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The Fallen Parler (Part one: A Supernatural Mystery Thriller)

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*The Fallen Parler and The Golden Urn *

Author: B.C. Safari

 

 

 

 

 

Visit author’s website: www.bcsafari.wordpress.com

© B.C. Safari 2016

All rights reserved, no part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without the prior permission of the copyright owner.

This is a work of fiction. Characters, brands, names, places, media and incidents are products of the author’s imagination.

 

[_&‘&To Denver, Cyprena, Agnes and Lydia… the meres that enchant my world.’ _]

[_ _]

 

 

 

*Contents *

Chapter one

Chapter two

Chapter three& &

&&&&&Chapter four &

Chapter five

Chapter six

Chapter seven& &

Chapter eight& &

Chapter nine& &

Chapter ten& &

Chapter eleven& &

Chapter twelve& &

Chapter thirteen

Chapter fourteen

 

Chapter one

[_ ‘The Butler’s Plea’_]

Every year, there is at least one momentous scandal, more outrageous than its forerunner, which sets a tide of shock rippling through the city of London. This year, this autumn to be exact, that outrageous scandal was the death of Allan Roterbee Sr. Nobody really likes to talk about Mr. Roterbee’s death, partly because it’s much too soon and partly because it’s much too mysterious. According to the best coroners in the city, Mr. Roterbee should’ve been alive this very moment, with a beating heart and a firm set of respiring lungs. His vitals were, so to speak, immaculate, which of course was a mystery in itself. However, the utmost mystery surrounding the great Allan Roterbee’s death was his dying gaze. Some gossips went as far as to say that it was filled with unadulterated shock. Perhaps, the sins of his past had finally caught up with him…and they were too large and too numerous for the old fat cat to stomach. So, he simply didn’t. Regardless, the death of Allan Roterbee would soon be a thing of the past. As with all scandals in the city, no one ever cared enough to ponder for long. It was all to be yesterday’s news by the succeeding dawn. However, there were two people who would never forget the scandal, two people who’d lived the scandal, and breathed the scandal, for what seemed like weeks on end. Charlotte and Allan Junior were sitting as far apart as any two people could sit at the backside of a black funeral limousine. The world outside the glass window was almost mute, the vehicle engine was the only soundtrack. The butler twiddled his thumbs on the steering wheel and waited for traffic to shift a little, ‘that was a wonderful send off,’ he said.

Peter, who was driving the vehicle, peered through the rear-view mirror and studied the silent responses of Charlotte and Junior Roterbee. The Roterbee twins wore sullen expressions; the boy was distant and his sister, deep in thought.

Speaking into the silence once more, Peter sighed, ‘your father would have loved it.’

A slow, despairing smile worked across Charlotte’s face. Peter lied, her father would’ve hated it. Allan always hated funerals, and all other occasions that involved any number of people congregating together. He, like Charlotte, would’ve struggled through the insufferable funeral hymns and like Junior, Allan may have found himself staring into his palms. Lost. He would’ve fidgeted his way through the service and swiftly disappeared, before anyone could take note of his absence. The butler lied, Allan Roterbee would’ve hated his own funeral, and may have struggled with the concept of celebrating his own death. Strangely, Charlotte had adopted a rather mature response to the news of her father’s death. Her poise and maturity did not go unnoticed by any of the funeral attendees, who were, themselves, disturbed by the whole tragedy. Today was the last goodbye to her father, and Charlotte decided that today would also mark her last day of mourning. Allan would’ve wanted just that. Charlotte strummed against her dark locks and hoped, deeply, that someday soon her brother would come around. Junior cleared his throat, breaking an unhealthy silence, which was much too readily resumed. Charlotte’s twin was a stony corpse, and contrary to the general consensus, this had nothing to do with the weather. The young man had not said a word the entire day and had not taken in many either. He ignored his hopeful twin’s small attempts to paint their situation as anything better than it was. They were orphans, motherless, and in wake of Allan Roterbee’s death, fatherless. Following Mr. Roterbee’s disreputable passing, the shares of the priceless Roterbee estate had tanked irredeemably, rendering Charlotte and Junior penniless. Their inheritance was stored away in barred trust funds, which could only be accessed when the Roterbee twins reached the legal age of 18, as stated in Allan’s will. That date was several months away; the thought of it both infuriated and amused Junior. His father had foreseen that, if premature death ever became him, something else would have to prevent Junior from gambling his inheritance (or joining a rock band). Charlotte, on the other hand, was always responsible with money. Regardless, Mr. Roterbee provisionally debarred them both of their rightful assets. A peculiar clause in the fine print of his will pressed that Junior and Charlotte be awarded a set of old family heirlooms (the Roterbee ring and the necklace equivalent, respectively). Their current guardian, Peter, performed Allan’s last wish in granting the Roterbee twins their father’s trinkets. This meant little to Junior, who had already made plans to pawn the dusty sapphire gem. Any happy memories he had ever shared with his father were obliterated within the first few seconds of discovering Allan Roterbee’s corpse. Peter suggested therapy for Junior, no child should ever have to see the body of a dead parent. Junior rebuffed this suggestion, choosing to believe that Allan’s alleged suicide was less a cry for help than it was a coward’s escape. In his last days, Allan Roterbee had become distant, caring for neither his children nor his career. Allan never gave much care for anything other than his own affairs, which he seldom disclosed. This was the Allan Roterbee that Junior remembered… a cold, uninterested and reticent man. The engine growled and broke Junior’s trail of thought. Suddenly, Peter propelled onto the bus lane, bypassing the traffic. No one dared beep at the funeral vehicle which, to Charlotte, was the most awesome event that had occurred all day. Charlotte nudged her brother to test if he also delighted in zooming past the other miserable, traffic-bound vehicles.

‘Liven up, Junior!’ she snickered, ‘we’re nearly home!’

Junior’s glance flickered from the window slowly, but bounced to the floor rather than his sister.

‘I’ve been meaning to talk to you about your situation,’ said Peter, greatly pleased that the silence had been broken by someone other than himself. ‘Naturally, Dr. Willow has agreed to take you in.’

Dr. Willow was a distant relative of Allan Roterbee’s, he was a man that the Roterbee twins had never once met. Aside from a few Christmas cards, the doctor was certainly a glorified stranger. As he never had any children of his own, Charlotte believed that Dr. Willow was poorly qualified to assume a position of permanent guardianship. Allan once spoke highly of the doctor, claiming that he had never met another man as trustworthy as Augustus Willow. Those were the only words the late Mr. Roterbee ever uttered concerning Dr. Willow. Glowering at Peter through the rear-view mirror, Junior exclaimed his first words of the day, ‘I’m not going anywhere…and neither is Charlotte!’

Peter’s cheeks lit up and reddened his usually pallid complexion. He squinted at the road and narrowed his vista away from Junior’s eyes. The butler huffed internally, he considered that Junior’s eruption was merely the devious tantrum of an anxious, bereaved teenager. Such behaviours were not alien to Junior’s character, for he had always been a resistant child, and then a troublesome adolescent.

Sternly, Peter replied, ‘I can’t change the will…Dr. Willow is now your legal guardian.’

‘That’s hardly reasonable, Peter!’ cried Charlotte, as thin worry lines worked between her brows, ‘we don’t even know the man.’

Climbing in his seat, Junior declared, ‘I’m not leaving my school, my friends, or my life behind. We’ll be eighteen in a few months and then we can take care of ourselves.’

Peter sucked in a deep breath. Somehow the butler knew that, as stubborn as he was, Junior had a valid point. If it was his own right to make the decision, and not that of the recently deceased Mr. Roterbee, Peter would have taken the twins as his own.

‘I’m only following your father’s wishes,’ muttered Peter, suddenly resolute.

‘THEN UNFOLLOW THEM!’ bellowed Junior, ‘all you ever did was follow Allan Roterbee’s orders…and now he’s dead!’

‘JUNIOR!’ gasped Charlotte, glowering at her brother as though he had uttered the world’s most treacherous words, ‘today of all days…have a little respect for our father!’

Junior slumped back into his seat and managed a pathetic sulk. Charlotte’s eyes rolled, once more, to the world outside the car window. Sniffing back tears in the backseat of the funeral vehicle, Charlotte suddenly felt the gravity of all her bottled grief. Allan was really gone and, in some irreconcilable way, her life would never be the same. Charlotte assumed that the death of her father would finally force Junior to mature. If anything, it was clear that Allan’s death had encouraged the opposite effect.

Peter did not talk again for the remainder of the drive, but dwelled on Junior’s frustrated utterances. There was some forsaken truth in what the boy had said. For as long as he worked for Mr. Roterbee, Peter had not broken a single of his boss’s commands. Peter was always an obedient butler at Mr. Roterbee’s lavish abode, where he tended to the needs of the Roterbee twins. The butler never forecasted that the job would be a permanent one, but each year rolled seamlessly, and soon he grew to care for the twins. Against the feelings of his wife, Sonia, Peter spent more time looking after Charlotte and Junior Roterbee than he spent looking after his own affairs. As Allan Roterbee was largely indifferent to Peter’s presence in and around his home, the butler often wondered whether his lengthy contract was bribed by the twins, begging their father to let him stay on.

When they arrived home, Peter’s wife had already cooked a late supper. Though she had always considered the twins a spoilt pair, Sonia could not help but pity their situation. Sonia never had any kids of her own, and she often suspected this the prime factor behind Peter’s peculiar bond with his boss’s children. Both Sonia and Peter had temporarily moved into the Roterbee Manor, presumably to look after the twins. But one only had to perceive the fascination in Sonia’s expression each time Allan’s costly China was mentioned, to know that looking after the twins was not her cardinal imperative. Earlier that week, Charlotte took note of the sudden disappearance of two golden spoons from the dining room collection, and subconsciously branded Sonia a raving kleptomaniac. Unwilling to offend Peter, Charlotte never voiced these feelings aloud.

Supper at the dinner table was even colder than the car ride home. Now and then, Sonia would spurt a joke which would often make no sense at all, or be somewhat inappropriate. The butler always laughed with his wife, and if Junior was in his right mind, he may have chuckled along. Poking her knife at Junior’s plate, Sonia garbled, ‘are you going to eat that lamb chop?’

Junior tilted his plate at Sonia silently, granting her the scrap meat.

‘Everything is booked, including the coach tickets,’ mumbled Peter, ‘and Sonia has more or less packed all that you’ll need.’

Charlotte made no attempt to retort but simply exhaled a sorrow-filled sigh. Peter could sense her disapproval but he knew that Charlotte would obey her father’s wishes, even if it meant leaving everything behind.

‘I told you before… I’m not going,’ muttered Junior, ‘no way.’

The stern resistance in his voice told that Junior’s decision was unbendable. Sonia, who was generally a talkative woman, would’ve usually taken to Junior’s resistance by yelling over the dinner table, ‘it’s only for a few months, boy!’ but today, she, and everyone else within Junior’s vicinity, sensed that he could not be moved.

When supper was done, Sonia and Peter cleared the table and Junior ascended to his room. The young man kicked off his shoes in reflex and dived into his bed. This was his favourite place. He would never be able to recline anywhere else, and especially not within the abode of Dr. Willow. Before long, his ears were plugged and his iPod placed on automatic shuffle. His favourite band had almost driven him to sweet solace when two familiar shadows appeared in the doorway. What do they want now? Peter and Sonia strode to Junior’s bedside, miming words which he could only decipher once he had fully dislodged his earphones.

‘What is it?’ murmured Junior.

Peter was unusually sombre, ‘it’s just… I wanted to tell you that I’ll miss you,’ he mumbled.

‘N I too,’ said Sonia, ruffling Junior’s hair playfully. The young man smiled, he was forced to admit that Sonia could be extremely amiable (when she wanted to be). Though he had been a miserable soul for the length of her stay, Sonia always gave Junior his deserved space. It was clear that Peter and Sonia were a good pair. In a world were circumstances were not as warped, Junior may have called them family… a family he yearned for but never had. The young man frowned, very rarely did he allow himself to ponder over his irredeemable lot. When he did, it bothered him greatly. With a strange sadness, Junior considered that his butler was the most genuine of all his acquaintances. Peter was determined and unrequitedly loyal, a type of man who’d never been taught propriety, but had inherited it naturally. Peter would follow Allan Roterbee’s dying order because it was the right thing to do. It was only now, this very moment, that Junior sensed the gravity of the butler’s bid. If fulfilling his father’s wish meant leaving his home, he would do it. His own proprieties, faint and blurry as they were, compelled Junior to surrender.

‘I’ll go.’

Junior’s surrender was met with glee. Sonia pecked his cheek and Peter gave him a manly pat on the shoulder. From his baffled expression, it was clear that the butler did not expect Junior to give in with such ease. The boy had been defiant for most of the evening, repelling anyone who attempted to console him over the matter. [_What could have changed between then and now? _]

Somewhere between superficial sleep and consciousness, Junior mumbled, ‘where is it? where I and Charlotte are going…where Dr. Willow lives?’

‘It’s a small town in the North of England, it’s called Shorebridge,’ whispered Peter.

‘Shorebridge…it sounds strange.’

 

Chapter two

[_‘Farewell, Manor’ _]

Gazing skyward, underneath the summit of a clear dome-shaped stadium, Charlotte inhales the air of panic. As suddenly as she arrives here, a nauseating resonance forces her to shield her ears. She scuffles between the crowds of jeering fanatics to get a good view of the spectacle. There are two masked figures in the middle of the stadium, one dressed in white and the other in black. Each time one opponent hauls the other to the floor, the right side of the dome stadium cheers and the left side jeers. This is a fight, a duel. In this duel, there is no palpable victor. Where one is strong and robust, the other is speedy and agile. They are of equal and opposite aptitude. How long before the arbitrator calls it a draw? Here he comes. His face is frightfully recognisable to Charlotte. Allan Roterbee Sr. is walking towards the competitors. As he closes in on them, the fighting ceases and the crowd is utterly silenced. A mounting sensation of shock and bewilderment propels her from the dream.

‘Strange,’ yawns Charlotte, rubbing her eyelids. She feels she has slept plenty, but the dark circles underneath her eyes disagree. That dream appears to her every night since her father’s death. Dreaming about the dead is never a good sign. Dr. Goodman called it PTS (Post traumatic Stress), but the mention of such a condition was gravely shunned by Charlotte. She had recently commenced her final year of sixth form and a psychiatric consultation was the least of her desires. To lay the matter to rest, Charlotte made out that the troubling dream was a singular occurrence. Today however, the young woman was woken from the dream by the pungent aroma of bacon.

‘Yuck!’ she groaned.

Charlotte leapt from her bed and trailed the punchy scent down a flight of steps, to where Junior, Peter and Sonia were nestled around the dining room table. Sonia shoved a plate at Charlotte’s face as soon as the young woman emerged from the steps; she was in no mood to receive Charlotte’s lecture on the cruel treatment of animals in factory farms.

‘Vegetarian bacon,’ smiled Sonia, Charlotte received the plate happily.

‘But I want real pork!’ groaned Junior.

‘This is especially for Charlotte,’ Sonia replied, sardonically, ‘we all know how she feels about meat.’

‘Well at least someone around here understands,’ said Charlotte, grimacing at her brother.

Both Charlotte and Junior had developed a strange fondness towards Sonia. These sentiments were fairly reciprocated by the butler’s wife, who felt it was a great shame that the twins were leaving today. Sonia could have easily gotten used to being the mistress of the Roterbee Manor which, in comparison, was many times showier than her humble abode in the suburbs. The butler’s wife had become unusually familiar with Allan Roterbee’s home, and probably more acquainted with it than Allan had ever been. Before Mr. Roterbee’s death, she had visited the Manor a few measly times and left with miserable reviews. Peter could recall his wife saying [_‘the city of London is certainly not a place to raise children’. _]The irony that she now considered the Roterbee Manor her second home compelled Sonia to rebuke her previous utterances against it. The kids she once considered obnoxious were now like priceless jewels. If Sonia ever did have children of her own, she would want them to have Junior’s intriguing emerald coloured eyes and Charlotte’s impeccable sharpness. She would miss them very much when it’d be just her and Peter again.

The twins powered through breakfast, chattering over current affairs. As Peter passed the newspaper around the table, each person discovered a new article to discuss. On closing the paper, Junior caught the eyes of a man whose face was too familiar to ignore. Allan Roterbee’s face shot out from the paper:

‘It is with great sadness that Mr Allan Roterbee, the entrepreneur of The Roterbee exchange firm, is finally laid to rest. The Prime Minister and several members of cabinet graced the funeral. Roterbee, who was an avid philanthropist, leaves behind his children: Allan Roterbee Junior (17) and Charlotte Grace Roterbee (17)’

Junior closed the paper and tossed it at the centre of the table.

‘Avid Philanthropist’ Junior could not name one philanthropic act his father had ever performed. If Allan was ever a generous soul, it was at the expense of spending time with his own kids. He had never once attended any of Junior’s football matches, nor any of Charlotte’s Olympiad contests. Naturally, after Allan’s unexpected death became public knowledge, such extracurricular activities were halted. The teachers at Ridgewood high school urged the Roterbee twins to take a season of leave (as a mandatory grieving period). Charlotte, who was head girl, strongly opposed the idea. Many suspected that having to hand over her badge to Eliza Greggle, Charlotte’s long-time frenemy, was the underpinning source of her contempt. On the other hand, dodging school was Junior’s favourite part of the whole ordeal. The death of his father fell under a list of mitigating circumstances which granted Junior a pass in all exams (something he may not have been able to achieve otherwise). This was the only good news that Junior had heard all fall. Charlotte, however, opted out of exclusion from exams. She was a straight-A student and did not want to achieve her grades by default. Hard work was one trait her father taught by example. Allan Roterbee spearheaded the Roterbee exchange firm for many years before his untimely end. Charlotte’s aspirations were no less impressive than her father’s. She planned to one-day head the firm, but accepted that Allan’s infamous suicide may have tarnished the Roterbee brand irredeemably. The future of the Roterbee exchange firm was now indefinite. Charlotte pondered over it intently in the weeks following Allan’s death. Many of Allan’s old acquaintances speculated that the death of his wife, who was rumoured to have died during childbirth, marked the onset of his chronic depression. Perhaps this was the reason Allan Roterbee found it difficult to relate with his children…they looked and acted too much like their mother, whom he’d never stopped loving. These were a few of the gossips for Allan Roterbee’s alleged suicide. Junior was grateful that these gossips had not been mentioned in the article; he was thankful that the intricacies of his father’s death had been excluded from the press. The less information people knew, the less they would ask and the less he would have to explain.

The morning passed quickly and Charlotte spent most of it by the telephone, receiving goodbye messages from her friends. Junior assured his schoolmates that he’d likely return by the new year…certainly by his 18th birthday. He was sure that his trip to Shorebridge would be no more than a lengthy vacation. For now, the primary objective was finding a way to squeeze his necessities into the modest-sized suitcase Peter had allotted him. When everything was ready to go, Peter began transporting the cargo. The twins glanced over their home, especially at the large, hand-painted portrait of their father. It dangled, as it always had, on the wall above the fireplace. The portrait had an outlandish guise; it often moved Junior a great deal. Mr. Roterbee was smiling…anybody who ever crossed paths with Mr. Roterbee knew that he seldom smiled. The gifted artist, who handcrafted the painting, may have captured Mr. Roterbee at a rare, invaluable moment. The source of his merriment in the portrait would be an ever-present mystery to Junior. At best, he could speculate that Allan, wherever he was now, was as happy as he appeared in the portrait. His father’s face was transiently blocked by Sonia’s pink duster. Sonia had been polishing the Manor all morning. She wished to leave Allan Roterbee’s home (aside from a few golden spoons) exactly as she met it. When she was pleased with the spotlessness, Sonia loaded her rucksack onto her back and quitted the Manor reluctantly. Charlotte glanced away from her father’s portrait, batting between deep sighs and sobs.

‘There, there,’ teased Junior, ‘and I thought I was the one who didn’t want to leave.’

‘Oh stop it!’ Charlotte snapped, ‘I’m fine, it’s my hay fever…that’s all.’

‘It’s autumn,’ retorted Junior, smirking.

Charlotte gave her brother a despondent smile and absorbed the Manor one last time. Soon after, the Roterbee’s departed their home altogether.

 

*

 

The drive to Victoria coach station is not long; the roads are unusually clear, and today, traffic is absurdly low. Peter skips through radio stations more frequently than usual. All stations are playing depressive ballads, so Peter quits the radio completely. Sonia fills the silence for the rest of the drive and somehow, Charlotte is not vexed by Sonia’s relentless chatters. Charlotte can tell when they have arrived at the coach station, because the squeaks of suitcase wheels revolving along a tiled floor reverberate about the air. A freckled red-head girl is stationed at the booking desk by the entrance of the station. She is the first person to take the Roterbee’s details and, on learning their family name, expresses her deepest sympathy.

‘You’re booked for the 11 o clock coach to Shorebridge, is that right?’ says the redhead.
Junior offers the tickets and nods. The redhead’s hand touches Junior’s as she accepts. Her childish giggle tells that she is readily anticipating the moment she’ll tell all her colleagues ‘Allan Roterbee Jr glided his soft fingers over mine’. Junior’s cheeks flush and Charlotte gags between amusement and revulsion. Once inside the station, their cargo is alleviated from them; Sonia and Peter begin their goodbyes.

‘Be good,’ says Sonia, winking. To Junior especially, she says, ‘look after your sister, dear.’
Digging into his pocket, Peter exclaims, ‘I nearly forgot, your father wanted you to have these!’
He collects two golden rimmed cases, and Charlotte snatches her own automatically. Junior frowns, it’s only the Roterbee ring and necklace of Allan’s will. He flicks his own golden-rimmed-case into his rucksack whilst Charlotte weaves the necklace around her wrist, upcycling it to a trendier bracelet.
‘These trinkets meant a lot to your father,’ Peter’s tone is accusatory, and he glares at Junior directly.
‘Okay, Okay,’ groans Junior, fetching the ring and sliding it onto his finger, ‘happy now?’
Sonia hugs Charlotte once more before she and Peter turn to leave, waving until they can no longer be seen. The coach is tight and overcrowded. Once inside, Junior flicks the sapphire ring to bury at the bottom of his bag. He wonders how many times the automated voice will repeat ‘This is a National Express coach from Victoria to Shorebridge’. To his annoyance, the voice replays every twenty seconds, until he plugs in his earphones. The music drowns out all other distractions. After a short time, the growl of a warm, vibrating engine, coupled with the world outside the coach window speeding behind him, tells Junior that the coach has departed.

‘Seven more hours of this,’ he yawns.

He closes his eyes…sleep is always the best way to kill time.

[_ _]

Chapter three

[_ ‘Welcome to Shorebridge’_]

‘Wake up!’ snapped Charlotte. She nudged the snoozing boy beside her irately. Junior could make out a light dot which, after rubbing his eyes, became the familiar face of his sister. She nudged him once more and nagged, ‘sound asleep with your neck curved all along the window, you’re lucky it isn’t sprained!’

Junior peeled his face from the hot glass, he suspected that dried dribble and sweat had sealed him there for most of the journey. The young man wiped a layer of perspiration from his forehead and groaned. He twisted his arms behind his head, attempting to disperse the pounding aches. Junior had slept like a baby, in a most bizarre position, for the entire length of the journey.

‘We’ve arrived?’ shot Junior, extricating the knots in his neck.
‘Evidently,’ muttered Charlotte, ‘there wasn’t one coach stop and I’ve been awfully peckish…the sandwiches Sonia packed weren’t at all filling.’
Junior rummaged an empty container from his sister’s rucksack, ‘you had my sandwiches too!’ he cried.
‘You snooze, you lose,’ chuckled Charlotte, dragging the remaining rucksack from the overhead baggage compartment. The Roterbee’s squeezed along the narrow isle, embarking on a tight trek to the coach exit. After being clouted with a number of rucksacks, which were being recklessly pelted onto their owner’s backs, they departed the coach. Baggage retrieval was the next task, and as they had little cargo to collect, the Roterbee twins completed this speedily. They came to the information desk, which had no information giver in sight, but contained a measly pile of information leaflets. Charlotte snatched one, pressed it to her nose and squinted intently. The leaflet detailed a collection of small villages in relation to the route of the town’s only bus.

‘We are here,’ said Charlotte, circling the station icon with her finger, ‘right in the middle of Shorebridge…apparently.’
Junior scanned the station in one slow twist of his neck, ‘when are we expecting Dr. Willow?’ he muttered.

‘It would be helpful to know what he looks like,’ said Charlotte, shrugging.

A small crowd were gathered at the station entrance, but none matched Peter’s description of Dr. Willow. Based only on their uncanny resemblance to Mr. Roterbee, Charlotte was convinced that Dr. Willow would recognise them. But, when none of the crowd stepped forward, she was forced to believe that either the doctor was not amongst them, or was, and could not elucidate a blatant family resemblance. Suddenly, two young children, from the same coach, bolted to the station entrance and cried, ‘Grandpapa!’ They leaped into their grandfather’s embrace. Soon enough, other eager passengers followed, each meeting and embracing their acquaintances. Dr. Willow was nowhere in sight. Starved and annoyed, Junior shuffled his cargo to the nearest free seats.

‘You’d think that after we’d travelled half a day, he’d at least have the decency to show up on time.’

Flittering pulses of red worked across Junior’s tanned face. When he was angry, Junior appeared remarkably handsome. Somehow, the colour in his cheeks brought out, beautifully, his piercing green eyes. They decorated his sculpted face, making hard features appear soft in synergy. Charlotte was just as handsome, but often preferred Junior’s full green eyes over her heavy, buried ones. Though she would never admit it to him, Charlotte would often stare into her brother’s eyes, appreciating each aesthetic stroke of colour.

‘Your coach waz early,’ a gawky, foreign voice rang from behind.

Charlotte and Junior flinched in surprise. They turned, automatically, to the direction of the mysterious voice.

‘You are ze Roterbeez, I presume?’ the woman probed, her accent thick and European. She had beady blue eyes and thin dark hair, which had been neatly packaged into a tight miss-trunchbull-bun. Charlotte inspected the woman from feet upwards, ‘Dr. Willow is a man, not a woman,’ she declared.

‘You are quite right Miz Roterbee, Dr. Willow iz a man,’ replied the woman, somewhat amused, ‘but I am his housekeeper, my name iz Luchia.’
Luchia modelled a dark, moth-eaten dress, similar to the kind Allan Roterbee’s maids would wear at the Manor. She had no apron but bore sensible shoes, which told that she frequently engaged in hands-on work. If she was, indeed, who she said she was, Junior was so far unimpressed with the doctor’s proprieties (or more so lack of). Protocol and etiquette should’ve obliged him to personally collect his guests on their arrival to Shorebridge. Junior’s curiosity burned. [_Did Dr. Willow know that they were arriving today? Did he care at all? Was he too busy? Doctors are always busy. _]
Speaking aloud his thoughts, Junior asked, ‘so Dr. Willow’s a busy man, is he?’
‘He iz,’ replied Luchia, ‘but he looks forward to meeting you.’
Extending her hand to Luchia, Charlotte said politely, ‘you can call me Charley.’
‘And you?’ asked Luchia, eyeing Junior.
‘Allan Junior…but Junior is fine.’
Luchia bowed her head cordially and greeted the Roterbee twins. ‘I can take zat,’ she demanded, snatching the suitcase handle from Charlotte’s grip. Out of courtesy Charlotte refused, but Luchia had already heaved Charlotte’s baggage along a steep flight of steps. Surprised by the housekeeper’s brute strength, Charlotte followed, leaving Junior to wheel his own baggage. Outside the station, someone had parked, rather callously, a bright purple Volkswagen. It may have been the most ridiculous car that Junior had ever seen. So when Luchia rolled Charlotte’s suitcase toward the vehicle, Junior’s dread was confirmed…this was Luchia’s car.
‘What – is – that?’ spat Junior, glancing at the bubble-gum coloured car with disgust. Luchia switched it open and began loading the trunk.
‘Zat is our ride,’ said Luchia, her amused tone attenuating a deep eastern European accent. ‘I understand that you both are from ze wealthy pedigree, but things in Shorebridge are different.’
Gulping visibly, Charlotte replied, ‘how so?’
‘You zee, Dr. Willow is a prudent, reserved man. I’d better warn you now, before you get your hopes up, your stay here will not include private limouzines and butlers.’
‘Luchia…’ Junior breathed, faintly, ‘you can’t seriously expect me to enter that thing.’
Junior glanced at the bold vehicle again and realised that it now radiated shades of pink underneath the sunlight.
‘Zat thing haz a name!’ retorted Luchia, ‘she’s called Sylvia and you’re going to love her.’
‘Well, I love Sylvia already,’ said Charlotte, grinning impishly. Junior was unsure as to whether his sister truly meant it. However, the zeal with which Charlotte shot into the front seat of the car told that she did. Junior questioned his sister’s sanity as he lumbered into the unoccupied seat at the rear of the bubble-gum wagon.
‘You can wear ze seatbelts if you want to,’ said Luchia, ‘it’z only a five-minute-drive from here.’

