I ducked my head as I climbed into the limo, but when I stood up I realized the ceiling was higher than it should have been. In fact, everything was bigger than it should have been. I found myself, not in the back of a cramped but fancy car, but in an office. It was nearly thirty feet long, with a polished stone floor and a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Ichabod was settling down behind a large mahogany desk on the far side, the chair groaning under his weight.
“What the crap?” Ethan whispered as he stepped in behind me.
“Another pocket dimension,” I said.
Ichabod knocked sharply on the wall behind him, and a wooden panel slid open. “Take the girl home, Garson.”
“Certainly, sir,” replied the most British voice I’d ever heard.
The door behind me slammed shut on its own, and all I could feel was a faint tremble beneath my feet as the limo pulled away from the curb. Ichabod pointed at two stuffed leather chairs in front of his desk, and I reluctantly sat down. Ethan did the same, eyeing us as if he were ready to run at the first hint of trouble.
“Okay,” I forced myself to say, “now what do you want?”
He ignored me, turning to Ethan instead. “Hey, boy! Why did four murder five?”
Ethan didn’t answer.
“BECAUSE I HATE MATH!” Ichabod roared with laughter, pounding his fist on his desk hard enough to shake the floor. When he noticed that Ethan wasn’t laughing with him, though, his expression turned cold. “Still doing that, huh?”
He sneered. “You brats don’t know how to respect your elders. If you were my kid, I’d take my belt off right now and whip you raw!”
I glared at him. “Don’t even think—”
“You wanna see what respect looks like?” Turning his chair around, Ichabod leaned toward the window that led to the driver’s seat. “Hey, Garson!”
“How many monkeys does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
“I eagerly await the answer, sir.”
“Ask Henrietta! She’s related to them!”
Ichabod guffawed again while my cheeks burned again, hands gripping my armrests to keep from drawing Splatsy and mashing his ugly face like a potato. Like I said before, nobody can butcher humor like Ichabod Hench. But he was a Red, and that meant it was no surprise when Garson began laughing anyway. It sounded as fake as Ichabod’s dignity, all snooty and pompous, but it must have been real because a big cloud of rainbow mist wafted through the open window.
“Oh, ho!” the driver chuckled. “Most amusing, sir! You never fail to, as the children say, tickle my funny bone.”
My mouth immediately began to water at the sight of the delicious laughter. Just as I was about to stand up to get some, though, Ichabod sucked in a huge breath through his nose, inhaling the entire cloud. I sat back down, stunned, as he gave me an infuriatingly smug look.
“Jealous, Henrietta?” he asked.
I clenched my teeth. “Oh, please. If you can make him laugh, anyone can!”
“Feel free to give it a try, then,” he said with a grin.
He was setting me up to embarrass myself, that much was obvious. He knew about my…problem…just as much as I did. If I’d been smart, I would have stayed put and told him to stop wasting our time. But the arrogant look in his eye, that judgmental gleam that clearly said I’m better than you, was enough to get me on my feet and marching over to the window.
“Yo, G-man!” I called.
The driver, a surprisingly young man — his name had made me picture a thousand year old, half-dead geezer — turned to look at me. “Are you referring to me, madam?”
I bristled at the insult. Madam, my butt! Pushing the anger away, I focused all my attention on him. I tensed the muscles in my forehead, imagining that there was an arm inside my head. An arm that I could use to reach out, touch other people, and…
I clenched my eyes shut as the headache returned, pounding on my skull right behind the scar on my forehead.
“Madam?” Garson asked, confused.
“Y- You,” I stammered, fighting to concentrate through the pain. “You have very…pretty eyes.”
Garson blinked. “I…I do?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Does…Does your mom…know you took them?”
I knew as soon as the last word left my mouth that it was another dud. I didn’t even need to see the blank look Garson was giving me. Cursing softly to myself, one hand pressed against my pounding head, I stumbled back to my seat.
Ichabod chuckled. “What was that about anyone making him laugh?”
“Shut up,” I snapped.
“Yes, I’ve heard about your little disability.” The edges of his mouth quirked upwards, and I would have said something if my head wasn’t pounding so hard. With one hand, he opened a drawer behind his desk and began fishing for something. “That’s why you need these, isn’t it?”
