Unicorns are real.
At least, I think they are.
Dragons are definitely real. I have seen them. Chupacabras exist, too. Also Sasquatch. And mermaids—though they are not what you think.
But back to unicorns. When I, Professor Mito Fauna, was a young man, I lived in the foothills of Peru. One day, there were rumors in my town of a unicorn in danger, far up in the mountains. At that instant I founded the Unicorn Rescue Society—I was the only member—and set off to save the unicorn. When I finally located it, though, I saw that it was not a unicorn, but rather a qarqacha, the legendary two-headed llama of the Andes. I was very slightly disappointed. I rescued it anyway. Of course.
Now, many years later, there are members of the Unicorn Rescue Society all around the world. We are sworn to protect all the creatures of myth and legend. Including unicorns! If we ever find them! Which I’m sure we will!
But our enemies are powerful and ruthless, and we are in desperate need of help. Help from someone brave and kind and curious, and brave. (Yes, I said “brave” twice. It’s important.)
Will you help us? Will you risk your very life to protect the world’s mythical creatures?
Will you join the Unicorn Rescue Society?
I hope so. The creatures need you.
Defende Fabulosa! Protege Mythica!
—Mito Fauna, DVM, PhD, EdD, etc.
Elliot Eisner was lying, facedown, on the pavement in front of his new house, in his new town, in New Jersey.
The morning was clear and fine. Kids were walking past on their way to school, kicking red and yellow leaves. It smelled of fall.
Why was Elliot lying facedown on the pavement?
He wasn’t sure. He had opened his front door, stepped on something, and then gone toppling headfirst down the steps. Elliot pushed himself up and turned around to see what he had tripped on.
On his front step was a small package, wrapped in brown paper. He got to his feet and walked over to the package. No address. No stamps. Just a name, scrawled in brown ink. Weird. He examined the name on the package.
It was his name.
Elliot had had a strange day yesterday. It had been his first day at his new school. He’d made a friend, Uchenna Devereaux. She was odd. She kinda dressed like a punk rocker, she made up random songs about nothing at all, and she had a strong desire to put herself, and Elliot, in mortal danger. All that said, she was funny and she was brave and Elliot liked her. They had rescued a young Jersey Devil—which was supposed to be an imaginary creature, but definitely was not imaginary. It seemed to have adopted them. Finally, a terrifying teacher at their school, named Professor Fauna, had invited them to join a secret organization: the Unicorn Rescue Society. Its mission was to save mythical creatures from danger.
So yeah, it had been a strange day.
Now Elliot was staring at a mysterious package that had been left on his doorstep.
He tore open the paper. A book stared up at him. The Country of Basque.
“What?” Elliot said out loud, to no one.
Why had someone left him a book? On his doorstep? And who had left it? And couldn’t he just have a normal, not-at-all dangerous second day at South Pines Elementary? Please?
He sighed, tucked the book under his arm, threw his backpack over his shoulder, and started off to school.
Uchenna Devereaux normally left her house with one shoe untied, half her homework still under the bed upstairs, playing air guitar, and singing a song she’d made up that morning in the shower.
But not today.
She opened her front door and looked down her street in both directions before slipping out into the cool autumn morning. She put her backpack over her shoulders, pulled the straps tight, and began walking, warily, to school. Yesterday had been a weird day.
She had made a new friend named Elliot. He wasn’t exactly cool—he got nervous easily, he memorized entire books about things that could kill him, and he was definitely not rock-and-roll. But he was smart and funny, and Uchenna liked him. Also, they’d met a Jersey Devil and been invited by the school’s weirdest teacher to join a secret society. This secret society had very rich and very powerful enemies: the Schmoke brothers, two billionaires who owned businesses all over the world, and half their little town.
Also, Uchenna and Elliot and that weird teacher may have broken into the Schmoke brothers’ mansion.
Okay, they definitely did.
Which was why Uchenna was being so vigilant this morning on her walk to school. As she turned the corner from her block onto the main street, she glanced over her shoulder. A few blocks away lay the wealthiest neighborhood in town—where the Schmoke brothers’ mansion was. Beyond that, in the distance, she could just make out the towering smokestacks of the Schmoke Industries power plant, billowing black plumes into the air. She—FTHUMP!
Uchenna sat down hard on her rear end. A small, thin boy with curly brown hair was lying on his back on the sidewalk, staring up into space. An open book lay on the sidewalk behind him.
“Elliot!” Uchenna exclaimed.
“Ow,” said Elliot.
“I didn’t see you there!”
“That’s good. The alternative would have been that you did see me there and ambushed me on purpose.”
Uchenna laughed and got to her feet. “Come on. Let’s get to school.”
Elliot lay unmoving on the ground. “I don’t think so. Today’s been pretty messed up already. School’s only going to make it worse.”
Uchenna grabbed Elliot by the wrist and pulled him to his feet. She scooped up The Country of Basque and handed it to him. “Let’s go. However messed up today’s going to be, it’ll be better if we face it together.”
