Bugs had found the door leading to the factory, which was indeed locked. He stopped and grabbed hold of the handle, pulling it with all his strength . . . which resulted in the knob coming off in his hand.

"That's not good," Bugs sighed as he looked to see the sludge was oozing down the walkway towards him. Bugs fumbled with the doorknob, trying to fit it back into the door. When this didn't work, he became more desperate and pounded on the door a few times. But the sludge was oozing closer and time was running out.

Finally in desperation, Bugs made a fist and punched the concrete wall beside the door. His hand and arm went through the thick wall and he fumbled, feeling for the doorknob on the other side. He could barely reach it but at the last possible second his fingers closed around the knob and he turned it, opening the door. He quickly pulled his arm out and hurried through the door, shutting it tightly behind him.

Bugs leaned against the door and breathed a sigh of relief at his narrow escape. A moment later he felt something tapping his shoulder. Looking to his right, he reacted just in time by leaping away from the door as the sludge, which had oozed through the hole he had made in the wall, covered the spot where he'd been standing.

Bugs scrambled quickly up a metal staircase which led to a catwalk above the huge metal containers which were built to contain the factory's industrial waste in this holding area. At the top of the staircase Bugs paused, looking down upon the scene. He could see the tanks were all leaking sludge, which was creeping into the drains along the floor and undoubtedly spilling out into the culvert. The sludge monster which had come through the wall was rolling around happily in the raw crud as happily as a pig wallowing in mud and seemed to have forgotten about chasing Bugs for the time being.

Bugs hurried through the door and into the factory, pausing only to close the door behind him. "Hey, I need help!" he called, raising his voice to be heard above the loud machinery which was in full operation. He ventured forth, maneuvering around the Rube Goldberg-style maze of machines which were mindlessly producing large quantities of mood rocks. "Is anybody here?" Bugs called. But there was no answer and no one was in sight.

"The sludge monsters couldn't have captured all the workers!" Bugs thought to himself as he continued to make his way through the complex. When he reached the other side of the large area he found another door which he passed through.

Running down a long corridor, he checked the windows along the side which offered views of various parts of the main factory floor. But everywhere he looked he only saw machines busily running and no sign of any people.

Finally he reached the end of the corridor and found an area which didn't contain any machinery except for two conveyer belts running perpendicular to one another. It was a packing room and the mood rocks were coming in on the one conveyer belt from the factory while the other, slower belt slowly rolled cardboard boxes underneath for the rocks to drop into. But this didn't interest Bugs as much as the telephone he saw hanging on the wall on the other side of the room.

He lunged for the receiver and dialed zero frantically. "Operator! Operator! Get me the police! The National Guard! Roto-Rooter! Anybody!"

There was no answer, and then Bugs realized he wasn't even getting a dial tone. "The phones are dead," he realized, slowly hanging up. "But if I drive into town to get help it might be too late! What am I going to do?"

His mind raced as he tried to come up with a plan. Then he saw a line of red canisters along the wall. "That's it!" he exclaimed, and with renewed energy he started making the necessary preparations to pull off a daring rescue.

Meanwhile, back inside the culvert, everyone was quiet, watching as the sludge monsters congregated nearby, rising and falling from the ooze as they continued to make the same strange grumbling sound amongst themselves.

After several moments of anxious waiting, Doomsday suddenly remembered. "Doc!" he called out. "Something's wrong with P.T.! We were about to enter the culvert when he just went blank!"

"Yeah, he's been like that the whole time," Sgt. Vinton confirmed.

Doc struggled to turn his head to look at me. He could immediately see the others were correct, as I was still staring straight ahead and not moving.

"I was afraid of that," Doc sighed. "He's suffering from olfactory sensory overload."

"Oh no!" Doris cried. "How horrible!"

"Terrible!" Doomsday agreed. "Is it contagious?"

"It just means his brain can't process the overriding stench that Seymour is smelling," Doc explained.

"The smell is disgusting," Mr. Mystic agreed.

"Yeah, well, imagine if it were a hundred times stronger!" Doc noted.

"Poor P.T.," Doomsday sighed.

Doc reached for his front jacket pocket with his free arm. "Fortunately, I happen to have my C.A.P.E.R. Olfactory Sensory Overload Reverser Device with me, if I can get it out of my pocket. Ah, there we go."

