A council of war was held in Jake’s room after tea. Smelly stood guard by the door. Larry was sitting on the window sill, watching for shadows among the rose bushes outside.
“Before we make any plans, there’s something you need to know,” said Jake. “Tell them what happened on the train, Bess.”
Bess gave her story about the strange lady on the train and the weird things she had said. “When I got to my room I saw this ribbon on my rucksack. I hadn’t put it there. Why would someone do that?”
“Ah!” said Captain Fatal. “Is it not a thing most easy to guess? It says ‘follow this young miss. Find out where she goes.’ At the station was surely a person most suspicious. He sees your backpack and so – follows.”
“Even if they lost us in the crowds, the Grand Hotel would be an easy guess,” said Professor Rubbish.
“They’ll be watching the hotel now, I dare say!” said Mr Muser. “The scoundrels! Dirty, rotten scoundrels!”
“It would have been better if we’d not stopped in Krank City at all,” said Jake. “We have to get out of town tomorrow and be far away before they can follow. Worst case scenario is we’ll have to chance it in the Dark Forest. Throw them off our trail that way. Not ideal but I’ve been in there before. The big problem is we don’t know who we’re dealing with. Which pirate crew knows about us? How much do they know? What if they try something in Krank City – to delay our expedition until they find out more about our plans? “
“Humph! Seen my trunk?” Larry growled. “More TNT than is safe – let me tell you! If a police bobby was tipped off… We’d be filling out legal paperwork regarding our business needs for explosives far into next week!”
“Most of us have been on expeditions before,” said Professor Rubbish. “We can look after ourselves – you know that, Jake. But what about the new recruits? if I was a pirate, the first people I’d pick on to cause trouble would be you three.” She waved a hand towards Bess, Ollie, and Arnie.
“I can take care of myself!” said Arnie. “I’m good in a fight. I’d take on the pirates for you, Mr Jake.”
“That’s my point,” said Professor Rubbish, grimly.
The cheery banter of another group of hotel guests slipped under the door as they passed by in the hallway.
“Yes,” said Jake slowly. “Sky pirates can be very dangerous – someone could get badly hurt. For me, we need somewhere to lie low until our train is ready to leave. Somewhere safe and secure. Definitely not this hotel – too many strangers lurking about and staff with room keys. We need to move tonight.”
“We could make it to the city barracks before dark,” said Smelly. “The whole south wing is empty for the summer. If Mr Muser had a quiet word with the sentries, I bet we’d be allowed to use it – for a few bob.”
“It is an idea that,” said Fatal. “But you must think of the children. Tomorrow would be a day most dull for them.”
“I’m not a child,” said Bess, “and I’d manage just fine.”
“If we have to sleep in the army barracks, I’m out,” said Ollie. “It’s a prison!”
“Who’s to say the pirates don’t have someone on the inside.” said the Professor. “All I’m saying,” she hurried on as the captain’s face went tomato red with disgust, “is if they knew we were there, they could pay some new recruit to have us watched – or worse.”
Private Smelly pulled a face and the Captain spluttered something about army discipline. But they both knew Professor Rubbish was right.
“No, no – it’s a fair point. We need somewhere we know we’ll be safe,” said Jake.
“Chaps! I say! I have the very place! Why – my apartment above the old bookshop, of course!” cried Mr Muser, springing out of his chair. “Nowhere safer, or I’m a jade monkey!”
“I do not comprehend,” said the Captain. “A bookshop?”
“Yes, yes, yes, my bookshop,” said Mr Muser. “That’s just the first couple of floors, anyway. What?! Never been, eh? I have a little apartment above the store. Security’s second to none. No expense spared on doors, locks, alarms, and all that, what. The staff are good eggs – first-class – first-class, I say – down to the last man! Not surprising really – picked ‘em out myself.”
“Sounds crowded,” said Larry.
“Ha!” said Mr Muser. “Not a bit of it! There’ll be two bedrooms apiece – three if Nit-Picker has finished the repairs on the 6th floor. Then there’s the fish pond, dining hall, games room, and my own little collection of old prints and books – over a thousand rare pieces if I do say so myself. Plenty, plenty to do indeed.”
“At least we’ll have something to read,” said Professor Rubbish.
Jake chuckled, “Strangely enough, I think it could work. Might even confuse them for a while – whoever ‘they’ are. So long as you’re OK with it, Mr Muser.”
