The House Detective is the first in a new series aimed at readers aged 8 to 12.
The idea to the book came to me when a friend said: “a house is not a home until you have a pet”. It made me think about how houses regard their owners…if humans need a pet to really make them feel at home…what do houses need to feel happy and “at home”?
Here’s a snippet from the book. Houses may look empty, standing about bored and absent-minded, but you never know what lies beyond the doorstep until you enter…as Stevie is about to find out to his cost:
“Come on, say you’ll do it or I’ll rip your ears off and nail them to your Mummy’s precious car!”
Fraser’s fist brought Stevie back to the here and now with a painful reminder when it collided with his nose. He heard a scrunching sound which probably meant that his nose was broken. Although Stevie’s instincts told him it was better to keep his eyes firmly shut, the crunching sound he’d heard prompted him to take a peek down the ridge of his nose. As if to confirm his theory, blood started spurting from his nostrils, covering Fraser’s t-shirt and face. Fraser cursed at the sight of the blood stains and immediately launched a second attack, even more ferocious than the first. This time Kyle joined in. Stevie wasn’t sure how long their fists pummelled him, but it felt like days. It was probably only a few minutes. He could no longer feel their punches. A cloud of musty smell of Fraser’s sweat mingled with the scent of Stevie’s own blood enveloped him and he knew he was about to pass out.
Fraser’s face was dripping with sweat and he reeked of his favourite food, hot dogs with plenty of fried onions. He was leaning over his stricken victim now, one hand resting on the fence behind Stevie’s shoulder, grinning broadly at the damage his fists had caused. Stevie had to stop himself from retching. He could feel his knees buckle and pressed his shoulders harder against the fence so he wouldn’t slide down to the ground. For a moment Fraser and Kyle stood back to admire their handiwork. Kyle examined gingerly the knuckles on his right hand, which were swollen and red. Fraser’s rough brown hair was glued to his puffed up face and beads of sweat mingled with the grime on his forehead. A steady stream of this mixture had begun to run down on both sides of his bulbous nose and was dripping from his temples. Watching his tormentors, as they stood over him with their smug faces and their blood-stained shirts, something in Stevie snapped. His mind rebelled against this unjust punishment for something he had no control over and he felt his hands curl up into two hard, pointy little fists just itching to find a target.
One couldn’t choose one’s parents, let alone dictate to them that they should leave their jobs and become something else. In fact, Stevie didn’t think it was fair to ask grown-ups to give up jobs they liked doing, even if their jobs were rather lame. Fraser had simply no right to insult them – so what if Fraser’s dad had lost out on a valuable land deal, because Stevie’s dad had bought it from under the builder’s nose and sold it on behalf of his estate agency, earning a huge finder’s fee in the process? No, Stevie would not go home and demand of his parents they should hand over the finder’s fee to Fraser’s dad, nor would he tell his mother that her broad hips and long skinny legs made her look like a hippo on stilts, even if Fraser had a valid point on that score.
An uncontrollable anger rose in Stevie’s stomach and it gradually reached his throat, where it exploded in a “wooooooooooaaaaaaaaaawwwwwwww” scream of rage. Kyle’s eyes bulged and two of Fraser’s chins dropped. Fraser looked more like an angry walrus than ever.
“Wooooooooooaaawww.” Stevie’s ear shattering battle cry forced Kyle to clamp his hands over his ears. Fraser hurriedly took a step backward, rather taken a back that one of his victims should dare to complain.
Stevie used this temporary diversion to push Fraser further away. Fraser, taken unawares, lost his balance. Surprised by his own strength, Stevie watched Fraser’s bulk tumble backwards in slow motion. Fraser’s behind landed in a puddle, sending up a small landslide of mud, pebbles and leaves. Sidekick Kyle stared open-mouthed at his fallen hero whose face was turning purple. At this point Fraser very much resembled a walrus ready to do battle. With a grunt, he took Kyle’s outstretched hand and heaved himself up. The mud released his bottom with a strange sucking noise, like a pair of lips reluctantly letting go off a favourite lollypop. Trying to scrape the mud off his trouser seat with one hand didn’t stop Fraser from attempting to throttle Stevie with the other, but he was too late.
