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Authors: Helen Oghenegweke

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BOOK: The Amphiblets
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10
A Spellbound Audience

 

‘Huh?’ said Will, scratching his head and turning around. ‘Where did she go?’

‘Who?’ asked Professor Snipes, glancing around him.

‘The girl who was here?’

Professor Snipes frowned. ‘This is no time to be making up silly stories.’

‘I’m not!’ insisted Will, angrily.

Riley nudged him in the ribs. ‘Joke’s over,’ he said, warning Will to drop the subject.

Will was fuming. Why didn’t Riley and Ed back him up? In that instant, he felt betrayed. He turned around and half expected to see Ruby’s leg sticking out from behind the leather chair.

‘Well, let’s not have this spoil our night,’ said the Professor. ‘You can undress here before we go any further.’

Wondering whether Ruby was watching them from her secret hiding place, the boys shyly undressed down to their swimming trunks, before following the Professor through to the back of the house and then outside through the sliding patio doors. One of the first things they noticed, apart from a white marquee, was the sound of many voices talking at once. The boys stepped across the lawn, glancing at one another, all equally anxious. They stepped on to a stage, where a curtain shielded them from the view of the audience.

‘Now remember. Don’t be shy,’ said the Professor. ‘Just be yourselves.’

‘It’s easy for him to say,’ muttered Will, under his breath.

‘But I’m always shy when I’m being myself,’ announced Ed, nervously.

Will grabbed his arm and smiled at him. ‘Pretend you’re someone else then,’ he whispered.

‘I’ll try,’ replied Ed.

The Professor disappeared behind the curtain. The crowd immediately hushed.

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, I welcome you here tonight to show you my three children who suffer from a rare genetic disorder, which I will explain to you in more detail after their demonstration. They have kindly agreed to show you their gifts, but are all feeling extremely anxious, so please give them a round of applause and help them to feel more at ease.’

Clapping started and became louder with every second.

As soon as the curtains opened, Ed felt his legs wavering, Riley felt himself becoming rigid like a statue, whereas Will widened his eyes in surprise. They had never seen so many people before.

At first there was an uncomfortable silence; whether the audience was pleasantly surprised or deep in shock it was hard to tell. This was followed swiftly by another almighty round of applause. The boys took deep breaths; their stomachs lurched as if they were on a rollercoaster.

‘These are my children.’ The Professor’s voice was loud and clear as he spoke into a microphone. He pointed to each of the triplets in turn as he said their names. ‘Meet Riley – Ed – and Will.’

The introduction was brief, and while the Professor was talking the boys stood rigid as soldiers while they took in the surroundings. Fifty well-dressed people who had been previously seated were now standing up and applauding enthusiastically, as if the triplets were pop stars. The Professor stood to their left at the front of the stage, elated. Ed was taking particular interest for he was hoping to reproduce the scenes in one of his drawings in the future.

The audience gradually resumed their seats and quietened.

At that moment, Will spotted Ruby at the back of the marquee, hiding behind a chair. He smiled. She seemed as adventurous and daring as he was.

‘Before I tell you the details of my children’s genetic disorder, which – and I’m sure you all will all agree – is actually a gift, I would like to show you what they are capable of. What they are about to show you is nothing short of miraculous, yet their abilities are skills they, themselves would consider ordinary and simple everyday things. Hugo, would you please open the jar?’

Hugo was seated on a wooden chair behind the Professor, wearing his best clothes, which were several inches too short above his wrists and ankles. He began to unscrew the lid of a jar that he had been holding in his lap, when someone called in the audience.

‘Did you experiment on him too?’

There was some sniggering but the Professor stepped forward and shouted into the microphone, ‘Who said that?’

The audience fell so silent you could hear a pin drop. Suddenly, two men dressed in black, who had been previously hidden, dashed into the middle of the audience and took hold of a gaunt man, who, before he could say anything else, had a hand suddenly clamped over his mouth. He was brutally dragged away, leaving the audience shaken.

‘I’m sorry you had to witness that. I’m not sure how he got in here,’ said the Professor clearly shaken.

‘What do you think that man meant?’ whispered Will.

Ed and Riley shrugged and frowned.

‘Anyway, where were we before we were so rudely interrupted? Ah, yes! Trapped inside the jar are some ordinary horse flies. They can give a nasty bite but let’s see how the Amphiblets deal with such pests.’