“Oh no trouble at all, dear boy, no trouble at all. Absolute thrill, don’t you know.”
“Great. We’d better get packing.”
“Splendid, splendid, splendid! I’ll pop down to the hotel lobby and send a message for Mr Nit-Picker to bring the carriages.”
“Hang on! Your bookshop isn’t far from here, is it?” asked Professor Rubbish. “On Main Street?”
“Main Street? Yes, yes – best bit of real estate in the city centre down the strip. Although back in the day it was- “
“Then let’s go there now – on foot. We can cut through the back streets. That might stop anyone from following – they may have someone in the hotel reading messages.” said Professor Rubbish.
“You think so? Reading a fellow’s personal, private messages now, eh? Rotten rascals, all of them! I mean, I’ve known several pirates personally in my time – but this takes the biscuit and the whole cake. What! Skullduggering, dirty-rotten scoundrels, I say! A pox on every man jack of ‘em!”
“Won’t we get lost?” asked Ollie, thinking of Krank City’s back streets and alleyways.
“I don’t think so,” said Professor Rubbish. “I used to live near here, growing up. There’s a gate at the back of the hotel which leads out onto the streets.”
“There’s a fire door next to my room,” said Ollie. “We could slip out that way.”
“Hmmm… it’s worth a try,” said Jake. “Let’s get packing, people!”
And so it was decided that they would leave the Grand Hotel that very night and spend the next day in Mr Muser’s apartment above his bookshop.
I don’t suppose anyone could have imagined just how disastrous this would be for their adventure in the end. But it seemed like a good idea at the time.
The summer sun was beginning to dip below the skyline as the adventurers traversed a flight of rickety, cast iron stairs that snaked down the back wall of the hotel. The distant rumble of city traffic had now largely died away. A blackbird warbled gently in a tree nearby, and the gravel crunched underfoot as they made their way through gardens to a little gate at the end. It was unlocked but the latch was stiff and crusted with red rust. It took some jiggling but eventually, the gate swung back, groaning on its old hinges. A dingy alleyway lay beyond.
“This way!” said the Professor, motioning with her hand. “We should be OK. Nobody comes down here nowadays.”
That seemed to be true. The little back streets they went down were quiet. Quiet and dark, with tall weeds and rubbish strewn everywhere. The buildings on either side had been boarded up a long time ago and were now slowly falling down. There was an off, eggy smell coming from somewhere about.
“Is the city council aware of all this mess, I wonder?” said Mr Muser. “What a pig’s ear! Utter disgrace, I say!”
“Out of sight, out of mind,” said Jake with a shrug.
“I shall write a letter of complaint to my councillor directly – when I have a spare moment. A firm letter of complaint! This sort of neglect of public property simply won’t stand. Something must be done about it.”
“He has a point”, thought Bess. “It would be scary to be left alone here.”
She looked at the Professor who was leading the way, suitcase in one hand, a leather satchel slung over her shoulder, the ancient flamestone compass, hidden inside.
“She’s very strong underneath. No wonder she enjoys adventuring,” thought Bess.
For a good twenty minutes, they twisted and turned down one dark street and into another. The Professor and Captain Fatal led the way. Jake and Private Smelly brought up the rear. Sometimes a dirty yellow light flickered behind a curtain. Once or twice a shadowy figure passed them. But mostly no one else was about – as far as Bess could see.
Eventually, some of the worst smells disappeared and they heard the trundle of wheels as a pony trap passed nearby. Then, all of a sudden, they came out onto Main Street.
It was fairly dark now but the street lamps were lit. In their hazy light, they could see a large shop window opposite them. Above the glass panes stretched a dark-green sign board. Large, brass letters simply read “Muser’s Books”.
It was the first bookshop Mr Muser had ever opened. It had started out fairly small but over time had grown. He had bought the buildings on either side and joined them all together. Then, whenever he ran out of room, he had extended upwards until it had become the wonky, towering, and oddly impressive structure our adventurers now saw.
Mr Muser got the front doors open and fumbled around inside. With a triumphant “Aha!”, he laid his hands on a couple of oil lamps. Soon their orange light flickered about the room.
The room was vast with rows of bookcases as tall as the ceiling and stretching as far as the eye could see.
