Smells Like Pirates
By Suzanne Selfors
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Copyright © 2012 Suzanne Selfors
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780316205962
Sweet and Sour Sixteen
It was a nearly perfect morning on the Pudding Goat Farm.
The sun rose with the rooster’s crowing, then gently shone through Homer Pudding’s bedroom window, tickling Homer’s cheeks with its long, warm fingers. A songbird settled on the windowsill, the notes of its sweet melody dancing through the air. The scents of huckleberry pancakes and sizzling bacon wafted up the stairs, filling the bedroom with deliciousness. And a loving voice called—
“Get out of bed, you big dork!”
Okay, so it wasn’t a loving voice. It was a moody, bossy voice, and it belonged to Homer’s sister, Gwendolyn Maybel Pudding.
If she knew my secrets, Homer thought, she wouldn’t call me a dork. He yawned and rubbed crust from his eyes, then stared up at his sister’s scowling face. “What time is it?”
“Do I look like your personal alarm clock?” she snarled. “Mom told me to tell you to get out of bed. So get out of bed.” She stomped out the door, her white lab coat billowing behind her.
Gwendolyn’s foul personality was, according to Mrs. Pudding, a direct result of her age. Fifteen years, three hundred and fifty-nine days, to be exact, which made her a teenager. “Just because you’ve got pimples is no reason to be so rude,” Homer mumbled as the lab coat disappeared around the corner.
“Urrrr,” agreed the dog lying beside him.
Although he looked like an ordinary basset hound, the dog lying next to Homer was not one bit ordinary. An ordinary basset hound has a highly tuned sense of smell. Because the world tends to be a smelly place, an ordinary basset hound spends a great deal of time being led around by its nose. Homer’s dog, however, had been born with a nose that didn’t work quite right. Dog’s nose didn’t smell rotting garbage or frisky rabbits or grandma’s pot roast. Dog’s nose smelled only one thing—treasure. And that was Homer’s most treasured secret.
Dog rolled onto his extra-long back and stuck his extra-short legs straight up in the air, presenting his white belly for a morning scratch. Homer obliged. Dog had arrived at the Pudding farm earlier that year, and since then, he’d spent almost every night sleeping next to Homer. Some of those nights had been filled with danger and excitement as Homer pursued his dream of becoming a famous treasure hunter. The month of August, however, had proven to be a bore—day after day of the same blue-sky weather, day after day of the same old farm chores, and day after day of wondering when adventure would come knocking.
“Urrrr?” Dog complained when Homer stopped scratching.
“We’d better get downstairs,” Homer said, “or Gwendolyn might eat our pancakes.”
While many kids got to sleep in during the summer months, dreaming of bike riding, swimming, and kite flying, the Pudding kids always got up early. This was the reality of life on a goat farm.
After dressing in his work clothes, a pair of jeans and a plaid shirt, Homer did what he did most mornings—he checked under his bed. Lying on his belly, he pushed aside a pair of dirty socks, then pried free a loose floorboard. He peered into the hole and counted. His secret items were all in attendance: his L.O.S.T. membership certificate, his professional treasure-hunting clothes, and a book called Rare Reptiles I Caught and Stuffed, which contained the most famous pirate treasure map in the world. Why was it the most famous pirate treasure map in the world? Because it had been drawn by Rumpold Smeller, a pirate who spent most of his life traveling the world, amassing a treasure said to be greater than anyone could imagine. And Homer secretly owned this map.
With a smile, he returned the floorboard to its place. All was well beneath his bed.
Homer led Dog down the hallway, down the stairs, and into the kitchen. The swirling scents of breakfast pulled Homer like a leash. The Pudding kitchen was a charming place. Checkered curtains framed a window that overlooked a vegetable garden. Farm-animal magnets covered the refrigerator, and a blue pitcher of field flowers sat on the counter.
Mrs. Pudding bustled around the stove, her brown curls bouncing. Mr. Pudding sat at the end of the kitchen table reading the Sunday City Paper, his overall straps hanging at his waist. Gwendolyn sat slumped in her chair, slurping her orange juice. Across from her on a bench sat Squeak, Homer’s little brother. He stopped pushing his toy truck around the table and smiled. “Hi, Homer.”