The others looked over to try to make out the small item Doc had pulled from his pocket in the dim light. "That looks like a clothespin," Sgt. Vinton remarked.

"Yeah," the others nodded in agreement.

Doc reached over and carefully clipped it onto Seymour. "Well, now it's a C.A.P.E.R. Olfactory Sensory Overload Reverser Device."

As I came to I didn't know what was going on. The last thing I remembered was listening to Doc warning us over the C.A.P.E.R. band about the sludge being alive. Now my surroundings were dark and I found that I couldn't move. "What's happening?" I asked, startled that my voice sounded so strange. "Why does my voice sound so funny?" I then realized something was on Seymour and I crossed my eyes, trying to see what it was. "Why is there a clothespin on Seymour?"

"We thought it was a clothespin, too!" Doomsday offered. "But actually it's a . . . " He struggled to remember the name.

"A C.A.P.E.R. Olfactory Sensory Overload Reverser Device," Doris filled in, thinking it through carefully.

"Oh," I said, not fully understanding.

"A very handy thing to have around," Doc stated. "You can also use it to hang socks for drying."

"You're kidding!" Klinsinger said with waning patience.

"Sometimes I try," Doc smiled.

I struggled against the sticky yet hardening sludge and realized pretty quickly there was no way to pull free. Realizing Doc was to my right, I asked, "Who else has been captured?"

"Pretty much everyone," Sgt. Vinton sighed.

"Except Bugs," Doomsday reported. "We think he got away."

"Is everyone okay?" I asked worriedly.

"Oh yes, of course!" Klinsinger replied sarcastically. "Just peachy! I'm sure this noxious sludge is doing wonders for our complexions."

"Well, it certainly isn't doing wonders for your disposition," Sgt. Vinton scoffed.

"This is no time to argue," I urged. "Bugs may or may not be able to help us, so we should work together to find a way out of this." There was a long moment when no one responded. "Well?" I finally asked.

"I'm sorry, P.T., but it's really hard to take you seriously with your voice sounding like that," Sgt. Vinton explained.

"P.T.'s right," Doc insisted. "If we don't work together we may never escape."

"Never escape!" Klinsinger cried dramatically. "Oh the tragedy of it all! 'Ace reporter's career cut tragically short! Film at eleven!' The biggest story to hit town in years and I won't be here to cover it!"

"It's all my fault," Mr. Mystic sighed. "I thought I had taken all of the necessary precautions to keep the factory clean and safe. And now I've potentially set loose a plague upon the city."

"Don't blame yourself, sir," Charlie said quietly. "It isn't your fault. It's mine."

"I appreciate your loyalty, Charlie," Mr. Mystic offered. "But clearly the safeguards I put in place to contain the waste wasn't enough. The blame is entirely my own."

"No . . . no," Charlie almost cried. "It was my fault. I never should have let it go this far."

"But you couldn't even smell the sludge," I pointed out. "How could you have known?"

The old man looked up at with a resigned expression. "Because . . . because I'm the one who caused the leaks in the first place."

"What?" we all gasped.

"I damaged the tanks so the waste by-product would spill out slowly and pollute the area," Charlie admitted sadly.

"But why?" Mr. Mystic asked in a hurt tone. "Why would you do such a thing?"

"Because I was angry!" Charlie cried out. "I was angry and upset and . . . and I wanted to sabotage your business. I didn't want you to succeed . . . when my family hadn't."

"I don't understand," Mr. Mystic said.

"This factory had been in my family for generations," Charlie explained. "We made our first fortunes manufacturing those little plastic houses for Monopoly."

"Oh, I love that game!" Doomsday said, then he told Doris, "I like to be the Scotty dog."

"And I like to be the wheelbarrow," Doris told Doomsday.

"In the beginning, the houses were made of wood, but we perfected a plastic version which was more economical," Charlie continued. "When our company landed that contract our fortunes were made."

"So what happened?" Doc asked.

"We eventually lost the Monopoly contract," Charlie sighed. "Oh, there were other successes. We made the little plastic hats for Mr. Potato Head . . . the plastic pyramids that float inside Magic 8 Balls and give you the answers. We even made the front and back ends of Slinky Dogs and Slinky Trains for a while."

"That's quite an impressive history," I nodded.

"But then we hit a slow period and we weren't getting as much work," Charlie sighed. "We lost a lot of money and eventually the factory. After a while, no one seemed to even remember Marek Manufacturing. And Northeast Southweston had forgotten that we helped build this town."

