The Magical Detectives – Extract
To look at, there was nothing very remarkable about Otto Spinoza. He was about average height for a boy of twelve. He had floppy brown hair which he was in the habit of tossing back from his forehead from time to time, and very clear blue eyes. His teacher at school thought he was rather quiet but she concluded that he was merely thoughtful and left it at that.
However, there were at leasttwo things about Otto that were very much out of the ordinary. The first was the fact that from as far back as he could remember, Otto had had the feeling that he was different to the other boys and girls in his school, that for some reason which he could not quite put his finger on, he simply did not belong. He didn’t talk about this feeling to anyone, because he didn’t want to seem rude or stuck-up. But it was always there.
The second unusual thing about Otto was the mystery of his father’s death. Otto’s father had died of a rare tropical disease shortly after Otto was born. So rare was this disease, that no one else in England had ever contracted it and by the time the hospital realised what was wrong, it was too late to do anything about it. The doctors had been extremely puzzled since even in the jungles of Borneo where the disease originated, it had only reared its ugly head a few times in the last hundred years. The conclusion they had come to was that Mr Spinoza, who was a bookseller by trade, must have been bitten by an insect that had stowed away in a crate of books he had bought at an auction the week before.
Otto had often wondered why the insect had not bitten anyone else, such as the person who put the books in the crate in the first place, or the auctioneer, but no-one seemed to know the answer to this.
Otto and his mother lived in the sleepy little town of Bridlington Chawley in an apartment above the second hand bookshop that his mother now ran. It was not the sort of home you see featured in magazines or on television programmes. The furniture was rickety, the carpets threadbare and the rooms all needed a coat of paint. But Otto did not mind all that. He liked living above a bookshop because he loved to read and there were always plenty of books waiting for his attention.
Otto’s mother was a dreadful worrier. When it rained, she worried that the roof might leak; when it was cold she worried that the central heating might break and when it was warm she worried that it would not last. She worried about her health, and about her weight, about whether or not she was going to be able to pay all the bills. But most of all she worried about Otto and in particular about what would become of him is anything should happen to her.
‘They’ll come round sticking their noses in, asking all sorts of questions, that’s what they’ll do,’ she frequently complained. ‘Then they’ll take you away and put you in a home for orphans. There’ll be no one to care for you, no one to look after you. Oh Otto, I can’t bear to think about it!’
At this point she always burst into tears and Otto was obliged to make her a cup of strong tea, and open a packet of biscuits.
Otto’s mother had a great fondness for biscuits. They were the only thing that really stopped her worrying for any length of time. It was because of this that Otto was not present when one of the most extraordinary things in the history of Bridlington Chawley took place. She had sent him to the corner shop for a couple of packets of chocolate digestives. So he only discovered what had happened when he returned.
It was the first day of the summer holidays and all the way to the shop Otto was thinking about what he would do in the weeks to come. Other children in his class went on holiday to exotic places but there was no chance of that for Otto. Even if they could afford to go away, his mother would be far too worried to contemplate such a trip. Perhaps if his father had been alive, Otto thought to himself, things might have been different.
He was still thinking about what might have been when he arrived back home to find the door of the bookshop wide open and no sign of his mother. Surprised, he stepped into the shop. Immediately the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and goosebumps sprang up all over his body. The air in the shop seemed to crackle with energy as though a thunderstorm might break out above the bookshelves at any moment. It made Otto quite dizzy. He took hold of a bookcase and steadied himself.
‘Mum?’ he called out. ‘Where are you?’
There was no answer. He walked across the shop and opened the door of the stock room. But it was empty, except for the hundreds and hundreds of characters who lived within the dusty covers of the books. He could almost hear them muttering unhappily to each other, as if they too sensed that something was wrong.
Otto looked in the back yard in case his mother was putting out the rubbish. Then he went upstairs and checked the apartment that they both shared. There was no sign of her. But in the kitchen, stuck to the front of the refrigerator door were a set of magnetic letters that had been there ever since he was a baby. He hadn’t played with them for many years but now they had been rearranged into two words.
Was this a message from his mother?
Perhaps if you had been in Otto’s position, you would have seriously considered calling the police at this point. But such a thought did not even enter Otto’s head. He knew only too well what his mother would think of such behaviour. He could almost hear her voice warning him –they’ll put you in a home, Otto.
So what was he to do? Stay calm, Otto, he told himself. Think!
But it wasn’t easy to stay calm. Panic was knocking at the door of his imagination, demanding to be let it. Otto paced about the kitchen trying to make up his mind what to do next. Finally he decided to search the apartment thoroughly . There might be something that would give him a clue to where his mother had gone. He went into his mother’s bedroom and looked in the wardrobe. As far as he could tell, all her clothes were still there.
Then he noticed her diary on the dressing table. He hesitated. His mother was a very private person. Every night without fail she recorded her thoughts in her diary before going to sleep but she never breathed a word about its contents to Otto.
