The Case of the Vanished Sea Dragon (4 page)

‘Valuable and expensive,' replied Mr Buchanan, inspecting another mini fishcake before thinking better of it and placing it back on the tray.

‘Should I call you?' asked Mr Bigsby.

‘No, I'll call you tomorrow. Please, don't disappoint me, Malcolm.'

Holly shut her eye again as Mr Buchanan opened the door and both men passed her. She heard Mr Buchanan thank Big Hair for the delicious food and leave.

Dad and Big Hair came back into the room.

‘Well? What did he say? Did he offer you a position?' she asked.

‘Yes.'

‘That's excellent,' she squealed. ‘You've accepted, of course.'

‘I've said I'll think about it.'

‘What's to think about? Oh, I see, you don't want to
seem too keen; make it seem like you've got other offers to consider. Very clever. You'll accept it, of course. Don't leave it too long; I don't think Mr Buchanan is used to waiting for anything. That's such good news. Now you'll have a decent income again we can get that new carpet.'

She picked up the tray of food and took it to the kitchen. Holly's dad followed her in.

Holly reappeared and ran upstairs to the phone on the landing. She picked up the receiver and dialled Dirk's number.

Chapter Six

Dirk yanked the television plug out of the socket with his tail. The rock band stopped rocking, the banging from next door stopped banging, Mrs Klingerflim stopped shouting and Alba stopped screaming. He picked up the ringing phone.

‘The Dragon Detective Agency,' he said, catching his breath. ‘Dirk Dilly speaking. How can I help you?'

‘It's me …'

It was Holly's voice, but he couldn't hear what she said next because Alba spoke over her, saying, ‘I have been telling you, already. I want you to help finding my sister.'

‘I'm not speaking to you,' said Dirk to Alba, causing
the Sea Dragon to lower her head apologetically.

‘What have I done?' said Holly, thinking he meant her.

‘Not you,' replied Dirk.

‘Then you will help me?' said Alba.

‘Dirk, I need your help,' said Holly.

‘No, I won't help you,' replied Dirk, again speaking to Alba.

‘Why? What's wrong?' said Holly.

‘You are very indecisive,' said Alba.

‘Look, can I call you back?' he said into the phone, turning away from Alba.

‘What's going on?' asked Holly.

‘Why do you want to call me Back?' asked Alba. ‘My name is Alba.'

‘Nothing. I'll call you back,' said Dirk, hanging up.

‘OK, I let you call me Back if you promise to help me,' said the Sea Dragon.

‘Haven't you ever heard of a phone?' asked Dirk.

‘Afone?' repeated Alba. ‘I have not heard of Afone. Is this another of your crunchy-shelled humano foodstuffs?'

‘Never mind. You have to go,' said Dirk, picking up the broken TV and placing it back on the filing
cabinet. ‘You've caused enough damage for one day.'

‘But I will not go without you,' she replied. ‘I need your help. I need the help of the great Mr Dirk Dilly, dragon detective.'

‘How do you know about me anyway?' asked Dirk, turning on her. ‘How do you know where I live?'

‘The Shade-Hugger said not to say … oops,' she said, clasping a paw to her mouth.

‘What Shade …' Dirk stopped mid-sentence. ‘Karny.'

‘Captain Karnataka,' corrected Alba.

Dirk sighed. His old friend Karnataka was the most corrupt dragon he had ever met. He was a swindler, a con-artist and a thief. His most daring feat had been to steal the Council's Welsh gold reserves from under their noses, so it was ironic that the Council had since seen fit to elect him Captain of Dragnet, the dragon police force. At least his appointment was a marginal improvement on the previous captains, the yellow-backed Scavenger brothers, Leon and Mali, whose real allegiances lay with the mysterious Kinghorn leader, Vainclaw Grandin.

The question that bothered Dirk right now was why Karnataka would pass on his details to this Sea Dragon.

‘I can't help you,' he said. ‘I've already got a case on the go.'

‘But if I do not find my sister, I do not know what I will do …' Alba broke off and burst into a howling wail.

The banging from next door started again.

‘Oi, stop that bleeding racket, before I come round and give you an extreme close-up of my fist,' yelled the neighbour.

‘Mr Dilly, the neighbours are complaining again,' shouted Mrs Klingerflim.

‘All right,' Dirk said through gritted teeth. ‘I don't seem to have any choice but to help you.'

Alba stopped making the noise.

‘Are you talking to Afone or me?'

‘You.'

‘So you will help me find my sister?'

‘Yes,' said Dirk, thinking that of all the bad ideas he had had in his life, this was the worst. Worse even than the time he decided to mix his favourite foods together, only to discover that the cocktail of orange squash, baked beans and toothpaste made him so violently sick that he set light to the carpet.

‘Thank you. Thank you, Mr Dirk. I know you'll be able to find Delfina,' exclaimed Alba, hugging him.

Dirk staggered back, slipped on a plastic orange-squash bottle, and they both crashed to the floor.

‘Is everything all right?' asked Mrs Klingerflim.

‘Fine, Mrs K,' shouted Dirk, pushing Alba off. ‘Get off me,' he growled.

‘When do we start?' she asked.

‘No time like the present.' Dirk scribbled a note for Mrs K and opened the window. ‘Where were you supposed to be meeting your sister?'

‘In Spain, where she is living.'

‘OK, follow me.' He checked the street below and leapt out of the window to the roof across the road. Alba followed.

