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Riddle Gully Runaway
By Jen Banyard
Fremantle PressCopyright © 2014 Jen Banyard
All rights reserved.
Someone had said the view from the top of the rollercoaster was amazing but Will Hopkins had only one thought as the carriage rattled its way up the steep steel incline: 'I'm only thirteen! I'm too young to die!'
Beside him in the lead car, Pollo di Nozi strained against the safety bar, pointing excitedly. 'Would you look at that bolt there, Will! It's wobbling like crazy! This rig needs a good going over with a welding torch if you ask me! There's another loose one! Look!'
Will stared ahead, across the treetops and the Riddle Gully fairground to the clock tower of the town hall in the distance. His eyes were like golf balls. His knuckles, as they gripped the bar, looked like eight snow-capped mountain-tops. Why had he ever listened to Pollo? Didn't he know that what Pollo called fun most often nearly killed him?
Crick-et-y ... crick-et-y ... crick-et-y ... He could hear each cog ratcheting into place, hauling them slowly upward to the crest. Will slid his eyeballs sideways and down and spotted Mr Wrigley, Riddle Gully's oldest mechanic, at the rollercoaster controls. He was shading his eyes and looking up at them. His bottom lip was jutting in a worried pout, Will was sure.
Crick-et-y ... crick-et-y ... Will gulped down the rising lump in his throat.
Pollo jabbed him with her elbow. 'Take a chill pill, Will! No one ever dies up here on these things.' She pointed to the ground below. 'They all die down there! In the dirt! Splat! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!'
Crick-et-y ... Their carriage inched to the crest of the iron-girder mountain. Will saw dotted farms and distant hills, lumpy with trees that looked much nicer from the ground. He saw the steely blue sky stretching around them — perfect if you were an albatross. He felt his heart hammer against his ribcage. The carriage teetered at the peak.
'Here we go!' yelled Pollo. 'The fun's about to ... Whoa-aa-aah!'
Slowly, irrevocably, they tipped. Suddenly, Will and Pollo were hurtling into a bone-shaking plummet toward earth. Down they flew, their bodies pressed back by centrifugal force or terror — Will couldn't tell which. The car juddered on the narrow rail, sending tremors through their insides, down their limbs to their fingers and toes. Will's teeth jangled and his mouth gaped, but just a terrified squeeze of air, a scream so high-pitched only dogs could hear it, escaped. Beside him, Pollo let go of the bar, threw both arms in the air and hooted like a banshee.
No sooner had they bottomed out than the car swung hard right, throwing Will against Pollo. He was still trying to spit Pollo's long springy hair from his mouth when it swung hard left, flinging Pollo his way, bringing their heads together with a clunk. The tinny taste of blood filled Will's mouth and his tongue began to sting.
Will could see it up ahead — the twenty metre high, gravity-defying Loop of Extinction the rollercoaster was named for — looming against the sky. Ten minutes earlier he and Pollo had laughed at the terror on the upside-down faces of the passengers, their hair flying beneath their heads, their pleading screams as they hurtled around the loop. Now Pollo and Will flew at it headlong, their car rocking side to side.
They whizzed upwards. The passengers shrieked as a single organism. For a second, Will saw the gleaming steel rollercoaster rail below — then they whipped downwards. As Will's insides were catching up with the rest of him, they rocketed into an S-bend — right, left, right — to the groans and squeals of the riders behind. They missiled toward the string of tattered flags that marked the finish. Then, as violently as it had all begun, invisible hooks grabbed their carriage and yanked them to a dead stop.
A lanky teenaged attendant, his baseball cap angled over an ear, leaned across and unlatched the bars. He offered a steadying hand. Pollo didn't seem to notice it and sprang unaided onto the platform.
'That was insane!' she screeched. 'Let's go again!' She hurried toward the exit steps, shouting over her shoulder, 'I'll pay for you, Will, if you've run out of money!'
The attendant hauled Will from the car and gave him a nudge. But Will remained rooted to the spot, his legs wobbling like jelly-snakes, the mob pushing past either side. He stared like a zombie, his mouth hanging open, at the attendant's chest as though hypnotised by the image on his black T-shirt.