Peter could never have given such an ultimatum; seat-belts were always mandatory. But then, Peter would never be caught driving a Barbie-themed automobile. It took Luchia three attempts to start the iffy engine; on the third attempt, the car growled loudly, discharging a cloud of dirty soot as it propelled into the road…the-Sylvia-mobile had a mind of her own. Charlotte dwelled on Luchia’s portrayal of Dr. Willow’s character, and more, his financial status. Though she never expected Dr. Willow to be a filthy rich man, like her father had been, she always supposed that he was somewhere between comfortable and wealthy. Many of Allan’s acquaintances in the city had been of equal wealth to himself. Naturally, Charlotte assumed Willow was also of measurable financial standing. Why else would Allan appoint the doctor as guardian of his children? It’s what Allan wanted. Charlotte was certain the doctor was not broke, just not nearly as wealthy as she had expected. I can live with that.
Shorebridge was a hilly town; one did not have to drive three meters before encountering a large bump in the road, or a steep ridge. Luchia, who was accustomed to the town’s topography, was smooth in her seat, as Charlotte and Junior jolted up and down and side to side at each bump and ridge. Luchia appeared to enjoy watching them jolt, and Charlotte looked like she was ready to puke any moment. The roads were outlandishly clear, most people walked around in small groups or cycled singly. The town was old, perhaps ancient. Nearly all of Shorbridge’s buildings were formed of greyed bricks, which over the years, had corroded. Greenery added little life to the small town. Shorebridge had a strange dormancy which must’ve been mystifying to visitors. However, a single vacation to the town told that it did not attract many outsiders. Shorebridge was not at all what Junior had imagined. But then, he had not imagined Shorebridge at all, for he never foresaw that he would surrender to Peter’s plea. Squinting into the car window, Junior spotted a child. The little girl was dancing in the road, swinging a tight rope over her head. As he peeked closer, Junior realised that the child was skipping, leaping in a rhythmic hop-scotched pattern. In London, children never played in the road, in fact, children were hardly ever seen at all. Engaged in a seemingly animated phone conversation, the young girl’s father had his back turned to her. It was almost as if the child was neglected. A sinister dark shadow rapidly encroached the young child, with it, an ominous cloud of white smoke. Without removing his eyes from the young girl, Junior edged closer, until his nose prodded the glass window. He gasped in realisation that this was no ordinary road. The child was skipping in the middle of a railroad junction. The dark figure that was hastily encroaching the child was a train. Danger was imminent. The child’s piercing scream forced Luchia to stall the car, and onlookers to clasp their mouths in horror. The young girl’s father rotated suddenly and caught sight of the speedy load that would surely crush his daughter’s head any second. It was too late. Junior clasped his eyes shut, unwilling to witness the young girl meet her untimely end, but something strange happened when he did. It was as if time stood still. The train, which was once an encroaching panther, awaiting its pounce, was now unhurried. Almost, but not entirely, frozen. The train was less a panther, and now more like a slow giant bug. It was not just the train, but everything else in comparison was suddenly Junior’s personal freeze frame. For this lucid hallucination, Junior could only blame Sonia’s dodgy mushrooms. Whatever it was, this was his chance to save the young girl. Junior bolted into the railroad and scooped the child from her dangerous path. As quickly as it had blundered, time re-corrected itself.

‘How did you do that!’ the child’s father cried, ‘you came out of nowhere!’
Lost for words and gasping for breath, Junior managed a shrug.
‘What is your name young man?’ wheezed the father, ladling the child in his arms as a crowd of onlookers assembled.
‘My name is … Allan, Allan Roterbee Junior.’
The onlookers issued Junior an exuberant applaud; it was not long before Charlotte and Luchia surfaced at the front of the crowd.
‘I see zat you’ve been acquainted with ze mayor,’ were the first words that Luchia said.
Mayor? Who on earth was she talking about?
‘Excuse my manners,’ said the child’s father, ‘I’m Mr. Brown, the mayor of Shorebridge.’

‘The mayor?’ gawked Junior.

Extracting a cheque book from his briefcase, the mayor announced, ‘every hero deserves a prize.’

In sophisticated calligraphy, Mr. Brown embellished the cheque with the sum of one thousand pounds.

‘I can’t accept that,’ Junior replied. Mr. Brown stuffed the cheque into Junior’s pocket indifferently.

‘Smile, Mr. Roterbee,’ sang the mayor, posing for photographs, ‘you’re the newest town hero.’

When they were back inside the bubble-gum wagon, Charlotte shrieked, ‘how did you do that…you were as fast as lightening!’

Junior shrugged impassively.

‘I mean I know you play football and everything, but I’ve never seen you like that.’

‘It waz like you were here one minute, zen zere ze next, Mizter Junior!’ cried Luchia, her beady eyes filling with amazement.

‘I… I don’t know, honestly, it just happened,’ said Junior. The idea of telling his sister that he had somehow tampered with the time–space continuum was as berserk as it sounded.
‘However you did it, it was bree-liant!’ cried Luchia, ‘I will be surprised if you are not on ze cover of ze Shorebridge telegraph tomorrow morning.’

‘The w-w-what?’ stuttered Junior.

Ignoring the startled boy, the housekeeper muttered, ‘to think Mizter Brown would give the newest town hero only one thousand pounds for saving ze life of hiz only daughter.’
‘I think that’s plenty,’ blurted Charlotte, ‘and seeing as both our trust funds are frozen, it’s only right that Junior shares it. Five hundred each.’
‘No way!’ Junior puffed.
Luchia chuckled, the strong frown lines on her forehead and mouth made it seem that her life had been devoid of laughter for many years. Charlotte could not shake the feeling that Dr. Willow had something to do with this. When the housekeeper pulled up at a large cottage which sat, perfectly, between two hills, overlooking the riverside, the Roterbee twins were pleasantly surprised.
‘Welcome to the Willow Lodge… your new home,’ announced Luchia.

 

Chapter four

[_ ‘The Doctor’_]

There was a still, bottle-green pond, over which stood an old tapered bridge; this served as the Willow Lodge’s only connection to town. At this time of the day, the pond was unusually motionless, despite the reverberating sounds of nature about it. The gentle trill of toads leaping about the large pond, and the incessant chirp of grassland crickets all gave the Willow Lodge a serene disposition. The cottage was embroiled with picturesque arrays of flowers; neatly trimmed hedges demarcated Dr. Willow’s land. A serrated pathway led to a large red door, etched, in sophisticated calligraphy, with the words ‘The Willow Lodge’. The same logo was inked into the rusty letterbox that had always leaned to one side of the cottage. The Willow Lodge was unlike anything Junior had ever seen. It was, in many ways, different from the Roterbee Manor back in London, which was stylish but not at all homely. This cottage was the polar opposite. It was as if the cottage had been designed to appear snug, and there was something more than its aesthetic landscape that abetted this notion. Once upon a time, a sweet little family must’ve lived here. Charlotte gawked at the lodge for some time, absorbing all the intricacies of her new home, before beginning down the pebbly path.
‘Look at that!’ exclaimed Charlotte, pointing at a hedge which had been moulded into a man.
‘Ze creative property of Dwayne, ze gardener,’ said Luchia, ‘he works on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.’
‘He must be very skilled,’ said Junior, ‘this place seems as if it was handcrafted by Picasso, himself.’

Luchia dug into her handbag and pulled out a bulky set of keys. She fiddled between them until she found the right one.

‘Got ya,’ smirked the housekeeper, lugging at the large red door until it gave way.

The Roterbee twins tip toed into the lobby. The entrance was dark and heavily festooned with glossy, Victorian wood. In some strange way, the insides of the cottage appeared less majestic than the outward landscape.

After Luchia had granted them permission to explore their new home, Junior and Charlotte trotted into every room, endeavouring to note all the pieces of furniture and new, intriguing objects. It didn’t take long to assimilate that Dr. Willow was a hoarder of books, as in addition to his state-of-the-art library on the ground floor, the doctor had packed two of the four bedrooms with mighty stacks of literature, which towered from the ground to the ceiling. There was a narrow space to walk between them. One thing Dr. Willow loathed passionately was when his belongings were moved out of place; this was Luchia’s personal forewarning. And so, the Roterbee twins were not to touch anything… especially not anything of value. The doctor often got his way around here, and the housekeeper needn’t say it, for it was written over her face like a book. At first, Junior didn’t know what to make of Dr. Willow; his house, which bore no family portraits, gave little of persona away. One could survey the entire Willow Lodge, and the doctor would still be an utter mystery.

It was getting late and sundown was fast approaching. Luchia chaperoned the Roterbee twins about the grounds all evening; at suppertime, she invited them to her cabin at the backyard, offering tea and Romanian biscuits. Charlotte and Junior, who were both starving, could not refuse. Whilst the twins ran riot in the large cottage, familiarising themselves with every room, Luchia resourcefully delivered their suitcases to the allotted room. This room, on the second floor, was one of the two which Dr. Willow had not crammed with literature books, the other one was his own bedroom. The room was a great deal smaller than Charlotte’s bedroom had been back at the Roterbee Manor. She was less than pleased to learn that she would be sharing it with her brother. Junior called dibs on the top bunk before Charlotte had even entered the room. She dived into the bottom bed, accepting defeat.

‘I can do this,’ muttered Charlotte. Improvising to the best of her ability, Charlotte plugged her scented candles and juggled furniture about the room. Before long, the droning bedroom had gained some personality; it needed more work but Charlotte was not fazed. Luchia checked in on them every ten minutes and offered to help unpack each time. On each occasion, the housekeeper’s offer was declined.

‘What do you think of … Luchia?’ asked Junior, when the coast was clear.
‘She’s awfully picky, but I suppose she’s alright.’
‘I’ve never heard such a deep voice on a woman!’ sniggered Junior.
‘Junior!’ exclaimed Charlotte, chuckling under her breath.
‘Vat iz it?’ he answered, impersonating Luchia’s thick European accent. Junior’s mimicry of Luchia would not have been as funny if he did not proceed to parody Luchia’s signature posture (crossed arms and tapping heels). Charlotte chuckled loudly.

‘You sound more like Dracula,’ she snorted, tossing a fluffy pillow at her brother’s face. ‘That’ll shut you up.’
Junior caught the cushion in mid-air. Lately, his reflexes had been finely tuned. He replayed the moment that he’d bolted into the train tracks and saved young Maddie Brown, all in what seemed like less than a second. Strange.

The next time Luchia appeared at the doorway, she had a frothy edge to her voice. ‘Zere is someone who wants to meet you.’
The housekeeper turned brusquely and motioned the twins toward the hallway; they followed her down the steep wooden stairway. They were going to meet Dr. Willow, the man whom they’d heard little of, and knew less about. Charlotte could feel her heart bursting forth from her chest each time the floorboard creaked. Junior, who was rarely ever anxious, had even more unanswered questions. Would Dr. Willow like them? Would he care about them at all? What if he just didn’t like the look of them, would he send them packing? Thoughts ran rampant. Junior found solace in the idea of Dr. Willow disliking them instantly and sending them packing. If that were to happen, Peter and Sonia would be obliged to take them in. The visit to Shorebridge would be nothing more than a mini vacation.
A tall figure barred the doorway. The moonlight stroked his silhouette with such slightness that only a mild shadow was cast into the foyer. He had his back to his guests, and was peering into his beautiful front lawn. The doctor seemed to sense that his guests were approaching him, but left it until they were two small steps away before he turned on his heels. He was a man of large-build. A man who, like Junior, had strong individual features which, when placed alongside each other, appeared unusually gentle. He modelled a pair of round, obsolete spectacles which glossed as the light bounced from them. The doctor sported a fitting russet suit and ornate footwear. For a split second, Dr. Willow appeared to smile at his guests. Very quickly, this affable front ceased; the doctor’s blasé countenance was soon filled with pain. He turned from the twins and gestured Luchia away with two fingers.
In a quiet, airy voice, Dr. Willow murmured, ‘Mister Roterbee, Miss Roterbee…I hope you have made yourselves at home.’
‘Yes we have,’ blurted Charlotte, ‘your home is very beautiful.’
‘Thank you,’ said the doctor, evading the young woman’s eyes. Turning to Junior, the doctor muttered, ‘I should count myself lucky to be hosting Shorbridge’s newest male protagonist.’
‘And who would that be?’ replied Junior.
‘You of course,’ chortled Dr. Willow. ‘I received four detailed reports today, of how a local young fella rescued a child from being mowed over by a train. It was not until I ran into Mr. Brown that I discovered the young girl was his little one…and the brave hero was one of my own guests.’
‘Oh that…that was nothing, really,’ shrugged Junior.
‘Really!’ ejaculated Dr. Willow, ‘because ‘that’ is exactly the kind of episode that’ll make you very popular in Shorebridge…very popular indeed.’
It should hardly be fame. The speed at which news of Junior’s heroic episode had disseminated was enough to confirm that Shorebridge was an extremely close-knit town.

Somehow, Junior hoped he would be able to stay off the radar in Shorebridge, but this was no longer a possibility.

‘How exactly did you do it?’ pestered Dr. Willow, his eyes ablaze with curiosity. ‘The mayor seems to be quite bewildered at how you appeared out of nowhere. If I remember exactly, he said he was positive the train would’ve had her in the next second.’
Junior eyed the doctor tentatively, ‘in all honesty, I can’t remember exactly how it happened,’ he replied.

The doctor’s zeal was fading fast, it was as if he expected Junior to illustrate a more graphic, more spectacular, account than Mr. Brown had given. He glowered back and forth between Junior and Charlotte Roterbee.

‘Your father trusted me with his life,’ announced Dr. Willow, ‘at the very least, he trusted that I could look after the two of you. So if there is anything, anything–at–all, that you wish to tell me?’

The doctor shot Junior a suspicious leer and paused for a response…he was met with none.

‘If that is all,’ said Dr. Willow, finally, ‘up to your rooms, I wish you a good night’s sleep.’
The twins lumbered up the staircase and when they reached the top landing, they heard the doctor shout, ‘I trust Luchia has informed you about your new school…you start tomorrow.’
‘What a peculiar man,’ whispered Charlotte.
It took the Roterbee twins a while to fully recline after their first encounter with Dr. Willow, and once they had, they discussed the unusual doctor for most of the night. The topic of discussion then moved to their new school. The idea of starting a new college was daunting. Charlotte had since established an interesting statute of all collages: ‘All boys and girls must belong to a clique’. At Ridgewood high school, it was highly unlikely to spot a young boy or girl who did not belong to a clique. The plastics, the intelligent ones, the sporty ones, there was even a clique for the ones who didn’t belong to any clique. It was also an established statute that finding one’s niche within a clique was a tough job, and more times than never, new members would not be readily accepted. Knowing this, it was with great apprehension that the Roterbee twins pondered over their new school. Charlotte, being the occupant of the bottom bunk, had already taken ownership of her role as the one responsible for switching lights out at the end of the night. When she did, the room was pitch black and so quiet that one could almost hear a pin drop. The silence came with an intense feeling of loneliness, so every now and then, Junior would extend his hand down from the top bunk to check if his sister was still awake, and she would slap his palm if she was. He did this until he could no longer receive a response. Charlotte was fast asleep. The young man reflected on the events of his day, said his daily prayer and was soon, like his sister, in a deep, deep sleep. By the time midnight fell upon the Willow Lodge, each of its inhabitants was immersed in sleep, replaying the subconscious recollections of their day. Charlotte tussled within her bed, she was visited by the same dream that she had dreamed every night since her father’s death.

A dome stadium. Two masked figures, one dressed in white and the other black. She moans and hisses each time a contender is catapulted to the ground. ‘Finish him! Finish him!’ The onlookers shout. Then, she’s forced to the floor by a group of fanatics rising violently from their seats…she sees his face. Just like that, the dream ends at the arrival of daybreak.

 

Chapter five

[_ ‘Clique’_]

The notion of order within the Willow Lodge was a practice that was set in place prior to the arrival of Charlotte and Junior Roterbee. Dr. Willow was usually up by 6.30 am. By 7, he would’ve showered and dressed, all whilst Luchia fixed him breakfast. On a normal day, he would collect the Shorebridge telegraph from the rusted letterbox and consume his breakfast at the large dining room table, alone. Many times, Luchia felt to join him but had learned, from her countless years of servitude, that her master did not like to be disturbed. So, she would eat her own breakfast at the kitchen table and wait until the doctor was finished. He never took long. On days when he was working, Dr. Willow would pace out of the Willow Lodge by 7.45, and on days off, he would disappear into his study, where he would not be bothered for the rest of the day. If it had not already begun to, the arrival of two new visitors would soon transform the dynamics of the large cottage. This morning, Luchia had already added the task of hanging up two new sets of uniform by the twin’s bunk bed, as well as preparing thrice the amount of breakfast, to her busy schedule. At precisely 7 am, the Roterbee’s were awoken by a pounding alarm clock which Luchia had placed on Charlotte’s dresser. They were less than pleased to see murky brown uniform hanging against their beds.

‘What an awful combo!’ Charlotte moaned, pulling the mustard coloured over-the-knee socks up her long legs. How any school could permit students to sport such unsightly attire, she would never understand. Junior spent most of the morning laughing at his sister moan over her outfit. He, being a boy, did not need to wear the bright yellow socks but simply modelled the chequered brown blazer and matching trousers. By the time they’d groomed themselves and descended down the stairs, breakfast was already cold and Dr. Willow had already quit the lodge.

‘Dr. Willow sez I should wish you a great first day at school,’ said Luchia, handing Charlotte a steaming mug of coffee.

Charlotte sifted the steam gently, ‘what’s the name of the school?’ she asked.

‘St. Andrew’s college.’

‘A Catholic school?’ mumbled Junior, biting into a piece of cold toast.

‘It has links with ze cathedral … I will show you all of zese places when we walk down,’ said the housekeeper. Grabbing Dr. Willow’s already-read newspaper and scurrying to Junior, Luchia gasped, ‘look, here you are Mizter Junior!’

She passed the paper to Junior and pointed at two greyed out figures. Mr. Brown and Junior were shaking hands. ‘Mayor’s daughter Madison Brown saved by local hero.’

‘Let me see it!’ cried Charlotte, snatching the paper. She pressed it to her nose and studied the article still, ‘check you, Mr. Hero,’ Charlotte teased, tossing her brother a taunting glare.

Strangely embarrassed at Luchia’s and Charlotte’s excitement, Junior sighed, ‘women!’

When Luchia suggested they depart the lodge, Junior was actually pleased to be going to school (as it meant he could escape a house full of hyperactive females).

‘Could I have an umbrella, Luchia?’ asked Charlotte, stepping onto the front porch.

‘Miz Charlotte, zis has been the hottest autumn we’ve had in many years,’ chuckled Luchia. ‘We have not seen rain for ze past two weeks…ze forecast shows zat we are not due rain until next Thursday.’

Charlotte twiddled her brows dubiously. ‘I just have a feeling it’s going to rain,’ she muttered, ‘I’m never wrong.’

‘If you wish,’ said Luchia, tossing Charlotte a polka-dotted brolly.

‘I’ll bet ten pounds,’ challenged Junior, ‘it won’t rain a drop today.’

‘Deal,’ muttered Charlotte.

The walk to St. Andrew’s school took less than ten minutes. From the rising population of youngsters (dressed in tartan blazers) all converging into a narrow black gate, Charlotte could just about tell when they had arrived. The overhead banner read St. Andrew’s school for boys and girls. The Roterbee twins had forgotten what a normal school felt like. Ridgewood High was the city’s most renowned private school, reserved for the kin of London’s crème de la crème. St Andrews, however, was a non-exclusive school and it catered to pupils all ages below eighteen. Squeezing through a crowd of hyperactive eleven year olds each morning was not going to be an easy job. With the help of numerous sign boards and arrowheads, Luchia directed the twins to the reception foyer. Here, they were warmly greeted by the deputy head teacher, who was quick to congratulate Junior on his valiant saving of little Maddie Brown. Roberta Quabble was her name, on days when the headmaster was absent she would assume his duties. Meeting and greeting new students was one of these duties. Quabble would explain the school’s health and safety regulations and shortly discuss subjects, before referring new students to their head of year. Today, she conducted these duties in perfect timing. By 8.30, Junior and Charlotte had been educated on all they needed to know about St. Andrew’s college. Afterwards, Mrs. Quabble instructed one of the students on reception duty to escort Charlotte and Allan Junior to the form class 13.4. When they arrived at the classroom, the Roterbee’s were greeted by a group of impassive 17 year olds, who sat, dull and immobile, behind their desks. Junior could tell that half the class were texting away underneath the tattered desks; he could also tell that the female teacher at the front of the class did not have the slightest clue.

‘Allan and Charlotte Roterbee, I’ve been expecting you,’ cawed the mousy woman at the front of the class, ‘come on in, and don’t be shy.’

‘I’m Mrs. Lee,’ she said, in a feathery voice that matched her pixie features. ‘Let’s give a warm welcome to the newest members of our form.’

Mrs. Lee began to clap and the class followed languorously.

‘Before you take your seats, introduce yourselves, tell us something about yourselves.’

‘Err, I’m Charlotte,’ Charlotte began, ‘but you can call me Charley, I prefer Charley and I guess I like…’

The word ‘chemistry’ appeared in Charlotte’s head, but she was certain it’d be social suicide if she professed her love for chemistry on the first day.

‘I like swimming,’ she mumbled.

The class was as indifferent as a group of people could be, so as soon as Charlotte felt herself getting red, she grabbed the first free seat at the front of the classroom.

‘And you, Mr. Roterbee?’

‘I’m Allan Junior,’ mumbled Junior, ‘and I-’

‘You’re the boy from the paper this morning!’ exclaimed Lena Gwen, from the back of the classroom.

‘Um yeah,’ gulped Junior, cursing the Shorebridge telegraph underneath his breath. The young girl’s verbal outpour had now captured the attention of the entire class.

‘What do you know…we have a hero in our midst,’ cooed Mrs. Lee.

Unfortunately for Junior, the last available seat was beside the girl who had, so callously, revealed his heroic episode to the class.

‘I’m Lena Gwen,’ she beamed, patting the seat beside her. ‘Now tell me again about how you bolted into the train tracks, not a care in the world but saving that little girl,’ Lena demanded.

Overwhelmed by the slightly loony Lena, Junior began to recount a forged version of the story (which did not involve freezing time). An eager group of pupils at the back of the class listened in amazement and Lena, especially, cooed and awed as Junior narrated the events of his first day in Shorebridge. Meanwhile, Charlotte made acquaintances with a group of three identically-dressed girls at the front of the class. The leader of the clique, Beau Bennet, commented on how pretty she thought Charlotte’s hair was. Beau’s minions, Delilah and Grace, robotically imitated their leader, paying Charlotte generous complements.

‘You’re so pretty,’ fawned Grace, ‘you look so exotic.’

‘Have you got anything in you?’ asked Delilah, then answering her own question replied, ‘my grandma on my mother’s side was Egyptian and my father is German…I’m basically a mix of everything.’

Charlotte was astounded at the silliness of these girls and wondered if they were actually as daft as they appeared. ‘My dad is…well he[_ was_] of Italian decent,’ she replied.

‘Cool,’ nodded Beau, ‘that must be why your skin is so soft and tan.’

Flattery rarely fooled Charlotte, it didn’t take long for her to note the frequency with which Beau glanced to the back of the class. And, it didn’t take a genius to decipher that Beau was far more interested in the handsome young man at the back of the class, than the time on the clock above his head. Charlotte gave Beau the benefit of the doubt, but it wasn’t until second period, in English, that the assertive blonde girl came clean with her agenda.

‘Hey Charlotte, I was wondering if your brother is seeing anyone…anyone like a girlfriend?’

‘Nope he’s single, Beau.’

Beau seemed pleased with Charlotte’s response; in less than no time a mischievous crescent-shaped smile worked across her face.

‘Charley, we are friends, right?’ said the rosy-cheeked blonde, ‘and friends do help each other out.’

‘Sure,’ Charlotte replied, her voice laced with heavy sarcasm.

‘It’s only fitting that your brother, being who he is, date the most popular girl in school.’

Playing along, Charlotte gagged, ‘and who would that be?’

‘Me!’ cried Beau, batting her spindly lashes.

If the word ‘conceited’ ever materialised, Charlotte was certain that it would look something like Beau Bennett. Her glossy blonde hair and rosy cheeks were a generous shell, beneath which lay something far less appealing. For the first two periods of the day, all Beau Bennett had been able to chatter over was Mona William’s hideous new hair style and, of course, Berty Prescott’s untrendy school shoes. Enough was enough.

‘My-brother-won’t-date-you. Ever.’ Charlotte mouthed the words generously, accentuating every vowel, loud enough for surrounding students to hear.

‘What do you mean?’ Beau squeaked, her cheeks reddening to an unsightly shade.

‘For the record, my brother doesn’t date highly conceited plastics,’ shot Charlotte.

Beau Bennet’s eyes widened in their sockets; no one ever dared speak to her in such a manner. Her jaw had dropped a good few centimetres before Delilah smacked her hand over Beau’s mouth, reminding her to close it. In this time, Charlotte Roterbee had already gotten up, turned on her heels, and marched to a seat at the other side of the room. She could not stand to be in the presence of those girls another moment. The crime she had just committed was somewhere in the top five worst felonies of high school. And the punishment? Social suicide. Oddly, Charlotte could not give a care. Cliques, squads and groups…it was all irrelevant to her now. If it meant having to endure another hour in the company of those whom she had aptly nicknamed ‘plastics’, Charlotte would rather be cliqueless.

News of Charlotte’s tough words against Beau Bennet spread through the school faster than it took to send one text message, as she could barely walk through the corridor without someone either scowling or smiling at her. Some people were divided on whether Charlotte Roterbee should’ve insulted Beau Bennett so directly, but for the larger part, people were grateful that the bully had finally met her match. When lunchtime arrived and Junior was nowhere to be seen, Charlotte hoped that one of her new found supporters would invite her to sit next to them, but everyone was too busy chattering in their cliques. Charlotte scanned the noisy dining hall in one slow twist of her neck. She located an empty bench pew and started towards it quickly. Determined to grab her seat, Charlotte took little notice of the tall brown skinned girl, who was also tracking the seat. Heads-butting, they collided in the air, which sent the food flying in every direction from both dinner trays. The two girls rubbed their aching heads.

‘I’m so sorry,’ mumbled Charlotte.

‘No, I’m so sorry. I should’ve seen you coming,’ said the girl.

They stared at the assortment of food that was now one hideous mound over the floor, and both started laughing in sync.

‘I’m so bleedin’ clumsy,’ the young woman chuckled. She and Charlotte began scraping the remains of their lunch from the floor. ‘Why haven’t I seen you before?’

‘That’s because I’m new,’ replied Charlotte, ‘my name’s Charley.’

‘Aha …so you’re the new girl who put Beau Bennet in her place.’

Charlotte rolled her eyes, silently answering the rhetorical question.

‘It’s good to meet you. I’m Sasha Fling.’

Charlotte studied Sasha’s face, and instantly deduced that she was very beautiful. Sasha’s caramel coloured skin and sharp hazel eyes gave her a delicate golden glow. She had full lips and eyebrows, defined cheeks and tight, black tresses of hair.

‘Wow, news really travels fast around here, doesn’t it?’ said Charlotte quietly, still absorbing Sasha’s striking features.

‘Oh, you shouldn’t worry about that. Tomorrow they’d have found something more flavoursome to gossip about.’

Charlotte chuckled, ‘I hope so.’

Sasha had a genuine amiability which Charlotte rarely sensed from anyone, especially not on first meeting. Talking was seamless with Sasha, not nearly as superficial as it had been with Delilah, Grace and Beau. When lunch came to a close, Charlotte and Sasha were pleased to discover that they both had a History lesson with Mr. McGlean for last period. They arranged to walk to class together. Charlotte managed to dodge Beau Bennet and her minions at afternoon form time. She found a seat beside Junior, who had been oddly vacant all day.

‘Where have you been?’ said Charlotte, ‘I’m pretty sure we have the same lessons…more or less.’

‘I explained to Mrs Quabble that I don’t have to do lessons. My A-level grades from Ridgewood are already guaranteed,’ scowled Junior.

‘That’s totally unfair!’ exclaimed Charlotte, ‘lessons are compulsory, whether you’ve got your grades or not!’

‘Well, that’s what I’ve just found out,’ huffed Junior, ‘apparently, I’ve got a one-hour detention after school for bunking.’

‘Now that’s fair,’ sneered Charlotte, ‘I guess your charming hero effect is wearing off.’

‘And what about you?’ shot Junior, ‘I heard you dissed the most popular girl in school to her face.’

‘You shouldn’t pay so much attention to gossip,’ snapped Charlotte, ‘and for the record…I did.’

‘Badass,’ smirked Junior.