Dog waddled to his dish, his tail wagging. Because Dog couldn’t smell anything but treasure, he wasn’t a picky eater. In fact, he’d been known to eat shoes, wood, worms, and toenail clippings. Mrs. Pudding often filled his bowl with leftovers, but sometimes Squeak tried to sneak in weird things—which is why Homer always stopped at the dog bowl first. “Squeak,” he scolded as he picked out a snail, “please don’t feed gastropods to Dog.”
As Dog inhaled his meal, Homer sat in his usual chair at the table’s end, opposite Mr. Pudding. He sighed and stared at his empty plate. He sighed and stared out the window. He tapped his fingers on the tablecloth. Another long, hot, boring, totally routine August day.
To an outsider, this scene in the Pudding kitchen would appear normal—an ordinary family sitting down to an ordinary breakfast. But this was no ordinary family. Although Homer looked like a regular kind of kid, at twelve years of age, he was the youngest member of the Society of Legends, Objects, Secrets, and Treasures—a secret organization dedicated to treasure hunting. Although Homer’s family knew Homer wanted, more than anything in the world, to be a treasure hunter, they did not know that he actually was a treasure hunter, for Homer had sworn an oath of secrecy. It made him kind of sad that he couldn’t tell his family about how he and Dog had jumped out of an airplane, or how they’d found a cave of harmonic crystals, or how they’d defeated the evil Madame la Directeur. But Homer knew that an oath of secrecy was nothing to mess around with.
“I’ve been thinking about a theme,” Mrs. Pudding said as she slid pancakes and bacon onto her family’s plates.
“A what?” Mr. Pudding said, turning a page of his newspaper.
“A theme for Gwendolyn’s sweet-sixteen party.”
Sweet sixteen? Homer thought as he poured syrup onto his pancakes. More like sour sixteen.
“I was thinking a butterfly theme, or a pony theme.” Mrs. Pudding smiled lovingly, the gold flecks in her brown eyes sparkling. She sat next to Gwendolyn. “How about a teddy bear theme?”
“Mom,” Gwendolyn groaned, sinking lower in her chair. “I’m not a baby. Those themes are creepy.”
“I like teddy bears,” Squeak said, syrup dripping down his chin. Dog moseyed across the room and stood right under Squeak’s feet. Since nearly half of Squeak’s food ended up on the floor, this was a rewarding place to stand.
Mrs. Pudding stirred her coffee. “If you don’t like my suggestions, then what theme would you like, Gwendolyn dear?”
“Roadkill,” Gwendolyn replied.
Mrs. Pudding gasped. Squeak giggled. Mr. Pudding closed the newspaper and scowled. But Homer didn’t flinch. It made perfect sense that his sister suggested a roadkill theme. She wanted, with all her heart, to become a Royal Taxidermist for the Museum of Natural History. She had her own laboratory out in the shed, where she practiced the art of stuffing dead animals.
“And it’s got to be fresh roadkill,” Gwendolyn said. “No maggots.”
“Now, sweetie,” Mrs. Pudding said, “you can’t expect me to decorate with roadkill.”
“Why not? It’s my birthday.”
“Forget it,” Mr. Pudding said, slapping his hand on the table. “No daughter of mine is going to have a roadkill party. You’ll choose one of those nice themes your mother suggested.”
Gwendolyn darted to her feet and uttered the same statement she’d uttered yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. “You are totally! Ruining! My life!”
“No one is ruining your life,” Mrs. Pudding said. “We want you to have a special sweet-sixteen party. In fact, your father and I bought you a very nice present. And Homer went to town last week to shop for you, didn’t you, Homer?”
This time, Homer flinched. He’d gone to town to buy Gwendolyn’s birthday present—that much was true. But he’d taken his shovel and metal detector with him and, well, because the detector kept beeping and because Homer kept digging, he forgot all about Gwendolyn. The search for a birthday present wasn’t as interesting as the search for treasure, even though that day’s treasure had turned out to be nothing but a bunch of rusty tin cans.
“Uh, yeah, I got a present,” Homer lied. He’d go shopping that afternoon, as soon as he’d finished his chores.
Gwendolyn peered at Homer through her long brown bangs. “You got me a present?”
“Yep.” He stuffed a whole pancake into his mouth, just in case she asked any more questions.
Gwendolyn smiled wickedly. “If you bought my present, then it’s hidden somewhere in the house, isn’t it? I bet I can find it.”
“Gwendolyn Maybel Pudding,” Mrs. Pudding said. “You’ll have to wait for your party to open your presents. Now sit down and eat your breakfast.”
