Frankie bounded across the veranda and down the old wooden stairs. He skidded over the grass, riding the morning dew all the way to the mailbox. As he pulled open the lid, a frog leapt out. Frankie jumped so high he almost landed back on the stairs.
‘Felix, you scared me! How many times do I have to take you to the pond where you belong? I hope you haven’t slimed on anything.’
Felix hopped away, unaware of Frankie’s gripe. Frankie paced to the letterbox. Nothing. Nada. Zip. His shoulders sagged. He moped towards the house lost in thought, when a motorbike spluttered along the sidewalk. Sherlock came racing around the corner barking. The mailman jumped off the motorbike, nodded to Frankie and dropped a black envelope into the box. Frankie froze.
A black envelope! His palms sweated as he returned to the mailbox. He felt as though he were in one of those movie trailers, where everything becomes slow motion. Sherlock kept yapping, doing his impersonation of David meeting Goliath. The mailman scooted off as though he didn’t even notice. Sherlock snarled.
‘Easy, boy,’ said Frankie. Sherlock dropped down onto his knees. ‘There is only one department in the city of Maizon that sends stuff in a black envelope.’ He plucked it from the box and studied it.
The silver letters flashed as they caught the sunlight. ‘To Master Frankie Dupont’... Phew. For a change it wasn’t for his dad’s private investigation agency—it was Frankie’s letter. All his. No one else. Frankie Dupont, aged ten and three-quarters. He flipped the envelope over, then hesitated. He tapped it on his lips and shoved it into the side pocket of his trench coat. Sherlock whimpered, unsure what his owner wanted him to do. The phone rang inside the house, and Frankie straightened his Fedora.
‘Ten guesses who that will be, hey, Sherlock?’ Frankie chuckled, glancing at his watch. ‘Huh, that’s weird—she’s late.’ His cousin Kat called every morning to make sure he dropped by to walk her to school. Frankie thought Kat was pretty cool for a girl. She loved Karate, smelled of lemon drops, and had several pet geckos. Her favourite was George. She planned everything down to the colour of her matching backpack, updating everyone on “Chatter”. This phone call, she hadn’t planned.
Mrs. Dupont started wailing from inside the house, and Frankie took the stairs two at a time. He raced across the veranda, through the rickety front door and into the kitchen, Sherlock right on his heels.
‘Oh, Frankie, something awful has happened—Kat has disappeared from Enderby Manor.’
‘Disappeared. When? How?’ Frankie’s throat clenched. He held his breath, trying desperately not to cry. Only ten-year-olds do that. ‘Enderby Manor?’ He cleared his throat. ‘Never heard of it, Mum.’
Mrs. Dupont waved her hand at her face, trying to fan herself.
‘Aunty Rach and Uncle Sam went to stay there with Kat over the weekend, while the G.E.R.C.s are in their house.’
‘Jerks? What Jerks have been staying with them? Kat never mentioned anyone last week.’
‘Oh, ha, ha, ha,’ Mrs. Dupont trilled like a canary. ‘Not Jerks, Frankie: G.E.R.C.s—Gecko Environmental Removalist Crew. GERCs. Uncle Sam got another surprise gecko in his breakfast cereal on Friday. It was the last straw. I’m sorry to say that Kat’s darling little friends were all being removed, bar George, this weekend.’
‘Oh, dear Kat,’ she wailed. ‘If only those pesky geckos hadn’t bred out of control, they wouldn’t have had to go to Enderby Manor. Oh, poor Kat... She simply vanished from her hotel room, before Uncle Sam and Aunty Rach woke up this morning.’ Mrs. Dupont rustled in her handbag. ‘If only your father wasn’t away on a case.’
Frankie felt his breakfast rise. Poor Kat. Where could she be?
He pictured what his dad would do. Retrace her steps.
Frankie pulled out his smartphone and began searching on Chatter.
‘There it is.’ He scrolled down. ‘Six thirty a.m., Morning Chatterers, it’s time for a dip. Race you...’ That’s gotta be Kat’s last communication.’
Mrs. Dupont dumped the contents of her handbag onto the kitchen table. ‘Oh, where is my phone. I have to call your father.’
‘Mum, I wanna help. Maybe I could take my investigation kit over, to see if I can find any clues while you try to track down Dad?’
‘Yes, Frankie, that’s a great idea.’ His mum hugged him tight. ‘You know Kat better than anyone. You scooter on over to Enderby Manor while I try to find your dad... Oh, there it is.’ She found her phone. She plucked a packet of tissues from the handbag contents pile and proceeded to blow her nose so loud that Sherlock whimpered. Meanwhile, Frankie ducked into his room and returned with a backpack.
‘Enderby Manor, Mum? Where is it?’
‘You know Enderby Manor, Frankie. You pass it every day on your way to school.’
Frankie crooked an eyebrow. His mum crooked one like a return serve. ‘You know—the one with the black iron fence.’
Frankie shook his head.
‘Oh, Frankie, don’t you ever pay attention? That huge estate behind the lake.’
‘There’s a hotel behind there?’ He sounded calm, but on the inside his heart was hammering.
‘Yes, but I think it’s only open for summer. Although, how on earth it does any business I will never know, with that creepy forest out front and that awful black iron fence. In fact, I think your Uncle Danny stayed there last year for a day or so, when he was passing through town.’
Frankie frowned. He could never understand how parents expected you to remember every tiny detail from when you were like... nine.
‘Oh, Frankie, be careful. Don’t get in that nice Inspector Cluesome’s way. Just see if Aunty Rach and Uncle Sam need anything, and tell them your dad’ll be there as soon as I can reach him.’
Mrs. Dupont splashed Frankie’s face with a sloppy kiss and then blew her nose like a trumpet concerto.
He didn’t hang around for an encore but scooted down the hill, past Kat’s house, around the bend, and over the bridge. He arrived at the tall wrought-iron gates, he passed every day for as long as he could remember.
Beside the gates was a thick, green hedge arching over a long, muddy driveway. It led into a forest so dark that Frankie wondered if someone had turned off the sun. He didn’t care for the idea of going there, so he made his way along the fence line, searching for an alternate entry. About a hundred metres along, he spotted a sign poking out from amongst a tangle of creeper vines. A few stray tendrils clung to the sign, and he wiped the dirt off with the palm of his hand.
Enderby Manor. Well, I never.
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