Charlotte smiled to herself, secretly proud. When form was dismissed, Charlotte hurried to meet her new acquaintance who, whilst they were walking to class, informed her that Mr. McGlean’s History lesson might just be the most tedious class she would ever have to endure. Sasha was right. McGlean was a tough stutterer; it took him nearly five minutes to get through a single sentence, so it seemed that the lesson would never end. When the dusty classroom clock struck 3.10, marking the end of the school day, most students charged to the door without any sympathy for the old man who was struggling to shout, ‘Claa-a-a-sss dissss-missed!’

Junior, however, trudged lazily behind all the other excited school kids. He envied them now, they were free as birds, whilst he had nothing to look forward to but a one-hour detention with Mrs. Lee.

‘Not a good start, hero-boy,’ said Mrs Lee, raising her brows as Junior handed her the pink detention slip, ‘truanting on your first day … tut tut.’

‘I wasn’t truanting,’ muttered Junior, before remembering that he’d probably not have enough energy to explain why he didn’t need to go to lessons. That, would involve discussing his father’s death. ‘Fine, I was truanting,’ he agreed on second thoughts.

‘Well this is the best day for your detention,’ grinned Mrs Lee, placing a dishevelled mesh of documents on Junior’s desk, ‘I’ve been looking for someone to help me sort through these newspaper cuttings.’

For goodness sakes. Junior had planned to sleep through the entire length of detention – a plan which, after examining the size of the pile before him, was certainly not a possibility.

‘We’re holding a ‘history of Shorebridge’ event at the school,’ said Mrs Lee, ‘I need you to sort through these papers. Separate the general newspaper cuttings from everything that has anything to do with St. Andrew’s, could you?’

‘Well, I technically don’t have a choice,’ hissed Junior.

Mrs. Lee shot him a menacing glare and after that Junior did not speak aloud again. Sorting through the pile of scraps was a tedious job which no-one with a short attention span, like Junior, should ever endeavour. Very soon, cuttings with headlines that read ‘SHOREBRIDGE TOWN HALL RESTORED and ‘WOMAN OPENS LIBRARY IN SHORBRIDGE’ became one big jumble in Junior’s head. Every now and then, Mrs. Lee would hover over Junior’s shoulders, ensuring that he was completing the task correctly. The frustrated young man would mumble a curse word under his breath each time she came. He was almost halfway through the pile when the face of a man, whom he knew too well, appeared to him again. ‘HOUSE FIRE KILLS COUPLE AT THE WILLOW LODGE. Junior was certain he had seen his father’s face in the newspaper cutting. Of course, this would’ve been impossible, as the man in the article was named Arthur Mannox, and his wife, named Annie. The Mannox’s had died in fire at the Willow Lodge. In many ways, the resemblance between Arthur Mannox and Allan Roterbee was remarkable. Mannox could’ve easily been mistaken for Mr. Allan Roterbee, and at the very least, a doppelganger version. He did not look a day younger or older than Allan Roterbee had been on the eve of his death, which tempted Junior to search for the publication date of the article ‘4th[_ November 1947’_]. Junior sat stiff in his seat, stunned. His flabbergasted expression enticed Mrs. Lee to pry into what had caused him such shock.

‘Nothing, nothing,’ coughed Junior, folding the flimsy paper into his blazer, ‘I just remembered…I forgot to turn the iron off when I left the lodge this morning.’

‘Silly boy,’ chortled Mrs. Lee.

The article detailed the death of Arthur and Annie Mannox. It would’ve been impossible for Allan Roterbee, who was born in 69, to have been alive in 1947. Junior would’ve been happy to conclude that Arthur Mannox was any old man who happened to live in Shorebridge many years ago. However, the fact that Arthur and his wife died in a fire at the Willow Lodge could not have been mere coincidence. What was the connection between Allan Roterbee and Arthur Mannox? Mannox was old enough to be Allan Roterbee’s father, and their resemblance was truly astonishing. However, Allan always told the twins that his father was an Italian man who died fighting in the war…certainly not from a house fire. As far as Junior knew, his father had no reason to lie about such a matter. Every new question could only be answered with another new question. Soon, Junior amassed a confusing trail of queries. [_Was Allan Roterbee tied with Shorebridge in more ways than through Dr. Willow? Who exactly was this other man, Arthur Mannox? Why would his father never mention Arthur Mannox if they were, in fact, related? _]

‘You look pale Mr. Roterbee!’ exclaimed Mrs. Lee, ‘like you’ve seen a ghost!’

Glancing at Junior’s unusually chalky cheeks, she cried, ‘that’ll be enough for today, you’re free to go!’

Junior nodded vacantly and started towards the door. His thoughts were running rampant again. The most likely explanation was that there was no link between Allan Roterbee and Arthur Mannox. However, Junior could not shake off the inkling that there was some deeper connection between the two men. For weeks he had questioned why Allan, in the event of death, would send his children to a secluded town in the North of England. Was there something that Allan wanted them to learn? A secret that Mr. Roterbee wished to finally uncover? Junior reflected on the long weeks his father often spent away from home. What exactly was Allan Roterbee doing? Somehow, the uncanny resemblance between Arthur Mannox and Allan Roterbee was too suspicious to disregard as measly chance. He would find a link between the two men if it meant pulling it from thin air. The walk back to the cottage was one of Junior’s strangest walks. He was wholly convinced that there was something more about his father’s history, on which he had been poorly informed. He questioned whether anything Allan had ever told him was the truth.

‘Listen to yourself, you sound loony,’ Junior spoke aloud. Hearing the sound of his own voice made Junior suddenly aware of his surroundings; he was dripping wet. Like Charlotte had predicted earlier that morning, it was raining.

 

 

Chapter six

 

‘One Bold Disappearance’

The next days had a similar pattern to the first. The Roterbee twins would be awoken by a sounding alarm at precisely 7 am, get dressed and have breakfast, all before departing the Willow Lodge at 8. Luchia escorted them to school for the first few days but was forced to stop (after Charlotte explained how uncool it was for a 17-year-old to be walked to college). Nevertheless, Luchia watched over the Roterbee’s each day, as they powered over the tapered bridge. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s predictions about the weather, and seemingly everything else, had become spookily accurate. In just the past three days alone, Junior had staked, and lost, thirty pounds to Charlotte; now, he had given up making bets altogether. Sasha was also astonished by Charlotte’s precise forecasts after she’d predicted their history homework two days in advance. Apparently, Sasha’s Haitian grandmother would’ve called Charlotte’s ability ‘the gift of foresight’…either that or she was a psychic. Charlotte naturally found it odd that Junior and Sasha were surprised by her guesses, as to her, they appeared perfectly sound and logical. Meanwhile, Junior struggled through troubled, long days and sleepless nights concerning his absurd discovery. He considered sharing the secret with his sister but found himself more discouraged the more he dwelled on it. Charlotte would think that he was paranoid; she would brand his theory an illusionary link. He couldn’t let that happen. If only he could find evidence stronger than a remarkable resemblance to prove that Allan Roterbee was somehow linked to Arthur Mannox. Then, and only then, would Charlotte be forced to believe him. Until that time, the newspaper cutting would be tucked away at the bottom of Junior’s blazer pocket. He contemplated asking Dr. Willow about the paper, but on the few occasions on which Dr. Willow was at the lodge, he was brash and impatient towards everyone, Luchia especially. The Roterbee’s each observed the impolite manner with which Dr. Willow often ordered Luchia around. Before they arrived, she would’ve been stuck with the insolent doctor, day in day out, for years. One of these days, Junior was going to stand up to Dr. Willow and demand he treat Luchia with an ounce of respect. This objective became even more important than getting the doctor to explain the newspaper cutting.

It was Saturday, and one would’ve guessed from the loud growl of the lawnmower that Dwayne-the-gardener was hard at work. Charlotte had been skyping Sasha all morning and Junior, who was bored out of his mind, finally resorted to playing computer games. Every now and then, he would squeeze a pillow over his head, desperate not to overhear Charlotte and Sasha’s graphic descriptions of their crushes in the boy’s football team. On Saturdays, Luchia would prepare breakfast a little later, and a little bit more lavishly, than usual. To everyone’s surprise, Dr. Willow reported downstairs a whole ten minutes after breakfast was announced, and when he did, he reached straight for his newspaper, which Luchia had collected in advance.

‘There’s been one more disappearance,’ Luchia announced.

Dr. Willow seemed upset that the housekeeper had read the paper before him. Picking apart her eggs, Charlotte mumbled, ‘disappearance?’

‘Yez, they’ve been going on for months now…haven’t you heard?’ replied Luchia. ‘Disappearances of high profile people. My cousin in Scotland sez it’s a conspiracy.’

‘Who disappeared?’ asked Junior, deeply engrossed in Luchia’s theory.

‘There have been about five disappearances so far…zis time it waz Bart Bold, ze head of Bold industries.’

‘And you think that Bart Bold has been abducted or killed?’

‘It wouldn’t be ze first time!’ exclaimed Luchia, ‘ze last time these deaths and disappearances happened in Shorebridge was in the 1940’s. High profile people going missing, then turning up dead somewhere, az if it were natural causes or-’

‘That’s enough, woman!’ Dr. Willow barked, ‘you pay too much attention to these things, there is no conspiracy, and anyone who says so is clearly bored with their own lives.’

‘The 40’s – like 1947?’ blurted Junior, ignoring the doctor.

Luchia remained silent, just as her master had instructed.

‘What does that date mean to you, boy!’ pried Dr. Willow, his deep blue eyes narrowing over his spectacles.

‘Nothing,’ replied Junior, ‘nothing at all.’

The mention of 1947 seemed to have struck a chord with Dr. Willow, who appeared positively astonished that Junior would ever think up such a date. The doctor disengaged himself from the conversation, worried that his startled countenance would spark a notion that he knew more about ‘1947’ than he was letting on. It was too late; Junior had already recorded the expression on Dr. Willow’s face. Conversely, the doctor sensed that Junior knew something he ought not to know. They stared each other down, for a good few minutes, across the kitchen table. Before long, the women began to clear the table, with hopes that doing so would alleviate the tension in the cottage.

‘I want no mention of conspiracies under this roof …ever again,’ the doctor announced. He heaved himself from the dining table and strode to his study.

Utterly bewildered by the tense exchange, Charlotte muttered, ‘what on earth was that all about?’

‘I couldn’t tell you myself, dear girl,’ answered Luchia.

If Junior had not perceived the slight tremor in Dr. Willow’s voice at the mention of 1947, he may have been just as puzzled as Charlotte or Luchia. However, Dr. Willow’s expression, alone, more or less confirmed that he knew something more about the fire at the Willow Lodge. But then, he was the owner of the cottage after all. Perhaps the doctor was merely touchy over a fire that destroyed his home many years ago. Dr. Willow’s response was untypically abrasive. He was not a pleasant man, but until today Junior had never heard the doctor raise his voice. Poor Luchia was literally barked at for mentioning the word conspiracy, and banned from ever discussing it again. From events passed, Junior had learned one thing…if he wanted answers, he would not get them from Dr. Willow.

‘I’m going to the supermarket today, who wants to come?’ asked Luchia, clearing the last bits from the kitchen table.

‘I can’t, I’m going to Sasha’s house,’ said Charlotte, ‘we need to get started on that history project.’

‘History project?’ muttered Junior, dazed.

‘Yup, It’s due in two weeks from now. We have partners, you were partnered with Lena Gwen…remember?’

‘Oh, her,’ droned Junior.

His thoughts had been far away from school the entire week; the discovery of Arthur Mannox was nearly all that he had thought about. School was merely a way to pass the time.

‘Please can I join your group,’ begged Junior. ‘I need a pass in this project to get Mrs. Quabble off my back.’

‘But you’re with Lena-’

‘I can’t stand the girl, all she does is stroke me and fiddle with my hair … please Charley.’

‘Fine,’ Charlotte surrendered, ‘you’d better get ready, I’ll be off soon.’

Luchia seemed pleased that the twins had agendas of their own. With Dr. Willow in his study and Dwayne in the garden, Saturday afternoon was the perfect time for a short siesta. After dropping the twins at Sasha’s house, Luchia could finally recline.

Sasha was pleased to see Charlotte again and after Junior explained his dire need to get a pass mark in his history project, she was compelled to accept him as a project partner. Sasha’s house was a great deal smaller than the Willow Lodge, and the gardens appeared less spectacular in comparison. The lawn at the head of Sasha’s home was dense and unkempt; it was obvious that no one had paid the garden any tender loving care in years. Junior was convinced that the presence of thick sturdy weeds, which had taken root in Sasha’s front lawn, was enough to increase Dwayne-the-gardener’s blood pressure. Ornaments and family portraits decorated the insides of Sasha’s home, from the door to the hallway that led to the kitchen. The house was modest, probably the most modest house that the Roterbee twins had ever visited. Something about the heavy tribal decor and careful interior design made Sasha’s home seem more interesting than others. When they had all squashed around the small kitchen table, Sasha asked, ‘would you like a drink?’

‘Just water, thanks,’ said Charlotte.

Nodding vacantly, Junior mouthed, ‘same.’

Numerous family photos were pasted over Sasha’s kitchen fridge. The kitchen also bore an impressive collection of souvenirs and miniature landmarks. Sasha’s home and choice of dressing told that she had lived a modest lifestyle; she was clearly not the kinfolk of any exceptionally affluent person, as the Roterbee’s had been. However, one could also detect a rich exuberance of life practices and culture that Sasha would’ve been exposed to. Her house was cluttered with intriguing articles, rain sticks and bongo drums. It was no secret that Sasha was a free spirit, unbound by any responsibility or worry that would usually plague a teen who was born and bred in higher society.

‘Woooah, don’t touch that,’ shrieked Sasha, dragging back the large tribal vase which Junior had uprooted from its spot, ‘it’s my Ma’s favourite black oak and silver vase, she’d kill me if it broke.’

‘Oh sorry,’ said Junior. He fashioned the large vase to its original position and read aloud the label, ‘made in Haiti.’

‘It’s one of the few objects that Ma brought over when she left the island on a great white ship to come to England.’

‘So you’re originally from Haiti?’ asked Charlotte.

‘Partly… my father was from the islands,’ said Sasha, pointing at one of the photos on her fridge. ‘Here we are, in the islands, just before he passed away.’

‘I’m sorry-’

‘Don’t be,’ gulped Sasha, ‘he died a long, long time ago.’

Junior pointed at the photo of a strikingly beautiful woman, who bore a terrific resemblance to Sasha, ‘and your mum, this is her?’ he muttered.

‘Yup, she lives in Haiti with my little brother, Dieter.’

Sasha flicked the photograph and chuckled, ‘If I knew you would be so interested in my family, I would’ve set it as the topic of our history project!’

Though the subject of the visit should’ve been Mr. McGlean’s history homework, it appeared to be the last of anyone’s agenda as they chattered through the afternoon. The main topic of conversation skipped between the various cliques of St. Andrew’s, and how the Roterbee’s would’ve compared it to their old school. Junior’s new admirer and abandoned history partner, Lena Gwen, was also a heated subject of discussion. Charlotte and Sasha gagged as Junior described Lena’s absurd obsession with him, but when Sasha informed him that Lena had been the same way with all the ‘new boys’, he was greatly relieved. Apparently, Lena dated the last four young men who arrived newly to St. Andrew’s and before Junior, she had her eyes set on Ricky Grimshaw (who was also the captain of the boy’s football team).

‘That girl has no boundaries,’ professed Charlotte, ‘she’s almost as irritating as Beau Bennet.’

Junior and Sasha nodded in unison, humoured by Charlotte’s deep disdain towards Beau Bennet. A muffled noise emanated from the corridor and cut all conversations short.

‘Oooz dere,’ a voice echoed from the hallway, ‘is dat you Sasha…Sasha?’

A small, frail figure appeared in the doorway. The elderly brown-skinned woman had a full head of white hair, curly like Sasha’s. Her skin was glossy, with deep rimmed circles beneath her eyes and shallow wrinkle lines cornering her thin lips. She was as breakable as a glass doll. If the old woman’s frame was not supported by the sturdy wooden walking stick, which she clenched with both hands, she would not have been able to stand upright.

‘Ma, I’ve got some friends round,’ called Sasha, ‘meet Charlotte and Junior.’

Sasha waved at her grandmother, drawing her into the kitchen. When the old woman stepped into the light, her features appeared even more defined. She wore a patterned headband and was wrapped in layers of blankets.

‘Friends?’ she squinted, her narrow gaze bouncing from Charlotte to Junior.

‘Friends,’ the old woman muttered again, scrunching her face confusedly. She glanced down and breathed heavily for a moment. Suddenly, the elderly woman began to scowl, mumbling chants in a type of broken English which Charlotte expected only Sasha could understand.

‘Dere here, dere everywhere now, now,’ the old woman chanted.

‘Excuse my Ma, she’s ninety-six!’ muttered Sasha, guiding her grandmother to the nearest unoccupied seat, ‘she has moments when her faculties aren’t completely together.’

‘Me not a mad woman Sasha, me head screwed on right!’ Ma Joelle mumbled.

‘I’m sure it is Ma!’ replied Sasha, mordantly. She placed a glass of cool water on the kitchen table and beckoned the old woman to drink. As she sipped her last droplets, Ma Joelle sighed. She cleared her eyes and focused her gaze on the set of new faces, ‘and what can me do fa ya now?’ she muttered.

‘It’s great to meet you, Ma Joelle, Sasha’s told me alot about you,’ said Charlotte.

‘Has she now?’ said the old woman, surprised.

‘You,’ said Ma Joelle, pointing at Junior, ‘say, fetch an old woman de paper.’

Junior grabbed a familiar copy of the Shorebridge telegraph and placed it on Ma Joelle’s lap. She gestured her appreciation and signalled for Junior to be seated again.

‘Mmmm, more and more of dem,’ Ma Joelle mumbled, speeding through the paper, ‘just like last time.’

‘What’re you talking about, Ma?’ said Sasha, peeping at the paper over her grandmother’s shoulder. ‘Oh, those disappearances again …Ma’s got a bunch of theories!’

‘Nat theories Sasha, dey true!’ the old woman yelled, ‘they being murdered, forget disappearance.’

‘We don’t know that Ma!’ retorted Sasha, ‘I’m sure Bart Bold has probably fled the country for tax reasons, you know how these businessmen are.’

‘What makes you think he was murdered, Ma Joelle?’ asked Junior, intrigued.

Ma Joelle’s mumbles dissolved into a faint whisper, ‘coz he’s one of dem of course, he’s a…a parler.’

‘A what!’ cried Junior.

Sasha rotated a finger around her grandmother’s temples, ‘that’s enough now Ma!’ she groaned. Charlotte chuckled a little.

‘You look like you need a rest Ma, let me take you upstairs,’ said Sasha, lifting her befuddled grandmother into a pushchair, ‘be back in a second.’

‘Me not mad, me not mad, Sasha,’ the old woman’s murmurs became distant whispers, which soon, could be heard no more. A moment later, Sasha reappeared at the doorway.

‘Sorry about that,’ smiled Sasha, ‘we’d better get on to that history project.’

‘Agreed,’ nodded Charlotte.

Making a start on the history project became the main priority for the rest of the evening. Charlotte assigned roles to Sasha and Junior, appointing Sasha the ‘research manager’ and Junior the ‘source analyst’. Charlotte would write the project. And so began work on ‘public health in the Roman civilisation’. Though the girls sunk their teeth into the project, Junior’s mind was far away from his role as source analyst. Today, he’d learned of three ridiculous theories for the disappearance of Bart Bold. Luchia predicted that the disappearance of Bart Bold was a conspiracy, Sasha suggested that his very ‘appropriate’ disappearance was likely due to tax reasons, and the confused old lady, Ma Joelle, said that Bold was likely dead. She had called him a parler. Junior had never heard of the word before. It may have been sensible to take the mystified mumbles of a perplexed elderly woman with a pinch of salt. One thing that Luchia disclosed, against Dr. Willow’s will, was that this was not the first time high-profile disappearances had occurred in Shorebridge. She mentioned that they had taken place during the war. Ma Joelle had confirmed it when she said ‘just like last time’. By last time, had the old woman meant just after the war? Ma Joelle would’ve been a mere teen at that time. How far could her memory be trusted? Junior was struggling to link these revelations with his discovery of Arthur Mannox. Something in the bewilderment of Dr. Willow’s countenance at the mention of 1947 told that Mannox’s death at the Willow Lodge was intertwined with the disappearances. Charlotte still had no idea of the uncanny resemblance between Arthur Mannox and her father, and Junior had a rising intuition that the mysterious suicide of Allan Roterbee was somehow intertwined with these other unexplained disappearances. Junior was set on discovering the absolute truth… and in so doing, he hadn’t the slightest idea where to start.

 

Chapter seven

 

[_ ‘The Headmaster’s Office’_]

Fourth period was dragging. If it was the will of Monsieur Antionne to bore his class numb through longwinded explanations of French verbs, he had succeeded. Most of his students disengaged as soon as the lesson commenced. This was evident from the growing number of paper aeroplanes set to fly about the room. Also, the silly girls at the back of the classroom had since constructed detailed scribbles, which were passed sequentially, from desk to desk, until they returned to the original distributor. Once in a while, Monsieur Antionne would intercept a note and demand that the person responsible own up to it. Each time, he was answered with a set of mischievous giggles. Fortunately, the note labelled Mr. Antionne, which depicted an overweight balding man with a thick moustache, was not intercepted by the irritated teacher (though it set a loud chorus of chuckles around the class). Charlotte was particularly humoured by that note so she passed it to Sasha, who let out a loud snigger. Monsieur Antionne’s angry eyes scanned the room for the source of merriment.

‘You, Miss Fling,’ he said, casting a finger at Sasha, ‘out, now!’

Sasha rose from her seat, smirking. She would’ve been the twelfth student Monsieur Antionne had dismissed from the class; at this rate, he’d have no class left to teach. As Sasha departed the classroom, she winked at Charlotte. She was secretly relieved that she could start lunch a whole twenty minutes early. It was uncommon for students to be out of class at this hour; Sasha power-walked to the dinner hall and noted the unusual bareness of the corridors. There was a small figure at the end of the corridor. He was kneeling by the headmaster’s office; as Sasha approached him, he became larger and more familiar.

‘Bunking again, eh?’ she asked, ‘if you were trying to avoid Mrs. Quabble, I certainly wouldn’t hide outside the headmaster’s office.’

‘I’m not bunking,’ snapped Junior, ‘and you should go.’

Droplets of perspiration collected on Junior’s forehead, he had both hands wrapped around the handle of the headmaster’s door. The young man appeared unusually troubled.

‘What exactly are you doing Junior…breaking and entering the headmaster’s office?’

‘Would you lower your voice!’ snapped Junior, angrily, ‘Quabble left only a few moments ago, this is my only chance.’

‘Chance for what!’ shrieked Sasha, ‘chance to get expelled!’

‘You won’t understand, there’s something I need … something in the headmaster’s records.’

‘What!’

‘I need to find out about a man, Arthur Mannox, he lived in Shorebridge and probably went to St. Andrews…they’ll have his files here.’

Junior pressed his forehead against the headmaster’s door, unwilling to be moved. The reality of what he was attempting suddenly hit. Shockingly, he had thought the plan over many times. In fact, it had kept him from sleep last night and when he finally slept, he dreamt of executing the very same mission which he was attempting now…getting Arthur Mannox’s file.

‘You’re out of your mind Junior…out of your mind!’ cried Sasha, ‘you’ll get into so much trouble.’

Junior expired a sigh of desperation, ‘I need this,’ he whispered, ‘it’s to do with my dad…I need to get this information.’

In her right mind, Sasha would’ve pushed Junior away from the door as soon as she had learned of his foolish operation, but there was something bizarrely sincere in the face of the young man. It affected her deeply and she found herself unable to reproach him.

‘I cannot believe I’m doing this,’ whispered Sasha, plucking a pin from her tresses of hair. She plugged the pin into the keyhole and began to twist until the lock gave way.

When the heavy door finally swung open, Sasha smirked, ‘gotcha.’

She tossed Junior a nod of approval, ‘okay, I’ll keep watch…you’ve got five minutes.’

Junior sped into the large room and scanned it in one twist of his neck. The walls were decorated more bountifully than the other St. Andrew’s offices. When Junior’s eyes met the glare of Headmaster Williamson, he was momentarily distracted. Blimey. The headmaster’s portrait was abnormally lifelike. The idea that Mr. Williamson, wherever he was, did not know that his swanky office was being raided was strangely amusing. Junior caught sight of an enormous block of grey cabinets at the left wing of the office. The large marker ‘Student files’ suggested that the storage units contained exactly what Junior was looking for. The cabinets spanned an entire wall. He was certain that the information of all the students who’d ever attended St. Andrew’s was stored within it. The ‘1900 – 1940’s’ drawer was particularly attractive. From Junior’s calculations, Arthur Mannox would’ve passed through St. Andrew’s during the early twentieth century. He dragged forth the cabinet and filtered for family names beginning with M.

‘Mannox, Mannox…where are you?’ he mumbled.

Anxiety crept…what if he did not find the file in time?

‘Hurry up!’ called Sasha, from the doorway, ‘you’ve got two minutes left!’

Each word she muttered excited Junior’s nerve endings a little more than the last. Suddenly, Junior’s eyes fell upon Arthur Mannox’s file.

‘Bingo’ he muttered, sliding the document into his schoolbag.

‘You’ve got it, let’s go!’ cried Sasha.

Junior studied the cabinets again and silently considered the risks of searching for Dr. Willow’s file. Without hesitating, he lunged into the next cabinet. When Junior had powered through two large drawers, he suddenly came to the conclusion that Dr. Willow did not exist in St. Andrew’s directory. Sasha, who was panicking at the ticking clock, raced into the room and urged Junior to abandon his half-completed mission.

‘We need to go, now!’ she barked. Junior was sprawled over the floor, digging through a deep pool of documents. Sasha scooped up the remaining files and shoved them into any open cabinet. When Junior saw that the clock hand was edging dangerously close to lunchtime, he mirrored Sasha, clearing away the last of the files. Sasha returned the last file and bolted to the office door. In her stride, she almost didn’t notice the heavy bronze bust that had been catapulted from its podium. Sasha shrieked, expecting the bust to fly to the ground and take her with it. To her surprise, the bust remained, suspended horizontally in the air. It was somehow still attached to the podium. Slowly, a large block of bookshelves at the right-wing wall slid past each other, giving way to an impressive dark hole. It took a moment for Junior to realise what had changed in the room. Instantly, he understood that the bust was not a piece of extravagant decor…the bust was a lever and it had activated this mysterious passageway.

‘J-J-Junior?’ stammered Sasha, ‘please tell me that I’m hallucinating. Tell me that a hole-in-the-wall did not just appear out of nowhere.’

‘Not out of nowhere …the lever,’ replied Junior, examining the bust, ‘you activated it somehow, there’s something down there.’

With wide eyes and a trembling bottom lip, Sasha replied, ‘this is our queue to leave.’

To some degree Junior agreed, but an overwhelming sense of curiosity over how a secret passageway came to be in Mr. Williamson’s office dominated any feeling of imminent danger. Clasping a hand over his nose, Junior gasped, ‘there’s something down there…can’t you smell that?’

A repulsive odour swam from the dark hole, forcing Sasha to also clasp her hand over her nose. Junior edged into the passageway, with Sasha a few steps behind him. The potency of the odour grew as their proximity to the source increased.

‘Use the torch on your phone,’ muttered Sasha, tip toeing into the dark passage.

Junior did as he was told. The radiance of Junior’s phone screen illuminated the entire wall opening, which had once been a row of book shelves. A downward spiral of steps was revealed behind it. Junior rotated his phone until all four walls of the passageway could be seen in the light. He observed that bold inscriptions of the letter ‘P’ had been scribbled over all corners of the narrow passageway. When the young man projected his light source to the end of the spiralling steps, the horror that met the eyes of Sasha Fling and Junior Roterbee was enough to stun a garrulous man dumb. However, the sight of a frozen corpse at the bottom of the steps had the opposite effect on Sasha, who proceeded to scream at the top of her lungs until she had no air left to project. Soon, the frightful combination of Sasha’s endless wail, and the echoing ding of the commencing lunchtime bell, attracted a large crowd of curious students to the headmaster’s office. From the size of the crowd, Sasha’s cry would’ve reached every corner of St. Andrew’s college. The deputy head, Mrs. Quabble, fought through the crowd of onlookers.

‘What in the name of Sylvester are the two of you doing in the headmaster’s office?’ yelled Mrs. Quabble. A moment passed, in which she analysed the distressed expression that laced both Sasha and Junior’s faces. Unwilling to delay her angry teacher speech a moment longer, Mrs Quabble cried, ‘dear girl, you look mortified! Whatever is the matter?’