Huckleberries burst in Homer’s mouth as he chewed. His mind raced. What kind of present do you get a moody sister who spends her summer days stuffing dead squirrels and gophers? A gift certificate to Ice Cream World didn’t seem quite right.
Just then, barking arose in the yard. Max, Gus, and Lulu, the farm dogs, were upset about something. Dog, who’d been licking syrup from Squeak’s fingers, scurried to the kitchen door and joined in the barking. “What’s all the ruckus?” Mr. Pudding asked.
A knock sounded on the kitchen door. Mr. Pudding pulled his overall straps over his shoulders and went to answer it. “Well, hello there,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
The rest of the Pudding family turned and looked toward the open doorway, but Mr. Pudding was blocking their view. It wouldn’t be the mail lady, Homer thought, not on a Sunday. Maybe it’s one of the neighbors.
“Good morning,” a voice said. “I say, is Homer up and about? I have rather important news.”
Homer’s heart skipped a beat. He knew that voice.
A Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity
A man stepped into the kitchen. He tucked his long black hair behind his ears and looked around. His gaze landed on Homer.
Homer scrambled out of his chair. “Hi, Ajitabh.”
Ajitabh (pronounced AAAH-jih-tahb) did not return Homer’s smile. He narrowed his dark eyes and ran his hand over his thin mustache and pointy beard. A doctor of inventology, Ajitabh was a fellow member of L.O.S.T. He’d been a trusted friend of Homer’s treasure-hunting uncle, who’d died earlier that year, and he was now Homer’s trusted mentor. The rest of the Pudding family knew Ajitabh from the Milkydale County Fair, where Dog had led a wild chase that resulted in the destruction of the beloved gunnysack slide. Ajitabh, inventor extraordinaire, built a new and improved slide, to everyone’s approval.
“Hello, Homer.” His tone was serious. He leaned over to pet Dog. “Hello, Dog.” Dog thwapped his tail against Ajitabh’s leg.
Mrs. Pudding hurried over to the cupboard and grabbed a plate. “You’ll join us for breakfast?” She set it on the table, but Ajitabh shook his head.
“That would be delightful, but time is of the essence,” he said.
“What’s your important news?” Mr. Pudding asked.
“Quite right.” Ajitabh rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt, then reached into the back pocket of his khaki pants and handed an envelope to Homer. “It’s an invitation.”
Homer half expected the envelope to be secured with a L.O.S.T. seal, but that wasn’t the case. The envelope was as plain as could be—no seal, no return address, nothing. He opened it and pulled out a piece of paper.
“What is it?” Mrs. Pudding asked.
Homer read the letter aloud.
To: Homer W. Pudding
Pudding Goat Farm
Grinning Goat Road
From: Lewis Dimknob, Royal Cartographer
Map of the Month Club Headquarters
Boulevard of Destinations
Congratulations, Mr. Pudding.
Your name has been drawn at random from our list of subscribers. I am pleased to inform you that you have been awarded a VIP tour of our headquarters. This tour is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will not be offered again.
We eagerly await your arrival on Monday, August 20, at noon precisely.
Lewis Dimknob, Royal Cartographer
“Wow,” Homer said. “This is really cool. I love the Map of the Month Club.”
“VIP?” Gwendolyn grumbled. “How come Homer keeps getting these VIP invitations, huh? What’s up with that?”
This was, in fact, Homer’s second VIP invitation. VIP stands for “very important person.” The first invitation had come from the Museum of Natural History and had led Homer to the discovery of Madame la Directeur’s lair and a near-death escape from a man-eating tortoise. This invitation sounded a bit safer. “Can I go?” Homer asked. “I’d really like to go.”
“August twentieth is tomorrow,” Mrs. Pudding said worriedly. “That’s not much notice.”
“Sincerest apologies,” Ajitabh said in his lilting accent. “As a board member of the Map Club, I was asked to deliver the invitation last week but was waylaid by circumstances beyond my control.” He shot a serious glance at Homer. “We need to leave immediately, old chap.”
Homer looked yearningly at his father. Was the boredom of August about to end?
“How long will he be gone?” Mr. Pudding asked.
“A bit of uncertainty there,” Ajitabh said. “The Map of the Month Club’s library alone covers three floors. I have reserved a room for us at a very nice City hotel. I’ll act as Homer’s guardian. You needn’t worry about a thing.”
