Episode 2: Krank City

In the end, Arnie got up and stormed out of the rail compartment. 

Larry and Private Smelly were sitting in a compartment two doors down the carriage. Larry was sleeping, his snout resting on his paws. Smelly was staring out the window, humming a tune. Arnie went in and sat down heavily on the seat next to Larry.

The badger woke up with a start and gave Arnie a dark look.

“You’ll have to move if anyone has the ticket for that seat at the next station,” warned Smelly.

Arnie just shrugged and folded his arms.

“What’s wrong with you, boy?” growled Larry.

“This adventure is rubbish!” said Arnie. “Why does Mr Jake have to bring his stupid little sister along?!”

“You don’t get on?” asked Smelly.

“She slapped me.”

Larry and Private Smelly started laughing.

Arnie got up to leave.

“No, no. Sit down,” said Smelly, waving Arnie back to his seat. “We’d better talk this over.”

“The little lady slapped you, did she? What did you do, boy?” said Larry. 

Arnie muttered under his breath and scowled at his feet.

“Humph! You need to pull yourself together – and quick! Silly children don’t belong on this expedition,” said Larry.

“Larry is right, you know,” said Smelly. “We all have to learn to work together, kiddo, or we may never make it back home.”

“Why?” asked Arnie.

“Know anything about the Wilds, boy?” asked Larry.

“Everyone knows it’s big, there’s not many people and lots of weird creatures,” shrugged Arnie.

“That’s true,” said Smelly. “In fact, weird is just the word. Some of them are not even natural.”

“You mean the dragons?” said Arnie.

“Dragons are natural enough,” said Larry, “and as long as you keep out of their way you’ll be alright. Don’t mind them and they’ll not mind you – leastways, most of the time. Nah! It’s them faerie folk you have to watch out for.”

“Fairies? Fairies aren’t real! What am I? Three?!” said Arnie.

“Nah, boy – faerie folk,” said Larry. “Magical creatures. Didn’t you learn anything about faerie folk in school?”

“He means the elf folk, the monsters from the otherworld, and the little talking-creatures like lava blimps – faerie folk,” explained Private Smelly. “We don’t know much about them as they usually hide away. Some of them can be helpful but they’re always mischievous and usually downright dangerous. You never can tell.”

“Yes we learned about some of them in biology,” Arnie replied. “But Miss Waggles-finger said lava blimps were extinct.”

“Well, Miss Waggles-Whatever is wrong,” said Smelly.

“Teachers usually are. School is just a waste of time,” said Arnie.

“In this corner of the Realm, they have disappeared,” said Smelly, ignoring the comment about school as he wasn’t sure. “But out in the untamed wild lands there are many herds of lava blimps roaming the upper slopes of the mountains. They are very dangerous, Arnie. If we come across any, you will have to be careful what you say. Somehow they can understand every language and will blow up if they feel the least bit offended.”

“So what?”

“No, I mean they will literally blow up – explode – and destroy themselves and anything nearby.”

Arnie’s eyes widened. He couldn’t remember Miss Waggles-Finger mentioning that.

“Really?!” he asked. “Cool!”

Larry shook his head and growled something.

“No, it isn’t,” said Smelly, “and that’s just one of the dangers out there in the Wilds. Fortunately, you’re with one of the most experienced adventuring teams. We should be perfectly safe – so long as we all work together. You kids have to learn to get along and do what you’re told.”

Arnie nodded. He wasn’t really listening though. He was too busy imagining hundreds of little red creatures exploding out of sheer anger.

Larry shook his head again. “I hope Mr Jake knows what he’s doing – taking kids along on an adventure like this!”

“Well on paper it is one of the safer ones. A good chance for them to do some fast growing up,” said Smelly. “After all, we’re just looking for some old ruins this time. Not like that time he was after the Were-Whippet of Wimbledore. Imagine going after a wizard’s prized pet with these youngsters!”

“Humph! I still see its face in my dreams sometimes!” said Larry.

 *    *   *   *   *

“Made it, finally!” said Jake, sitting down opposite Bess and Ollie. “Mr Muser and the Captain got talking politics. Couldn’t get away. The Professor looks bored out of her mind.”

He chuckled to himself and then said, “Arnie gone off for a wander?”

“Yeah – he left a while ago,” said Bess, as casually as she could.

