How Ali Ferguson Saved Houdini

.

For all my different parents,

especially Mum

.

Chapter 1

‘Cool!' Ali looked up at the skyscraper that was his new home.

‘Ali,' Mum said, smiling, ‘it's just a tower block, not the Empire State Building.'

‘Yes, but it's
our
tower block!' Ali said. ‘Do you think it has a lift?'

‘Go and find out. We're number 22.' Mum threw him the keys.

Ali caught them with one hand and ran up the steps. A man stepped out of the main door before Ali had a chance to unlock it. Ali nearly ran full tilt into his chest. He was a tall man, with a shaved head and a tattoo of a bluebird flying up his neck. One of the new neighbours. Scary-looking.

‘All right, sonny. Where's the fire?' the man said with a laugh that showed a gold tooth.

‘Sorry,' Ali said, then lowered his head and ran into the foyer.

Inside, a tiled floor, summer-sky blue, stretched out as far as the lift. On one wall was a noticeboard where colourful posters fluttered like prayer flags.

Lever Tower. His new home. There was just something about the air that made Ali's heart beat faster. This was a new adventure.

For two years, since Dad left, he'd been living with Mum in Nan and Grandpa's house. But now, they had their own place. In a skyscraper! With the river and the sea just behind it! This was going to be brilliant!

Behind Ali, the neighbour held the main door open while the others came inside. Grandpa carried a suitcase in each hand. He was muttering to himself.

Ali grinned and took one of the cases. ‘Isn't it great, Grandpa?'

Grandpa scowled.

Mum and Nan both carried huge boxes. ‘Did you find it yet?' Mum asked.

‘No. Give me a chance!' Ali laughed as he pressed the lift call button.

The lift whirred into life.

‘At least it doesn't smell,' Mum said to Grandpa. Grandpa didn't reply.

They went up to the fourth floor. Number 22 was the third door on the left. Ali unlocked it and stepped inside.

The hallway was narrow. Bright winter sunlight spilled into it from the living room beyond. Ali pushed open all the doors as he went: bathroom; kitchen; big bedroom; little bedroom and then the living room. ‘You can have the big room, Mum!' he shouted.

‘Very kind of you, thanks,' Mum said.

Grandpa came in slowly, looking at everything. He spoke in Gujarati to Mum. She could understand, but didn't really speak it. Ali could hardly understand any. But he guessed that, most likely, Grandpa was complaining about the poor craftsmanship of the door, or the wonkiness of the windows, or how the whole thing was bound to collapse any second. He and Nan hadn't wanted Ali and Mum to move here. There were rumours about gangs and criminals and all sorts of trouble. One local girl had even stolen from the museum last year!

Ali thought that was pretty cool, but he hadn't said so to Grandpa.

‘Don't worry, Dad. We're going to be fine here.' Mum gave Grandpa a quick hug. ‘It was high time we stopped getting under your feet. I think we all need a cup of tea.'

‘No problem,' Nan shouted from the kitchen. ‘There was no way I'd put the kettle in storage. I've got it right here. Tea's on its way.'

Tea? Ali shook his head. He and Mum were at the start of a brand new adventure together and she wanted a cup of tea? Unbelievable.

Mum caught his eye and grinned. ‘Why don't you go and explore a bit, love? Have a look at your room. The furniture won't be here until later. You can decide where it's going to go.'

Ali didn't need a second invitation.

His new room was smallish, but there would be enough space for his bed, a wardrobe and desk. And a shelf for his books. He moved over to the window. The trees waved their bare branches just below him. Ali was actually looking down on them – down on to the tops of the trees! It was like rising up in a hot air balloon, floating over the town. Way below he could see the yard where Grandpa had parked and the racks where his bike could go later. There was hardly anyone about down there, but one person caught Ali's eye, a girl being dragged along by a huge dog. She held the lead with both hands and leaned backwards, as though she was water-skiing. The dog was an Alsatian. It leapt forwards, pulling on the lead. Ali could see the girl's mouth move as she yelled at the dog, but he was too high up to hear her. He grinned. He was pretty sure that whatever she was saying, it was rude.