"That's so sad," Doomsday sympathized.

"I saved every dime I could in the hope of one day buying back the plant and restoring it to its past glory for the sake of history," Charlie explained. "And I had just saved enough when it came back on the market. And then . . . then I was outbid! By you!"

"So you decided to sabotage my business?" Mr. Mystic cried.

"And pollute the area at the same time? That's horrible!" Klinsinger stated.

"And highly illegal," Sgt. Vinton added. "You do realize you're making a confession in the presence of the law?"

"I know!" Charlie assured him. "And I know what I did was wrong. But I had no idea . . . I never could have imagined . . . . "

"Unforeseen consequences are often the worst," Doc pointed out.

"I didn't want to hurt anyone!" Charlie insisted.

"But by setting out to ruin his business you were hurting Mr. Mystic," I said. "And after he was nice enough to hire you and trust you to guard his factory."

"Not to mention the fact that we're all probably going to be devoured by sludge monsters!" Klinsinger added angrily. "This is all your fault!"

"You acted in a completely irresponsible manner!" Sgt. Vinton added.

"I know! I know! And I'm sorry!" Charlie cried, his voice shaking with sobs.

"This isn't solving anything," Doc said adamantly. "We need to focus on the situation at hand."

"That's right," I agreed. "Accepting or placing blame isn't going to help us now."

There was a long space of silence where no one said anything.

"I'd fire him if I were you," Klinsinger told Mr. Mystic curtly.

"Please!" I cried. "Can we all just drop it for now? What's done is done!"

"And we're done for!" Klinsinger insisted.

"We don't know that!" I countered.

"We don't even know what the sludge monsters want!" Doomsday agreed. "Maybe they're just lonely!"

"And that's why they want us to stick around?" Doc asked.

"Doc, can you think of any way we can get loose from this stuff?" I asked.

Doc thought for a few moments. "I don't suppose anyone happens to have a large quantity of industrial strength detergent on their person?" he finally asked.

"I guess we'll just have to hope that Bugs can find some way to help us," I sighed.

No sooner had I spoken when Bugs' voice responded, echoing down the concrete tunnel from somewhere nearby. "Hope no more! I'm on my way to save the day!"

We craned to look as the silhouette of Bugs approached from the opening of the culvert leading outside. Apparently he had gone through the factory and come around the outside for his brazen approach.

"We're saved!" Doris and Klinsinger both stated at the same time (and with the same girly inflection, I might add.)

But we weren't the only ones to take notice. The sludge monsters began rising, some melding into each other as they bobbed in the water. I had the impression that if they had eyes they would have been watching Bugs intently.

"Did you bring help?" Doc asked hopefully.

"I don't need help!" Bugs assured us as he approached, carrying several canisters under his arms. "I can handle these sludge monsters single-handedly!"

"What are you going to do?" Doomsday asked.

Bugs dropped the canisters on the walkway at his feet and picked one up, pulling a short hose loose from its side. Several mounds of sludge had joined into one larger sludge monster and began to slink towards him.

"I saw this in 'The Blob'!" Bugs explained, turning his back to us as he faced the approaching mound of sludge. "All I have to do is blast these things with these fire extinguishers, and they'll freeze solid!"

"Um, Bugs . . . . " Doc tried to interrupt.

"They'll never know what hit them!" Bugs said eagerly, allowing the growing mass of sludge to get closer.

"Uh, Bugs . . . . " Doc tried again.

"They'll be sludgesicles!" Bugs continued.

"Bugs!" Doc and I both shouted, trying to get his attention.

The sludge was dangerously close to Bugs when he finally pressed the handle on the fire extinguisher. A small spray of water shot from the hose and squirted the sludge. The sludge stopped and seemed confused, then became visibly agitated as it pulsated quickly.

"Why isn't this working?" Bugs asked with frustration, shaking the fire extinguisher.

"Because that's the wrong kind of extinguisher," Doc explained. "They used CO2 extinguishers in the movie. That's an air-pressurized water extinguisher."

"All the ones you brought with you are water extinguishers," I added.

"Really?" Bugs asked with surprise, turning the extinguisher on its side and squinting at the tiny print written there. He then sighed with frustration. "These things never happen to Steve McQueen!"