Stevie ducked under Fraser’s outstretched arm and sweaty armpit and slithered away from under his attacker’s very nose with the grace of an eel. In one swift movement Stevie sprang up, pulled himself up onto the sturdy branch above his head and dropped across the fence. He fell exhausted onto the grounds of the Wardle Street house. Stevie paused just long enough to recover his breath and thank his football trainer for teaching him the goalkeeper’s tricks of the trade for without them he’d never been able to pull off such a daring stunt; then Stevie ran into a shrubbery for cover. Behind him, on the other side of the fence, he could hear Kyle and Fraser debate what they should do next. Despite a painful stitch developing in his side, Stevie couldn’t help but giggle at the thought of Fraser trying to scale the fence. Without doubt Kyle would have to heave the larger boy up by his soggy pants and when Fraser’s bulk would finally make contact with the overgrown lawn on the Wardle Street house side of the fence, there’d be a minor earthquake!
His tormentors had clearly not even considered this option, for moments later Stevie heard them pelt across the schoolyard and out of the school gates; they were shouting abuse after him. Looking over his shoulder to calculate the distance between him and his tormentors, he raced past weedy tennis courts where tattered old netting still clung onto posts that hadn’t been painted since ladies wore waggon-wheel hats and coaches not cars had rumbled up the long Wardle Street drive. Stevie tried to sprint across extensive lawns that stretched out before him like a green sea, where a gentle breeze created waves in the long grass, but more often than not his trainers would catch on a tangled clump of grass or were grabbed by feisty thistles and he would fall headlong into the emerald soup of weeds. Finally, when he thought the stitch in his side would kill him and his heart would give out, he spotted the porch of the old Wardle Street mansion. The last storm had brought down a once mighty birch, which now lay rotting across the western half of the overgrown laws. At the crown end of the fallen giant Stevie would have a good view over the rest of the grounds, so he jumped onto the tree stump and ran up towards the other end as nimbly as a squirrel, using his outstretched arms to balance.
He was well hidden by the tangle of branches and twigs, when he spotted Kyle and Fraser, who had only just arrived at the decrepit old garden gate at the bottom of the drive. Moments later they were running towards the house, judging by the creaking of the gate and the thumping of Fraser’s heavy tread. It was by far the longest route to take and for the first time in his short life, Stevie was glad that his estate-agent-dad had dragged him along to one of his properties that morning, for it had given Stevie the advantage. Stevie chuckled, for he knew the drive was about half a mile long. Kyle, a snarling whippet with lank mousy hair, was in the lead. Walrus Fraser puffed red-faced after his friend. He was clearly unaccustomed to taking exercise between mud baths and was certainly not enjoying the pace set by Kyle.
They were beginning to catch up though and Stevie’s only hope was to hide. They might get bored and pick on someone else, if they couldn’t find him. Hoping to find a short-cut he fought his way through another shrubbery; this one had been left to grow rampantly out of control and now it almost obscured the entire west wing of the house on the ground floor level. Hawthorne twigs and thorns tried their best to keep Stevie from reaching the house but eventually he broke free and raced, his face and hands bloodied and scratched, across the weedy circuit of sand and pebbles that denoted the spot where once-upon-a-time a coachman and his horses would have turned after depositing passengers at the mansion. Stevie practically fell over the bottom stair of the porch, when he finally reached it for a Hawthorne branch yanked him back just as he was trying to step out of the thicket. Somewhere behind him in the grounds he could hear Fraser and Kyle arguing over the shortest route to take. From his visit that morning Stevie remembered the drive forked off about half way up to the property, with one lane leading into a pleasant little woodland area with a murky pond – what better place for one puffed-out walrus and an unfit whippet to take a dip and cool off!
Taking two steps at once, Stevie hurried up to the front door. It was an enormous oak door with carvings all around. Stevie sighed with relief. Try kicking that in, Fraser! Only a small triangular coloured glass window on the top would have allowed past householders to take a peek at whoever stood outside knocking. Even whippet Kyle wouldn’t be able to squeeze in through such a tiny opening, so Stevie felt certain he’d be safe inside the house. There were metal grills on all downstairs windows, preventing burglars and squatters from getting in. Kyle might be the skinniest boy in school, but even he wouldn’t fit between those metal bars.