“Wow!” said Bess.
“How – how many books have you got?” asked Arnie, awestruck.
“Oh, on the ground floor? More than a million, I dare say,” said Mr Muser, “Lost track a long time ago on account of everything getting sold before we get round to counting. But we have books on every subject, every subject you can imagine. Come along – the lift’s over on the other side, past the bargain bin.”
“You mean people buy all these books?” said Bess with wonder.
“Of course,” said Private Smelly, walking next to her as they followed Mr Muser. “Thousands of books, every day. You’ll see in the morning – this place will be heaving.”
“And unfortunately we’ll have to stay well away,” said Jake.
“For most of the day anyway,” he added, as Bess’s shoulders slumped. “I suppose it won’t hurt for Mr Muser to give you a small tour tomorrow morning, Bess. But we have to be careful.”
“In that case, I’m going to look at the Dragon Saga card sets. There’ll be new ones since I was last in town,” said Ollie.
“Books? Reading? Cards?! Bah!” growled Larry.
In the middle of the room, a clearing had been made amongst the bookshelves. Piled higher than their heads were books of every shape and size imaginable. At the bottom of the mountain was a signboard that read, “Bargain Bin. 50% Off All Prices.”
Yet again, Arnie and Bess couldn’t help but gawp.
“So many!” said Bess.
“How do you get to the top?” said Arnie. “What happens if you pull one out from the bottom?”
“Bed now,” said Jake. “Find out tomorrow.”
Mr Muser led them on.
Soon enough the bookshelves parted again and they stood before what looked like an iron cage with an open front. It was the lift. Soon they were ascending, hidden gears clunking and creaking while the bookshop was slowly swallowed up in inky darkness below them.
At the top, Mr Muser got the front door open. Mr Nit-Picker, awakened by the noise of the lift, met them in the hallway wearing his pyjamas and dressing gown. The butler was very surprised to see them. Once the situation had been explained, however, he managed to find rooms for everyone. And then they could all finally get some sleep.
Bess had some strange dreams that night! In one she was running down a long corridor, with books piled high on either side. A hobbling old lady, with a wooden leg and an eye patch, was chasing her, waving a cutlass and saying “Where are you going, dearie?! Come back – let’s talk”. Then the books morphed into a sea of yellowed pages. She had to fight hard to keep her head above the surface. Overhead hung a great flamestone, lighting up a dark-green sky.
Bess didn’t wake up until well past 9 o’clock. In a few minutes, she was dressed and wandering down the hallway, trying to remember how she’d got to her room the night before.
For half an hour Bess climbed up staircases and pushed on doors. Many of the doors were locked and the ones which weren’t were stuffed with glass cases and piles of odds and ends.
The hallways too were littered with piles of things. A stack of books and photo albums here, a random cricket bat there. Some things looked like they had recently been dumped, and others were covered in dust. Little writing tables got in Bess’s way and the patterned wallpaper of the walls was peppered with picture frames of various sizes and shapes – most of them hanging crookedly. What a mess!
At any other time, Bess would have enjoyed exploring, but just now she was quickly getting tired and hungry. When half an hour was through, she felt rather cross.
“How much space does one person need?! Where is everybody? And where’s the kitchen – I’m starving!”
She did stop at one set of pictures though. They were portraits hanging side by side, looking at one another. Oddly the frames actually matched. What drew Bess’s attention were the faces. Both were of men with thick red hair, meatchop sideburns, and bristling ginger moustaches.
“It’s got to be Mr Muser when he was younger. I wonder why he paid for matching paintings of himself? Seems a bit much – unless he has a twin brother.”
With a shrug, she turned and tried yet another door. It opened into a room with a round table in the middle. Arnie and Ollie were sitting at it, still in their PJs.
“Oh – you! Great!” muttered Arnie.
“Yes, it’s me!” said Bess. “And what are you up to?!”
“Don’t know about Foureyes, but I’m waiting for breakfast,” said Arnie.
“Bet you’ve not even done your teeth,” said Bess, scornfully.
“Course not – I’m on holiday. You don’t clean on holidays.”
Bess was speechless!
“I don’t do mine until after breakfast,” said Ollie, “otherwise my tea tastes funny. The butler said he’d get us breakfast. He also said they were out looking for you. Where have you been, anyway?”
