Chapter One – Eye Spy Copyright ©
It all started one evening in February, soon after our thirteenth birthday.
We were in the den: me, my twin sister Donna, and Donna’s best friend Emerald.
Our den is in an old railway carriage at the bottom of the garden. Don’t ask me why we have a railway carriage in the garden. It’s been there as long as I can remember. Dad took all the seats out and divided it in two. He turned half of it into a workshop for himself and gave the other half to us. It’s where I keep my favourite possessions, like the collection of detective stories that I inherited from Granddad.
That day we were arguing about whether you can foresee the future.
“I don’t believe in fortune-telling,” I said. “I don’t see how it could work. It’s just not scientific.”
Donna made a face at me. “That’s typical of you, Alex. Anything you can’t prove by doing a test in a lab is rubbish,. What about intuition? What about the sixth sense? You tell him, Em. You’re the expert.”
“Yeah, go on, Em,” I said, teasing her. “Tell us how it works.”
Emerald’s grandmother is a real Romany gypsy who tells fortunes in a booth at the fairground each summer, so if anyone understands how fortune-telling works, it should be Em. But she shook her head. “I don’t know how it works. It’s a gift. You either have it or you don’t. Nanna has it, and she thinks I have it too. She’s been teaching me how to read tarot cards.”
“Has she really?” Donna looked impressed. “Could you do a reading for me?”
Em thought for a moment. “Well… I suppose so. But remember, I’m not as good as Nanna yet.” She delved into her school bag and brought out a dog-eared pack of cards. As she shuffled them carefully, she said to Donna, “Ask me a question you want answered.”
“I know! Will Dad ever earn any money?”
It was a good question. Our dad’s different from other people’s dads. He doesn’t work in an office or a shop or a factory. He’s an inventor. Sometimes when he’s working on a new idea, he’ll lock himself away in the workshop for days at a time. We stay well clear of him then. If things are going well, he’’ll be in a really good mood when he resurfaces, singing opera in the bath and cracking endless jokes. But when things are going badly, he’ll mope around the house totally ignoring the rest of us and muttering to himself as if he’s talking to an invisible friend.
I once asked Nan why Dad’s the way he is. She sighed. “There’s often a very fine line between genius and madness, laddie, and sometimes even I can’t tell which side of the line your dad’s on.” I don’t get it. If Dad’s such a genius, how come nobody’s ever bought any of his inventions?
We watched as Emerald laid out six cards, face up on the old coffee table. When she’d finished, there were two cards in the centre, one laid across the other, and four more cards arranged around them in the form of a cross.
Em sat very still, staring at the cards and frowning slightly. “Come on!” Donna said after a few moments. “What do they say?”
Em jumped, as if she was coming out of a trance. She pointed to the two cards in the centre of the spread. “The card underneath shows the cause of your problem. It’s the Fool. He doesn’t want to have a boring job like everyone else and plan for the future. He’s not interested in money or appearances. He likes to do his own thing…”
Donna and I both shouted,“That’s Dad!” It was because Dad had never had a proper job that we had never owned things like expensive phones or designer trainers, but Em didn’t need cards to tell her that. She knew all about our dad.
Then Em pointed to the card lying on top of the Fool. It showed a woman in an old-fashioned dress carrying a bunch of keys. “That’s the Empress. She’s rich and powerful, like a queen bee. She could help you solve your problem if she wanted to.”
“Oh yes?” I said. “Where are we likely to meet a rich and powerful woman?”Nan’s the only woman in our lives at the moment. Because our mother died when we were born, it’s Nan who looks after us and pays the bills by working as a dinner lady at our school, Lea Green, and doing cleaning jobs on the side.
The next card, the one on the left, had the word ‘Death’ above the picture of a graveyard. I don’t believe in fate, but I shivered when I looked at it. “Is someone going to die?” I asked.
Em looked thoughtful. “Not necessarily. Most of the cards have more than one meaning. It could mean a big change in your life. Perhaps you’re going to come into some money. And Donna,” she giggled,“this card, the Chariot, shows how you let your heart rule your head. And that one there, the two of Wands, that’s Alex telling you to be less rash.”