“It sounds like a wonderful opportunity,” Mrs. Pudding said to Ajitabh. “Homer loves maps. He’s always loved maps. But he’ll need to be back for his sister’s sweet-sixteen party. It’s next Saturday.”
“Righteo. That shouldn’t be a problem.”
“I can go?” Homer beamed, the corners of his smile nearly reaching his ears. But Ajitabh didn’t smile. His eyebrows knotted as if twisted by troubling thoughts. Why wasn’t he happy? Homer stepped closer to Ajitabh. And why didn’t he smell like cloud cover? Homer glanced out the kitchen window. Instead of a cloudcopter, Ajitabh’s usual method of transportation, a black limousine waited in the driveway.
“You can go,” Mr. Pudding said. “But Gwendolyn will have to cover your chores.”
“No way!” Gwendolyn blurted, her cheeks turning red. “Homer gets to go on another vacation and I’m stuck here doing his chores? I’m too busy to do Homer’s chores.”
“I’ll do Homer’s chores,” Squeak offered.
“I’ll make it up to you when I get back,” Homer told his sister. “I’ll do your chores for a whole extra week.”
Gwendolyn chewed on her lower lip, her eyes narrowed in thought. “You really want to go?”
“Then tell me where you hid my present.”
“Gwendolyn Maybel Pudding,” Mrs. Pudding said. “You will wait until your birthday to open your presents, and that is final.”
“Fine!” Gwendolyn pointed at Homer. “But he’s doing my chores for an entire month.”
“Agreed,” Homer said. He held back a sigh of relief. He’d expected to do his sister’s chores for an entire year.
“I’ll help you pack,” Mrs. Pudding said.
If Homer had packed on his own, he would have reached into one of his drawers, grabbed some random clothes, then stuffed them into a backpack as fast as he could. But Mrs. Pudding didn’t want her son going anywhere without clean underwear and socks. “Wait,” she said as he grabbed the backpack. “You almost forgot your toothbrush.” She slid it into one of the pockets. “You’ll get cavities if you don’t brush.”
Homer didn’t care if moss grew on his teeth. He just wanted to jump into that limo with Ajitabh and get off the farm.
“I had dreams of becoming a cartographer,” Mr. Pudding was telling Ajitabh when Homer hurried back into the kitchen. “Homer gets his love of maps from me.”
“Let’s go,” Homer said, grabbing Dog’s blue leash.
After hugging everyone good-bye, except for Gwendolyn, who’d disappeared, Homer flew down the front porch steps. With a grunt and a heave, he pushed Dog into the limousine. Then he climbed in and settled on the soft leather seat. Ajitabh climbed in next to him. “Drive on,” Ajitabh said. The driver’s outline was blurry through the dark glass panel that separated the front and back seats. The engine started.
“Did you bring your coin?” Ajitabh asked.
Homer reached under his shirt, where a coin hung from a chain. It was his official membership coin with the letters L.O.S.T. engraved on one side and a treasure chest engraved on the other side. “Yeah, I’ve got it.”
The goats watched as the limousine headed down the Pudding driveway and onto Grinning Goat Road. Homer looked back at the house. Mrs. Pudding and Squeak waved from the front porch. Mr. Pudding headed toward the barn. But why was Gwendolyn standing in Homer’s bedroom, staring out the window? She didn’t wave or smile. Was it because he got to go on a little vacation and she didn’t? He’d be sure to bring her back a nice birthday present.
“Hey, Ajitabh,” Homer said as Dog settled at his feet. “Why do I need my membership coin if we’re going to the Map of the Month Club?”
“We aren’t going to the Map of the Month Club, old chap. The invitation is fake. I lied to your parents.”
“You lied?” An eerie tickle crept up Homer’s spine. “Then where are we going?”
Ajitabh frowned. “Homer, I’m afraid I’m the bearer of bad news.”
The prisoner sat behind a security window made of extra-thick glass. She wore no makeup or jewelry, and her short black hair was slicked back behind her ears. The blue stripes of her prison pajamas matched her serious eyes. When she spoke, her voice slithered through a speaker.
“The map is hidden in a book called Rare Reptiles I Caught and Stuffed,” she said.
The visitor rustled nervously in the chair on the other side of the window. The room’s cold air had awakened goose pimples on the visitor’s arms. “The map?”
“Yes, the map,” the prisoner said. “The only map anyone cares about. Rumpold Smeller’s map, of course. Are you stupid or something?”