Hugo opened the lid close to the boys, who then did the most remarkable thing. Long thin, sticky tongues appeared from their mouths, moving with lightning speed. They each caught one of the flies and swallowed them whole.

There were gasps in the audience, followed by murmurs of excited conversation. Several hands shot up in the air, their owners eager to speak.

‘I know you must have many questions but please save them for later,’ said the Professor. The hands were lowered again. ‘Next I would like to demonstrate to you their uncanny ability to predict the weather. They can give an accurate reading for any day in the week ahead. Would anyone care to know what the weather will be like in this region during the coming week?’

More hands shot up. The Professor chose a man seated in the front row, wearing a waistcoat with a pocket watch on the end of a long chain.

In a refined voice he said,’ Yes, I would like to know what the weather will be like in this district on Thursday evening at precisely two minutes past four.’

There was laughter in the crowd.

‘Two minutes past four,’ someone shouted. ‘Are you sure it’s not three minutes past four?’

This caused more amusement. As the laughter died down the boys turned to one another, wondering who should respond, since they all knew the answer.

It was Will who spoke. ‘It will be a rather warm evening although it will rain at four forty-five.’

‘But of course we only have your word to go on,’ said the man.

‘Take note of what the child says and see for yourself,’ said the Professor, grinning broadly. ‘Anyone else have a request?’

This time the Professor singled out a woman wearing red-framed glasses and with her dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. ‘I’m going to a wedding on Saturday. Could you tell me what the day will be like, say, from eleven to three?’

This time Riley answered the question. ‘It will generally be fine but there will be a heavy shower for about fifteen minutes starting at twelve midday. After that the sun will shine and things will soon dry out.’

‘I was told that it would be fine all day,’ challenged the woman, making it clear she doubted Riley’s prediction.

‘And how often do the weather forecasters get it right?’ laughed the Professor. ‘If I were you, I’d take my umbrella. Ever since the children have been predicting the weather, they have never once got it wrong!’

There was further chatter until the Professor began speaking once more.

‘And now for the third demonstration. The children will step from the stage to lie on the grass over there,’ said the Professor, pointing to an area towards the back of the marquee.

The announcement caused widespread puzzlement as the guests wondered what would happen next. The children followed Hugo down the aisle through the audience. The giant’s presence was reassuring to the triplets. As they made their way, the Professor’s voice boomed over the speakers.

‘The children often love to play a game that you have probably heard of before – hide and seek.’

There was laughter and nodding again from the crowd.

‘But their game of hide and seek is very different to the one we grew up playing. Let them show you. Ed, please step forward and turn away from your brothers. I want you to count to ten while your brothers hide.’

Ed did as he was told and began to count. ‘One … two.’

As he did so, the audience was astonished when the two other boys appeared to vanish in front of their eyes. Only their swimming trunks remained visible.

The crowd gasped in awe.

‘Nine … ten,’ said Ed. ‘I’m coming – ready or not.’

Ed turned round and laughed. ‘I can see them.’ He marched straight ahead and secured a grip on his brothers’ arms. As they stepped away from their surroundings it was apparent that their skin could camouflage itself with their background. In less than two seconds they reverted to normal. 

‘It’s unbelievable!’ came the whispers.

‘Incredible!’

‘Magnificent!’

The fourth task was far more fun for Will. They all had to go outside for this demonstration. Hugo threw a ball on to the roof of Professor Kyle’s three-storey house and Will was asked to retrieve it. The boy leapt towards the wall and magically clung to it, racing up the surface as if he were crawling along the ground rather than climbing vertically upwards. It should not have been humanly possible to climb the wall but Will was doing it, his hands and feet using no visible support to haul himself up.

Several women in the crowd gave short gasps of panic for his safety.

Will had nerves of steel and he climbed on to the roof as easily as if he had been asked to take his plate into the kitchen after dinner. Coming down was much more thrilling: Will leapt off the roof and threw himself through the air, straight towards a stunned audience.

‘Wheee!’ he yelled happily, in the thrill of flight, before landing neatly on his feet and throwing the ball back to Hugo.

‘Shall I do it again?’ he asked, much to the surprise of the audience.

The Professor smiled. ‘No.’

Then the Professor gave Riley the opportunity to do something he enjoyed – to mend a broken computer. Riley squatted next to the hard drive and took a brief moment to look at the dismantled equipment before getting to work. His hands moved quickly and accurately as he discarded certain materials and began to fix and connect others. Before the audience knew it, and in less than ten minutes, Riley had completed the task and had the computer fully restored.