It was the door knocker that caught Stevie’s attention before he noticed all the other things that were strange about the porch. It was the most unusual thing, looking like a funny little bird not unlike a penguin but with a comical, much rounder face and sturdier beak. Its wings lay tightly furled by its side and its legs and feet stretched as far as they would go, so as to make the bird appear longer than it would have been had it been standing up in its normal posture. Of course – it was swimming!
Stevie noticed that the window and carvings were covered in cobwebs and grime, but the knocker and door handle were not. They were both made from brass and had obviously been polished, for they sparkled in the last rays of the afternoon sun. Just like the knocker the door handle had been fashioned in the shape of a bird, and just like the knocker it was covered in symbols and swirly patterns, the most peculiar engravings Stevie had ever seen. The door handle’s bird had an open beak, Stevie noticed, and while its legs were also stretched out to their full length, the bird’s feet where tilted upwards and its toes spread out to reveal webbing. Stevie raised himself up on the tip of his own toes and tried to peer through the small window, but it was too dirty for him to see inside. He swiped the window with his sleeve and cleared a few cobwebs away. A ray of sunshine revealed a stained glass pane with a seaside design, a tall cliff and crashing waves. A war cry behind him nearly made him jump out of his skin. His pursuers were nearly upon him. Just past the Hawthorn shrubbery he could make out the top of Fraser’s head.
Stevie tried the bird-like contraption. Blast, the door was locked!
Looming over him with ivy-clad walls, peeling paint and blind windows, the house seemed to mock him, for only this morning he had seen his dad enter without bothering to unlock the front door. He ventured a kick against the door, but apart from sending up a cloud of dust and cobwebs his kick had no effect. Well, it made his trainers dirtier but that was about it. Shuddering at the thought of what his mother would have to say about the state of his clothes and trainers, Stevie took two steps at a time down the stairs and hared down the path that led to the rear of the house, where he tried the back door. It was exactly the same design as the front door, but without the porch stairs and the bird-shaped knocker. He tried the door handle, gently squeezing the bird’s wings.
Success! The door handle went down with a protesting squawk but the door opened nonetheless. In a rush as usual, his dad had obviously forgotten to lock the back door, when he had left to meet another house buyer that morning.
Stevie let himself in and found he was standing in an enormous kitchen with tall empty dressers. On the window side of the kitchen, where dappled sunlight managed to seep in through holes in the original Victorian paper blinds, Stevie saw an old-fashioned butcher’s sink of huge proportions. Further back on the other side, where the chimney rose up into the ceiling, stood an enormous cast iron range with a kettle still on it. Obviously, it was no longer on the boil, but its size made Stevie gasp, for it was large enough to make tea for a family of 20. In the centre of the kitchen stood a beautiful deal table; although dusty now, one could see it had been well scrubbed in its day and always been oiled or waxed with care. It spanned almost the entire length of the kitchen. All around it, Stevie counted 12 chairs. Of course, a hundred years ago this would have been were the servants ate their meals, he suddenly thought, for he remembered reading about gentlemen and ladies living in grand style in these old mansions and employing a veritable army of servants to look after their every whim.
There was no key on the inside of the door either, so he grabbed an old kitchen chair and rammed it under the door knob. That should keep Fraser and Kyle out! Now that he was able to take a closer look at the handle, he realised that this one had also been polished and was also covered in symbols. It was a small mystery that would have to keep for another day. At the moment finding a hiding place was more important. With the blinds down and all the windows locked the house was dark and stuffy. The most peculiar smell pervaded the old house. It reminded Stevie of railway stations where one’s nose is assaulted from all directions by fried onion, fresh coffee and engine fuel, sweaty armpits and stale tobacco smoke, fifteen different scents of perfume and aftershave mingled with babies’ nappies and winter coats that reeked of mothballs, wet dog and throat pastilles.