“You’re calling me stupid?” The visitor frowned. “I’m not the one in jail.”
A frustrated growl vibrated through the speaker as the prisoner’s face turned red. “I wouldn’t be in here if that overfed Pudding kid and his mangy dog hadn’t interfered with my plans.”
“You wouldn’t be in here, Madame, if you hadn’t stolen all the gemstones from the Museum of Natural History.”
“Well, you do have a point.” The prisoner, whose full name was Madame la Directeur, patted a rebellious lock of hair back into place.
“Some people think you should be convicted of murder,” the visitor said. “Some people think you turned your turtle into a man-eating monster on purpose.”
“Tortoise,” Madame corrected. “Edith is a tortoise, not a turtle.” Her tone turned sad, as if she missed the carnivorous beast.
“Whatever. The fact is, that monster ate Homer’s uncle, and some people think you planned it.”
“Mean-spirited people can say what they like. There’s no proof.”
The visitor’s eyes narrowed. “Let’s stop wasting time. Why did you call me here?”
Madame looked over her shoulder. A guard sat, reading a magazine, in a chair in the far corner of the room. Two other prisoners had finished their conversations and were heading back to their cells. Madame leaned closer to the microphone, lowering her voice to a whisper. “I thought the book was gone. But I’ve had a lot of time in solitary confinement to think about it. Edith did not digest the book.” The visitor leaned closer to the speaker, trying to catch every secret word. “Edith swallowed the book that contains Rumpold’s map. I saw her swallow it, and I thought the map was gone forever. But I’d forgotten that Edith can’t digest paper. She can digest radioactive nuclear waste and people, but paper always disagrees with her. It comes back up. So that means she ate the book, but she didn’t digest it.”
“Two minutes left,” the guard announced.
“So where is it?” the visitor asked. “Hurry. There’s not much time.”
Madame scowled. “The fat kid has it.”
“How do you know he has it?”
“Intuition. I can feel it in my bones.” She clenched her trembling fingers into fists. “He’s a Pudding. The map always finds its way back to a Pudding.”
“Why are you telling me this?” the visitor asked. “What good does it do you? You’re stuck in here. Even if you are correct and Homer has the map, you can’t get it. You can’t search for treasure from a jail cell.”
“I’m telling you this because I don’t want that meddling kid to find Rumpold’s treasure.”
“You’d rather I found it?”
Madame la Directeur pressed her palms against the window. She breathed rapidly, anger seeping from every inch of her being. “Of course I don’t want you to find it,” she snarled. “I’m the one who deserves that treasure. But those Puddings are the bane of my existence. I’ll do whatever it takes to keep another Pudding from outmaneuvering me, even if it means hiring you.”
The guard cleared his throat. “Visiting hours are over.”
Madame removed her hands from the glass and stood. She took a long breath, then smoothed out her crumpled prison pajamas. Before turning to leave, she said one last thing to the visitor. “Do not double-cross me again.”
The visitor shivered, for the look on Madame’s face was as cold as the air-conditioned room.
Bloomin’ Bad News
What kind of bad news?” Homer asked as the limousine turned down Peashoot Lane and crossed the bridge over Milky Creek.
“Bloomin’ bad news,” Ajitabh said.
Homer gripped his membership coin. “Are they going to kick me out of L.O.S.T.?” he asked. “Did they decide I’m too young?”
What else could it be? Homer remembered the morning when he’d learned his uncle Drake had died. His chest tightened at the possibility that someone else he loved was gone. “Has someone died?” Ajitabh nodded. “Not Zelda,” Homer whispered. He reached down until he felt Dog’s warm back. “Please not Zelda.”
“Zelda is fine.” Ajitabh folded his hands on his lap and stared out the window as the limo passed through the little village of Milkydale. A group of kids sat on the mercantile porch, eating ice cream bars. Carpenters pounded nails into the framework of the new Milkydale library. Firefighters washed one of the Milkydale Volunteer Fire Brigade trucks. “Lord Mockingbird has died.”
“Oh.” Homer stopped petting Dog and sank into the depths of the leather seat. It was sad news, definitely, but not totally unexpected. The Honorable Lord Mockingbird XVIII, the president of L.O.S.T., must have been a hundred years old, at least. “He told me he was very sick.”
“Quite right. There’s no reason to suspect foul play. It was his time.”
Homer looked around the limo. The silhouette of a small bird was painted on each window. The letters L. M. XVIII were painted in gold on the ceiling. “Is this his car?” Homer asked.