Ed’s task was to draw a sketch of the audience. The Professor told him to turn around while he asked the guests to move and sit in different places, to confuse him when it came to drawing his masterpiece.

When the audience had finished swapping places the Professor asked Ed to draw exactly where they had been before they moved. Within minutes, Ed had drawn a quick sketch of the fifty guests as they were before they had changed their seats. Groups of five people at a time were invited to come up to the stage to view the drawing.

‘Look! He’s drawn you picking your nose,’ said one man to another.

‘I wasn’t!’ the man insisted, turning a bright shade of red.

‘He was,’ Ed told Will, who laughed loudly.

The guests exclaimed their astonishment. The Professor was smiling like a Cheshire cat who had licked the cream off the top of the milk.

The last task was one the boys enjoyed most – swimming. The pool was thirty metres long and sparkling blue – unlike the dirty river at home where the boys had grown up swimming. The audience stood around the outside of the pool as the triplets showed them all how fast they could swim with their webbed fingers and toes. It was staggering. The boys, at the age of eight, were swimming faster than any Olympic champion. Not only that, but they could swim underwater for twenty minutes without coming up for air.  

Altogether, it had been an incredible event to witness. The audience was bursting with questions but the Professor refused to answer any until the children had been taken back into the house to change and get warm. He asked Hugo to go with them and not to leave their side, while he would describe to the spectators the triplets’ development from birth until the present day. This was now the Professor’s time and Hugo and the boys were not required. Besides, the Professor still had things to tell the audience that the boys didn’t know, concerning the circumstances of their birth. Hugo knew of their mother but the Professor had given him strict instructions never to mention her. Over time, it appeared that Hugo had forgotten all about it, but the Professor didn’t dare raise the subject he case he was wrong. 

11
Which One?

 

 

It was an hour later when the boys and Hugo returned to the study. Professor Kyle provided them with towels and a snack of an apple, two crackers and two chocolate biscuits each. They half expected to see Ruby waiting for them but a brief search made it clear that she had not been back to the room after watching the performance. Will had been the only one who had spotted her while they had been on stage.

She must still be outside, concluded Will, who was disappointed not to see her again.

‘You were all great!’ said Hugo, in his slow manner. ‘I could tell that the Professor thought so too.’

‘Thanks, Hugo,’ said Will leaping on to his lap and giving him a cuddle. ‘You’re the best. Do you know that?’

‘Yeah,’ smiled Hugo, who had always got on well with Will.

Then, spotting the same cloth covering another bulky object, Will leapt from Hugo’s lap on to the floor to investigate. Curious to what it could be, Will lifted the sheet to discover a strange table covered in green velvet.

‘What is it?’ asked Will, stroking his hand across the surface.

Hugo shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’

Riley came over and studied the object for a brief moment before saying; ‘It’s a pool table. I’ve seen them on the internet. It’s a game where two people compete to get the highest score.’ He proceeded to describe the rules of the game and how many points each colour ball was worth.

‘Anyone fancy a game?’ asked Will, picking up the cues from the table.

‘Okay,’ said Ed, taking a cue from Will and wondering what to do with it.

‘Did you two happen to notice a man sitting at the back of the audience by any chance?’ asked Riley.

‘There were loads of men,’ said Will, who was busy placing the balls in a random sequence within the confines of a black triangle, until Riley intervened and put them in the correct order.

‘He was wearing black sunglasses and gloves,’ Riley went on.

Ed closed his eyes and reopened them. ‘I recall seeing someone like that. Why?’

‘He was staring at us the whole time. He was sitting next to a woman and was speaking with her,’ explained Riley.

‘I didn’t notice anything,’ said Will, who was leaning over the table and resting the cue across his arm, until Riley corrected his technique and positioned the stick between his first two fingers.

‘It won’t slip then,’ Riley explained.

‘The reason you didn’t notice anything,’ said Ed to Will, ‘was because you were probably still thinking of Ruby.’ He laughed. ‘Perhaps your eyes were filled with love hearts.’

‘Shut up!’ scowled Will, turning a bright shade of red.

‘Who’s Ruby?’ asked Hugo.

‘A girl who was in here earlier,’ said Ed, turning back to Riley. ‘Anyway, what’s so special about this man? Loads of people were looking at us.’

‘I know that,’ said Riley. ‘But there was something different about him.’