“Trying to find everyone else.” said Bess, “Oh my days – there are so many rooms! This place is huge!”
“Bet you got lost,” said Arnie.
“Found my way here, didn’t I?” said Bess, “And I’m dressed – and clean! More than I can say of you two.” She wrinkled her nose. Someone in the room smelled cheesy.
“I’m clean – just not dressed!” said Ollie. “And if you’re going to keep fighting, take it somewhere else and leave me in peace. I didn’t ask for this stupid trip and I’ve already had enough of both of you.”
That made both Arnie and Bess feel small and foolish. They sat at the table in silence, ignoring one another.
The table was a curious thing. Miniature mountains, lakes, forests, and seas stood up from the tabletop, all painted perfectly. It made you feel like you were an eagle, soaring high up in the sky, looking down over vast lands.
Roads snaked through some areas, joining up little markers for cities, towns, and fortresses. Each marker had a number. A leather-bound book lay open on the table. The pages seemed to be a handwritten list of place names with numbers next to each one.
Bess snatched up the book and flicked the pages back towards the beginning until she found the name “Becclesbrooke”. It was number 47 in the list. She scanned the tabletop, looking for her home. There it was! Off in the far west! Not far below it was another marker for Krank City. And linking them, painted black against the green countryside, was a train track which continued on southwards.
Far away from Krank City, the track came to an end. And then South, West and East there seemed to be nothing but forests, rivers, mountains, and vast empty green for many hundreds of miles.
All of this was just one little section of the tabletop.
Once again Bess felt very small. The world just kept getting bigger and bigger!
“Wait, so you drink tea with your breakfast?” said Arnie to Ollie, breaking the silence.
“Camomile tea. So?” said Ollie.
“Yuck!” Arnie pulled an impressively revolted face.
Ollie burst out laughing.
Bess almost did too, but she stopped herself just in time.
Then the door opened and Mr Nit-Picker, the butler, entered with a trolley of steaming cooked food, and a little teapot balanced precariously on one corner.
He carefully laid things out on another, smaller table which Bess hadn’t spotted.
“Breakfast, young masters. Your herbal tea too, as requested, Master Foureyes” he announced. “Ah! Miss Postage-Stamp! Good to see you’ve found your way downstairs. I had hoped you would and so made extra. There should be an elegant sufficiency for both young masters and miss. I shall inform Mr Muser that you are all up. He seems most eager to give you a tour of his shop.”
He glided backward out of the room, closing the door gently behind him.
Bess managed to get herself a bowl of porridge and some hot buttered toast.
“You can have all the bacon if I can have all the eggs,” said Arnie to Ollie, grabbing the plate of fried eggs.
“Done,” said Ollie reaching for a fork.
“So healthy,” said Bess.
“I don’t like eating pig,” explained Arnie to Ollie. “They’re very smart.”
“And delicious,” said Ollie. He bit off a large chunk of his second rasher of bacon before spitting it out because it was too hot. Then he gobbled it up again.
Bess made a face of disgust and moved as far away from them as possible.
“Left anything for me?” asked Jake, who had just entered the room. “Hmmm… looks like it’s gonna be porridge.”
He filled up a bowl and sat down by Bess.
“Sleep well, sis?” he asked.
“Uh-huh. Where’s everyone else? I couldn’t find anyone apart from the two trolls.”
“Everyone’s been up for hours – well, apart from Larry. He likes to sleep in. I’ve just finished going through some plans with Mr Muser and the Captain. Thought I’d get something to eat.”
“What plans?” asked Bess.
“Oh, just plans for today. We might be able to find an earlier train – get out of Krank City ASAP. Private Smelly and the Captain have gone back to the train station to ask around.” said Jake.
“Are pirates really dangerous?” said Bess.
“Everything and everyone is dangerous when adventuring. What do you think of that diorama?” He was pointing with his spoon at the landscape on the tabletop. “Pretty cool, huh?”
“It’s big!” said Bess.
“And the real world is even bigger – far bigger than you can imagine. Look there’s the Dark Forest – we’ll probably pass right by it. Then we’ll have to travel down that river to the great lakes. See how there’s no roads or towns marked out over there? That’s because there aren’t any. It’s a vast, untamed wilderness. Anything could happen! What stories we’ll be able to tell when we get home!”
They had hardly finished breakfast when Mr Muser burst through the door.
