Chapter One

Mendel was disgusted. The office he shared with Randy was finally rid of all the garbage that had been littering the floor for days, and though it had cost him an afternoon of intensive cleaning, he was more than happy to see Randy's junk off in the garbage truck that had conveniently pulled up just as he was pouring his overflowing trash bin into the dumpster. Even so, he was still trying to rid his nose of the sour smell of Randy's leftover pizza (from two weeks ago if he went by the shade of green it had become) that he'd had to peel off the floor under the desk.

He stomped out of the office, wiping the grime off his hands onto his white lab coat, and into the study. Part lab, part lounge it was, and almost always tidier than his and Randy's office had ever been. Two desks stood against the far wall below the window overlooking the pier, and numerous bookshelves crammed with thick-spined books and loose-leaf piles of paper hid the remaining walls. He paused next to one of the desks. Randy sat typing away at the computer, his jaunty dreadlocks bouncing as he vibrated with energy. He had the audacity to be whistling, completely oblivious to Mendel's ordeal. Elsie was leaning over Randy's shoulder, pointing with a red-painted fingernail at parts of the text on the computer and jotting something down on a notepad with her free hand. Mendel ignored the fact that their eyes were glued to the screen as Randy's fingers flew across the keyboard. He had to clear his throat several times before they pried their gazes away from their work.

"You're welcome," he said in what he hoped was a stinging voice.

"Aw, thanks, bud!" Randy said brightly, propping his elbows up on the desk. "I always knew I could count on you! What was it again?"

"Cleaning our office for the third time this week," Mendel said.

"You should start charging for it," Elsie said.

"Don't think it hasn't crossed my mind." Mendel put his hands on his hips. "Randy, our office is such a mess, the smell is consistently clinging to my clothing. Typically, I enjoy any generosity you offer, but when it comes to sharing your fungus, I'm not so crazy about it."

Elsie grunted incredulously as Randy stood up to face him. "Hey, you watch what you call my stuff!" the younger man snapped.

"I'm sorry." Mendel snorted. "I didn't realize how attached you are to mushrooms."

"Those happen to be a scientific experiment!"

"You? Scientific?" Mendel smirked, oblivious to Elsie, who had turned to face them full-on and had lifted a finger for silence. "I'd like to see that. No, wait, I take it back. I've already seen the results of your experiment—climbing up the walls!"

"Whoa, whoa!" Elsie said, stepping between them with raised hands. "Either of you guys got real ears, or do you just have insult reflectors? I've been trying to get your attention."

"Sorry, Elsie," Mendel said. "Randy just drives me—"

"Not that," Elsie snapped. "What the heck is all this talk about mushrooms? Is the junk in you guys' office composting or something?"

"Apparently!" Mendel said.

"No way!" Randy glared at them both. "Like I said, it's an experiment."

"But there're real mushrooms in there?" Elsie asked.

"Shelf fungus, to be exact," Mendel said.

"So it really is climbing up the walls?"

Randy snapped, "If you're so intrigued, why not come take a look?"

"No use. I've already thrown them in the trash," Mendel said smugly.

Randy stared at him. "You didn't!"

"What was I supposed to do, let them rot the whole place?" Mendel demanded. "Like I've always said, Randy, if you don't do something about the mess in there, I will."

Elsie grabbed one of each of their shoulders and spun them around to look at her. "This is all very entertaining, but I don't think you guys quite get what's really the problem," she said. "Mushrooms can't just grow on walls. They feed off of organic matter. I doubt the wallpaper is very sustaining."

"So?" Randy said. "I told you, it's an experiment."

Elsie pushed Randy over to their office. "Maybe you should give me more details. I'm not getting it," she said.

Randy shook free of her and opened the door to the office he shared with Mendel. Mendel tried not to look smug when they saw how clean it was. For once, the papers that used to litter the desk were tucked neatly into files leaning comfortably in the box on the floor. The computer was clean of fingerprints and grease stains, and the sparkling-clean window was open to let in some blessed New York air and what little sunlight penetrated the low-lying clouds. The floor was stripped of Randy's used pizza boxes (not to mention the pizza itself), chip bags and candy wrappers; the desk chairs had been vacuumed, and books returned (organized by subject) to the well-dusted shelf.

A bit distracted by the sight, Elsie nodded approvingly. "Nice. You went all-out this time."

"Apparently, just tidying isn't enough," Mendel said. "Hopefully this time it will last."

Randy walked over to the corner in which he'd kept his "experiment" and saw the box was gone. The only thing remaining was an ugly, jagged stain on the wall, from which Mendel had scraped the shelf fungus.

"Thanks a lot, bro," Randy said. "There goes a whole two days of scientific research."

"Two days?" Elsie was examining the stain on the wall. "That thing grew this much in just two days?"

"The damp weather we've been having created an ideal habitat for them in this stink hole," Mendel said.

Elsie shook her head. "Mushrooms grow fast, but not that fast. What the heck did you do to them, Randy?"

"Nothing!" Randy said defensively.

Mendel laughed. "So much for scientific research!"

"Well, not nothing. I was studying them," Randy said.