He held up a shiny silver inhaler.
I gasped, my headache immediately forgotten. “Where did you get that?”
“You say that as if you think I stole it,” said Ichabod. “I’ll have you know, I made it.”
“Like cauliflower you did!” I stood up, reaching for it. To my surprise, he actually let me snatch it out of his hand. “This is my grandpa’s and you—”
I paused. “What?”
He leaned forward, lacing his fingers together. “Try it, Henrietta.”
I looked down at the inhaler. Identical to the ones Grandpa Teddy gave me, but I wasn’t stupid enough to believe that it was. Not when Ichabod seemed so eager for me to stick it in my mouth.
“It’s poisoned!” I exclaimed.
Ichabod burst out laughing. “Poisoned? You idiot, why would I want to poison you?”
“So that you could force the council to choose a new Hunter,” I said without hesitation. “That’s all you’ve wanted ever since McGus—”
“If I wanted to get you fired, I wouldn’t need to murder you to do it.” He raised an eyebrow. “Remember? One little meeting, and everyone knows that you shirked your duties today.”
“She only left me because she was fighting a dragon!” Ethan spoke up for the first time.
I stiffened. “Ethan, be quiet!”
“Ha!” Ichabod smirked at him. “Not likely. Even if that were true, it’s still no excuse. She’s a maiam hunter, not a dragon slayer.”
“Then what do you want?” I demanded.
He nodded toward my hand. “Just try it. Then you’ll see.”
I looked at the inhaler suspiciously. I hated to admit it, but what he’d said made sense. If he wanted to get rid of me, killing me would be way more effort than it was worth. Not that I doubted he would resort to murder in a heartbeat. He had fewer morals than a fairytale collection with all the endings torn out. But he was also lazy. If he killed me, he’d have to cover it up afterwards. That meant disposing of a body, getting rid of witnesses — including Ethan — and coming up with a convincing lie to cover his tracks. That wasn’t his style, not when there was a much easier option available.
Slowly, I raised the inhaler to my lips, pushed down on the button, and…
“Ugh!” I yelled in disgust, yanking it away. The laughter tasted…well, it wasn’t like the masked man’s gray laughter, thank the whoopie cushion in the sky. But it still didn’t taste right. It was stale, like breathing air that had been locked inside a dusty old chest for a hundred years. It didn’t poison me, but I could only taste the faintest hint of laughter in it.
“What do you think, Henrietta?” Ichabod asked.
I slammed the inhaler back down on his desk, fighting the urge to scrub my tongue with my sleeve, which was still covered in grossness from earlier. “I think I could find better laughter at a funeral!”
I expected that to make him angry. Instead, he just nodded.
“That,” he said, taking the inhaler and putting it back into his desk drawer, “is exactly the problem.”
I cocked my head. “Come again?”
“Your grandfather has gone into business for himself. Laughter in a can? It’s brilliant.” He shook his head. “I can hardly believe the old Blue had it in him.”
“What do you care? Stop wasting my time and get to the point!”
He looked at me coolly, consideringly. “Fine. The point is that I intend to steal this idea right from under his nose.”
I stood up so fast that my chair toppled over behind me.
“Oh, don’t be so overdramatic, Henrietta,” the ugly Red sneered. “Sit down and let’s talk about this like grownups.”
“What’s there to talk about?” I demanded, stubbornly remaining on my feet.
Pulling open another drawer, Ichabod produced a thick cigar. He flicked his thumb against the side of his finger, making a tiny spark of flame appear over it, which he used to light the cigar. I curled my lip in disgust, not from the gross, smelly cigar — though it was both of those things — but because of his casual use of magic. Reds like him had no idea how lucky they were to be able to waste their energy like that. If a Blue like me were to act like that, we’d turn gray in less than a day.
He took a drag on the cigar, blew out a cloud of foul smelling smoke, and looked at me. “What you just sampled, Henrietta, is the product of eleven months of research.”
I narrowed my eyes. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that I’ve been trying to break your grandfather’s code. His secret recipe, I guess you could say. But all I’ve managed to produce is that worthless, bitter tasting crap!”
Serves you right, I thought. Out loud, I said, “How is that my problem?”
