The Coral Coffin

The Coral Coffin

by Michael Dahl


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Swept overboard during a thunderstorm in the South Seas, thirteen-year-old Finn lands on a tropical island, with palm trees, nesting turtles, beautiful sunsets, and...a dead body. Finn and his famous mystery-writer Uncle Stoppard traveled to the Great Barrier Reef in search of Finn's long-missing archaeologist parents. Instead they are both picked up by a ship full of fierce modern-day pirates and their fearless female leader, Blue Jade.

No sooner are Finn and his uncle onboard when mayhem breaks loose: someone is secretly poisoning the crew members, one by one. Furious, Blue Jade gives Finn and Uncle Stop twenty-four hours to find the killer and prove their own innocence. Otherwise they will face her deadly pets Mittens and Fluffy, two man-killing blue-ringed octopuses....

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416986652
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Series: Finnegan Zwake Series , #5
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.50(d)
Age Range: 12 Years

About the Author

Michael Dahl, the author of more than a dozen non-fiction books, has also published poetry and plays. The Viking Claw is Dahl's fourth Finnegan Zwake mystery. The earlier titles in the series are The Horizontal Man, The Worm Tunnel, and The Ruby Raven. Dahl is also the author of Scooter Spies, a series of mysteries for younger readers, whose titles include The Wheels That Vanished and The Ghost That Barked. A theater director, actor, and comedian in Minneapolis, Dahl has a wide variety of unusual creatures in his household: Venus's-flytraps, fiddler crabs, African dwarf frogs, an elementary school teacher, and an Australian red-heeler named Gus. He can be e-mailed at

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: What The Skeletons Told Us

"Weird lights. They shouldn't be there."

"I don't see any lights," I said.

Uncle Stoppard handed me his binoculars and silently pointed to a low green hump on the turquoise horizon. I knew that whales traveled these waters, the northern tail of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, but this whale didn't move. The high-power binocs morphed the blurry whale's back into a low island, wearing a fringy crown of dark green shadows. Coconut trees. A shore the color of vanilla ice cream belted the trees like a wide, golden welcome mat.

"Weird," repeated Captain Stryke.

"I still don't see any — "

"Off to starboard, Finn," said Captain Stryke.

"That's a little to the left," whispered Uncle Stoppard.

"Thanks for the tip, Uncle Stop," I whispered back.

"Don't mention it," he said. "I know how all this nautical, or shipping, terminology can sound confusing to the beginner."

Before climbing aboard Captain Stryke's ship, the Forty-Niner — a weather-beaten sailing vessel painted red and gold for the captain's favorite American football team — I had already memorized some basic boating lingo. During the long flight from Minneapolis to Australia, I had plenty of time to learn that port, starboard, bow, and stern meant the left, right, front, and back sides of a ship. That's why I now silently ignored Uncle Stop's advice and trained the binocs a half-inch to my right, the starboard side of the coral island. I also flexed my knees, trying to absorb the bobbing of the Forty-Niner as I stared through the powerful lenses. Yup. The captain was right. Lights — electric lights — danced weirdly among the trees. The bluish haze of dusk made them easy to spot once you knew where to look.

"That's not a beacon, either," remarked Captain Stryke. "Not supposed to be any beacons in this area."

According to Captain Stryke's charts, the island sitting a mile away from us was deserted, except for stray crabs or sea turtles or flying brown boobies. The blinking, moving lights, however, proved there were humans on Reversal Island. And I knew who they were.

The deck shifted under my sneakers, and I lost my sight line of the island.

Captain Stryke gripped the handrail and tossed a look at the sky. "That's what I was afraid of," he said. Clouds gathered like a thickening soup.

"It was clear a minute ago," said Uncle Stoppard.

"That's the equator for ya," Captain Stryke said. "An outburst can whip up in five minutes out of nowhere and drop a ton of water on you in half that time."

"An outburst?" I looked at Uncle Stoppard, who shrugged his bony shoulders at me.

"Better head belowdecks," said the captain.

"When can we land on the island?" I asked.

"Depends on Mother Nature," he answered. "It's getting dark, too. We need to find a safe channel through that coral lying between us and the island. I'd prefer if we waited till morning."

"But I've waited a hundred years for this," I said.

"A hundred years?"

"Okay, eight years. But we're so close."

Captain Stryke was quickly lowering the Forty-Niner's main sail. In nautical terminology that sail is called the, uh, mainsail. I was holding on to the handrail with my left hand and trying to get another bead on the island through the binocs in my right. No luck. The Forty-Niner swayed like a little kid's rocking horse. Growing waves slapped against the hull.

