The Lady Vanishes
Of course, there was nothing. Nothing but the shrill screams of the seagulls as they wheeled about the blue sky. Nothing that could have provoked this uneasy feeling. No oddly familiar face in the crowd; no hunched figure with collar turned up and cap rammed down hard over the eyes, loitering by the candy-floss stall, or squinting through a rifle’s sights at the shooting range. In short, nothing suspicious whatsoever.
Martin glanced over his shoulder again, compulsively.
‘So, are you coming on the ride then?’ asked his sister Esther. Her face, burnished a nut-brown from a week of sun and wind, registered impatience.
Martin looked doubtfully towards the gaping black entrance of the ‘Devil’s Hollow’. ‘SCARE YOURSELF WITLESS IN OUR GRISLY GROTTO’ exclaimed a sign above the tunnel entrance. He couldn’t make out anything at all beyond the gloomy cavern, where a rickety cart stood waiting to whisk them into the unknown.
‘I wanted to go in the Hall of Mirrors,’ he said peevishly.
‘What for? They couldn’t make you look any funnier than you do already.’
‘No, but there’d be like three hundred of me. See, now who’s scared?’
A bevy of screams rent the air as the rollercoaster racketed overhead. The seagulls were temporarily silenced; but once the shrieks had died away the gulls started up their harsh complaint again, ark ark ark.
Or maybe they were crows. Martin didn’t know about birds; he only knew that their insistent cries were making him uneasy.
‘Go on Mar, we went on the tea-cups with you,’ Mum said.
Martin pretended to check his watch. ‘You know, it’s been a long day, I think I might just —’
‘Oh, seriously. You’ve been kidnapped by a dangerous lunatic, held at gunpoint, tossed into a lake… and you’re scared of a lame fairground ride?’ Esther demanded with lofty disdain.
‘I’m not scared. I just don’t like spooky rides. And anyway, those tea-cups went really fast.’
‘Come on, Mar,’ said his sister, dragging him by one arm.
‘Mum?’ he appealed.
‘I’ll go on it if you will,’ Mum said, unhelpfully.
‘Sit next to me then.’
And so Mum and Martin climbed into the front of the rickety cart, their knees pressing up against the metal bar, and Esther got in behind them.
‘Why do I ever listen to you?’ Martin grumbled, taking one last nervous glance over his shoulder and gripping the bar tightly.
With a jerk, the cart shot forwards and into the darkness.
‘See, not so bad, is it?’ demanded Esther, as they trundled tamely around bends, past displays where waxworks brandished axes and gorged on each other’s blood. Occasionally the odd hollow laugh would ring out; and once Mum screamed as something brushed against their faces.
The next minute a skeleton in tattered rags loomed across their path, and Martin jumped.
‘You ok Mar?’ Mum squeezed his hand.
‘Hey! I’m not the one who screamed at a fake cobweb,’ he retorted.
Suddenly there was a loud bang and a flash of light up ahead, like an electrical explosion, and the cart lurched to a halt. The emergency lights flickered on, then off again. A low electrical hum fizzed and stuttered and the cart they were sitting in swayed alarmingly.
‘I don’t think this is part of the ride,’ whispered Mum in a terrified falsetto.
After the first stunned silence, people were beginning to talk all around them. In the darkness, the welter of muttering voices was more sinister than anything. Martin couldn’t shake off the sensation that there was someone watching them…
And then, the hands gripping his shoulders.
Of course, it could be Esther. It must be Esther, trying to reassure him. Her hands were cold and clammy. Perhaps she was scared too. Her fingers were long and bony, with a powerful grip. Martin could have sworn his sister’s hands were neither so big nor so powerful. He sat frozen, paralysed, unable to turn around, unable even to make a sound. If this was her trying to reassure him, it was having quite the opposite effect.
The hands released him, as lights from mobile phones began swooping around in the blackness. An automated voice told them to please remain seated in the cars. No sooner had it spoken, than the carts jolted forward again without any warning, throwing Martin hard against the backrest. They began careering down the tunnel with a dreadful grinding of gears and clanking of wheels, hurtling through the darkness, and now the disembodied laughter seemed to be mocking them… until finally they burst out into the welcome light of day.
Everybody on the ride uttered a collective sigh of relief. For a minute they just sat blinking like rabbits at the bright lights of the amusement park.
‘Well, I don’t think even Esther would describe that as ‘lame’,’ joked Mum shakily. ‘Would you Est? Est?’
Martin and Mum both turned round in their seats to look at Esther, who was being unusually quiet.
But the seat behind was empty. Esther was gone.
Esther put the story down and looked blankly at Mum.
‘What – that’s just it? ‘Esther was gone’?’
‘You don’t like it?’
‘Well… it puts rather a different spin on last summer’s events.’
‘For your information, I did not go on the tea-cups,’ Martin said. ‘But apart from that I think it’s a great ending.’
‘Thirteen-year-old girls don’t just vanish,’ said Esther stubbornly.
‘But we live in hope,’ said Martin.
He dived across the room, deftly avoiding a punch thrown by his sister.
‘If you’re not happy with it I’ll change it,’ said Mum. ‘I mean, it’s your story, yours and Martin’s. You two went through hell and high water – literally. You have the right for the story to be told the way you want it to be.’
‘That could be a good name for it,’ said Martin. ‘Through Hell and High Water.’
‘No – what about: Under Loch and Quay?’ said Esther.
‘Under Loch and Quay… hmmm, I like it.’
Esther appeared slightly mollified now that Mum had chosen her suggestion for a title.
‘So why the vanishing girl?’ she asked. ‘Was it not exciting enough having your identity stolen and nearly drowning?’
‘I was struggling with the ending,’ said Mum. ‘And then I thought – that would be neat: solve one mystery and open the door to another…’
‘You’re going to write more books then?’ asked Martin.
‘I might. But that doesn’t mean I’m giving you two leave to go gallivanting off around the countryside, looking for source material. The next adventure is going to come purely out of my head.’
‘Whilst we’ll be safely at school, where the chances of anything interesting happening are about as likely as Martin being the most popular boy in the year,’ said Esther gloomily.