Ben Fletcher

Chapter Nine (“Well, There Goes My Tenure”)

Billy didn’t think it would have been possible for him to meet a person he hated more than Yate, but that was before he’d met Austin Hickinbottom. He felt lucky, though, that they didn’t have to see much of him, as the only lessons they shared with the Crocodilians were Alchemy. Or at least that was until they read a notice that had been pinned up in the common room one morning.

First-years would be starting bouncing lessons on Friday afternoon, and the Osphranters would be learning with the Crocodilians.

“Brilliant,” said Billy, as they made their way down to the Banquet Hall for breakfast. “Just the way I wanted to end the week. Spending more time with the Crocodilians.”

He had been looking forward to learning how to bounce and finding out about the rules of Frogsports considerably more than the writer of this book had been about working out what they actually were.

“Look on the bright side,” said Ed, “We’ll get to see Austin embarrass himself. I know he keeps talking about how great he is, but I bet he’s just trying to show off.”

Austin certainly spent a lot of time talking about bouncing, and he was always complaining to whoever would listen about how unfair it was that first-years weren’t allowed their own space hoppers and never got picked for their house team.

He wasn’t alone, though. In fact, all those who’d grown up in magical families talked of nothing but Frogsports most of the time. Ed had already had an argument with Simon Philips, who shared their dormitory, about football. Ed just couldn’t understand what was so interesting about a sport that didn’t have a pantomime horse as a Keeper.

Josh had never been on a space hopper in his life, and he’d never been allowed to own a hockey stick. His grandmother had always thought it might be dangerous to let him. Billy, he had to admit, thought she had a good point, because Josh was an idiot who neither knew what was best for himself or ever realised when he had something valuable in his life that was worth keeping.

The only person more nervous about bouncing than Josh was Elahoraella Parker. Bouncing wasn’t something she could learn by studying from books — not that she hadn’t given it a good go. At breakfast on Friday, she sat at the table reading a book she’d taken from the library called Frogsports: A Tale of Highs, Lows, and then Highs Again. She didn’t seem to find much that would help her though, and everyone was relieved when her complaints about the book being too lily pad out with pointless facts were interrupted by the arrival of the morning post.

Billy hadn’t received a single letter since the one from Barry inviting him for tea, or at least not any actually addressed to him. Today Yodel dropped two letters in front of him. The first was addressed to the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. — the return address on the back told him it had come from 1211 6th Avenue — and the second to a boutique shoe shop in Stavanger.

A second pigeon flew down and dropped a small package in front of Josh. He opened it excitedly as the pigeon flew off. “It’s from my gran,” he said, taking out a small black fly-like object from inside of it. “It’s a Reflyder!” he explained. “She knows I’m always forgetting things — this helps remind you what you’ve forgotten. Look, you just let go, and if you’ve forgotten something, it bites you and you remember.”

He let go of the Reflyder. It flew a lap around his head and then landed on his hand. “Ouch!” he said as the Reflyder bit him. “Potatoes, onions, and apples all have the same taste,” he said. “The only difference is the smell. If you put a peg on your nose and wore a blindfold, you wouldn’t be able to tell one apart from the other two.”

Josh was just remembering how Arthur Conan Doyle (best known for creating Sherlock Holmes) was knighted in 1902 for his work defending the British Army’s invention of the concentration camp during the Boar War, when Austin Hickinbottom, who had found an excuse to pass by the Osphranter table, grabbed the Reflyder off of Josh’s hand.

Billy and Ed got to their feet, hoping for the chance to fight Austin, but Professor McDouglass appeared out of nowhere by their side.

“What is going on here?” she asked, suspiciously.

“Austin took my Reflyder, Professor.”

“Hickinbottom, is that true?”

Sneering, Austin let the Reflyder go.

“I was just admiring it,” he said, and he strode off.

Brigadier Sir Nils Olav the Third is a penguin holding high rank in the Norwegian King’s Guard,” said Josh as the Reflyder landed back on his hand. “He often inspects the troops of the King’s Guard and can be recognised by the military badge he wears on his right flipper.”

“Are you feeling okay today, Mr Hansen?” asked Professor McDouglass.