“Yes.” Ajitabh stroked one side of his mustache. “The thing is, His Lordship’s death leaves us in a bit of a pickle.”
“What do you mean?”
“Lord Mockingbird’s been a steady presence in our organization. He’s upheld the traditions of L.O.S.T. But his death forces us to elect a new president. If the wrong person is elected, I daresay the very fabric of L.O.S.T. could be torn.”
Homer cringed. He knew exactly what Ajitabh meant. The purpose of L.O.S.T. was to share the treasures of the world with the public, rather than using them for private gain. But there were some in the group who, even though they’d taken an oath to follow this rule, yearned to change it so they could become rich.
“There are dark personalities in our organization,” Ajitabh said. “Lord Mockingbird kept them in their places, but I worry they will see this as an opportunity to rise and try to sway the rest. Greed is a condition of being human—we all can suffer from it.”
Homer swallowed. Sometimes he dreamed of bringing jewels home to his mother. Was that greed?
“L.O.S.T., as we know it, could cease to exist,” Ajitabh said.
“Cease to exist?” Homer nearly teared up. Just when he’d become a member? He hadn’t even had the chance to go on a L.O.S.T.-sponsored treasure quest. How could he find Rumpold’s treasure on his own? He needed L.O.S.T.—museums and universities everywhere needed L.O.S.T.
But then he smiled as a brilliant idea popped into his head. He scooted closer to Ajitabh. “You should be the next president. And then everything will stay the same. You’d be a great president. Everyone would vote for you.”
For the first time since their morning reunion, Ajitabh smiled. “By Jove, that’s kind of you, Homer, but I’ve no desire to get caught up in the paperwork and all that administrative rubbish. I’m not an office sort of fellow. Besides, I’m busy inventing a robotic gold detector.”
“Then who will it be?” Homer asked.
“There’s no bloomin’ way to tell. The funeral is tonight. Most of the membership will attend. There will be much to discuss.”
“Is that where we’re going? To His Lordship’s funeral?”
Ajitabh nodded. Then he placed his hand on Homer’s shoulder and squeezed. “I know you want L.O.S.T. to assist you in your quest for Rumpold’s treasure, but that will not happen if the wrong person is elected.”
A knot formed in Homer’s stomach. He’d promised his uncle that he’d continue the search for Rumpold’s treasure. He owned the map. It was his inheritance—his destiny—to find that treasure. No one would take that away from him. “Then we’ll have to make sure the right person is elected,” he said.
Ajitabh stretched out his legs and closed his eyes. “It’s a long trek to The City, Homer. I suggest you take a nap. And your hound, too. We’ve got a devil of a night ahead of us.”
Dog was already snoring.
THE MOCKINGBIRD HOTEL
The Cleaning Lady’s Warning
The limousine drove down a wide boulevard, skyscrapers looming on either side. As twilight descended, lampposts flickered, then glowed yellow.
They’d arrived in The City, a place as different from Milkydale as cigar ashes are from goat milk. There were no rolling hills dappled with daisies and clover. The only dappling came from the dark shadows that lurked between buildings. There were no quaint farmhouses. People lived in tall apartment buildings. There were no brooks that bubbled beneath covered bridges. If any bubbling was heard, it came from the sewer grates that sat in the middle of the busy intersections. To Homer, The City was a concrete labyrinth, which is a fancy word for maze. Each street led to another, each crowded with cars, taxis, and buses. Pedestrians, with important places to go, moved in a constant stream along the sidewalks. Even with the day near its end, the hustle and bustle continued.
Dog stood on Homer’s lap, his nose pressed against the limousine window. Does he remember this place? Homer wondered. A few months back, they’d come to The City looking for answers. Did Dog remember meeting the evil Madame la Directeur? Did he remember the nearly deadly ride in the Snootys’ elevator or how he almost got eaten by the same tortoise that had eaten Homer’s uncle?
But as Dog looked out the window, he didn’t tremble or whine. Rather, he wagged his tail. Maybe he was remembering the good stuff that had happened in The City. A bowl of tomato soup served by a girl with pink hair. A tour of The City Public Library. And best of all, the moment when Edith the tortoise upchucked the book that contained Rumpold Smeller’s map.
