DR FRANK JACKSON, 59A, PRINCES ROAD, BRIGHTON, EAST SUSSEX BN2 3RH
TEL. 01273 603766 - EMAIL [email protected] - www.fulltable.com/fj
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Not the one you think
The Brotherhood of the Hand, a small society, dedicated to mystery, consists of four elderly men, in equally elderly grey suits, who correspond to the fingers of the human hand. Simon and Annie, brother and sister, have become members of the Brotherhood, as have their friends, Indira, Pei-Ying and Mariko. There is also Adrian the seagull and Sniffer the dog, the eyes and nose of the Brotherhood. Together, they are fighting a war against their arch-enemy, Doctor Wrist, and his new associate, Venoma. The scene is the seaside city of Brighton.
The girl was kneeling in the middle of the road, leaning on her right hand. The left hand clutched a small wet hanker-chief in her lap. Her stockings were torn and her knees grazed. One of her shoes had come off and lay on the road behind her. Beside her, a small black handbag had spilt part of its contents into the gutter – a comb, a small pair of nail-scissors, a lipstick and a number of small white cards. The girl’s long blonde hair was partly plastered across her face, stuck to the tears that ran down her cheeks. The girl was crying. Every now and again, she gave a great convulsive sob, and her shoulders were trembling. Unusually for Brighton, the street was deserted and empty, even at nine o’clock in the morning. The blank windows of the Hotel du Vin restaurant stared down at her. There was no indication of what had just happened, or why.
This is what Annie and Simon, the two detectives, saw as they turned the corner by the sea-front. Annie stopped dead and clutched her brother’s arm. ‘A mystery!’ she cried, and then realised that the girl was in distress. They both ran towards her. ‘Are you all right?’ asked Simon. ‘Come on’, said Annie, anxiously. ‘We’ll help you up’. They gently pulled the girl to her feet, where she swayed slightly. Simon bent down and picked up her handbag and belongings while Annie retrieved her shoe. ‘You look like you need a drink’. suggested Annie. ‘There’s an early morning coffee-shop down here’. Supporting her on both sides, they led her slowly down the road and into the shop, where she collapsed on a chair, still quietly sobbing
The coffee seemed to do her good however, and she began to recover, combing her hair back from her face. She looked at Annie and Simon in a very anxious way. She’s about twenty, thought Annie, and quite pretty, or she would be, once she tidied herself up a bit. Simon was quiet, but she could see that he was bursting with curiosity. Annie said finally ‘Do you want to tell us what happened? By the way, I’m Annie and this is my brother Simon. We’re sort of secret detectives, in a way’. The girl started violently, and stared at them very hard. Then she relaxed and smiled. Her face was pretty, but with a pointed small chin, and her eyes had a tendency to close into small, narrow slits.
‘My name’s Sylvia’. she said slowly. ‘Look. I’m going to tell you a very strange story, and I don’t know whether you’ll believe me or not. Let me ask you something first. Do you believe in ghosts?’
Annie and Simon gaped at her, then at each other. ‘Well….I don’t really know’. Annie said, rather uncertainly. ‘I don’t!’ cried Simon. ‘There’s always a rational reason for everything. I don’t believe they exist at all’.
‘Neither did I…until now, or at least two or three days ago. But I’ll start at the beginning. I’ve got to try to make some sense of it, and you seem…you seem like you might believe me’. Sylvia pushed back some strands of hair, and staring at her hands, clasping and unclasping on the table before her, began.
‘ I have a brother, or did have a brother, Michael. I’m twenty-one now, and he’s….was ..nineteen. Our mother’s dead. She died, quite suddenly, two weeks ago – a heart attack or something. Anyway, she left us both quite a lot of money…actually, about a million and a half pounds, between us’.
Simon and Annie both gasped.
‘ I know. Michael and I had arranged to see the lawyers to sign all the papers and everything, but’, she paused, ‘Michael never turned up. I went to his flat, but he wasn’t there, and nobody seems to have seen him at all. I’ve telephoned every day, but I can’t find him. He’s just……disappeared’.
She paused and gulped. ‘You see, the lawyers are rather suspicious, and they want to list him as a missing person. If he doesn’t turn up, then all the money comes to me. That’s why they think I‘ve got something to do with it. But I haven’t! I hadn’t seen Michael for about three months, because he always used to go off somewhere, and I never knew where he went. So now I’m under suspicion. I want to clear my name’.
‘But’, said Annie slowly, ‘You are a bit of a chief suspect, aren’t you?’,
‘But you think you’re being framed for what might have happened to your brother?’ Simon interrupted.
‘And why’, continued Annie, ‘did you ask us if we believed in ghosts?’
