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Bluebell Bay, Jurassic Coast, England
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” asked Kat Wolfe.
“Positive,” puffed Harper Lamb, struggling up the cliff path from the village. “How else would I get to see the mystery mansion I’ve heard so much about? Didn’t you say that this is the only way up to it?”
Kat stopped in shock as Harper suddenly tripped in the most treacherous section of the climb—the part where the railing ended and the cliff edge was exposed to the sea. With nothing to stop her, she pitched headfirst toward oblivion. Leaping to grab her best friend’s arm, Kat caught a dizzying glimpse of waves foaming around the rocks in the bay far below.
“Let’s come back next week or the one after that,” she suggested, steering Harper to the safe side of the path and getting scratched by brambles for her efforts. “We have the whole of the summer holidays. It’s not as if Avalon Heights is going anywhere.”
The American girl polished sea spray from her glasses before answering. Three and a half months after breaking both legs falling off her racehorse, Charming Outlaw, she was still weak, and she tired easily. But, though her heart was pounding practically out of her chest and her long-unused thigh muscles were burning, she refused to admit defeat.
Throughout the solving of their last case, Harper had been confined to the sofa in Paradise House, the home she shared with her paleontologist father and their housekeeper, Nettie. The girls had met soon after Kat, whose mum was the seaside town’s resident vet, started a pet-sitting agency to make pocket money. Harper’s dad had hired Kat to exercise Charming Outlaw while his daughter was in plaster.
Around the same time, Kat had been asked to take care of an Amazon parrot then living at Avalon Heights. Harper vividly recalled Kat describing her first visit to the house. She’d clambered up the cliff path in freezing fog, only to find the front door ajar and the parrot agitated and gibbering, his owner missing. A series of strange events had convinced Kat that the bird’s owner was the victim of foul play. She’d turned to Harper for help in solving the mystery. It had been the start of an adventure that had almost cost them their lives.
Today, the sky was a cheerful blue, scrubbed clean of clouds. The July sun felt toasty on Harper’s skin. Even so, a chill rippled through her as she gazed up at the steel-and-glass house, its deck jutting like a clenched jaw over the ocean.
“Earth to Harper. Want to turn back?” Kat was saying.
“Why? Are you scared?”
“What? Of course not! Why?… Are you?”
Harper grinned. “Not today. For months, I was so creeped out by your stories about Avalon Heights that I’d have been petrified to set foot in it. But I don’t feel that way now. I’m super excited. I can’t wait to see if it’s how I pictured it.”
And with that, she set off up the final steep stretch of path, wincing but determined not to complain. Kat hurried after her. A minute later, they were on the steps of the futuristic house. A swinging FOR RENT sign screeched forlornly in the wind.
Kat rang the doorbell.
Harper stared at her. “I thought you said the place was empty.”
“It is. The estate agent came into the clinic yesterday to buy puppy food. She told my mum that it’s taking time to find the right tenant. I’m just checking that there’s no one else here. The agency might have sent in a cleaner or handyman.”
She jabbed the bell again.
Harper was now having second thoughts. “What happens if we’re caught? Do you think we’ll be arrested?”
“I doubt it.” Kat tapped the entry code into a security panel. “Everything that made the house secret and special is gone. But it’s still private property. We’d get into trouble for trespassing. We’ll have to be quick. In and out. A peek is all you get. And don’t touch anything.” She frowned at the lock and tried different combinations.
A sharp gust sent another shiver through Harper. Why in the world had she told Kat that she’d die of curiosity if she didn’t get to see inside the house that had figured so powerfully in their last mystery? Right now, she wished she was safely on the sofa at Paradise House. Up close, Avalon Heights had a chilly, unwelcoming air.
“I’ve changed my mind. Let’s go.”
Steel bolts snapped back. The heavy door swung open. Kat disappeared inside. Harper followed reluctantly, leaving her sneakers beside Kat’s in the hall.
The minute she walked in, she forgot to be nervous. Forgot that just because the previous tenant had given Kat the door code didn’t mean it was okay to use it. Forgot everything except the mind-bending house, with its all-glass front and eye-popping views. The glittering indigo sea seemed to spill in through the windows in a sunlit wave.