“No one has ever witnessed an ostrich burying its head in the sand.”

Billy and Ed were just taking their seats again when — “SMITH! BEAVERSLEY!” said Professor McDouglass. “Just what do you think you are doing?”

“Professor?” said Billy, unsure what he was supposed to have done wrong.

“Those croissants you’re eating. Why are they bendy?”

“They came like that.”

“Well, it really won’t do. It’s far too European. We can’t have bendy croissants in this school.” And she took out her enchanted celery and pointed it as the pastries. Billy and Ed watched as the croissants uncurled in front of them. “There we go. It’s much easier to spread butter and jam on them when they’re straight.”

At two o’clock that afternoon, Billy, Ed, and the rest of the Osphranter first-years made their way out of the castle and into the grounds for their first bouncing lesson. It was a clear and warm day, but a light breeze caused waves to ripple through the grass as though the wind was being conducted to a fully orchestrated arrangement of Himno Nacional Argentino.

As they approached the flat plain of lawn by the edge of the loch, they found the Crocodilians were already there, and so were twenty deflated space hoppers lying in neat lines on the grass. Billy had heard Chad and Larry Beaversley complaining about the school space hoopers and how they had a habit of puncturing too easily, or how if the air inside them because too hot, they’d start screaming about being the unfair target of a campaign to cancel them.

Their teacher, Madam Webb — because apparently sport wasn’t important enough to give her the title of professor — arrived. She had short, brown hair, and orange eyes with circular black pupils. Elahoraella had told the Osphranters at lunch about how Madam Webb had been a professional Frogsports player, starting her career with the Hannover Hopscotches before becoming captain of the Tiverton Tadpoles and leading them to a historic win against the Newport Newts — the match was said to have been so tense the team mascot, MC Hopper, actually passed out and had to be substituted with Snoop Froggy Frog.

“Good afternoon,” she said, moving between them. “If you could all please stand by a space hopper, and we’ll get right to it.”

Billy glanced down at his space hopper. The colour was faded and it had a face drawn on it that looked rather sad. Still, thought Billy, it looked better than Ed’s, which was a patchy orange and sporting a toupee.

“Now, I want you all to stick both hands out as though you’re holding down an invisible balloon,” Madam Webb instructed them. “Then when you’re ready, say inflate!”

“Inflate!”

Billy’s space hopper filled with air at once, the sad face on the front becoming one of instant glee. No one else had such luck. While Ed’s space hopper had inflated, it had become much larger than expected, and was now making whoopee cushion noises from the unusually small mouth drawn on the front of it.”

“Yours has a face drawn on it too,” laughed Billy.

“That’s not a real — oh, wait, it is,” said Ed.

Madam Webb came over to help him. “Ah, Mr Beaversley. You’ve drawn the short straw I’m afraid — paper straw, that is — and become the person to show us the phenomenon we call Donald Toad.” She turned to the rest of the class. “Donald Toad is what happens when you’re not paying enough attention. That’s why it’s always important to focus on what’s going on.”

She took Ed’s overinflated space hopper and gave him a spare one. Then she began walking between the students and helping them inflate their own. When the class were ready to move on, she showed them how to mount and grip their space hoppers.

Billy and Ed found it hard not to laugh when she told Austin he’d been doing it wrong his whole life.

“Okay, I think we’re ready to start bouncing,” said Madam Webb. “When I blow my kazoo, I want you all to bounce three times on the spot, and then stop again. On my kazoo then. Three… two — ”

But before the kazoo had even touched Madam Webb’s lips, Josh had taken a bounce forward — then another — and another — on his fourth he bounced straight over the rest of the class, but he didn’t stop there. He was bouncing higher and higher, and then — SMACK! — he bounced into the broad trunk of an oak tree and fell backward onto the grass in a heap.

“Well, there goes my tenure,” Madam Webb said to herself.

She ran up to Josh and bent over him. “It’s okay boy,” Billy heard her say. “You’ve only Ryanaired yourself — it’s all right, up you get.”

She turned to the rest of the class.

“None of you are to go anywhere or do anything until I return. Not one bounce while I help this boy to the hospital wing, or you’ll be hopping your way straight out the front gates.”