I grinned. She was right, of course. Donna is the impulsive one, while I like to think things through before I act. Donna glared at Em. “Very funny. What about the last card?”
The last card had a picture of a tower with somebody falling through the air as if they’d either jumped or been pushed off the top. Em stared at it. For the first time she looked worried. “I think it’s linked to the Death card,” she said eventually. “I think it’s a warning about some form of danger.”
“What sort of danger?”
“I don’t know. It’s difficult to say. It can also mean you’re going to find out the truth about something.”
After Emerald had packed away her cards and gone home, we continued the argument. “I don’t care if she does have Romany blood,” I said.“I still think she made it all up. I mean, how likely is it that we’ll suddenly come into lots of money? It’s not as if Nan does the lottery. And when did Dad last earn anything? No, Em was just saying what fortune-tellers always say. It’s either you’ll meet a tall dark handsome stranger,or you’re going to be rich. It’s a load of rubbish.”
“You and Dad are just the same: you dismiss anything that’s not scientific.Maybe if he used his intuition more often, he’d be more successful.”
“And perhaps you two should have a bit more faith in your father,” said a voice from the doorway.
We both jumped. We’d been so busy arguing that we hadn’t heard him opening the door between the workshop and the den. Dad looked exhausted. His chin was sprouting stubble and his hair was standing up on end as if he’d been endlessly running his fingers through it, but his eyes were blazing with excitement.
“What is it, Dad?” said Donna.
He grinned at us. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet. Alex, Donna, this is Hamish…”
As Dad stepped back from the doorway we could see he was holding something like a TV remote control. There was a faint whirring noise, and a strange object started moving along the workroom floor towards us. It had a small domed body and six jointed metal legs. Two camera lenses took the place of eyes, and between the lenses were wiggly rubber arms with little pads on the ends like an insect’s antenna. It looked just like a mechanical tarantula.
Dad had built a robot!
At first we were both so stunned we couldn’t speak. Then Donna said,“Wow! He’s so cute!”
Dad looked disgusted. “For goodness’s sake, girl, he’s not a toy! He’s a sophisticated search and rescue device. We’re talking cutting-edge technology here!”
Donna looked sheepish. “Sorry, Dad, I didn’t realise.”
I wanted to know how the robot worked. “Why does he need antennae when he has camera lenses to see with?”
“Normally Hamish finds his way by touch using the antennae, which have sensors at their tips. However, the lenses can give advance warning of obstructions. They have infra-red thermal vision so they can see in the dark and through smoke. Look… I’ll show you.”
Dad drew us into his workroom and shut the door. He turned Hamish round so he was facing a large box that was standing in the middle of the floor. Then he switched off the lights. Apart from a faint red glow from the stove that heated the workroom, we were in total darkness.
We heard Dad tapping some buttons on the control and Hamish started to move forward again. Then the sounds of movement stopped and there was a loud BLEEP!
“Hear that? That’s his way of saying that there’s something blocking his path.” He switched the light on again. Hamish had stopped half a metre from the box.
“Why didn’t he go up to the box and touch it with his sensors?” Donna asked.
“I’ve programmed him to think any obstructions could be dangerous, so he stops before he reaches them.”
“How long have you been working on Hamish?” I asked. We’d had no idea he was working on anything major, although considering how much time he’d spent in the workshop recently, we really should have guessed.
Dad sat back in his computer chair and folded his arms. “About two years, I suppose, although I got the idea when I was working on that robotic lawnmower some time ago.”
I remembered the robotic lawn mower. It kept going out of control and careering across the lawn at sixty miles an hour like some weapon of mass destruction. “Never mind, Dad,” Donna had said. “It’ll make a great bird scarer.” Dad had moped about the house for ages afterwards, depressed that yet another idea had gone wrong. Now it looked like he’d turned his failure into something positive after all.
Dad started to talk about all the situations where Hamish could be really useful. “He can go into places that would be dangerous for humans because of radiation or landmines. He can climb stairs and get into confined spaces, so he can help find people in collapsed buildings. There are so many applications. And this is just Mark 1. I’m hoping Mark 2 will be able to think for himself, at least in some instances.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Our dad, creating artificial intelligence? Maybe he was a genius after all.