Actually, now that he had leisure to stand still and get his bearings, the silence mingled with the weird smell was quite spooky; Stevie could see little clouds of dust rise up from the floorboards with every step he took. All around him the house seemed to be waking up. It began to creak and sigh. Now and again a paper blind would whisper to its mate, when a draught of air had caught its attention; a mouse would squeak in its hole or a bluebottle would remember to head-butt a window. A gust of wind shot down the chimney and howled eerily, sending a shiver down Stevie’s spine.
He left the kitchen in something of a hurry and entered a long gloomy hallway with doors on either side. Looking for a place to hide, he opened some of the doors, but all of them were empty, with not so much as a wardrobe or closet to crawl into. Not that he’d actually considered hiding in a wardrobe. Even Fraser and Kyle weren’t that stupid. A wardrobe or closet would be the first thing they’d check. In one of the larger downstairs rooms Stevie had a bit of a fright, for when he opened the door he thought he saw two enormous yellow eyes staring back at him. Telling himself it couldn’t possibly be a person but had to be some kind of animal that got in through a small opening somewhere, he stepped reluctantly into the old drawing room and looked anxiously around.
The bulging eyes turned out to be quite harmless. They belonged to a strange mask or gargoyle that sat above an enormous black marble and cast-iron fireplace. Relieved, Stevie laughed out loud, but then checked himself when he got closer, for he found the gargoyle or mask wasn’t funny at all.
Two yellow eyes, round and unblinking, protruded from a wild and terrible face. The artist or whoever had fashioned the cast-iron mantelpiece, had coaxed out every detail with his moulding, for the iron showed each single hair of the creature’s bushy eyebrows which bristled angrily above its cruel eyes; the pointy chin and sunken cheeks were badly shaven and showed traces of an unsightly stubble. Upon closer inspection the eyes seemed to be made from semi-precious stones, perhaps amber, opal or topaz, for even the tiniest fragment of light in the room set them ablaze. A long and narrow ridge of a nose ran in the middle of this frightening mask and ended in flared nostrils. Below it was perhaps the worst of all, two thin lips drawn back over a row of razor sharp teeth that looked as if they belonged into the mouth of a barracuda or shark but not into the face of a man. If the artist had intended to make the man a smiling, friendly gargoyle he hadn’t succeeded. Rather, one got the impression this was a creature enjoying a very private merriment that didn’t bode well for the on-looker. One could practically hear the horrible creature rub his hands together and laugh while he planned to rip out one’s throat.
But was it a man’s face? On either side of the mask there were two slightly pointed ears with fat long earlobes framing the elongated chin that sat between them. Tucked back behind those unpleasant bat-ears was a mass of curly hair. Again the artist had managed to convey a most life-like appearance of hair caught in the act of movement, for looking at the gargoyle one had the feeling he was about to escape from the wall, with his locks fluttering ever so slightly in the air. Taking two or three steps back to gain a better perspective, Stevie realised for the first time that the face was not all there was to this creature. What at first glance had looked like any other mantelpiece now took on a more peculiar, even sinister aspect for the gargoyle’s face sat above a short broad neck and its rounded shoulders and inflated chest formed the mantelpiece’s shelf. On either side of the fireplace lay the gargoyle-man’s arms, ending in long, slender hands that lay flat against the wall, giving the whole fireplace the appearance of a short fat man spreading out a dark cloak while stepping into the room. At the bottom, where the crate and firedogs stood, the artist had teased a set of boots out of the iron; their toes were curled up- and inwards in an outrageous medieval fashion and had probably been used by the previous householders to roast apples in winter, for they seemed just right for such a use.
Stevie shuddered. Why would anyone have such an ugly and rather creepy fireplace in their house? Fancy sitting all comfortable and warm in your armchair and waking up to that on a cold winter’s evening! He hurriedly left the room and shut the door, but as he did so, he felt that those yellow eyes had followed him out of the room. A central staircase in the entrance hall led to bedrooms on the upper floors. He was just wondering if he should risk tiptoeing across the hall and up the stairs to find a hiding place in one of the bedrooms, when he heard Fraser and Kyle rattle the front door handle. When the hammering and rattling ceased, he knew they were making their way around the house to the rear, just as he had done moments earlier. As expected, they were soon banging the back door with their fists.