“Oh, Kat, it’s even better than I imagined! My dream house times ten. I’d move in today if I could. Look at the home cinema and— Ohmigosh, is that a gym? Uh, what’s wrong?”
Kat was at the foot of the steel staircase, staring up, her freckled face alert. She put her finger to her lips and mouthed: “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Harper mouthed back.
“A sort of tortured groan.”
Harper heard only the muffled crash of waves. Now that she was inside it, the house didn’t seem scary in the least. “Could be a bird in the roof, or maybe the water pipes,” she said, not bothering to lower her voice. “That can happen if a place has been empty for a while. Stop being a scaredy-cat, Kat, and show me around.”
Harper began to twirl around the vast living room, wobbly as a newborn foal.
Kat cast one more glance up the stairs before deciding she was worrying about nothing. She skated across the polished floorboards in her socks, skidding to a halt and taking a bow. Harper danced her way into the kitchen, singing as she went.
“Careful!” Kat laughed, jumping to save a vase that Harper almost swept to the floor. “If we break something, it’ll take a lot of explaining.”
She peered under the breakfast bar. “Remember me telling you how I found an army-type briefcase here? I’m sure it came from a hidden compartment in the kitchen. I still have it, you know. There’s nothing interesting in it. Just some old—”
There was a crash. Kat sprang up, nearly bashing her head. “Oh, Harper, what have you done?”
A shelf lined with dinosaur mugs now had a glaring gap. Tyrannosaurus rex was in pieces.
Harper was aghast. “It wasn’t me—I promise! I was nowhere near it.”
“A poltergeist did it—is that what you’re saying?”
“Probably the exact same poltergeist you heard moaning and groaning upstairs,” retorted Harper. “Seriously, Kat, I was standing right here when T. rex sprang into the air as if it were jet-propelled. But don’t worry. I’ve seen those mugs in the deli. I’ll buy one with my pocket money, and we’ll figure out—”
She clutched the kitchen bench. “What’s going on?”
The floor and shelves had begun to shudder. Pots clattered against saucepans, and the row of mugs clinked madly. In the living room, the chandelier tinkled like a wind chime in a gale.
As abruptly as it had started, the shaking stopped, but not before the shelf had ejected another dinosaur.
“The poor stegosaurus!” Harper poked at its shattered remains. “I love those.”
Kat was wide-eyed. “Never mind the stegosaurus. What just happened?”
“Last time I felt vibrations like that was in San Francisco during an earthquake. By California standards, it was barely a blip, but I wouldn’t want to go through another.”
“We don’t really have earthquakes in the UK—not serious ones anyway,” Kat reassured her. “West Dorset had a tremor last year, but Mum says it wouldn’t have cracked an egg. Maybe they’re holding a parade or a drill at the military base across town? The soldiers are forever practicing blowing stuff up. If it was a big enough blast, we’d feel the aftershock.”
“Up here? At the top of the cliff?” Harper looked doubtful. “Kat, what if the house really is haunted?”
“Don’t ghosts prefer Gothic ruins?” joked Kat, although in truth she was spooked. She fetched a dustpan and swept up the mess. “Let’s get out of here before anything else is destroyed and we take the blame.”
“We can’t leave before I’ve been out on the deck!” cried Harper. “Oh, please, Kat. That’s the part I’ve been looking forward to most.”
Kat glanced at the chandelier. The last time she’d visited, a craftily concealed CCTV camera had recorded her every move. It was gone now, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that they were being watched.
“All right, but hurry.” She put on her sneakers, ready to leave.
“Hurrying,” said Harper, pulling on her own shoes and limping across the living room. “Moving faster than the speed of light.” She slid open the glass door and stepped out onto the deck. “Wow! Double wow. Imagine filling that hot tub with bubbles and sitting there, gazing out to sea.”
Kat said, “Can we go now?”
