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Ernestine, Catastrophe Queen
Foreword by James Patterson
Read by Caitlin Davies
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We all know and love Ramona, Matilda, and Harriet the Spy. Now meet Ernestine.
When a series of suspicious accidents befalls the wealthy residents of the retired artists’ home where she works, Ernestine is determined to piece together clues to find the real culprit. She suspects it might be a zombie, but maybe greedy relatives can be just as scary! Catastrophe has never been so much fun!
When I first read Ernestine, Catastrophe Queen, I was instantly hooked on its strong, smart heroine. Ernestine is laugh-out-loud funny and totally unforgettable. She likes taking charge and being right—and she usually is. Most important of all, she’ll do whatever it takes to protect her family and friends. She’s a character that every kid can look up to. Ernestine’s story also has an important message: sometimes relying on yourself isn’t as rewarding as relying on others.
This is a clever, rollicking mystery with a lot of heart, and I hope you love solving it along with your new friend Ernestine.
The Apocalypse Begins, Sort Of
MONDAY, 11:58 PM
The zombie apocalypse was coming.
Tonight, in fact.
At least it would if almost-thirteen-year-old Ernestine Verna Montgomery had anything to say about it. In her opinion, it really should have arrived years ago, but that was life for you. Things never did go the way they should. Sometimes, rather than waiting around for the zombie apocalypse to happen all on its own, you had to go ahead and bring the undead back to life yourself. No sense in waiting around for someone else to do it for you.
Which was why Ernestine was hanging out in the graveyard with her ten-year-old stepbrother, Charleston Wheeler, of course. Why else would anyone hang out in a graveyard at almost midnight on a bitterly cold February night? Or any night, for that matter?
“So, did you get the chicken blood?” she asked, her pajama-ed posterior slowly going numb through her winter coat. She was sitting on a weathered gravestone, which wasn’t the coziest of places to sit at the best of times. On her lap she held a very thick, very battered notebook in which she kept track of all the bits and pieces of arcane zombie lore she’d picked up over the years from comic books, horror movies, and some very strange websites.
“Sorta.” Charleston pulled out a plastic-wrapped package of chicken drumsticks. “Turns out you can’t just go to the grocery store and buy a can of the stuff. But these are chicken body parts, so they’ve gotta have blood in them. I mean, body parts are full of blood, right?”
“I’m not sure.” Ernestine squinted down at her notebook for confirmation of this new theory while wishing she’d brought a flashlight. The street was only a few yards away, so she’d thought there’d be plenty of city light to see by. However, she hadn’t taken into consideration all the trees, whose skeletal branches wove together to form a delightfully creepy barrier. Ernestine approved of the haunted-forest ambiance it lent to the haunted-cemetery vibe but had to admit the crumbling tombstones and mausoleums could definitely use some mood lighting. Again, that was life for you. The universe never set the stage properly. “Couldn’t you have gotten a live chicken?”
“I dunno. It’s not like you can pick one up off the shelf next to the cereal.”
“Did you try that market over on Bancroft near Ottawa Park? The one where Mr. Talmadge says you don’t want to ask any questions about where the venison comes from?”
“Look, you want live chickens, you do the shopping. This was the best I could do.” Charleston pushed his silver-rimmed glasses back up his nose as he thought over what she’d just said. “Hey! I’m not murdering a live chicken!”
“Who said anything about murdering it? It’s not like we need all of its blood. It can keep most of it. We could’ve just—you know—poked it or something. It’d be like donating blood.”
Charleston’s breath puffed out like a ghost in the frigid night air. He stomped his feet on the ground to warm them. “Yeah, but I’m not sure the chicken would have liked it.”
“Charleston.” Sighing, Ernestine laid her pencil in her notebook to mark her place before shutting it. “We are not here to protect poultry rights. We are here to start the zombie apocalypse.”
“Then why do we even need a chicken? It’s human brains zombies eat, not chicken brains!”
“Only if they haven’t taken simple, sensible precautions,” Ernestine pointed out, hefting her baseball bat onto the tombstone so it would be handy if she needed to bash in some undead heads. Then she opened up her notebook and carefully crossed chicken and bat off her list of items required for the apocalypse. “The humans, I mean. Not the chickens. I’m not sure chickens know how to take precautions.”
