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Authors: Anne Forbes

The Underground City

BOOK: The Underground City
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For my daughter, Hanan,
with much love

“I got Brian on his mobile,” Jack Ellis said excitedly, putting down the phone. “He said he’d drive us out there this evening.”

“Was he all right about it?” queried his friend Peter,
doubtfully
. Jack’s brother was in the Sixth Form and had always been a bit of a stickler, so Peter found it hard to believe that he’d agreed to take part in their prank. But the fact remained that they couldn’t go through with it unless
Brian
did the driving.

“He thought it was a great idea … if we can persuade Lewis to go, that is,” Jack assured him. “Said it was time somebody took him down a peg or two.”

“Or even three,” muttered Peter.

“Where is this village? What did you call it … Al Antra?” asked Colin, whose father had only joined the oil company a few months previously.

“Al
Antara
, you mean?” Jack looked at him sharply. “Of course, I’d forgotten that you haven’t been there yet. Come over to the window and I’ll show you.”

Colin looked out over a scene as far removed from Britain as you could imagine; for the bay window of the sparkling white villa overlooked a lush, green garden full of exotic plants and flowering bushes.

“Al Antara’s a proper desert oasis,” Jack said with a grin. “Rolling sand dunes, waving palm trees, an old stone well, the lot — definitely as seen in the movies! Look,” he pointed, “over there, in the distance, at the foot of the Zor Hills. You can just see it. It’s not really as far away as it looks.”

Jack’s house lay near the edge of the oil-company township
and as Colin’s eyes lifted to the barren reaches of desert that stretched beyond the garden, he picked out a ragged scatter of palms nestling amid sand dunes that rose in shades of brown and gold to the massive peaks of the Zor Hills.

“Got it,” he nodded, again feeling very much the new kid on the block; for although it hadn’t taken him long to find his way round the township, he knew he still had a lot to learn about the surrounding desert. Despite himself, he felt a growing sense of excitement. The set up here, he thought, was nothing
like
life back home but boy
was
he enjoying it!! School had turned out to be okay. He’d made friends with Peter and Jack right away and the only boy in the class that he hadn’t much liked, a pillock called Lewis Grant, was due to leave the following day for Scotland.

“Is it tomorrow night he’s going?” asked Colin, for Lewis’s father had been posted to Aberdeen and their house was all packed up.

“Yeah, his dad’s coming back from Bahrain tomorrow but tonight he’ll be on his own in the house with only the house staff to look after him. Roger told me that he’s really miffed that no one’s throwing a farewell party for him. Believe me, he’ll grab at the idea of spending the night at Al Antara. He wants to go out with a bang and leave everybody talking about him, so he’ll see this as his chance.”

“And you can bet your bottom dollar he’ll make sure that the story gets round before he goes! Lewis the brave! You just watch! He’ll buy it!”

Colin looked concerned. “You mean he’ll drive his dad’s car out into the desert and sleep there?”

“Lewis has always done what he likes, when he likes!” grinned Peter. “And he’ll be quite safe, you know. Nobody’ll bother him out there. The bedouin won’t go near the place after dark.”

“You think he’ll do it then?”

“Of course he will!” Jack said witheringly. “
Lewis Grant
refuse a dare! You must be joking!”

“Well, we’ll soon know,” announced Peter as a shining, silver 4x4 drew into the driveway. “Here he comes now … and
surprise
, surprise … he’s driving himself!”

Lewis Grant winced as the full force of the desert heat hit him as he jumped down from the cool interior of the jeep. Slamming the door shut, as though he drove his father’s car every day of the week, he waved casually to the group of boys clustered in the bay window of the flat-roofed, white villa. Pleased that there was an audience to witness his arrival, he flicked back his long, black hair and swaggered up to the front door.

“Hi, there,” he said, walking through to the living room and throwing himself into an armchair. “Is there anything to drink, Peter? I’m gasping!”

“Sure, hang on. We’ve bags of cola in the fridge.”

“How come you’re driving your dad’s car, Lewis? Does he know?” Jack asked breathlessly.

“Don’t be daft, Jack! Of course he doesn’t
know
. He’s in Bahrain just now. One of the BAPCO wells is on fire and they’re getting Boots & Coots in.”

The mention of the famous firefighters impressed the boys and Lewis preened himself; being the son of the Managing Director of one of the biggest oil companies in the area
certainly
had its advantages.

“But taking the 4x4 …”

Lewis sat up. “What on earth did you expect me to do?” he demanded. “You didn’t really think I was going to leg it all the way over here in this heat, did you? It’s fifty degrees out there, in case you hadn’t noticed!”