Ollie opened his mouth to explain more. Then he looked at Bess, closed it again, and pushed his glasses up his face nervously.

You didn’t need to be an especially clever adventurer to realise that something was up. And, as I explained before, Jake was one of the best, but he decided not to ask too many questions. He’d caught the look in Bess’s eyes too and he didn’t fancy an argument just now.

Then Ollie had a question for Jake.

“Mr Jake,” he said suddenly, “Why are we stopping at Krank City?”

“Honestly, I wish we weren’t,” said Jake, “but there’s only one train every two days which will take us to the very end of the south-eastern railway line and the start of the Wilds. The next one starts from Krank City’s Grand Central Station tomorrow.”

“I thought we were worried about sky pirates though? Isn’t Krank City where most of the sky pirates come from?”

“You’re not wrong,” said Jake, “but staying in Becclesbrooke would have been dangerous too. People will talk and news gets around a village fast! If the wrong person found out what we’re after they would just need to send a single telegram and the sky would be filled with pirates before we’d even got into the wilds.”

“Safer to pick you all up and then get out of Becclesbrooke quickly, pretending this is just another natural history expedition – pirates don’t care much for natural history expeditions. Personally, I find them to be the best kinds. Besides, Mr Muser wants to treat you all to a really good send-off in the Grand Hotel before we start. So you see we have to stay overnight in Krank City, even if I didn’t want to.”

Before you start asking, a telegram, dear reader, is a kind of message. It can’t be sent from a phone and you have to pay for someone else to send it for you. It is a rather complicated process, telegraphing – lots of wires and bits of paper. It is faster then snail mail; it has that going for it, I suppose. Still confused? Well, I haven’t time to explain further or our adventurers will never get anywhere anytime soon and I shall have to blame you when they start complaining.

“You seem to know a lot about Krank City, Ollie,” Jake was saying. “You’re not from Becclesbrooke, are you?”

“Moved there two years ago,” said Ollie. “Can’t stand it! So boring! There’s nothing to do – ever.”

“You what? There’s loads you can do,” exclaimed Bess. “If you’d ever bother to go exploring outside, or actually join in with other people’s fun.”

“You sound like Dad,” said Ollie. “He doesn’t know anything about my kind of fun.”

“Well, you’ll have to do plenty of joining in this summer,” said Jake.

“Yeah, that was their plan,” grumbled Ollie. “I wish they’d just leave me alone. Wish everyone would leave me alone. Why do I need to get out anyway? It’s bad enough being stuck in a little village on the edge of the world. Now we’re going into the wilds – no fun AND it’s dangerous.”

Jake grinned. “Don’t worry, you’ll have fun! Promise! Might just take a week to get used to being in the great outdoors. And even Bess isn’t very scary when you get to know her.”

“I’m not scary – at all!” cried Bess. “I’m the one putting up with him because of you!”

Before Jake could say anything, Bess snatched up her backpack and stormed out of the compartment.

At the far end of the carriage, she sat down in an empty compartment and pulled down the window. Outside, the cool wind rushed into her face.

There she sat, leaning on the window frame, watching the countryside whizz by and thinking about how wrong the holiday was going. 

This was her dream. Season after season, Jake had come home to their sleepy village with exciting stories and beautiful treasures from far-off places. Every time he came home, Bess had begged him to take her on his expedition for years. She didn’t just want to hear stories, she wanted to be in one; to experience an adventure for herself. And then maybe, just maybe, Jake would see that she had what it took to be a professional adventurer and take her with him.

And now her dream was going horribly wrong! Not only did she have to put up with the worst two people in school for the whole summer, but they would probably ruin the expedition and  Jake might decide it was far too dangerous to take youngsters with him again. Already that nasty Arnie Oink and stupid Ollie Foureyes were getting in the way and causing trouble.

So unfair! But she was different. She didn’t need looking after. She could take care of herself and make a real difference to the whole team. She just had to prove it to Jake. Somehow she had to find a way.

Quite suddenly she became aware that someone had slid up next to her and had been talking for quite some time.

“Yes, yes – Krank City, the place where dreams are made, they say. Is this your first visit, dearie?”

Bess turned in surprise. She found herself looking straight into the face of a wizened old creature who stared back at her, waiting for an answer.