I turned to Doc and said, "If we get out of this, remind me to schedule a refresher course with the Fire Marshall on extinguishers."

"Bugs, look out!" Doomsday cried.

Bugs saw the sludge rising up above him. "Well, it won't matter what kind of extinguisher it is when I do this!" he shouted, and he leapt up, swinging the extinguisher over his head and bringing it down quickly. The canister sliced through the sludge clear to the ground, cutting the creature completely in two.

This brief moment of triumph was short-lived as both sides of the sludge monster came down quickly to rejoin, swallowing Bugs whole.

"Bugs!" we all gasped in horror.

The sludge moved to the wall and as we watched it spat Bugs out, leaving him stuck beside Doc and already generously coated in slime.

"Eeewww!" we all groaned sympathetically.

Bugs tried to shake his head and coughed, sputtering and spitting out slime as it dripped down his face. He then let out a long moan of disgust. "Oh, this is gross!" he moaned.

"Why on earth didn't you call for help from the factory?" Doc asked.

"I tried!" Bugs insisted, struggling to see through the slime-covered lenses of his glasses. "But the phones weren't working!"

"I noticed we've been having trouble with the phones lately," Mr. Mystic reported.

"But you're less than a mile from the telephone company's switching station!" I pointed out.

"I know," Mr. Mystic agreed. "I tried calling the phone company to get it fixed but . . . . "

"The phones weren't working," we all sighed simultaneously.

"How did you know?" Mr. Mystic asked.

"That was probably more of your nasty sabotage, I suppose?" Klinsinger asked Charlie.

"I never touched the phones!" Charlie insisted. "And the phone line from the guard shack to the factory is working just fine!"

"Um, fellas . . . don't look now, but I think the sludge is up to something," I said nervously.

We looked as the sludge swirled and formed into several different mounds in the water, twisting and turning as the low grumbling sound grew louder.

"What are they going to do with us?" Doris asked nervously.

"I think we're about to find out!" Doc observed as the nine separate mounds of slick, black ooze slowly started slinking towards us purposefully.

"This can't be happening!" Klinsinger cried as panic set in. "I'm too young to die!"

"If I have to die, does it have to be while I'm listening to you sniveling?" Sgt. Vinton complained.

"I'm so sorry I tried to ruin your business, Mr. Mystic," Charlie cried.

"I wish you had just come to me and told me your story," Mr. Mystic sighed sadly. "Maybe we could have worked together somehow."

"I'm really sorry I didn't do more to protect you," Doomsday told Doris.

"Oh Doomsday, don't blame yourself," Doris insisted. "You were all just trying to help me. You couldn't have known this would happen."

"I'm sorry I didn't believe you, Bugs," Doc offered sincerely.

"I'm sorry you didn't believe me, too!" Bugs replied nervously.

The sludge monsters slipped up onto the walkway and each mound rose up, taking a position in front of each one of us. The low grumbling continued and at this point it sounded more like an actual language, although the cacophony of them all making different noises at the same time made it impossible to decipher anything clearly. I felt a shiver run down my spine as a gaping maw opened in the one in front of me directly in front of my face. Were they really going to devour us alive? As it pressed closer I shut my eyes, not wanting to watch.

"So anyway . . . I said, 'Marge, Bertha Finkelstein has no room to talk, the way her husband steps out on her! And don't think the whole town don't know it!'"

I thought I had lost my mind. But I had heard the woman's voice speaking quite distinctly and not more than an inch from my ear. I opened my eyes and saw that indeed, the voice had come from the sludge monster; its "mouth"was moving in sync with the words.

The voice changed to another, higher pitched voice and the monster said, "And I got it straight from the horse's mouth! Millie Mendelson's platinum hair? Straight out of a bottle! The little hussy."

I looked over at the others and realized the mounds of sludge in front of them were spewing out similarly distasteful rumors. I could see that how, from a distance, this variety of voices would sound like nothing more than a muted crowd sound.

"What is going on?" Bugs cried out in disbelief. "Are you all hearing this, too?"

"Most distinctly," Doc confirmed.

"And did you hear about Sam Wyman?" the monster in front of Doomsday asked. "He was seen coming out of Mickey's Tavern at 2 o'clock in the morning, sloshed out of his mind!"

"That's not a very nice thing to say at all!" Doomsday protested.

"If you can't think of anything nice to say, don't say anything at all," Doris scolded.

