In Act III of Newbery Medalist Cynthia Voigt’s Mister Max trilogy, the solutioneer sets off to rescue his missing parents!
Ever since Max’s parents were spirited away on a mysterious ship, he has longed to find them.
He’s solved case after case for other people in his business as “solutioneer.” And he’s puzzled out the coded messages sent by his father. He doesn’t know exactly what’s happened, but he knows his parents are in danger—and it’s up to Max to save them.
Max and his friends (and a few old foes) don disguises and set sail on a rescue mission. It will take all of Max’s cleverness and daring to outmaneuver the villains that lie in wait: power-hungry aristocrats, snake-handling assassins, and bombardier pastry chefs.
And behind the scenes, a master solutioneer is pulling all the strings.... Has Max finally met his match?
“Immensely appealing.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A perfect read-aloud, the story will appeal to fans of fantasy, adventure, mystery, and humor.” —The Christian Science Monitor
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CYNTHIA VOIGT is the acclaimed author of many books, including Dicey’s Song, winner of the Newbery Medal; A Solitary Blue, winner of a Newbery Honor; and Homecoming. For the body of her work, Cynthia Voigt was honored with the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Outstanding Literature for Young Adults. She lives with her husband in Maine.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
In which Max is irritated, frustrated, and thwarted
Max didn’t have to open the envelope to know what it contained. His fingers recognized the button shape, and a wave of bad feelings--mostly sadness and shame--washed over him.
Max pocketed the button. He didn’t need any reminder. Since the April morning when his parents had disappeared--on a ship that didn’t exist--Max, along with his grandmother, had worried. At first they worried about what had happened to them, and then, when his parents reappeared in the unlikely roles of King and Queen of Andesia, a tiny South American country, they spent hours worrying about what they should do, and what they could do. Max didn’t know why his father kept sending these buttons, with the familiar three-peaked symbol stamped on them.
They were as confusing as the few letters that had arrived from Andesia. Max had eventually decoded notes that cried Help and Trapped, but nothing telling him how to proceed. Even when he’d finally figured out the clues leading to a hidden fortune in gold coins, that had only raised more questions. Where had they come from? How had his father, who earned a good living but was by no means wealthy, gotten them? Why were they hidden away, like some guilty secret?
No surprise, then, that Max could only guess at what the buttons were supposed to mean. Probably Where are you? Or maybe Where the devil are you? Whatever the precise message, what they hinted at was Max’s failure, and he was already sorry enough, every day, that he hadn’t yet been able to rescue his parents.
It wasn’t as if he’d been sitting under a tree sipping lemonade and munching on cookies while he read adventure books. He’d been busy, figuring out how to earn a living and earning it. He’d become Mister Max, Solutioneer, solving problems for the mayor, even. For William Starling’s information, that was what his son had been doing. Being independent. As ordered.
On his way back through the kitchen, Max ripped up the envelope and dropped it into the trash. He didn’t plan to tell his grandmother about this one, just as he hadn’t told her about the previous two. He poured himself a glass of water and had a surprising and disturbing thought: the envelope had been delivered by hand. This raised more questions. If his father had an ally in the city, why wouldn’t that person come directly to Max? Were these buttons a trap being set by General Balcor to lure Max to Andesia, and if so, what did the General plan to do once he had Max and his parents together? Who, besides Max and Grammie and their small circle of co-conspirators, knew about William and Mary Starling’s perilous position?
Everything his former-schoolteacher, former-librarian grandmother had been able to find out about Andesia made them even more uneasy: The narrow country that lay along the high foothills of the Andes had been, since the discovery of veins of silver and copper in its mountains, conquered and re-conquered by strong men, robber chieftains who styled themselves Kings of Andesia and were soon assassinated by the next conquering invader. Recently, not seven months back, when the downtrodden natives had rebelled against their masters, foreign armies had come to the aid of the King. The royal family had been spirited away to safety in a mountain fortress and order had been re-established, the rebellion put down, its leaders hanged in the public square, and a general left in charge. But despite General Balcor’s efforts (or perhaps because of them?), the royal family was discovered and murdered.