“Um, yeah. It’s my first time,” Bess blurted out.

“Ah! How excited you must be! I’ve lived there for many years. Yes, many, many years. And tell me, dearie,” enquired the old lady, never taking her eyes off Bess, “what do you plan to do when you get there? Sight-seeing? Not all by yourself, surely?”

The questions seemed innocent and friendly enough. All the same… something felt odd.

“Yes, I’m just visiting. Only overnight though,” said Bess truthfully. “My brother is taking me. He’s in the next carriage down.”

“Aha!” cried the old woman, so loudly that Bess jumped. “Your brother. I see how it is.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ll have fun. Mind you,” she continued, lowering her voice and taking her eyes off Bess for the first time to look all around them, learning forward on her stick, “the big city isn’t what it used to be. Oh no, no! You’ll have to take care, lots of nasty crooks about these days. Why – they’d steal your prettiest things from under your very nose!” As she said this, she tapped Bess’s and chuckled to herself.

“Oh well, your dear brother will take care of you, I’m sure. Better be off I suppose. Wouldn’t like to impose. You keep looking out that window, dearie – you’ll see the city in another minute.”

She stood up with an effort and had hobbled out of sight when Jake came searching for Bess to say sorry-he-didn’t-mean-anything-she-was-actually-a-very-nice-sister.

Bess breathed a sigh of relief. Strange. She didn’t know why.

Still, it was true – within another minute the dark outline of Krank City began to emerge over the horizon. Jake and Bess watched it come into view together.

At first, there wasn’t much to see – just many dots making up a vague shadow. Then she could make out plumes of smoke rising up into the sky from countless factory chimneys and the spiraling towers of the largest buildings, standing out against the sky. Now houses and shops came into focus. Airships passed overhead, little planes zipping in between them with a rattle and a hum.

The train was slowing down now, running parallel with a road. They passed a single pony trap with a man in a bowler hat sitting up top. Then they overtook another carriage being drawn by a whole troop of horses. Another pony trap flashed across Bess’s window. Next, the train swept by a convoy of wagons. Soon it felt like the road was packed with whole herds of traps, carriages, and wagons. The world beyond the window seemed to be all a-whirl with motion, dust, and trotting horses.

Soon the road and train parted ways. Another rail track was running alongside them now. Then it was joined by a second and then a third. Before Bess realised what was happening, the train had entered a vast field of rails and sleepers, all snaking their way into town. They split up and passed under the shadow of a vast roof and, with a hiss and a jolt, the train came to a halt at platform C in Grand Central Station, Krank City.

As Bess was already at the door, she was the first off and Jake climbed down after her. Soon they were all standing on the platform, surrounded by their bags.

The station was like a ginormous warehouse, a vast steel roof with rows of platforms stretching out to the walls far off in the distance. Everything was big and busy. It made Bess feel small, but also made the world outside of Becclesbrook seem large and exciting.

“Come along everyone!” said Mr Muser. “My carriages should be waiting outside to take us to the hotel.”

Private Smelly found a porter in a brass-buckled uniform and paid him to help with their luggage. In a little while, they had made it off the platform, through a crowd of top hats, bowlers, and bonnets, down some stairs and out into the open air.

Actually, Krank City was, if anything, even more smelly and dusty outside the station than inside. But, just like he said, they found two of Mr Muser’s carriages waiting for them (he owned several) and were soon traveling down the busy street towards the hotel.

I suppose it was a good 15 minutes before they made it through the streets to the hotel. Bess didn’t mind the time though – there were so many sights and sounds outside. The horses had to trot slowly so as to avoid people hurrying to and fro in the middle of the street. So many people everywhere! Then there were all the other vehicles on the road; wagons carrying piles of bags and boxes, pony traps nimbly weaving in and out of the crowds. Ollie even spotted an odd little vehicle that moved on four wheels, had seats for only two people, and no animal to pull it in sight! It had a chimney at the back which was chuffing steam high up into the air. When it was coming towards you it looked like the steam was coming out of the driver’s top hat.

All the while, the traffic rattled, neighed, and clippity-clopped. The crowds of pedestrians shouted, and called out to one another. In between were hundreds of other little sounds. The high streets of Krank City were a hubbub noisier than a herd of ginger cats fighting over a bowl of fresh cream. 

