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Authors: Richard Newsome

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BOOK: The House of Puzzles
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Alex puffed out his chest. ‘Simple,’ he said. ‘It would be the same as the Baranov
family crest:
Victoria Super Omnia
: Victory above All.’

Ruby considered this for a second. ‘Strong,’ she said. ‘I like it.’ She turned to
Gerald. ‘What do you have for me?’

Gerald started to perspire. ‘Uh, I don’t know. I’d have to ask Sam and Felicity.’

‘One minute!’ Mr Beare called.

Ruby raised an eyebrow. ‘You better hurry,’ she said.

Gerald’s forehead was awash. If he couldn’t convince Ruby there would be no time
to find another teammate: he, Sam and Felicity would be disqualified and out of the
Triple Crown.

‘Uh—
Ruby Is Always Right
,’ Gerald said in a rush.

Ruby pricked up her ears. ‘Say that again,’ she said.

Gerald blinked. ‘Ruby Is Always Right.’

‘Hmmm,’ Ruby said. ‘I like the sound of that.’ She pondered for a moment,

‘Thirty seconds!’ Mr Beare called.

Again, Ruby looked from Gerald to Alex. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘I choose…Gerald’s
team.’

Gerald pumped his one good fist just as Mr Beare called time.

Ruby put a hand on Alex’s forearm. ‘I’m sorry, Alex,’
she said. ‘Does that mean you
don’t have a full team?’

Alex did not look at her, but stared daggers at Gerald. ‘Oh no. Owen and I paired
up with Millicent and Gretchen days ago.’

Ruby looked confused. ‘Then why did you ask me to join?’ she asked.

Alex grinned. ‘I was going to punt Gretchen if you said yes. And I figured if you
did join us that would leave Wilkins one person short and then he’d be out of the
challenge. I guess Gretchen owes you a favour.’ He gave Ruby a wink. ‘Shame—you could
have been a winner.’ Alex turned his back, walked over to Owen, Millicent and Gretchen,
and threw his arms around their shoulders.

Ruby grinned up at Gerald. ‘That was a bit of fun,’ she said brightly. ‘I reckon
our team will go really well.’

‘What was that all about?’ Gerald demanded.

‘Now, what’s the team motto?’

‘Don’t you—’

‘Team motto?’ Ruby repeated.

Gerald groaned. ‘Ruby is always right,’ he said.

A broad smile spread across Ruby’s face. ‘It’s music to my ears,’ she said.

Chapter 5

Felicity sat slumped on her backpack and checked her watch for what seemed the hundredth
time that day. ‘This is taking forever,’ she grumbled.

Sam lounged on the ground beside her, his legs splayed in front of him. He wore a
beanie on his head and a bored expression on his face. ‘Why did Mr Beare make us
the last team out?’ he asked.

‘Because we were the last ones to form a team,’ Gerald said. He was leaning against
a doorway overlooking the empty car park. He sent a pebble skittering across the
driveway. ‘I wonder whose fault that was.’

Ruby sidled up to Gerald and tossed him an apple. ‘Quit griping,’ she said. ‘People
might think you’re not having a good time.’

Gerald caught the apple in his good hand and took a bite. ‘Being the last of fifty
teams is hardly an advantage, is it?’ he said. ‘We’ll only have a few hours of light
before we have to make our camp.’

‘So what?’ Ruby said. ‘We’ll have a nice night around a campfire, sing some songs
and make it to the checkpoint in the morning. It’s no big deal.’

Gerald kicked at another stone. ‘I’ve heard your singing,’ he said. ‘All I’m saying
is—’

‘No, no,’ Ruby said. ‘Team motto?’

Gerald, Felicity and Sam sounded a laboured chorus of, ‘Ruby is always right.’

Ruby grinned from ear to ear. ‘That never gets old.’

Mr Beare popped his head around the doorframe. ‘All right you lot,’ he said. ‘You
can head off now. Best of luck.’

Felicity raised herself from her pack and took Sam’s hand, pulling him to his feet.
‘Let’s go before my legs seize up entirely,’ she said.

The four of them hoisted their packs to their shoulders and trudged across to the
tree-lined lane that led to the road.

The day was grey and still, with clouds sinking into the surrounding hilltops.

‘So, how long is this going to take?’ Sam asked.

‘Probably six or seven hours, depending on how flat it is,’ Ruby said. ‘By the look
of this map, we have to cross a fair amount of open country.’

Sam adjusted his pack on his shoulders. ‘Try to avoid the hilly bits then.’

They reached the wooden arch that spanned the front gate and Gerald looked up at
the words carved into the top span. ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,’
he read out loud. ‘Seems a pretty good motto.’