Klinsinger was listening intently to the sludge monster in front of him. "And they say that Fred Sanderson's business is going bust and he'll be on the street within the month!" the sludge relayed.

"Ooh, you don't say!" Klinsinger said excitedly. When the sludge monster didn't continue, he said, "Tell me more!"

"Hey, I recognize these voices!" Sgt. Vinton said. "They're all residents of Northeast Southweston."

"Oh no!" Doomsday gasped. "You mean the sludge monster have eaten all those people?"

"I don't believe anyone's been eaten," Doc assured us.

"So then, I said . . . I said, 'Blanche, you can't keep liver in the cupboard! You'll get ptomaine poisoning like that!'" the sludge monster in front of Bugs was saying.

"Oh please, make it stop!" Bugs cried. "I can't take any more!"

Suddenly Bugs felt something oozing up his cheek and he let out a cry of horror. Then he saw Squidge settle on the top of his glasses, looking miserable and shivering as it cringed there, solid black.

"Squidge!" Bugs exclaimed. "There you are! Aw, poor thing. Don't be scared. Everything will be okay. Don't listen to the nasty things all those rude sludge monsters have to say!"

Squidge slowly started turning blue and wiggled happily.

Doc was observing this and suddenly said, "That's it! I think I know what's happening!"

"Well, please explain, Doc!" I begged.

"This is just a theory, but I think it's a viable one," Doc began. "You see, the phone company's switching station is less than a mile away. Chances are the phone lines for the town run under the land here. So when the toxic waste was released into the area, it gradually corroded the phone lines just enough to release a very slight electrical charge . . . . "

"Which is what brought the sludge to life!" I deduced.

"Precisely!" Doc nodded. "And not only did the sludge absorb the electrical charge, but it absorbed all the incessant gossip coming through the phone lines as well!"

"How sad," Doomsday sighed. "After all, gossip is just another form of pollution."

"Doomsday! That's very profound!" Doc commented with surprise.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Doomsday said. "I didn't know I was saying any bad words."

"Not profane," I explained. "Profound."

"Doomsday was right," Doc said.

"He was? You mean he did say a bad word?" Doris asked.

"I must have missed it," Bugs commented.

"Not about that!" Doc sighed. "What he said earlier, about the sludge monsters being lonely. They have all this gossip inside them and no one to repeat it to. They just wanted someone to talk to!"

"But all this negative gossip is so depressing," I pointed out.

"Exactly," Doc agreed. "Don't forget, the sludge is made up of by-product from mood rock materials. Their color reflects their mood. They're black because they're miserable. All they ever hear is people saying negative things about other people."

"Aw, that's really a shame!" Doomsday sighed. "Then they need to hear something nice for a change!"

Doomsday looked at his sludge monster and said, "You know, Sam Wyman is actually a very nice man! Did you know he donated money to the local animal shelter? And he adopted two dogs from there as well!"

The sludge monster in front of Doomsday seemed to relax slightly and its color changed from black to a muddy red.

"It's working!" Doc realized. "Everyone, think of nice things to say about people!"

We all started telling the sludge monsters various good things about the people they had been gossiping about and each other, which made the monsters change into a wide variety of colors and sway happily.

"Fred Sanderson always buys lots of flowers from my roadside stand for his wife whenever he comes back into town from a road trip!" Doris explained to her sludge monster.

"Millie Mendelson donates her time to working with children with learning disabilities and tutors grade school students as well," I informed the sludge monster in front of me.

"Bertha Finkelstein always compliments my wife's goulash at the community pot luck dinners," Sgt. Vinton told the sludge monster in front of him.

All the sludge monsters were now various shades of blue, except for the one in front of Klinsinger, which was still black. We then realized he hadn't said anything at all.

"Can't you say something nice just for once?" I asked.

"Good news isn't my business," Klinsinger explained.

"But surely you must be able to come up with something nice to say about someone," Doomsday insisted.

Klinsinger thought for a moment, then offered, "Kurt Klinsinger is one of the most informative and insightful news broadcasters in the western United States!"

"Oh, very generous!" Sgt. Vinton rolled his eyes.

"And his mom is one of the most wonderful women on the face of the earth!" he added.

"And it took a lot for Klinsinger to come up with that!" I added. "So he really is trying hard to help!"