“Good point.” Charleston fixed his glasses again. They were always slipping down his nose because, like everything they owned, they’d been purchased secondhand. Though a little more than two years younger than Ernestine, Charleston was quite a bit smaller, only coming up to her shoulder even when she wasn’t perched on top of a tombstone. He was really skinny, too, just like his dad, Ernestine’s new stepfather, Frank. A snub-nosed face peered out from beneath a lot of shaggy blond hair, while his glasses magnified an already enormous pair of blue eyes almost to the point of transforming him into an anime character.
They weren’t related, so Ernestine didn’t look at all like her stepbrother, of course. A tall girl, she was one-fourth African American, and her biracial heritage showed in the golden-brown hue of her skin and hair. Her eyes were gray, which Ernestine always thought was an indecisive color. Meanwhile, her hair couldn’t decide if it wanted to be kinky or straight, so it compromised by sort of doing both and sort of doing neither. Her hair and eyes might be indecisive but the rest of Ernestine most definitely was not.
When Charleston saw her take out her baseball bat, he picked his up, too. No doubt he figured that if Ernestine needed hers, the zombie hordes were scheduled to arrive at any moment. If there was one thing she’d taught him in the six months since Frank married Maya, her mom, it was that you never knew when you might need to beat something’s brains out. Best to always be prepared.
The zombie they were planning on raising was from the grave of one Herbert Edward McGovern, born 1940 and died 1977. Ernestine would have preferred a fresher grave because, really, how much damage could a decades-old corpse do? It would probably spend all of its time trying to make sure its head didn’t fall off or forgetting where it had left its ears. Or maybe being embarrassed that its clothes had all decayed away a long time ago. Even a zombie probably didn’t want to be naked and undead in the city. What would people say?
Unfortunately, that was the newest grave in the long-abandoned cemetery. It sat plunk in the middle of the city’s Old West End, right across the street from the crumbling mansion known as MacGillicuddie House for Elderly and Retired Artists, Both Performing and Otherwise. That was the apartment building where their parents supposedly did the maintenance. The minute they had moved in, Ernestine had known it was destiny. She’d been looking for a handy place to start the apocalypse for some time now, and here the universe just went and handed her hundreds of perfectly good dead bodies nobody else was using. It was definitely Meant to Be.
So what if most of the corpses were all about a hundred years old and probably no more than a bunch of mildew-y old bones? If you were going to start an apocalypse, you had to begin somewhere. Ernestine could move on to fresher corpses once she got the hang of things.
“Okay, we’ve got chicken blood, more or less. And salt.” After rummaging about in her backpack, Ernestine set the canister of Morton salt up on the stone. “Now, we just need some grave mold.”
Charleston wrinkled his nose at all of the weathered stones. “Looks pretty moldy around here to me.”
“Yeah, but it’s all frozen.” Maybe they should have waited until spring to start the apocalypse, but really, what else are you going to do in the middle of a boring February without much snow? Sledding was out and so was building snowmen and having snowball fights. You could either watch TV or raise an undead army. That was pretty much it.
“But that’s good,” Charleston argued. “If the zombie is frozen, it’ll be fresher. You know, like sticking stuff in the freezer. Like peas or green beans.”
Ernestine mulled that one over while Charleston continued to hop up and down to keep his feet warm. He also took a few practice swings with his baseball bat at imaginary zombies.
“Good point. All right, the only other thing we need is human blood.” Hopping down, Ernestine pulled an enormous carving knife out of her backpack.
“Hey, whoa! You’re not sacrificing me!” Charleston protectively lifted up his baseball bat, more bug-eyed than ever behind his glasses.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I’m not sacrificing you. I just need a little bit of your blood. It’ll be just like a pinprick. Only, you know, bigger.” Ernestine took a step toward him, but Charleston ran around to the other side of the gravestone.
“You can’t have any of it!” he protested as the two of them danced around and around the stone.
“Stay still, you big baby!”