‘Yes!’ cried Will gleefully, having managed to knock a ball into one of the holes. ‘I did it!’

‘What you actually did was knock the white one in the pocket,’ remarked Riley. ‘It doesn’t count.’

Will rolled his eyes. ‘This game is so stupid!’

‘And I need the toilet,’ said Riley, leaving the room and his brothers behind.

‘But we’ve got to wait here,’ said Ed.

‘If he needs to go, he needs to go,’ said Will, rolling his eyes. ‘Don’t be long.’

Ten minutes later, Riley returned, preoccupied. He didn’t speak to anyone but went to the window and stood there for ages, deep in thought.

It was two and a half hours later before the Professor had finished speaking to his guests. Having had such a wonderful time the boys were reluctant to leave the cosy, clean home and would have willingly exchanged it for their own dirty hovel.

‘You must all come again, soon,’ said Professor Kyle merrily, whilst keeping a nervous eye on Hugo to make sure there was enough distance between himself and the giant.

‘Indeed, we will,’ smiled the Professor.

Before he entered the car, Riley had the strangest feeling that they were being watched. He spun round. At the corner of the house, he noticed a man who was watching them from behind black sunglasses. It’s him again, thought Riley, who turned to his father, only to see him staring scornfully at the stranger. There was no doubt he had seen the man too and the way he reacted made it clear to Riley that they did not like each other. This increased Riley’s curiosity as to the identity of the stranger.

‘Did you boys have a good time?’ asked the Professor.

‘It was great!’ said Will, recalling his gigantic jump from the top of the house.

‘It was brilliant,’ said Ed, who was remembering how everyone had been astounded by his drawing.

‘Yeah, it was good,’ replied Riley, deciding to satisfy his curiosity by asking his father a question that had been puzzling him. ‘Dad, who was that man sitting at the back of the marquee?’

‘Which one? There were quite a few.’

‘The one wearing the sunglasses and gloves.’

‘Oh, him,’ said the Professor. ‘Strange chap, wasn’t he?’

‘Yes, but who was he?’

‘I’m not sure.’

‘But I thought you invited all the guests. Surely you knew him.’ Riley was convinced that he did. ‘I thought you were arguing with him earlier on.’

‘What?’

‘When I went to the toilet I saw you both arguing.’

‘Arguing? What, me? No, I never did! He was a friend of Professor Kyle’s. My, my … what lovely weather we had today. Weren’t we lucky that everything went so well for us.’

The sudden change in the conversation made Riley realise something suspicious was going on, but he had no idea what. He also knew that he would get no further questioning his father, who was obviously hiding something.

While the Professor chattered with Hugo in the front of the car, Will, who was sitting next to the door, leaned over towards his brothers. Keeping his voice low, he said; ‘Who do you think that girl was?’

‘You just said it.’ Ed was sitting next to Will and looked at him as if he was stupid. ‘A girl. And in case you’ve forgotten – her name was Ruby.’

‘She was the daughter of someone who had been invited to watch us,’ said Riley. ‘She told us that herself.’

‘She was nice though, wasn’t she?’ whispered Will.

Riley and Ed groaned.

‘I wonder if we will see her again,’ said Will, dreamily.

After they had arrived home it was time for the boys to get ready for bed. Since they were so tired they each went to sleep without a bath. They were all glad to retreat to their separate bedrooms. Hugo took each of the boys a mug of hot chocolate and ended up in Will’s room.

‘Wow!’ smiled Will. ‘What’s the special occasion?’

‘The Professor wanted to give you something nice after what you did for him today.’

‘Thanks,’ said Will, sitting up in bed and accepting the hot drink. ‘Hugo, why do you never call the Professor our dad?’ he asked. ‘I mean, you could have said,  “Your dad wanted to give you something nice,” instead of “the Professor.”’

Hugo appeared flustered. ‘I don’t know.’ But of course he did. He still remembered the woman he had released from the cell after the Professor had forgotten her. She had been the boys’ real mother. He had always known the Professor was not their biological father.

Will continued to sip his drink.

‘What about your father, Hugo?’ asked Will. ‘I’ve never heard you speak of him.’

‘I never had a mother or father to speak of,’ said Hugo ‘I only remember the Professor caring for me.’

‘Hasn’t he ever told you anything about your parents?’

‘No,’ replied Hugo.