Madam Webb led a tearful, limping Josh back towards the castle. “Come on, we’ll get you fixed.”

“What does she mean he Ryanaired himself?” Billy asked Ed.

“It’s when you have a really uncomfortable journey and end up no where near where you actually wanted to go.”

“I thought Ryanairing meant somebody also has to start clapping at the end?” said Patrick O’Connor.

“Maybe if the idiot was being bitten by this stupid thing, he’d have remembered to book with a better airline.”

Billy turned around. Austin was wearing a smug expression and holding up Josh’s Reflyder.

“Give that here, Austin,” said Billy, fronting up to him. The Crocodilians all stopped laughing to watch.

Austin gave a quiet “heh” as he sized Billy up. “I don’t think I’m going to do that.”

“GIVE IT HERE!” Billy shouted, but Austin had jumped onto his space hopper and was now bouncing away from the group.

Billy grabbed his own space hopper.

“Coming to get it, are you, Smith?”

“Don’t do it,” said Elahoraella Parker. “Madam Webb told us to stay where we are — you’ll get into awful trouble.”

Billy ignored her. He mounted his space hopper and bounced off after Austin. And then he felt it — a feeling like he’d never felt before. A feeling that he could leave all his worries two inches below as he skimmed the tops of the tallest blades of grass. He felt the breeze in his hair, and his dressing gown catching the wind as though it was a parachute. This was easy, he thought to himself. This was wonderful. He pushed down hard on his next landing, and the momentum pushed him upwards to even greater heights. There was a cheer from Ed as he reached a clear five inches off the ground.

Austin stopped a little ahead and watched Billy with a stunned expression on his face.

“I said give it here, Austin,” Billy called. “Or I’ll put a puncture in that space hopper.”

“Oh, yeah?” Said Austin, his confidence faltering slightly.

Somehow, Billy knew what he had to do. He leant forward and tightly gripped the handles of the space hopper. Suddenly he was bouncing twice as fast, and Austin only just got out of the way in time to avoid the mild discomfort of a friction burn on his lower leg. Billy made a turn, and both he and the smily face on the front of his space hopper began staring Austin down.

“No Alastair and David to help you now, Austin,” said Billy.

“Have it then,” said Austin, and he threw the Reflyder at Billy.

Billy could see it coming straight for his face and knew he’d need a plaster if it hit his nose. He thought about ducking out the way, but at the very last moment he bounced upwards, and on his way back down, he reached out his arm and swatted the Reflyder from its flightpath and down to the ground.

“BILLY SMITH!”

He felt himself deflate quicker than a puffer fish in a YO! Sushi. Professor McDouglass was running over to them. He got off his space hopper and stood waiting nervously.

“Never — in all my time as a teacher — ”

Professor McDouglass seemed to be in shock, and she looked furious. “How dare you, Smith — do you have any idea? — You might have suffered whiplash — ”

“It wasn’t him, Professor — ”

“Be quiet, Mr Beaversley. Smith, follow me.”

Billy could hear Austin and the rest of the Crocodilians laughing as he followed Professor McDouglass numbly back towards the school. He was going to be kicked out, he was sure of it. He wanted to try to defend himself, to explain why he’d done it, but he didn’t seem to be able to say anything. Professor McDouglass led him down corridors, through doors, up staircases, and then down another, all without saying anything to him.

Eventually, she led him to the bridge leading to the Vigilantism classroom.

“Why could the dog’s owner not say exactly how long the dog had been playing for?” asked the troll that guarded the bridge.

“I don’t know,” said Professor McDouglass. “The owner’s watch was broken?”

“Incorrect.”

“Smith, do you have any ideas?” she said, finally speaking to him.

“They could only give a ball-park figure?”

“They could only give a ball-park figure?” Professor McDouglass repeated to the troll.

“Correct,” said the troll, moving out the way to allow them passage.

“That was very good, Smith,” said Professor McDouglass, turning back to Billy and looking impressed.

She told Billy to wait there and crossed the bridge alone. He watched as she knocked on the classroom door and then went inside.