'Ee-yew, Will! You don't look so good.' Pollo was making her way back along the platform to her friend. Will's skin had taken on the colour of boiled cabbage.
The ride attendant unplugged music earphones and jerked his head toward the exit. 'Move along, please, buddy.' Pushing a tss-tss-tss-tss cymbal sound through his teeth and dipping his head to the beat, he shrugged and took Will by the armpits. Pollo alongside, he eased Will along the platform and down the metal steps onto the grass thoroughfare, Will's feet trailing unhelpfully.
'Take it easy, eh?' said the attendant, plugging in his earphones and springing back up the steps for the next round of victims.
Will stood on the pathway, swaying, with the crowd at the Riddle Gully annual fair snaking around him and Pollo. He tried to breathe deeply, tried to focus on something other than his squirming insides.
'Gee Will,' said Pollo. 'I've heard of people going green before but I've never actually seen it. I've gotta get a picture!' She pulled her camera from her pocket and snapped before Will could summon the strength to duck.
'You'd better not put that in your newspaper column,' he mumbled.
'Don't worry, my friend. My section of the Coast is only ever black and white. You're safe. I'm saving the embarrassing photo spot for Mayor Bullock. Why stop this year, eh?'
Two youths eating hotdogs, with fried onions and pus-like mustard sliding down their fingers, stopped to gawk. 'Watch out!' one laughed. 'This one's gonna blow!' They were rocking together, pointing at Will and sniggering, when, with the same suddenness the rollercoaster ride had come to an end, everything Will had eaten at the Riddle Gully fair that afternoon — the hamburger-with-egg, sour cream wedges, chocolate muffin, corn dog, two doughnuts and large blueberry slushy — rocketed up his throat and propelled themselves in a colourful arc towards the boys' feet.
Pollo clapped a hand to her mouth. The youths gazed from their spattered shoes to Will and back again. Both looked like they wanted to beat him up on the spot but were too disgusted to go near him. They stalked away, muttering and swearing, hurling their hotdogs onto the path. Two ravens flew down and began stabbing at the pink meat, hopping back and forth as pedestrians passed.
Will looked at Pollo sheepishly. 'Whew! I didn't feel it coming till the last second.'
'Well it's not like you're a giraffe or anything.'
'A giraffe ... You know, with a mile-long neck. A giraffe would know something was coming. I wonder how long it takes a giraffe to throw up.'
'Maybe they never do, maybe the gunk never reaches the top,' said Will. 'That'd be neat.'
'I'll have to ask Dad. He'll know.'
'Handy having a vet for a dad sometimes.'
'Not as handy as you having a police sergeant for a stepdad. That would be brilliant in my line of work! I could get the scoop on Riddle Gully every night over dinner.'
'It has its ups and downs,' said Will. 'HB has this way of getting details out of me before I even know what we're talking about. Like the time he —'
From the corner of her eye, Pollo could see the rollercoaster attendant, his hi-top sneakers planted wide as he trickled sand from a bucket over Will's offering. He seemed to be taking extraordinary care over it. His head was tilted towards them and his earphones dangled loose from the pocket of his baggy jeans. Was he eavesdropping on them, wondered Pollo. Getting the low-down on the local arm of the law?
She put a hand on Will's shoulder. 'Say, let's head over to the Kitchens Rule tent. They've got free samples.'
'Good idea!' said Will, his face back to its usual pink. 'I'm hungry all over again now.'CHAPTER 2
They ambled in the spring sunshine away from the rollercoaster across the Riddle Gully fairground — a stretch of playing fields ringed by tall, dark Norfolk Island Pines that at the end of each winter, as soon as finals were over, was spruced up for the District Fair.
'My editor needs a report on the fair and I want to do something really special,' said Pollo. Her after-school cadetship as Youth Reporter for the Coast regional news network kept Riddle Gully on its toes; it also kept shiny Pollo's dream of becoming a professional investigative journalist like her mum had been. She ran her fingers down the leather thong around her neck to the notepad and pencil tied at the end. 'I'm going to buttonhole the judges in the Pickles and Chutneys Division and get the dirt on why Mayor Bullock wins it every year. There's funny business going on there, Will, and my readers would love to know what it is, I'm sure.'