“Didn’t the house staff try to stop you? I mean, your mum’s
in Edinburgh, isn’t she? They’re responsible for you.”

“Yeah! So responsible that they’re all going to some dance at the club tonight! Anyway, it’d take more than the staff to stop
me!
They know that Dad has been letting me drive on the private roads for ages and anyway, I’m so good now that I could pass my test tomorrow if I wanted.” He shrugged at their doubtful expressions. “Forget it, for Pete’s sake! What have you all been up to?”

“Not a lot. Reading comics mostly,” Jack said. “My dad bought a pile from the bookshop in the souk. This one’s really good,” he chucked it over to him. “It’s all about djinns.”

“Djinns?” queried Lewis, leafing through the pages.

“Yeah, you know … desert spirits …”

“I wonder if it’s really true,” Peter said dreamily. “There’s one about a man who goes into a ruined city in the desert that’s supposed to be haunted …”

“And he sees djinns?” mocked Lewis. “Don’t be so gullible!”


I
think it’s true, Lewis. I don’t care what you say,” Jack said, his eyes gleaming. “
I
think there
are
djinns. It says they live in trees and houses and old wells …”

“There could be some in that old ruined village near the hills,” agreed Peter in a voice that was carefully casual. “My dad says the Arabs won’t live in it ’cause they’re scared of ghosts. And djinns
are
ghosts, aren’t they?”

“You mean at whatsit … Al Antara? Rubbish!” Lewis said dismissively. “We’ve been to Al Antara dozens of times and we’ve never seen anything or anybody. The whole place has been crumbling to bits for years.”

“We’ve never been there at night, though. Maybe that’s when they come out,” Jack said, sitting up suddenly.

“Hey, that’s an idea!” Peter interrupted, his eyes shining. “I’d love to go there at night! Just think what it’d be like to see a djinn!”

Lewis’s eyebrows lifted in disbelief. “You?” he sneered, “at Al Antara in the middle of the night? Don’t give me that, Peter!” He leant forward and flicked him with the pages of the comic. “You’d be scared stiff!”

Peter looked suddenly furious. “Well, if
you’re
so brave,” he snapped, “why don’t
you
go and spend the night there! Go on, Lewis! I dare you!”

When five magic carpets sailed over Edinburgh, Scotland’s elegant capital, and landed in the garden of a small house in Holyrood Park, close to the towering hill known as Arthur’s Seat, they didn’t cause the kind of sensation you might expect — the simple reason being that as they were magic carpets, nobody could actually see them as they flew over the city.

It was only when their riders stepped onto the garden path of the little cottage that they became visible and if, by any chance, you have visions of star-studded wizards and magicians appearing out of the blue, then I’m afraid I must disappoint you. The MacLeans are a fairly ordinary family; probably the last people in the world you’d have expected to possess magic carpets and even Sir James, a Member of the Scottish Parliament and the owner of a very successful distillery, is not your average magic carpet traveller. Having said that, mind you, they’re not all that ordinary really as Kitor, the large, black crow perched on Clara MacLean’s shoulder, can talk.

The crow flapped into the air as Clara got off her carpet and she watched with a smile as he headed for the slopes of Arthur’s Seat. Kitor had been grumbling about his empty belly more or less all the way from Jarishan and hopefully, she thought, it wouldn’t be too long before he found some supper. If not … well, the freezer was full and she could always defrost some chicken livers for him.

Travelling backwards and forwards over Scotland by magic carpet was nothing new to any of them and Clara’s father, John MacLean, one of the Park Rangers on Arthur’s Seat, merely
turned round casually to check that they’d all arrived safely before moving towards the house, fishing in his pocket for his keys. His son, Neil, a tall, dark-haired lad, looked doubtfully at the five carpets that hovered round him at knee level. “We don’t need the carpets any more, do we, Dad?” he queried. “Shall I send them back to the hill?”

Instinctively, they all turned to glance up at the looming bulk of Arthur’s Seat, the hill in the middle of Edinburgh that looks for all the world like a sleeping dragon. Over the years, the MacLeans had learned many of its secrets, including the fact that the interior of Arthur’s Seat was home to the MacArthurs, a little people — you can call them faeries if you like — whose adventures had, on several occasions, involved them in the affairs of witches, magicians, dragons and goblins.

“Yes, do that, Neil,” nodded his father as he turned the key in the lock. “Send them back and mind and say thank you!” He pushed the door open against the pile of post and newspapers that had collected in the few days of their absence. “Sir James won’t need his carpet again, either,” he added. “He left his car here, remember?”