‘Because’, Sylvia looked down at her hands again. ‘I think he’s dead. And I think he’s haunting me’.
A silence fell over the table. Annie noticed that Sylvia’s hands were trembling. ‘You’d better tell us more’. she suggested.
Sylvia’s head was bowed low over the table. ‘About a week ago, I began to realise there was….something….following me. I kept turning round quickly, thinking I had seen something strange, but there was never anything there. Then, suddenly one night, while I was in the kitchen, I got pushed in the back, quite hard. But there wasn’t anybody near me! Every day, I got pushed and hit, always from behind, and every single time, there just wasn’t anything! This morning, I got up early to go down to the shops, and I thought I’d like to walk by the sea. I was just crossing the road when – I don’t know what it was – just crashed into me and knocked me over onto my knees! But there was nobody there! I was so frightened that I just lay there, crying. That’s when you appeared. But I think it’s Michael’s ghost, trying to hurt me!’ She burst into tears again.
Annie and Simon looked at each other. ‘Do you want some help to find your brother?’ Simon asked. ‘Because, you see, we’ve got contacts’. Sylvia looked at them, puzzled and wary. ‘Why should you help me? You’re not really that old, are you?’
‘No’, said Annie sharply, ‘we’re going on fourteen. But we know older people who might be useful. Not the police’, she added hastily. seeing Sylvia’s face. ‘But you seem to think he might be dead, or something. We might be able to find out for certain, and set your mind at rest. Perhaps it’s your own fears that seem to make these things happen. Have you got a picture of your brother?’
Sylvia sat silently for a few seconds, then made up her mind. She rummaged in her handbag, then produced a small photograph. ‘You can keep this’, she said quietly. They peered at the photograph. It showed a very tall, thin young man, with short dark hair, and spectacles, staring in a very embarrassed way at the camera. He wore a dark jacket, light trousers, and held a small bag over his shoulder. The picture had been taken in a street somewhere, but nowhere that they could recognise.
‘You don’t look like him at all, do you?’ A surprised Simon remarked.
‘No, no. We’re very different. Look, here’s my phone number. If you or your friends find out what has happened to him, please call me. I must go now. I’m late’. She jumped up to her feet, and almost ran out of the door. They watched her move quickly down the street, almost seeming to glide between the few people that now were coming down the street, and disappear. Simon and Annie sat at the table, with the photograph, and the little note with the number, and stared at each other.
‘What do you think?’ asked Simon, pushing his hair back, in the way the girl had done.
Annie thought, and then said slowly, ‘There’s some things that are not right.’
‘Think about it. First’, Annie counted on her fingers. ‘Why is she so convinced that her brother is dead? And, second, why does she think he’s haunting her? Third, why did she seem quite happy to tell us and trust us, and accept our help? Fourth, why did she seem to be in such a hurry to go, once it was settled? And fifth, what was she late for?’
‘Sure thing, babe’. drawled Simon in the irritating way he had of trying to pretend to be an American private eye.
‘Shut it. Simon’.
‘Ok, Ok. But I still think that she must be our main suspect, partly because we haven’t got anybody else to suspect’.
‘True. But it just seems too obvious, somehow’.
‘I have a brilliant idea’.
‘That makes a fantastic, colossal, wonderful change for you’.
‘Shut it yourself. But, it is the Extraordinary General Meeting of the Brotherhood this evening. Why don’t we tell them, and see if we can bring in the troops?’
‘I take it all back, Simon. Once in a lifetime, you do have a good idea. How, I don’t know’.
‘Well, I’m not just a pretty face’.
PAUSE FOR REFRESHMENT AND HOW TO UNDERSTAND BORING MEETINGS
‘Order, order, order!’
‘Excuse me, Mr Acting Chair, we are in order. Just get those papers sorted!’
‘No interruptions from the floor, please!’
‘Why are we waiting, why are we waiting…Oh, Why, Why, Why?’
‘It wasn’t me, it was ‘im, guv. ‘Im over there!’
‘’ere you lot, stop larking about!’
‘I tell you, it was ‘im! He done it!’
‘Any room for a little ‘un?’
‘No-oo! Make yourself scarce!
‘OooH! Go on then, make me!’
Before we return to the opening words of the acting chairman, in this case Little Finger, we should interrupt that somewhat small, fat, purple gentleman, to indicate that this was a meeting of the Brotherhood of the Four Fingers, (and possibly a Thumb, now abandoned due to objections), the detective society that pursued the idea of mystery, as and when it appeared. The four elderly gentlemen sitting at the table were the individual Fingers of the society, and were at this very moment trying to maintain order, despite the presence not only of Simon and Annie, but also of a large and unruly group of seagulls, led by their captain, Adrian, all of which were finding the proceedings extremely funny. Simon and Annie had been surprised by their presence, but decided to wait for an explanation. Finally, the meeting began.