“I say, who’s up for a guided tour of ye olde bookshop? Come along, come along one and all – it’s already getting busy downstairs.”
“How much did you eat?” Arnie asked Ollie a few minutes later, as they travelled downwards in the lift.
“Erm – dunno – twelve pieces?”
“Ha! Beat yah! I managed fourteen eggs.”
Arnie let off a rather loud burp.
Bess sighed. Another day with these idiots! She was about to say how disgusting they both were when Mr Muser said, “Erm, well now – I say, how does one kick things off so to speak? I suppose I had better show you the library first. Yes, yes – much the best way of doing things…” and the tour of the bookshop had begun.
I’m sure you’ve noticed, even at this early point in our story, that Mr Muser enjoys talking and takes a long time to say anything. You may also have put two and two together and realised that his bookshop was extremely large. If I told you everything he said or described everything they saw, we’d never see our adventurers off on their train. We’d spend the whole story exploring the bookshop. Exciting as that may be, they really do need to catch their train so we will have to skip over most of the morning and just stick to the best bits of the tour.
There were two floors to the bookshop, the two bottom floors of the building. The first floor was like a library. An old-fashioned, serious sort of library. There were large glass windows but the whole floor was one giant room. Rows upon rows of tall mahogany bookcases gleamed in dim gaslight. Every now and again there was a large marble pillar with lots of curious carvings circling round and round, all the way to the top. These pillars were very important – they held up the ceiling and a balcony circling around the edge of the room.
Here and there were tables, chairs and large green sofas. There weren’t many people about. Just one or two pouring over large books and making furious notes on jotting paper.
The room smelt of old books and dust.
“Welcome to my little library,” said Mr Muser in a proud whisper. “Every book, parchment, or scroll is one of a kind. Taken forever to build up the collection. Cost a pretty packet, I should say. Happy to share, of course – for a small fee. But I don’t appreciate borrowers or dog-earers. Everything jolly well stays here, thank you very much.”
“Who cleans this place?” wondered Bess aloud. “It must take them forever!”
“Clean my library?!” cried Mr Malcolm Muser, raising his voice in horror and making them all jump. “What an idea! Books would get damaged! Things would get muddled! No, no, and no, I say. This room stays as it is – or has been for the last 20 years.”
“It’s not been cleaned for 20 years?!” said Arnie, awestruck.
“The cobwebs add to the atmosphere,” explained Jake with a wink.
“How many books have you got in here?” asked Ollie.
“Well now,” said Mr Muser, “there’s plenty of empty cases still, but I should say tens of thousands.”
“To the writing of books there is no end,” quoted Jake.
“Yes, indeed.” said Mr Muser, “Isn’t it spiffing? There’s always more to read.”
“And just think,” he continued dreamily, “If we succeed in finding Everlight – how many more priceless treasures I will add to my collection? All that knowledge – just waiting to be found!”
“Shhh!” said Jake.
Most of the library books Mr Muser showed them were either in oldie worldie writing which was hard to read or in a completely different language which perhaps only Prof Rubbish would have understood. They did spot the Professor at one point. She was sitting on a sofa, deep in a book – much too far gone to notice them. So soon they all got bored and Jake started dropping hints they should move on.
On the ground floor, the bookstore was buzzing with people. All through the vast room, there were mirrors drawing light in from the windows. The books didn’t have time to collect dust before they were sold. There was a constant din of excited chatter and, from near the front door, came a cheery ringing of tills. The bookstore was bright, airy, and busy.
In a corner, looking out onto the street, there was a cafe where you could start reading your new books or gassing away with friends about your latest finds. Anything you wanted really, so long as you ordered something from the menu. And there was plenty to order. Mainly cake – piles and piles of the stuff. Carrot, victoria sponge, chocolate, chocolate fudge, coffee, fruit, cheesecake, and marmite cake (and that was just the menu’s first page). True, there were also plates of sticky buns, brownies, biscuits, cookies, and whatnot, but Krank City folk were especially fond of cake.
And of course, you’d need a coffee to wash it all down with. The usual types were on offer. Tea too – if you were that kind of person. In fact, the cafe had over 200 different flavours of tea. But truthfully only a few were ever used, the rest – especially the herbal ones – just sat in colourful boxes for display purposes.