His wife turned to the tall, elegantly-dressed man who was trying vainly to smooth creases from the trousers of his best suit. Although he enjoyed flying on magic carpets, they had, Sir James reflected, their disadvantages and being open to the elements was one of them. It had been a long flight from Lord Rothlan’s estate at Jarishan and he felt sadly crumpled and in need of a hot bath.

“I love flying on the carpets,” he muttered, “but there’s a lot to be said for using magic mirrors. It’s quicker for a start and you don’t get blown to pieces.”

“Look on the bright side, Sir James,” Neil said, watching the magic carpets become invisible again as they soared over the garden wall towards the green slopes of the hill. “At least it
didn’t rain!”

“You’ll come in and have a cup of tea before you go home, won’t you, James?” Janet MacLean offered, untying the scarf that she’d wound round her dark hair. “We all need something warm inside us.”

“Yes, do have some tea with us, Sir James!” urged Clara. “We’ve got so much to talk about! It
was
a fabulous wedding, wasn’t it?”

They wandered into the kitchen where Mrs MacLean, still in her coat, filled the kettle.

“Didn’t Lady Ellan look beautiful? She made a lovely bride,” her mother remarked, taking mugs out of the cupboard. “And Lord Rothlan is so handsome. Really, I felt quite tearful.”

“Well, they’ll be in their new palace in Turkey by this time,” the Ranger said.

Mrs MacLean smiled a trifle ruefully. “I wouldn’t have minded a palace as one of
my
wedding presents,” she said. “The Sultan’s very generous, isn’t he?”

“He’s been generous to us all, one way or another,” smiled Sir James. “Think of the presents he’s given us and the lovely holidays we’ve had in Turkey.”

“And I wouldn’t worry too much about not having a palace, Mum,” grinned Clara. “Just imagine how long it would take to clean a hundred rooms!”

“It’s a pity we couldn’t have gone with the MacArthurs, though,” Neil muttered enviously. “They’ll be having a fabulous time at the Sultan’s palace.”

“Yes, but we could hardly have gone with them, Neil,” his mother said reasonably. “Your dad has his work to see to and your half-term holiday is over already. You’ll be back at school tomorrow.”

“The Sultan will invite us again, Neil, don’t worry,” his father said. “He’ll always be grateful to us for getting his crown back.”

“Your dad has a point,” smiled Sir James, picking some newspapers out of the pile of junk mail that the Ranger had brought in. He flicked idly through the headlines and then stiffened in horror. “Good heavens!” he gasped, “there’s been a fire at The Kings!”

They looked at him in alarm as he unfolded
The Scotsman
and showed them the headlines. “A fire!” said Neil in horror. “At The King’s Theatre?”

“James! Your pantomime! What on earth will you do?” asked Mrs MacLean, looking distressed.

“When did it happen?” Clara asked. “The theatre didn’t burn down completely, did it?”

Sir James shook his head as he scanned the report. “It
happened
…” he looked at the date on the paper, “it must have
happened
the day before yesterday. It hasn’t burned down but there was a lot of damage inside … mainly to the stage!” He lowered the paper and looked at them seriously. “If what this says is true then it looks as though
Ali Baba
might not come off after all. It’ll be a real blow to Children’s Aid if we have to cancel it!”

“Sir James, you
can’t
cancel it!” cried Clara. “I mean … what about Matt Lafferty?”

They all looked at one another in dismay — for persuading Matt Lafferty to star in
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves
had been a stroke of genius on Sir James’s part. Lafferty’s meteoric rise to fame was the ultimate success story as the comedian, after winning a TV talent show, had become famous overnight. He was funny, fabulous and totally fantastic. Neil’s heart sank at the thought that
Ali Baba
might not happen, for Lafferty’s
personality
had transformed the show.

Clara’s words echoed his mood. “I couldn’t
bear
it if it had to be cancelled,” she said, looking distraught. “We’re having so much fun, aren’t we, Neil?”

Neil nodded. When rehearsals had started, Sir James had
sensed their enthusiasm for the pantomime and his offer to have them included as extras in the crowd scenes had been met with rapturous excitement. The theatre, Neil had decided, was totally brilliant and he’d certainly never thought, when he’d voted for Matt in the TV Show, that he’d find himself acting on stage beside him.

“Matt Lafferty’s absolutely magic as the Grand Vizier!” Clara continued earnestly, looking pleadingly at Sir James. “The rehearsals are a laugh from start to finish. You just
can’t
cancel it, Sir James!”