‘Firstly, Chairman’s report. Nothing to report’.
‘Booo! Boooo! Booooo!’
‘Secondly, Treasurer’s report. Nothing to report’.
‘Boooo! Where’s all our money gone! You’ve swiped it! Boooo!’
‘Thirdly, Secretary’s report. Nothing to report’.
‘Useless! Useless! Useless! Boooo!’
When the noise had settled down, the chairman began to speak again.
‘Now, matters arising’,
Everyone looked around at Simon and Annie. She gulped and stood up. She told them everything that had happened that morning, from their first sight of Sylvia lying in the middle of the road, right up to their own suspicions. There was silence in the room. She noticed that the chairman had gone pale, and was mopping his forehead. The other fingers were drumming their hands gently on the table, clearly agitated. Even the seagulls were quiet, whispering to each other.
‘Oh dear’. said the chairman. ‘Oh, dear’. He turned and muttered to the other Fingers, who all nodded. ‘I think’, he began, ‘that before we go any further, we should consider the agenda, and then decide what we must do. So, to business. First of all, the fate of Doctor Wrist, one of our arch-enemies. Adrian?’
‘Yeah, we dumped him in the sea, didn’t we? There was a chorus of cheers, with cries of ‘Nice one Adrian!’ ‘He won’t be back again! If he does, we’ll sort him out! I reckon he’s a bit of a limp wrist now!’
More cheers. Annie shivered. The thought of that was horrible, even though he had tried to kill both herself and Simon. But the chairman was speaking again.
‘The next item concerns our shadow hand, our associates, our friends who come to help us when we need them. This includes Adrian and his companions here…..’ Another great cheer rose from the assembled seagulls. ‘It also includes the wonderful young Japanese schoolgirls who came to the rescue in such a timely way, and who helped us to dispose of Doctor Wrist, in the battle under the pier, and also…’ he paused, ‘your good friends, Pei-Ying and Indira, who fought with Simon and Annie against the might of the black crows, under the rule of Doctor Wrist. Please give them our thanks’. There were lots more cheers and shouts, some of them rather rude.
‘Now, though, I have to speak of the Talisman of the Hand, that we recovered from Doctor Wrist on that fateful night. My brother Fingers and I have sought to understand it’s powers, but as yet, we are not certain of what it can and might do. We know it is a power for good, and it can perform things, which protect us and other people. But, as yet, we simply do not know any more. This is why we have to rely on all of you, to protect and value what we have. We will do our best, as you will. Thank you all’.
The meeting seemed to be over. The Four Fingers turned and disappeared through a back door. The seagulls began to flap and disappear through the open windows. Simon and Annie were left sitting on their chairs, in front of the long table, feeling bewildered and confused. ‘What happens now?’ muttered Simon. ‘I’ll tell ‘yer what’s going to happen’. A long yellow beak appeared between them. ‘First of all, give me that photo of the geezer we’re looking for. I’ll give it back to you. I’m going to get the lads to have a good look for him. I’ll get my mate Cassidy to scan around. If anyone can find him, he will’.
‘Thanks, Adrian’, Simon sighed. ‘but, what if he’s dead?’
‘Ah, I have a secret plan. We’ve got another member of the secret society, Sniffer, only he might not know it yet. You’ll meet ‘im, tomorrow, if we have any luck. Meet me down on the seafront, next to that old wreck of the West Pier. Twelve o’clock, day-time. You’ll see him then. But, see if you can get any bit of cloth or things that belonged to him, before then, from that girl. Don’t be put off by ‘im. He’s good. All the best’. He flew off into the night.
‘I’m still puzzled by the way in which they behaved when we told them’, argued Annie. ‘There’s something really strange and odd going on’.
Simon shrugged, and they walked off back home.
That night, in bed, Annie could not sleep. She kept thinking about the mysterious Sylvia, about why she was sitting in the middle of the deserted road, and about her suddenly odd behaviour. Why were the Fingers so worried? Why were the seagulls there? And what about the Talisman? She tried and tried to puzzle it out. Was there any connection between the story that Sylvia had told her, and the anxiety that she had seen in the meeting? She went over everything she could think of, but nothing seemed to fit. ‘It’s like a big jigsaw puzzle, with lots of the pieces missing’. she murmured to herself, and then fell asleep, but still dreaming of the girl sitting miserably in the middle of the deserted road.
Next morning, after breakfast, she rang the number that Sylvia had given. One ring. Two rings. Three rings. Four rings. No answer. Just as she was about to put the phone down, she heard a click.