The limousine pulled up to the front of a stone building. Four flags, each with a white background and the black silhouette of a bird, hung above the building’s entry. A bellhop dressed in a red uniform with a red pillbox hat and white gloves opened the limo door. A black band wound around his forearm. “Welcome to the Mockingbird Hotel,” he said as Ajitabh and Homer got out.
Homer set his backpack on the curb, then reached back in. After he tugged the leash a few times, Dog plopped onto the sidewalk. As Dog peered up at the building, his tail began to wag. “Lord Mockingbird owned this hotel?” Homer asked.
“It’s been in his family for generations,” Ajitabh said.
Lord Mockingbird had been one of Dog’s previous owners. Dog must have lived here, Homer realized.
As the limo drove away, the bellhop took Homer’s backpack and carried it through a revolving glass door and into the hotel.
“We’d best hurry,” Ajitabh said. With precise timing, he stepped into the revolving door and disappeared. Homer grabbed the end of Dog’s leash and started to follow.
“Urrrr.” Dog stiffened his back legs.
“Come on,” Homer urged, tugging on Dog’s leash.
Dog froze. He stared at Homer with sad, red-rimmed eyes, his ears seeming droopier than ever. This was his “I’m-not-budging-and-you-can’t-make-me” stance. Homer was well familiar with this posture. Begging never helped, but he tried anyway. “Come on, please. We need to go inside.”
Dog groaned and lay on his belly, transforming his sausagelike body into something like a bag of cement. So Homer tried a technique that had always worked for his mother. When the Pudding kids acted up in public—arguing in the movie theater about who got to hold the popcorn bucket or riding the cart down the grocery-store aisles—Mrs. Pudding would simply say, “You’re embarrassing me,” and the kids would feel bad and stop acting like primates.
So Homer crouched next to Dog and whispered, “You’re embarrassing me.”
Dog turned his face away.
“Basset hounds don’t like revolving doors,” the bellhop said as he stepped back outside. “I know that because a basset used to live here. He always had to be carried through the door.”
“Homer,” Ajitabh called, “get a move on, old chap. They’re waiting.”
“Why do you have to be so stubborn?” Homer slid his hands under Dog’s belly. Lifting a full-grown basset hound is best left to a muscle-builder or a giant. It’s a tricky maneuver because if you grab the back end, the front end droops. And if you grab the front end, the back end droops. With a groan and a grunt, Homer managed to get Dog’s rump about a foot off the ground. “You need to go on a diet,” he grumbled.
Taking a deep breath, he heaved Dog higher and stumbled toward the door. A few steps forward, a step back, then forward again. Dog’s ears swayed with Homer’s uneven steps. Homer missed the door’s first opening, then missed the second and third openings. He managed to dart into the fourth opening. Once inside, he hurried to match the door’s rotation but missed the exit into the hotel. Dog moaned as they went around again. And again. “What are you complaining about? You don’t have to carry me.” Just when his arms felt like they might fall off, Homer lunged out of the revolving door and into the hotel lobby.
After they landed in a heap on the floor, Dog wiggled from Homer’s arms and waddled over to a potted plant, where he raised his leg for a little piddle. Fortunately, the lobby was empty, so no one noticed. Homer got to his feet, wiped sweat from his brow, then looked around. A brass bell sat on the check-in counter. Comfy chairs were tucked into the lobby’s corners. A bank of elevators lined the wall. But where was Ajitabh?
Just as Dog raised his leg for a second piddle, a cleaning lady hurried around the corner. An assortment of stains covered her gray dress and white apron. Athletic socks reached to her knees. In one hand she carried a mop, in the other a bucket of sudsy water. She stopped next to the potted plant and glared at Dog.
“Sorry,” Homer said, stepping away from the little puddle.
The cleaning lady made a tsk-tsk sound. She adjusted the plastic shower cap that covered her gray hair, then stuck the mop into the bucket. She glared at Dog again. Dog scratched at a flea.
“I’m really sorry,” Homer said. “He usually doesn’t do that inside.”
After swirling the mop, she pulled it from the bucket and began to clean up Dog’s mess.
The scent of bleach filled the lobby. Homer wasn’t sure what to do. He’d apologized twice. And Ajitabh was waiting. So he took the end of Dog’s leash and began to walk away.
“Not so fast,” the cleaning lady said sternly.
“Do you want me to clean it up?” Homer asked. He glanced at her name tag. It was blank.
She stopped mopping and crooked her finger. “Come closer.”
