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Authors: Jennifer Bell

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BOOK: The Crooked Sixpence
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Seb's shoulders stiffened. ‘What do you mean?'

The coin was still warm, which was weird enough, but now Ivy felt another sensation, something she couldn't quite identify. It was like the difference between holding a stuffed toy cat and a real cat. It was the feeling of holding . . . life.

‘I mean . . .'

Something brushed at the edge of her hearing –
a voice
? She hesitated. No, she must be imagining it.

‘What I mean,' she said again, ‘is that Granma's coins didn't exactly appear out of thin air. And this one
did
.'

Just then a clatter sounded from somewhere at the front of the house.

Seb's head shot round. ‘What was that?'

Before Ivy could answer, the noise came again, followed by the rumble of voices.

They were not alone.

Chapter Four

Ivy's skin turned to ice. ‘What if that's them – the people who did this?'

Seb hurried towards the back door. ‘Let's not wait to find out.' He leaped over the remains of a china vase and shot through the patio doors into the garden. Ivy pushed the silver coin into her coat pocket and scrambled after him.

The rain sounded like a snare drum as it hit the flagstones. Ivy tried to keep her balance as she followed Seb round the corner and into the alley between the house and a neighbouring field. She wiped her eyes clumsily, completely forgetting that she had a hood.

‘Ivy, watch it!' Seb called.

She ground to a stop, arms flailing. Beside the toe of her wellington boot was a large brown hessian sack, the soil spilling out of it.
Granma Sylvie's potatoes.
Ivy winced. She'd grown them in that sack for ever. ‘Sorry,' she whispered.

Carefully she hopped over it and inched towards Seb, who was crouching down next to the garage at the front of the house. The rain chimed off its corrugated-iron roof, masking the sound of her footsteps. She tucked herself behind a section of dense yew hedge and angled her head till she could see. Her jaw dropped.

What the—?

In Granma Sylvie's drive stood a funeral coach, complete with four black horses. It was long and rectangular, with glass sides and a strip of ornate carving along the top. Every inch had been lacquered with ebony gloss which matched the head-feathers of the horses. Ivy had seen something like it only once before, on the way to school. Her mum had slowed to let it pass.
That
coach had been carrying a coffin. This one was empty.

No . . . wait.

Ivy squinted. It wasn't empty. Inside she could see a boy. His image was made fuzzy by the rain, but he had dark hair and cinnamon-brown skin. He was sitting with his knees up and his hands clasped around them, his head bent so Ivy couldn't see his face.

‘Seb!' she hissed, but his gaze was fixed elsewhere: on Granma Sylvie's doorstep. Ivy turned to see what was going on.

Standing beneath the porch were two men in matching black uniforms: a balding, red-faced fellow with a huge belly and, beside him, a tall lean figure with slicked-back hair, chalky skin and dark glasses. Both men wore ankle-length cloaks, gloves with gleaming silver studs across the knuckles and hats shaped like a pirate's tricorne.

‘Shall I use this now, sir?' the red-faced man asked. ‘Try to flush out anyone who might still be here?' In his hand was a large conch shell – one of the spiky, salt-encrusted ones you found on rocky beaches. When the other man didn't reply, he said, ‘Officer Smokehart, sir?'

The tall man turned towards him slowly, his chin raised. ‘Lower the shell,' he said. His voice sent chills shooting down the back of Ivy's neck. It sounded like a knife – vicious and cold. ‘If there's anyone inside, we don't want to give them time to escape. They might reveal something useful under questioning.'

Ivy shivered. There was something about Officer Smokehart that wasn't quite natural. Maybe it was the way he was standing: straight-backed and still, like a robot.

‘Just imagine, Constable,' he breathed, steepling his thin fingers, ‘what answers might lie behind this door; what dark revelations we might find festering in the shadows. For over forty years we've lived without knowing the truth of what happened that night.'

‘Twelfth Night,' the constable said, a little uncertainly, setting the conch down on the ground.

Smokehart gritted his teeth. ‘Yes, of course
Twelfth Night
. It is the greatest unexplained mystery of the modern era. The entire Wrench family – a mother, father, daughter and three brothers – disappear on one fateful night. We don't know why they vanished, or how. We don't even know what role they played during the Great Battle . . . until now.' His thin lips curled into a smile. ‘The quartermasters will have no choice but to promote me for this, mark my words.'