‘This is Annie, you know, Annie and Simon. About your brother’.
There was a sharp intake of breath.
‘Have you found anything out?’ sharply again.
‘Not yet. But’, she said quickly, ‘Can you lend us anything of your brother’s, that we can use? Anything at all?’
‘Why?’ now angrily.
‘Because it might help us to find him’.
All right, I’ll send it to the main post office. You can collect it tomorrow’.
Annie stood looking at the silent phone.
‘Was that Sylvia?’ Simon shouted from the kitchen. Annie walked in, and up to the table where Simon was busy munching through his fourth piece of toast.
‘She sounded…very strange. Really off. She didn’t want us to know her address at all’.
‘Perhaps she’s just having second thoughts’. suggested Simon.
‘No’. said Annie. ‘She just sounded angry, and a bit worried. We’ll find out tomorrow what she’s sent’.
It was rather late in the morning when they finally got to the main post office at the top of North Road. The postman behind the counter disappeared, and then came back with a brown paper parcel addressed to “Annie and Simon” with no other message. Simon picked it up and shook it. ‘Definitely a bomb’. he announced. ‘Don’t joke about it’. the man said sternly. Outside, Annie unwrapped the paper, and looked down at the object inside. It was the bag that Sylvia’s missing brother, Michael, had been carrying in the photograph she had given them.
‘We’d better meet Adrian’, muttered Simon, ‘and see if this new friend of his can help’.
In fact, Adrian was already waiting for them, perched on the promenade rail, having his photograph taken with a rather plump lady, who was beaming at the camera, that her equally plump husband was holding up. Adrian spread his wings, the woman giggled nervously, and the photograph was taken. The couple moved off happily.
‘Funny, I didn’t think you were that photogenic, Adrian. Are you part of the tourist scene now?’ said Simon, leaning on the promenade rail.
Adrian’s feathers ruffled dangerously, his eyes glinting. ‘Watch it’. he said ominously.
‘Oh, yes. Why?’ said Simon.
‘Because I might get nasty and rip your liver out!’.
Simon moved off the rail and moved closer to Adrian, his fists clenched. They stared in each other’s faces. ‘Try it’. Simon said softly.
Annie could hardly believe her ears. What was her brother doing? Why was Adrian so aggressive? Without thinking she shouted. ‘Stop it, the pair of you!’
She stopped, but went on without thinking. ‘We don’t start having tantrums with each other! We’ve got better things to do! We have a case to solve, and everybody’s getting really worried about this! Don’t forget, we are all on the same side , fighting the same battles! Cut it out! NOW!’
Slowly, Adrian and Simon relaxed, and moved away from each other, still glaring.
‘Right, let’s go. said Annie firmly. ‘Adrian, you’re going to lead us to this friend of yours’.
‘That’s right’. Adrian replied, shaking his head as if to clear it. ‘Ok, I’ll fly up above you, about a hundred feet up, and you just follow the direction I’m going. Right?’ They nodded.
Adrian began to lead them into the streets of Hove, next to Brighton. But Annie’s thoughts were on other things apart from their journey. She felt deeply disturbed about a lot of things. Why had Simon and Adrian chosen to suddenly argue and fight? Was it because he really did want to protect her? She remembered how he had fought alongside her during the battle under the pier, and how he was ready to stand up for her when Adrian had tried to insult her. She tucked her arm affectionately under his, ignoring his surprise and slight embarrassment. But did Sylvia also feel this about her brother, who she claimed was dead?
‘Stop being soppy’. said Simon.
They walked on, keeping a close eye on the turning and swooping form of Adrian high above. They saw that he was leading them on a route parallel to the seafront. Then he moved slightly seawards and paused, hovering, his wings slowly beating up and down. They found themselves looking down a dark little alley behind a row of grand white-coloured houses. It was called Paradise Gardens, though it looked just like a smelly little dead-end. They shrugged at each other and began to walk down it towards a blank brick wall. But just before they came to it, Adrian gave a loud squawk. They saw a little courtyard that opened off on the left, which was clearly where Sniffer lived.
It was no more than a damp, dark little courtyard. Even in daylight it was gloomy. The greasy paving-stones were covered with a layer of dark black grime, and the brick walls were discoloured with green mould and flaking paint. Dustbins, overflowing with rubbish, occupied one far corner, their lids askew, and they could hear a distinct scratching and rustling around the overflowing plastic bags around them. In the other corner was a small lean-to shelter, of rusty corrugated iron. Inside it was a large black and grey heap of something.