But the time for privacy was past. This was a genuine emergency and Otto simply didn’t know what else to do. He sat on the corner of the bed, opened the diary at the first page and began to read. To his disappointment the diary turned out to be astonishingly dull. Despite the great secrecy that surrounded it there was absolutely nothing important in those pages. His mother wrote about the weather, noted down appointments for the dentist and recorded birds she had seen from her bedroom window. But there was nothing that might give him a clue to where she had gone. With a sigh, Otto closed the diary and put it back on the dressing table.
He was just about to leave the room when he suddenly saw his mother’s face in the mirror. She was looking out at him with her familiar worried expression. Otto whirled round, ready to ask her where on earth she had been. But she wasn’t there! And when he turned back to the mirror her reflection had vanished.
Had he imagined it? Or had it been real?
He was still trying to make up his mind about this when he heard the doorbell ring. Thinking it must be his mother, he raced downstairs. But to his great disappointment, it turned out to be a man with a shiny bald head and a thick beard with no moustache, so that he looked a bit like his head was upside down. He was carrying a cardboard box full of books which no doubt he wanted to sell.
The man could clearly see Otto through the window so there was nothing to be done but open the door.
‘Is the manager available?’ the man demanded.
Trying to remain calm, Otto politely explained that the shop was closed because his mother had gone out on an errand
‘And when will she be back?’ the man asked, rather irritably.
‘Oh, later on some time,’ Otto said with a shrug.
Reluctantly, the man turned away and Otto was just about to shut the door when he saw Juliet Pennington, a girl in his class, striding purposefully towards him. His heart sank.
‘Hello Otto,’ she said, marching straight into the shop before he had a chance to tell her that it was closed. ‘Have you got any books about Roman coins?’
‘I don’t know,’ Otto said. He was flustered now. Juliet Pennington was a very determined sort of person. If he told her his mother had popped out on an errand Juliet would probably decide to wait until she came back. With a sigh, he decided that the easiest way to get rid of her was to serve her himself. It wouldn’t be difficult. The prices of the books were written on the inside covers in pencil and he knew how the till worked.
‘There are some books about Ancient Rome over there,’ Otto told her, pointing to the history section. ‘I don’t know whether there’s anything about coins.’
‘And do you have any books on training cats?’
Training cats! Otto shook his head. He had always thought there was something a bit odd about Juliet. ‘I don’t think it’s possible to train cats,’ he told her.
‘It must be,’ she replied.
Remembering what his mother often said, that the customer was always right, Otto showed her where the books on animals were shelved. Then he went and sat behind the counter, trying to look as if everything was perfectly normal.
She seemed to spend ages looking at the books but at last she came up to the counter with a couple of books and the correct money ready in her hand. ‘How come you’re running the shop today?’ she asked.
Otto mumbled something about his mother going to a book-buying conference but he felt himself blushing as he did so. He had never been any good at lying.
As soon as she leaves the shop, I’m going to turn the sign in the window to read closed and lock the door, Otto told himself. And I’m not answering it to anyone else, unless it’s my mum.
But as Juliet turned from the counter, a tall man with his hair in a pony-tail walked into the store.
‘I’m afraid we’re closing,’ Otto told him firmly.
‘I just want to put a notice on the notice board,’ the man said. He was a piano teacher, he explained, flexing his remarkably long fingers. He wanted to use the shop’s notice board, to advertise piano lessons.
Otto’s mother had started the shop’s notice board about a year earlier because she decided it would be good for business. ‘It will attract more people into the shop and more people in the shop means more books sold,’ she had assured Otto enthusiastically.
Unfortunately, the last part of her logic was flawed. More people in the shop did not mean more books sold, since most of the people who used the notice board were as poor as church mice. Sometimes they took a book off the shelves and stood there for ages reading it, but they almost never bought anything. Nevertheless, Otto’s mother always insisted that the notice board was a great success.
‘How much does it cost to advertise?’ the piano teacher asked.
Otto hesitated. He had no idea what his mother charged. All he could think about was getting the man out of the shop. Finally he said, ‘It’s free today.’
The piano teacher looked surprised. He handed over the card on which he had written his advertisement and left the shop. Finally, Otto got a chance to lock the door.
Thank goodness! he said to himself.
He looked for a place on the notice board to pin up the piano teacher’s card. There was just one empty space, in the bottom right hand corner beside an advertisement for labrador puppies in need of good homes and one for something called The Magical Detective Agency.
Otto blinked. The Magical Detective Agency? He didn’t remember seeing that before. He took the card down and studied it more carefully. At the top was a five pointed star with the letters MDA written in the centre. Below that was written:
Magical Crimes Investigated
Supernatural Mysteries Solved.
At the bottom was the name Maximillian Hawksmoor and an address on the other side of town.
Otto took the card down from the notice board and studied it carefully. Was this the solution he was looking for? After all there was something very strange about his mother’s disappearance – the atmosphere in the shop, his mother’s face in the mirror.
But what if it was a trick of some kind – a way of conning desperate people out of their money? Or worse still, what if it had something to do with his mother’s disappearance?
Well there was only one way to find out.