Ruby clicked her tongue. ‘Not as good as ours,’ she said. ‘But I suppose it might
work for some people. Now, according to the map we should head north up the road
for a mile or so then north-west across a field.’

‘How will we know when we’ve gone far enough?’ Felicity said. ‘I don’t fancy walking
any further than we have to.’

Ruby nudged Sam with her elbow. ‘Do you have those clues from Mr Beare?’

Sam dug in his pocket and unfolded a sheet of paper. ‘Let’s see,’ he said. ‘The dead
centre of town.’ He looked up, confused. ‘There’s a town near here? I thought we
were in the middle of nowhere.’

Ruby looked at the map. ‘Strange,’ she said. ‘There’s no town marked.’

Gerald crossed the road. ‘We’ll just have to see what we find,’ he said. For a while
he walked along lost in thought. His brain buzzed about his friend, Professor McElderry.
Alex Baranov had managed to get under Gerald’s skin about that, and Gerald could
not dodge the feeling that maybe, in some small way, he was responsible for the
professor’s disappearance.

Gerald looked up as Ruby fell into step alongside him. ‘So,’ he said. ‘Your mate,
Alex Baranov.’

Ruby thrust her thumbs under the shoulder straps of her pack. ‘Yeah? What about him?’

‘Do you reckon he might be the Hello Kitty bandit?’

Ruby laughed. ‘What makes you think that?’

‘Twice now I could have been knocked out of the Triple Crown,’ Gerald said. ‘Baranov
tried to poach you for his team and that would have left me high, dry and disqualified
from the challenge.’

‘And?’

‘And the Hello Kitty attack on the first night. Whoever did that was determined that
I not even sign on for the Triple Crown.’

‘But why would you think Alex was responsible for that?’ Ruby asked.

‘He seems pretty tight with Millicent. He could have taken the pillowcase from her
pack, easy.’

Ruby thought for a moment. ‘Not everything is about you, Gerald. Why would Alex want
to knock you out of some school camp challenge? It’s not like there’s much at stake.’

Gerald trudged on, his brow furrowed. He caught a glimpse of Ruby’s face from the
corner of his eye. As far as he was concerned, there was a lot at stake.

Three short pips of a car horn sounded from behind. They stood to the side of the
road as a dirty green Land Rover slowed next to them. The passenger-side window
wound
down to reveal Mr Beare at the wheel. ‘Have fun,’ he called. ‘I hope I’ll see you
at the checkpoint tomorrow.’

Sam gave him a cheeky grin. ‘Any chance of a lift then, sir?’

Mr Beare laughed and drove off.

‘Come on,’ Ruby said. ‘It can’t be much further till we go cross country.’

Felicity looked ahead—all they could see were flat fields with a ribbon of low stone
wall snaking along either side of the road. ‘It doesn’t look like there’s any town
up ahead,’ she said. ‘Are you sure we’re going the right way?’

Ruby walked on. ‘This is the only way,’ she said.

‘This doesn’t feel right,’ Sam said. ‘No trees, no buildings, no sign of civilisation
at all. We should have seen something by now.’

Ruby spun around and snapped at him. ‘If you’re such a geographic genius, you have
a go then.’ She shoved the map and compass into Sam’s hands. ‘Let’s see how you go.’

‘Keep your teeth in,’ Sam said. ‘I just meant this first clue doesn’t seem to be
helping us.’

Gerald put a hand on Ruby’s shoulder. ‘Look, there’s a big pile of rocks in that
field. Maybe we’ll see something from the top of it.’ He sat on the low stone wall,
flipped his legs onto the far side and led the way across the meadow.

The rocks were piled neatly to form a rounded pyramid about twelve metres across
and four metres high.

Sam ran up behind Gerald, starting the inevitable race to see who could get to the
top first. Gerald shrugged his pack from his shoulders and scrambled up the rocks,
with Sam matching him step for step.

They both claimed victory at the top.

‘I win!’ Sam said.

‘In your dreams,’ Gerald said, catching his breath.

Felicity called up to them. ‘Can you see anything?’

‘No,’ Sam called back. ‘Just more of the same: open countryside and some trees on
a hill way over that way.’

‘There’s no town, that’s for sure,’ Gerald said. ‘What should we do?’ He looked down
to Ruby, who was standing near the base of the rocks. ‘Ruby?’

She was on her haunches, holding up a square sheet of metal. ‘I’m just reading about
this rock pile of yours,’ she said. ‘This sign must have fallen over. You do realise
it’s a cairn, don’t you?’

Gerald and Sam looked at each other and shrugged. ‘What? Like a tin can?’ Sam said.

‘No, you idiot,’ Ruby said. ‘A cairn. It’s a pile of rocks—’

‘No kidding,’ Sam said, then turned to Gerald. ‘And she calls me an idiot.’