A moment later, Professor McDouglass came back out, but she wasn’t alone. A tall fourth-year boy Billy had seen in the common room followed her. The boy looked just as confused as Billy was now feeling.

Professor McDouglass led the boy across the bridge, told Billy to follow as well, and then continued down another corridor.

“In here,” she said.

Professor McDouglass pointed them into a classroom which was empty, except for Karen, who was busy adjusting the validity dates on a pile of coupons.

“Out, Karen!” she said sternly.

Karen looked up at her. “I DEMAND TO SEE THE MANGER,” she said, floating towards them.

“I am the manager and you are banned.”

Professor McDouglass pulled a mobile phone from the pocket of her dressing gown and pressed record.

“NO — DON’T VIDEO ME — STOP VIDEOING ME.” Billy couldn’t understand why Karen kept moving closer to the camera if she didn’t want to be recorded, but Professor McDouglass’ plan seemed to be working. “YOU’RE ATTACKING ME — STOP ATTACKING MEEE…” As her voice faded away, Karen exploded into a burst of negative energy.

Professor McDouglass put away her phone and rubbed her hands together. “That is how you deal with that,” said said, turning back to them with a smile.

“Now, Smith, I would like you to meet Henry Plank. Plank, you know who this is already, of course, but let me introduce you to your new Swatter.”

Plank’s confused expression faded immediately.

“Do you mean it, Professor?”

“Certainly,” said Professor McDouglass sincerely. “The boy’s a natural. I’ve just watched him and I’ve never seen anything like it. Was that your first time on a space hopper, Smith?”

Billy wasn’t sure what was going on, but he didn’t appear to be being expelled. “Er, yes,” he said. “That was our first bouncing lesson.”

“I’m telling you, Plank, he swatted that thing down as easy as anything,” said Professor McDouglass. “And it was fast too — add in the sun shining in his eyes, and well, he’s exactly what the team needs.”

Plank looked as though he was the happiest he had ever been.

“Ever watched a game of Frogsports, Smith?” he asked.

“Plank is the Osphranter team captain,” explained Professor McDouglass.

“He’s the right build to play Swatter, too,” said Plank. “Agile — quick — he’ll need a good space hopper, though, Professor — nothing less than a BunnyRibbit Eleven or a Merry-go-Bounce, if we want him to play his best.”

“I shall see what can be done about that,” said Professor McDouglass. “I’ve got evidence the headmaster has stealing office supplies again, so I’m sure I can convince him to loosen the first-year ban.”

“You must be joking — really?”

It was dinner. Billy had just told Ed what had happened when he’d left the grounds with Professor McDouglass.

“Swatter,” said Ed. “But first-years never make — you must be — ”

“More important than everybody else, so these things will always happen to me,” said Billy. “That’s what Professor McDouglas told me.”

Ed stared at Billy with admiration.

“Training starts next week,” said Billy. “But Plank doesn’t want anybody to know I’m on the team.”

Chad and Larry Beaversley entered the hall, found Billy, and ran over.

“Good one,” said Chad in a whisper. “Plank’s just told us the news. We’re on the team too — Bouncers.”

“I think this is our year for sure,” said Larry.

“Anyway, we’ve got to make a convenient exit so some other characters can enter. See you.”

Chad and Larry had been gone barely a moment when someone far less welcome appeared: Austin, with Alastair on one side and David on the other.

“Your train home delayed, Smith? Have time for a quick meal first?”

“You seem a lot braver now you’ve got your little friends with you,” said Billy. It might only have been a figure of speech, but if Josh’s Reflyder landed on your hand, you’d suddenly remember that neither Alastair nor David were little.

“I could take you on anytime on my own,” said Austin. “Tonight, if you’re not too scared. Magician’s duel. Sorcery only. What’s the matter? Never heard of a magician’s duel before, Smith?”

“Of course he has,” said Ed, getting to his feet. “I’m his assistant, who’s yours?”

Austin looked at Alastair, and then to David.

“David,” he said, shrugging. “We’ll start at midnight, if that’s not past your bedtimes? We’ll meet you in the security office just off the main hall.”

When Austin had walked off, Billy turned to Ed. “What is a magician’s duel?” he asked him.