“You touch me with that, and I’m telling Dad that you tried to murder me!”
“I’m not trying to murder you, I’m trying to assault you. It’s totally different; ask any prosecutor. Now, stay still!” Ernestine dodged a swing of the bat and pounced on Charleston, knocking him to the ground. Knife and baseball bat discarded, the two of them grappled for a minute before Charleston managed to wriggle out from underneath her.
“You can’t have any of my blood!” he shouted loud enough to wake the dead. “I’m using all of it! Every last drop.”
“Fine,” she huffed. “We’ll use my blood, and you can handle the gross, disgusting, slimy chicken parts that are probably covered in salmonella if you’d rather die a horrible, lingering death from a bacterial infection instead of getting your finger nicked, you big baby.”
“I would, thanks.” Charleston tore the plastic wrap off the package of chicken. The drumsticks slid out of the Styrofoam tray and glopped wetly onto the grave. “Blech.”
“Just remember to grab them after the zombie claws its way out of the ground. We can use them for supper tomorrow night.” As the only responsible, sensible member of the family, the grocery budget usually fell to Ernestine.
“Don’t use all the salt. We’ll need some of that for supper, too,” advised Charleston as she poured a ring of it around herself. He usually cooked the dinner, which was good since Ernestine had no time for that sort of thing when she had much more interesting things to be doing. Like raising the dead, who weren’t all that particular about what they were served as long as human brains were included. “What’s the salt for, anyhow?”
“The evil undead can’t pass over it,” Ernestine explained knowledgably, getting ready to cut her finger with the carving knife. “That way, the zombie can’t grab me and suck my brains out once it’s risen from the grave.”
“Oh.” Charleston looked blank for a moment, an expression almost immediately replaced by panic. “Hey, whoa! I’m not staying out here so it can chew on my brain, either!”
He hopped over the circle of salt and clung to Ernestine’s back like a monkey, almost knocking her over.
“Don’t be such a scaredy baby! Why do you think I told you to bring a baseball bat? You’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, as long as I stay inside the salt circle with you.” Charleston clung all the tighter to the back of her coat, making it rather difficult to wield the carving knife. Ernestine stood up on tiptoes to make enough room for them both. “By the way, it’s midnight. I just checked my watch.”
“Okay, let go of my elbow, will you?” Ernestine managed to shake him off enough to raise the knife and jam its tip into her finger. “Ack! That hurt.”
Several drops of blood splashed onto the frozen ground. Ernestine lifted her arms, knife still in hand, and faced the moon. Well, technically it was the streetlight over by the MacGillicuddie House, but close enough.
Clearing her throat, Ernestine chanted, “Quantum materiae materietur marmota monax si marmota monax materiam possit materiari! Quantum materiae materietur marmota monax si marmota monax materiam possit materiari! Quantum materiae materietur marmota monax si marmota monax materiam possit materiari!”
“What’s that mean?” Charleston whispered in awe when she stopped to take a breath.
“I dunno. Something Latin I found online.” Ernestine shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter. See, everybody knows Latin is a dead language, and zombies are dead, too, right? You’ve got to use a dead language to summon the dead. It’s the only way they’ll understand what you’re saying.”
“Oh.” Charleston nodded. “That makes sense.”
After that, they were both quiet for a while, breathing in the night air and waiting for the zombie to claw its way up out of the earth. Far away, they could hear the sounds of the freeway. From closer by came the tinkling music and laughter of a party in full swing over at MacGillicuddie House for Retired Artists, Both Performing and Otherwise. There should have been a few ghosts stirring about, moaning and making other ghastly noises in the surrounding abandoned mansions, but if any were awake, they were too scared of the hipsters slowly invading the neighborhood to call attention to themselves.
Finally, Charleston asked, “How long do you suppose it’s gonna take?”
“I don’t know,” Ernestine admitted, teeth chattering in the cold. Now she was actually grateful to have her stepbrother burrowed up against her like a frightened bunny since he was at least a warm frightened bunny. “I’ve never dug my way up out of a grave before. But the ground is frozen, and I bet they didn’t bury him with a pickaxe or anything. Most people never have any foresight. When I die, I’m leaving specific instructions in my will to bury me with a cell phone and a shovel.”