How long before they’d be able to find a way in?
Desperate to get away, but at the same time curious of what further mysteries the house held in store for him, Stevie opened what he believed to be a tiny cupboard door under the main staircase. He knew from all his previous house moves people never bothered to clear out hall cupboards when they left, so with a bit of luck there’d still be so much junk under the stairs, he’d be able to hide quite easily among it. He had to crouch down before he could crawl through the opening. What use was such a stair cupboard, when the door was barely big enough for a 3-year-old, he wondered? He was even more puzzled when he discovered it wasn’t a cupboard at all. He found himself more sitting than standing on a small platform from which a narrow set of stairs led down to a cellar, an incredible rarity in the South of England.
He found a light switch to his right and tried it, but there was no electricity. The walls felt damp beneath his finger tips and once or twice he withdrew his hand in disgust, having made contact with something that probably answered to the name of Slug.
Feeling his way down, Stevie was about to reach the foot of the stairs, when the sound of breaking glass from upstairs caught him by surprise. Fraser and Kyle had found an unlocked cast-iron grill and were smashing in a window! Desperate now, Stevie looked around the cellar. He stood in a large, dusty room that had a vaulted ceiling and a floor covered in worn flagstones. The cellar was stacked high with rusty garden furniture and ancient trunks and wooden crates that sat along three walls, but he couldn’t see anything that would hide him for long. With a sigh of relief he finally spotted a small window higher up on the fourth wall, half hidden behind an old pine bookshelf; he put his shoulder to the bookshelf and pushed really hard until the pine bottom of it began to squeal and it finally began to slide, bumping and grinding, across the flagstones.
The window pane he had revealed by this action was grimy and covered in cob webs. He couldn’t quite reach, so he had to search for a makeshift ladder. He discovered a pile of old garden chairs and dragged one out by its rusty legs. He propped the thing against the wall and climbed up. Stevie had just managed to prize the window open, when the chair under him collapsed in a cloud of red rust. He tumbled to the ground and cursed, for his elbow made painful contact with a hard object hidden in layers of dust covering the floor. Rubbing his elbow, he scrambled up and sneezed. Footsteps from upstairs made him hastily look around for a better ladder. He found a wooden deckchair and dragged that under the window; releasing its mechanism took some effort, for the wooden frame was made from mahogany, a dark wood that is very heavy. Unfolding such a heavy chair was fiendishly difficult; turning it upright took whatever strength he had left.
Upstairs doors were being torn open and banged shut again; heavy footfall on the hall stair case made him relax a little. They were searching the upper floors for him!
“I wish you a long and fruitless search, my friends,” Stevie muttered under his breath and opened a dirty crate to his left.
Secure in the knowledge that he had bought himself a little time, Stevie looked around more closely now, hoping that he’d find some kind of weapon; perhaps he’d discover an old games box with hockey sticks or cricket bats. Even a battered old tennis rack would do. The thought of whacking Fraser over the head with it and wiping the smug grin off Kyle’s face cheered him up enormously and he began to open crate after dusty crate. Late afternoon sun was now streaming in through the open window, making it easier for him to find his way around. When he disturbed the slumber of an old leather trunk that had faded railway labels with destinations like “Inverness”, “Chepstow” and “Broadstairs” plastered all over it, a couple of moths appeared in a puff of dust and fluttered up into the light. The trunk contained nothing but ancient moth-eaten clothes and a few shoes whose leather was so brittle that they crumbled to smithereens under Stevie’s fingertips. There was clearly nothing useful in the trunk so he let the lid fall and its clasp snapped back to the lock with a husky cough.
He watched the moths drift towards the window, where their brown and cream wings mingled with silvery specks of dust to create a charming ballet. The moths were still floating on the warm rays of the sun when out of the corner of his eye he caught something glittering on the floor on the very spot where his fall had disturbed the layers of dust earlier. At first it was just a narrow slit, like the eye of a crocodile opening in murky waters. He stared hard at the sliver of light and caught his breath. Slowly, the eye opened until it became a bright golden orb staring back at him. It blinked a couple of times, while its centre filled with amber and golden flecks until it was glowing, a miniscule fire in a desert of dust.