Grammie could find out nothing about this General Balcor, other than the simplest facts--Andesian mother, Peruvian father, educated abroad in a suspicious number of different schools. They guessed that his was the shadowy figure in the newspaper photograph Grammie had sighted of the coronation of the new King and Queen of Andesia: William and Mary Starling. The royal couple was smiling down on a crowd gathered to greet them on the steps of the cathedral of Caracas, their hands clasped in a signal Max and Grammie recognized from seeing it as the Starlings took their bows at the end of a bad performance. Trouble, those clasped hands meant. Max and Grammie suspected that the trouble had to do with the barely discernible figure lurking close behind them, a high military shako on its head.
The coronation photograph had appeared in June, more than a month after the disappearance, and it was now late July. Max had counted off the slow days and the long weeks and he knew just how long a time it had been. He was doing the best he could, as fast as he could. There was no need for anyone, most likely William Starling, fake King of Andesia, to be firing buttons at him. He put his glass down on the counter beside the sink and set his feelings down beside it. He could be angry at his parents later, after he’d rescued them. Never mind those buttons, he had work to do.
Max finally had a rescue plan, and it was a good one: to arrive in Andesia as a member of a visiting foreign embassy. Ari, Max’s tenant, math tutor, and the future Baron Barthold would be the embassy’s head. Max would act as his private secretary. And Grammie would play the housekeeper. He knew that its best chance of success was if it was an official diplomatic embassy sent by King Teodor III, but he had no idea how to get into the presence of Teodor to even make the request. One thing in Max’s favor was that the royal family had arrived for their annual vacation weeks in the summer palace, so the King was nearby. That was, however, the only thing in his favor.
The summer palace sat on a promontory overlooking the lake, easily visible but thoroughly guarded. During these lakeside holidays, King Teodor and his family could live almost like ordinary people--his children out on bicycles or flying kites, treating themselves to ice cream, going barefoot; he and his Queen out on the lake in a small sailboat, alone together; all of them at the city’s best restaurants, just for the pleasure of dining out together as a family. Max needed to think of a way to intrude on the King’s well-guarded holiday privacy, and if he could do that, to persuade him to give official standing--nothing more, Max would take care of all the rest--to a rescue party masquerading as a diplomatic embassy. Max had to speak to the King in person, and he hadn’t yet figured out how to do that.
He needed to think hard, so he put on his red painter’s beret and took his easel out to the front garden, where Grammie would not see him and come pestering around. That morning, luckily, there was a paintable sky. White fluffy clouds floated through air of a color that only happened in July, a pale blue that seemed to include yellow heat. You looked at the sky and you knew it was going to be a hot day. But not--how could the color show this?--a hot and humid day. This was an interesting painting problem, and Max set to work. His hand would paint, his brain would think, and maybe he would have an idea.
He was so deeply immersed in the delicate touches that would re-create the puffiness of the clouds that the bell roused him like an alarm in the night. At the sound, Max spun around. He hadn’t known that the little bell could clamor.
A hat was at the gate. The hat was extraordinarily wide and extraordinarily tall and extraordinarily purple. It waved two extraordinarily long and extraordinarily yellow feathers in the air. The feathers were attached to it with the bright green splash of a Z.
The hat was wearing a rather small woman.
The woman--who, without being invited in, unlatched the gate and marched onto the path to the front door--was short and round. In a lavender summer dress with a narrow purple belt at the waist, her body was as round as a figure eight. Her face, too, was round and her eyes were round and her little red mouth was almost round. She was not young, not at all young, although she moved up the path and across the grass to where Max stood with the speed and energy of youth. “I expect that you are this Solutioneer person,” she said.
Max nodded and bit at the insides of his cheeks, to keep from laughing.
“You know who I am,” she told him.
He thought that he might, although it was Pia Bendiff, his assistant, who had handled the correspondence. The woman must be R Zilla, the city’s most well-known milliner. He didn’t know which was more alarming, her hat or her presence.
“You are not without skill,” the woman remarked, staring at his painting as closely as if he had asked for her opinion. “It’s hard to tell from this. Although”--eyes as round and streaky blue as marbles moved to the beret he wore--“you have no sense of style.”
Max still couldn’t speak, for fear of laughing. There was so much hat to her . . .
“Who is your teacher? To set you such an exercise, he must have a plan. It must be a man, I think. Who is it?”