Metal posts stood on either side of the road, twice as tall as a person, with a large lamp at the top. Of course, you’ll have already guessed that these were lamp posts. Bess had never seen one before and Professor Rubbish had to explain them to her. They made the streets they were passing down feel grand and important, even though they smelt like a stable that hadn’t been cleaned out in three months.

Eventually, they passed through a grand, gated entrance way, circled around a water fountain, and stopped outside the fanciest building Bess had seen yet. 

Arnie asked if it was a palace. Ollie laughed at him and explained it was a hotel.

To be fair to Arnie it was a very grand hotel. In fact, that was its name, The Grand Hotel. 

The entrance was so big that you had to get out of the carriage, climb up the marble stairs and pass the stone columns at the front entrance and say “good day” to the two doormen just to get into the front door.

Inside was a large staircase that couldn’t seem to make up its mind where it was headed. First, it went straight up in front of them. Then it split up and went left and right. Afterward, it changed its mind and joined itself back together. Finally, it decided that really it had been right the first time and split up again. It was so tall and confusing that Bess couldn’t make out what happened at the very top.

Everything was marble, varnished chestnut, gold, or brilliant red. It made Arnie and Bess feel out of place and uncomfortable.

Ollie didn’t seem to feel the same. After all, he used to live in Krank City. He left them gaping inside the doorway and joined Mr Muser at the front desk, which was off to one side of the grand staircase.

Behind the desk was a man in a penguin suit with big, bushy sideburns and spotless white gloves. His face broke into a welcoming smile at the sight of Mr Muser.

“Good evening, Mr Muser. Welcome, welcome to the Grand Hotel!” he said. “Everything has been arranged for your stay. Eight rooms, I believe? Of course, of course! Now if you wouldn’t mind…”

While he was speaking he handed Jake a large leather-bound book. As Jake got busy filling out their names, the hotel manager turned around to face a wall of keys on hooks with numbers underneath. He found the keys he was after and gave them to Mr Muser.

He inspected Jake’s scrawledge, said “Aha!” in a polite, airy sort of way, and rang the shiny bell on the desk in front of him.

“Please take this party’s bags up to rooms 1111 to 1119,” he ordered the two porters who appeared from somewhere or other.

“Do have a wonderful stay with us,” he said, flashing a set of whiter-than-white teeth at them.

Now they all set off up the very grand jumble of stairways in front of them.

At the top was a vast maze of little corridors with numbered doorways on every side. It was easy to read the numbers. The bright brass of the engraved number plates stood out against the dark polished doors. They marched along these until they eventually found their own rooms. 

Eventually, everyone had picked a room and started collecting the bags from where the porters had dumped them in the hallway. The porters were just standing around. At first, Bess thought they were trying to be helpful – waiting to see that nothing got left in the hallway. But then Mr Muser handed them some coins saying, “Thank you, my lads. Here’s half a star for your trouble.” They acted all surprised, said their thank yous in return, and made themselves scarce.

Bess had a room all to herself, right next to Jake’s. She wanted it especially because it looked out onto the back of the hotel where there was a pretty garden with a pond and some trees.

After the door closed behind her, she pulled up a chair to the window and looked out for a bit.

Krank City had left her in a muddle. It felt like she’d been on a roundabout, going faster and faster, and had suddenly been flung off, flying straight through the hotel entrance and into this room. Even though the garden was very prim and proper with colour-coded flower beds and a perfect lawn – not like home at all – at least she was looking out at nature and that was comforting in this strange, urban world.

So she sat there for a bit, enjoying how quiet it was compared to the bustling streets beyond and watching the gardener on his hands and knees, cutting blades of grass with scissors and standing them upright with tweezers. How long would it take him to cut the whole lawn?

Eventually, she decided it would take at least twenty-five and a half hours. She’d got her breath back by then so she took her rucksack and shook everything inside out onto the bed.

For some reason, she felt like making sure it was all still there.

Five minutes later, everything was laid out neatly on her bed and Bess was running through her list of belongings.

There was her spyglass …dad’s second-best pocket watch (he’d lent it to her) …one Mckintosh, (rolled very neatly by mum – for now!) …a pair of solid walking boots …an emergency whistle …a little bag of plasters and bandages …a flint and steel (very useful for starting campfires in a pinch) …her empty water flask …a bundle of clothes …her second-favourite set of bracelets …and finally her compass.