There were so many more things I wanted to know. What sort of company would be interested in a robot like Hamish? How long would it take to give him some form of intelligence? Would he make Dad a lot of money? But before I could ask any more questions, Dad turned to us with a really serious look on his face and said,“Right, you two, I need your promise that you won’t talk about what you’ve seen to anyone outside the family, not even your best friends.”
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” said Donna promptly. Why does she always have to be so dramatic?
He raised an eyebrow at me. “Alex?”
“Thank you. Now, I think Hamish deserves a rest, and so do I.A meal, a bath, and bed, in that order. I’m knackered.”
Dad put Hamish away carefully in a box under the workbench, then he ushered us out of the workshop and locked up for the night. As we followed him up the long winding path to the back door, I remembered all the times we’d been teased by the kids at Lea Green for having such a loopy dad. They think that because he’s weird, we must be too. If just one of Dad’s inventions could be a success, maybe people wouldn’t laugh at him anymore, or make fun of us when we stuck up for him. Then I thought about Em’s predictions. I didn’t really believe you could foretell the future, but suppose she was right? I was so busy imagining a bright future for us that I forgot all about her warning of danger to come…
THE GAMBLING DEN
The next morning, we were filing into the main building at Lea Green with the usual crowd of scared Year Sevens and snooty Year Tens. The Year Sevens were scared because most of them were still recovering from their first encounter with the Pitbull (that’s Mr Bull, our headteacher). The Year Tens were snooty because they thought that anyone who’s survived three years at Lea Green must be a superior being. We were in our second year, and although we made fun of the frightened Year Sevens, we weren’t quite as immune to old Pitbull as we pretended to be
The crowd in front of us started to divide in the middle, and a tall figure with a bushy white beard appeared in the gap. He was like Moses parting the Red Sea, as kids scattered in all directions. We flattened ourselves against the wall of the corridor as he brushed past us and strode out the front door. He looked like a grenade with the pin out, just waiting to go off. We could hear him bellowing “Carter!” as he disappeared round the corner of the building.
“The heating’s off again,” said Donna, shivering. “I bet he’s going to give Charlie a hard time!”
Charlie Carter was the school caretaker. It wasn’t really his fault that the temperature in the school varied between sub-tropical and Arctic, because the heating system was clapped out like almost everything else at Lea Green. Nan was always complaining that the kitchen equipment was out of the ark. She once organised a petition for better working conditions for the kitchen staff and got everybody to sign it, but it didn’t do any good. Bull threatened to sack them all and they were forced to back down. Ever since then, Bull sees us as a family of troublemakers.
The last lesson before lunch was Biology, and as Mr Owen droned on about cell division and drew endless squiggly diagrams on the board, I felt someone poke me in the back. It was Jason Dundy.
“Oi, Alex!” he whispered. “Boiler room. One o’clock. Tell Donna.”
Jason had been running lunchtime poker games in the boiler room all year. His dad runs the betting shop in town and Jason just loves to gamble. It was a miracle none of the teachers had sussed what was going on, but so far Jason had got away with it. He once told me that Charlie Carter had agreed to ignore the poker games in return for some of Mr Dundy’s hot racing tips.
As the bell rang for lunch, I grabbed Donna before she could disappear to the canteen, and told her about the poker game.
Donna grinned. “Great! Jason beat me last time. Now I can get my own back!” We hurried off to the boiler room, which was underneath the Science block. A blast of warm air hit us as we went down the steps to the basement; it looked as if Charlie had finally coaxed the boiler back to life. We passed him in his room, feet up on the table, eyes closed, snoring rhythmically. He probably felt he’d earned his rest.
In the middle of the boiler room, which was really a large cellar, a single light bulb hung low over a battered wooden table, lighting up the three people sitting round it.Apart from Jason, there wasCat Williams, who couldn’t play cards to save her life, but who’d been dangling after Jason all year, and RajiKapur. Raji’s mother is our Maths teacher and Raji’s always top of the class in Maths. Recently he’d been trying to work out an infallible system for winning at poker.