“Joachim,” Max answered in a choked voice. He had to gather himself together, he knew. He had to become the Solutioneer, the successful investigator, a professional. He hoped she wouldn’t ask him anything solutioneery until he had had a chance to become who she thought he was.
“Joachim works in oils,” she told him, as if he did not already know. “I once purchased a painting of a branch in winter,” she announced, and turned her attention back to Max’s skyscape.
He took a deep breath. While she studied his painting, she made little puffing sounds that emerged like timid kittens from under the purple brim of the hat. He took a second deep breath, and a third. He became Mister Max. He asked, “What is it you want of me?”
“I see nothing of Joachim in this,” she announced. “A pity. Does he have a studio?”
“Where would that be? I might be in the market for another of his pictures,” she informed him.
Max was happy to give her the address. He was sending Joachim a buyer, just what the painter needed.
“Ah, he’s in the New Town.” She nodded. “A better location than yours, here in the old city.”
“He’s actually working in two styles now. There’s the old way--”
“Fine details. Rich tones. Painted from life,” she told him.
“--and a new one, quite different.”
“I will prefer the old,” she declared.
“He usually works in his garden,” Max said.
He had no idea where this conversation was going. They stood side by side in front of his easel. Anyone in the lane would have thought they were discussing the painting on the easel in front of them.
“I expect it’s his way of staying away from his family, who would interrupt his concentration,” R Zilla said.
“He doesn’t have a family.”
“I expect he is too young.”
“No,” Max said.
“Well,” she said then, and turned to look up into his face. “It’s about my niece, Tess Tardo,” she announced. “The girl has no gratitude. I taught her everything she knows, but she is a quarrelsome and stubborn girl. My youngest sister’s youngest child. I took her in. I could do no less, since she has a certain talent. She has acquired necessary skills in my workroom. I trained her,” R Zilla told him proudly, then announced, “The girl has gone off on her own.”
Max did not need to be told that this displeased R Zilla. Her sharp, quick words did that, but what they didn’t tell him was what it all had to do with the Solutioneer.
“Thankless child.” R Zilla glared up at him. Her expression changed. “You have very odd eyes,” she told him. “I’m not sure you can be trusted, with those eyes. They are almost the color of garden snakes,” she said. “Much too close to the color of garden snakes, if you ask me.”
Max couldn’t help himself. He laughed.
R Zilla did not like being laughed at. Her mouth pursed up into a wrinkled red prune.
At least, Max thought, she wouldn’t bother him any more about some job.
But he was to be disappointed in that hope. “When will you start on the job?” she demanded crossly.
“Finding her. Well, I know where she is to be found. I’m not a total dolt, whatever some people might think.” Her glance made it clear to Max just whom she was referring to. “I want you to find out about her. I need to know how to get her back. Tess was very good with the girls in the workroom. Which I am not,” R Zilla told him, as if this would come as a surprise.
“You’ve been told that I’m not taking any new work,” Max reminded her.
“You never told me. It was some assistant telling me that, some secretary.”
“And she was correct,” Max said.
“There’s no time to waste. Who knows what the girl will do? What if she marries? And has to raise children when she should be . . .” But here, words failed the old woman and she waved her hands in the air, as if gathering in some unseen flock of possibilities. “Tess could be one of the great milliners, like me. But no, the girl has her own ideas. She wants to make hats anyone can afford, even servants and secretaries, even schoolteachers. Well, she’ll have learned her lesson by now,” R Zilla concluded, with satisfaction. “However, she is, as I said, stubborn. I need to know what it will take to persuade her to return to me. Surely you can accomplish that without much effort?”
“I’m not accepting any work.”
“I’ll expect to hear from you. You can reach me at the shop, on Barthold Boulevard.”
Max had exhausted both his patience and his faith in a mannerly approach to this woman. “Go away,” he said to her. Then he couldn’t help but add, “Please.”
“Not until you agree,” she said.
He had no choice. He adjusted the red beret, causing her to sniff her disapproval, and turned his back to her. He picked up his paintbrush, dipped it into water, then color, and applied it to the paper. For several minutes, he simply ignored her.
At last he heard a rustle of skirts and her voice. “I’ll be back.”
At that moment, Max didn’t care if she did return. At that moment, all he cared about was that she stop telling him he had to do something he’d said over and over he wasn’t going to do.
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