The desert was empty, as though a great drain had sucked the world underground. Every color, every sound had vanished, leaving nothing but flat sand and silence.
Except for the ruby palace. If you were blasting down the highway in the middle of the night, somewhere near Dust Creek, you probably wouldn't even see it. Or just blackness, a red flash in the distance, and then nothing. It was tucked away behind the mountains, alone and nearly forgotten, the old house of Lily Larouche.
From the highway the ruby palace sparkled silently. Come a couple of miles closer, though, and you could hear the buzz of voices--closer, and squeals of laughter, snatches of music, raucous shouts--Lily Larouche was throwing a party.
The last hundred yards and suddenly the ruby palace loomed all around, slumping and sprawling over acres of sand and weeds like a monstrous, glittering cake. Its garden swarmed with exotic flowers, vegetables of startling colors, and dark ponds with fat, ill-tempered toads; strings of lights were flung throughout the crooked trees, twinkling like fireflies, and torches flickered all along the stacked and twisting terraces.
Strange shapes moved in the shadows. A man dressed as an astronaut chatted with a devil. A gang of cavemen sipped fizzing cocktails. A Chinese emperor flirted with a robot, a pirate arm-wrestled a dinosaur, a giant worm danced with a refrigerator--it was Lily Larouche's Christmas costume party, and all her old friends had come.
A blossoming bush grew on the garden patio. At first the bush seemed ordinary; but then two green eyes flashed inside it, and stared. It was a thirteen-year-old girl, small and thin, with brown skin and black bobbed hair. Her name was Jo Larouche. She was Lily Larouche's niece. She also lived at the ruby palace, and she was spying.
"Where did he go?" Jo took a bite of her scrambled-egg sandwich and watched the party intensely. Jo never talked to Aunt Lily's friends, but she loved spying on them.
They usually ignored her--but tonight's party was different.
Tonight someone was watching her.
A fat man was looking for her.
Jo's eyes darted over the crowd. The fat man had been wearing what looked like a military uniform, staring at her across the patio, tugging his beard and pointing at his stomach, rumbling something in a Russian accent. Jo had no idea what. One thing was for sure: the fat Russian was nobody she or Aunt Lily knew.
She couldn't see him anymore--maybe he had left. Good. She intended to enjoy tonight. Jo closed her eyes and inhaled the familiar smell of Aunt Lily's parties: the lemony smoke of tiki torches; the clashing, flowery perfumes; the warm musk of cigarettes . . .
She heard Aunt Lily's name.
Jo peered out of the bush. A couple of feet away, a woman disguised as an enormous eggplant was talking to a man dressed like a UFO.
"Did you see?" whispered the eggplant. "Lily's gone nuts again."
"Cracked as a crawdad, and worse every year," said the UFO. "The woman's going to hurt herself."
"It wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the poor girl. Do you know, I've never even seen her?"
"I heard she's some kind of freak, actually," said the UFO. "Remember what the newspapers said about her being 'dangerous'?"
Jo crouched back and frowned. So Aunt Lily was causing trouble again. She wasn't surprised. But there was a chance Aunt Lily might go too far, get herself hurt. . . . Jo rocked back and forth, hesitating. No, she had to see what Aunt Lily was up to. She picked up her cocktail tray and crept out from the bush.
At once Jo was swallowed up in the party's shimmering confusion. Nobody noticed her in her plain black dress, but she preferred it that way. She hated attention.
Aunt Lily, on the other hand . . .
Jo scanned the crowd, biting her lip. It was true--Aunt Lily was getting worse. Jo remembered the party a couple of years ago, when Aunt Lily had dived, still in her cocktail dress, into the swimming pool; the year after that, when Aunt Lily had poured bleach into the champagne punch; last year, when Aunt Lily had kicked another old lady in the teeth. . . .
Where is she? Jo's head buzzed as the lights and noise of the party swirled around her. She turned back toward the palace; maybe she'd find her in--
Just then someone crashed into Jo, knocking her to the ground, spilling her tray and
breaking the cocktail glasses on the bricks. It was a boy dressed as a hedgehog, a lanky seventeen-year-old with greasy hair. "Watch it!" he snarled.
Jo looked up, shaken. "Hey, you ran into me."
"Tough. Who're you, anyway?" The hedgehog looked closer. "Oh, wait. You're that girl?"
Jo got to her feet. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"You don't look so dangerous to me," said the hedgehog with a smirk, and then he walked away.
Jo didn't have time for this; her heart was beating too hard, she had to find Aunt Lily--but she heard herself shout, "Hey! Get back here!"
"INDEED!" roared a voice behind her.
Jo turned, startled. It was the fat Russian again--where had he come from?--a lumbering, shaggy, harrumphing, absurdly dignified mastodon of a man, with twitching white whiskers and a gleaming uniform, swinging a great black cane.
"I will take it from here, Miss Larouche," he rumbled. "You, sir! Hedgehog! Turn around and apologize!"
"Mind your own business," said the hedgehog.
"APOLOGIZE!" said the Russian.
Jo looked from the Russian to the hedgehog with alarm. People were whispering and glancing over at them; the Russian was jabbing the hedgehog with his cane.
"You, sir, are disturbing my DIGESTION!" said the Russian.
"Hey! Stop that!" said the hedgehog.
"Do you understand what it means to disturb my digestion, sir?" said the Russian.
"That even now, my stomach rumbles with contempt? That my kidneys flood with excruciating acids? That my entire gastrointestinal tract revolts at your ungentlemanly conduct?"
The hedgehog squinted. "Who cares about your stupid gastrointestinal--"
The Russian roared, swinging his cane--crack!--and the hedgehog howled, clutching his head, staggering backward.
"My digestion is not mocked!" boomed the Russian. "Nor will I stand idly by while Miss Larouche is insulted! You are banished, hedgehog! My digestion has spoken--BEGONE!"
The hedgehog wavered; the Russian advanced, waggling his cane; finally the hedgehog swore, and stumbled off into the darkness.
Jo glanced around, flustered. More and more guests were staring, and now the Russian was stooping down to her. "Miss Larouche! I hope--"
"Who are you?" said Jo.
"Who am . . . Oh! My apologies." The Russian bowed. "I am Anatoly Korsakov, colonel. I have been trying to speak with you. Where were you?"
"Um . . . in that bush."
"Brilliant. Excellent strategy. We have enemies everywhere." Colonel Korsakov nodded. "But you need not hide anymore, for I shall protect you! And what is more, Jo Larouche, I have it on unimpeachable authority that tonight you shall receive a gift!"
"Wait, wait!" said Jo. "How do you know who I am?"
"My digestion," said Colonel Korsakov. "It whispers secrets and instructions to me. And this very moment, Miss Larouche, my digestion advises us to be on guard. I have dispatched my partner, Sefino, to patrol the grounds for suspicious characters."
"You're the most suspicious character I've ever met."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Order of Odd-Fish by James Kennedy. Copyright © 2008 by James Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.