“It’s where two magicians face off by seeing who can pull the biggest objects out of the smallest hat.”

“And what do you mean, you’re my assistant?”

“Well, an assistant is there to go ta-da!” said Ed.

Ta-da?”

Ta-da!”

“And what if I can’t pull anything out of the hat?”

Ed shrugged. “Just pull it over his head and push him down the stairs.”

“Excuse me.”

They both looked up. It was Elahoraella Parker.

“I couldn’t help but overhear what you and Austin were talking about — ”

“Of course, you couldn’t,” said Ed.

“ — and, well, I think it’s very stupid to be fighting with him. Especially at night. Think of what will happen if you get caught — and you’re bound to be. Think of the credits you’ll lose Osphranter house. It’s very selfish of you.”

“And it really is nothing to do with you,” said Billy.

However annoying he might have found Elahoraella, as he lay awake, waiting for midnight to arrive, he had to admit she had a point about their chances of being caught. Chad and Larry often talked about their nighttime adventures around the castle, and none of their stories failed to include at least one close encounter with a teacher. Billy and Ed didn’t know their way around as well as the twins, and they certainly had no idea where any of the hidden shortcuts or hiding places were. On the other hand, Billy wanted nothing more than to face Austin head on.

“Quarter to twelve,” said Ed at last. “It’s time to go.”

They pulled on their dressing gowns, picked up their enchanted celeries, and made their way quietly out of the dormitory, down the stairs, and across the common room. They were just about to reach the door when a voice spoke behind them. “I can’t believe you’re both risking this.”

Ed let out a high-pitched scream, but Billy covered his mouth before it could wake anyone up.

“Thanks,” said Ed.

A light flickered on as they turned back. Elahoraella Parker was sat in an armchair.

“What are you doing here?” asked Ed.

“I’m here to stop you.”

“This is nothing to do with you.”

Billy couldn’t believe anyone could be so interfering, but he wondered if a less negative adjective or perhaps even a heroic description might be used later on if a male character did the same thing.

“Come on,” said Billy. “We need to go.” He pushed open the door and stepped out into the corridor.

Elahoraella wasn’t prepared to give up just yet, however, and she followed them out of the common room.

“Don’t you care about the rest of our house? You’ll lose so many credits if you’re caught.”

“We’re less likely to get caught if you just shut up.”

“Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“Be quiet, both of you!” said Billy suddenly. “I can hear something.”

Ahead of them, the sound of snoring came from the darkness.

“Do you think it’s Kevin? He might have fallen asleep on guard duty.”

But it wasn’t the caretaker. It was Josh, and he was curled up on the floor, fast asleep. He jolted awake as they got closer.

“Oh, it’s you three,” he said. “I’ve been stuck out here for hours. I couldn’t perform the new passdance to get into the common room because of my arm.” And he showed them the sling supporting his left arm.

Billy pulled Josh’s Reflyder out of his pocket and handed it back to him. “Here. I got this back from Austin for you,” he said.

“Thanks, Billy,” said Josh. He let the Reflyder go, and it landed on his hand. “Did you know that the town of Cormorant in Minnesota elected a dog called Duke as mayor for four consecutive terms?”

“Er, sure — look, Josh, Ed and I have somewhere we need to be. Elahoraella will help you get back into the common room — ”

“Oh no, I won’t,” said Elahoraella sternly. “I’m coming with both of you so that I can tell a teacher exactly what’s going on if you’re caught.”

“Don’t leave me here alone,” said Josh, getting to his feet. “Baroness Thatcher has already been past three times to call me a drain on the state.”

Billy glanced down at his watch — it was now five minutes to midnight — and then glared at Josh and Elahoraella.

“Fine, come with us then. But just be quiet.”

They ran along corridors and down staircases, stopping every few moments to listen for the sound of approaching teachers. At every turn they expected to run into one of the ghosts or Kevin, but they were lucky. When they reached the entrance hall, it too was empty. They ran across it and entered through the small door they knew led to the security office.