‘He’s … He’s dead!’ Sasha sobbed, pointing into the wall. The befuddled expression on Mrs. Quabble’s face was replaced by the same lines of horror that Sasha and Junior modelled. Naturally, the teacher was perplexed at the presence of a gaping passageway where a bookshelf should have been. So, when her eyes caught the familiar face of Headmaster Williamson, lying dead at the bottom of the spiral steps, Mrs. Quabble’s knees gave way. First, although, she pronounced a scream that was almost as excellent as Sasha’s. Mrs. Quabble circled the air twice and made as if to faint. She would’ve surely banged her head if Junior did not catch her fall. Soon after, Charlotte surfaced from the dense crowd of students. It was Charlotte’s first inclination to preview the spectacle that had rendered Mrs. Quabble unconscious. When she did, she was horrified. Invariably, the verdict would be ruthless murder. It took a single glimpse to confirm so. His eyes were wide open, frozen still, as if fright and terror occupied his last moment. Junior wished that he could disremember Mr. Williamson’s vacant eyes, but there was something scarily familiar in them. Williamson modelled the same dying gaze as Allan Roterbee. It was the very same expression of unadulterated shock. Post mortem analysis revealed that Allan Roterbee had probably struggled when he realised he was moments away from death. But why would a suicidal man ever want to fight for his life? Surely, there was something deeper behind Mr. Roterbee’s pain-filled eyes. As for the headmaster, rumours for his own cause of death had only just begun to swirl.

No one ate that lunchtime, no one dared talk either. To the best of the school board’s knowledge, Mr. Williamson had been away on a conference for the past two weeks. To find him very dead, at the underside of a secret pathway, was a scandal that would shake the foundations of Shorebridge town forever. To the disappointment of avid theorists, the secret passageway was found to lead to nothing but the basement of the school, which contained a large network of pipes and spider webs. The basement contained no obvious evidence as to who or what was responsible for the death of Mr. Williamson. It was presumed that the murderer must’ve been able to bypass all the security measures of the school. This presumption would have been made concrete if the murderer was, indeed, an outsider to the school. But what if Mr. Williamson’s murderer was someone who knew the school well? Someone who’d worked inside the school, alongside teachers and students. Undeniably, Percy Williamson was one of the most charismatic men in Shorebridge. He had been the headmaster of St. Andrew’s college for what seemed like a lifetime; not many of the Shorebridge locals could even remember his predecessor. Regardless, Williamson was a most revered citizen of Shorebridge. He often told anyone who was fortunate enough to meet him, ‘if I had not been a headmaster, I would’ve probably ended up as a watchmaker because it’s my greatest delight to make order out of disorder.’ No one ever seemed to know what the old man was talking about, yet one could not help but warm to the always-cordial Mr. Williamson. Unlike the draconian headmasters of schools in neighbouring towns, Mr. Williamson did not rule over St. Andrew’s with an iron fist. He held all pupils and staff in a type of esteem that compelled them to show him equal respect… and, of course, abide by school regulations. Because of this, St. Andrew’s College had been a harmonious, progressive school for several years. It was difficult to fathom how someone could ever murder Mr. Williamson, as aside from healthy competition with other headmasters, which he sparingly engaged in, Percy Williamson had no bad blood with anybody in Shorebridge. By the time the police had arrived at the scene, Mr. Williamson’s body had already been layered with pristine white blankets and wheeled out to the ambulance van at the school gate. The students and teachers watched in bewilderment, some crying and many unable to talk. The police decreed Williamson’s office an official crime scene. All classes were dismissed effective immediately, at least until the school grounds could be deemed safe.

When Mrs. Quabble recovered to a fully conscious form, it was as if she no longer remembered that Sasha and Junior had been caught trespassing the headmaster’s office. She was rather insistent that, in wake of events passed, neither of them bother coming to school over the next few days. She even offered to drop them home. Mrs. Quabble was acting on this notion: if the sight of Mr. Williamson’s dead body was enough to make a grown woman collapse, then the two teenagers must have been a great deal more traumatized than they were letting on. What exactly the pair were doing inside the office in the first place would be a question for another day…a day when the whole escapade had blown over. For now, Mrs. Quabble’s foremost goal was to safely deliver Sasha Fling and Junior Roterbee to their homes. She had no idea how she would begin explaining the disturbing events of the day to their guardians. Somehow, Quabble knew she ought to recommend a session with the school’s counsellor. On informing the guardians of Sasha Fling and Junior Roterbee of Mr. Williamson’s passing, Mrs. Quabble was not at all met with the responses she had expected.

‘Dead, him dead!’ Ma Joelle squealed, ‘me knew it, him muurdad…me told Sasha but she tink me mad!’

Mrs. Quabble nodded politely, feigning she had understood a word of what Sasha’s barmy grandmother had said. Dr. Willow however, appeared physically distraught at the news of Percy Williamson’s death. This was a surprise to Mrs. Quabble, who had not known the two men to ever be acquaintances. When she questioned Dr. Willow as to whether he had ever met the headmaster, she was answered with, ‘no, no… our paths never crossed, I’ve heard he was a brilliant man is all.’

‘He was,’ Mrs. Quabble replied, not completely convinced that the doctor had spoken the whole truth.

When the deputy head departed the Willow Lodge, Luchia, who had been eagerly eavesdropping from the kitchen corridor, appeared in the hallway. The Roterbee’s and Dr. Willow stood in silence. Any moment now, Junior was expecting the doctor to ask him to recount the events of his day – from waking up, arriving at school, breaking into the headmaster’s office and finding a dead corpse. The young man remembered his first day in Shorebridge, he remembered how Dr. Willow had questioned him so particularly on how he’d saved little Maddie Brown. Junior had not given him the satisfaction of knowing the truth back then, and he certainly wasn’t going to start now. In the short drive home at the back of Mrs. Quabble’s car, he passed Sasha a scribbled note:

[* If anyone asks – We were truanting from lessons, found Williamson’s office door open. Went in. We discovered him dead. I’ll explain everything tonight- get to the Willow Lodge for 9. *]

Sasha ripped up the note as soon as she had read it; Junior was not sure whether her reaction was solely a mechanism to prevent Mrs. Quabble detecting the note, or a demonstration that she had no intention of meeting him at all. If the latter was the true reason, Junior would understand why Sasha would want nothing to do with him. After all, it was Sasha who attempted to dissuade him from breaking into Williamson’s office in the first place, but he’d managed to drag her into the chaos. Sasha deserved to know why she had found herself assisting Junior’s raid of the headmaster’s office. Junior planned to come clean to both Sasha and Charlotte. He was to present them with the newspaper cutting that told of Arthur Mannox’s death and the thick file, which was still tucked away inside his school bag. The young man had less than four hours to ruminate over why his intuition about Mannox and his father was worth breaking and entering Williamson’s office. He hoped, though doubted, that the file would produce some concrete evidence. Strong evidence was what he needed to shape his theory that Allan Roterbee and Arthur Mannox were related. The news of Percy Williamson’s death had blurred his theory in some small, inexplicable way.

‘Up to your room then,’ said Dr. Willow, disrupting Junior’s trail of thoughts. The doctor appeared to usher the twins up a steep flight of stairs.

‘Doctor!’ cried Junior, astounded, ‘are you not going to ask me anything about what happened today?’

Dr. Willow creased his thick, dark brows, ‘do you want me to?’

‘Well, no but … I thought’

‘Let me tell you what I think boy,’ said the doctor, ‘I think that you need to stay out of trouble. From the moment you stepped into Shorebridge, you’ve done nothing but–’

‘Doctor Willow!’ exclaimed Luchia, ‘do not tell me zat you really think ze boy knows anything about Mizter Williamson’s death!’

This was the first time the Roterbee twins had ever heard the housekeeper raise her voice to Dr. Willow. Their astonished expressions told that they were also impressed. Dr. Willow was briefly dumbfounded, but a second was all it took for him to recompose himself.

The doctor inhaled deeply and replied, ‘then how on earth did the boy find himself in Williamson’s secret chamber?’

‘Secret chamber?’ muttered Junior, his eyebrows creasing together dubiously. ‘Mrs. Quabble said nothing about a secret chamber… how did you know that?’

‘I’m sure she must’ve mentioned it,’ replied Dr. Willow, ‘yes…she said you and Miss Fling found the headmaster in his secret dorm.’

‘I’m pretty sure that’s not what she said,’ snapped Charlotte, puzzled by the doctor’s distortion of Mrs. Quabble’s words. ‘I remember what she said exactly “If Miss Fling and Mr. Roterbee had not found Percy in his office, I would’ve thought he was still overseas” – that’s what Quabble said.’

‘Yez, if I remember correctly, she said nothing of a secret dorm,’ Luchia concurred.

Reddening to a luminous hue, Dr. Willow barked, ‘to your rooms, ALL OF YOU!’

Directly at Luchia, the doctor spewed, ‘including you!’

If one had not known better, it would’ve been the general assumption that the Willow Lodge was not inhabited by two temperamental teenagers but three, for the manner with which Luchia forcefully slammed the kitchen door demonstrated that she no longer amassed any fear of the doctor. The twin’s, impressed by Luchia’s feistiness, mimicked her. When they reached the second floor, Dr. Willow was affronted with two more boisterous, slamming doors.

‘Need to establish order in this house,’ the doctor mumbled, before disappearing into his study.

 

Chapter eight

‘The Oath of secrecy’

‘Strange.’

‘What’s strange?’

‘I had a feeling that this would happen,’ muttered Charlotte.

Junior creased his eyebrows incredulously, ‘Charley, I know you can somehow predict the weather, but no one is[* *]that good,’ he replied.

‘I could swear on it!’ exclaimed Charlotte. ‘Just like when dad died, I had a feeling that something bad was bound to happen today…poor Mr. Williamson.’

Shuddering as an image of the headmaster’s decrepit corpse reappeared in his thoughts, Junior muttered, ‘with all these strange disappearances, you’re not the only one feeling strange …even Luchia is on edge.’

‘I’ve never seen her so feisty before,’ sniggered Charlotte, ‘even Dr. Willow was stunned to silence.’

The mention of Dr. Willow’s name triggered an instant alteration in Junior’s countenance. If the doctor knew that Mr. Williamson had a secret dorm beneath his office, the two men must’ve been more than acquaintances. Why had Willow denied knowing the headmaster at all? From his reaction alone, Junior was certain that the doctor knew more about Percy Williamson’s death than he was letting on. But how on earth were these occurrences connected? The file that Junior had stolen from the headmaster’s office would soon shed light on who Arthur Mannox really was…that would be the place to start.

‘You are going to tell me, right?’ blurted Charlotte, ‘whatever it was that you and Sasha were doing in Williamson’s office.’

‘That depends…’

‘Depends on what!’

Junior pressed his nose to the window and observed the night’s sky. The moon was full and incandescent. He imagined that the outside world would’ve been bitingly cold by now. Much too cold for any strong spirited youngster to sneak out of her cosy home, where her grandma lay sleeping, jump onto her bicycle and pedal as fast as she could to the Willow Lodge. She won’t come. Junior closed the blinds slowly. If Sasha did not come, Junior feared he would not be able to reveal his suspicions to his sister. Sasha’s presence alone would act as a buffer. She would serve as a voice of reason against Charlotte’s always–factual explanations.

A sudden ‘Tink’ reverberated from the window; the prickly clink of rough pebbles rebounding from the glass forced Charlotte to sprout up from her seat.

‘What in Merlin’s beard was that?’ shot Charlotte, worriedly. Charlotte spread apart the bedroom curtains and waved her torch into the dark lawn. Below, Sasha Fling had already parked her bike against the giant hedges, she had arrived at 9 on the dot.

‘Sasha!’ shrieked Junior, poking his head through the window, ‘you need to mount the wooden fencing… then leap onto the roof beneath the bedroom window.’

‘Bloody hell!’ cursed Sasha. She had cycled for ten straight minutes and was positive that Junior was overestimating her acrobatic abilities. Nevertheless, Sasha managed to scale herself up the staggered wooden fence until the bedroom windowsill was within reach. Charlotte and Junior pulled Sasha through the window head-first. It took a few minutes for Sasha to stabilise herself once she stood upright. From her appearance, it was easy to deduct that Sasha had cycled against a blustery night’s wind. Her flawless caramel cheeks appeared unusually flustered; her usually tidy dark curls were now a blown out mesh of tousled waves. Sasha plucked a crispy brown leaf from her dishevelled locks and grimaced.

‘It’s great to see you Sasha, but why exactly are you here?’ said Charlotte, straight to the point.

Dusting the last foreign particles from her raincoat, Sasha huffed, ‘I was hoping that I would find that out myself, Charley.’

The two girls turned at Junior, shooting threatening expressions.

‘Okay… I’ll explain everything,’ mumbled Junior, extracting a document from his school bag. Shaking Arthur Mannox’s folder, Junior muttered, ‘this…’

‘That file is what we went through hell for!’ shot Sasha, ‘this’d better be good…who is this man, Arthur Mannox, anyway?’

‘Arthur Mannox!’ exclaimed Charlotte, ‘him again?’

‘You’ve heard of Arthur Mannox!’ cried Junior, gawking at his sister.

A worry line worked between Charlotte’s brows, ‘sure, I told you about him all those weeks ago…just after dad died.’

‘What – do – you – mean?’ Junior enunciated every syllable of every word.

‘It was the Saturday after Dad’s passing,’ recalled Charlotte. ‘I was by the telephone accepting calls from everyone who’d sent their condolences…and then a woman called.’

‘You didn’t tell me this!’ shot Junior.

Charlotte tossed her brother a befuddled glare, either she was finally losing it or Junior had suffered terrible memory loss. The simplest explanation was that Junior paid her little attention in the days following his father’s death.

‘Anyway,’ continued Charlotte, slightly aggravated, ‘the woman kept repeating [_‘Arthur, Arthur Mannox’ _]and before I had the chance to tell her that she’d dialled the wrong number, she hung up. Sonia said the same woman called every day since Allan had passed, asking for Arthur each time and then hanging up… I guess she must’ve given up by now.’

Junior was suddenly pale, ‘that is impossible,’ he mouthed.

‘What’s impossible?’ asked Sasha, bewildered by Junior’s sudden pallid complexion.

‘Read this…read it out loud,’ ordered Junior, removing a crumpled piece of paper from his blazer. Charlotte snatched the newspaper cutting and scanned it before regurgitating:

 

‘HOUSE FIRE KILLS COUPLE AT THE WILLOW LODGE

In the late hours of Thursday evening, a fire broke loose at the Willow Lodge, Shorebridge, turf of the recently deceased aristocrat, Lady Helen Willow. The fire claimed the lives of two residents of the Lodge, a newly married couple, Arthur (39) and Annie Mannox (34). A source close to the pair quotes ‘it is highly unlikely that one will ever meet another duo quite as pleasant as Arthur and Annie. God bless their souls.’ The source of the fire is still unconfirmed. We suspect that the tragic passing of these two upstanding citizens will do little to boost the morale of Shorebridge, and will only rouse the grievances against the police, who have yet to perform in this period of mourning.’

 

‘Woah!’ swallowed Sasha, ‘what does that mean?’

‘Look at the date,’ ordered Junior.

‘1947…this surely couldn’t be the same Arthur Mannox.’

‘Look at him, look at his face … he looks exactly like our father!’ exclaimed Junior, ‘a carbon copy!’

Charlotte examined the paper, twisting it in every direction until she could find any plausible discrepancy with Junior’s claims.

‘It’s just a coincidence,’ huffed Charlotte.

‘This is no coincidence!’ cried Junior, ‘Arthur Mannox died here, at the Willow Lodge! He must be related to our father… just look at the resemblance.’

Rising from her seat hysterically, Sasha cried, ‘so this is the reason you broke into Williamson’s office…because you had a hunch!’

‘It’s not a hunch, I know it,’ shrugged Junior, ‘Charlotte just confirmed that a woman called our house several times asking for Arthur Mannox…now that is no coincidence’.

‘But –’

‘See how the article says ‘in this period of grieving’, the late 40’s …they were talking about the killings.’

Sasha raised her brows tentatively, ‘killings?’ she muttered.

‘…And disappearances in 1947,’ explained Junior, ‘the murderer was never caught and now it’s happening again.’

‘So you think that Arthur Mannox, who is dead, has something to do with this?’ chortled Charlotte, in a tone that implied her brother was deranged.

‘Not just Mannox, but our dad. Mr. Williamson, Bart Bold. These are all high profile people. Luchia said that the last time the killings happened, the murderer targeted high profile people…can you see now?’

‘You’re forgetting one tiny detail Junior …one tiny, significant detail,’ said Charlotte, ‘our father committed suicide.’

The moment that followed was painstakingly silent. Junior suddenly came to the realisation that Charlotte would never believe him, regardless of how much evidence he acquired. She’d always think that he had fabricated a conspiracy theory (one that did not include Allan Roterbee’s suicide), a theory in which Allan had been ruthlessly and unjustly murdered.

Snatching the stolen folder from Junior, Sasha muttered, ‘you sure sound as loony as my grandma right now, but we went through a great deal of trouble to get this file, we might as well find out who Arthur Mannox is once and for all.’

She ran her finger down the seam of the folder and opened it dramatically.

‘Hmm,’ hummed Sasha, ‘Arthur Mannox was born in Sicily, 1908…he was an A-grade student, had a knack for chemistry and … it says here that he was the captain of the football team…there’s even a picture of him.’

Sasha pressed the file to her face, absorbing the photograph of a young Arthur Mannox cradling the St. Andrew’s trophy.

‘Let me see,’ said Charlotte, seizing Arthur Mannox’s file. She grabbed her spectacles from the cabinet and squinted at the greyscale photograph.

‘It cannot be,’ muttered Charlotte, breathing mist into her glasses.

‘What?’ shot Junior.

Colour flooded from Charlotte’s cheeks, making her appear unusually white. Lines of worry were replaced with lines of shock. Utter Shock. Charlotte had not been this dazed on learning that Allan Roterbee had died. She could not get out a word. After several pounding shoulder buds from Junior, Charlotte regained responsiveness.

‘What is it Charley?’

‘Arthur Mannox,’ she mouthed.

‘What about him?’

‘Not only does he look exactly like dad… he is dad.’

‘That’s impossible,’ chortled Junior. ‘I was only proposing that Arthur Mannox was related to our father, but what you’re saying is –’

‘Impossible,’ murmured Sasha.

Charlotte gawked at Mannox’s photograph once more, ‘look at this picture,’ she ordered, ‘that scar on his knee…that birthmark is our father’s birth mark.’

She twisted the folder in all directions (to negate the possibility of a false positive), before finally muttering, ‘I know that mark, it’s shaped like an odd P.’

Charlotte closed the folder and gazed at her brother frightfully, ‘it’s him,’ she whispered.

‘There must be a mistake,’ garbled Sasha, ‘maybe the files aren’t authentic, they’re more than 50 years old, they could’ve been tampered with.’

Junior dragged the folder from his sister’s grip, ‘this is real!’ he declared, ‘Arthur Mannox is real.’

‘Do you understand what you’re saying!’ ejaculated Sasha. ‘If by any chance Arthur Mannox is your dad, that would make him over 100 years old.’

‘Forget age!’ blurted Charlotte, ‘Arthur Mannox or dad, whoever he is, was supposed to have died at the Willow Lodge in 1947. He obviously didn’t, otherwise we wouldn’t be alive!’

‘If this is true, then someone knew Arthur or Allan was still alive,’ said Junior, ‘…at least that explains the woman calling our house.’

A worry line appeared between Charlotte’s brows, ‘who could she be?’

‘This is still all hypothetical, right?’ muttered Sasha, ‘as in, if the files have not been tampered with.’

‘No one has had access to these files apart from Mr. Williamson, Sasha.’

In apparent surrender, Sasha collapsed into the lower bunk, bathing her head in a pile of fluffy cushions.

‘So what does all of this mean?’ she whispered, finally.

‘It means that the Mannox’s were running from something,’ answered Junior, rubbing his chin, ‘why else would they want people to think they were dead?’

‘It must have something to do with the killings,’ mumbled Charlotte, ‘but what?’

Sasha buried her head in her hands. The idea that Mannox, who was pronounced dead in 1947, could’ve been the same man as Allan Roterbee, made no logical sense. There was a possibility that after forging his own death, Mannox devised his new identity as Allan Roterbee, so that he could continue to live undetected. However, a man who wanted to live an undetected, low profile life would not live as Allan Roterbee did. Mr. Roterbee had built himself a million-dollar empire and acquired near celebrity status. If Arthur, or Allan, was running from any danger, the threat or threatener must have retired a long time ago. Why would a man, who was bent on faking his own death, want to become a prominent figure in his new life? They were dragging the theory from air. Even if it were true, certain details would never correlate, like how Allan Roterbee had miraculously maintained his youth. Arthur Mannox would have been over 100 years old if he was still alive, but Mr. Allan Roterbee looked like any middle aged man. It was this unanswerable question that set the whole theory alight. Frustrated by this inexplicable discovery, Sasha delved back into the thick folder, scanning each page until she could assimilate a plausible answer. She had almost abandoned her search when another familiar face shot out of the file.

‘Charley, come and look at this now,’ ordered Sasha, her nose buried deep inside the folder. ‘If we are finding it hard to get our heads around the fact that your dad was alive in 1947, then how do you explain the fact that Mr. Williamson was still the headmaster of St. Andrew’s in the 1920s.’

‘What!’ cried Charlotte, snatching Arthur Mannox’s folder.

‘Here he is, Mr. Williamson… not a day younger than he looked a few weeks ago.’

Squinting at the picture, Charlotte replied, ‘that old man is barely 65 years old but if this is accurate, he’d be more like 200 years old.’

‘It’s true!’ cawed Sasha, her eyes filling with amazement. ‘My grandma said that Mr. Williamson was the headmaster of St. Andrew’s when she arrived in England more than 50 years ago.’

Fighting back tears of bafflement, Sasha croaked, ‘I thought she was joking, but I can’t remember there ever being another headmaster at St. Andrew’s before him.’

‘That’s it!’ shot Junior, ‘he’s frozen somehow…frozen in time.’

‘Now we just sound ridiculous!’ chortled Charlotte.

Junior’s returned complexion slowly chalked over again, ‘didn’t you see Percy Williamson’s dying stare?’ he muttered, ‘there was ice in his eyes…he was frozen. It was the same dying stare as… as my father’s.’

‘Junior,’ began Sasha, the amazement in her tone was slowly draining into sympathy.

‘That’s how they’re linked!’ cried Junior, circling the room, ‘it’s not because they’re high profile but because they’re somehow-’

‘Frozen… now that would make them vampires!’ cried Sasha, incredulously.

Folding her arms over her chest, Charlotte replied, ‘I don’t know what they are – but I never once questioned the fact that my father has looked the same age for most of my life.’

Lines of distress surfaced on Sasha’s face; soon, she was pacing around the room as recklessly as Junior.

‘So the killer is after people like Mr. Williamson and Mannox…people who never grow old?’

‘It seems that way,’ murmured Charlotte, ‘what if Dr. Willow is one of them.’

‘Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,’ said Junior. ‘We can’t be sure that any of this is true. I mean for goodness sakes, vampires!’

‘Vampires are very real mystical creatures, actually,’ said Sasha, offended by Junior’s mockery of her theory.

Junior sniggered, utterly convinced that Sasha’s theory was nuttier than his own. In some way, he was relieved that he’d finally shared his suspicions with Charlotte and Sasha. Collectively, they’d made discoveries that Junior could not have unearthed alone. Most importantly, neither Sasha nor Charlotte believed that he was out of his mind. They believed, to some degree, that the deaths and disappearances of late were somehow linked to Arthur Mannox…who was also Allan Roterbee. But maybe this was all too complicated, more complicated than it really ought to be. And just maybe, the truth was nestled somewhere in the simplest, most plausible explanation.

‘We don’t know that any of this is true,’ said Charlotte, breaking the thinking silence, ‘but what we do know is that there’s a murderer out there. The murderer killed Mr. Williamson and is probably responsible for the disappearances over the last few months.’

Pacing about the room determinedly, Junior muttered, ‘I need to get to the bottom of this. I believe that this same murderer killed my father, and I need to know if it’s true.’

‘I’m in,’ said Sasha, without an inkling of hesitance.

Junior and Sasha looked to Charlotte, who was still biting her nails.

‘We are meant to be students, not murder investigators – I can’t help but feel we’ll only get deeper into this mess if we keep looking for trouble.’

‘Come on Charley, do something exciting for once!’ urged Junior.

‘I’m only in because I firmly believe that vampires exist,’ chuckled Sasha. ‘And, of course, Shorebridge police have no leads on the murder. In just one night we have already uncovered so much, why give up now?’

Filled with apprehension, Charlotte glanced between Sasha and her brother.

‘Fine,’ she groaned, ‘but mark my words…we’d better not get into any more trouble.’

Junior smirked victoriously and spat air into his palms; he urged the girls to do the same.

‘Is that necessary?’ Sasha grimaced.

‘Yup!’ shot Junior.

The girls groaned in sync as they spat into their palms. Junior grabbed their hands eagerly until the trio had formed a complete triangle.

‘This is our oath of secrecy,’ he declared, once all palms were sealed.

The girls continued to grimace. Soon after, the raucous thumps of heavy footsteps signalled that an angry and tired Dr. Willow was towering up the wooden stairway. This was Sasha’s cue to leave. Junior hastily lowered her onto the tiled roof. Then leaping onto the wooden fencing, and down into the dark lawn, Sasha mounted her bike. Charlotte watched from the window as Sasha cycled into the night. When her friend could no longer be seen, Charlotte closed the bedroom blinds.

 

Chapter nine

 

[_ ‘The Shorebridge Ripper’ _]

Every year, the transition between the seasons is appropriately and mysteriously marked. This year, Shorebridge saw the extinction of its last green foliage and the arrival of a cold sweeping wind, which signified the fall’s end and the winter’s beginning. Mysterious. In this respect, Shorebridge is no different to many other towns around the world. With December ever approaching, and an increasing number of shops restocking for the festive period, there should not have been a single soul that wasn’t avidly anticipating Christmastime. Nevertheless, the passing of Headmaster Williamson had somewhat dampened the moods of the people of Shorebridge. If they were anticipating anything, it was likely to be updates on the scandalous murder case from the seemingly sluggish town police. With Mr. Williamson dead and Bart Bold missing, Christmas was most definitely the lesser anticipation. However, there was one small sector of teens, in the upper-sixth year of St. Andrew’s college, who believed they had something more exciting than Christmas, or receiving updates on Williamson’s murder, to anticipate…the Winter Ball. The Winter Ball is a glorious occasion, native to St. Andrews College for boys and girls. Right from the moment that most students receive their acceptance letter to the school, they begin to forestall the extravagant dance, albeit seven years too soon. Eager mothers enrol their prepubescent daughters on all the afterschool dance classes, and avid fathers begin training their boys on the etiquette of speaking to women. By the end of their third year at St. Andrew’s school, most students already know their potential dates and by the fourth year, there is little potentiality about the matter. However, the befuddling twists and turns of budding teenage romance renders most students dateless by the fifth and sixth years. So, by the final year at St. Andrew’s College, the principal priority, in the sight of many students is not to pass all exams with flying colours, or to gain admission to the top Russel group universities, but rather to find a suitable date to the Winter Ball.

‘I wonder why you haven’t been asked to the Winter Ball yet, Mona,’ mocked Beau Bennett, ‘it wouldn’t have anything to do with those hideous eyebrows… or should I say uni-brow.’

The class let out an undercurrent of sniggers. Charlotte did not know how she did it, but even after their cold exchange on the first day, Beau still ruled over St. Andrew’s school with an iron fist. For a few weeks, Bennet and her followers were no longer at the centre place of St. Andrew’s. In fact, Beau’s dwindling popularity, amidst the formation of Sasha and Charlotte’s unlikely friendship, puzzled the status quo of all the so called ‘cliques’. This transition was brilliant but short lived. Some believed that the death of Mr. Williamson sent a tide of fear throughout the school… a fear of indefinite change. With this fear came an intense urge to stick to what was safe which, as always, is what is known. So, in some strange, unforeseeable way, the headmaster’s death reinforced the former status quo of the school, therein restoring Beau to her prior state of popularity.

Shooting Charlotte a malice-filled glare, the rosy-cheeked blonde called out, ‘and who are you going with, Roterbee?’

Scathingly, Charlotte replied, ‘what would it matter to you, Beau?’

‘I just feel sorry for you… I mean, who’s really going to ask a bookworm to the Winter Ball.’

As before, the class let out a breathy undercurrent of sniggers.

‘Worry about your own dating life Beau!’ shot Sasha, ‘or maybe you should worry a bit more about that bulbous zit on your forehead!’

Pinching at her forehead hysterically, Beau Bennet shrieked, ‘what zit!’

Delilah and Grace were beside her immediately, with a small purse-mirror, fix–it–powder and freedom gel. Beau appeared to whimper as her minions beat her face with fine white powder, letting out a few muffled noises (which Charlotte slowly deciphered as, ‘why didn’t you tell me I had a zit…you idiots’).