Uncle Stoppard's complexion matched the cucumber-green of his eyes. His short, spiky red hair looked spikier in the sudden gust of cool wind that blew across the deck. He stumbled next to me, grabbing the handrail.

"Get on down below," said Captain Stryke.

"I'll be in the john," Uncle Stoppard said to me.

"It's called the head," I said. More boat lingo.

"Thanks," he said weakly.

"Don't mention it."

He bent his tall frame as he climbed down into the cabin, but he still knocked his head with a loud thump against the top of the hatch. Just as he did each time he used those stairs. Which explained the glowing constellation of bruises on his forehead, right below his hairline.

I turned back to the horizon. Where had the island gone? The low hump of sand and trees had disappeared behind a gray wall of pouring rain. As the rainwall approached the Forty-Niner from the east, the setting sun on the left side of the ship, the port side, threw brilliant bloody light on me and Captain Stryke, decorating us in his favorite football team's colors. His faded baseball cap blazed like a ruby. My white T-shirt burned hot pink. My khaki cargo shorts gleamed like gold.

Captain Stryke pointed to the rainwall. "That's a super wet, that is!" he cried.

Captain Stryke wasn't a real sea captain. He was an ex-police captain from San Francisco back in the U.S. When Uncle Stoppard and I found his red-and-gold sailboat bobbing in the harbor back in Cape York, and when Captain Stryke found out that we were fellow Americans, he told us all about his old job during the three-hour sail out to Reversal Island. What brought him to the northeast corner of Australia, he said, was the peace and quiet and sailing and fishing. What he left behind in San Francisco, he said, were people always shooting each other. I guess people don't shoot each other out on the Pacific Ocean. So why did Captain Stryke tell us that he slept with a pistol under his pillow?

An old habit from his cop days.

Uncle Stoppard and I have an old habit, too. We keep running into dead bodies. A dead body is what brought me and Uncle Stoppard to Australia in the first place. A skeleton, actually.

Eight years ago my parents handed me over to Uncle Stoppard and then flew off to Iceland. They were searching for the Lost City of Tquuli, an ancient Viking burial city, because they were both archeologists. I mean, are archeologists. I mean both. They're both alive, but they're considered legally dead since they disappeared from Iceland eight years ago. Their footprints were found on the side of a snow-covered mountain. The footprints ended in the middle of nowhere. So how do I know they're alive?

Several months ago Uncle Stoppard and I flew to Iceland ourselves, retracing my parents' footsteps, hoping to find clues to explain their mysterious disappearance. We found two skeletons. And each bony carcass contained a clue.

On the jawbone of one of the skeletons, my mother (I think) had drawn an ancient rune in bright red lipstick. Runes were the letters of the Viking alphabet. The rune my mother wrote was the symbol for A or the "ah" sound. And beneath the rib cage, on the ground, she had written two Icelandic words: mikill and veggur. Mikill means big, huge, great. Veggur means wall or barrier.

See? It all makes sense.



A for Australia.

My parents were telling us that they were being taken to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Who had taken them, or why, or how, I didn't know yet. But I knew the answer lay on Reversal Island.

You see, the second clue, on the second skeleton, was a wristwatch. My father's wristwatch. He had left it behind on purpose, encircling the bony wrist of the long-dead Viking, knowing that the modern invention would be noticed on the ancient arm. The hands of the watch were set at a specific time. Nine o'clock. Why nine? It stumped me at first. Even Uncle Stoppard wasn't sure what my father had meant by that. But when Uncle Stop and I returned to our home in Minneapolis, it finally dawned on me. It was dawn and a loud crash woke me instantly from a deep dream.

"Uncle Stoppard! Is that you?"

"H. E. double hockey sticks!" he yelled from the dim kitchen in our apartment.

"What happened?"

"I pulled the dairy drawer out of the refrigerator and it fell on my foot."

"The refrigerator?!"

"The dairy drawer."

Uncle Stoppard was always crashing or dinging or banging some part of his anatomy against a table or doorway or car window. He continued talking to himself in the kitchen.

"Where's the shredded mozzarella? Oh, never mind — I just stepped in it. Hmmmm, I'll bet it's still okay. I mean, I did take a shower before I went to bed."

I made a mental note to myself: Don't touch the shredded mozzarella.

Why did Uncle Stoppard yell out that bit about the hockey sticks?

Uncle Stop explained at breakfast, pressing three plastic bags of ice against his black-and-blue toes. "It's a habit I picked up from my dad. Instead of yelling a curse word, he always spelled it out. Hockey sticks are shaped like the letter L, you know."