Sir James smiled and ruffled her hair. “I’ll do my best,” he assured her but his face was serious as, taking his car keys from his pocket, he turned apologetically to Mrs MacLean. “I won’t have that cup of tea after all, Janet,” he said. “I’d better get home at once. Lots of people must have been trying to get in touch with me.”

“I’m sure they have,” nodded the Ranger as he followed him to the door. “Let us know what happens.”

Sir James smiled wryly at Clara as she held the front door open for him. “Don’t worry about it too much, Clara,” he smiled. “All is not lost! We might be able to put
Ali Baba
on at another theatre, you never know!”

“That’d be fab,” she said, her expression lightening at the thought. “I’ll keep my fingers crossed!” And they waved as Sir James reversed his car out of the driveway and drove off.

“Well, of all the things to happen,” Mrs MacLean said. “What else does it say in the papers, John?”


The Evening News
says much the same as
The Scotsman
. It happened on Friday night … an electrical fault … no
suspicious
circumstances.”

“Oh, Dad! I hope Sir James finds somewhere else to put it on. We love being in it even though we only have bit parts.”

“It was good of him to arrange that,” Janet MacLean nodded,
“but don’t build your hopes up too much. It’ll be quite difficult to find another theatre, you know. Places like The Lyceum, The Festival Theatre and The Playhouse all have their own shows planned for Christmas and the New Year. I can’t think where he could hold it. It’s a big production and, quite frankly, you can’t put stars like Matt Lafferty in a small hall.”

Neil and Clara sat in subdued silence round the fire that evening. Mrs MacGregor, the school janitor’s wife, who had been looking after Mischief for the weekend, had brought her back and the little cat, glad to be home, was stretched out
blissfully
on the hearth.

“If she gets any closer, I’m sure her fur will singe,” Neil grinned, looking up from a book.

Mischief opened one eye and looked at him before shutting it again and stretching herself lazily.

“I swear that cat understands everything we say,” mused Neil.

A scrabbling noise made them turn and Clara got to her feet as Kitor nudged his ungainly way through the cat flap in the window and fluttered towards her.

“Kitor,” she cried as he landed on her shoulder. “I wondered where you’d got to!”

“I thought I’d just give the hill the once over in case there was anything your dad should know about. Especially while the MacArthurs are in Turkey,” croaked the crow, settling his wings and cocking a wary eye at Mischief who sat up, looked at him balefully through slitted, green eyes, and started to clean herself minutely.

Although they had tried, neither Neil nor Clara had ever been able to work out how they managed to understand Kitor, for he certainly wasn’t speaking English as such. Somehow his croaks and caws formed words that they could hear in their heads but the sound, as Clara pointed out, didn’t seem to come
through their ears.

“School again tomorrow?” croaked Kitor, his bright, black eyes looking at the scatter of exercise books on the table.

“Only in the morning,” Neil said. “I’ve got a school trip in the afternoon.”

“So you have,” said Clara, looking up. “Mary King’s Close! I’d forgotten about that!”

“Mary King’s Close?” queried the crow. “Does it still exist?”

“It’s buried underneath the High Street,” Neil explained to the crow. “When the plague came to Edinburgh a lot of the old town was sealed off and new houses were built on top of the old ones. Miss Mackenzie was telling us that there’s a real network of old streets and alleyways under Edinburgh.”

“An Underground City,” Clara breathed. “It’d be great to explore it.”

“I don’t know about that,” frowned her brother. “Graham Flint said that there are closed cellars down there that still have skeletons in them and the Council won’t open them up in case the plague gets out and infects people.”

Clara frowned doubtfully. “Trust Graham to come up with something like that,” she said. “It
is
supposed to be haunted, though, isn’t it? The newspapers were full of it when the Close first opened. Lots of people said they were pushed by invisible hands!”

“I’d forgotten that,” said Neil, sitting up straight, his brown eyes gleaming with excitement. “I think I’ll wear my firestone tomorrow! Then, if there
are
any ghosts, I might be able to see them!”

Kitor shifted uncomfortably on his claws. “I wouldn’t if I were you,” the crow said seriously. “Ghosts and magic don’t really mix. Ghosts are spirits of the dead, you know; they’re not magic people like the MacArthurs and they could harm you.”

Clara looked at Kitor doubtfully but, even as she did so, she knew that Neil wouldn’t take the crow’s advice. The thought of being able to see ghosts had brought a sparkle to his eyes and although he laughed and said he didn’t believe in them, she was quite sure that he would wear his firestone to school the next day.

BOOK: The Underground City
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