Nobody in the group was hungry, so soon after breakfast. So after agreeing they’d have some cake sent upstairs later, they moved on.
Next, they came to the Writer’s Corner. This was a sort of shop within a shop. Here you could buy pens, lined paper, typewriters, sticky notes, dictionaries, grammar books, thesauruses, to-do lists, hourglasses, fancy embossed notebooks, and pretty much anything else you might want for writing – apart from ideas.
The Writer’s Corner didn’t interest Arnie. Ollie wanted to hurry on too – he knew the trading card sets were nearby. But Bess dragged her heels. She wanted to stay, try out a typewriter or two and maybe look at the prices of notebooks.
The Bargain Bin was the next thing they saw. A great mound of books, you remember. Its top almost touched the ceiling.
It was the star attraction of the shop. Some people visited the Bargain Bin looking for decent volumes at rock-bottom prices. Others were just there to watch the fun, secretly hoping there would be an avalanche as people scrambled up a ginormous pile of books.
“Isn’t it dangerous?” asked Bess. They were watching a girl in a yellow dress, trying to reach a book near the top, while clutching a parasol. She’d already lost her footing once and tumbled halfway down.
“Has anyone died?” said Arnie, hopefully.
“Died? Died, you say? On my mountain?! Dash it all – an absurd idea!” snorted Mr Muser. “Next you’ll be saying playing cricket is dangerous or living on puddings is bad for you. What, what, what, I say! Never had anything more than the slightest accident and people come from all over town for my discounts.”
“No more than the slightest accident? I thought someone sprained their ankle on it recently. The local postie, wasn’t it?” asked Jake.
“Humph! It wasn’t all that bad in the end, I dare say.” said Mr Muser, “Anyway it builds character. Toughens you up, a ramble on the mountain now and then. And it’s good, sporting fun. Definitely keeps the cafe busy. Everyone is ready for a drink when they’ve got their bargains.” He chuckled to himself.
Bess began to wonder just how clever Mr Muser really was. What a good thing that Jake was around. Imagine if Mr Muser had been running their expedition by himself!
Now one strange thing about us older people is when we’ve started spouting about our hobbies or latest holiday we find it very hard to stop. Long after everyone else has had enough we carry on. By the time they’d finished looking around the bookshop, everyone was ready for the tour to finish. Everyone that is, except Mr Muser, and he was showing no mercy.
“And now comes the best bit – my own digs upstairs. Come along, come along. You’ve not seen anything yet! We’ve not even got to the fish pond. This way!”
Off they went again, up into Mr Muser’s house above the shop.
Upstairs and then downstairs he led them. Nooks, crannies, and half-hidden passageways were everywhere. There just didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the house. Round every corner was yet another door opening out into yet another room full of collections of all sorts of things. Some had glass cages full of strange creatures, all dead and stuffed but set out in spooky poses.
There was a room full of clay tablets covered with strange writings. That seemed to be Mr Muser’s favourite. He spent a long time going on about them. One room was full of dried leaves and flowers. Another was full of weapons – old rusted swords, spears and pistols. That was everyone’s favourite room apart from Jake – he preferred the dried flowers.
Finally, they turned another corner, opened a door, and stepped out into fresh air and sunlight.
“Here is my fish pond,” said Mr Muser, with pride in his voice. “There’s not another like it in all Krank City, I dare say. No, not with such spectacular specimens. And the view? Well!”
They were standing on a balcony, high up above the street, looking out over a jungle of rooftops, stretching out and away towards…
“The sea!” cried Arnie, “I can see the sea!”
Near the distant horizon, a large haze of blue glistened.
“Yes. There’s the harbour and the great brine beyond. Just the spot to drink your morning coffee from, eh?” said Mr Muser.
Bess and Arnie weren’t listening. They were taken up with the view. Beyond the countless roofs and chimneys was a vast expanse of water larger than they could understand. It is one thing to be taught facts at school, or see pictures in books, and quite another, far more magical thing to actually see the world for yourself.
Mr Muser understood. He waited but was itching to show off his fish. Ollie, at last, asked him about them.
“Colourful, aren’t they? Tropical, of course, from realms far to the south. I was there when I was a boy, no older than you, I dare say. Southern Koi, they’re called. Red, orange, yellow, silver or green. No two are exactly the same colour. At least that’s what they say and so I’ve found. Eh? No, no – not the originals, not the originals. About 5 years old. Live a good 20 years, so they do. Worth a fair bit. Never sold any, mind – my little secret.”