‘That seems to have shut her up,’ chuckled Sasha.

‘Sure did,’ muttered Charlotte, ‘anyway, the Winter Ball is the last thing on my mind –’

‘Plurleeeeaseee, we have to go,’ Sasha cooed, ‘the Winter Ball is not just any ball, it’s what every little St. Andrew’s girl or boy dreams about.’

Raising one eyebrow, Charlotte replied, ‘given the circumstances, high school dances should be the last thing on our minds…if you know what I mean?’

‘Oh, you mean…our Secret Mission!’

‘Shhhhhhhhhh!’ hissed Charlotte, ‘it’s not secret if you tell the whole world, Sasha.’

‘Oh, Sorry!’ whispered Sasha, sealing her lips with an imaginary lock and key, ‘so, tell me again, what’s the plan for tonight.’

‘Well, Junior thinks that we should sneak out after dark and get to Williamson’s office, that’s the only time police won’t be marching around the grounds.’

‘And what’s the point of doing that?’

‘He claims he saw some inscriptions on the walls of Williamson’s secret dorm, they could be clues.’

‘I’m pretty sure there were no inscriptions, I would’ve seen them.’ Sasha fiddled nervously as she recalled the horrors that were unearthed on her first raid of the headmaster’s office.

‘It’s a crime scene now,’ whispered Charlotte, ‘we could get into serious trouble…we need to know what we’re getting ourselves into.’

This time, as if she had dug deep into a painful memory, Sasha muttered, ‘I’m darn near certain there were no inscriptions on the walls.’

‘Okay, we’ll find out tonight,’ said Charlotte, ‘are you still in?’

‘Sasha Fling is always in.’

On lesson’s end, a mousy year 7 boy, bearing a note for the teacher, knocked at the classroom door. The mocking boys and girls of the upper-sixth class cooed and awed as he stumbled across the classroom. After handing Mrs. Lee the pink note, the timid year 7 cowered from the room with frightened eyes and red cheeks. Mrs. Lee scanned the note before regurgitating its contents to the class.

‘No need to be alarmed!’ shouted Mrs Lee, over the buzz of conversation, ‘we have an impromptu whole school assembly. Pack away your belongings and make your way to the grand hall.’

‘Is this about Mr. Williamson?’ called out Beau Bennet, ‘my father is on the school board, you know. He thinks it’s ridiculous…the school putting students in danger, what with the murderer still out there.’

Shooting Bennet a conspicuous glower, Charlotte blurted, ‘no one knows if Williamson was murdered or not.’

‘And that’s exactly what I said to Daddy, imagine what would happen if they close down St. Andrew’s before the Winter Ball.’

‘That would be absolutely terrible!’ gasped Grace.

Eyes watering, Delilah murmured, ‘all those years wasted in school would be for nothing!’

‘Now now, girls,’ interjected Mrs Lee, ‘whether we have a Winter Ball or not is neither here nor there. As for the topic of the assembly, I am as poorly informed as you are.’

Beau shot Sasha a menacing glare, ‘some of us may know more than others,’ she scowled.

‘And what’s that supposed to mean!’ Sasha scowled back.

‘Well, how was it that Sasha Fling and Allan Junior found Mr. Williamson’s corpse in the first place, huh?’ said Beau, flicking her gaze to the teacher, ‘bunking and snooping… I think that they should be expelled.’

‘Now Miss Bennet, that is not your judgment call, and I would advise you to refrain from sticking your nose into matters that do not concern you at all!’ snapped Mrs. Lee. ‘Now off you go – all of you – to the grand hall.’

News of the impromptu assembly had evidently reached all the classrooms of St. Andrew’s college; Charlotte had never seen the main corridor as packed with students as it was now. It was like her first day all over again, a sea of pupils converging towards the St. Andrew’s gate, but this time the current of movement was unidirectional; all students of all ages were headed to the grand hall. It was easy to distinguish Junior’s lanky figure amongst the large crowd of pupils from the lower school. He was modelling his gym attire, which told that his favourite lesson, physical education, was cut short to allow for the assembly. Charlotte could tell that her brother would not have been happy about that. Her suspicions were correct, as when Charlotte and Sasha intercepted Junior’s path, the first words he said were, ‘what is this bloody assembly even about?’

‘No one knows, but by Beau Bennett’s guesses…Mr. Williamson.’

Wary glances bounced between the trio.

‘They can’t have any new news,’ said Junior.

‘We’ll just have to see,’ sighed Charlotte, nervously.

Mrs. Roberta Quabble was the first member of staff to take to the stage, she screened the hall and seemed pleased that the entire population of St. Andrew’s school was her own personal audience.

‘Quiet! Quiet!’ Quabble yelled above the noise, until she could hear a sound as small as a whisper. ‘I’m sure that you are all wondering why you have been called here today. By now, most of you will know that Headmaster Williamson has passed away.’

Quabble cleared her throat dramatically and proceeded, ‘contrary to the general rumour, the cause of death is still undetermined, pending, of course, more rigorous autopsy reports. Until these autopsy reports are finalised, the death of Mr. Williamson is only a presumed murder and St. Andrew’s will not be closed for investigation. All schooling will proceed as normal.’

‘Who’s gonna be our new headmaster!’ a tenor-filled voice shot over the crowd. From tracking the direction which all heads turned, Mrs. Quabble was almost certain that Ricky Grimshaw, the captain of the football team, was the culprit.

‘It’s hands up for questions, Mr. Grimshaw!’ scowled Mrs. Quabble.

‘Until a new headmaster is appointed, I will be assuming all of Mr. Williamson’s duties…Is that all?’

Mrs. Quabble scanned the room again; there was not a soul brave enough to enquire further.

‘As I have stressed, Mr. Williamson’s passing cannot be ruled a murder as of yet. But to prepare for the worst case scenario, the mayor of Shorebridge, Mr. Brown, is here to speak with you today.’

The crowd gawked as Mrs. Quabble departed the stage and a taller, stockier figure assumed her position. Junior recognised him instantly, the man who had been so affected by Junior’s heroism that he had awarded him a cheque of one thousand pounds. That cheque was still crumpled at the bottom of Junior’s rucksack, uncashed. Somehow, the mayor appeared different today. He did not express the degree of elation with which Junior had first encountered him. But given the topic he had been summoned to discuss, the mayor’s lack of elation was the least of anyone’s concerns.

‘As many of you already know, my name is Mr. Brown,’ said the mayor, ‘my role is to govern this town and all of its citizens.’

After a calculated pause, Mr. Brown sighed, ‘sadly, the passing of my dear friend, Percy Williamson, marks a new era in the history of Shorebridge town. At the same time, there has been a lot of chatter regarding the disappearances of several prominent figures. I want you to know that as long as I am the mayor of Shorebridge town, you will be in no danger what-so-ever. Nevertheless, protocol demands that I inform you of any possible danger.’

Turning away from the audience and signalling some backstage technician, the mayor announced, ‘a series of images will appear upon the screen behind me… do not be alarmed.’

‘What’s he talking about?’ Sasha whispered at Junior.

‘No idea.’

As the mayor had warned, images were projected onto the grand hall screen. The students gasped hysterically, some clasped their eyes shut altogether.

‘What on earth is he doing?’ hissed Charlotte, disgusted, ‘showing a hall full of students images of dead bodies.’

‘I wonder how he got elected,’ Junior cringed.

‘Children! Children!’ cried the mayor, fighting with the noise of the crowd, ‘do not be alarmed. I’m showing you these images for educational purposes only.’ He winked at Mrs. Quabble, who appeared more horrified by the mayor’s distasteful presentation than any of the students.

‘As you may have gathered, these are dead bodies. These are the bodies of victims of the last Shorebridge Massacre.’

The hall thundered, its students in pandemonium.

‘Settle down now!’ demanded the mayor, determined to complete his presentation, ‘the last series of attacks occurred in the late 40’s, in a similar pattern to what we see now.’

Raising a single brow, Mr. Brown muttered, ‘they called him the Shorebridge Ripper, he was never discovered …but his victims were.’

At a click of the mayor’s finger, the graphic of one of the slaughtered victims grew on the grand hall screen, revealing an odd-shaped tattoo.

‘The ripper marked all of his victims with the letter ‘P’, a signature which was believed by many to mock the police service at the time.’

Noting the increasing unease of the students, and the menacing glares of Mrs. Quabble, Mr. Brown harked on, ‘my point is that these are very dangerous times, indeed. The new ‘Shorebridge Ripper’ wants an even more gruesome reputation than his predecessor. If this is the case, then none of us are safe. Let the death of our dear Headmaster Williamson be our warning.’ Sucking in a deep breath, the mayor declared, ‘from now on, students will walk around in groups of no smaller than three. Each student will arrive at school no earlier than 8 am and be dismissed from school no later than 3.45. Mobile phones must be constantly at hand…and finally, no person under the age of 18 is permitted to be lingering the streets after dark. 9pm is the curfew for all underage St. Andrew’s students.’

A resounding chorus of boo’s emanating from a large group of students in the upper sixth drowned out the mayor’s announcement.

‘BOOOOOOO,’ cried Junior, ‘a 9 o clock curfew is anything but fair!’

The mayor’s call for order sounded many times but could not silence the animated hall. It was not long before the students were to start pelting him with socks and bits of stationary, so Mrs. Quabble signalled for the mayor to leave the stage whilst he still had a chance.

‘Anybody who does not abide by this new protocol will be harshly sanctioned!’ yelled Mr. Brown as he departed the platform.

 

The mayor’s assembly was the most talked about topic for the remainder of the school day. For the most part, the upper sixth form were gladly reassured that nothing would disrupt the Winter Ball. They were, however, livid at the newly implemented curfew. Ricky Grimshaw was caught telling some other boys on the football team that Mr. Brown did not have the power to pass such a law, the surveillance mechanisms in Shorebridge were not nearly excellent enough to carry out the regulation. Unless the mayor employed security personnel to watch over the streets at night, there was no way he would be able to stop the brawny team members sneaking out to any over 18’s club that turned an eye at fake ID. If Charlotte was not one-third of a group that had already made plans to sneak out this very night, she would’ve considered Mr. Brown’s decision perfectly sensible. But, as not to snub the grievances of other frustrated teens, she pretended that she was just as angry.

When the school day came to an end, Charlotte, Junior and Sasha power walked to their homes with one thought in mind. How on earth would they sneak out amidst all the new surveillance measures? Creeping out of a house which contained the overly nosey Luchia and the always-attentive Dr. Willow would not be an easy task. However, this would be just half of the job. The real challenge would be making it back to St. Andrew’s undetected. Today, Luchia appeared at the doorway even before the twins had reached the tapered bridge. From this, Charlotte had reason to suspect that Mr. Brown’s assembly was followed up by an email to all guardians, which contained detailed intricacies of the new regulations. Great. Luchia would never let them out of her sight now. These suspicions were confirmed when the housekeeper briskly ushered the twins into the hallway and delivered a rehearsed speech on ‘keeping safe from danger’. The doctor listened from his study, surprised by Luchia’s eagerness.

 

Chapter ten

 

‘You, sir … are a parler’

If one sincerely wishes, it is not impossible to hear a pin drop at night time in Shorebridge. Even before Mr. Brown’s implemented curfew, the small town never had much nightlife. But now, and more so than ever, not even a pip could be heard from the streets of Shorebridge after 9 o clock. Complete silence. Charlotte and Junior Roterbee were greeted with this piercing silence as they lowered themselves from their bedroom window, to the front lawn. Fortunately, Sasha Fling was already waiting, bicycle at hand, to provide a warmer, more cordial salute.

‘I’ll get the bicycles from the gardener’s shed,’ whispered Junior, before disappearing into the darkness. He returned within a few moments, wheeling two rusted bikes.

‘They’ve got a few spider webs, but I guess they’ll have to do,’ muttered Junior, rolling one of the bikes to Charlotte.

Before mounting, Charlotte dusted the bicycle seat with her hands and scowled at the collected grime.

‘Are you ready?’ asked Sasha.

The two nods she received were ample signal. Sasha Fling and the Roterbee twins peddled into the night with perfect ease, in hope that the raucous clanks of their rusted bicycles would not wake Dr. Willow or Luchia. At the end of the tapered bridge, the trio sighed in relief; the Willow Lodge was as still as ever.

The cycle to St. Andrew’s took no more than five minutes, and to the pleasant surprise of the trio, they encountered no surveillance officers.

‘So Mr. Brown was just bluffing, huh?’ sniggered Junior, demounting his bike.

‘I wouldn’t speak so quickly!’ snapped Charlotte, spotting a hazed figure at the school entrance.

‘Duck now!’ gasped Sasha.

The surveillance officer detected muffled sounds of life and halted suddenly. He circled his torchlight mechanically, illuminating the entire opening of St. Andrew’s college. The officer resumed a static position at the school gate.

‘Darn foxes,’ he breathed, before disappearing into the darkness.

‘That was close,’ whispered Sasha, peering into St. Andrew’s forest. ‘I know a backway into the school’s kitchen.’

‘Lead the way,’ breathed Junior as Charlotte nodded in silent agreement. The trio trudged through St Andrew’s forest until they came to a division of the school that was no longer familiar.

‘We’ve arrived,’ said Sasha, striding to the kitchen’s backdoor.

Charlotte examined the rigid door immediately, ‘there’s no keyhole,’ she muttered. ‘How do we break in if there’s no keyhole?’

‘I’ve got an idea,’ smirked Junior, clearing his throat pretentiously.

‘What?’ blurted Charlotte.

Junior studied the kitchen’s backdoor for a few moments.

‘Stand back, ladies,’ he muttered, suddenly resolute.

After sucking in a deep, defiant breath, Junior bolted at the rigid door. With a thunderous &BOOOOOM, &he collapsed to the ground. He growled from pain, and more from the fact that the door still hadn’t given way.

‘Get up, you idiot!’ cried Charlotte, ‘a great idea that was … you’ll probably set off an alarm!’

‘You can be awfully stupid sometimes!’ said Sasha, patting the gravel from Junior’s back.

‘I felt something… all it needs is one more push!’

Once more, Junior positioned himself towards the door (this time, with his good shoulder facing it). After another deafening BOOOOOOOM, the door collapsed inwards, sending Junior flying, face forward, onto the tiled kitchen floor.

‘Yes…you did it!’ beamed Sasha, striding into the school’s kitchen.

Junior groaned, their mission was not even half complete and he had already acquired two sore shoulders.

‘Great work, Junior,’ chortled Charlotte, sardonically, ‘because a bolted in door does not scream break-in at all!’

‘I didn’t really think about that,’ replied Junior, heaving himself from the ground.

In a manner that spoke more of anger than of playfulness, Charlotte smacked her brother’s already sore arm.

‘I just got us in!’ scowled Junior, ‘that’s more than you’ve done!’

Charlotte tossed her brother another warning glare, before starting towards the kitchen’s front door. Junior, Charlotte and Sasha followed the school’s main corridor to Williamson’s office.

Sasha was well versed in breaking into Mr. Williamson’s office, so as she approached the door, she removed her hairpins. The door gave way instantly. Sasha sneered at Junior smugly and mouthed, ‘now that’s how you break in!’

Junior dared not retort, in fear that his swollen arms would be given another pelt.

‘So where is it?’ shot Sasha, once inside the familiar office, ‘the bust that acted as the lever.’

‘They’ve removed it,’ muttered Junior.

Charlotte pointed into the dark hole in the wall (which had since been plastered with red and white sticky tape). ‘They’ve sealed off the passageway as well,’ she murmured.

Sasha, who was not nearly as afraid of the passageway as she had been the first time, ducked underneath the tape and crawled to the other side of the wall.

‘It’s just the same as before, we won’t find anything here,’ muttered Sasha, swivelling her torch over the spiralling steps. She shivered, the last time she was here, she’d discovered a corpse. Sasha did not wish to relive the nightmare but she could not filter the memory of Mr. Williamson’s decaying cadaver any longer. Soon after, Charlotte and Junior followed into the dark hole.

‘I don’t see anything either,’ confirmed Charlotte, ‘it’s just a dark, circling staircase.’

Junior ran his fingers along the blank walls, ‘how can you not see the inscriptions!’ he cried, ‘the dark marks over the walls, they’re everywhere!’

‘I fear you may have banged your head harder on those kitchen tiles than we’d thought,’ said Sasha, shooting Junior a deranged glance. ‘All jokes aside, there is nothing written on these walls!’

‘I’m a lot of things, but crazy is not one of them!’ barked Junior.

Suddenly, a muffled noise reverberated about the chamber. Charlotte staggered backwards, treading onto Junior’s feet. ‘W-w-what was that?’ she stammered.

‘Ouch!’ yelled Junior, sending pain-filled echoes bouncing about the passageway.

‘Shhhhhhhhhh! shrieked Sasha, gaping down the circling steps, ‘the sound came from down there…someone else is here.’

Junior waved his torch over the dark chamber, ‘you know what happened the last time we went down there,’ he muttered.

Feeling unusually brave, Sasha started down the circling staircase.

‘Wait!’ hissed Junior, ‘if we’re going to go down there, we can’t be defenceless.’

Junior turned on his heels and disappeared into the headmaster’s office; a moment later he returned with a cricket bat.

‘Woah!’ gasped Charlotte, ‘I hope we don’t need to use it.’

The spiralling staircase appeared to go on forever. Charlotte’s pulse palpitated more intensely at every turn; she feared that the notorious Shorebridge Ripper would appear out of the darkness any moment. Junior, however, was still deeply intrigued by the inscriptions pasted over the chamber walls. They became more numerous the deeper he ventured into the chamber. Junior was utterly astonished at Sasha and Charlotte’s denial that the inscriptions even existed. He was utterly confused and found himself doubting everything he had seen. When they reached the bottom of the circling staircase, Junior clenched the cricket bat tighter.

‘Who’s there?’ yelled Sasha, illuminating the room with her torch.

Junior batted the thin air and gasped, ‘he’s there!’

‘There is no one here!’ cried Charlotte, distressed at her brother’s unusual behaviour.

‘Sure there is!’ shouted Junior, ‘he’s here!’

The young man angled his bat at a dark figure; Charlotte and Sasha saw nothing but air.

The light from Sasha’s torch hit the figure, revealing a startled young man. His expression told that he was just as confused as the two girls, and probably not used to having cricket bats swung at him. The young man had spiky blonde hair, piercing blue eyes and wore an all-black suit. He ducked quickly and was surprised when Junior’s eyes followed him. Then oddly, he began to circle and swivel from left to right, testing whether Junior would trail him each time. He was positively astounded.

‘You can see me!’ the young man exclaimed.

‘Well of course I can see you!’ shot Junior, ‘I have a pair of eyes, don’t I?’

Sasha modelled her most impressive bewildered expression and exclaimed, ‘who said that… who are you talking to Junior!’

‘Why, this man of course!’ cried Junior, waving his bat at the mysterious, swivelling blonde man.

‘It’s no use, they can’t see me …unless I want them to,’ said the young man, unperturbed.

‘We can hear you though!’ retorted Charlotte, ‘show yourself, Ripper!’

Beckoning Junior to lower his weapon, the smug young man teased, ‘that’s no way to speak to a gentleman, now.’

‘I’m no ripper,’ the voice explained, ‘but I am looking for one.’

‘Why am I the only one who can see you!’ cried Junior, wavering his bat.

‘That’s because, you, sir… are a parler, and they’re just meres.’

‘Who’re you calling a mere!’ hurled Sasha, batting the air.

‘There’s that word again, ‘parler’. What does it mean!’ cried Junior.

‘Why just look at yourself and you would see the definition of a parler!’ the young man exclaimed.

Charlotte’s eyes widened hysterically, ‘this is getting weird!’ she cried, ‘how can I hear you but not see you?’

The invisible man squinted at Charlotte, ‘that girl is also a parler,’ he whispered, ‘only somewhat bewildered.’

‘What is a parler?’

After a dramatic pause, he whispered, ‘if I show myself to you, will you drop the bat …I’m not fond of theatrics.’

‘Deal,’ muttered Sasha, beckoning Junior to comply.

When Junior lowered his weapon, a slender figure materialised out of thin air. The young blonde man turned to the two girls, who were not yet acquainted with his face.

‘Excuse my manners, my name is Felix… Felix Corneli.’

Sasha was suddenly faint and Charlotte, who was too stunned to respond, simply gawked at the figure. Finally collecting some words together, Charlotte gasped, ‘how did you do that!’

‘I’m a parler, like you are,’ said Felix, serious and mocking at the same time.

Lifting Charlotte’s wrist and examining the Roterbee neckless which Charlotte had, long ago, disguised as a bracelet, Felix cried, ‘Aha! So that’s why you could not see me at first, your bracelet contains sapphire dust.’

‘This, my dear friend,’ said Felix, pointing at the trinket, ‘contains something that can dampen the powers of any gifted parler.’

Turning to Junior, he muttered, ‘you, sir, adorn no such trinket…that’s why you were able to see me.’

‘And you,’ harped the young man, now facing Sasha, ‘well, I sense that you have no supernaturalism about you…you must be a mere.’

‘Parlers, powers, meres…what on earth are you talking about?’ cried Sasha.

The young man’s jaw dropped a few centimetres, he was positively astounded by the bewilderment in the faces of the teenagers.

‘Would I be correct to assume that you have no knowledge of parley at all?’

The trio shook their heads in sync.

‘My goodness, what a strange generation!’ the blonde man exclaimed, ‘to have these brilliant gifts and not even know they exist … tut, tut, tut.’

‘Gifts?’ said Junior, raising a brow.

‘I tell you what! I’m going to show you something superb!’ exclaimed Felix. The freakish blonde man rotated in the air and vanished from everyone’s sight except Junior’s.

Junior reached for his bat again.

‘Not so fast boy!’ demanded Felix.

‘You,’ he muttered, pointing at Charlotte, ‘pass your bracelet to the mere.’

Bewildered as ever, Charlotte untangled her necklace and braided it around Sasha’s arm.

Charlotte looked up and cried, ‘I can see you again!’

‘And I can see you too!’ exclaimed Sasha.

Felix smirked, ‘a remarkable quality of sapphire dust…it dampens the power of parlers but enhances that of meres.’

Beaming freakishly, the blonde man muttered, ‘I hate when I have to materialize, I do everything I can to stay in my phazed state, out of the view of meres.’

‘Phazed?’ repeated Junior, ‘so, you’re in your phazed state now?’

‘Correct!’ beamed Felix, ‘I’m almost like a ghost now! I have recently acquired another state of invisibility that not even parlers can detect.’

Felix grinned again, freakishly.

‘So let me get this straight,’ muttered Junior, ‘if I was wearing my ring, I would not have been able to see you?’

‘Only if the ring contained sapphire dust, of course,’ explained Felix. ‘Very valuable, sapphire dust …but very hard to come by. It must’ve been over 30 years ago when I last came across a sapphire bound trinket.’

‘You couldn’t be up to 30 years of age –’

‘Oh, but yes I could!’ cried Felix, ‘that’s another thing about parlers which you ought to know!’

‘Excuse me, Felix… that is your name right?’ stammered Charlotte.

The blonde man nodded eagerly, to which Charlotte replied, ‘you haven’t even explained what a parler is!’

‘Ah –’ mouthed Felix. Suddenly, a loud shuffle emanated from the headmaster’s office; the blonde man hovered worriedly.

‘Who’s there?’ mouthed Sasha.

Gazing up the spiralling staircase, Felix whispered, ‘I fear we may have company. Everyone get behind me!’

‘What!’ shrieked Junior.

‘Get behind me and shut up!’ The freakishly buoyant Felix beamed no more. The staircase creaked lightly with every downward footstep of the intruder. Felix stood still and the trio, too afraid to draw attention to themselves, imitated him.

‘This is silly,’ whispered Junior, ‘they are going to see us, let me at least get my bat ready!’

‘Silence!’ Felix snapped, ‘you will not move an inch!’

A torchlight was projected from the higher levels of the staircase, it circled the room without stopping.

‘He can’t see us!’ gasped Sasha.

‘Of course he can’t see us…I’ve cloaked you. As long as you stay near to me, you will be as invisible as me.’

‘Let me guess,’ whispered Charlotte, ‘that’s another thing about parlers that you left out.’

Felix twisted his face, expressing his firm disapproval of Charlotte’s sarcastic tone. The group stooped to the ground as two figures, each flashing torches, stumbled to the basement of the chamber. The cloaked figures rotated their lights about the entire room many times; at one point, Sasha was certain that the torchlight was suspended her way. However, the cloaked figures could not perceive any other persons in the chamber. At this moment in time, the ability to make one’s self invisible was exceptionally resourceful. Junior, however, who was struggling to not breathe aloud, had yet to master the skill of maintaining unqualified silence.

‘Are we clear?’ the first cloaked figure whispered. The second figure nodded cagily. When the two men finally let down their hoods, Sasha, Charlotte and Junior each suppressed a gasp. From the dark hoods, emerged the familiar faces of Mr. Brown and Dr. Willow. Both men appeared unusually troubled.

‘Nicholas, I urge you…do not act brashly,’ said Dr. Willow, grasping the mayor’s arm.

‘Do not act brashly he says!’ howled Mr. Brown, ‘may I remind you, Augustus, that I can be done with this secret at any time and just tell the world.’

‘And who would entertain you!’ the doctor exclaimed, ‘it’d be all over the papers, mayor gone mad – you would certainly not have my witness.’

‘Oh but I will, I assure you, Doctor!’ hissed Mr. Brown. ‘I cannot hold for any longer, I receive death threats by the day…claiming that I haven’t done enough in wake of the disappearances.’

Mr. Brown chortled hysterically, ‘if only they knew, Augustus…if only they knew!’

The doctor froze, his eyes widened with horror.

‘Cato could not be back,’ muttered Dr. Willow.

‘So who is responsible!’ exclaimed Mr. Brown.

‘He is dead…Cato is dead.’

‘Then who is the killer, Augustus!’ barked the mayor, ‘the people of Shorebridge have me by my neck.’

‘I am restless too, Nicholas… I think about it day and night!’ cried the doctor. ‘If Cato is alive, he would come for the Roterbee’s…I’m certain he would!’

‘Dr. Willow, you know as well as I do that he would not come unless he was certain that the Roterbee’s powers had manifested.’

The mayor shot Dr. Willow a wary glare.

‘Have they?’ he muttered.

‘No,’ said Dr. Willow, decisively.

The mayor glanced at Dr. Willow dubiously, ‘if you knew they had transitioned, you would tell me Augustus… wouldn’t you?’

‘They have not!’ affirmed the doctor, angrier than he had been at first.

‘I was so sure that the boy had transitioned,’ muttered Mr. Brown, ‘I was sure his ability would certainly have involved time…from the moment he came to Madison’s rescue that very first day.’

‘You planned it…didn’t you!’ gasped Dr. Willow, ‘you knew they were coming, you set Maddie to play in the train tracks just to see if the boy would tap into his power and save her.’

‘And what if I did?’ muttered Mr. Brown, ‘Madison was in no real harm! I knew that if the twins were anything like their father, they would search their power to save her.’

‘That is against Arthur’s instruction!’ exclaimed Dr. Willow. ‘He did not wish for the twins to tap into their abilities… he gifted them sapphire jewels for that very reason.’

‘I don’t care about Arthur Mannox’s instruction!’ barked Mr. Brown. ‘My concern is the safety of this town. If their powers are what Cato wants, that is what he’ll get…I’ll have no more bloodshed!’

‘You understand little of this matter, Nicholas!’ snapped the doctor. ‘If it is true that Cato is alive, then he will kill us all when he acquires whatever he wants.’

Mr. Brown circled the room, but somehow evaded the paths of the four invisible persons.

‘I never signed up for this when I took the job, Augustus!’ whispered Mr. Brown, ‘this is not my world…I am a mere!’

‘You are a mere who is well versed in matters of parlery, Mr. Brown!’

‘People are asking too many questions,’ spat the mayor, ‘they are speaking of taking back my seat!’

‘Is that all you think about, Nicholas?’ muttered Dr. Willow. The doctor managed a cynical chortle, ‘what about our dear friend, Percy, who worked all his life in this school, safeguarding its secrets?’

‘Till Cato got to him, of course!’ cried Mr. Brown, ‘we might as well just give him what he wants and be done with it.’

Mr. Brown’s terror-filled eyes appeared to gloss in a transient shaft of light from the headmaster’s office. ‘To think that Percy went down… protecting this!’

The mayor strode to the chamber wall and ran his fingers over it. On accepting Dr. Willow’s nod of approval, he knocked the wall twice, before pausing. After a moment, the mayor knocked once more. The following moment was filled with unadulterated silence. Suddenly, the chamber grounds trembled. The concrete wall parted sideways, revealing a shimmering vault.

‘See,’ said Mr. Brown, pointing at the vault, ‘nothing has changed, Cato has not gotten to it… it’s safe.’

‘Williamson did not die in vain,’ sighed Dr. Willow, ‘he died protecting whatever lies beneath that vault and, not even Cato, with all his power, can unseal it.’