He suddenly wanted to be outside with them too, in the crisp air, with the frozen grass crunching under his feet.

‘Mum?' he yelled.

‘Yes?' Her voice came from the kitchen next door.

‘Can I explore outside?'

‘Yes. But don't go too far, OK? And don't be too long – we've got some serious unpacking to do.'

‘Thanks!'

He grabbed the keys from the top of the hall storage heater and then he ran out the front door.

He ignored the lift and found the stairs. He took them three at a time, his feet launching high off the concrete. At the end of each flight he used the banister as a pivot, swinging round to leap down the next set. In no time at all, he was at the bottom. A little out of breath, warmer, and ready to see this new world. He pushed open the main door.

The girl was gone. The yard was empty. The dog must have been pulling her at fifty miles an hour! Ali looked around. Grass grew on either side of the yard. He could see fresh tracks where feet had squashed the blades. One small set and then another set of massive paws. A trail to follow.

Immediately, Ali was a tracker following his quarry. He raised his hand to halt the expedition party behind him. He heard the clang of billy-cans clattering and silently cursed the clumsy lumps behind him. He crouched to examine the paw prints. They were clear and distinct in the grass. Leading off into the unknown. ‘Follow me,' he whispered to the team behind him. ‘Stay downwind. Don't let the pack pick up your scent.'

He led his team away from the main door, around the side of Lever Tower. Always he kept his head down, eyes following the tracks, searching out the path the animal took. Sometimes the path was clear – deep furrows in the ground where the beast must have pulled the girl right over. Sometimes the trail was nothing more than an icy blade of grass bent out of shape.

He heard whispers from his team. They could see nothing at all. They admired his skill. He hushed them with a wave of his hand.

He followed the trail left, then left, then left again.

He was back outside the main entrance to the tower block.

And there were fresh sets of prints on the tarmac leading up to the front door.

The girl had just walked around the outside of Lever Tower and then gone right back inside again! Well, he thought, if he were walking a dog the size of a bear, he'd only take it for a short walk too.

He raced up the path and through the door. He stopped in the foyer.

He had the trail – he knew he could find them easily – but was that really such a good idea? He couldn't follow a total stranger to her flat! Stalking people was no way to make friends. He would see the girl and her massive dog again, he was sure.

He'd have to explore something else instead.

He'd been all around the tower. Now it was time to explore
up
the tower. Scaling unknown heights. Like Tenzing Norgay – one of Grandpa's all-time heroes – climbing Everest!

Ali checked his supplies – rope, thermal clothing, mountain rations. Well, a bit of string in his pockets, one glove and a mint humbug. It was good enough. He set off from base camp and began his ascent, counting the steps as he went.

‘One, two, three, four . . .'

‘. . . Twenty-six, twenty-seven . . .'

‘. . . Ninety-three . . . ninety-four . . . ninety-five.'

At a snowy ledge on step one hundred and twenty-eight, Ali sat down to rest, muttering ‘hundred and twenty-eight, hundred and twenty-eight,' over and over, so that he wouldn't lose count. As soon as he had got used to the thin air, he broke camp and battled on.

‘Hundred and eighty-seven, hundred and eighty-eight . . .'

‘. . . Two hundred and eleven, two hundred and twelve.'

He was panting now, clinging to every handhold to help him climb.

‘. . . Two hundred and fifty, two hundred and fifty-one, two hundred and fifty-two!' He was finally at the summit. He rested his hands on his knees, gasping for breath. He had made it – Tenzing Norgay on top of the world!

Then he realised he was not quite at the top. Further on, set away from the main staircase, were five steps, leading upwards to a doorway. The door had a big red sign on it: ‘Authorised Personnel Only'. But the door was ajar.

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