Just then, something made a very loud metallic CLANG on the other side of the street over by MacGillicuddie House. Charleston yelped and tried to climb up onto Ernestine’s shoulders in fright, knocking her out of the salt circle and onto her knees.
“It’s over there!” he shouted, pointing toward the enormous brick and wrought-iron fence that ran all around MacGillicuddie House’s vast yard. “It just went in the front gate! I can see it moving!”
“Get off!” Ernestine wiggled him off her back and into a frosty clump of grass. Getting to her feet, she quickly stuffed all her zombie-raising paraphernalia into her backpack. “That can’t be our zombie. It couldn’t climb out of the ground without us seeing it.”
“Well, it’s somebody’s zombie ’cause there’s definitely something over there!”
“That’s probably just a guest going to Mrs. MacGillicuddie’s party.”
“It wasn’t! I know it wasn’t!”
Ernestine looked uncertainly from Herbert’s grave to the wide-open gate across the street. She hated to leave a job unfinished. What if whatever was in the garden was just a drunken guest of one of the artists in residence over at MacGillicuddie House? What if her zombie finally sprouted up out of the grave, only to find nothing to eat?
“Ernestine.” Charleston scrambled to his feet and tugged at her coat sleeve.
“Oh, all right.” Ernestine hefted her backpack onto her shoulders. “Whatever it is, I suppose we might as well bash its brains in just to be on the safe side.”
As they ran through the cemetery, Ernestine kept an eye out for open graves in case it turned out Zombie Herbert really had gotten lost on the way out of the grave. If that was her zombie over there, shouldn’t there be a big mound of dirt where it had clawed its way up out of the earth? Maybe it had burrowed sideways like a mole and come up across the street in the garden or something. After all, it was a zombie, right? How hard could it really be to confuse it?
Reaching the chained entrance gate, Ernestine pried it open just enough for Charleston to squeeze through. He’d had the presence of mind to grab the raw drumsticks off the grave and now carried them gloppily in his hands. Ernestine slid through after him, but before they could bolt across the street, a car swerved around the corner on two wheels, squealing and sending clouds of smoke up to dissolve into the black night sky.
It wasn’t any ordinary car, though. Ernestine immediately recognized it as Mrs. MacGillicuddie’s baby-blue 1937 Studebaker limousine, driven by someone who clearly should not be behind the wheel.
Slamming down onto all four wheels, the car sped up and narrowly missed a fire hydrant before bouncing over several flower planters, freeing a mailbox from its bolts so it could learn to fly. If a nearby park bench could have gotten up and run away on its iron legs, it probably would have. Fortunately, the driver seemed to have grown tired of terrorizing inanimate objects, cranking the wheel hard to the left.
Aiming the car toward the graveyard on the left side of the street.
Straight toward Ernestine and Charleston.
Even Zombies Like to Party
TUESDAY, 12:23 AM
“EEE-III-AAA-YYY!” Charleston shrieked, still clutching his armful of chicken parts. Ernestine grabbed him by his most convenient part (which happened to be his arm) and dragged him across the street just in time to avoid being turned into pre-zombies.
The antique limo swiped the graveyard’s wrought-iron gates, breaking apart the chain and padlock. Then, as though the driver was playing a game of tag with Charleston and Ernestine, the car turned again, hurtling toward the brick wall surrounding MacGillicuddie House.
Ernestine ducked into the garden to escape, but Charleston froze like a deer (or zombie) in headlights. Running back out again, she tried to tug him into the garden with her, but he remained rooted to the ground.
“Charleston!” Ernestine cried, but he just pressed the poultry parts tightly against his body and huddled for impact as the driver hit the brakes, causing the tires to shriek and burn into the ground.
Shoving her stepbrother as hard as she could, they both tumbled out of the way of the car’s massive silver grille just in time. Instead of their bodies, it bit into the brick wall as the car came to a halt in a cloud of blue smoke.
Coughing and sputtering, they both rolled over and looked at the dented fender a few inches away from their heads.