Yes, I knew that. What Minnesota kid doesn't recognize a hockey stick?

With the whoosh of a Minnesota Wild skater connecting with a skimming puck, it hit me. The clock hands on my father's abandoned wristwatch were not showing the time. They were showing a shape — an L-shape.

I jumped up from the breakfast table, grabbed an atlas from the hall bookcase, and slammed it open to the map of Australia. I scanned all up and down the twisty spine of the Great Barrier Reef, my maple-syrupy finger tracing each island and town along the eastern coast of Australia. From Rockhampton in the south to Cape York at the northern tip I spied for anything that had an L sound. Lady Elliot Island. Long Island. Tully, Innisfail, Helenvale. Nothing seemed to fit.

My finger was quickly running out of reef and was heading toward the empty, undotted blue of the Gulf of Papua. Wait, there it was. At the northernmost end of the coral barrier, a tiny black speck. Reversal Island. Reverse L. Of course, that's what the skeleton's wristwatch was telling us. The clockhands showing nine o'clock formed a backward, or reverse, L. Dad was a genius.

Uncle Stoppard was stunned at my discovery. His jaw dropped open, which is not a pleasant sight, by the way, when you're eating waffles for breakfast. He exclaimed, "Finn, you're a genius!"

To look at us, you wouldn't think we were related, Uncle Stop and I. He's tall and muscular, I'm short and slender. He has green eyes, red hair, and a long nose (Uncle Stoppard calls it aquiline). I have light brown hair, pale skin, and freckles. Uncle Stoppard tells me I have a mochaccino mop, java eyes, and a triple-latte complexion with nutmeg sprinkles. Uncle Stoppard likes using big words. He also drinks a lot of coffee.

And because Uncle Stoppard is a famous, award-winning mystery writer (one of those awards was a million bucks), we were able to buy plane tickets to Australia.

What were my dad and mom doing on Reversal Island? I hoped to learn the answer in the next twenty-four hours.

"You'd better get inside if you don't want to get drenched, son!" yelled Captain Stryke.

The rainwall was less than a hundred yards from the deck of the Forty-Niner. The shore of Reversal Island was hidden somewhere behind the falling outburst. Earlier, Captain Stryke had told Uncle Stoppard and me, sandwiched in between his cop stories from the streets of San Francisco, that Reversal Island had been given its unusual name by nineteenth-century whalers. A whaling ship had been hit hard by a tropical storm, its masts sheered off, its rowboats flung into the wind. The whalers drifted through the Pacific for several weeks, running low on food and fresh water. Soon they were surrounded by a school of man-eating sharks. Shacks, as the Australians call them. The starving whalers awaited their doom.

One whaler happened to glance out over the water and sighted a small island hanging low on the horizon. After an hour of paddling with broken timbers and ripped-up planks, a quick search of the tiny island revealed a well of fresh water and trees full of juicy mango and coconut. The men's destinies were reversed. Instead of disaster, a second chance. Hence, Reversal Island.

As the captain told us that story on our trip out from Cape York, I wondered what would have happened to the whaling crew if that one whaler hadn't looked up. What if his bleary, fading eyes had missed the island? Or if he had seen it, what if he had dismissed it as a mirage or a distant cloud? What if a sudden squall or outburst hid the sandy beach from their vision? The whalers would have drifted out of sight, floating farther away from the Great Barrier Reef, farther from safety, and into the Coral Sea. And eventually into the satisfied bellies of various tiger shacks.

A tiny thing can make a big difference in our lives. A wristwatch, the letter A.

Thunder boomed. I stopped thinking about the captain's story, grabbed my backpack from the side of the deck, and headed for the dry safety of the hatch.

Funny. My arms felt weird. I looked down and saw, from my wrists to my elbows, the tiny, mochaccino-colored hairs were all standing straight up. It was like the science trick that Mr. Thomas showed us in fifth grade, when he brought a big aluminum ball into class one day. He called it a Vandergraff generator. He wound up a handle on the side of the device, charged it with static electricity, and told everyone to take turns touching the ball. Everyone's hair stood out like porcupine quills.

I glanced over at Captain Stryke. His snowy white beard, normally smooth and trim, looked like an albino porcupine hanging from his chin.

That was when a bolt of lightning struck the mast of the Forty-Niner. Captain Stryke screamed. A blue flash blinded me as the electric charge hurled me backward off the deck of the ship and into the churning waves of the Pacific Ocean.

Text copyright © 2002 Michael Dahl

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