Ichabod sighed, rolling his eyes. “Henrietta, how long do you think poor old Theodore can keep this up?”
I paused. “This…what?”
“You know as well as I do that he isn’t cut out for this kind of work. He needs somebody to step in and take the reins, so to speak.”
“And you’d handle it so much better?”
He snorted. “Of course I would! If you hadn’t noticed, being in charge is what I’m good at.”
Ichabod frowned, and that was almost enough to make me laugh.
“If you think I’m going to betray my grandpa just so you can make a quick buck,” I said with an acidic smile, “then get ready to have your little mind blown, because my answer is no!”
Ichabod was quiet for a minute, drumming his fingers on his desk. Finally, he said, “All right, fine. Yes, I want your grandfather’s business so that I can make money off of it. But you know what? You should want that too! If I’m making money, that means people are buying it. If people are buying it, that means it’s helping them. Isn’t helping people what he wants?”
“Grandpa Teddy wants to give it away for free,” I said.
He laughed. “Is that so? Did he tell you that himself?”
“Yes!” I paused. “Well, no, but…”
“Exactly. He gives it to you because you’re his granddaughter. But everyone else? They’ll be paying out of their own pockets for it.”
“You don’t know that,” I spat.
“I know how businesses work!” He began counting on his fingers, “I know that nothing is free. I know that your grandpa isn’t making the inhalers by hand. Someone’s doing it for him. That means he’s either buying them, or he has people working for him to make them. That means money!”
“Maybe he’s paying them himself.”
“And how long can he keep that up? Spending money without getting any back? All that’ll accomplish is getting him kicked to the streets. Trust me, he needs to sell them if he wants this to work.”
“If that’s how it has to be, then fine,” I said. “But I’d still rather him be the one to be making that money, not you.”
“He won’t. Your grandfather may have good intentions, but he couldn’t manage a bag of cotton balls! He’s too timid, not forceful enough. If you want to run a business, you have to be dominant! Assertive! Like me.”
I bit my lip. As much as his ego stroking made me want to throw up, he was making a weird sort of sense. I didn’t know anything about running a business, but I did know that Grandpa Teddy almost had a nervous breakdown every time he had to talk in front of the council. The idea of him giving orders to an entire company’s worth of people…he’d probably have a heart attack before the company even had a chance to go bankrupt.
“And what happens to my grandpa?” I asked.
Ichabod shrugged. “Nothing. He gets to watch his idea help people without having to do any of the hard work.”
“You could be business partners,” I suggested. “Co-owners, or—”
“No, Henrietta.” Ichabod drew himself up like a king in his throne. “Ichabod Hench doesn’t share. What Ichabod Hench owns, only Ichabod Hench owns!”
I scowled at him. “Wow. For a second there, you almost made me think you had a heart.”
He ignored the taunt. “So, here’s my offer: you find out how he’s doing this. His methods, machines, recipes, whatever there is to find, and you get it to me.”
“And when I say no?”
“Then you stop being the Hunter.” He locked eyes with me. “Tonight.”
My heart sank into my stomach.
“I see you understand what’s at stake here. Good. Do what I say, and all three of us get what we want. You get to keep the job that’s so precious to you. I get to open a successful new business. And your grandfather gets to know that his idea is helping klaons all over existence.”
“Master Hench?” Garson said from the front seat. “We’re here.”
I vaguely felt the limo stop moving, and a glance out the window showed me that we were parked just in front of my house.
“I’ll give you a while to think about it,” said Ichabod.
“How kind of you,” I grumbled, standing up. “Come on, Ethan. This place stinks worse than we do.”
I made my way to the door, with Ethan right behind me.
“What’s more important, Henrietta?” Ichabod asked when I opened the door. “Your family, or the people your family wants to help?”
I paused, then stepped outside without replying. The fresh air and blue sky seemed a lot less cheerful now than they had earlier.
“Or maybe,” he went on, “being the Hunter is what’s most important. Either way, I hope you’re smart enough to make the right choice. I’ll be in touch.”
With that, the door shut on its own, and the limo pulled away. I watched, holding my breath until it turned the corner and vanished from sight.
“Henry?” Ethan asked. “You okay?”
“Let’s go inside,” I said numbly. “I need a shower.”