The sludge monster in front of Klinsinger turned brown, but the other sludge monsters leaned closer and twirled around it, melding and unmelding with it until it also was blue.

"See?" Doomsday asked. "A kind word is never wasted!"

"I knew you were smart!" Doris smiled at Doomsday.

"It's good that the sludge monsters are happy now," I agreed. "But that doesn't solve our immediate problem. How do we get down from here?"

"Bugs, can you pull free?" Doc asked.

Bugs struggled for a moment. "Sorry, Doc. I'm stuck fast. And my hands are covered with so much sludge that I can't see them to summon my super strength."

Doc looked at me and I eyed him with the same, resigned look. "We don't have much choice, do we?" Doc asked.

"I'm afraid not," I said. "We're going to have to say 'that word.'"

"What word?" Bugs asked.

"Oh no, not that word again!" Klinsinger moaned.

"What word?" Bugs asked again.

"We're really sorry to have to do this to you, Bugs," I offered sincerely.

"What word?" Bugs cried.

Doc reached over with his free arm and poked at Squidge, who was still sitting on Bugs' glasses, until the sludge clung to Doc's finger. "Come on, Squidge. You don't want to be so close to Bugs when he hears 'the word.'"

"What word?" Bugs yelled.

"Oh, would you just hurry up and say 'banana' already?" Klinsinger moaned.

"Ba . . . na . . . . NA . . . NA . . . . !" Bugs started screaming, convulsing wildly within his slimy encasing. "BA . . . ba . . . BA . . . NA . . . na . . . . na . . . . NA!!!!"

Suddenly Bugs broke free from the wall, sending slime flying in all directions. He started running around, scaring even the sludge monsters who turned brown and scurried back into the water.

We watched as Bugs continued to rant and rave a few more moments then suddenly he stopped, looking around with confusion. "What's happening?" he asked.

"Not much," we answered.

"Hey, how did I get loose?" Bugs asked, realizing he was free.

"It's a long story," I said. "Can you help us to get down?"

"I can try," Bugs said, trying to figure out how to proceed. He decided to begin by grabbing Doc's arm and pulling until Doc finally managed to wriggle free from the slime and step down. Before they did this, Doc had replaced Squidge on Bugs' glasses, which made Squidge happy.

Doc suggested they use the water extinguishers to soften the slime holding the rest of us, so they worked together, eventually managing to dilute the slime enough where we could pull our hands free and they could then pull us off the wall. This way they helped free Doris, then Charlie, Sgt. Vinton, Klinsinger and Mr. Mystic, and finally Doomsday and myself.

As Mr. Mystic and Charlie stood beside each other on the walkway, Mr. Mystic wiped the excess slime from his sleeves.

"I really am sorry about all of the trouble I've caused," Charlie offered again. "Honestly, I feel terrible about what I've done. I don't blame you if you want to press charges against me."

"Right now I'm just so happy to be alive, nothing could be further from my mind," Mr. Mystic assured him. "But seriously, why didn't you just come to me and tell me the history of this place? I find it fascinating!"

"You do?" Charlie asked with surprise.

"Why yes!" Mr. Mystic assured him. "I think we should always respect the history of our industry! And I would be happy to convert part of the factory into a museum honoring the Marek family!"

"Really?" Charlie asked, tears coming to his eyes. "You mean it? I have plenty of money to pay for one! Oh, it would mean so much to me!"

"I only hope Mystic Mood Rocks will earn a place in toy history as impressive as your family's contributions have been!" Mr. Mystic smiled.

"Yeah, about that," Bugs said, approaching them. "I hate to be the bearer of more negative thoughts, but I don't know if kids are really going to dig mood rocks. They're kind of . . . boring." He reached up and placed his finger under the rim of his glasses to let Squidge slide onto it. "Isn't that right, Squidge?"

Mr. Mystic and Charlie eyed the small, bobbing blue sludge and then each other.

"You may have a point, Son," Charlie said.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Mr. Mystic asked.

"It would certainly solve the clean up problem!" Charlie smiled.

Mr. Mystic held out his hand to Charlie and asked, "Partners?"

Charlie gladly took Mr. Mystic's slimy hand in his own and shook it vigorously. "Partners!"

It was nearing noon on Monday morning precisely one month after we had solved the sludge monster mystery, and we were sitting around the C.A.P.E.R. room waiting for the phone to ring or for a girl to show.

