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       Grabber, p.1

           Chris D'Lacey
 
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Grabber


  www.orchardbooks.co.uk

  ORCHARD BOOKS

  338 Euston Road, London NW1 3BH

  Orchard Books Australia

  Level 17/207 Kent Street, Sydney, NSW 2000

  First published in 2010 by Orchard Books

  This ebook edition published in 2011

  ISBN 978 1 40831 540 8

  Text © Chris d’Lacey 2010

  Illustrations © Adam Stower 2010

  The rights of Chris d’Lacey to be identified as the author and Adam Stower to be identified as the illustrator of this work have been asserted by them in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

  All rights reserved.

  A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

  Orchard Books is a division of Hachette Children’s Books,

  an Hachette UK company.

  www.hachette.co.uk

  For Anya

  Chapter One

  This story begins on a dark and stormy night. Well, actually, that’s not strictly true. It was definitely dark, but not exactly stormy. Though it probably should have been. For this is a tale of dreadful villainy. Of foul play, wickedness and shameful wrongdoings. It’s the story of a man who ought to have known better.

  And that man’s name is Ron the robber.

  It all takes place in the sleepy town of Scrubbley, on a quiet leafy road called Wayward Crescent. Most of the people who live in this Crescent are perfectly ordinary, respectable folks. But as some of you will know, the house towards the end, at number 42, is owned by a woman called Elizabeth Pennykettle – ‘Liz’ to her neighbours, ‘Mum’ to her nine-year-old daughter, Lucy.

  Now, though she’s respectable, Liz is not entirely ordinary. She makes dragons, clay dragons, which she sells on the market. There’s nothing very strange about that, of course. But every now and then, when a magical mood inspires her, Liz makes a special kind of dragon. One that might look like a normal solid sculpture, but is in fact real. Very, very real.

  This is how it was on the night that Ron the robber broke into Liz’s house. She had just made a new special dragon. A handsome young male. At that time his special abilities were not known. And he had no name.

  Liz had left him on her potter’s turntable, in her workroom upstairs which she called the Dragons’ Den, while she and Lucy had gone out for the evening. The new dragon was in the care of a female called Guinevere. Guinevere was Liz’s personal dragon and she was very special indeed. It was Guinevere’s job to ‘awaken’ the young dragons when they were made. How she did it was a secret, and the details are not to be written down here. All that matters for the moment is that the dragon on the turntable could blink and blow smoke rings and swish his tail. He was eager to test his wings as well. For there was lots to explore in the Dragons’ Den. The window that looked out onto the garden, for instance. And the shelves of fascinating dragon sculptures. But Guinevere had spoken firmly to him in dragontongue, telling him he must await Liz’s return before trying out his flying skills. Young dragons, she had said, had much to learn.

  So, there we have it. The scene is set. As the sun goes down and the Dragons’ Den falls into dusky shadow, picture the young dragon sitting and waiting, drumming his claws on the wooden turntable, warming the air with a hrrr now and then.

  Then, suddenly, his ears prick up. From somewhere far below he has heard a sound. A gentle crash. A sharp sort of tinkle. He is too young to know about the layout of the house, or that the sound is a small pane of glass breaking in the kitchen door. But he sits up eagerly, expectantly, keenly, wondering if this means his mistress is coming.

  Just then, however, another young dragon swoops into the den. This is Gruffen. He is a guard dragon, made to protect Lucy Pennykettle from danger. But Lucy is not here. She is in no danger. But Gruffen is concerned that the house might be.

  As he lands on the table next to Guinevere he tells her what he has seen downstairs. He was on the kitchen table when the glass was broken. He saw a gloved hand fiddle through the hole and turn the key which was sitting in the lock. He saw the door open and a man step in. Not Henry, the Pennykettles’ next door neighbour. A stranger. A stranger dressed like the night. Sturdy black boots. Black jacket. Black hat. A stranger carrying a flashing torch.

  Guinevere urges him to search through his book. (Gruffen has a book which he always carries with him, a kind of manual of dragon procedures.) By the light of Guinevere’s violet flame, he looks up the word ‘strangers’. The new young dragon leans forward to watch. This is very exciting! He wonders if life here is always like this?