Everything seemed to be there. She felt strangely relieved and started putting everything away.

Wait a minute! What was this tied to the back of her rucksack?! A piece of scarlet ribbon. It hadn’t been there this morning. Had it?

She sat back confused, wondering what she should do.

Then there was a knock at the door.

“Dinner time!” said Jake loudly through the door. “I’m going down now.”

“Jake,” she said, opening the door. “Look at this.”

She gave him the rucksack and pointed to the ribbon. “I don’t think that was there when we boarded the train.”

He looked at it thoughtfully.

“Did you meet anyone on the train?”

Bess told him about the old lady who went on and on about Krank City. As she did, his face became worried.

“I don’t like it!” he said. “We’d better get downstairs for some food. No point staying here. It would look weird if we did. Bring anything really valuable down with you. We’ll talk this through later. Good thing you told me!”

It turned out that Jake was rather hungry. He crashed down the stairs two at a time and was in the hotel dining room before Bess caught up with him.

The hotel dining was posh. Very posh. In fact, it was the poshiest posh room Bess had ever seen. 

Tall, fancy windows lined the walls on two sides. The afternoon light flowed through them and danced off crystal chandeliers hanging in several rows from the ceiling. Rich, velvet curtains hung on the walls.

Bess was guided to a seat at a polished oak table by someone in an evening suit, complete with a black bow-tie and white gloves.

“Will you be requiring a starter, Miss?” he said, looking down his nose at her and wiggling his tiny mustache as he spoke.

“Oh um,” said Bess, confused. They didn’t have starters back in Becclesbrooke, just plain main course and sometimes pudding.

“Order away, order away,” said Mr Muser grandly from across the table. “In fact, we’ll have two each of all the starters. It’s a birthday party after all!”

Now Bess was even more confused!

Once the waiter had left the table, Mr Muser tapped his nose. “Best explanation I could give without drawing too much attention to our splendid team. Don’t want too many questions.”

Bess smiled back at him and forgot about the ribbon on her rucksack.

As it was Mr Muser of Muser Books who had made the dinner reservations, and for a birthday party no less, the hotel staff moved several tables around so now all the adventurers were seated together. Prof Rubbish had ribbons tied around her chair and Captain Fatal was loudly hoping she had enjoyed her birthday so far.

Within half an hour the tables were heaving with more food than Bess had ever seen in one place before! Chicken wings, mushrooms stuffed with cheese, roasted prawns, onion rings, sausage rolls, ham, calamari, poppadoms, scotch eggs, and fish fingers. And that’s not counting all the types of bread, cheese, and dipping sauces (some of the sauces were knock-your-socks-off spicy). Starters were a great idea!

The three young people managed quite a bit of the starters and none of the grown-ups seemed bothered they might be eating too much. In fact, everyone still managed to finish their main courses and no one said any of those boring grown-up things like, “I’d better not have any more,” or “no thanks – need to watch my waistline.” They all knew it might be a very long time before they could have another really good meal. Still, by the time Bess got to the last crumbs of her chicken and mushroom pie, helped down by lots of fiery ginger beer, for the first time in her life she was seriously wondering if she would be able to manage any chocolate fudge cake. And then what if there was a birthday cake?

There was, and they sang “happy birthday to Geraldine” (Professor Rubbish’s first name, you remember). Most of the adults and Ollie only nibbled at the cake. Arnie had seconds.

They were all completely full now, feeling sleepy and leaning back in their chairs. And yet there was a gleam in the eyes of Jake, Mr Muser, and the Captain. They weren’t going to say anything out loud where strangers could hear them, but their eyes were saying, “Tomorrow we start! Out, out! Into the wild lands and on to Everlight!”

“Mr Muser,” said the waiter, gliding up to their table. “A telegram for you, sir.”

“Thank you.”

The waiter glided away again.

Mr Muser opened up the piece of paper and began reading the message inside (that’s what a telegram ends up being, by the way). Then he groaned.

“Drat that infernal rail company!” he said. “Mr J! Our train is delayed until tomorrow evening. We’re stuck in Krank City for a whole day!”


Beth Scotton & Ness Kingsley (nesskingsley.com)


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