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Chapter One

There were times when Nathaniel Fludd wasn’t sure he’d survive living with Aunt Phil.

“Hold on!” she called over her shoulder. “The field’s a bit bumpy.”

Today was one of those times. With his feet resting on the weasels’ crate, Nate gripped the sides of the cockpit. He had no idea if all pilots were this bad at landings or if it was just Aunt Phil.

The nose of the plane dipped down. They were coming in a little fast, it seemed to Nate. And low, he thought, as they clipped a tree, shaving a good three feet off the top. Unable to stand it, he closed his eyes.

They landed with a jolt that sent his knees clacking into his chin. As they bounced and rolled to a stop, he tasted blood from where he’d bit his tongue. Once Aunt Phil cut the engine, Nate’s pet gremlin, Greasle, popped her head out of his rucksack. “Is she done with all her hopping and bopping?”

“If you’re wondering if we’ve landed, yes,” Nate said.

Aunt Phil jumped out and came around to the side. “Can you hand me that crate?” she asked.

“Sure.” Nate grasped the crate by the sides and hoisted it over the edge of the cockpit. Aunt Phil took it with a grunt. Then Nate grabbed his rucksack—Greasle and all—and climbed out of the plane. He felt like laughing for joy at the feel of solid ground under his feet.

Aunt Phil set the crate down on the grass and opened it. Roland and Sallie raced out, eager for their freedom after such a long journey. Nate watched as the weasels made a mad dash toward the nearby trees. “Will they come back, do you think?” he asked.

“Of course they will, in a day or two. This is their home, after all. And, speaking of home,” Aunt Phil said, “now that we’re here, I’ll have to do something about that gremlin of yours.”

Hearing Aunt Phil’s words, Greasle dived down into the depths of Nate’s pack.

Aunt Phil did not like gremlins. She thought they were pests, and she hadn’t been happy when Nate had rescued Greasle. But Greasle had become his best friend, and he couldn’t imagine life without her. Even so, he kept his mouth closed. For now. Later, after Aunt Phil had a decent meal and a hot bath, he’d try to talk her into letting him keep the gremlin.

Completely unaware of his scheming, Aunt Phil put her hands on her hips and looked toward the house. “I wonder where Cornelius is? He’s usually here to welcome me home.”

“Maybe he’s sulking because we actually made it home. He was pretty certain I’d mess things up.”

“Heard that, did you? I was afraid you had, but don’t mind old Corny. He’s gotten a bit protective from having lived through so many generations of Fludds.” She grabbed the last pack. “Come on, let’s get inside. I could do with a nice strong cup of tea.”

Nate followed Aunt Phil to the back door, then nearly bumped into her as she stopped unexpectedly. “That’s odd,” she said.

“What’s odd?”

“The back door is off its hinges.” Scowling, she put her finger to her lips, then cautiously pushed the door open.

It took Nate a moment to realize what he was seeing. The house had never been tidy, but now it was in shambles. Tables were overturned and drawers pulled out of bureaus. Some of the maps had been ripped from the wall and others were missing entirely. All the navigational instruments had been knocked from the shelves. 

“Corny,” Aunt Phil whispered. Then louder. “Cornelius!” It was hard to miss the note of panic in her voice. She ran into the kitchen. Cooking pots littered the floor and broken crockery was scattered everywhere. “Cornelius!” Aunt Phil called out again. “Are you here?”

They listened for a long moment, hearing nothing but echoing silence. Aunt Phil’s shoulders drooped.

There was a faint rustling from behind them. “Philomena? Is that really you?”

“Cornelius!” Aunt Phil whirled around. Her face lit up with relief as the dodo emerged from under the kitchen sink.  “You’re unharmed!”

“Harrumph,” the dodo squawked. “If you call being brow-beaten and terrorized unharmed, I supposed you could say that.”

Indeed, the bird’s feathers were all ruffled and askew. “Poor Corny!” Aunt Phil knelt down in front of him. “Here, let me have a look at you.”

It seemed to Nate that Cornelius tried to look as pathetic as possible.

“I see the boy made it back alive,” the dodo sniffed.

Nate wanted to shout, Yes, I made it back, you dumb dodo! Instead, he kicked at a tin can on the floor and said. “You’ve got a bit of rubbish stuck to your tail feathers.” 

Cornelius gave a small squawk of dismay. “Where?” he asked, craning his neck, trying to see his own backside.

Nate smiled in satisfaction, and Aunt Phil threw him a reproachful glance. “Nate did very well, Cornelius. I told you he would.” Then she changed the subject. “Can you tell us what happened?” As she talked, her hands gently poked at Cornelius, looking for any serious damage.

“Two days ago a plane landed in the backyard. At first, I thought it was you—you were late coming back you know,” he said accusingly.

“I know. We had a crisis in Africa. The basilisk escaped. Or was let loose. Your story first, then I will tell you ours.”

“Just as I reached the back door to greet you, it flew open, knocked off its hinges. It caught me full on. I was lucky I wasn’t killed.”

“Indeed,” Aunt Phil murmured comfortingly.

“The blow knocked me to the ground and stunned me. That worked to my advantage, actually. The intruder didn’t notice me until later, and then he thought I was stuffed. I’m quite sure that’s what saved my life.” The dodo paused, eliciting another dose of sympathy from Aunt Phil.

“Then the blackguard searched the house, from top to bottom. Inside and out. He never gave a single thought to what a mess he was making or what he was destroying, as you can see.” Nate’s rucksack rustled and he felt Greasle stick her head out so she could hear better.

“Was he alone?” Aunt Phil asked.

“Yes. After searching the entire house, he left. Empty handed, I might add. Whatever he was searching for, he didn’t find. I then dragged myself to the nearest hiding place and waited until it was safe to come out.”

“For two whole days?” Nate asked.

The dodo fixed Nate with a baleful glare. “They say criminals always return to the scene of the crime. It seemed best to be on the safe—What,” he asked, seeing Greasle for the first time. “Is that?”

Aunt Phil waved his question aside. “A gremlin. I’ll explain later. Did you get a look at the intruder?” Aunt Phil asked.

“I’ll say. For three hours as he ransacked the house I had nothing to do but look at him. I hardly dared blink for fear he’d realized I wasn’t stuffed.” He sniffed again. “As if a beastologist would own a stuffed animal of any sort.”

“Well, what did he look like?” Aunt Phil asked, a trace of impatience creeping into her voice.

Cornelius blinked his big yellow eyes at her. “Like you,” he said.