Jason was shuffling cards when we arrived, dividing the pack in two and then riffling the two piles together very fast. He must have spent ages learning that trick. He looked the part, too. He’d taken off his blazer and rolled up his shirtsleeves, and he was wearing an eye shade, just like a professional card player.
“Hurry up!” he called, when he saw us.“The sooner we start, the sooner someone’s going to make money.”Or lose it, I thought. None of us was as good at cards as him yet, and he knew it.
We sat down at the table. “What are the stakes?”I asked nervously. The only cash we had was our dinner money for the week. If Nan found out we’d lost it all in a poker game, she’d hit the roof.
“Fifty pence to start with,” Jason said. He looked at Donna. “You all right with that, babe?”
“Of course,” Donna said, giving Jason her sweetest smile. Jason’s the best-looking boy in the class and plenty of girls are after him, including Donna. Cat glared at her. You could tell she didn’t like Jason calling anyone else‘babe’.
Each of us put fifty pence on the table, then Jason dealt everyone five cards. We all inspected our hands, then the betting began. Catummed and ah-ed for a bit, but eventually she put fifty pence down on the table. Raji looked more confident as he added his fifty pence. Then it was Donna’s turn, and I guessed she had a good hand. She was sitting very still, hunched over her cards, concentrating hard, but I can always tell when she’s excited. She sort of vibrates. Poker is all about bluff, so I hoped nobody else had noticed, especially Jason. She waited a few moments, then gave a little shrug and threw her fifty pence piece onto the pile.
All I had was a pair of twos. It wasn’t worth fifty pence, but I paid up anyway. So did Jason, and then we were ready for the next round.
“Right,” said Jason. “D’youwant more cards, Cat? And don’t take for ever making up your mind this time.”
Cat looked pained. “I have to think, don’t I?” she grumbled. “OK, I’ll have three.”
Raji also asked for three. Then it was Donna’s turn. “I’ll have two, please.” So I was right. Anyone who asks for fewer than three cards usually has a good hand. Well, at least one of us was doing well. I asked for three cards, but they didn’t help me. Jason, who was looking pretty confident, dealt himself two cards.
Just then I becameaware of shuffling feet and whispering behind me. I looked round and saw that the room was crammed full of kids trying to elbow each other out of the way and see what was going on. Word must have got out that a game was in progress. With the boiler going full throttle and the heat from all those bodies, it was getting pretty hot in the cellar. I loosened my tie and hung my blazer over the back of my chair.
Ignoring all the onlookers, Jason turned to Cat. “What d’youwant to do?” This time she dithered so long that someone behind me called out, “Make up your mind!” Cat scowled, then laid down her cards.“OK, OK, I’m out.”
Raji tapped his fingers on the table as he did mental calculations, but eventually he made his bet. Jason looked at Donna. Slowly she dug a pound coin out of her pocket and flipped it onto the table. “I’ll raise you,” she said.
Things were hotting up now, in every sense of the word. All of us seated at the table were sweating as Jason turned to me. “Alex?” I shook my head “I’m out.”
That just left Jason, Raji and Donna in the game. “I’ll match you,” Jason said to Donna,as he added another coin to the pile. “Raji?”
Raji shook his head. “Fold,” he said regretfully as he threw down his cards.
I’d been silently counting up the money on the table. There was seven pounds and fifty pence in all. It was probably less than Jason got in pocket money each week, but to us it was a fortune. As Jason turned to Donna and said,“Your call, babe,” the room was so quiet you could have heard a snowflake fall to the floor. Everybody seemed to be holding their breath.
Donna leaned back in her chair. She placed two pound coins on the table and looked straight at Jason. “Raise you and see you.”
There was a sort of collective gasp. Jason shook his head. “I hope you know what you’re doing, babe,” he said. He laid his cards face up on the table. There was a pair of sixes and three kings. He had a full house.
Slowly Donna turned over her own cards so we could all see them. She had an ace, two, three, four and five. She’d beaten him!
