Authors: Helen Stringer
An Imprint of Macmillan
Copyright © 2009 by Helen Stringer. All rights reserved.
Printed in August 2009 in the United States of America by
R.R. Donnelly & Sons Company, Harrisonburg, Virginia. For information,
address Feiwel and Friends, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Spellbinder / by Helen Stringer.—1st ed.
Summary: Twelve-year-old Belladonna Johnson, who lives with the ghosts of her parents in the north of England, teams up with an always-in-trouble classmate to investigate why all of the ghosts in the world have suddenly disappeared.
[1. Ghosts—Fiction. 2. Dead—Fiction. 3. England—Fiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.S9182H0 2009 [Fic]—dc22 2008028552
Feiwel and Friends logo designed by Filomena Tuosto
Book design by April Ward
First Edition: 2009
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For Ethan, whose adventures are just beginning
The Vanishing Baby
T WAS WEDNESDAY
. The day of the week when it feels like Friday will never arrive. And it was cold. Not cold enough for snow, but that autumn cold—bright and bitter, the wind sharp with the promise of winter. It was no day to be outside. It was a day to be inside, curled up on the couch with a steaming mug of hot chocolate.
But it was Wednesday, so Belladonna Johnson was not curled up on the couch, she was walking to school, her old pink backpack slung over one shoulder, the sad remnants of the fake-fur edging on the hood of her coat clumping into spikes in the morning mist, and her eyes fixed on the pavement beneath her feet.
She stopped when she reached the end of the road and looked up. Her hair hung like two lank black curtains on either side of her face, and her dark blue eyes peered out from behind the strands, like a jungle animal peering from the undergrowth.
They were already there. Lining up on the pavement outside the school, waiting for the bus. And they were all pretty happy about it, from the look of things.
Belladonna hesitated for a moment, then trudged on, her eyes back on the ground. She hated school trips. She hated the run-down buses they had to take, the screaming and laughing of her classmates, the stapled worksheets they were supposed to complete at the end, and the fact that you never knew who—or what—you might meet.
It hadn’t always been that way, of course. There was a time when she had felt the same as everyone else—that any excuse to get out of school was good. Even last term when the whole class thought they were going to Robinson’s biscuit factory only to discover they were off to Dennison’s assembly plant: a gray stone building full of hermetically sealed, spotless rooms where rows of men and women put PCs together. (They all liked using computers, but there’s nothing particularly interesting about watching a bunch of miserable-looking people building them.) And this time the trip was definitely going to be to Arkbath Hall. It had been organized by Mr. Watson, the History teacher, and he wasn’t a bait-and-switch kind of guy.
And that made it worse.
Belladonna sat down on the crumbling low stone wall confining the collection of scrubby bushes and weeds that half concealed the entrance to the school.
She pushed her hood back and lowered her backpack onto the wet pavement. It would be all right, she thought, if she could tell the difference. But she couldn’t, and she lived in fear of someone (Sophie Warren, in particular) catching her talking to nothing. She bit her lip and racked her brain for an excuse that would convince Mr. Watson that she’d be better off going to see the school nurse.
It seemed to take forever. Belladonna could feel the chill from the cold stone wall working its way into her bones, and even the boisterous conversations of the other kids began to subside as they shivered in the October air, the wind whipping around the girls’ pink knees, and the boys remembering that school uniform trousers are anything but substantial. It was nearly a quarter past nine before the ancient green city bus rolled up to the curb and Mr. Watson left the cozy confines of the staff room and strode down the path to herd his charges aboard.
Mr. Watson was only about thirty and imagined that the kids thought he was rather cool. They didn’t, of course. To them, he seemed terribly old, with his steadily increasing bald spot, dismal ties, and graph-paper-patterned shirts. He tried to make History entertaining, but most of his students weren’t really interested. For twelve-year-olds, the events leading up to the Civil War were dull as dishwater, and Charles I gave every impression of deserving what he got. (Though it seemed to be taking a long time to get to
that part—beheadings are far more fascinating than acts of Parliament.)
Belladonna watched as everyone else clambered onto the bus, chatting and yelling. Once they were all packed in, Mr. Watson looked around and saw her sitting on the wall.
“Come on, Johnson,” he said cheerily, “all aboard!”