The constable gulped and stood to attention. He looked at the broken lock. ‘Looks like we're not the first ones here, though, sir.'

Officer Smokehart peered down through his dark glasses. Ivy wondered why he was wearing them – it wasn't as if it was sunny.

‘She has many enemies,' he said, considering. ‘It's possible that one of them has got to her before us. Arm yourself.'

The constable nodded quickly, swept back his cloak and pulled out . . .

Ivy squinted. Surely she was seeing this wrong. The rain was distorting her vision; it must be. White plastic. Long handle. Rounded head of bristles.

No, it was a
toilet brush.
As Smokehart drew an identical one from the loop on his belt, Ivy noticed something else. The bristles were moving slightly. If she concentrated hard enough through the drumming of the rain, she could hear them crackling. And what was that jumping from the end . . .
sparks
?

Ivy's legs started to tremble.

From his crouched position, Seb waved at her furiously, his nostrils flaring. He signalled towards the far gate, where their bikes were leaning against the fence.

Ivy nodded down the road towards Bletchy Scrubb. That's where they needed to go.

‘Don't think we should spend long here, sir,' the constable commented, pushing open the front door. ‘We've got that young tea-leaf in the carriage – needs to be taken back to Lundinor for processing.'

Smokehart raised pencil-thin eyebrows above his dark glasses. ‘Not long? Constable, if this really is where Sylvie Wrench has been hiding for forty years, then we will stay
as long as is necessary
to uncover whatever evidence may be inside.' Holding his toilet brush aloft, he marched over the threshold into the hallway beyond. The constable followed.

The name
Sylvie Wrench
was ringing in Ivy's ears as she saw Seb getting to his feet.
Sylvie . . .

She walked slowly, as if in a dream.

Granma . . .

‘Ivy,' Seb mouthed. ‘Bikes.'

She snapped back to reality and followed Seb across the gravel to collect her bike. Her wet hands trembled as she tugged her hood back and fumbled with the strap of her helmet.
Sylvie Wrench . . . Twelfth Night . . .
Her head was spinning. She got onto her bike and put her foot on the pedal.

And then a voice like thunder filled the air: ‘
This is Officer Smokehart of the First Cohort of Lundinor Underguard! You are breaking GUT law. Remain where you are, by command of the Four Quartermasters of Lundinor!
'

Chapter Five

Ivy shrieked, ‘Seb, go!' She slung Granma Sylvie's bag across her back before kicking away from the ground. Up ahead, Seb's wheels squealed as he shot onto the tarmac and skidded round a corner.

Ivy flashed a look over her shoulder, pedalling frantically. Officer Smokehart was in Granma Sylvie's porch, holding the conch shell to his lips. The constable had already climbed aboard the black coach.

Rising up off the saddle, Ivy pushed down on the pedals as hard as she could. What sounded like a hailstorm started up behind her, drawing closer.

The horses . . . !

The coach was on the road.

‘Stay close to me,' Seb shouted. ‘This way!' He turned off the road, darting through a small gap in the hedgerow and heading into a field. ‘They're too big to come after us,' he yelled. ‘They'll have to go the long way round.'

Ivy could see what he was planning. Ahead of them, the road curved round the edge of the field. Seb was cycling straight across the grass towards an open gate on the opposite side. If they were lucky, they'd get there before the coach.

Ivy hurtled after him. Her bike squeaked and groaned over the bumpy ground. Glancing back, she could see the top of the coach above the hedgerow – it was gaining on them now. The constable was craning forward, flicking a whip through the air, while the horses' head-feathers tossed around madly.

‘They're catching up!' Ivy warned. She didn't know how much longer she and Seb could stay in front.

‘Go faster,' he yelled at her, his cheeks bright red, his legs a blur. ‘We have to make it!'

Ivy surged forward into the battering rain. Seb was only metres away from the gate.

‘Ivy!' he shouted, crossing the road.

She looked back at the coach, which was nearly upon them. She caught a glimpse of the dark-haired boy inside, pushing against the glass, steadying himself against the jolts.