  There is an entry in the book, but it is not very helpful. In the presence of strangers, act solid, it says. This is a rule all the special dragons know – except for those just born, of course.

  There is a creak on the landing. A footstep. Two. Light breaks at steep angles into the Den. Gruffen and Guinevere immediately turn solid, forgetting that the youngster doesn’t know what to do.

  A figure steps in. He is short. A little brawny. Stubble on the fatty parts of his chin. The light twists and burrs around the shelves, making soft glints as it catches on the ears and tails of clay.

  “Well, well, what ’ave we ’ere?” the figure says. A man. Soft-spoken. Quite elderly, perhaps. With slightly yellow teeth. And slightly fishy breath.

  The light flips again, towards the table. It passes over Guinevere. It passes over Gruffen. But when it hits the new dragon, he sits up and hrrrs…

  “What the—?” The light jerks back and stays there for a moment. Then it grows steadily big once more.

  The new dragon flaps his wings.

  “Well, dust my brain, you moved,” the voice croaks.

  The young dragon paddles his feet. He can’t understand the soft grunts the man is making, but he’s sure he’ll learn in time. A finger comes forward and prods his snout. Not quite the greeting the dragon was expecting, but contact, just the same. Now he can’t resist. He has got to fly. With a flutter that the stranger would have struggled to see, the little dragon lands in the palm of his hand.

  “Stone the crows! I’m ’aving you,” says the man.

  And he drops the young dragon into a sack.

  Into a world of dastardly robbery.

  Into a seedy life of crime…

  Chapter Two

  “They took the dragon?!” Lucy’s pale face froze in shock. “They burgled our house and stole a dragon?!”

  “Mmm. Strangely, nothing else was taken,” said Liz.

  After what seemed like a pause long enough to boil an egg, Lucy pulled a strand of straw-coloured hair from her mouth and added, “Mum, I don’t care about anything else! That dragon’s special. He’ll be frightened. He won’t know what to do. How are we going to get him back?”

  Her mother leaned against the worktop and hummed. “There’s no need to panic—”

  “’Course there is!” Lucy shouted. “He doesn’t know the rules. If he starts doing things, the person who took him will know he’s real! What does he do, anyway? What kind of dragon is he? Did you give him a name? Will we have to move house?”

  “Calm down,” said Liz. “One question at a time. No, I didn’t call him anything, and he won’t start showing any special ability until someone does give him a name – and even then it would have to begin with a ‘G’. It’s highly unlikely that the person who took him will do either of those things.”

  “But if they did,” persisted Lucy, “then what?”

  “Well, the dragon might begin to follow the habits of that person. Like animals do sometimes when they’re reared by different mothers.”

  Lucy wrinkled her nose.

  Liz tried to explain. “Imagine an orphaned baby duckling had been rescued by a wolf. After a time, the duck would start act
ing like a wolf.”

  “Uh?” went Lucy, momentarily distracted by the thought of a duckling howling at the moon. Then her eyes widened as she understood properly. “You mean the dragon will become a robber?!”

  Liz sighed heavily and folded her arms. “It won’t come to that. I agree the dragon might move around, but the robber will struggle to see him. Human eyes aren’t really quick enough to follow them, unless you’re special – like us.”

  To Lucy’s relief, Liz reached out and hugged her. “Don’t worry, we’ll find our dragon. Sooner or later he’s going to get fretful and start putting out some sort of call. The listener is on full alert. He’ll pick up any traces. We should be able to track it fairly easily.”

  Lucy glanced at the dragon on top of the fridge. Its big delicate ears were already turning like radar dishes.

  “It might be best,” Liz continued, “if we don’t tell anyone what’s happened.”

  “Oh,” said Lucy. Her shoulders stiffened.

  “Ah. I take it that means you’ve already rung Melanie?”

  Melanie was Lucy’s favourite friend. Lucy blushed and shook her head. “No, but I did tell someone…”

  At that point, the tall gawky figure of Henry Bacon appeared on the other side of the kitchen door. He was dressed from neck to toe in a one-piece white overall. In his right hand he was carrying a leather holdall. Without asking permission, he put a gloved hand through the broken pane of glass, turned the key and let himself in, just like Ron the robber had the night before.