‘I feel dizzy,’ said Will after a while and, slumping his head back on his soft pillow, he closed his eyes.

Hugo lifted the empty mug from the boy’s hand and placed it on the tray. Unbeknown to Hugo and the boys, the drinks the Professor had made for them had been drugged and by the time they had drunk them they had all collapsed in their beds fast asleep.

‘They fell asleep quickly tonight,’ commented Hugo, when he arrived in the living room. There was an aroma of coffee that the Professor was slowly sipping and, beside his usual chair, Hugo noticed the Professor had also made him a drink.

‘You deserve one too,’ said the Professor, smiling.

Hugo sat on the opposite side of the room and relaxed while sipping his drink. The Professor mentioned the convention, while Hugo listened politely. Within a few minutes, the Professor noticed that Hugo was struggling to hold his eyes open and soon collapsed back on the chair with his head tilted to the side. The Professor acted quickly. He rose from his chair and headed upstairs into the bedroom of the boy’s, carrying an empty bag.

‘I’m sorry, but I have no choice,’ he apologised, although the sleeping child could not hear him.

Switching on the light, the Professor headed over to the chest of drawers in the corner of the room. Opening each drawer in turn, he chose a selection of clothes and personal items to pack. Once the bag was full, to the point where he couldn’t physically put anything else inside it, he went back downstairs, opened the front door and strode towards the car. He loaded the bag on to the front seat before going back for the boy.

Back upstairs he lifted the boy’s limp body from the bed and into his arms, holding the child tight, before carrying him downstairs and outside to the car, where he laid him on the back seat in what looked like a comfortable position. He looked at his watch; it was eleven thirty. He had half an hour to meet his buyer.

With everything organised, the Professor got into the car and turned the key. The engine roared with life as he slowly drove away. He travelled along winding country roads for twenty miles before taking a right turn into an obscure car park. The cold wind had increased, causing the branches of the trees to be tossed in every direction and the leaves to shake furiously, as if the weather itself was angry with the Professor’s actions.

In the far corner of the car park, he saw another car and nodded grimly, wondering how long the occupant had been waiting. He glanced at his watch; it was a minute past the hour. He wasn’t late. The Professor parked alongside the other car. The other driver was already standing outside to meet him.

‘Good evening, Professor. I’m pleased to see you kept your side of the bargain. I thought from our heated discussion earlier that you might have changed your mind.’ The man’s voice was courteous and he had a very powerful presence. His dark sunglasses hid his eyes and his body blended perfectly with the night since he was dressed all in black. ‘What a delightful performance you and Professor Kyle had arranged today. It was absolutely outstanding.’

‘Thank you,’ said the Professor curtly.

‘So whom did you decide to sell? The artist? The electronic genius? Or perhaps it was the flying stuntman? All of the children are incredibly gifted and worth their weight in gold.’

‘I know and I’ve written his full name and other details on a piece of paper inside this envelope.’ The Professor took a deep breath and handed the envelope over. He couldn’t quite believe he was going through with this. ‘It has everything you need to know. His favourite breakfast cereal, his favourite games…’

‘Yes, well thank you. I’m sure it will be most helpful,’ smiled the man, cutting off the Professor. ‘Anyway I’ve been waiting here long enough. I shall take him now.’

As the Professor opened the back of the car, the man’s lips broadened into a smile. ‘I had hoped it might be him. Was it an easy decision?’

‘What do you think?’ snarled the Professor. ‘I’ve raised the boys like my children.’

‘Yes, but they’re not yours, are they? You stole them from a woman and now you are selling one to me. I think you have come out of this deal extremely well, don’t you?’

The Professor glared hard at the man. ‘Look after him.’

‘Oh, I will,’ said the man. ‘As if he were my own.’

The Professor declined all offers of help to carry the chosen boy into the waiting car. He wanted to feel the warmth of the child’s skin in his arms one last time. His heart was breaking, under this terrible strain. But what choice did he have?

As soon as the boy was secured on the back seat and his bag placed in the boot, the man was ready to leave. ‘I’ll call you if I need you.’

The Professor nodded. ‘You have my number.’

As the car drove away the Professor’s stern expression faded and he collapsed where he was standing, falling hard on to his knees. He placed his hands over his face and wept. Why did I do it? Why? Couldn’t we have managed another way? But as the roar of the vehicle faded in the distance the Professor knew it was already too late. The trade was done. He had sold his ‘so-called’ son for a million pounds.

 

 

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