Homer gulped. He didn’t like the way she’d narrowed her eyes. And that blueberry-sized mole on the end of her nose was gruesome. He took a hesitant step toward her. “I said I was sorry.”
Then she said something under her breath.
“What was that?” Homer asked, stepping closer. The cleaning lady’s face was level with his. Her gaze was fierce.
“Beware the lost and found,” she said quietly.
Homer frowned. What did that mean? “Uh, okay.” He tried not to stare at the mole. “Well, I need to be going.” Dog stuck his nose into the bucket, attempting to drink the sudsy water, but Homer pulled him away.
“Beware the lost and found,” the cleaning woman repeated, louder this time. Did she think that by saying it louder, it would suddenly make sense?
Homer shrugged. “Okay,” he said. “Good to know.”
With a grumble, the cleaning woman collected her mop and bucket and hurried from the lobby. As she disappeared around the corner, a ding sounded.
Dog barked, his tail wagging madly, as a boy with wiry black hair stepped out of one of the elevators.
A Graveyard of Mockingbirds
Hercules!” Homer called, a smile bursting forth.
Dog pulled the leash from Homer’s grip as he bounded toward the elevator. The boy, whose name was Hercules Simple, entered the lobby. He set three boxes on the floor, then knelt and scratched Dog’s rump. “Hi, Dog. How’ve you been?” Dog’s back legs did their little happy dance.
Homer was surprised to see his friend, even though they were both members of L.O.S.T. “I didn’t know if you’d be here,” Homer said. “Lofty Spires is a long way away.”
“I just got here this afternoon.” Hercules stood and stuck his hands in his pockets. He wore his usual attire—jeans and a long-sleeved rugby shirt. This one had red and white stripes. “Ajitabh said the membership would be electing a new president so they’d need me for the paperwork. Being L.O.S.T.’s records keeper means I have to be at all these important events. I hope this doesn’t take long. I’ve got to get home to study for the World’s Spelling Bee. It’s in one month.”
“I hope you win again.”
“Me, too.” Hercules scratched his wide nose, which was dotted with pimples. Then his expression turned serious. “I wish I didn’t have to be here. I hate funerals.”
“I’ve never been to one,” Homer said.
“Well, they’re always sad. And they’re always long.” Hercules’s gaze settled on the spot where the cleaning lady had been mopping. “Better not walk over there. You could slip and break your neck.”
Same old Hercules, always worried about everything. Despite the fact that a funeral was about to take place, a warm feeling filled Homer’s chest. Even though he and Hercules were different in many ways, they’d become the best of friends. The boys had known each other for only a few months, but they had faced near death in a coliseum, had jumped out of an airplane, and had almost been killed by a bear. Those are the kinds of experiences that bond people. Plus, Hercules had saved Dog’s life. And that was a huge plus.
The truth was, Homer had no real friends back in Milkydale. All his classmates thought he was a weirdo. But so what if he used to wear a compass to school? So what if he preferred digging holes to playing dodgeball? So what if he knew the names of every great treasure hunter but didn’t know who had won the World Series or who had the best batting average? He had a treasure-sniffing dog!
“What’s in the boxes?” Homer asked.
“Oh, right.” Hercules handed one to Homer. It had his name written on it. “Ajitabh said we’re supposed to change into these new clothes. There’s one for Dog, too.”
They headed to the gentlemen’s lavatory—a huge room of polished marble and gleaming mirrors. The boys set the boxes next to a row of sinks with mockingbird faucets. Homer opened his. Inside, a note card lay on perfectly folded tissue paper.
Traditional Mourning Attire Designed and Fabricated by Victor Tuffletop, Official Tailor of L.O.S.T. For Mr. Homer W. Pudding
The two large boxes contained identical clothing—a pair of black pants, a white button-down shirt, a black vest, a black suit coat with long coattails, a black tie, a pair of white gloves, and a black top hat. Hercules showed Homer how to tie the tie. “Never make the knot too tight or you could suffocate.” Then they pulled on the gloves and set the top hats on their heads.
“This wool is going to make me hot and itchy,” Hercules said, running his hand over the suit coat. “I’m sure to get a rash.”
Homer inspected his reflection. “We look like we’re in a movie or something.” He glanced at his sneakers. They didn’t match the fancy outfit, but since no shoes were included, they’d have to do. Continues...
Excerpted from Smells Like Pirates by Suzanne Selfors Copyright © 2012 by Suzanne Selfors. Excerpted by permission.
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