Smokehart's voice filled the air again. ‘
STOP WHERE YOU ARE!
'

Ivy faltered as she reached the road. The horses were metres away. She stared helplessly at Seb. His eyes were wide. She screamed his name, and then . . .

The carriage was between them.

A splintering, creaking noise split the air. The constable howled. Ivy was thrown head first off her bike; her helmet took the worst of the impact as she thudded into the hard earth beside the road. Granma Sylvie's bag crunched painfully against her ribs and cold mud splashed onto her cheeks.

When she opened her eyes, she saw a face: angled cheekbones, dark-chocolate eyes, skin like polished teak.

It was the boy from the coach.

‘You all right?' he asked. The rain had soaked his long, straggly hair and was running down onto his shoulders.

‘Uh . . .' Ivy murmured. Her brain felt like it was made of marshmallow. She struggled with the strap of her helmet and eventually tugged it off. ‘What happened?'

‘Underguards,' the boy grunted. ‘Must have been too interested in chasing you to notice the ice on the road.'

Ivy raised a shaky hand to her temple.
Underguards . . . ?

‘They've overturned in the next field,' the boy continued. ‘Looks like your friend saw it just in time.'

Friend?
The fog in Ivy's head started to clear. Her neck prickled as she remembered:
Seb
. Carefully she lifted herself up. Her bike was lying some five metres away, the wheels trilling as they spun. A familiar figure was staggering across the grass.

‘Ivy!' Seb called breathlessly. ‘Are you OK?'

She tried to get to her feet. The boy helped her up. His skinny figure, slim-fitting jeans, black leather jacket and red high-top basketball shoes reminded her of the lead singer in The Ripz. ‘Easy,' he said. ‘You're gonna feel like you've just had a sack of flour dumped on your head, but just try to breathe. Everything moving?'

Slowly, systematically, she wiggled her fingers and toes and tilted her head from side to side. She suspected there were probably a few cuts and grazes hiding beneath her coat but she wouldn't need an ambulance. ‘I think so. Seb?' She focused on him as he approached. His gaze was fixed on the stranger in front of him.

‘Who are you?' Seb asked. Now that they were next to each other, Ivy could see they were probably of a similar age. ‘Are you one of them?'

The boy arched an eyebrow. ‘One of the Ugs? Hell no. I'd rather be a ghoul.' His eyes went nervously to a spot by Ivy's feet. ‘I've had my fair share of running from them, though – if you two want to get away, you don't have much time.'

Ivy glanced down, wondering what he was looking at. Standing in the grass by her feet was a small leather suitcase with brass latches. A brown paper tag was tied around the handle.
Strange . . .
Ivy hadn't glimpsed it in the field earlier.

She bent over and gripped the handle. ‘How did this get—?' The question caught in her mouth as a wave of tingly heat spread through her fingers. She gave a short gasp: the suitcase felt so much like a hot potato, she struggled not to drop it. She'd had this sensation before, when she held the silver coin. The only difference was that touching the suitcase felt more intense.

The boy stiffened and threw a gloved hand towards the case. ‘That's mine.'

Ivy held it out to him. ‘All right, I was just—'

Just then, she heard the rattle of a harness in the road.

‘The underguards,' the boy hissed. There's no time . . .' He snatched the case, unfastened the latches, opened it on the grass and dropped onto his knees beside it. ‘Are you coming?'

Ivy's head was spinning. ‘Coming where?'

Seb dug his fingers into her shoulder. ‘Ivy, we need to do something – now!'

Too late.

The rapid fire of hoofbeats sounded on the other side of the hedgerow. A wild neigh followed the clatter of something loud and heavy, and then Officer Smokehart came tearing along towards them. He moved impossibly fast, his arms pumping as his black cloak mushroomed up behind him. Ivy noticed with a jolt that his face and neck were no longer smooth and pale; they were covered with tiny scarlet dots, like drops of blood. In his outstretched hand he waved his toilet brush, the bristles alive with blue sparks.

‘Go –
now
!' The boy yanked on Ivy's arm, hauling her to the ground.

She felt wet grass under her hands as something pushed down on the back of her head. She saw the brown suede lining of the suitcase expanding before a cold feeling slipped down her spine and she was swallowed by darkness.

BOOK: The Crooked Sixpence
12.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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