Adrian landed with a clatter of wings on one of the dustbins. ‘There’s Sniffer’. He nodded at the heap inside. Simon trod carefully over towards the shed, his feet slipping on the greasy surface. ‘Hello, Sniffer!’ he shouted. ‘We’ve come to see you!’
‘Eh?’ said the bundle.
Simon paused and then shouted again.
‘Hello, Sniffer! I’m Simon and this is my sister Annie. We heard you can give us some help!’
‘I reckon you’re talking to the wrong end’. Adrian suggested.
Sure enough, the thing slowly got up and turned around, Then it shook itself. The transformation was quite remarkable. Layers of dirt seemed to fly off, and the thing slowly turned into something more recognisable. Annie and Simon stepped away hastily.
‘You know’, said Simon, ‘I do believe I can see the vague outline of a dog’.
‘Who said that?’ said the outline. ‘Whoever said it’. It spoke in a deep, hoarse growl, and shook its head. Immediately, Annie and Simon were aware of two very bright black eyes looking them up and down, and a large black nose that sniffed at them suspiciously. ‘You with Adrian?’ the dog asked.
‘Yes, we are’. Annie spoke for the first time.
‘Oh dear, I am sorry. Tough on you. I’m Sniffer, by the way. I’ve been out of the way for a bit, since I deserted the French Foreign Legion. Never mind. Comment allez-vous?’
‘Oui, bien merci.’
‘Now that takes me back. Haven’t heard a bit of French for a long time. They used to call me Beau Gist in the Legion. Do you get the gist of what I’m saying? Ha, Ha’.
‘Annie?’ asked Simon, ‘Why do you think that every time we have an adventure, we have to listen to really bad jokes?’
‘Why did you join the Foreign Legion?’ asked Annie curiously.
‘Oh, I joined to forget’.
‘I don’t know, I’ve forgotten’.
‘Ah, those foreign souks, marketplaces, you know. The huge crowds and noise, the clatter and jangle of metal and the sound of strange instruments, the mysterious glances of women in veils, the priests calling the faithful to prayer. And the endless sands, going on forever into the blue sky, with its pitiless sun. The heat, the thirst. But the camps at night, with the fire burning and merry talk all around. Cold at night it was. Freeze the…’
‘Sniffer!’ said Annie sharply, but Sniffer went on, ‘Oh, yes, Brighton, the huge crowds and noise, the clatter and jangle of metal and the sound of strange instruments, the dark eyes of women beneath their veils…’
He shook himself again. ‘Sorry, I was forgetting. Right, down to business, at long last. What’s the story?’
Annie and Simon told him everything that had happened so far, with Adrian interrupting every now and again, to show he was part of it all. Sniffer simply nodded as they spoke. When they had finished, he nodded his head slightly, his matted and dirty hair hiding his eyes for a moment.
‘Where’s this bag of yours then?’ he finally said. ‘Let’s have a go’.
Annie held out the bag to him. Sniffer smelt it very carefully, all around it at first, and then, as Annie opened it, he poked his nose inside. The result frightened them. Sniffer leaped back suddenly. He was shaking, his eyes gleaming with horror. He backed away from the bag, with his eyes still fixed on it. ‘Put it away. Now!’ Neither Simon or Annie had expected this, Even Adrian stood absolutely still, his beady gaze fixed on Sniffer.
Sniffer was panting heavily. ‘I don’t like this! There’s something wrong, really wrong. That bag smells of death!’
There was a silence that lasted for several seconds. Annie glanced around. Simon was open-mouthed. Adrian was standing still, his head cocked to one side, staring at Sniffer, who was still breathing heavily.
‘Snap out of it, Sniff’. Adrian finally said. ‘That’s a bit heavy to lay on us, even for you’.
Sniffer pulled himself together with an effort. ‘I’d know that smell anywhere, and it’s not good. The bloke that that bag belonged to, did you say that you thought he might be dead?’
‘We don’t know’. replied Annie uneasily. ‘That’s what we have to find out’. It seemed even gloomier in that dank little yard. Then Simon decided to break the dark shadow that had descended around them.
‘Right then, what’s our plan of action? We need to decide what we’re going to do now’.
‘Sniffer’, said Annie, can you follow its trail? I mean, can you lead us to wherever it might have come from?’
Sniffer nodded. ‘I can do that all right. I don’t need to smell it again, but I don’t feel like doing it just yet. Better to have a think about it. I don’t feel, for what it’s worth, that it’s come from too far away. But I don’t want to trace it on my own’.
‘No’, said Simon and Annie together, ‘we’ll come with you’.
‘Count me in, too’. snapped Adrian. Annie looked at him with new respect. At least he didn’t seem afraid, unlike the rest of them.