They dodged toddlers in strollers, gooey ice-cream puddles and whirligigs on sticks, Pollo taking photos and jotting notes in her pad. People from all across the farming district milled. Adults ran into old friends and sugar-loaded kids zimmed like flying beetles between their legs. Tinny music pumped from competing portable sound systems and the smell of sizzling onions wafted on the air. Everyone was excited and happy, wandering the gritty trails between stalls and exhibits, their arms loaded with neon-pink stuffed prizes, second-hand treasures, or cling-wrapped trays of lumpy home-baked goodies.
The rollercoaster was new this year. Someone on the organising committee knew someone in the district Chamber of Commerce who had a cousin who had a friend who owed them a favour ... and hadn't opened a safety manual since the nineteen-sixties, thought Pollo, remembering those rickety bolts. She jotted a note in her pad to follow it up. There could be a story in it.
Pollo and Will stopped at the fairy floss van and each bought a stick.
'The guy at the rollercoaster,' said Will. 'Do you know him?'
'Who? Mr Wrigley?' said Pollo, lifting a sugary blue wisp and dangling it onto her tongue.
'No, the helper with the black T-shirt.'
'Aah! The rollercoaster kid! With the sideways cap! He looks like a breakdancer from the city who's lost his way. I was about to ask if you knew him,' said Pollo. 'I think he was listening in on us earlier. He's shady, if you ask me.'
'It's weird,' said Will. 'I've got this feeling I've seen him before. First I thought he came with the crew who put up the rollercoaster 'cos I saw Mayor Bullock yelling at him. Then I saw the logo for that hip-hop group Twisted Lips on his T-shirt and it rang a bell from somewhere. It's a rip-off of a Picasso painting we did at art school called The Weeping Woman. Face all over the place. It's probably why I threw up.'
Pollo drummed her fingertips against her chin. 'Mayor Bullock, you say? I wonder if he could be the nephew, Benson Bragg, who's come to stay with him and old Mrs Bullock. It would figure, from what I've heard about this nephew of his.'
'No way!' said Will, withdrawing his face from a puff of purple floss. 'Mayor Bullock's nephew? The mayor's way too stuffy to be that kid's uncle. And as for inviting him to stay ...' He tore off some floss and lowered it into his mouth.
'Aah, but he didn't, you see. Old Mrs Bullock was in Sherri's second-hand shop the other day and told Sherri all about it. This Benson kid — her grandson, the mayor's nephew — was suspended from school. But then his mother — the mayor's sister — broke her leg and had to go to hospital. And his dad's away on work. So Benson's staying with them and the mayor is spitting chips!'
'Hah!' Will laughed. 'Mayor Bullock hates the youth of today, as he calls us — even nerdy kids like you! He's had it coming.' He waited for some people to pass and whispered, 'Did Mrs Bullock say why Benson was suspended?'
Pollo leaned close. 'Stealing! She let it slip. She thought it would be lovely having her grandson to stay with them, even so. But it's not working out like she hoped. The mayor wants to sort out his nephew with good old-fashioned discipline, as he puts it. Sherri reckons that's rich because the mayor never had any discipline himself, his mum and dad were such softies. I wonder what turns some people so mean?'
'I reckon sometimes they just don't try hard enough,' said Will. He pushed a hank of fairy floss into his mouth with a finger. 'It's dead easy to be a grouch, in my book. But getting along with people, even if you've got your own worries and stuff going on — that's heaps more effort.'
'Yeah, look at you!' said Pollo. 'Since you got busted for the graffiti last summer and had to do that course on dealing with anger, you haven't blown up once.'
'Jeepers! I never ever want to dig a hole for myself like that again! It's funny ... the longer I go without losing it the easier it gets. It's like I'm getting into the habit of being someone who keeps their cool.'