“In a second.” Harper put her eye to a telescope and rotated it slowly. She took in the snaking gold line of the Jurassic Coast, the lush green fields, and the razor wire and guard towers of the army base before turning to the turquoise cove that gave Bluebell Bay its name. The pretty pastel town formed a crescent around it.
“Kat, I never knew it was possible to see the whole of Bluebell Bay. There are no soldiers on the firing range, so it can’t have been a bomb drill that shook the house. And it wasn’t a quake, because Edith, our favorite librarian, is chatting away to some kids outside the Armchair Adventurers’ Club. None of them seem bothered. Nor do the newlyweds arriving at the Grand Hotel Majestic in their Rolls-Royce. Dad was invited to an event there last month. He says the place is spectacular, and he’s normally never impressed by anything newer than a hundred million years old.”
Kat was hardly listening. She wished they’d never come. “I’m counting to three, and then I’m going—with or without you.”
“Okay, okay—keep your wig on.” But Harper stayed where she was, transfixed by the view.
“One … two…”
“Hey, what’s that?” The telescope tilted sharply downward.
“Don’t know and don’t care,” said Kat, losing patience. “I’m leaving.”
“There’s a dog. I think it might have fallen down the cliff.”
“A dog? Let me see! Is it hurt?”
Kat flew to Harper’s side and pressed her eye to the viewfinder. A brown-and-white blur was moving behind a gorse bush on the rickety old beach steps that led from the cliff at the far side of the property to a small sandy cove. The steps, which were even steeper and more treacherous than the path up from the village, were closed to the public. Kat adjusted the focus, but the creature had lain down. All she could make out was an ear.
She leaned over the railings in an effort to get closer to the steps that zigzagged down the cliff. The minutes ticked by with no further movement. “Do you think it’s climbed up on its own?”
“I’m sure it’s fine,” replied Harper, more with hope than conviction. “Probably scampering around Bluebell Bay by now, stealing sausages.”
A howl of pain cut through the air. From that moment on, Harper knew that nothing short of a nuclear disaster would convince Kat to leave without the dog. Nor did Harper want her to. It’s just that there were two ways of rescuing it, and she was already sure that she was not going to like the Kat Wolfe way.
It was too late. Kat was already halfway down the fire ladder on the side of the deck. She ran along the cliff’s edge and leaned past the warning sign at the top of the crumbling steps. “There it is!” she shouted over her shoulder. “Looks like a border collie. Seems to be trapped. I’m going down to try to free it.”
“Are you nuts?” demanded Harper from the deck. “Those steps are closed to the public for good reason. Any second now, they might fall into the sea. And if the dog is hurt, it could bite you. What if it has rabies? Don’t move. I’m on my way!”
Harper left the house via the front door and rushed to Kat’s side. “Let’s call your mum. She’ll know what to do.”
“Mum will be operating now. By the time she gets the message and calls the fire brigade or whoever, it might be too late—especially if the dog is bleeding or severely dehydrated. In emergency situations, every minute counts.”
“What about Sergeant Singh?” persisted Harper. “If he’s not out chasing burglars, he could sprint up here and lend a hand.”
Kat shook her head. “If the dog is nervous, more people will only make it worse. Harper, these steps have been shut for years. There are whole gorse bushes and hay fields growing up through the cracks. They’re not going to collapse in the next ten minutes. The quicker I go, the quicker I’ll be back.”
Without waiting for a reply, she squeezed past the warning sign and started down the steps. She rounded the bend and was gone.
Left alone, Harper suddenly felt fearful. What if Kat fell? Fifty meters below, the waves steamed up to the rocks with unnerving force. She tried to comfort herself with the knowledge that the cliff had stood for millions of years and survived marauding dinosaurs. It didn’t help. She kept envisioning Kat being crushed flatter than a tortilla by falling boulders.
“Kat! Come back! Please, let’s call the emergency services!”
Invisible, Kat responded in the calm, patient voice she used around frightened animals. “Harper, I’m close to the dog, so I’m going to be quiet in case I scare it. Don’t panic if you don’t hear anything.”
Don’t panic if you don’t hear anything.
Easier said than done.
Text copyright © 2019 Lauren St John