‘But you know who can open it Augustus!’

‘For heaven sakes, Nicholas!’ exclaimed Dr. Willow, ‘they are only children…the boy is audacious and poorly mannered, the girl is obnoxious and a somewhat timid version of her brother – but they can be excused, for they are children!’

The mayor was suddenly resolute, ‘as you wish, Augustus,’ he muttered, ‘we will leave the ‘children’ ignorant as they are, but any more bloodshed is on your hands…don’t say that you weren’t warned!’

With that, the mayor knocked the wall three times, in the same pattern that he had used to open it. Like magic, the wall shifted to its original position. Two cloaked men tossed their hoods over their faces and started along the staircase, marching upwards, to the headmaster’s office.

‘What was that?’ shrieked Charlotte, once the shadows of the cloaked men could no longer be seen.

‘Felix, you have some explaining to do,’ said Sasha, turning on her heels, only to discover that Felix had vanished.

‘Where is he?’ shot Charlotte, ‘Felix was just behind me.’

‘He has a ‘state’ of invisibility that not even parlers can detect, remember?’ said Junior. ‘I have a feeling that Felix does not want to be found.’

‘He can’t just tell us that we are supernatural beings and then disappear!’ cried Charlotte, ‘we must find him.’

‘Finding Felix is the last of our concerns,’ gulped Sasha, ‘this person that the doctor mentioned, Cato. He must be the Shorebridge Ripper. He’s killing anyone who comes between himself and whatever lies beneath that vault.’

Sasha glanced at the wall which, only a moment ago, had enclosed a shimmering vault.

‘But he needs us to get it,’ said Junior, ‘why?’

‘Who knows,’ muttered Sasha, ‘one thing we do know is that Charlotte was right. Arthur Mannox is Allan Roterbee.’

Turning away in disgust, Junior cried, ‘how could he keep this from us! Our entire lives, all he ever did was lie …he couldn’t even tell us his real name.’

‘And with good reason!’ snapped Charlotte, ‘this whole parler thing – it sounds dangerous, people are being killed. Our father was probably only trying to protect us!’

‘Hey now!’ yelled Sasha, stepping between Junior and Charlotte, ‘we shouldn’t bicker amongst ourselves.’

Charlotte turned away from her brother, upset. She hated having to believe that Junior was right and that Allan Roterbee was a liar. The more she learned of her father’s secrets, the less she wished to know. After a few chilling moments, Junior muttered, ‘you’re right Sasha, we shouldn’t bicker amongst ourselves.’

‘It’s midnight!’ whispered Sasha, ‘you’d better get back to the Willow Lodge before the doctor realises that you’re missing!’

Charlotte nodded silently and started towards the spiralling staircase.

 

Chapter eleven

‘The tale of two twins’

 

Across the kitchen table, Junior shot the doctor a menacing glare, ‘pass me the milk,’ he muttered.

‘Where are your manners, young man!’ snapped Dr. Willow.

‘Pass me the milk…please,’ Junior’s request was slightly angrier than it had been the first time.

Dr. Willow tossed the milk across the kitchen table and exclaimed, ‘what has gotten into the both of you…you’ve not said a word all morning!’

Charlotte and Junior shrugged impassively.

‘…you youngsters should be pleased that it’s the weekend,’ harped the doctor, ‘what is the slang they use these days?’

Stoked …that’s it. I bet you are extremely stoked that it’s the weekend.’

Dr. Willow was answered, again, with silence.

‘Maybe Miz Charley and Mizter Junior do not want to talk today,’ said Luchia, breaking the awkward silence, ‘zat’s okay… silence can be good.’

‘You would do well to take your own advice, Luchia,’ the doctor retorted, ‘indeed, silence can be extremely awesome.’

Dr. Willow glanced at the Roterbee twins again, checking if they’d reacted to his unsuitable use of slang.

Charlotte cringed, ‘you don’t have to put extremely before every slang word you use, Dr. Willow, that isn’t cool at all.’

The doctor scratched his unkempt beard, ‘cool, I’ll remember that one.’

Junior sat, silent and still, as he’d been all morning. It angered him that Dr. Willow could be so calm after what he had discussed with Mr. Brown down in the chamber. Of course, the doctor did not know that Mr. Brown was not the only person engaged in his conversation, as the four other eavesdroppers were imperceptible! Even still, the doctor must’ve been quite the actor. He had managed to conceal his secrets from the twins for weeks, and had probably kept them for many years prior to the arrival of Charlotte and Junior Roterbee. Shorebridge was similar to a secret society, only mystical and more sinister. The doctor, Mr. Brown, Mr. Williamson and Arthur Mannox were all members. Junior was disgusted. These men had known about the murderer, Cato, for months, but had not done anything to impede him. As a result, Williamson, and possibly others, had paid with their own lives. What supreme power could ‘Cato’ possess that made even the doctor and the mayor tremble? Though the mayor was, undoubtedly, a disagreeable man, Junior found himself siding with Mr. Brown as opposed to the doctor. Dr. Willow’s strategy of sitting quietly and watching as the murderer silently massacred the town certainly would not suffice. No, they were to find the killer… at least before he found them. All night, Junior toiled relentlessly about his bed, envisioning himself capturing the killer and avenging his father’s death. From what he had learned the night before, it was only logical to assume that Cato had murdered Allan Roterbee. Charlotte was sceptical of the idea at first, but in light of the evidence, she had come to believe it as staunchly as Junior. The Roterbee twins had managed to digest every new piece of information that had been presented to them. However, one concept which neither Junior nor Charlotte had come to fathom was the idea that they possessed ‘magical’ powers. The mysterious invisible man, Felix Corneli, had merely informed them that they were parlers and disappeared before he had gone into any real depth of the word. Was it some type of sorcery? Were these powers conceived through blood or assigned randomly? It could not be a coincidence that both Charlotte and her brother were elected as parlers, whilst Sasha was branded a mere ‘mere’. Did Allan Roterbee, or Arthur Mannox, possess these powers as well? Finding answers to these questions were going to be just as important as tracking down Cato, and Junior could sense that the two goals had some indisputable link. Junior had heard that word ‘parler’ from the mouth of only one other person…Ma Joelle. He was certain that there was some veracity in the muddled utterings of Sasha’s elderly grandmother, and it was his mission to extract the truth by the end of the day.

‘Charlotte and I are going to visit our friend, Sasha,’ Junior announced.

‘Low and behold, he speaks!’ cried Dr. Willow, ‘what, exactly, is the purpose of your visit?’

‘History project,’ blurted Charlotte.

The doctor glared at Charlotte suspiciously, ‘you are getting extremely close to Miss Fling.’

‘She’s our friend!’ shot Junior.

‘Very well,’ muttered Dr. Willow, ‘as it is an educational visit, you have my permission.’

When breakfast was finished, Luchia cleared the table routinely. Charlotte and Junior disappeared upstairs and returned in thick winter coats, leather gloves and knitted scarfs. Luchia was pleased that they’d wrapped up.

‘Now remember, ze first rule of keeping zafe from danger -’ Luchia began.

‘Is – sticking – together – at – all – times,’ Junior and Charlotte recited the words in sync, as if they had heard them one thousand times.

‘Be back before 5,’ ordered Dr. Willow, his fuzzy moustache popping over his newspaper.

‘We are 17 years of age, you know!’ snapped Junior.

‘6pm at ze latest!’ bargained Luchia, ‘it’s been getting dark very early lately.’

‘Deal.’

It took ten minutes to walk to Sasha’s home, and on the way there, Charlotte made note of the remarkably bare streets. Though Shorebridge was not ever a busy town, it was never shy of a few cyclists or roadside commuters. As it was a Saturday, Charlotte would’ve expected to see more of the Shorebridge locals out and about, running errands. However, the number of living souls outside was dismal. They were passed by a single, miserable vehicle during the entire ten-minute walk. Mr. Brown’s new regulations were not to be held accountable for the empty streets, as the curfew (which applied to only St. Andrew’s students) was many hours away. It must’ve been by their own wills that the Shorebridge citizens had locked themselves inside their homes and closed all the curtains. Mr. Brown had warned the school that the new protocols were nothing more than a preventative measure. It was clear that the people of Shorebridge had interpreted this message as ‘danger is imminent’, for they had taken matters of safety into their own, vigilant hands. When they arrived at Sasha’s house, after a miserable walk, she was already waiting by the door. They trudged down the familiar walkway, along Sasha’s shabby lawn.

‘Did you get my text?’ said Junior, shrugging out of his jacket as he entered the house.

‘Yes… but I don’t know what we’ll get out of this,’ muttered Sasha, ‘you know as well as I do that my grandma’s wits are…’

‘Her wits are perfectly fine,’ said Junior, ‘she was right about these murders, and she even knew about parlers…that’s more than we know.’

‘Okay,’ said Sasha, ushering the twins to the living room.

Ma Joelle was perched in her wheelchair, gazing out by the window. As Sasha cleared a space on the small cushioned couch, the old woman appeared to detect the presence of her visitors. Ma Joelle curled her neck from the window and began squinting sporadically.

In her now-familiar, thick Haitian accent, Ma Joelle whispered, ‘Sasha, who are dese strangers?’

‘Ma, you’ve met Charlotte and Junior before,’ sighed Sasha, ‘remember?’

The baffled old woman uttered, ‘I neva see dem before.’

Great. Junior wondered how the frail old woman (who could barely recollect their last meeting) could give them any valuable information. Ma Joelle would likely be no help at all. Sasha wheeled her grandmother’s push chair from the window, ‘they’re here to ask you a few questions, Ma,’ she muttered.

This was the first time that Junior had seen Ma Joelle’s face in broad daylight. The old woman’s chocolate-coloured skin glistened; swollen veins protruded at the back of her hands, revealing Ma Joelle’s true age.

‘The last time we were here, you used a word,’ whispered Junior, ‘you said parler.’

The old woman trembled in her push chair, ‘huuuush!’ hissed Ma Joelle, her eyes filling with silent terror.

‘De walls have ears,’ croaked the old woman, ordering Sasha to shut the blinds in broken English.

‘You don’t say dat word aloud,’ scowled Ma Joelle.

‘So you do know about parlers?’ whispered Junior.

‘Dat depends on who wants to know!’

‘Do you trust me, Ma Joelle?’ said Junior, searching the old woman’s greying eyes.

Ma Joelle glanced at Sasha for reassurance; when Sasha nodded eagerly, the old woman pointed at a bronze-coloured chest. ‘Get it,’ croaked Ma Joelle.

Junior spotted the large bronze trunk by the fire place; on receiving Ma Joelle’s nod of approval, he bolted to it eagerly. He dragged the large bronze chest to Ma Joelle’s feet and waited, again, for the old woman’s command.

‘Bring out de book called ‘The Secrets of a Fallen-’

‘Parler! ’cried Junior, finishing the old woman’s sentence.

He stroked the ornamented hardcover, marvelling at its beauty. The thick, bronze-coloured book smelt like it had never been read.

‘Every-ting you need to know, in dere,’ croaked Ma Joelle, nodding at the book.

‘I want to know what a parler is,’ gulped Charlotte, nervously, ‘and how they get their powers, of course.’

‘Well den, u must read from de first page, dear,’ replied the old woman, adjusting her push-chair comfortably, ‘go on.’

Junior passed the hardcover to his sister, who opened the first page and sniffed the tea-coloured paper admirably.

Chapter One,’ said Charlotte, in an automatic reading voice, ‘The existence of Parlers.’

Charlotte glanced about the room, waiting for Ma Joelle’s final approving nod.

‘Carry on,’ croaked the old woman.

‘In the beginning, there was a prosperous king who governed over a far off land. Every night, the king would climb to the highest point of his palace and gaze, admirably, over his kingdom, which was as far and as wide as his eyes could stretch. Every night, the king, who had yet to bear a child, would sing miserably ‘What use is the entire kingdom, when I cannot have an heir to the throne.’ Then one night, the king had an idea. He would search the entire land until he found a young man worthy enough to assume the position as heir to the throne.

‘Where is this going -’

‘Hush!’ ordered Ma Joelle, ‘dis is where it all starts.’

Slightly annoyed by the distraction, Charlotte continued,[* ][‘At this time, there were no worthy young men, in whom the king was sufficiently pleased, apart from a set of twin brothers. The first brother, named Cato, weaved robes, and the second, named Atticus, melted and moulded gold and silver. Cato and Atticus were the most revered men in all of the land, so the king assigned them a task to determine the most superior brother. The king told the brothers to each present him with their most prized gifts. Cato, being a robe weaver, gathered any linen he could find, but Atticus moulded the king a striking golden medallion. The king looked with favour on Atticus’s gift, but did not favour Cato’s gift. *]

Now, at this time, the king guarded, amongst his treasures, a golden urn, which was known to possess dark ashes of powerful sorcery. No person, including the king, could ever touch the urn, lest the dark ashes be unsettled. However, Cato, fuming in jealousy over his brother’s victory, snuck into Atticus’s chamber by night and killed him. Still enraged, Cato set his sights to avenge the king. He invaded the king’s treasury and robbed the golden urn, along with other gems and treasures. Ignorant of the dark magic that the urn possessed, Cato unsealed the urns cover, discharging the dark ashes over all the land. The dark ashes fell upon Cato, and many others in the land. When the king learned of Cato’s doings, he was deeply distressed.’

‘All because he was jealous of his brother?’ sniggered Junior.

‘All – from – jealousy,’ the old Haitian woman muttered. Gazing at Charlotte, Ma Joelle murmured, ‘proceed, dear.’

[*‘Then the king said to Cato, ‘look at what you have done! You have spread a dark curse around my kingdom. All the heads on whom the dark ashes fall will become estranged from the human race. They will have silver blood and frozen hearts… barren of love. They will be restless wanderers over the earth, seeking death but it will not come. Cato and all those who are cursed are hereby banished from the land.’ When Cato heard this, he was troubled. He said to the king ‘Sire, surely I will be killed in a foreign land.’ The king replied ‘the curse has marked you and your progeny. You will possess abilities superior to that of human beings. They will not kill you. You will trek the earth like a restless wanderer, frozen in time, and be plucked from the earth after many hundreds of years.’ Cato begged for the king to strike him dead, for the curse was too great for him to bear.’ *]

‘Awarding a murderer with powers doesn’t sound much like a punishment to me,’ said Charlotte.

Ma Joelle’s eyes widened gravely, ‘you don’t understand de magnitude of dis curse dear child!’ she cried.

‘Are we really supposed to believe this?’ chortled Junior, ‘if this is the ‘Cato’ that Dr. Willow was talking about. He’s a psychopath. He killed his own brother for –’

‘Hold on!’ cried Charlotte, ‘I missed out this last bit.’

She ran her finger along the page attentively and read aloud, ‘the curse was too great for him to bear. When the King saw that Cato was truly repentant, he restated the prophecy, ‘In many hundreds of years, another set of twins will be born. They will break this dark curse of silver blood and frozen hearts, you and your broods will finally be free.’[* *]

Wary glares bounced between Charlotte, Junior and Sasha.

‘It’s you… you are the twins who’ll break the curse,’ murmured Sasha, ‘at least that’s what the mayor and the doctor think.’

‘That’s impossible,’ snorted Junior.

‘Yesterday I saw a man materialize out of thin air…I think anything is possible after that.’

Climbing in her seat excitedly, Sasha shot, ‘think back to when you first arrived in Shorebridge, was there any strange occurrence…an event that you could not explain?’

‘All of this!’ cried Junior, tossing an arm at the bronze book.

‘Look deeper!’ Ma Joelle urged, clenching the edge of her pushchair.

Sasha circled the room, deep in thought, ‘predictions!’ she gasped, finally, ‘Charlotte is exceptionally good at predicting things ahead of time… that could be your power!’

‘I can only predict irrelevant things like the weather,’ shrugged Charlotte, ‘or what we’ll get for homework…that’s quite a rubbish power if you ask me.’

Gawking at the sapphire necklace, which was still weaved around her arm, Sasha exclaimed, ‘Felix said that sapphire dust could dampen the powers of any powerful parler! Maybe you’ve only been able to predict irrelevant things because of this necklace!’

On catching sight of Sasha’s bracelet, Ma Joelle gasped hysterically, ‘sapphire dust!’

The old woman dug into her garment and removed a similar charm. Ma Joelle’s sea-blue charm rotated on a woven piece of cork, casting shafts of glistening light about the dark room.

‘Dis contains sapphire dust,’ Ma Joelle whispered, ‘tis’ how I recognise parlers.’

‘Dis is dark, dark stuff me dear,’ the old woman muttered.

‘How did you get this, Ma!’ exclaimed Sasha, gawking at the glittering charm, ‘and how do you know so much about parlers?’

Ma Joelle turned to the window once more; her thoughts were miles away, ‘evil parlers,’ she muttered.

‘Evil?’ said Charlotte, ‘surely, parlers aren’t all evil.’

‘Not all,’ the old woman spewed.

Glancing at both Junior and Charlotte, Ma Joelle whispered, ‘somting is wrong.’

‘What?’ shot Sasha.

The old woman gazed at her dim blue charm worriedly and croaked, ‘when parlers are nearby, de charm glistens a bright blue. It has never failed…unless nobody here is a tru parler.’

‘What if we’re not parlers yet?’ blurted Junior, ‘down in the chamber, Willow said that we had not transitioned. What if we need to somehow undergo a change to assume these powers?’

‘De transition!’ exclaimed Ma Joelle, ‘de book…look in de book!’

Charlotte opened the heavy, bronze hardcover automatically and flicked to the contents page. ‘The transition – Chapter 6, page 101.’

She glanced about the room once more, before beginning a new narration.

‘The transition is the period in which a juvenile parler assumes a power and becomes a mature parler. In the transition, a parler’s power may manifest in many different forms, but usually the form which they will specialise. Every parler’s power is unique, though there may be variations of the same skill, no two parlers will possess the same ability. The age of transition is different for each parler, however, parlers of the same bloodline usually transition at the same age. The transition age is the age that most parlers retain for the first 100 years.’

‘Repeat that last sentence!’ mouthed Sasha.

‘The transition age is the age that most parlers retain for the first 100 years.’

‘That’s it!’ shot Junior, ‘that’s how Mr. Williamson hasn’t aged a day since 1920.’

‘If parlers can live longer than 100 years without ageing, then they are virtually immortal!’ cried Sasha.

‘Nat exactly, Dear,’ croaked Ma Joelle, ‘dere is a way dat they can be killed … but I don’t know it.’

Gulping hesitantly, the old woman whispered, ‘it involves very powerful enchantments.’

Junior exhaled a despondent sigh; though Ma Joelle’s book had given an insight into the origins of parlery, there was little more he could do with the information. It certainly could not help track down the Shorebridge Ripper. If Cato was, truly, one of the first parlers to ever exist, he must have been several hundreds of years old by now. Moreover, if the aging principal applied to him, he would look merely a few years older than the young man he’d been in the tale. Down in the chamber, Dr. Willow spoke of Cato’s death, but Mr. Brown staunchly believed that Cato was alive. If Mr. Brown was right, and Cato was alive – what was driving his intense craving to kill? Either he was a raving, ageless sociopath who had an insalubrious appetite for murder – or, his killings had some deeper purpose.

‘Notorious parlers,’ said Charlotte’s, back in reading mode.

Pointing at a freakishly life-like illustration, she whispered, ‘here he is again.’ The sketch was of a tall, dark haired man with the name, Cato, etched beneath it.

‘Cato, known better amongst parlers as ‘the originator,’ is the oldest parler to walk the earth. He has seen 3000 years. When Cato was banished from the far off kingdom, with others whom the dark ashes had touched, he travelled to a new land. After Cato had transitioned, the people of the new land discovered his unique ability – scorching inanimate objects. Over time, his popularity grew, and his skill was put to use in the military. After 50 years, other sorceresses of the new land saw that Cato and the ‘cursed ones’ were well preserved for their ages. They became jealous of Cato and encouraged the people to turn against him. Cato, with many other parlers, went into hiding (in fear that the humans might kill them). After that time, parlers began to keep their abilities secret from humans. Following many years of hiding, Cato resurfaced under a new identity…Gaius Julius Caesar. His unparalleled abilities, alongside his enchanting charisma, spurred his to rise to power again. He soon became the unrivalled leader of an entire empire.’

‘Cato – was – Julius – Caesar!’ cried Sasha, spilling each word with tenor.

‘This just can’t be true!’

‘If it is, I’m never going to another one of Mr. McGlean’s history lessons again,’ muttered Charlotte.

Sasha snatched the heavy bronze book from Charlotte’s lap and continued, [*‘Soon after, the demise of the Roman empire meant that Cato would go into hiding again, and resurface only when anyone old enough to recognize him had died. Centuries passed and Cato resurfaced as several prominent figures throughout history, including Napoleon’s most talented general and right-hand man, Jean Lannes. After many years, Cato’s silver blood slowly began to turn his heart cold. Soon, Cato developed an unquenchable thirst for power and a hatred for all meres. He committed the unspeakable crime of bauchery (killing other parlers to steal their power). At this time, Cato began to kill all meres and parlers that crossed his path. Cato amassed a collection of powers as well as devoted followers, who did his bidding. His followers included notorious parlers, such as Diana Drusus. Diana is rumoured to have been in a romantic relationship with Cato. She has up to 900 years and is almost as deadly as Cato, himself.’ *]

There was a detailed illustration of the fiery eyed woman beneath her name. She was the devil in a dress…unsuspecting but irrefutably dangerous. Two other sets of serpentine eyes shot out of the page beneath Diana Drusus. Two men with dark features, hooded cloaks and flame-filled eyes. Underneath them was the caption, The Bukhari Brothers are two of Cato’s most devoted comrades. The dynamic duo have infamously skinned meres alive. Semal (right) is able to hear the thoughts of others, whilst his brother, Damien, can draw balls of fire in his bare palms. Another of Cato’s notorious protégés-’

Her throat suddenly dry, and her eyes filling with horror, Sasha breathed, Felix Corneli

‘It can’t be!’ cried Charlotte, ‘Felix is with Cato!’

Silently confirming Charlotte’s fear, Sasha tilted the bronze book, revealing to everyone, the face of the Aryan man, Felix Corneli. The sketch was exceptionally accurate; it had even captured Felix Corneli’s freakish, uneven smile.

Burying her head in the book, Sasha gasped, ‘to think that Cato’s accomplice was down there in the chamber with us…listening to everything!’

‘Keep reading,’ urged Junior, still wallowing in shock.

‘Felix Corneli (200), has the unassuming ability of invisibility. Do not underestimate him. Like his master, he has slaughtered many meres and staunchly believes the earth should be cleansed of them.’

‘He deceived us!’

‘He’s probably long gone by now,’ grunted Junior, ‘back to report to Cato.’

Sasha lifted her head from the book and grinned at the Roterbee twins.

‘What is it?’

‘What if I knew a way we could find Felix?’

‘And how on earth would we do that?’ hissed Charlotte, ‘he’s invisible for goodness sakes!’

‘Down in the chamber, I had a feeling he would disappear,’ said Sasha, ‘so I put my iPod in his cloak pocket whilst we were hiding.’

‘And why would you…Oh!’

Suddenly realising the brilliance of Sasha’s plan, Junior cried, ‘we’ll track him!’

‘That’s right!’ shot Sasha, ‘as long as he hasn’t removed the cloak, he’ll be right where my iPod is.’

Sasha slid her phone from her back pocket, ‘this GPS app should do the job,’ she grinned.

‘You’re forgetting something,’ whispered Charlotte.

‘And what’s that?’

‘The part where Felix is a notorious serial killer!’ barked Charlotte, ‘I’m not sure whether we should be tracking him down… or running away from him.’

‘He can’t do a thing,’ gloated Junior, ‘did you see how afraid he was of my cricket bat down in the chamber? I assure you that if he was half as deadly as this book paints him, we would not have lived to tell the story.’

‘And, he thinks that you both have magical powers so he probably doesn’t want to mess with you,’ Sasha concurred.

‘He’s a 200-year-old murderer who looks like he’s just dropped out of college!’ exclaimed Charlotte, convinced that Junior and Sasha had gone berserk.

Neither Junior nor Sasha responded, their eyes were tightly glued to Sasha’s phone.

‘It’s working!’ cried Sasha, as a pixilated map of Shorebridge loaded onto the screen.

‘Felix is still in Shorebridge!’ gasped Junior, ‘but where?’

Sasha manipulated another virtual button, making the cybernetic atlas larger. A red marker appeared at a location labelled ‘The Rocky Shore.’

‘We’ve got him!’ Sasha cried, ‘Felix is at the Rocky Shore beach right now!’

‘That’s at the opposite end of Shorebridge.’

‘How long does it take to get there?’ asked Junior, flinging his coat over his shoulders.

‘A 35-minute walk …a 20-minute run.’

The trio glanced between themselves.

‘Run, it is,’ said Charlotte, stating their unspoken agreement out loud.

Sasha gazed back at her grandmother, who had long since resumed a vacant position at the window. The young woman wondered whether Ma Joelle would be able to remember the events of this morning tomorrow. Probably not. So, without looking back, Sasha paced after Charlotte and Junior, calling out, ‘don’t wait up for me, Ma.’

The loud clasp of the door caused Ma Joelle to jolt in her seat, she watched from the window as the three youngsters raced into the cold, empty streets.

 

Chapter twelve

‘Capturing Corneli’

Cold, blustery days are never the best days to visit the beach. Underneath a droning sky, a usually cerulean sea can appear grey. There will be no appreciable life, excluding the noisy squawks of squabbling seagulls. Violent waves will collide and merge in the distance, becoming gentle, rolling tides, which stroke the coasts and overhanging cliffs, throwing up pieces of dissipated junk. On cold blustery days, like today, one could span the entire Rocky Shore and not detect another living soul. There will be a sad serenity about the beach. Sad, because there is no one else to witness the beautiful rolling tide…and serene, for the very same reason. Today however, the lifelessness of the Rocky Shore would soon be disturbed by the arrival of one panting, windblown-haired teenager. Two others were not far behind.

‘Wait up!’ wheezed Sasha.

Sasha and Charlotte had fallen a considerable distance behind Junior in the race to the beach. Charlotte, who had complained of a biting stitch after the first few minutes of her sprint, was now curled over, with both hands on her knees, searching for breath. Junior bolted to the seafront, placed his hand over his eyebrows, and scanned the entire coastline.

‘The map says he’s here,’ said Junior, once the girls had caught up, ‘but he’s nowhere to be seen …what if the tracker has an error?’

Junior gaped at Sasha’s phone screen anxiously, the red marker had not moved in 20 minutes.

‘He’s here alright!’ muttered Sasha, without an inkling of hesitance. Drawing up her sleeve, Sasha revealed the weaved Roterbee neckless, which was now projecting radiant shafts of blue light.

‘We’ll use the necklace to track him,’ said Charlotte, examining her father’s sapphire-bound trinket, ‘it glows brighter the closer we get to him.’

‘What if he already knows we’re here?’ said Junior, ‘since he’s invisible, he could escape and we wouldn’t even know.’

‘If he flees, we will definitely know,’ stated Charlotte, ‘the charm will stop glowing and Sasha’s map will show that he has moved.’

Junior nodded sceptically, even with Charlotte’s sapphire necklace and Sasha’s GPS tracker, trailing an invisible man across the entire Rocky Shore was not going to be an easy job.

‘We’ll go this way,’ said Sasha, starting towards the east exit of the beach, ‘watch out for anything that moves, or any strange noises.’

The trek along the coastline was extremely tedious, every few seconds a new tide washed the shore. Sasha agreed to watch over the coast, Junior took a straight path along the rocky beach and Charlotte searched for Felix near the cliffside. Almost a mile into their search, Junior called out, ‘it’s no use, Felix is not here!’

Sasha flicked the glowing Roterbee necklace, ‘he’s just hiding,’ she replied.

The sapphire necklace dimmed with the duration of their search. It puzzled Sasha that, whilst the tracker still indicated Felix’s presence on the beach, the necklace had stopped glowing. Unwilling to quit their search, the trio trekked to the point along the coast where cliffs disappeared and hard rock became sand. Sasha perched on top of the last hard rock, scanning the entire stretch of the coast. No sign of Felix. Suddenly, the Roterbee necklace sparkled, this time, burning a brilliant blue, hotter and more luminous than usual.

‘It’s glowing!’ cried Sasha, ‘that means he must be near!’

‘Look, footprints!’ yelled Junior, spotting a fresh human footpath in the sand. There was no one around, and the tracks mysteriously ended where the wet sand met the rocks. Instinctively, the trio followed what remained of the suspicious tracks. The footprints went haywire, leading to a lattice of towering chalk stones.

‘We’ve lost him!’ sighed Sasha, when the confusing foot track finally dissolved. Suddenly, another running chain of footprints emerged, one after the other, in the sand. The sound of feet splattering against the wet sand, and the breathy wheeze of exasperation confirmed Felix’s presence. The Roterbee necklace burned in Sasha’s hand.