‘There’s no point in trying to find out anythink now’, Adrian went on,’ since we’ll all a bit shook up, like. But why don’t we all meet up ‘ere, at Sniffer’s, tomorrow evening, about six, and set out then? Then we’ll all be prepared and ready to go. Might even ‘ave a bit of a rumble like last time! If we do, we can be all kitted up, like’.
‘Right’, said Annie firmly. ‘We’ll bring our heavy torches, like last time, and anything else we can think of. Sniffer, do you need anything?’ He shook his head. ‘Adrian?’ He just nodded and made a nasty scraping noise with his beak. ‘This is all I need’. he said in a rather ominous way.
‘Hold on’. suggested Simon. We’d better let the Four Fingers know what we’re going to do, in case we need any backup, and the other associates. But there’s no point in all of us going together. If we go as a small party, we won’t draw attention to ourselves’. They all nodded.
‘I’ll let the Brotherhood know’. offered Adrian. ‘I know how to contact them’.
That was that. As they departed, Annie looked back and saw Sniffer with his head down, apparently looking at the ground. He’s really frightened, she thought. What are we letting ourselves in for this time?
Later that night, as they sat in the kitchen, they were thinking about tomorrow.
‘Little did I know’, Simon dramatically said, ‘that being detectives meant going into the jaws of terror itself!’
‘Which book did you get that from?’ asked Annie, grinning.
‘I don’t know. Sherlock Holmes, maybe. Anyway it sounds good’.
Well then, my dear Holmes, how do you feel about this little adventure tomorrow?’
‘My dear Watson, I must confess to some little trepidation’.
The phone rang. Four rings, and then someone picked it up.
‘It’s Annie. I thought I might tell you that we might be able to solve what happened to Michael tomorrow’.
A gasp. ‘Are you sure?’
‘I hope so’.
‘Oh! You must be careful, won’t you? You must be very careful. I’ve got to go now. Goodbye’. The phone went dead.
Annie looked at the phone, frowning. Sylvia didn’t seem to want to know any more than that. She shrugged and put the phone down, and went to bed.
They had made excuses to their parents, saying they were going to see some friends. ‘Don’t be late back home, now, both of you. It’s Sunday, remember?’ he mother called after them. ‘Don’t worry!’ they both chorused. It was nearly six by the time they found their way to Sniffer’s home, if you could have called it that. They found Sniffer, prowling around his little patch of yard, sniffing noisily.
‘Ah, there you are, mes amis. Adrian should be around any time now’. As he spoke, there was an angry flap of wings, and Adrian settled down on a dustbin lid, his webbed feet sliding around the handle.
‘Come on then, what are we waiting for!’
So they set off, Sniffer leading the way, with Adrian circling overhead. To watch Sniffer in action was to see the work of a master. Head down, sniffing loudly as he went, he seemed to be a living, hairy, vacuum cleaner. He padded slowly from side to side of the pavement, suddenly crossing a road when they least expected it. Once he stopped dead, quivering. ‘Is this it?’ whispered Annie excitedly. Sniffer looked around at her with his bright black eyes, and said flatly, ‘No’. He ambled over to a nearby lamp-post and proceeded to relieve himself.
‘Just a call of nature’.
After he had done this three or four times, Simon and Annie were beginning to seethe with irritation. Adrian was still circling overhead, occasionally giving a sharp cry. The light was beginning to fade now. But still Sniffer led them on, up and down streets, down lanes and narrow alleyways, across broad parks and squares surrounded by grand Regency houses, past older, rather dilapidated, terraced buildings, through derelict sites and rubbish tips, once past the seafront, where the empty skeleton of the old West Pier stood, its bones a sad memory of its earlier glory. And still they went on. Their feet were sore, and they were fuming inside.
At last Annie could stand no more. ‘Sniffer, do you really know where we’re going?’
Sniffer stopped by a small patch of overgrown grass, where a house had once stood. He turned around and looked at Annie carefully. ‘Of course, I know where I’m going. Just a mo’. I have to consult a friend’. He walked over to a large tuft of grass, and stood there, waiting. A few seconds later, something small and grey-brown in colour crawled out from behind the grass. Sniffer bent his head down so that the place his ear was most likely to be, was next to the toad. Annie couldn’t hear what the toad was saying. Sniffer got up and came back. The toad crawled away and disappeared.
‘He says we’re very close, and we have to be very careful. There is great danger’.
‘Are you sure?’ said Annie doubtfully.
Sniffer sounded offended. ‘Of course I’m sure! When toads speak, I listen. Little do you know it, but toads are wise. Wiser than you or me. Toads are great sages. Toads know everything’.
He sounded so emphatic that Annie was secretly impressed, and decided to make a note. Consult the nearest toad in future.