‘— used by Scottish highlanders as a burial marker,’ Ruby continued. ‘You’re standing
on somebody’s grave.’

Sam was halfway down the side before Gerald could move.

‘What’s the matter with you?’ Gerald asked when he reached Sam back at the bottom.

Sam blinked at him. ‘Zombies,’ he said.

‘Are you serious?’ Gerald said. ‘Look, people can not come back from the dead. They—’
He stopped, and turned to Ruby. ‘The dead? Do you suppose this is the dead centre
of town?’

Ruby snatched the map back from Sam. ‘That has to be it,’ she said. ‘Which means
the checkpoint should be on the far side of that hill with the trees on top. I say
we head there.’

Felicity turned to pick up her pack and found Sam standing behind her, looking pale
and nervous. ‘Are you quite all right?’ she asked.

Sam’s eyes remained fixed on the cairn. ‘As long as you stay between me and that,
then yes, I’m all right.’

Felicity smiled in pity, then threw her head forward with a sudden, ‘BOO!’

Sam fell flat on his backside in the mud as if clocked on the chin by a prize fighter.

Felicity laughed. ‘Come on, hero,’ she said, helping Sam to his feet. ‘Before you
wake the dead.’

Ruby folded the map and put it in her pocket. ‘What’s the next clue?’ she asked.

Sam gave Felicity an injured look, then consulted the note. ‘Where the sun no longer
shines.’

‘That could be anywhere around here,’ Gerald said. ‘It’s not exactly Bondi Beach
on a summer’s day, is it?’

They set off across the field, Ruby and Sam in front, Gerald and Felicity following
them. The afternoon sky had darkened to a slate grey, and a penetrating wind sliced
across the stunted heather. A winter numbness set in as the group of hikers made
its way through marshy lowlands and across the occasional stream.

Gerald was deep in thought, watching his boots slosh, slosh, slosh across the boggy
ground, when he looked up and was surprised to find that he and Felicity had fallen
a good fifty metres behind Ruby and Sam.

‘You’re being very quiet,’ Felicity said. ‘You’re not still plotting revenge for
Hello Kitty?’

Gerald stifled a half laugh. ‘No, I’m just worried about Professor McElderry,’ he
said. ‘To be honest, I’ve also been thinking about something else.’ Gerald had a
sudden thought. ‘Can I ask your advice?’

Felicity smiled. ‘Of course.’

‘It’s like this,’ Gerald began. ‘I want to ask Ruby to—you know—be my girlfriend.
And I want to recite a poem when I do it.’

Felicity arched an eyebrow. ‘Good idea,’ she said.

‘The only thing is,’ Gerald continued, ‘I’m finding it hard to come up with the right
words. And the rhymes are killing me.’

Felicity thought for a moment. ‘All right. What rhymes with Ruby?’

‘Um…booby?’ Gerald said.

Felicity failed to hold in her laughter. ‘Somehow, I don’t think she’d appreciate
that.’

‘I didn’t think so,’ Gerald said. ‘And finding a rhyme for Valentine is even worse.’

‘Why? What have you got?’

‘Frankenstein.’

‘Maybe poetry isn’t such a great idea after all.’

They both looked up at the sound of Sam shouting to them.

‘Come see this!’ he called. He was standing at the top of the hill. Felicity and
Gerald scrambled up the sharp rise and ran along a line of wind-beaten trees whose
roots clung to the rocks with their last reserve of life.

They found Ruby studying the map. She pointed to a valley in the distance. ‘If I’m
reading this correctly, that is Hell’s Glen. We have to go through there to get to
the checkpoint. I’d say it’s another ten miles.’

‘Hell’s Glen?’ Sam said. ‘That doesn’t sound very welcoming.’

‘Take a look at the valley,’ Felicity said. ‘I’d say that’s a place where the sun
doesn’t shine.’

Ruby scanned the horizon. ‘We better get moving,’ she said. ‘Those clouds look like
snow. We’ll need to find somewhere sheltered to put up the tent.’

Sam suddenly squeaked. Ruby turned to her brother; his face had gone as drab as the
landscape around them.

‘What’s the matter?’ Ruby asked.

Sam’s eyelids peeled back to the point where his eyeballs looked like they were about
to be ejected from his head. He wrestled his pack to the ground and tore open the
top.

‘What is it?’ Felicity asked as Sam ripped out a flurry of shirts and socks. He stared
down into the belly of the pack then up to his three friends.

‘The tent,’ he managed to say. ‘I’ve forgotten the tent.’

A band of crows scattered from the trees around them as Ruby informed her brother,
in abbreviated terms, of her exact feelings regarding his revelation about the tent.
The caws and cries of the fleeing birds spread across the countryside.

BOOK: The House of Puzzles
9.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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