“What were you doing?” Ernestine demanded, scowling at Charleston. Being afraid always made her irritable.
“You said to make sure we saved the drumsticks for supper.” From behind his glasses, Charleston blinked at her like this was obvious.
“Not if it means ending up as a zombie!”
“Wouldn’t I just be a corpse, not a zombie?”
“Well, sure, not right away.” Exasperated, Ernestine helped her stepbrother up. Charleston never did make any long-term goals. Nobody ever starts out as a zombie. It’s something you have to work toward, obviously.
The driver’s side door flew open and out tumbled their landlady, Mrs. MacGillicuddie, owner of MacGillicuddie House, an apartment building that served as a retired artist colony. Which was sort of like an ant colony only filled with loopy old artists rather than mindless insects. Mrs. MacGillicuddie lived on the ground floor in an apartment approximately the size of a small neighborhood. The rest of the three stories she rented out to retired painters, musicians, and actors, while Ernestine’s family lived in the attic and took care of the building.
Mrs. MacGillicuddie herself was eighty years old with jet-black hair, lots of makeup, and a face that had had so much cosmetic surgery done to it that a very exclusive clinic in Switzerland threw a party every year in her honor. Tonight she wore a silver dress, a mink coat, and a real diamond tiara on her head because, as Mrs. MacGillicuddie had once explained to them, when you were eighty, you never knew how many more opportunities you might get to wear the family jewels.
What she wasn’t wearing were her glasses, which might possibly explain why she had almost turned Ernestine and Charleston into zombies-in-waiting.
“Oh, hello, darlings!” she trilled as she spotted them. “I didn’t see you there!”
“Mrs. MacGillicuddie,” Ernestine said sternly. “You know you’re supposed to be wearing your glasses when you drive.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, darling!” Her landlady waved her gloved hand about dismissively. “I can see perfectly well without those silly things! However, with all of the fog about tonight, I thought I’d better pull over before something else jumped out at me the way that awful mailbox did. What it was doing in the middle of the road, I don’t know!”
“Where’s Eduardo?” Ernestine demanded, referring to Mrs. MacGillicuddie’s butler and limo driver.
Eduardo himself answered the question by tumbling out of the car, dressed as a Roman general for reasons unknown. After the wild car ride, his feathered helmet was askew on his head and he seemed a bit unsteady on his legs. Still, he managed to remain impressively upright, which was just as well given that he also held a swan in his arms.
Ernestine and Charleston stared at them both. This was not, exactly, what Ernestine had in mind for an apocalypse. Their zombie was missing and now they seemed to have gained a swan.
“Oh, the swan’s ours!” The Swanson twins, Libby and Mora, tittered as they climbed out of the back of the limo and saw Charleston and Ernestine’s looks of confusion. They had just moved into apartment 3A the previous week, and by the standards of MacGillicuddie House, the twins were quite young, being only about sixty years old, and they were identical, right down to every last wrinkle. They had once been famous acrobatic dancers, known for their ability to each simultaneously balance a spinning plate upon a big toe while balancing on a tightrope. How a person discovered they had this ability, Ernestine didn’t know, but evidently the Swanson twins had found a way.
Tonight, they wore their signature swan costumes, which involved sparkly white swimsuits with enormous white feather headdresses, more white feathers around their wrists, and extremely high, sparkly heels that Ernestine suspected you had to be a certified acrobat to even buy, let alone walk in. They made the stiletto high heels Mrs. MacGillicuddie always wore seem downright sensible.
As soon as the Swanson twins made it out of the car, they were followed by Mrs. Talmadge, a pink-haired, retired British pastry chef who lived in apartment 2C.
A pink-haired, retired British pastry chef who was carrying the front end of a whole roast pig. Well, Ernestine assumed it was whole. Right now she could only see its snout, an apple shoved into its mouth.
“Oh, hullo, luv!” Dressed as an egg with horns, she gave Ernestine a cheerful little finger wave. “Have you come for the party?”
“No, I’m looking for my zombie. I seem to have lost it.”