‘He’s running away!’ yelled Junior, bolting after the rapidly materializing footprints. ‘Stop Felix, stop now!’

When Junior could just about smell the invisible man, he lunged for the air in front of him, hitting something hard. Junior summersaulted in the air, catapulting the invisible Felix with him. The two boys fell to the ground with a deafening ‘THUD!’ To untrained eyes, it may’ve seemed that Junior was manically wrestling a ball of air, and losing. But after a while, Felix, whose spindly invisible arms were locked inside Junior’s unyielding grip, was forced to materialize from thin air.

‘Get off of me!’ the blonde boy cried, pressing Junior’s face away from his own.

‘Do not move an inch,’ muttered Charlotte.

She had already foreseen that Felix, being the conniving creature he was, would have bolted for it at any given opportunity. Knowing this, Charlotte had positioned herself behind him, brandishing a dangerous can of pepper spray (which she was sure that even parlers were not immune to). Charlotte wasted no time. As soon as Felix Corneli turned on his heels, the young woman detonated her weapon, sending fiery fluid into Felix’s brilliant blue eyes.

‘AHHHHHHHHHH!’ howled Felix, plummeting to his knees once more.

He crawled to the seafront pathetically and the trio slow-walked behind him. Sasha, who could not perceive the whole spectacle, fixed the hot necklace around her wrist again. She was suddenly enlightened. Junior and Charlotte surrounded the whimpering blonde man, who was rinsing his entire face in the icy seawater. His eyes were red; it was as if they had been set alight. Sasha was able to deduce, from the mysterious bottle in Charlotte’s grip, that Felix’s red eyes were probably Charlotte’s doing. Dipping his head underneath the seawater, Felix Corneli probably felt a little foolish now. He had underestimated Junior’s speed and brute strength, Charlotte’s strategic positioning and Sasha’s notable tracking skills. How embarrassing. In his 200-and-something-years, he had never before been cornered and brutally attacked by a group of teenagers.

‘That’s enough!’ scowled Charlotte, dragging Felix’s hard-gelled spikes from the water.

His eyes were so red that even Charlotte wondered whether she’d been too generous with the pepper spray. Regardless, if the action had struck any sort of fear into Felix, her mission was complete. The bouncy persona he had performed in the chamber was no more.

‘What do you want from me?’ spat Felix, irately.

‘Answers!’ snapped Sasha, ‘we know that you’re with Cato.’

His usually bright eyes appeared small in their swollen red sockets. Somehow, today, Felix did not look anything like the book’s illustration.

‘Well if that’s what you KNOW,’ Felix mocked, ‘I don’t want to hear what you think.

‘You’re a killer…that’s what I think!’ cried Charlotte, ‘and you’ve been working with Cato, working as a spy.’

Glowering at the blonde man in disgust, Junior muttered, ‘why else would you be snooping around Williamson’s chamber at night and disappear as soon as Willow and Brown revealed the vault, and who’s to say that you didn’t kill Williamson yourself.’

Felix shrugged to his feet, levelling himself with his interrogators, ‘you’ve read the book, haven’t you?’ he cackled, ‘that darned book.’

‘The Secrets of a Fallen Parler?’

‘Uh huh,’ huffed Felix, ‘till this day, I do not know the author. He paints me in an awful light. It’s simply not fair!’

‘But is it true?’ shot Sasha.

‘Half and half,’ Felix cackled, ‘that’s why I don’t read much at all these days – books never seem to tell the villain’s side of the story.’

‘But you are Felix Corneli?’ muttered Junior, ‘a protégé of Cato’s, responsible for hundreds of murders, one day wishes to exterminate all meres from the earth… the list goes on.’

Rolling his eyes dramatically, Felix cried, ‘it’s all true…but for heaven’s sakes, I was only 50 years old and going through a rebellious stage.’

‘Rebellious stage!’ exclaimed Charlotte, ‘a rebellious stage is sneaking out to rock concerts and getting grounded, not slaughtering innocent people!’

‘Oh, spare me your higher-than-thou morality complex!’ spat Felix, ‘I was a young parler and Cato took me under his wing. He taught me everything I know! He was a great man for the most part!’

‘So you’re still working with him, huh?’ muttered Junior, shooting Felix another hate-filled glower.

‘In all honesty, I don’t even know if Cato’s alive… I heard he died over 50 years ago.’

‘How?’

‘He was captured and killed by other parlers, of course,’ huffed Felix, ‘it was presumed that Cato’d gone on a bauchering spree to acquire the powers of other parlers. But knowing Cato, he would not endeavour such a suicide mission without a definitive goal. We’d fallen out of contact by this time… it was the late forties, and I was voyaging the Caribbean islands with some buccaneers stationed in Jamaica…now that was awfully fun.’

‘Get to the point,’ muttered Sasha, on edge.

‘Anyway, I received word that all parlers were to go into hiding because there was a baucherer loose. So, like most parlers did, I faked my death, changed my identity and headed back for England. Only, when I arrived – I found out that it was Cato who everyone was running from…my old friend Cato!’

‘That explains the deaths and disappearances in 1947!’ exclaimed Junior, ‘parlers were going into hiding, forced to fake their own deaths. That’s why Arthur Mannox and his wife forged their deaths at the Willow Lodge.’

‘Correct,’ grinned Felix, ‘it was a chaotic time, there was a large sector of parlers dead set on capturing Cato and killing him for his crimes.’

‘What made them think that it was Cato committing bauchery. After all, it could’ve been any power-hungry parler.’

‘Well,’ smirked Felix, ‘Cato’s signature was that he scorched his victims from the inside. It’s quite a spectacular skill. He would leave them dead behind the eyes, so they would look like they’d frozen to death…the meres would never be able to detect it. The victim would seem like they’d died of natural causes.’

Shuddering as his memory of Allan Roterbee’s corpse replayed, Junior muttered, ‘is there any possibility that parlers could be faking their deaths this time around?’

‘If you’re asking in regards to the death of your father, I’m afraid you may not like the answer I give. Arthur Mannox was really murdered, as was Headmaster Williamson. That’s why I travelled back here in the first place…to see if it was really true, to see if Cato was truly at large again.’

‘Did you know about the vault beneath the headmaster’s office, before?’ asked Charlotte, studying Felix Corneli dubiously.

‘I had never seen or heard of the existence of a vault before yesterday night.’

‘Lies!’ snarled Sasha, ‘then why did you disappear after they uncovered the vault? Why were you running when you saw us looking for you? You’re working for Cato, just admit it!’

‘I am not!’ cried Felix, ‘I fled from the chamber because… because I didn’t realize who you really were.’

‘What – do – you – mean?’ mouthed Junior.

‘Well, the doctor seemed to imply that you are the twins of the prophecy, the elected ones… the pair that will break the dark curse.’

‘So you believe all that mumbo jumbo?’

‘Of course!’ spewed Felix, ‘finding out that you were the elected ones as well as the kin of Arthur Mannox was too much to learn in one night!’

Sasha crossed her arms apathetically, ‘that still doesn’t explain why you fled!’ she snapped.

‘I was overwhelmed!’ howled Felix, ‘bear in mind that I have a grisly reputation as one of the most dangerous parlers of all time. What if word got out that I was frolicking with the elected twins and their mere friend. That would not do well for my reputation at all… I’ve spent hundreds of years building this terrifying alter ego, I wasn’t going to give it all up. Finding out that you were Arthur’s children …now that was an unanticipated revelation.’

‘You know our father?’ shot Charlotte, ‘Allan Roterbee?’

‘I [_knew _]Arthur Mannox,’ corrected Felix, ‘at least before he was Allan Roterbee. I was assigned his mentor during his transition, I taught him how to control his power. Our paths crossed a few times after that, but I can’t say our relationship ended on the best of terms…we were acquaintances, at best.’

Felix shot his favourite, freakish grin. Somewhere in the last ten minutes, the young man had become as handsome as he was annoying. The redness around his eyes had started to dampen, and soon, he had the same angel-like guise with which the trio had first encountered him.

‘Look, the real reason I ran is because I was scared,’ sighed Felix. ‘I was scared because, if Cato is alive, and he wants what’s in that vault, he’ll be looking for you.’

‘Why would you be scared of Cato?’ chortled Sasha, ‘you’re his friend. You’ve killed people like me. [_You _]and Cato killed meres together.’

‘Yes, Cato was my friend, and yes… we killed together!’ ejaculated Felix, ‘but he and I had an unsettlement many years ago. I was excommunicated from his inner circle…the book didn’t explain that part, did it? Cato taught me that all meres were greedy and selfish, and they would persecute me as a witch if they ever discovered my ability. I hated all meres with a passion, and yes, I slaughtered them. But as I travelled the world, I began to see that not all meres were the same. The Japanese were exceptionally kind towards me.’

Kissing his fingers suggestively, Felix murmured, ‘and the women… the women were just from another world!’

Charlotte, Junior and Sasha each cringed a little.

‘Anyway,’ chortled Felix, strangely pleased by their discomfort, ‘I began to feel that Cato’s views were a little radical, and his longing for power was becoming unhealthy… you can only guess what happened next.’

Gasping at his own narrative, Felix cried, ‘he said that my loyalty to him had dwindled and when I denied it, he tried to kill me!’

In the short time they had known him, it was easy for Sasha, Junior and Charlotte to infer that Felix was a fan of theatrics.

‘Can you believe it?’ the wide-eyed parler whimpered, ‘my own friend, Cato, wanted me dead!’

Chortling melodramatically, Felix cried, ‘haha! that’s the pro to being invisible. You see, when I discovered what he was planning, I fled from Cato at once. Got onto the first ship to Jamaica and stayed there until I was ordered back to England.’

The young man sighed, clearly exasperated by his own narrative, ‘anyway, long story short, Cato wants me dead and that’s why I can’t linger around the two of you.’

Shooting Charlotte and Junior an accusatory glare, Felix muttered, ‘from what the doctor said, Cato’s looking for you. If he finds you, or us, we’ll all be dead!’

‘So you’re just looking after your own ass!’ barked Charlotte.

‘As self-regarding as it sounds, yes,’ grinned Felix, ‘I’ve lived a good 200 years, travelled the entire world…life is precious, I don’t want mine to end.’

‘It’s what you deserve,’ scowled Sasha, ‘you’ve killed so many others. You deserve to be killed.’

‘I deeply regret all my wrongs,’ muttered Felix, as lines of sorrow worked across his childlike face.

‘Then prove it!’ shot Junior, ‘if Cato wants us, he will be coming soon. You said that you helped our father access his abilities. Stay and help us! If we are the elected ones, our power could surely triumph Cato’s.’

‘You underestimate Cato’s power,’ muttered Felix. ‘He’s got 3000 years’ worth of experience killing folk like you and I.’

‘But you could help us!’ cried Charlotte, ‘if you flee again, Cato will find you and kill you regardless. Help us and we will protect you.’

‘You do not understand what you are asking, child.’

‘If you truly regret the crimes you committed in the past, then you’ll stay,’ said Junior. ‘You’ll stay and help us defeat Cato.’

Felix hovered indecisively, deep in thought. Lines of distress worked between his brows. [_How was he to train a group of teenagers who had only learned of parlery last night? Could their powers ever match Cato’s? What if it all ended badly… What if Cato won? _]

Sucking in a laboured breath, Felix finally muttered, ‘very well…but this is only because you’ve given me no choice!’

‘Good,’ smirked Sasha, ‘you don’t deserve one.’

He scowled back, irately, ‘I have not trained any juvenile parlers since your father. I need to know what I’m working with.’

Each member of the trio stared at Felix, modelling stark, blank expressions.

‘What exactly are your powers?’

‘I can see things … things of the future, apparently,’ muttered Charlotte.

Three sets of eyes rolled to Junior.

‘I’m not sure yet, but I think it has something to do with time …freezing time.’

‘Interesting,’ hummed Felix, buoyant once more.

Stretching forth his hand, the freakish blonde man announced, ‘say hello to your new instructor.’

‘Just out of interest,’ muttered Charlotte, accepting Felix’s handshake, ‘what power did our father possess?’

‘If I told you,’ snarled Felix, ‘then I would surely have to kill you.’

 

Chapter thirteen

 

‘Lessons from the Invisible Man’

The Willow Lodge was slowly changing. The once-desolate dining room table was now surrounded by life every suppertime. One evening, Charlotte could’ve sworn that she heard the doctor playing music from his study. Dwayne-the-gardener would occasionally stay for tea, and when he did, he added a surprisingly pleasant dynamic about the dinner table. Though Dr. Willow would never be a man of many words, he had come to a silent agreement with the Roterbee twins. These days, he needn’t say a word and both Charlotte and Junior could guess exactly what he meant to say. Charlotte had recently alleviated the duty of collecting the Shorebridge telegraph – every morning – from Luchia. She would collect it from the shabby letterbox and place the newspaper directly into Dr. Willow’s hands, and he would silently gesture his thanks. A few days after she’d made it a routine, the doctor actually uttered, ‘thank you, Charlotte’ and one day she believed she heard him say ‘thank you, dear.’ But, from the mechanical manner which the doctor resumed a cold countenance, Charlotte doubted whether she had heard him right. With all this new change about the cottage, it was no wonder that neither Dr. Willow nor Luchia noticed that Charlotte had been taking twice the amount of dinner and still managed to sweep her plate clean. Or, that the milk, which usually lasted the week, ran out within two days. They didn’t even notice that a pair of Dr. Willow’s best polished shoes had gone missing. The presence of the mysterious invisible man, Felix Corneli, was at heart of these changes. Felix had calculatedly spread his time between the Willow Lodge and Sasha’s home. At the Willow Lodge, he was positively undetected by everyone except Junior and Charlotte, which made his presence some sort of inside joke. One evening, Felix batted Dr. Willow’s head repeatedly at the dinner table. After dinner, the doctor, who had no idea what had come over him, complained of severe headaches. Felix saw it as revenge, for the callous way Dr. Willow often talked to Luchia. The invisible man watched them every day, by the staircase, bickering about one thing or another. The doctor was almost always in the wrong but too proud to admit it. At the same time, Felix had recently launched intense [_‘power development lessons’, _]which had, thus far, been completely unsuccessful. Every evening at 7.30 pm, after supper was done, Sasha would curl through the twin’s bedroom window and the training session would begin.

‘Close your eyes and just feel it, like lightening pulsating through you…channel your power as if you’re channelling lightening.’

Circling the room hyperactively, Felix explained, ‘it’s like when I become invisible, I have to channel that power from the surroundings.’

‘I can’t do that,’ grumbled Junior, ‘it doesn’t work like that for me.’

‘Of course it does!’ beamed Felix, ‘think of your body as a magnet, and your ability as the metal… it will be drawn to you naturally.’

‘Enough with the cheesy metaphors,’ panted Charlotte, irately, ‘you’re only confusing me more.’

Mimicking Charlotte in a high-pitched voice, Felix sang, ‘enough-with-the-cheesy-metaphors …until you learn to channel your abilities, I’m afraid there is not much I can do for you.’

‘I am getting a little better,’ said Junior. ‘This morning I needed sugar in my tea, and I did it again. Everything kinda, sorta froze…like slow motion. It was brilliant, I walked over to the kitchen and got the sugar, all within a split second!’

‘Excellent!’ grinned Felix, ‘that’s progress… you must have been so fast that I didn’t even see you pass!’

‘I can’t seem to channel anything,’ muttered Charlotte, ‘and I’ve taken off the Roterbee necklace, so that can’t be it.’

‘Don’t be so downcast about it, young one!’ cheered Felix, ‘your skill is very unique. Visions may appear to you when they are ready, as opposed to when you are ready. With time, you will learn to manipulate them.’

Charlotte sniggered at the idea of Felix, who looked but a year older than herself, calling her ‘young one’; she would probably never get used to the freakish blonde boy. Junior, however, was easily captivated by Felix and the adventurous tales of his last 200 years. Being a parler was exciting, and Junior often wondered why his father would ever choose to conceal such a world. By his own desire, Allan Roterbee had assumed the life of a filthy-rich, uninteresting mere, when he was something far more spectacular. Junior did not know why his father ever strayed from parlery, but from what Felix described, he was certain that Arthur Mannox was part of the sector who ‘were dead set on finding and killing Cato’. No doubt, Mr. Williamson and Bart Bold were also part of this group. And Cato, who presumably never died, avenged their attack by bauchering Allan Roterbee and Mr. Williamson in cold blood. This theory seemed to be most true, albeit far too confusing for Junior to ever fully understand. One thing that he did know was that Cato was prepared to kill for whatever Mr. Williamson was hiding in the vault beneath his office. The only qualm was that the murderer needed Charlotte and Allan Junior alive to acquire it.

‘What does the[_ ‘elected ones’_] really mean,’ asked Sasha, gazing at Felix, fixedly, ‘how do they break the dark curse.’

‘You’ve read the legend,’ said Felix. ‘The king cursed all parlers to be restless wanders over the earth until ‘we’ will be plucked from it. The literal meaning is that we will be ‘frozen in time’ from the age that we transition.’

‘So you do live forever!’ cried Sasha.

‘That’s not what I said,’ snapped Felix, ‘on the contrary, parlers do have a life span, albeit a great deal longer than meres. No one knows how long we can live, but Cato has more than 3000 years… he’s one of the oldest.’

‘There are more like him?’ shot Charlotte.

‘I’ve never been so fortunate to meet the other originators, but Cato is very old indeed. That’s one of the reasons why other parlers suspected him for bauchery in the 40’s. You see, when a parler becomes very old, his powers dwindle, and more often than not, natural death will follow. After surviving three millenniums, Cato was probably too afraid to die. So, he sucked the powers of others, hoping that it would keep him alive for another century or so…at least that’s what they say.’

‘So parlers can die naturally, like humans?’

‘When we become old, and our powers dwindle, we die, just like meres. The only difference is our version of old is well past 1000 years.’

‘The prophecy says that parlers will search for death but it will not come,’ said Charlotte, ‘meaning that they cannot be killed.’

‘Killing parlers …well that’s a topic for lesson ten, dear child. Let’s just focus on mastering your powers for now.’

‘This is just as important as mastering our powers!’ exclaimed Junior, ‘if we’re to stand a fighting chance against Cato, we need to know everything about parlery.’

‘Very well,’ surrendered Felix, ‘what exactly do you want to know?’

‘How do you do it?’ whispered Charlotte, ‘how do you kill a parler?’

Mounting the bunkbed dramatically, Felix muttered, ‘it’s an extremely difficult thing to do… such a crime is against nature.’

Felix drew back his sleeve and acted the words as he said them, ‘you have to reach through them…plunge your fist through the parler’s chest and grab hold of the heart. When your entire hand has gripped the heart, you incinerate it by focusing all energy to your palms. The blood will trickle out slowly, only it’s not red… it’s silver.’

Smirking at the trio’s sudden gasps, Felix exclaimed, ‘it’s awfully gory… you see, a parler’s power is contained within their silver blood.’

‘So how do you commit bauchery?’ breathed Junior, somewhat nauseated, ‘how do you steal a parler’s power.’

‘That’s the complicated part,’ sighed Felix, ‘once a parler dies, his power is either dispersed to the environment or absorbed into the nearest living soul. Cato always caught his victims alone, so that he, alone, could suck up their powers.’

Felix cleared his throat dramatically and bellowed, ‘however, when a parler is killed in an urbane manner, or dies naturally, his silver blood (which contains his power) is poured into a clear glass bottle which will be buried alongside his corpse.’

‘So that’s how Cato committed bauchery, by incinerating his victim’s hearts and absorbing their powers?’

‘Partly,’ muttered Felix, ‘but by the end of Cato’s reign, he’d become so well versed in killing parlers that he needn’t touch them. He scorched them from the insides with his eyes…his power was unparalleled.’

Glancing between themselves, each member of the trio suddenly realised that going against Cato was not going to be an easy task. With Junior scratching the surface of his abilities, Charlotte still unable to control her own, and Sasha a defenceless mere, the odds were not looking good.

‘Don’t think I have forgotten you,’ said Felix, abruptly. Grabbing Sasha by the shoulders, he smirked, ‘training is not just for parlers.’

‘What do you mean?’

Felix grinned and drew out a large ventriloquist dummy from underneath Charlotte’s bed.

‘I’ve looked everywhere, but this’ll have to do,’ said Felix, speaking at the dummy’s rolling eyes. Over the ventriloquist’s body, it appeared that Felix had demarcated target spots. The purpose, which seemed extremely obvious to Felix, was not interpreted that way by anybody else.

‘What on earth is that for?’ gawked Charlotte.

‘The next step in our training,’ beamed Felix, ‘how to destabilize a parler.’

Drawing a sharp hand knife from his cloak, Felix sashayed at the lifeless dummy.

‘What-in-merlin’s-beard!’ squirmed Charlotte, somewhat disturbed.

‘Don’t be such a scaredy cat!’ snapped Felix, ‘you are going to be throwing this knife at the dummy.’

‘Well don’t look so bewildered,’ the blonde boy hissed, ‘I’ve marked the weak points of all parlers: the chest, the centre of the head, the gut and quite oddly, the palms of the hand. If you can stab a parler in any one of these places, you’ll manage to destabilise them… at least for a while.’

Felix opened Sasha’s fist, finger by finger, and placed the hand knife in her palm. Then, wrapping her hand into an enclosed fist again, he muttered, ‘shoot away, mere.’

Sasha positioned the pointed edge of the blade towards the ventriloquist dummy. Clasping one eye shut, the young woman studied her target. With impeccable smoothness, she flicked the blade into the air, sending it flying in a straight path. The blade gorged the centre of the ventriloquist’s head, puncturing the bullseye.

‘Brilliant!’ cried Felix, his blue eyes almost watering, ‘it’s a perfect bullseye!’

‘Where did you learn how to do that?’ cried Junior, baffled.

‘I used to play darts with my brother,’ blushed Sasha, ‘a lot.’

‘You have a gift!’ stammered Felix, ‘I’ve never hit such a perfect bullseye in 200 years!’

Struggling to uncork the hand knife from the ventriloquist’s head, Felix realised that Sasha had forced the blade a good seven centimetres deep.

‘Do it again,’ he ordered excitedly, passing Sasha the knife.

To the surprise of everyone in the room, Sasha hit the centre of the mark again… and again.

‘Unbelievable!’ Felix spluttered, every time Sasha hit the demarcated spots, ‘the mere has a gift!’

Sasha glowered at the eager blonde man, ‘my name is Sasha…not the mere,’ she muttered.

‘Old habits die hard,’ croaked Felix, leaping about the room excitedly.

Maybe there was hope after all, even the mere appeared to possess an astonishing skill. Cato would not be expecting an army of skilled teenagers waiting for him. Ecstatic with the progress of today’s lesson, Felix called out, ‘class dismissed!’

After the last three classes, Junior, Charlotte and Sasha had made it tradition to sit by Felix’s feet and listen to him describe his adventurous years as a parler. Each time, he taught them something new about parlery. On Monday, Felix revealed that once they were mature parlers, they would develop a strange hatred for garlic. In fact, just the smell would repel them.

‘Oh yes!’ cried Felix hysterically, ‘we’ve been many-a-time mistaken for vampires. All it takes is one freaky parler, like my old friend Vlad, to decide he felt like drinking blood, and there you go! Suddenly, they stop calling us witches and start calling us vampires.’

The youngsters were each astounded by Felix’s revelation. Today although, as Felix was just getting into the story, he heard a familiar set of creaking footsteps.

‘The maid, she’s coming!’ gasped Felix. He bolted over to Sasha; it took less than a second for them both to disappear into thin air. Luchia appeared at the door moments later and glared at the Roterbee’s, who were still curled over the floor beside the invisible man.

‘What are you still doing up?’ shot Luchia, ‘I thought I heard a voize.’

The housekeeper’s eyes widened as she scanned the room for the source of ruckus.

‘WHAT ON EARTH IS ZAT!?’ Luchia shrieked, gawking at the wide-eyed ventriloquist dummy and the hand knife that had been forcefully wedged into its head.

‘It’s not what it looks like,’ replied Junior, ‘we were just playing a game.’

Horrified, Luchia exclaimed, ‘zis is not what I call fun!’

Luchia strode to the freakish doll and hauled the blade from its head, ‘where did you get zis knife!’ she cried, ‘it’s not one of ours.’

‘It’s… it’s mine,’ Charlotte blurted.

Then suddenly, without opening his mouth, Junior gasped, which led Charlotte to believe that the invisible Felix and Sasha were struggling to contain their laughter somewhere about the room.

‘Miss Charley, I thought you were more sensible zan zis,’ scolded Luchia.

Charlotte, who was now meticulously searching all the possible directions to run her lie, gasped, ‘it’s for defence! I was scared, with all these killings and what not-’

Secretly impressed with her own performance, Charlotte sighed, ‘I wasn’t planning to use the blade…only to keep it, in case I was attacked.’

Then, staring directly at Luchia with elongated puppy-like eyes, she murmured, ‘I’m sorry.’

Charlotte could sense that, somewhere about the room, Felix was attempting, with all his might, to refrain from howling out loud at her praiseworthy act. His blue eyes were, no doubt, leaking tears of laughter. Tucking the blade into her apron, Luchia muttered, ‘Miz Charley, you have done a bad thing. Count your lucky stars zat it was not Dr. Willow who found you, otherwise you’d probably be grounded till the end of ze month, and barred from ze Winter Ball!’

‘Sorry,’ Charlotte murmured again, ducking her head so that Luchia would not see her smirking.

‘Very well.’

Luchia tiptoed out of the room and soon, the muffled creaking sounds of the staircase confirmed that the housekeeper was a safe distance away. Felix and Sasha materialized at the corner of the room. As Charlotte had predicted, Felix’s eyes were wet with tears of laughter.

‘Bravo,’ he bellowed, ‘what an act! If only you hadn’t let the maid steal my knife, I would’ve given you an A plus…no worries, I’ll just steal my blade back tomorrow.’

Glancing at the clock warily, Sasha exclaimed, ‘it’s nearly 11pm…we’d better get going!’

‘I’ll only go if Ma Joelle promises to stop whacking me with that walking stick,’ sighed Felix. ‘I’ve tried to explain to her that I’m not Cato’s evil accomplice, but she will not have it.’

‘She’s just not used to visitors,’ chuckled Sasha, ‘especially not supernatural ex-murderer visitors.’

Junior and Charlotte laughed in unison at the thought of Ma Joelle pounding Felix with her walking stick. It was no wonder that Felix preferred to sleep on the couch at the Willow Lodge, where he was undetected by both Luchia and the Doctor. Nevertheless, Felix followed as Sasha lowered herself from the window to the tiled roof. These days, Sasha did not require the fencing for balance, but lunged directly into the front lawn. Felix, who was not as experienced, stumbled down clumsily. Charlotte watched from the window as Sasha and Felix walked into the distance, they would soon become invisible.

 

Chapter fourteen

 

‘The Bukhari Brothers’

_ _

The following morning was not unlike usual mornings at the Willow Lodge. Luchia went about her business, and Dr. Willow was absolutely unaware of the fib that Charlotte had, so flawlessly, delivered to Luchia the night before. Somehow, it bothered Charlotte that Dr. Willow could not detect Felix’s presence at all. The possibility that Dr. Willow was a mere occurred to Charlotte many times. However, Charlotte had never seen the doctor with any sapphire-bound jewel, which, as Felix explained, would be a compulsory accessory for meres who dabbled in parlery. The most logical reason as to why the doctor never detected Felix was that the invisible blonde boy almost always assumed a state of invisibility which even parlers could not perceive. Felix only ever phazed into visibility when he was alone with the three youngsters. He’d lived a peculiar life of eavesdropping, stealing and travelling as he wished; being invisible had its undeniable advantages. Aside from being exiled by Cato, Felix rarely ever talked about the negative side of parlery; it appeared to most that he had lived a very self-serving life. This must’ve been the reason why Felix never wiped the freakish grin from his face. He wore that very same grin today. The invisible man beamed excitedly as the Roterbee twins approached St. Andrew’s gate, where he and Sasha had been waiting. Felix, who was unperceived by all the budding secondary school children, pickpocketed them as they passed.

‘Up to your old tricks?’ said Charlotte, startling Felix. He drew some shiny coins from a year 7’s backpack and closed the coins in his fist, ‘I need to get by somehow,’ he muttered.

‘What are you doing here anyway…parlery classes are in the evening, remember?’

Curling one eyebrow, Felix snapped, ‘am I expected to lament about the house all day, waiting for you to get home? Prior to this whole arrangement, I did have a life you know.’

‘I told him to come,’ said Sasha, ‘that way we’ll be able to keep an eye on him. Plus, he’s invisible … what harm could he do?’

Glaring at Felix apprehensively, Charlotte replied, ‘fine, but I don’t want any trouble from you.’

Felix smirked triumphantly. When they entered the congested school hallway, Felix whispered, ‘1825.’

‘What does that date mean to you?’ asked Junior.