What they found inside came as a surprise. Along one wall was a large desk with at least forty computer screens set up around it, each of them showing a camera feed from a different part of the castle. They watched Professor Crumbleceiling playing air guitar atop the teacher’s table in the Banquet Hall before noticing another screen where Professor Grape was looking suspicious as he carried equipment out of one of the school greenhouses. There was no sign of Austin or David anywhere.

“Maybe they’re too scared to come?” said Ed.

“Or they’re just late.”

“Oh my goodness,” said Elahoraella, pointing at one of the screens.

“What is it?” asked Billy. “Can you see them coming?”

“There are — slaves. Slaves are cleaning the school at night. I can see them on the cameras.”

They both looked at where she was pointing.

“I know what they are,” said Ed. “They’re elves.”

“I don’t think we’re supposed to know about this for another few years,” said Billy.

“Really, Billy, is it any better to be taught about slavery as though it’s a perfectly normal and acceptable thing when we’re fourteen compared to when we’re eleven?” said Elahoraella.

Billy thought about this for a moment — Elahoraella was right. There was something seriously messed up about introducing slavery to children by framing it as being okay so long as privileged people don’t have to clean up after themselves.

And then a voice made them all jump.

“In the 1960s, the CIA attempted to train a cat to become a spy, so they could eavesdrop on conversations between Soviet operatives, but the mission failed because the cat kept ignoring instructions when it was hungry.”

They had almost forgotten Josh was with them and for a moment thought Kevin had found them.

“Be quiet, Josh, or somebody will — ”

“IS ANYBODY IN THERE?” This time it really was Kevin, and he was stood just outside the door.

Billy made straight for a second door which he knew led to the Banquet Hall, and waved for the others to follow. They made it just in time. As Billy closed the door behind Josh, he heard Kevin talking.

“Hiding are you?” he called out. “I know you’re in here somewhere. I heard you.”

“I think we’ll be safe — ”

He fell silent as he turned around and found himself face to face with Professor Crumbleceiling, who had just stage dived onto Ed, Elahoraella, and Josh.

“I won’t say anything if you don’t,” said Crumbleceiling. Silently, they gave each other a nod.

Crumbleceiling bowed them all goodnight and left.

“Come on!” Billy said to the others. Scared about running into another teacher, they left the Banquet Hall, ran back across the entrance hall and up the stairs to a corridor on the second floor.

They were just catching their breath when Josh declared, “Chickens can get depressed.”

“Shut up — ”

“Who was that?”

It was Professor McDouglass’ voice that spoke this time.

“Run!” whispered Billy, and the four of them sprinted down the corridor, not looking back to see if anyone was following — they turned the corner and ran down a corridor then another, Billy leading the group but not knowing where he was leading them to. They came to a stop outside Professor Millbrook’s classroom.

“I think we’re okay here,” Billy panted. “I don’t think anybody followed us.”

“Don’t the teachers ever sleep?”

“I — told — you,” Elahoraella gasped. “I told you this would happen.”

“We need to get back to the common room,” said Ed.

“Austin tricked you,” said Elahoraella. “You know that, don’t you? He just wanted to get you both kicked out.”

“That doesn’t matter now,” Billy snapped at her. He nodded at Ed and then said, “Let’s go.”

But no sooner had they started to run again when a ghostly figure flew past them, then stopped to block the way forward.

It was Karen, and she looked as though she’d just found her prey.

“Ooo, you’re not mangers, are you? You’re not even supervisors — I could get you all expelled if you don’t help me.”

“Go away, Karen.”

Karen laughed.

“I’ve got a little problem you can help me with first — I’ve got this t-shirt, see, and it says If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. But it doesn’t work. People still talk to me and tell me to get over myself.”

“How is that our problem?”

“Should call corporate, I should,” said Karen in a superior voice. “They’d explain how it’s your problem.”

“Just leave us alone,” snapped Ed, but he knew right away he had made a mistake.

“POLICE! POLICE!” Karen screamed at the top of her voice. “HELP, I’M BEING OPPRESSED! THEY’RE DENYING ME MY FREE SPEECH!”

Diving under Karen, they ran for it. They turned a corner and sprinted down a long corridor with just a single door at the end of it — but it wouldn’t open.

