fallen. He hoisted up Whiffer by the scruff of his neck and pointed his saber into the ghork’s face. “I want you to tell me everything you know about this so-called Sixth Ghork.”
“I’m not . . . telling you . . . squat,” Whiffer panted. “And guess what, you’re not the only one with fancy moves. Watch this!”
All seven ghorks discharged the full contents of their prolific sinuses at Reggie. In an instant, his beautiful uniform was ruined, and he was soaked to his blubbery skin with a gooey, gluey (and disgustingly warm) muck. Taking advantage of Reggie’s sliminess, Whiffer slipped free of the bombastadon’s grip. He and the rest of his gang scampered into the shadows of the tunnel toward Simmersville.
Reggie’s first thought was to chase them, but with only a single step, he slipped head over heels into a slimy puddle of his own drippings.
“Mucilaginous scamps,” he muttered.
In which Jean-Remy surprises everyone, and Gügor surprises Jean-Remy
At the top of Jean-Remy’s telegram, a jungle of curlicues and flourishes surrounded these words:
Wail Mail Inc.
~ When you need your message to get through
LOUD and CLEAR! ~
(Delivering fine musical Yell-A-Grams to all of creaturedom, since 1602)
“Look,” said Leslie, pointing to the page. “Something happened to the letter!”
A third of the way down the page, a jagged gash cut across the words. The letter appeared to be torn almost completely in two.