The whole room erupted. While Jason sat there looking stunned, people were cheering and patting Donna on the back. Then suddenly an even louder roar drowned out the excited cries, and the room went quiet as if a soundtrack had been abruptly switched off.
Standing at the end of the table, his eyes popping out of his red face, was the Pitbull.
“And what have we here?” roared Bull into the sudden silence. His eyes fell on the pile of money on the table and understanding dawned.
“Ah! So that’s what all this is about!” he said, as he stretched out his hand and carefully pocketed the pile of coins. His eyes scanned the faces round the table and settled on Jason, who was trying unsuccessfully to make himself invisible.
“Dundy! I might have known it! Not content with enticing half of Year Eight away from their classes, you have turned part of the school premises into an illegal gambling den!”
He pushed his way through the crowd until he was standing directly in front of Jason, who had his back to the wall and couldn’t retreat any further.
“Your father will hear about this, boy, and I shall make it plain to him that any future card games will take place at home and not in my school! Is that clear?”
“Y…Y…Yes, sir!” said Jason. With Bull concentrating on Jason, a lot of the other kids were taking the opportunity to slip out of the room, including Cat and Raji. I wondered if I could do the same. Then I heard Donna’s voice.
“Please, sir, can I have my money back?”
Bull turned and glared at her. “Your money?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. I won it.”
Bull looked as if he was about to have a fit: his red cheeks were fast turning purple, and beads of sweat were forming on his bald scalp. He banged his fist down suddenly on the table, making us all jump, and then swept the cards off the table with his hand,
“Underage gambling is illegal! I will not tolerate it in this school! The money is confiscated; it will go into the repair fund. And you three will see me in my study after school. Now, get back to your classes, all of you!” With one last glare, he turned and strode out of the door.
It was difficult to concentrate for the rest of the day. Word had got round about the poker game, and all afternoon I noticed people pointing at us and whispering behind our backs. They were probably relieved that it wouldn’t be them waiting outside the Head’s study at 3.00pm.
The last lesson of the day was Maths with Mrs Kapur. Raji stared fixedly at his worksheet the whole lesson and didn’t stick his hand up once. I guessed Mrs Kapur had found out he’d been one of the poker players, and threatened him with all sorts of dire punishments if he did it again. At the end of the lesson, as we all started to pack up our notebooks and calculators, Mrs Kapur gave Donna, Jason and me a steely glare and said, “You’d better get up to the Head’s office right away. You don’t want to keep him waiting, do you?”
No, we didn’t. Nobody with any sense would do that when he was already in a bad mood.
As we stood in the corridor outside the door marked ‘MR EDWARD BULL, HEADTEACHER’, nobody said very much. Donna looked pale, and was ignoring both of us. Jason was wearing his ‘see if I care’ expression, but underneath you could tell he was nervous. I just wanted the whole thing to be over.
After a while we heard raised voices from Mr Bull’s study. I was edging closer to try and find out what was going on when I heard footsteps crossing the room. I just had time to spring away from the door before Mrs Wainwright, the school secretary, came out, looking flustered, and scuttled off down the corridor like a frightened hamster. I guessed the Pitbull had been getting some practice in on her while he waited for us.
Just then the door opened again and a shadow loomed. Bull barely looked at us as he barked, “Inside!”
We trailed in after him and he shut the door.
Jason shuffled his feet and looked nervously at Bull. Bull stood right in front of him and leant down slightly so that his face was on a level with Jason’s.
“I’ll be phoning your father, boy, to request that any future business enterprises of yours take place off my territory. Understood?”
“You’re suspended for a week! And if I ever find a pack of cards in your possession in future, you’re out. Got it?”
“Yessir!” Jasonsaid again.
Bull pointed to the empty secretary’s room next door. “Now go in there and write out two hundred times ‘I will not play poker in school’. Go!” Jason fled.
He turned to us. My heart sank. I knew what he was going to say.
“And how is it, I wonder, that whenever trouble rears its ugly head, there’s always a Macintyre around? Is it something in the genes? Your grandmother incites revolt in the kitchen. Your father once nearly blew up the Science lab. And now I find you spending your break-time gambling! Why couldn’t you take after your mother instead of your father, eh?”