  “Thought so. Common mistake, Mrs P. Key left on view. Open invitation to a felon, is that.”

  A puff of hot air came out of Liz’s mouth. “I take it this is the ‘someone’?” she asked.

  “Sorry,” Lucy said in a quiet little voice.

  Liz moved her aside. “All right, I’ll deal with it. Henry, why are you dressed in that ridiculous outfit? You look like a milk-flavoured lollipop.”

  Henry held up a hand. “Not too close, Mrs P. You’ll tarnish the crime scene.”

  “It’s my kitchen,” Liz said, her voice sounding ominous. “I’ll ‘tarnish’ it as much as I like.”

  “No, no.” Henry was adamant. “We need to gather forensic evidence.”

  “Foreign what?” said Lucy.

  “Forensics, child. Stand away. This could be messy.”

  Without further ado, Henry opened his holdall and produced, of all things, a bag of flour and a paintbrush. To Liz and Lucy’s astonishment (and even Gruffen’s, who flew stealthily forward to take a closer look) Henry dipped the brush into the flour and began to ‘paint’ it over the door frame.

  “Henry, what on earth are you doing?!”

  “Dusting for fingerprints, Mrs P. They’ll show up in the flour.”

  “I’ll dust you,” she barked, “if you don’t stop that.”

  She reached out to grab the paintbrush from him. But Henry turned suddenly and the movement threw a cloud of flour over Gruffen. The guard dragon sneezed and blew most of it back into Henry’s face.

  Momentarily blinded, Henry jerked to one side and put his elbow through another pane of glass in the door. The smash made Lucy squeal. As a result, Gruffen reacted as any guard dragon would. He hurred and sent out a jet of flame. The tip of the flame singed Henry’s wrist. Henry yelped and threw the bag of flour upwards. It hit the ceiling and split wide open, coating the entire kitchen in fluffy white powder.

  It was perhaps a good job that the front door bell rang at that moment, for Liz was on the verge of doing something unspeakable to her meddling neighbour. “OH!” she went and stomped down the hall. She yanked the door open.

  Two gentlemen in ties and mackintoshes were there. The older one was wearing a battered trilby hat. He raised an experienced eyebrow. “Is this a bad time, madam?” He nodded at Liz’s hair. Her beautiful red curls were peppered white.

  “Accident – in the kitchen. What do you want?”

  The older man showed an identity card. “I’m Detective Inspector Bumble and this is my junior, Sergeant Beale.”

  “Bee?” Liz said. “Bumble and Bee?”

  “Beale,” said the younger man, leaning forward politely.

  Liz worked up a small smile. A fine avalanche of flour fell from her hair.

  “Your neighbour, a Mr Bacon, reported a robbery. May we come in?”

  Liz tapped her foot. “It’s nothing serious.”

  Inspector Bumble gave a well-worn smile. “I think we should be the judge of that, Mrs…?”

  “Pennykettle.”

  “Thank you. There have been a number of burglaries in Wayward Crescent recently. This villain is becoming quite a nuisance. An interesting nuisance at that.”

  “Interesting? In what way?” asked Liz.

  “He only steals certain kinds of trinkets,” said Beale.

  “Not dragons?” said Liz.

  The two policemen looked at one another. Inspector Bumble nodded. “That would fit the pattern. This gentleman of the night is like a magpie, Mrs Pennykettle. He likes to collect up shiny objects: jewellery, gem stones – and on the odd occasion, toys…”

  Chapter Three

  Liz led the policemen through to the kitchen, warning them to watch where they put their feet.

  “Ah, good,” said Henry. “The cavalry’s arrived.”

  Inspector Bumble assessed the situation with a practised gaze. He ran a finger over the worktop, making a curving smear in the flour. Then he unwrapped a soft mint and popped it into his mouth. “You can leave the detecting to us now, sir. Perhaps you ought to take up cooking, instead?”