"More like you were just too lazy to clean up after yourself," Mendel said.

Again Elsie felt the need to step between them. "Will you guys press pause for just a moment? Something really weird is going on here." She turned to Randy. "Where did you get those mushrooms?"

"Farmer's market," Randy said. "This dude was selling all kinds of exotic plants. This one was the creepiest-looking, so I bought it."

Elsie rubbed her temples. "You randomly bought a freak mushroom to stick in a box in your office?"

"That's Randy for you," Mendel said.

"The one and only." Randy beamed.

Elsie glared at him. "You never just buy a weird looking plant from a person you've never met," she said. "Didn't your mother teach you anything? And why the heck didn't you tell me or Nick when it started growing like crazy?"

Mendel and Randy exchanged glances, then turned back to Elsie. "What's the big deal?" Mendel asked. "I got rid of them."

"Don't you guys get it?" Elsie practically yelled. "Those were obviously not ordinary mushrooms. Typical shelf fungus doesn't grow like that."

"So?" Randy asked.

"So, there must have been something weird about it," Elsie said. "Potentially something dangerous. And you let it grow and spread in here, and now Mendel threw it away. See anything wrong with this picture?"

Randy laughed. "You've been working too hard, Els," he said. "What are you trying to say, the mushroom is a mutant?"

"Considering it behaves like no other mushroom known to man," she snapped.

Mendel paled. "Wait. Are you saying—we had a mutant fungus growing in our office for a full two days?" He gasped. "It could have been toxic!"

"It's harmless," Randy said breezily.

"How can you be so sure?" Mendel shouted.

Randy put an arm around Mendel's shoulders. "If it was the least bit objectionable, you would have broken into a rash days ago," he teased.

"So I'm your canary in a coal mine, am I?" Mendel snapped.

"Hey, at least you're good at something!"

"Cool it, you two," Elsie stepped between them again. "Harmless or not, we've got another scientific anomaly on our hands, and we should check it out before the garbage truck sends it out to a barge in the middle of the ocean. Mendel, you threw it in the trash, right? Bring up the trash bin and let's have a look."

"Um," said Mendel.

Elsie fixed him with a glare. "Um what?"

"Well, the bin was so full," Mendel began, "after, you know, all of Randy's junk—"

"How much did you throw out, exactly?" Randy demanded.

"Randy!" Elsie snapped.

"Okay! Sorry."

"I took it out to the curb," Mendel said.

"So…?" Elsie said. "To the curb we go."

"The truck already came," Mendel said.

If looks could kill, no doubt both Randy and Mendel would have been hospitalized within a minute. "Why did you drag it out so long?" Elsie demanded. "In the time it took you just to say that, we could have started going after it. We've lost at least five minutes just standing around and arguing."

"For crying out loud," Randy said. "I still don't get what's so dangerous about mushrooms."

"That's just it, Randy, we don't know. And I want to find out before all of New York does. Is that too much to ask?" Elsie cried. "We've dealt with mutant fungus before, if you recall, and the results weren't pretty."

Nick walked into the study in time to hear Elsie's last remark. Carrying a box of papers, he walked over to see what was up.

"Is something wrong, or did Mendel decide to clean his office again?" he asked with one of his rare attempts at humor.

"Both," Elsie said. "Nick, will you get it into these morons' heads that if shelf fungus grows five feet up your wall in a span of two days, it's not normal?"

"I thought I smelled something rotting in there," Nick said.

"Please, will someone take me seriously?" Elsie shouted.

"Relax, Dr. Chapmann," Nick said. He only called her that when he meant business, or when trying to help her center herself. It worked. Elsie calmed visibly and took a deep breath, running a hand through her long red hair. Nick set down his box. "Now, tell me what's going on."

Elsie explained while the other two fidgeted nervously. Nick listened silently, only nodding in reply, never once glancing at Randy or Mendel. When Elsie was done, he said, "It does sound peculiar. If we can catch up with that barge before it dumps the stuff, maybe we can figure out what's the matter with it."

"We could take the HEAT Seeker," Mendel suggested. "And I bet Nigel can help us, too."

"Unless he blows up again," Randy said.

"Don't worry," Mendel snapped, "I'll keep him away from you."

Randy put a hand to his chest, looking wounded. "You can't separate me from my family!"

"Some family you are! I told you never to put coffee in his oil tank!"

"The poor guy looked like he needed a jolt," Randy said.

"Both of you need a slap in the face," Elsie said.

Mendel and Randy stepped carefully away from Elsie.

"But seriously," Nick said, "If you could keep it together for just a few hours, it would be appreciated."

"Right, now that that's settled." Elsie hurried over to her own desk and began gathering some research equipment. "I'm taking the HEAT Seeker after that barge. Randy, Mendel, you're coming with me."

Nick glanced at the two troublemakers and cleared his throat. "Maybe Randy should come with me," he said. "I was thinking we should check out whoever sold him that fungus."

Elsie shook her head. "Randy's the one who's been growing that thing. I'll need him to help identify it."

"Hey, giant mutant fungus in the middle of a garbage patch," Randy said. "How hard can it be?"