Sure enough, the door opened and a girl entered. Doomsday was especially happy to see it was Doris, and she entered carrying a beautiful bouquet of flowers.

"Doris!" Doomsday said as he dropped his liverwurst, lemon and lychee sandwich wrapped in Lavash to meet her. "Oh, look how pretty your flowers are now!"

"They're growing better than ever, now that all the sludge has been cleaned up," Doris smiled as she handed Doomsday the flowers. "And I have you boys to thank."

"It was our pleasure," Doomsday assured her.

"Oh, and I bought each of you a little something to repay you," she said, revealing a paper gift bag which she'd been hiding behind her back.

"You didn't have to do that," I assured her.

"Oh please! It's the least I could do!" Doris insisted as she pulled four wrapped boxes out of the bag, handing one to each of us. The box she handed Bugs was somewhat larger than the others. "Go on, please! Open them!" she urged.

We all tore into our packages and Doc, Doomsday and I finished opening ours first. "Oh look!" Doomsday said excitedly, holding up the packaging which contained a round, plastic Petrie dish with something oozing around inside. "Pet Sludge!"

"Straight from the Mystek Manufacturing gift shop," Doris explained.

"And look," I said, holding up a clothespin which Doris had included in my package. "She got me an Olfactory Sensory Overload Reverser Device to go with mine! Thank you, Doris."

"Mystek Manufacturing is doing pretty well selling these now, aren't they?" Doc asked as he examined the brightly colored clamshell packaging.

"It's only the latest big fad!" Doomsday said, quickly opening his package and taking out the Petrie dish.

Bugs had finally finished opening his package and was eyeing it excitedly. "Oh, Doris! You shouldn't have! The Pet Sludge Playground Play Set!"

"I knew you already had Squidge, so I thought he might enjoy that to play on," Doris explained. "I hear they really enjoy going down the little slide."

"Squidge will love it!" Bugs assured her as he reached into his pocket and pulled out Doc's glass Petrie dish which contained Squidge. He opened it up and let Squidge crawl out onto the desk. Doomsday had opened his Petrie dish and his pet sludge crawled out onto the desk as well.

They watched as the two small blobs of sludge circled one another and then melded together, changing into a rainbow of colors before pulling apart again.

"It's a brilliant idea," I said. "They're low maintenance, they seem to live a long time, and kids love the fact that their squishy, stinky and sticky."

"And they play well together!" Doomsday smiled. "All you have to do is speak nicely to them to keep them happy."

"And the fact that there's only a limited amount of living sludge makes them real collector's items," Doris pointed out.

"Yeah, Mr. Mystic and Charlie are making their real money from selling the accessories and play sets!" I pointed out.

A look of concern crossed Doc's face as he watched the two blobs join up again and slide across the desk together.

"What is it, Doc?" I asked.

"Oh . . . I was just wondering what would happen if there were ever a convention of Pet Sludge owners," Doc said thoughtfully. "Imagine if all of these individual little Pet Sludges came together at one time!"

"Well, hopefully that's something that will never happen!" I said.

"And we'd just have to talk nicely to them and they'll behave," Doomsday pointed out.

"I suppose so," Doc shrugged, letting the subject drop.

"Doris, would you like to go with us to the opening of the Marek Museum over at the Mystek Manufacturing factory this weekend?" Doomsday asked.

"Sure!" Doris smiled. "That sounds like fun!"

"Can I buy you a Sno Ball?" Doomsday then asked as he scooped up his Pet Sludge into its plastic dish and closed the lid.

"Sure!" Doris said again, following Doomsday out the door.

"Why don't the rest of us go get something to eat as well?" I suggested.

"Sounds good," Bugs said, coaxing Squidge back into his glass dish and closing the lid before setting it on the desk. "The smell of liverwurst is making me hungry. I wonder if we could get some on a pizza?"

Bugs and I exited the C.A.P.E.R. room and Doc stopped to observe the Pet Sludges on the desk, all moving to the edge of their dishes closest to one another as if they were longing to come together. Doc shook his head and walked out after us.

After we had left, Squidge pushed up on the lid of his dish, opening it and crawling out of the container. He slid across the desk to Doomsday's dish and pressed against it, moving in unison with the sludge inside as they both changed colors in sync. The other sludges in their dishes followed their movements and changed colors as well as they all bobbed happily together.