'Just like Mayor Bullock's in the habit of being a puffed-up pompous grump!' laughed Pollo. She checked her watch. 'Yikes! Speaking of Mayor Bullock, we'd better walk faster. I need to get my story on him, then get home and spruce up Shorn Connery for the Best Dressed Pet parade.'
'When is it?' asked Will.
'Five o'clock. The grand finale! Shorn Connery can't wait.'
Will frowned. 'How can you tell that a sheep can't wait?'
Pollo tutted. 'A supersleuth with finely tuned instincts like me just senses these things, blockhead! Besides, Shorn Connery and I have a special connection. You must know that by now!'
'Yeah, of course I do,' said Will, looking away to hide his smile.
* * *
They reached the Kitchens Rule tent. Before going in, Pollo aimed her camera at an elderly couple in striped jesters' hats, strolling arm in arm. 'For the record, whatever it was that Benson Bragg took,' she said from behind the lens, 'Sherri didn't seem to think it was serious.'
'But it was still stealing,' said Will.
'Yeah, I guess so,' said Pollo.
'Hmm ... I wonder ...'
Pollo lowered the camera and looked at Will. He carefully scraped the last bits of fairy floss off its stick with his fingernail, walked to a rubbish bin and dropped it in. When he turned back, Pollo's eyes were boring into him and her hands were on her hips.
'You wonder what? Are you going to tell me or not?'
Will looked at the passing parade of happy townspeople and farmers. No one seemed to be paying them much attention. 'D'you know when this Benson kid arrived in Riddle Gully?' he asked, his voice low.
'A week or so ago, I think. Why?'
'Will Hopkins, you know something, don't you?' Pollo smiled pleasantly at Will. 'And you also know I'll bust your head in if you don't tell me!'
'We shouldn't go jumping to conclusions,' said Will.
'I've told you before,' Pollo hissed. 'Drawing conclusions and jumping to conclusions are entirely different things! Just give me the facts and I'll make up my own mind. I have good instincts in these matters. I am Youth Reporter —'
'— for the Coast news network,' Will finished. 'I know.'
Pollo huffed. 'I want justice and equality for all humankind, Will. And for that I need to give my readers the truth!'
'And juicy news stories,' added Will.
'Well, yes ... that's understood.' Pollo folded her arms and began tapping her foot, glaring at Will.
Will sighed and wished he'd kept his big mouth shut. It was useless. Pollo would bug him until he caved. He may as well get it over with. 'HB was talking to Angela last night in the kitchen,' he began. He stopped to wave heartily at a mate from school, hoping he'd veer their way. The boy grinned and waved back but, pointing to the phone at his ear, kept walking. Will turned back to Pollo whose eyes were now steely blades.
'Police Sergeant Talks to Wife in Kitchen,' she huffed. 'I can see the headline now! What did he say to your mum, Will?'
'I wasn't meant to be listening,' said Will.
'Excellent!' said Pollo. 'Go on!'
'Well, I overheard HB saying how there'd been a funny spate of little things disappearing lately. Rings and watches and stuff. Some of it had been reported at the station, but then at the tennis club yesterday people were talking. It turns out there's a lot more that hasn't been reported. Seems like Riddle Gully either has a petty thief on the loose, or something is making people very forgetful about where they put things.'
'A thief!' whispered Pollo.
'Or a coincidental string of people misplacing things,' cautioned Will. 'Or things could've gone missing ages ago — and it's only when people hear about the other stuff gone missing that they notice. That's what HB reckons has happened.'
'That explains it!' said Pollo.
'Yeah, well, it makes sense,' said Will.
'No! I mean, that explains Aunty Giulia's missing ring! She put it on a fence-post while she was moving rocks in the garden and it disappeared. It belonged to Grandma di Nozi. Old gold and emerald. Aunty Giulia's devastated.' Pollo stroked an invisible beard. 'And all these things vanish just as Mayor Bullock's nephew, a notorious purloiner of other people's property, comes to Riddle Gully. It's a pretty big coincidence, wouldn't you say?'
Excerpted from Riddle Gully Runaway by Jen Banyard. Copyright © 2014 Jen Banyard. Excerpted by permission of Fremantle Press.
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