At that very moment Stevie heard Fraser and Kyle yank open the little door that led to the cellar. Moments later, his tormentors were pelting down the stairs. Stevie couldn’t bear to leave the beautiful orb behind. He pounced on the thing, picked it up and stuffed it into his pocket. Not a moment too soon, for Fraser’s red face had appeared at the foot of the stairs; briefly wondering how on earth Fraser had managed to squeeze through the toddler-sized door upstairs, Stevie jumped onto his deck-chair ladder and hoisted himself up. He rested his knees on the windowsill and was half way through the cellar window, when someone grabbed his right ankle and tried to pull him back.
He was yanked downwards and completely winded, when his chest hit the window frame. He would have loved to give Fraser a good kicking with his free leg, but he didn’t have the energy, for he had to use all his strength to hold onto the window frame or be fully dragged back into the cellar. Stevie cursed, stretched out an arm as far as it would go and managed to grab hold of a wheelbarrow someone had parked in front of the cellar window. It was heavy and seemed full of water, for when he grasped its front wheel to stop himself from being lugged back into the cellar, the motion stirred up an unpleasant aroma of leaf mulch and dead worms. Unless he could kick free and pull away from the window, he’d be as doomed as those worms; holding on tightly to the front wheel, he used his last strength to drag himself out into the garden.
If only those stupid boys would rot like the stinking worms in their watery grave!
A strange tingling sensation in Stevie’s pocket compelled him to let go off the wheelbarrow. Startled, Stevie reached into his pocket. Even stronger than his desire to rid himself of the two pests squeezing his ankles was his wish to see the orb again. He managed to pull the orb out of his pocket with one hand while holding onto the window frame with the other and brought the orb up to his eye level. The crystal lay warm and smooth in the palm of his hand; it was slightly flattened on one side, like a paperweight. The orb was no longer bright and glittering but glowing darkly with sparks going off inside like a miniscule firework display in red, gold and green.
Before he could take a closer look, he felt a sharp pain shooting up his body. Stevie wriggled until he caught sight of Fraser’s round face– the boy was grinning from ear to ear. Kyle stood next to him, wielding a pocket knife. He was about to stab Stevie’s other ankle. Blood was already gushing down Stevie’s sock and began to soak his once white trainer. The blood stain would give rise to yet another argument with his mother and he had no doubt that when she saw the state he was in, there would be no dinner party, let alone birthday cake.
He gritted his teeth and tried tearing free, but it was no use. Fraser’s hands were clamped around his ankles like iron shackles. Stevie could feel Kyle’s knife making another incision just above Stevie’s other sock.
Stevie managed to turn around and caught a glimpse of Kyle’s grinning face.
Furious now, Stevie yelled: “I wished you’d both go to hell, along with this rotten old house and everything in it!”
With his last strength Stevie kicked backwards so forcefully that Kyle and Fraser crash-landed on their behinds amid a cloud of dust. At that very moment the orb in his hand performed a happy little dance – not unlike an impatient mobile phone about to disgorge a message. He gawped at the peculiar object in his palm and realised the crocodile eye widened and looked straight back at him. Now the fireworks inside the orb went into overdrive and glowed so brightly that the light hurt his eyes and the heat of the crystal burned so fiercely that the orb began to sear the skin of his palm. With a howl of pain Stevie hurled the orb away and it rolled, a miniature sun by now, under the wheelbarrow. Dimmed by the wheelbarrow’s shadow, the eye gave him a final malevolent stare before closing its lid and turning off the fireworks. He was sucked out of the window and thrown into the backyard, where he fell headlong into a yew hedge. When he came up for air the old house had gone.
No Fraser, no Kyle, no musty old house. Poof!
That’s the beginning of the book. As you have probably guessed, the cover illustration for the first adventure in this new series was done by Sarah Chipperfield.
Soon Stevie teams up with the mysterious Hamish Fensterlein, a house detective with quite a few unusual tricks up his sleeve…actually, they’re more down his umbrella, but you need to wait a little while to find out how that’s done…I’m about 3/4 through the first draft.