The large fish were swimming in slow circles, their colourful scales shimmering under the water. A stone fountain at one end of the pond made a constant trickling sound.
“I didn’t know fish could look like that,” said Bess thoughtfully. “Are they like that in the Wilds?”
“No, not really,” said Jake. “This far north all the fish tend to be grey or green. But there’s plenty of other wondrous things out there. Creatures never yet seen and many long forgotten.”
“Like dragons?” asked Arnie.
“Dragons and plenty more,” said Jake. “Hopefully we won’t meet any dragons on this trip. But we’ll see enough.”
“Well, right now I need the loo,” said Arnie, “and that fountain isn’t helping.”
Mr Muser burst out laughing.
He hurried off to show Arnie the way. Ollie followed them. Bess and Jake stayed back, taking in the ocean view.
“It’ll keep for another summer,” said Jake to himself.
“You’d better take me with you. I’m never staying behind again,” said Bess.
“Hmmm… that would be fun but let’s see how this summer goes first.”
“I’ll show him.” thought Bess. “Whatever it takes, I’ll show him. I’m grown up now and I’m never going to miss out on adventure again.”
“Come on,” said Jake. “This one has barely started. Let’s finish off Mr Muser’s grand tour.”
“How much longer will it go on for?” grumbled Bess. “Feels like we’ve been walking for hours. It must be lunchtime.”
“If I’m remembering right, there’s not much on the next couple of floors. Then it’s just a spiral staircase to the roof. Come on – the view’s even better up there.”
Jake had remembered rightly. The next couple of floors were really just Mr Muser’s loft. Piles of battered boxes littered the floor, waiting to be organised into one of the rooms below. Large, forgotten objects were covered in sheets.
A couple of times Mr Muser stopped at a box and looked at the label thoughtfully. Then Jake said, “I think we’d better hurry up and get to the roof. Don’t you?”
Mr Muser sighed and led the way again.
Finally, they reached the base of a staircase.
“Up we go! Watch your step – it’s a steep climb,” said Mr Muser.
At the top, he unbolted the hatch and disappeared from view.
“Careful now,” he called down. “It’s blowing a gale.”
Bess emerged as an airship floated overhead. They were so high up now that she felt she could reach out and touch the ship. Then she felt the building swaying from side to side – like an oak sapling caught in a summer breeze.
“Is it – is it supposed to move?” she asked nervously.
“Yeah, all the really tall buildings move around at the top,” said Ollie. “Look over there. That’s the town hall’s clock tower. Tallest place in town. You have to pay to visit the top. Worth it though. It’s like you’re sailing the ocean.”
“No thanks!” gasped Bess, reaching out for the nearest railing.
She held on for dear life and leaned over by accident.
Not a good idea. Looking down, her stomach went queasy and her feet turned to jelly. The lowest clouds lay just below and the people down on the pavement looked like tiny ants.
“Cool! That plane’s coming straight at us!” said Arnie, pointing.
With a whirring splutter, a little red bi-plane flew by, the pilot’s goggles almost level with their eyes.
“I say, careful!” said Mr Muser. “What was that fellow up to flying that low?!”
“Will he crash?” asked Arnie.
“It is risky. I wonder what he’s up to?” said Jake and his face looked worried.
“Joyriding most likely,” said Mr Muser. “You know what these young fellows are like once they get their hands on a plane.”
“Can we go back in?” croaked Bess, hoarsely.
“Scared of heights?” said Arnie. “Will you be OK if we have to do any climbing? I could stay out here for hours. What are those chimneys over there, Mr Muser?”
“Chimneys? Oh factories, dear boy, factories,” replied their tour guide. “Fires of industry and all that. Not the best part of the view. Much too smoky. Now, over there is the airport. That’s where those two airships are heading. Hang tight, we’ll see one landing in a minute…”
Bess gritted her teeth as she climbed back down the stairs with Jake. Arnie knew exactly what he was doing – trying to show her up and make himself look good in front of Mr Muser and Jake.
Well, she’d sort him out. Later. Right now she needed to find a part of the building where the ground didn’t move.
Beth Scotton & Ness Kingsley (nesskingsley.com)