Belladonna got up and walked over to him. “I don’t think I can go, Sir,” she whispered. “I don’t feel very well.”
Watson looked at her for a moment. She gazed back, her chin slightly lowered and her eyes tilted up toward the teacher. This, she knew, had the general effect of making her eyes seem huge and sad, like one of those big-eyed children with a single plastic tear on the cheaper sort of greeting cards. She could tell that he wasn’t buying it this time, though. Six months ago he would have let her go, but it had been nearly a year since the accident and Belladonna had noticed that all the adults around her had apparently decided that it would probably be best if they tried the “life goes on” approach.
“Nonsense, Johnson,” he said finally. “It’s not like we’re headed across the Sahara. This should be fun. Right up your alley, I would’ve thought.”
And with that, he hustled her onto the bus.
Belladonna took a seat near the front and settled down to gaze miserably out of the streaky window. The bus lurched forward and the cacophony of voices
rose to a crescendo as Steve Evans stole Tim Bradon’s glasses
. Mr. Watson tried in vain to quiet everyone down, making appeals for dignity, safety, and the driver’s hearing. Nothing worked.
The bus trundled through the early morning streets, past rows of tiny shops and the vast parking lots of mega-markets. Other schools full of other children whizzed by in a blur of concrete and brick. Finally, the buildings were gone, and mowed, golden fields stretched out on either side as they pulled into a winding, tree-lined drive.
Belladonna looked glumly out of the window as the lopsided black-and-white form of the half-timbered Arkbath Hall crept out from behind a knot of trees. The mullioned windows gazed blankly across the long-dry moat as the bus clanked to a standstill in the tiny car park. The kids piled out and waited while Mr. Watson counted them, before they all trudged across the lawn, crispy with frost, toward the ancient manse.
They stopped in front of a massive black gate, and Mr. Watson pressed the doorbell. He turned and looked out over his charges, suddenly nervous.
“Now, I want—for God’s sake, Evans, give the boy his glasses back!—I want you all to behave yourselves. Arkbath Hall was built in the late fifteenth century—”
“Sixteenth,” muttered Belladonna.
“Sorry? Yes, very good, Johnson, the late sixteenth century. Quite right. Anyway, it’s very old, so I don’t want any of you touching anything. Is that clear?”
“I said: Is that clear?”
Twenty-eight dreary voices said, “Yes, Sir,” in unison, though not one of them sounded even remotely like it had heard what Mr. Watson had said.
He looked at their faces as their attention wandered to the building, the grass, and the snail on the path. Belladonna suspected that in his quiet hours Mr. Watson despaired for the future of the country.
A small door set into the much larger one opened and a round, red face protruded.
“Are you the group from Dullworth’s?” it asked.
“Yes!” Mr. Watson seemed relieved to have another adult to speak to. “Yes, we are. I’m George Watson.”
He held out his hand. The owner of the round face stepped outside, revealing the rest of himself to be pretty much spherical as well. The buttons on his Historic Homes uniform stretched across his ample belly, giving the impression that he had been a tad more svelte when he had originally been measured for it.
“How many are there?” he asked, as if talking about bags of potatoes.
“Twenty-eight,” said Mr. Watson.
The round man didn’t seem pleased, but held the door open while the children marched inside, counting them off with a small shiny counter in his left hand. Belladonna was the last one through. She looked at the round man and idly wondered why he needed a mechanical device to count to twenty-eight. He seemed
to curl his lip a little as she stepped through, but she thought that was probably just her imagination.
Once through the door, there was a short, darkened archway that led through to a wide, bright courtyard. In the center of the yard were two massive trees, each with a vast tangle of branches reaching up and out toward the thin autumn sun. Mr. Watson explained that they were yew trees and that yews were either male or female, so you needed to have both. The round man cleared his throat in an annoyed manner and Mr. Watson immediately stepped aside, rather embarrassed, to let the round man do his bit.
“Yew trees,” he announced in an automatic whine, “were used to make longbows. Which is, of course, why they were grown
the walls of the house and/or castle.”
Everyone looked at the trees for a moment. Then Sarah Tisdale raised her hand.
“Yes?” said the round man.
“Is it true that you have a ghost?”
“Sarah . . .” Mr. Watson stared, and Sarah slowly took her hand down.