  “Nonsense,” said Henry, pointing to the door frame. “I’ve uncovered a print!”

  Sergeant Beale crouched down and squinted at it. “That’s not human. Looks more like a bird.”

  “Probably a dragon,” Liz said fractiously.

  Inspector Bumble chewed his mint. He glanced at Gruffen and the timing dragon, Gauge, who was sitting by the cooker. Both had turned solid, of course. “You mentioned dragons on the doorstep. Has one gone missing?”

  “Yes!” said Lucy, unable to stop herself.

  Liz rolled her eyes to the ceiling. So much for not telling anyone.

  The weight of the law now turned towards Lucy. “And what can you tell us about it, Miss?” Inspector Bumble cracked his knuckles and waited.

  “He’s very young,” Lucy said, aware that she was blushing.

  “He?”

  “It’s a boy.”

  “I see,” said Bumble. “Make a note of this, Beale.” The sergeant pulled a notebook out of his pocket. “Was it valuable?”

  “Mrs P. flogs her wares on her market stall,” said Henry. “Fifteen pounds each. Discount for two.”

  The inspector pursed his lips. “Not exactly a fortune, Mrs Pennykettle.”

  “He’s priceless to us,” said Liz.

  Sergeant Beale stepped forward with a digital camera. “Do you mind if I take a snapshot of one, just in case we collar this bloke?”

  Without waiting for permission, Sergeant Beale trained his camera back and forth on Gruffen. There was a flash. The sergeant checked the image – and frowned. “That’s odd,” he said. “I could have sworn it wasn’t smiling before I took the shot.”

  His superior officer sighed. “Let’s get on with the questioning, shall we, Beale? Have any of you seen anything suspicious lately? Any strange people lurking near the house?”

  Lucy thought for a moment, then her face suddenly lit up. “We haven’t,” she said, “but the d—”

  “Dog at number 30 has been barking,” said Liz, clamping her hand over Lucy’s mouth. “Perhaps, they’ve noticed something?”

  Inspector Bumble raised his chin, in the manner of a man who suspected that a secret was being kept from him. He threw a lop-sided glance at Lucy.

  Teeth gritted, she offered him a silent grin.

  “Can you give us a rough idea of what time the break-in took place?” asked Beale, licking the tip of his pencil as
he waited.

  Liz glanced sideways at Gauge. In a flash, the timing dragon moved his arms to indicate 9:15 on the clock.

  “Quarter past nine?” she said, as if it were a guess.

  Sergeant Beale jotted it down. “And was anything else taken?”

  “No,” Liz said, “just a dragon. But the robber did leave something behind…”

  From her pinafore pocket, she produced a bag of sweets.

  “Ah, barley sugars,” said Henry, his eyes lighting up. “My favourites. Very kind, Mrs P.” He reached forward to take one.

  Liz slapped his wrist. “These are evidence, Henry.”

  “Sweets?” said Lucy.

  Sergeant Beale nodded. “He sometimes leaves pear drops or sherbet lemons.”

  Lucy wrinkled her nose. “Why would a robber leave sweets?”

  Inspector Bumble put a finger underneath his hat. He pushed it back slightly, exposing a line of wrinkles on his forehead. “An excellent question, Miss. When we arrest him, and interrogate him, I’ll let you know.” And he unwrapped a barley sugar and popped it into his mouth. He turned to Liz. “I have to tell you that the chances of recovering your dragon are slim.”

  “I bet you we find him,” Lucy said, pitching forward.

  Inspector Bumble hummed, not unlike a bee. “Here’s my card,” he said, bending down to her. (The card was crumpled and smelled of mints.) “If you see anything odd, you give me a call.”

  “Might,” said Lucy, with a sullen sniff.

  The Inspector wagged a finger at her. He placed his hands in the small of his back and sipped his breath as he straightened himself up.

  Henry picked up a frying pan. “We’ll be ready for him if he comes back.”

  Inspector Bumble gave Henry a disapproving frown. “If I were you, I’d use that for cooking, sir. Unless you want to end up in the police station yourself.” He tipped his trilby hat towards Liz. “Thank you. We’ll let ourselves out.”

 
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