After a brief discussion, we agreed that we needed to figure out just what this mystery monster was.
‘But how?’ I asked.
‘Nereus,’ Grover said.
I looked at him. ‘What?’
‘Isn’t that what Apollo told you to do? Find Nereus?’
I nodded. I’d completely forgotten my last conversation with the sun god.
‘The old man of the sea,’ I remembered. ‘I’m supposed to find him and force him to tell us what he knows. But how do I find him?’
Zoë made a face. ‘Old Nereus, eh?’
‘You know him?’ Thalia asked.
‘My mother was a sea goddess. Yes, I know him. Unfortunately, he is never very hard to find. Just follow the smell.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘Come,’ she said, without enthusiasm. ‘I will show thee.’
I knew I was in trouble when we stopped at the Goodwill drop box. Five minutes later, Zoë had me outfitted in a ragged flannel shirt and jeans three sizes too big, bright red trainers and a floppy rainbow hat.
‘Oh, yeah,’ Grover said, trying not to burst out laughing, ‘you look completely inconspicuous now.’
Zoë nodded with satisfaction. ‘A typical male vagrant.’
‘Thanks a lot,’ I grumbled. ‘Why am I doing this again?’
‘I told thee. To blend in.’
She led the way back down to the waterfront. After a long time spent searching the docks, Zoë finally stopped in her tracks. She pointed down a pier where a bunch of homeless guys were huddled together in blankets, waiting for the soup kitchen to open for lunch.
‘He will be down there somewhere,’ Zoë said. ‘He never travels very far from the water. He likes to sun himself during the day.’
‘How do I know which one is him?’
‘Sneak up,’ she said. ‘Act homeless. You will know him. He will smell… different.’
‘Great.’ I didn’t want to ask for particulars. ‘And once I find him?’
‘Grab him,’ she said. ‘And hold on. He will try anything to get rid of thee. Whatever he does, do not let go. Force him to tell thee about the monster.’
‘We’ve got your back,’ Thalia said. She picked something off the back of my shirt – a big clump of fuzz that came from who knows where. ‘Eww. On second thought… I don’t want your back. But we’ll be rooting for you.’
Grover gave me a big thumbs-up.
I grumbled how nice it was to have super-powerful friends. Then I headed towards the dock.
I pulled my cap down and stumbled like I was about to pass out, which wasn’t hard considering how tired I was. I passed our homeless friend from the Embarcadero, who was still trying to warn the other guys about the metal angels from Mars.
He didn’t smell good, but he didn’t smell… different. I kept walking.
A couple of grimy dudes with plastic grocery bags for hats checked me out as I came close.
‘Beat it, kid!’ one of them muttered.
I moved away. They smelled pretty bad, but just regular old bad. Nothing unusual.
There was a lady with a bunch of plastic flamingos sticking out of a shopping cart. She glared at me like I was going to steal her birds.
At the end of the pier, a guy who looked about a million years old was passed out in a patch of sunlight. He wore pyjamas and a fuzzy bathrobe that probably used to be white. He was fat, with a white beard that had turned yellow, kind of like Santa Claus, if Santa had been rolled out of bed and dragged through a landfill.
And his smell?
As I got closer, I froze. He smelled bad, all right – but ocean bad. Like hot seaweed and dead fish and brine. If the ocean had an ugly side… this guy was it.
I tried not to gag. I sat down near him like I was tired. Santa opened one eye suspiciously. I could feel him staring at me, but I didn’t look. I muttered something about stupid school and stupid parents, figuring that might sound reasonable.
Santa Claus went back to sleep.
I tensed. I knew this was going to look strange. I didn’t know how the other homeless people would react. But I jumped Santa Claus.
‘Ahhhhh!’ he screamed. I meant to grab him, but he seemed to grab me instead. It was as if he’d never been asleep at all. He certainly didn’t act like a weak old man. He had a grip like steel. ‘Help me!’ he screamed as he squeezed me to death.
‘That’s a crime!’ one of the other homeless guys yelled. ‘Kid rolling an old man like that!’
I rolled, all right – straight down the pier until my head slammed into a post. I was dazed for a second, and Nereus’s grip slackened. He was making a break for it. Before he could, I regained my senses and tackled him from behind.