‘Stay close,' he said, jumping to the next building. ‘Do as I do. Don't let anyone see you.'

‘I am as quiet as the dormouses from now on,' replied Alba, stepping on a loose tile and sending it sliding off the roof, smashing on the pavement.

‘Come on,' said Dirk.

‘Which way?' asked Alba.

‘Up,' said Dirk, flapping his wings, taking to the sky.

Flying was risky but there was less danger of being seen at night, and Dirk was keen to get Alba out of London as soon as possible.

In fact, of the seven and a half million people in
London who could have looked up at that precise moment, the only person who did was an overweight advertising executive who, at the time, was lying on a park bench wearing a tracksuit, panting heavily. His wife had ordered him to give up chips and ice cream and take up jogging instead but, halfway round the park, he had collapsed on to the bench, exhausted and starving. Seeing the two dragon-shaped shadows in the sky he decided it must have been a side-effect of all this physical exertion, so he got off the bench and walked home, via the chip shop.

‘It looks prettier from up here,' exclaimed Alba.

Dirk looked down at the twinkling lights of the city. London was at its best at night, with all of its ugly bits hidden by darkness. It reminded him that for all the bad human traits that his job brought him into contact with — the lying, betrayal, mistrust and deceit — what really made London remarkable was so many humans wanting to live in the same place. Dragons weren't like that. They lived lonely lives in remote places. They didn't have friends and they rarely stayed in touch with their families. Alba's concern over her sister wasn't typical. Dragons were abandoned by their mothers at an early age and often lost contact with their siblings altogether. It wasn't in their nature to
look after each other, like it was with humans. Dirk had no family. Even if his mother hadn't been killed many years ago he was unlikely to have ever seen her again.

‘I have heard some things about this humano settlement you live in. What is the Big Bean?' asked Alba, looking down.

‘Big Ben,' corrected Dirk, pointing it out.

‘And which is the Towel of London?'

‘The
Tower
of London is over there,' he answered patiently.

‘And where is a place called Old Ford Street?'

‘You mean Oxford Street, and do I look like a tour guide? Enough questions,' snapped Dirk, flying into a thick layer of cloud.

For a moment they were in utter darkness, then they broke through the top into the clear night sky. The stars seemed brighter than usual and the moonlight painted the top of the clouds white, making them look like a luxurious quilt.

‘Where exactly in Spain were you supposed to be meeting your sister?' asked Dirk.

‘In the mountains, the Picos de Europa.'

‘Then that's where we'll start looking for her.'

‘But I am already telling you. She is not there.'

‘Listen, Alba, if you want my help you'll do as I tell you, OK?'

‘You are the boss, Mr Dirk,' she replied.

‘Just Dirk,' he snarled. ‘And yes, I am the boss.'

Chapter Seven

For several hours Dirk and Alba headed south, above the clouds, occasionally ducking or swerving to avoid aeroplanes. As they flew over the English Channel and Europe, Alba spoke incessantly but, to Dirk's relief the rushing wind carried her words away unheard. Dirk thought about Holly, remembering his promise to call her back. He felt bad. She had sounded like she needed his help. He resolved to call her as soon as he got the chance.

He hadn't flown so far in years and soon his wings grew tired. Instead of flapping them he tried catching rising air currents, which felt warm against his soft green underbelly.

Eventually, with the sun rising, and the sky growing lighter, Alba announced, ‘She lives down here.'

Dirk flew down into the thinner part of the cloud. Below him was a rugged mountainous landscape where a cable-car ride took tourists up the rock face to take photos of the spectacular view. Luckily, being so early in the morning there were no tourists to take pictures of the two dragons swooping down from the sky.

Dirk and Alba landed on a mountainside by a stream. Dirk breathed in the thin early morning air. It felt fresh and cool. He surveyed the limestone valley. Living in London it was easy to forget that the world wasn't entirely crawling with human beings. Humans crammed themselves into the smallest of spaces, huddled together like scared animals, leaving vast areas like this uninhabited.

Alba pointed at a cave, halfway up a rock face, impossible to reach by foot. ‘That is where she lives.'

‘What's a Sea Dragon doing making her home so far from the sea?' asked Dirk.

Alba looked down, embarrassed. ‘Delfina is …' she started. ‘She's never been happy in the water … she was never a good swimmer …'

‘Are you trying to say that she's a hard-back?'

Alba nodded sheepishly.

A hard-back was what Sea Dragons called other Sea Dragons who were scared of the water and whose backs had hardened after too much time on land. A few days back in the water and the skin would soften again, but their fear of water prevented them from returning to the ocean. Having a hard-back in the family was considered very shameful amongst other Sea Dragons.

Personally, Dirk had never seen what the big problem was. He was a Mountain Dragon but he hadn't lived anywhere near a mountain for years. His ability to blend was supposed to enable him to hide in the expansive mountainous landscapes, not the rooftops of London, but he had chosen the city life just as Alba's sister had chosen to shun the sea.

Alba spread her wings and flew to the cave, followed closely by Dirk.

The cave was larger than it had appeared from the valley. It was damp and shadowy. Dirk opened his mouth and breathed fire. His flame caught a pile of branches in the corner, setting them alight and filling the cave with flickering orange light.

‘You see, Mr Dirk, she is not here,' said Alba. ‘She has gone.'

‘What's this?' said Dirk, looking at a line of grey powder on the cave floor.

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