‘But why have we been going in every direction possible?’ demanded Simon. ‘We seem to be trying to avoid the route, rather than follow it’.
Sniffer stared at him. ‘I’ve been trying to spare you from finding out what it is I’ve had to follow. Look down at that dark patch by the grass there. Have a sniff’.
Simon shrugged and bent down to smell it. Suddenly he reeled back, his hand over his mouth, almost choking, his eyes wide. ‘It smells like …death!’ he cried. Annie looked at him, then went over and sniffed. Instantly, she reeled back, her hand over her face, almost gagging in horror.
It was the stench of decaying flesh, of something living, dissolving into filth, mixed with the sharp taste of blood and damp soil. It was almost indescribable, with a kind of unhealthy sweetness about it. Annie felt as if she was just about to be violently sick. She took several moments to recover, and then turned to Sniffer. ‘I’m truly sorry, Sniffer. I had no idea that you were having to..to follow that’.
Sniffer shook his head. ‘No matter. I’m used to it, after being in the Legion’. Annie suddenly had a vision of Sniffer marching along, rifle over his shoulder, across the desert sands. She firmly suppressed the idea to laugh.
Adrian squawked loudly in impatience. They shouldered arms and carried on. Around the corner, and a few yards along, was a small road between two large hotels, the bottom part of which was a pub, though no lights showed. The tiny road was only wide enough for a single car to pass. It was deep in shadow. No light came down here. They groped along it for about twenty yards, and then Sniffer stopped again. This time, finally. ‘This is it’. he muttered quietly. ‘This is the place’.
They looked around, and suppressed a gasp. They were in a little courtyard, completely enclosed, apart from where they were standing. They faced not a blank, grey brick wall, but a surface entirely covered in coloured images, grey, yellow, black and green, shining and almost translucent in the dark. Large agonised faces and creatures seemed to groan and gasp, their agonised expressions contorted in huge grimaces. Above them flew a stream of dark bomber aircraft, silhouetted against a vivid red sky. This was Brighton graffiti.
Adrian clattered down beside them. ‘ Crikey, this place is worse than your’s, Sniffer. Let’s ‘ave a look’. They moved slowly in, keeping as far as possible from that awful gaping square hole. But it was impossible not to look at it. Inside the hole was nothing but a deep, inky blackness, that almost seemed to draw them towards it. The hole just seemed to be a nothingness, with no hint of anything inside it. Nobody spoke, until Adrian cleared his throat. ‘Look’s like we found it. Wotever it is’.
‘You’re so right!’
They all whirled around. There, blocking the entrance to the yard, stood Sylvia. She was dressed quite normally, in a small blue dress, high-heeled shoes, and with her blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. Annie suddenly noticed that there were red roots, where her hair had been drawn back tightly. But it was her face that was different. It was drawn, in such a way that her eyes appeared like small gleaming slits. Her face appeared now almost like a cat, gleaming with delight on it’s prey. This was no longer the frightened, nervous Sylvia that they had met. Outlined against the dim light of the entry, she was a predator, greedily looking at it’s victims.
‘By the way, I’m not Sylvia, such a stupid name. My name is Venoma’.
It was Adrian who reacted first. He launched himself towards Sylvia with a screech and flap of wings, In a second, Sylvia raised something to her lips and blew. Adrian flew backwards and crashed against the wall, his right wing pinned to it by a small steel dart, screeching in pain. The next was Sniffer, who had cautiously backed against the left wall. He flew towards Sylvia, propelled by a powerful push with his hind legs. Something bright and sharp glittered in Sylvia’s left hand for a second, and Sniffer rolled over and lay still.
Now Simon and Annie were trapped between the dreadful hole and Sylvia, otherwise Venoma, who began to advance towards them. Her eye-slits shone and she did not so much smile, as bared her small, sharp, white teeth.
‘You finally found out where my much-beloved and so-called brother went to! I wasn’t sure he was really dead, but now, I rather think he is. So easy, so easy. All I had to do was bring him here, telling him I had my handbag stolen in this place. He peered in, and all it took was a little push. So easy. Just like you’. They backed away from her, nearer and nearer to the black hole. They stopped when they felt their heels rocking on its very edge. ‘Come on now, Come on. Just a little step further’. She giggled, and it was one of the most evil sounds Annie had ever heard.
‘Excuse me, but don’t you think you’d better have a look behind you?’ whispered Simon.
