Fright of the Iguana
Mrs. Bagoong was a hundred pounds of tough, leathery iguana. Her eyes were like chocolate drops, her cheeks soft as AstroTurf and about the same color. Her thick, powerful body was wrapped in a blue apron that said KISS THE COOK. Yuck.
Nobody in his right mind would try to smooch Mrs. Bagoong.
She ruled the lunchroom as head cafeteria lady. If you wanted extra dessert, you had to go through her.
But I’ve always loved a challenge.
Mrs. Bagoong was all right. For an iguana. So when I saw her frown at lunchtime that day, I was worried.
"What’s the story, brown eyes?" I said. "If your face were any longer, you’d have to rent an extra chin."
Mrs. Bagoong piled lime Jell-O onto my tray. The green gelatin was packed with juicy dung beetles. Yum.
My mouth watered like an automatic sprinkler system.
The queen of the lunchroom sighed. It sounded like a small hurricane. "Chet, honey," said Mrs. Bagoong, "we’ve got problems."
My heart raced. "You’re not running out of mothloaf, are you?"
I relaxed. "So it’s not serious, then."
"Serious enough!" she said. "Someone’s stealing our food. If it keeps up, it could put me out of business."
My fists clenched. Food thieves! Scum like that are lower than kidnappers, blackmailers, and people who don’t return library books. They stink like leftovers from a hyena’s lunchbox.
A plastic tray bumped mine.
"Hubba-hubba, Chet," said Tony Newt. "Sweet-talking the cafeteria ladies, eh?" He winked at me with a bulging eye, one scaly dude to another.
This wasn’t the best time for a chat, so I leaned toward Mrs. Bagoong and whispered, "Let’s talk after lunch."
"Ooh, lovers’ secrets," cooed Tony.
I turned to my classmate. "Hey, Tony, do you know the difference between you and a bug-eating moron?"
His forehead wrinkled. "No, what?"
Sometimes, I just kill me.
I took my tray and found a seat. While I munched on mothloaf in gravy, I chewed over Mrs. Bagoong’s problem.
Food thieves at Emerson Hicky, eh? If they kept up their dirty work, the thieves might put the cafeteria out of commission. And that would derail my Jell-O train.
I had to help Mrs. Bagoong. A dame in distress gets me every time — even when she’s a hundred-pound iguana.
Lunch finished, I dropped my tray on the dirty stack and waited for the place to clear out. The line of kids dribbled out the doors like snot from a runny nose in flu season, and the cafeteria workers started cleaning up. (The cafeteria, I mean, not the nose.)
The queen of the lunchroom crooked one claw at me.
"Come here, Chet," said Mrs. Bagoong.
We walked behind the counter, she opened the storeroom door, and I went rubber legged in amazement. Food, food, and more food!
The huge refrigerator sang a siren song louder than a fat lady in a French opera. I plunged my head inside and almost fell down in delight. Pickled spider-eggs and pudding and rat cheese and deep-fried termites and cockroach quiche and happy-spider lasagna and candied butterflies and fire ants in red sauce and—
"Uh, Chet? Anybody home?" said Mrs. Bagoong. She rapped on the door with a thick fist.
"Oh. Sorry." I slowly pulled my head out of gecko heaven and took a deep breath.
"Let’s get down to business," I said. "You’ve got a low-down food thief, and I’m just the gecko to find out who he is."
"Or she," said Mrs. Bagoong.
"Who he or she is."
"Who he, she, or it is." I sighed. "Did you used to be a teacher?"
"For five years," she said, straightening her hair net. "How did you know?"
"Lucky guess. Now tell me all about the food-napping. How did it start?"
Mrs. Bagoong parked her massive bulk on a tub of lima beans. I shuddered. Even uncooked, those things are dangerous. She stroked her scaly chin.
"I first noticed it last week," she said. "I was making carpenter-ant omelettes, and we ran out of eggs."
"Maybe you forgot to buy enough."
"That’s what I thought. But then the next day, our candied butterflies disappeared. And two days after that, some bananas went missing."
I held up a hand.
"Let me get this straight," I said. "First, your eggs beat it. Then your butterflies flew. And then your bananas split?"
"You might say that," said Mrs. Bagoong, groaning.
"I just did. You’ve got problems, sister."
"You’re telling me." Her face crumpled like an empty bag of dragonfly chips. "And almost every day since, more food has disappeared. I asked my workers and the janitors to keep an eye out. Nobody has seen anything."
Mrs. Bagoong whimpered. She sunk her face in her hands — or paws, or whatever iguanas call their front feet. I forget. She looked sadder than a wilted bowl of broccoli on a muggy day.
One thick, iguanoid tear slithered down her cheek. "If I can’t stop this, I don’t know what will happen. They might even fire me."
The tear did it. I can’t stand to see a reptile cry.
"All right, enough of that," I said. I pulled my hat low over my eyes. "Chet Gecko is on the case. Food thieves, beware!"
She cracked a tiny smile and sniffled. I swaggered to the door and flung it open, then saluted her.
"See ya mañana, iguana." Ba-whonk!
I’d walked into a stack of cans.
"Uh, Chet, honey? That’s the pantry."
Another great exit, ruined.
Copyright © 2001 by Bruce Hale
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