“Oi, keep on moving there, Pansy.” The roast pig poked at Mrs. Talmadge. For one startled moment, Ernestine thought that not only was it a zombie roast pig, but one that had also learned to talk in spite of the apple stuffed in its mouth. Then Mrs. Talmadge tugged the pig free of the car, allowing her husband, Mr. Talmadge, to emerge.
“Vegan garbage,” he muttered. Mr. Talmadge carried a rubber knife and had cereal boxes strapped all over his body. “Frou-frou rabbit food, that’s what he was trying to serve us. What she was thinking having him cater, I don’t know.”
“I thought there was a party going on in your suite, Mrs. MacGillicuddie.” Charleston peered through the wrought-iron bars of the fence to confirm that, yep, there were indeed the silhouettes of people clearly having a very good time in Mrs. MacGillicuddie’s half of the mansion’s first floor.
“Oh, there is, darling! A costume party for Mardi Gras!”
“But it isn’t Mardi Gras yet,” Ernestine pointed out.
“Well, I don’t want to be throwing a Mardi Gras party when everyone else is throwing a Mardi Gras party, now do I? How gauche would that be?” Mrs. MacGillicuddie took the swan from Eduardo and set it down on the ground so it could follow along next to her on its leash. “We just had to run out and get some meat for Mr. Talmadge since he doesn’t like the vegan canapés dear little Dill was serving, and some swans for the Swansons here! Eduardo had forgotten them, the silly boy!”
Eduardo, who hadn’t been a boy in at least fifty years, leaned over to murmur into Mrs. MacGillicuddie’s ear. As he did so, the feathers on top of his helmet swiped across Ernestine’s face like a mop. She sneezed and swatted them away, as he murmured in his posh Spanish accent, “I thought the sight of Libby’s swan might get Mr. Sangfroid more excited than his heart could take.”
Mrs. MacGillicuddie giggled and said to Eduardo, “Oh, you are terrible!”
Mr. Sangfroid lived in apartment 2D and had once been an art curator. These days, he spent most of his time as a professional cranky old man, always complaining about something. Why a swan might make him grumpier than usual, though, was a mystery to Ernestine. However, before she could ask, Mrs. MacGillicuddie cried, “Come join us, my darlings! I’m sure your parents won’t mind!”
“Okay.” Never one to mind staying up late and missing school, Charleston stepped agreeably forward, only to jump backward again when the swan hissed and flapped her wings at him.
He followed her beady gaze down to the dismembered poultry parts in his arms. To the swan, he said, “Oh. Don’t worry. They weren’t relatives. Well, maybe distantly, I guess.”
“No, thank you,” Ernestine said firmly to Mrs. MacGillicuddie, still wiping feathers off her face as Charleston made friends with the bird. “We have school in the morning, and we have to find our zombie. We seem to have misplaced it.”
“Oh, well, if you find it, tell it’s welcome to come, too! My son and his awful daughter are in there somewhere, so it’ll have plenty to snack on!”
- Praise for Ernestine, Catastrophe Queen:
- "Harriet the Spy meets Coraline...Wyatt has created a bright, determined, and emotionally complex protagonist to join the illustrious roster of young mystery-solvers and monster-slayers...A heroine to warm the heart and a mystery to chill the blood."—Kirkus
- "A snarky, sparky Nancy Drew of the undead with more twists than a zombie zumba class. I sooo want Ernestine on my side when the zombie apocalypse comes!"—Mo O'Hara, author of the NYT bestselling My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish series
- "Among a cast of colorful characters who leap off the page, no one stands out as much as the wonderful Ernestine. She blends brains and bravery with heart and humor to pull the reader along for an unforgettable ride. Catastrophe has never been so much fun."—James Ponti, Edgar Award-winning author of the Framed! mystery series
- "A traditional mystery filled with laugh-out-loud funny moments make for a winning combination."—School Library Journal
- "Wyatt's first novel reads like a middle-grade version of the movie Clue. Readers will enjoy this murder mystery."—Booklist
- "It will be a big hit with avid readers."—School Library Connection
- On Sale
- Aug 7, 2018
- Hachette Audio