‘19th February 1825 was the last time I spent a full day at this school. That was the day I transitioned.’

 

 

*

For the first half of the morning, Felix abided by Charlotte’s wish and kept himself out of trouble. He sat behind any unoccupied classroom desk and listened to the teacher attentively. He attempted to decipher the changes in the education system between the 1800’s and the modern ages.

‘Back in my day, you would’ve been whipped senseless for that,’ Felix whispered at Charlotte. He was speaking of the mocking note that Ricky Grimshaw had cellotaped to Monsieur Antionne’s ass which said ‘Smack me.’ Charlotte nodded, unwilling to respond verbally. Beau Bennet catching her laughing with herself was the last thing Charlotte wanted. The mysterious break into the school’s kitchen, which occurred a week before, was still a heated topic of discussion. Mrs. Quabble had no evidence to pin it on Sasha or Junior, yet they were at the top of her list of suspects (given their yet-to-be explained discovery of Mr. Williamson’s corpse). The deputy headmaster watched them between lessons, with the eyes of a hawk. Meanwhile, the upcoming Winter Ball was still at the forefront of most student’s minds. By this stage, those students who had not yet secured dates were nicknamed ‘the undateables’. Many times, Sasha warned that securing a date for the Winter Ball was of equal importance to defeating Cato. Charlotte, who had little interest in the ball, took Sasha’s grumbles with a pinch of salt. When last period arrived, the trio dispersed to their different classes (Sasha to Art, Charlotte to Chemistry and Junior to Physical Education). Felix chose to tag along with Junior, whom he felt appreciated his presence more.

‘So who is your date to the Winter Ball?’ pried Felix, cornering Junior in the boy’s lockeroom.

‘I haven’t got one…why would I care about a ball when Cato –’

‘Oh forget Cato!’ bawled Felix, ‘Cato can be dealt with anytime, but you only get one Winter Ball.’ Gazing up at the ceiling animatedly, as if he was recalling a distant memory, Felix said, ‘I remember my own Winter Ball, the winter of 1824. My date was the fairest girl in the town, Rebecca Lovely…and lovely she was. I’ll never forget how nervous I was to ask her. Back then, it was common courtesy for the man to propose. So, the feeble little mere I was, I asked her to the dance.’

‘What did she say?’ asked Junior, scanning the lockeroom for any rowdy footballers who could catch him talking to himself.

‘Yes, of course! I can’t blame her. I am, after all, irresistible to the female species,’ purred Felix, stroking his face suggestively, ‘my point is, when you want something, you should go for it… and I see the way you look at the mere girl.’

‘Sasha?’ blurted Junior, incredulously.

Rolling his eyes, Felix replied, ‘… and I see the way she looks at you, too.’

‘We’re friends, that’s all!’ snorted Junior, ‘asking her out would be weird. It’d be like asking out my sister.’

‘But Sasha is not your sister… if I were you I’d hurry up and ask her before somebody else does.’

‘I’ll think about it,’ grunted Junior.

The shadow of a brawny, well-built male filled the boy’s lockeroom. Glancing up, Junior recognised him instantly, it was the captain of the football team, Ricky Grimshaw.

‘Junior!’ called Ricky, ‘just the man that I was looking to catch alone.’

Felix, invisible to Ricky’s eyes, shuffled over as the bulky teen filled the bench space next to Junior. Patting Junior on the back, Ricky said, ‘good news, my friend…you’ve made the team!’

‘You won’t regret this!’ cried Junior, ecstatic.

Back when Junior auditioned for the team, he was certain that he’d not played his best. Try-outs were held two days after Williamson’s death, which was all Junior could think about during the entire match. Nevertheless, Grimshaw must’ve seen some potential in his playing to offer a place on the team.

‘Don’t mention it,’ said Ricky, ‘I’ve actually been meaning to ask you about something for a while now.’

‘Fire away!’

Grinning mischievously, Ricky whispered, ‘I’ve noticed that you’re really friendly with Sasha Fling …and I’ve kinda had this crush on her since year 7.

Reddening slightly, Ricky babbled, ‘I was just wondering if … if you know whether she’s got a date to the Winter Ball.’

The sound of Felix’s jaws dropping could almost be heard, and without a thought, Junior blurted, ‘as a matter of fact she does have a date.’

‘Oh,’ frowned Ricky, ‘that’s too bad…who’s she going with?’

Disoriented by his own lie, Junior replied, ‘I wouldn’t know. I just remember her saying that she has a date…you know how girls are, they can go on and on and on about something. I just let it go in through one ear and out of the other.’

‘Well she sure kept that one quiet,’ muttered Grimshaw, dejectedly.

Soon after, the chants of the rowdy team members filled the halls and they appeared at the door, grizzly from their fierce game of football. Grimshaw high-fived all of the members as they passed, attempting to rebuild what was left of his ego.

Felix observed the young men of the modern generation, silently gasping at their scandalous locker room gossip, and their horrid ‘who can fart the loudest?’ contests.

Junior, whose mood was just as deflated as Ricky Grimshaw’s, did not know what had come over him, or why the lie ‘Sasha already has a date’ slid so naturally from his tongue. The idea of Sasha being taken to the ball by anyone else, especially a mindless ball player with two left feet, made his stomach turn. Maybe Felix was right. Maybe Junior had developed feelings for Sasha. For now, it was too early to tell whether his white lie was merely a result of heightened emotions from sleepless nights awaiting Cato’s arrival. Or pure jealousy, a vice that all normal teenage boys encounter occasionally. After all, Grimshaw was the captain of the best football team in Shorebridge, and made every girl in the school weak at the knees. Through his lie, Junior had unknowingly formulated a ghastly conundrum. If things panned out as he had planned, Grimshaw would not give Sasha a second glance (given that he believed she already had a date). Junior imagined the consequences of Sasha catching wind of what he’d done. If Sasha ever found out that he’d ruined her one chance of securing a date with Ricky Grimshaw, she would never forgive him. Junior, who was one step ahead, would never let it get to that. Felix was the only other soul who knew what he had done, and Junior expected it to stay that way.

The rest of the day was miserable and bitingly cold. It was especially miserable for Junior, who could not stop being taunted by Felix’s threatening ‘I told you so’ glares. Felix shot them ever so frequently, reminding Junior that his advice to ask Sasha out[_ ‘before anyone else_] did’ was very valuable advice, indeed. Felix was unsure as to whether Junior had barred Grimshaw from asking Sasha out because he wanted her for himself, or that he gained some sort of sick pleasure in watching a depressed Sasha lament on the fact that no one had, hitherto, asked her to the ball. Having promised Junior that he would never utter a word of what had passed in the lockeroom, Felix couldn’t help but wallow in the rock and roll of budding, teenage romance.

The walk home from school was unusually silent. Junior was too ashamed to look at Sasha and Charlotte was distracted, memorising her periodic table. Sasha was still sulking over her dateless state.

‘I know what!’ cried Felix, excitedly. ‘It’s seems that we all could do with a morale boost. No parlery lessons today!’

‘I thought we had a tight schedule,’ muttered Charlotte, ‘the deadly Cato waits for no one, remember?’

‘I’ll tell you what I could teach you today,’ replied Felix, smirking mischievously, ‘how to live in spontaneity. It’s the best kind of life to live. For starters… reciting those chemical elements will not add any years to your already-supernaturally long lifespan, nor will it help you sleep better at night.’

Snatching the pamphlet from Charlotte’s grip, Felix sang, ‘learn to have some fun, young woman.’

‘Oh…so what do you propose we do?’ hissed Charlotte.

‘When I was in the locker room, I overheard some of those football youngsters talking about the large lake at Shorebridge town park. Apparently it’s frozen over and is almost perfect for ice-skating. We should go!’

‘So this is what normal teens do when they’re not tracking down supernatural murderers?’ muttered Sasha, impassively.

‘Guess so,’ chuckled Felix, ‘I adore skating. In the winter of 1905, when the Caspian Sea froze over, I skated for days along the whole lake with a couple of Scottish travellers.’

‘Is there anything that you have not done, Felix?’

Scratching his hard-gelled hair, Felix replied, ‘nope … I’ve more or less done it all.’

Felix led the way along a narrow path, through the town forest, which ended at the town park. At the end of the path, Charlotte, Sasha and Junior were all surprised to see the beautiful frozen lake, and the entire population of St. Andrew’s upper sixth class skating over it. The park appeared to be in pandemonium, due to the dangerously high number unsupervised teens skidding over slippery ice. The usually separate cliques of St. Andrew’s seemed oddly integrated as they slid across the ice; skating was the universal sport that united them. Ricky Grimshaw and the footballers all flashed mischievous smiles. Charlotte was pleased that it had not snowed the night before; if it had, Charlotte was almost certain she would’ve been pelted with hard snowballs as she tiptoed onto the ice.

‘This is brilliant!’ beamed Felix, bolting onto the frozen lake and knocking down anyone in his path. Some stumbled to the ground, bewildered that the wind had pounded them so hard. One student even accused her friend of purposely pushing her. Felix chuckled at the mischief he had created. Sasha dropped her baggage and tip toed onto the icy surface. Soon, Sasha, Charlotte and Junior were leaping about the ice with the other St. Andrew’s students.

‘Okay, this is more fun than parlery lessons!’ cried Charlotte, skidding across the glazed lake.

Felix caught her fall, ‘I told you so,’ he sneered.

Sasha and Junior, who had both been miserable for most of the day, appeared euphoric as they soared above the ice. If all the meres were not around, this would have been the perfect opportunity for Junior to test how fast he could skid around the entire lake; he figured it would take him less than a second. Every now and then, Beau Bennet and Delilah attempted to trip Charlotte up. Felix always caught Charlotte in the middle of her fall, so Beau was completely astonished at how Charlotte managed to defy gravity. After long, Felix, who was annoyed by Beau’s antics, resulted to tripping the rosy-cheeked blonde in return. The other students sniggered as Beau fought with the air, struggling to heave herself up from the ice. Felix chuckled devilishly. Once they’d secured a bare section of the lake, Felix materialized.

‘You didn’t have to go that far,’ sniggered Charlotte.

‘If I didn’t haul little Miss Bennet to the ground, she’d have carried on trying to trip you over. I should be getting a thanks.’

Sasha’s elation was short-lived. Skating over the ice had transiently dampened her gloomy mood, but it was gradually creeping back.

Sasha stroked her dark curls, ‘is Ricky Grimshaw looking this way?’ she asked.

Junior flinched suspiciously.

‘Nope,’ said Charlotte, ‘he seems far too preoccupied with Lena Gwen.’

‘He hasn’t glanced over at me once today!’ whimpered Sasha. ‘I was so sure that he was going to ask me to the Winter Ball!’

‘There, there, young one,’ soothed Felix, ‘he is definitely not worth sulking over. I’m sure he’s not even a good dancer anyway.’

‘You’re probably right!’ scowled Sasha.

Felix, who had never been learned in the art of taming his tongue, blurted, ‘if Junior had not, so tactfully, told him that you already had a date, you may have actually been asked by the silly oaf…now you won’t have to bother!’

Felix gasped, ashamed of his impulsive verbal vomit.

‘Junior did WHAT!’ barked Sasha, turning at Junior. A rage-filled expression worked across her face. Dazed by both the looseness of Felix’s tongue and how quickly it took for Sasha to turn on him, Junior staggered backwards. He hadn’t enough time to prepare for this moment which, given Felix had not spoken out of place, would never have occurred. Junior said nothing at all, he was clueless of what he could say to redeem himself. Anger worked across Sasha’s face; she was preparing to scowl back at any useless excuse that Junior dared to concoct.

‘I …I only did it because I didn’t think that he was your type,’ stammered Junior, ‘just to save you the hassle of turning him down.’

‘Hassle of turning him down!’ cried Sasha, furiously. ‘I’ve been moping all day over not having a date to the Winter Ball …not knowing that you’d sabotaged all my chances!’

‘I’m sorry-’

‘It was never your place to decide who can and can’t ask Sasha out, Junior!’ exclaimed Charlotte.

Felix gasped at the chaos he had created, ‘200 years and I still haven’t learned to control this big mouth of mine,’ he murmured.

Junior’s cheeks flushed with colour, his anger towards Felix’s loose tongue grew by the second.

 

‘AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!’ A boisterous scream from the other side of the frozen lake broke the agonizing tension. All students ran, in a frenzied herd, to the origin of the cry. Felix, Sasha, Junior and Charlotte followed the direction of the ruckus. A crowd quickly formed around the weeping Mona Williams, she was caressing some spectacle on the ground. Felix’s glossy blue eyes widened. Mona was stroking a stiff Airedale Terrier, which lay across the ice, bathed in its own blood. The mutt had been freshly slaughtered.

‘My Teddy!’ wept Mona, ‘someone murdered him, somebody did this!’

The distraught teen rested her head on the dog’s midsection, immersing her hair in its blood. She moped louder, attracting a larger crowd.

‘Something’s not right,’ whispered Felix, ‘we are no longer safe here.’

‘My bracelet, it’s burning hot!’ gasped Sasha, ‘there is a new parler nearby!’

Felix spread his lanky arms around the trio protectively and whispered, ‘stay still!’

‘Look at this!’ called Ricky Grimshaw, who was also at the epicentre of the crowd, ‘it’s that p mark again …the mark of the Shorebridge Ripper!’

The animated crowd let out a chorus of shrieks and began to disband chaotically. Felix and the group edged their way to the centre of the chaos, where the dog lay in its pool of blood. The murderer had inscribed the letter P around the terrier’s corpse, using the hound’s blood as ink. Felix gasped in horror; he had seen this murderer’s signature before.

‘Ouch!’ shrieked Sasha. The weaved necklace was burning the brightest and hottest she’d ever seen it.

‘I fear that we may be expecting the company of some old friends of mine,’ said Felix, glancing at the decrepit hound.

A sudden, deafening ‘BANG!’ reverberated from all corners of the park. Colourful balls of fire flew into the air and erupted at their peak, like inadvertent fireworks. The rapidly dispersing crowd shrieked in hysteria, no one could tell where the flashes of light originated. The horrified students of St. Andrew’s upper sixth scrammed from the scene. Many of them slipped and fell on the glazed lake, terrified that the Shorebridge Ripper would capture and massacre them right then and there. Ricky and the football team bolted along the ice, helping up any fallen students.

‘Who’s there?’ Junior bellowed, ‘who killed the hound? Is it Cato? Is this a warning from Cato?’

‘Stop asking questions!’ yelled Felix, ‘this is not Cato’s handiwork… it seems that the Bukhari brothers have come out to play.’

‘The Bukhari brothers from the book?’ gasped Charlotte, recollecting the haunted schematic of Cato’s two most dreaded accomplices. She hoped that, for all intents and purposes, the illustrator’s depiction of the Bukhari brothers was a far cry from reality.

A chilling cackle resounded from behind them. Two figures dressed in black cloaks swaggered from the dark forest.

‘I see our reputation precedes us, Semal,’ said Damien, with a devilish grin. The brothers were medium height with dark features, they both had lustrous bronze-coloured eyes. Semal had lengthy hair that fell over his shoulders, whilst Damian modelled a short, slick cut. The luminosity of their eyes gave them a unique serpentine guise.

‘Semal… Damien,’ muttered Felix, bending his neck in salute. ‘What an unexpected visit. Courtesy should have demanded you write to me before making such a flamboyant entrance. Or, was it your intention to send the meres into hysteria?’

Damien cackled scornfully, ‘the mutt was just a gesture, I expect you know by now that the Bukhari brothers like to leave a mark. Oh, and the fireworks…the meres were having too much fun for my liking. What is the name of this sport…ice skating?’

‘Meres never fail to amuse me,’ breathed Semal.

The brothers strode closer, narrowing in on their prey. Charlotte noticed that when they walked, it was in unadulterated sync. Damien, the slightly taller brother, was missing an index finger on his left hand. A minute ago, the park had been thriving with life; it was now almost barren, with only the foursome, the bloody corpse of Teddy–the–hound and the two new sinister brothers as occupants. Damien circled the group teasingly and spat onto the ice.

‘So this is what you do nowadays, Felix?’ he hissed, ‘fellowshipping with meres and juvenile parlers… Cato always said you’d be a disgrace.’

‘Ha!’ cried Felix, ‘so that’s why you’re here, Cato’s bidding.’

‘If only,’ bellowed Semal, ‘the word on the street is that Cato’s back…if he is, then he is working undercover.’

‘So what is the purpose of your sudden visit?’

‘Now we’re talking,’ spat Semal, ‘I heard, through-the-grapevine, that Shorebridge is harbouring in its midst, the elected ones. A boy and a girl. Their description fits those juveniles who are trembling in their boots behind you.’

‘So you plan to kill us, is that it?’ gasped Charlotte.

‘…and then suck whatever feeble power you possess, deary,’ sniggered Damien, ‘on second thoughts, we might just kill you and forget the power. Any power worth taking, you would’ve used to escape when you saw us approaching.’

Searching into Felix’s mind, Semal grinned, ‘the girl can see visions, eh? Not exactly an exhilarating power but it should suffice. And the boy, I sense that his power is a little more exciting.’

Damien glowered at Sasha, ‘I’m undecided on whether I should kill the mere first, or save her for later,’ he murmured.

Junior hissed at his predators and sprawled his brawny arms over Sasha and Charlotte.

The Bukhari brothers howled, ‘the boy thinks that he can protect them from us!’

Junior glanced at Felix hopelessly; his only wish was that the unusually silent invisible man had come up with an escape plan. Pressing both arms behind his back, Felix cried, ‘enough with this foolishness! If not Cato’s, then whose bidding is it that you do?’

To unobservant eyes, it may have looked as if Felix was innocently attempting to stand upright. But moments later, the shiny blades which Felix flashed behind his back told that his actions had an entirely different purpose. Catching on quickly, Sasha grabbed the blades.

‘That has always been your problem, Felix,’ Damien teased. ‘You’re neither here nor there, you had your chance to join the winning team and then tossed it away…fool.’

Sasha gripped the blades in her hands and positioned them exactly as she had done the night before.

‘Cato’s team was never the winning team,’ spluttered Felix, endeavouring, with all his will, to distract the brothers from Sasha’s blade. ‘No doubt you and Semal have been in hiding since Cato’s conquest. I wouldn’t call that winning.’

Damien hissed scornfully and rolled his fingers into a curved fist. Within his palm, a flaming ball of fire collected. Sasha suddenly recollected Felix’s teachings from the night before; she had one of three targets: the centre of the head, the gut and…the palms of the hand. The palms![_ _]Sasha assessed her target. Clasping one eye shut, and stabilising her grip on the blades, the young woman silently alerted Charlotte and Junior of her plan. They figured that the cue to run would be the moment Sasha released the blade. She winced at the thought of missing her target. Unlike yesterday, which was child’s play, her ability to hit the target would be a matter of life and death. Sasha sucked in a deep breath and flicked the blade, seamlessly, into a straight path that ended at Damien Bukhari’s palm. The razor edge of the blade speared the centre of the parler’s hand. Silver blood gushed across the ice.

‘AHHHHHHHHHHHH!’ shrieked Damien Bukhari. He gawked at the gaping hole that Sasha’s blade had gored through his palm and realised that he could no longer draw fire. Before Semal could decipher the cause of his brother’s howl, Sasha had already positioned the second blade. It swam through the air like a darting hawk, goring the centre of Semal’s head. Semal’s wail was even more raucous than his brother’s. The Bukhari brothers fell to their knees, yelping in agonizing pain.

‘Good work Sasha!’ cried Felix, ‘they’re down… at least for now!’

Glancing at Junior, Felix uttered, ‘now do exactly as I say. You need to tap into your power – you need to freeze everything, right now! Grab Sasha and run as quickly as you can to the Willow Lodge.’

‘What about Charlotte!’

‘Don’t worry about her, I will cloak her with invisibility and we will run right after you, just not as fast, of course…when you get to the Lodge, I want you to find chalk. Use it to draw a ring around the cottage. Draw the ring all along the pebbles and grass, make sure every corner of the cottage is enclosed within the chalk loop.’

‘Chalk? How will that help the situation-’

‘Just do as I say!’ snapped Felix.

‘Okay,’ sighed Junior. The young man realised that he’d only ever once been able to manoeuvre his powers on command, and that was when he desperately needed sugar in his tea. Junior knew that he could do it again, but only if he focused with every last shred of will. Junior closed his eyes and recalled what Felix had told him the night before. ‘Think of your body as a magnet and your ability as the metal… it will be drawn to you naturally.’ Spreading his arms wide and clasping shut his eyes, Junior felt a pulse of energy dissipate within him. When he opened his eyes, he saw that time had stopped. Unlike the last occasion which he had conjured his power, there was no slow, dragging motion. Rather, every living entity was in a perfect freeze frame, aside from Junior himself. Junior lifted the frozen version of Sasha into his arms and bolted into the dark forest. The young man leapt between leafless trees; he could hear nothing but his own drumming heartbeat. His breaths, deep and laboured, soon became shallow, panicky gasps. When the Willow Lodge was within his sight, Junior began to sense the effect of his freeze frame wearing off. The sound of nature increased around him, and Sasha began to curl restlessly in his arms. Luchia’s bubble-gum car was nowhere in sight. When he’d reached the cottage and saw that no-one was at home, Junior tossed Sasha onto the couch and stormed into the doctor’s study.

‘Chalk, chalk… where is the chalk?’

Scattering Dr. Willow’s documents over the desk, Junior spotted a jar of white stone.

‘Chalk!’

He bolted out of study, leaving a trail of dishevelled papers behind him. Outside the cottage, Junior broke the gritted stone into two pieces and handed Sasha the other half. Together, they began to etch a white line which spanned the entire circumference of the cottage.

‘Wait up!’ called out a panting voice.

Felix and Charlotte materialized on the tapered bridge, sprinting as fast as they could, towards the large cottage. When they arrived, Felix and Charlotte stepped over the section of the white circle which had not yet been chalked.

‘Hurry up, they’re not far behind!’ said Felix, snatching the white stone from Sasha and chalking the rest of the circle. When the circumference was complete, a glossy permeable barrier assembled where the lines of white chalk had been. The barrier rose into the sky and curled above the house, forming a protective globe.

Felix dusted his hands.

‘Chalk is a natural protective enchantment,’ he muttered, ‘it blocks the powers of parlers.’

‘I wish you’d have said that before,’ croaked Junior, his throat dry with angst.

‘They’ll be here any moment,’ panted Charlotte, ‘Semal’s stab wound had already begun healing when we started running. I’m sure he’s ready to kill now.’

‘Grab some garlic!’ chanted Felix, stretching his gaze over the tapered bridge, ‘it’ll act as a deterrent.’

Sasha and Charlotte disappeared into the cottage and returned with a fistfuls of garlic. Felix clasped his hands over his mouth and let out a nauseous whimper.

‘Throw – it – out – there,’ gagged Felix, pointing to the world outside the glossy orb.

Charlotte and Sasha each launched pieces of garlic into the air. Outside the chalk shield, the garlic pieces dispersed along the lawn and the tapered bridge.

‘What will the garlic do?’

‘The garlic will repel the Bukhari brothers… but not for long,’ groaned Felix. ‘In all honesty, the scent is making me feel nauseous.’

Charlotte, Sasha and Junior scanned the land in anticipation and Felix crawled over the floor; the scent of garlic was slowly debilitating him. Colourful balls of fire flew into the air, signalling the arrival of the Bukhari brothers. They bolted over the tapered bridge with ease, like two synchronous panthers. Distressed by the pungent odour, Damien launched a sweltering ball of fire at the scattered pieces of garlic. After the repulsive odour cleared, he redirected his attention to the youngsters, who stood motionless, at the other side of the protective glossy orb.

‘The filthy mere thinks that she can stab Damien-Bukhari-The-Great,’ yelled Damien, his fiery eyes burning at Sasha, ‘you will die tonight, mere!’

The crazed parler balled another fist of fire, this time, aimed especially at Sasha. Junior, who was now well-practiced in his power, froze the ball in the air and shifted Sasha out of its firing range. However, when time resumed, the fiery ball hit the glossy membrane and rebounded as if it had been repelled.

‘You’ve made a chalk shield!’ sniggered Semal, hysterically, ‘you think it’s strong enough to keep us out!’

Damien launched another fiery ball at the membrane, which recoiled, just like the first. The wild-eyed parler roared in anger, ‘no one messes with the Bukhari brothers!’

Semal attempted to draw his foot over the chalk line and howled in excruciating pain. The glossy membrane above chalk was burning his flesh. With bounteous determination, he pressed his half-scorched leg across the membrane. Semal was resolute on traversing the barrier, no matter how much pain it caused. Not shaken by his brother’s cries, Damien started across the glossy chalk shield. The Bukhari brothers shrieked in agony; the chalk membrane was frying them alive. The pain only served as ammunition. When Semal had manoeuvred one side of his body over the glossy membrane, Sasha let out a panicky gasp. Felix staggered backwards; he had underestimated the determination of the brothers. Foolishly, he assumed that a chalk shield, formed of impure classroom chalk, was strong enough to keep them out. It was too late. They could not be stopped. The Bukhari brothers were set on killing someone tonight and Felix knew, better than anyone, that when the Bukhari brothers were set on something, they would never stop. Damien’s neck pressed through the membrane; his fiery eyes had swollen out of their sockets, he would soon transverse the barrier.

‘I WILL HAVE YOUR LIVES!’ squirmed Damien. Junior stumbled backwards, shaken by Damien Bukhari’s vigour. If the crazed parler had such energy amid being scorched in the chalk shield, Junior wondered what Damien would do once he had crossed the barrier. Invariably, he would scorch them all-in-one, with his impressive fiery balls. It was a shame, Junior had almost been ready to die on the icy lake, protecting Charlotte and Sasha. Their narrow escape had given him hope that, somehow, they could make it out alive. Semal let out his last cries. Soon, he would be over the glossy barrier.

Suddenly, an ear-splitting ‘BANG!’ filled the air and reverberated from all corners of the Willow Lodge. The ruckus was followed by a thunderous explosion of light and smoke, which thrust the Bukhari brothers onto the lawn. Two glistening headlights poked out from the smoke; a small car was fast approaching the Willow Lodge. Dr. Willow’s head emerged from the window; in his arms was a peculiar gun-like instrument. Moments later, the doctor’s burly silhouette appeared through the smoke. Brandishing his weapon at the Bukhari brothers, who were sprawled, barely conscious, over the front lawn, the doctor uttered the words, ‘be gone…at once!’

‘What is he holding?’ Charlotte whispered, astonished.

His startled blue eyes widening frightfully, Felix muttered, ‘I couldn’t tell you child, for I have never seen such a weapon, myself.’

‘Be gone, or die!’ the doctor threatened again, levelling the gun-like weapon at Damien Bukhari.

Charlotte was positive that Dr. Willow’s exploding bomb had disabled the powers of the Bukhari brothers because, as Damien curled his fist, expecting a colourful fireball to materialize, nothing appeared.

‘You heard me!’ bellowed Dr. Willow, ‘off my land! And do not return here again!’

Semal made a small attempt at the doctor, but Damien, who sensed that the battle was lost, stopped in his tracks. Spitting on the ground in sync, the Bukhari brother’s yelled, ‘we’ll be back for your lives!’

Dr. Willow’s weapon followed the Bukhari brothers as they disappeared into the night. The doctor spotted Felix, who had forgotten to phaze back into invisibility, and mounted his weapon again.

‘He’s with us!’ cried Sasha.

Dr. Willow curled his finger away from the gadget’s trigger and lowered his weapon, ‘you’ve got some explaining to do,’ he muttered.

‘And so do you, Doctor.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you for reading The Fallen Parler Part 1

If you enjoyed reading this book, be sure to download Part 2.

 

Reviews are always appreciated!

To explore more of B.C. Safari’s work visit:

www.bcsafari.wordpress.com


The Fallen Parler (Part one: A Supernatural Mystery Thriller)

The Fallen Parler is a novella series: part one of two. The death of Allan Roterbee has sent a tide of shock rippling through the city. The verdict? Suicide. At least, that is all Charlotte and Junior Roterbee have to go on. Following the untimely death of their father, the Roterbee twins are forced to relocate to a small, secluded town named Shorebridge. Their arrival marks the onset of a series of unexplained deaths and disappearances. There is a Shorebridge Ripper on the loose. Junior and Charlotte set out to uncover the silent killer, only to unearth an unending trail of curious, supernatural mysteries, all of which appear to lead back to their father. Allan Roterbee took a secret to the grave… but some secrets don’t stay buried. Amidst searching for answers, the Roterbee twins soon discover a new, paranormal world of parlers, powers and meres. Somebody is after them, but the question is…who?

  • ISBN: 9781370229901
  • Author: B C Safari
  • Published: 2016-09-12 18:50:13
  • Words: 42655
The Fallen Parler (Part one: A Supernatural Mystery Thriller) The Fallen Parler (Part one: A Supernatural Mystery Thriller)