As Elliot brushed off his khaki pants, he squinted at Uchenna. “Your positivity disgusts me.”
Uchenna grinned, threw her arm around Elliot’s shoulders, and dragged him toward school.
Elliot and Uchenna sat at the far end of one of the long tables in the school cafeteria, waiting for the morning bell to ring. Kids were streaming in the double doors, finding their friends, laughing, clowning, discussing whatever they’d seen on television or online the night before.
Not Elliot and Uchenna, though. Elliot was telling Uchenna about the mysterious book on his doorstep. “I haven’t read much of it yet. Just the first five chapters.”
“You read the first five chapters between your house and the corner where we knocked into each other? That’s one block!”
“They’re short chapters. And I read pretty fast.”
“So, what did you learn?”
“Well, I learned about the Basque people, the Euskaldunak.”
“Yeah. They’re kinda amazing. They’re these fierce mountain people, who’ve lived nestled between Spain and France and the sea, for thousands of years. Pretty much every great empire of Europe has tried to conquer them, but no one could.”
“They sound awesome.”
“Any idea why you’re reading this book? Or who gave it to you?”
“I have two guesses. Both frighten me.”
Uchenna shrugged. “You are easily frightened.”
“One possibility is the Schmoke brothers.”
“Okay,” Uchenna said, “that would frighten me, too. But why would the Schmoke brothers leave you a book?”
“No idea. A warning? The other person who could have left it for me is—”
At that very moment, the cafeteria doors crashed open, and in strode a tall, wiry man with a black-and-white beard and a shock of hair exploding from his skull. He wore an old tweed suit and shoes that had probably been expensive forty years ago. From under his shaggy eyebrows, his eyes roved the faces of the nearby students—who cowered before him.
Which was not surprising, because he looked like he might attack someone.
The man’s name was Professor Mito Fauna.
“The other possibility,” Elliot continued, subtly gesturing at the man, who was now peering around the cafeteria as if he were looking for his next victim, “is him.”
Professor Fauna’s eyes landed on Uchenna and Elliot, like a predator finding its prey. He began to weave in and out of the lunch tables, making his way toward them. He moved with a crackling, manic energy that made everyone—teachers and kids alike—jump out of his way.
He arrived at their table, glancing at the other kids nearby and then running his big brown hands through his wiry hair, making it stand up even straighter.
“Buenos días, mis amigos,” Professor Fauna said. He was from Peru, and his voice was rich and rocky and slightly accented. He could easily have played a secret agent in an action movie—if the secret agent had been lost in the wilderness for ten years without a change of clothes or a comb. “I hope you have recovered from our adventures of yesterday.”
Every kid at the table turned to stare, first at the professor, and then at Elliot and Uchenna.
“Uh, hi, Professor,” said Elliot.
“Yup,” added Uchenna quickly. “Doing fine.”
Professor Fauna nodded. Then, he hesitated. He began shifting awkwardly from foot to foot. Clearly, he wanted to say something to Uchenna and Elliot, but felt he could not with all the other kids around. He noticed the book that Elliot had been reading. “Ah!” he said. “You received my package! I am glad it did not fall into the wrong hands!”
Professor Fauna suddenly seemed to realize how strange that sounded. He looked around. Absolutely every kid within earshot was staring at him. He cleared his throat. “Uh, for example, the, uh, the hands of a clock! Those would be . . . wrong . . . because clocks . . . cannot read!”
“What?” both Elliot and Uchenna said at once.
“Never mind!” said the professor quickly. “Anyway, I would like to request your attendance after school for a meeting of the, um, club we spoke of yesterday.”
One of the kids at the table, a freckly boy named Lucas, asked, “What club, Mr. Fauna? Can I join, too?”
“It is the, uh, club for . . . ,” Professor Fauna stammered. “For the history, uh, and the philosophy of . . .”
Elliot and Uchenna could see that the professor was struggling to come up with a believable cover story. They both tried to think of the worst, most terrible idea for a club they could, so that none of the other kids would want to come. Unfortunately, they blurted out their ideas at the same time.
“Nutrition,” said Uchenna.
“Worms,” said Elliot.
“What?” said Lucas.
“Yes, the Worm-Nutrition Club!” exclaimed Professor Fauna, thrusting a long finger into the air. “We will be discussing how to feed and care for worms.”
Some of the kids at the table snickered.
“Mostly, we find that they like poop,” the professor added.
“Ugh!” someone groaned.
“Chicken poop, they like. And duck poop, too. Cat poop, on the other hand—”
“They get the idea, Professor,” said Uchenna.
Lucas looked positively queasy. “Actually, I have soccer after school.”
Professor Fauna beamed at Elliot and Uchenna and then winked. They rolled their eyes. “Come to my office. You know where it is.” He gave them a little salute and then strode away through the cafeteria.
A girl leaned toward Uchenna. “You’ve seen his office? I heard he has a torture chamber under the school. Is that true?”
Uchenna looked at Elliot. He shrugged.
“Something like that,” Uchenna replied.