The girl who was previously Sylvia laughed shrilly. ‘What an old joke! Just to humour you….’ She glanced briefly round. Suddenly, she dropped her knife and her blowpipe. The old rubbish heap was stirring. It rustled and scratched. Some thing in it was beginning to move. From inside it, something began to rise, flapping in a sudden cold breeze. A shirt at first, then a pair of trousers, rose up. They were empty, but began to fill out slowly, slowly, as if there was an invisible body inside them. The shirt and trousers stepped slowly and clumsily out of the rubbish heap, and began to walk, with faltering steps, its sleeves outstretched. It came one step, two steps at a time, towards Sylvia.
Venoma’s eyes were open wide, just like a scared cat. She backed away from the thing that was coming towards her, towards the hole. Simon and Annie, their legs shaking, moved aside quickly.
‘ Noooo! No! It can’t be you, Michael! You’re…you’re dead!’ It happened so quickly, that Simon and Annie hardly knew what happened. Venoma teetered for a moment on the edge of the hole and then fell backwards with a terrible shriek. She grabbed blindly at the large wooden cover, missed, and disappeared with a wail into the black hole. The lid crashed down with a bang and a cloud of dust. Silence fell.
‘I say, are you all right?’
There in the entrance, stood figures, that they dimly realised were the Four Fingers of the Brotherhood. Little Finger came forward. ‘I’m so sorry we were a bit late. The traffic was bad as usual’. Index Finger came forward. He was wearing the ring, the sacred talisman, which was throbbing with its own internal light. As they gazed, it dimmed and went out. Simon went over and stirred the old shirt and trousers that lay on the ground. ‘They’re just old clothes’. he announced.
‘’Oy! Get me off ‘ere!’ It was Adrian, still pinned to the wall. ‘About time too. I’m going to fly lop-sided for a week at this rate!’
Annie was looking at Sniffer, carefully and rather reluctantly feeling for a wound under his rather filthy fur. He groaned. ‘Have I shuffled off my mortal coils yet?’ he growled.
‘No’, said Annie ‘but you have got a rather nasty long gash. Let me put some ointment on it’. Little Finger had gathered up Sylvia’s knife and blowpipe. ‘Souvenirs’. He explained apologetically.
They all prepared to depart. Adrian had declared himself operational, and fit to fly, and he did so, though leaning somewhat to one side. Sniffer also said he was ready to depart, though he accepted the offer of a lift in the Fingers’ ancient, but rather fierce-looking, old car. But Simon and Annie decided to go home on their own. ‘We’ll take a bus. We need some sense of normality after this’. None of them dared look at that black trap-door as they left. It was just as well, because they might have heard this.
‘Michael, where are you? Don’t you dare run away from me! Just because I killed you, doesn’t mean you can’t speak to me! I’ll be back, never fear. Now come here, Michael! Now! At once! Michael? Michael? MICHAEL!’
Next evening, on a wonderfully bright day, they had all gathered together over coke and hamburgers, at the restaurant on the beach. Adrian perched on the end of the table, busily finishing off everyone’s leftovers. Sniffer was lying down enjoying a bowl of Guiness, and everybody else had just finished discussing the previous night. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood, apart from Little Finger, who looked anxious.
‘Her real name is Venoma,’ Index Finger was explaining. ‘She is one of our enemies. She knows about the Brotherhood, and she is also very greedy. But I think she was really worried about murdering her brother, if that is who he really was, but decided that she would use that as a way of attacking us. She was just lying to you all the time. But we didn’t know that until yesterday. I apologise, on behalf of all the Brotherhood, for the danger that we put you in. But this brings us to a point that Little Finger wishes to raise’.
‘Indeed. Yes. But, first. We still do not know how far the talisman’s powers will go, but I feel that it did protect you last night. We still do not know what exactly its powers are, and, in some way, it acts on its own. We know its power is for good, not evil, but still, at present, that is all we know. But there is another very important question’. He took a deep breath. ‘You have been in great danger already, even in the short time you have known us. You have your own powers, which we recognised. But we would also recognise, and accept, if you do not want to be part of us any longer. The risks are very great, and you might feel that you wish to leave the Brotherhood. I can only ask you’.
Annie looked around at everybody, at the Four Fingers, at Adrian the seagull, at Sniffer on the ground and then at Simon. ‘If you think that I’m going to give up’, she said softly, then I will say this. NO WAY. Game on’.
Simon smiled, and then drawled, ‘Bring it on, babe. We’re on and in’. Annie flashed him a grateful glance. Little Finger and the other beamed. Sniffer gave a loud approving belch, and Adrian, surprisingly, gave a little chirrup, which sounded, for him, almost musical.
‘Adrian’, Annie grinned. ‘I think that’s the nicest thing that you have ever said’.
Frank Jackson (20/05/09) Word count - 7335
This is the place where Venoma, alias Sylvia fell through the trap-door, now no longer visible.