“What do we do now?” said Ed, panicking. “The door’s locked.”

“In ancient China, owning locks and keys was a status symbol afforded only to the wealthy. The ruling class often had padlocks shaped as animals,” said Josh.

“How is that helpful right now?”

Behind them, they could hear running as Kevin followed Karen’s shouts.

“We’re done for,” said Billy.

“Oh, move over and let me do it,” said Elahoraella, pushing Billy out of the way. She pulled out her enchanted celery, pointed it at the lock and whispered, “Open Sesame!”

The lock clicked and the door swung open — they rushed through it, closed it behind them, and then listened with their ears pressed up against the wood.

“Where are they, Karen?” they could hear Kevin asking. “Which way did they go?”

Excuse me? I don’t work for you. You work for me.”

“Just tell me where they went.”

“Are you paying me to help you? I think you’ll find that it’s you who should be telling me where they went.”

“I think we’re safe,” whispered Billy. “Karen isn’t telling him anything — stop it, Josh!” Josh had been pulling at the sleeve of his dressing gown. “What?”

Billy turned around — and saw, quite clearly, that they weren’t safe at all.

They weren’t in a cupboard as he had thought. They were in a passageway. They were in the proscribed passageway on the second floor. And now they knew why it was proscribed.

They were staring straight into the eyes of a gigantic mallard duck. A duck with two heads that filled the whole passageway.

Two pairs of black eyes that blinked curiously at them; two giant bills that could crack them in half as easily as if they were twigs. They looked down; two enormous webbed feet which could crush them all with a single step. It was as if the Quacken had risen.

“I’m sure there’s a simple egg-splanation for this,” said Billy.

“Do any of you have any duck tape with you?” asked Ed. “We could tape its bills shut.”

“Why don’t we distract it with food? I saw something on a duckumentary about that once.”

“I don’t have any quackers with me.”

“What about some quackamole?”

“Will you stop quacking jokes and focus,” said Elahoraella.

“We could throw a fire-quacker to startle it?”

It was Josh’s turn. “Ducks don’t normally mate for life. Most ducks seek out a new mate each year, often choosing the strongest and healthiest mate for that breeding season.”

One of the duck’s heads moved forward and gently nudged Ed as though checking to see if he was ripe.

“I think we should stop with the wise quacks now.”

Billy’s hand searched for the doorknob as, “QUACKKKKKK!” The duck’s second head harmonised with its first. Billy found the knob and as he pushed the door open, they fell backward out of the passageway. Billy jumped to his feet and slammed the door shut before the duck could push one of its heads through.

They were grateful that nothing else happened on their way back to the common room. Kevin had obviously gone off to look for them somewhere else, while Karen must have gone to leave the caretaker a negative Google review.

Billy performed an out-of-breath version of the passdance and they clambered into the common room before collapsing silently into armchairs by the fire. It was some time before any of them spoke.

“That duck had a quackitude,” said Ed finally. “What’s it doing inside a school?”

Elahoraella had got her breath back, and she was in a bad mood. “Didn’t any of you use your eyes?” she snapped. “It was standing on something.”

“Standing on something?”

“Didn’t you see the trapdoor below its feet? It’s obviously guarding something.”

“Protecting something from a robber ducky, you mean?”

Elahoraella stood up, glaring at them.

“I hope you’re both very pleased with yourselves. You could have got us all killed.”

“We didn’t make you come with us.”

“Go duck yourself, Ed,” said Elahoraella. And with that, she went off to her dormitory.

Ed felt Elahoraella’s comment had been fowl-play, but as he climbed back into bed five minutes later, Billy was thinking about something else she had said. The duck was guarding something… and then he remembered what Billy had told him months earlier; the only place more secure than the Sino Pauper Edo Recondo Mammonas Bank was Frogsports.

It looked as though he had just found out where the tiny package Barry had taken from vault sixty-nine was now hiding.

“Hey, Billy,” whispered Ed from his own bed. “This place is seriously messed up, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” said Billy. “It is.”

________________________________________________________________

A Small Ask

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Writer, comedian, actor, producer, publisher and former failed politician | part Jewish | bensfletcher.com |