He was working himself up into a real frenzy. I willed Donna not to make a fuss about the money; he’d go ballistic if she did. Luckily, she kept her mouth shut.
He went on for another five minutes at great length about how unsatisfactory we were as human beings and how we were going to grow up into lazy, work-shy adults who never achieved their full potential (that was a dig at Dad). Eventually he ran out of steam and sent us off to join Jason in the secretary’s room. He sat at his desk doing paperwork and glowering at us from time to time through the open doorway while we scribbled away obediently. Eventually, after another warning to behave or face the consequences, he let us go.
Once we were outside the school gates we all relaxed a little. “What d’you think your dad’s going to say when Bull phones him?” I asked Jason.
He grinned. “I don’t reckon Dad’ll make much of a fuss. After all, I’m just carrying on the family tradition, aren’t I? What about your dad?”
“Dad won’t care, but Nan will hit the roof.” Nan’s very big on the importance of school if you want to succeed in life.
“Yes, Nan will be furious,” said Donna gloomily. “She doesn’t approve of gambling. She won’t even do the lottery.”
Jason gave her a lazy smile. “Just as well she doesn’t play poker. You’d win hands down every time. You’re a natural. Not like that dozy Cat Williams.” Donna didn’t reply, but her cheeks went a rosy pink.
We left Jason at the bus stop, waiting for the bus into town, while we carried on walking towards home. It was freezing cold with sudden gusts of wind so strong it was hard to stand upright, but Donna was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she hardly seemed to notice. After a while she stopped suddenly and turned to me. “How dare Bull confiscate that money? It’s my money, and I had plans for it!”
“Making a fuss about it just made him even angrier. You should have kept your mouth shut.”
“That’s easy for you to say. It wasn’t your money.”
While Donna brooded over the money, I worried about what would happen when we got home. Both of us were preoccupied with our thoughts, but the wind was so strong nowthat it was difficult to ignore it. There was a lot of rubbish being blown around, and as we walked past a long fence covered in graffiti and small posters, one of them came unstuck and blew right in my face. As I caught it and absent-mindedly thrust it into my pocket, I remembered something Bull had said to us when we were in his study.
“Hey, Donna, we ought to ask Dad about the time he nearly blew up the Science lab. Have you heard that story before?”
“I have. I think he was trying to make a rocket, only it went off too soon. He was in his last year, and the Pitbull had just become Head.”
“You never told me.”
“You never asked.” She grinned at me, and I heaved a sigh of relief. The old, cheerful Donna was back, the one who had disappeared recently. Then I thought of something else the Head had said.
“What d’you think Bull meant about us not taking after our mother? Surely he never knew her?”
Donna frowned. “I suppose she could have been at Lea Green the same time as Dad. Maybe they were childhood sweethearts. We just don’t know, do we?”
And we weren’t going to find out either, if the past was anything to go by. Neither Nan nor Dad would ever talk about our mother, but Nan once told me that Dad was a changed man after losing Annie. Now I began to wonder what our mother had been like for her death to have had such an effect on him. Bull seemed to be trying to make out that she was some sort of saint, while Donna, Dad, Nan and I were lazy, good-for-nothing troublemakers. It was wrong that he knew more about her than we did. I decided there and then that somehow I’d find a way to learn more about our mother.
About the author
Tessa Buckley lives near Southend-on-Sea in Essex with her husband Gwyn, a retired teacher, and her son Patrick. She spent her early childhood in Surrey, then moved to Wimbledon before going to art college where she studied Interior Design. She began her writing career after moving to Essex with her young family, and since then has written extensively on food and nutrition and family history. She is also (when not too busy with writing!) working her way through an Open University history degree. Her first published work was a book about nutritional therapy. Eye Spy is her first novel, and the first in a series about Alex and Donna Macintyre and Eye Spy Investigations.
She is a member of the Society of Authors the Alliance of Independent Authors, and Southend Writers and Artists Network. http://tessabuckley.com/
To buy or see more of Eye Spy by Tessa Buckley click the Amazon store near you.