Read The Crooked Sixpence Online

Authors: Jennifer Bell

The Crooked Sixpence (2 page)

BOOK: The Crooked Sixpence
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Her mum tucked a stray wisp of brown hair behind her ears and leaned closer, frowning. ‘You're back now, but you keep going all fuzzy.'

‘I'm on the train to Paris,' Ivy's dad called. ‘My reception's bad. Can everyone see me?'

‘We can see both of you now,' Ivy said. ‘Did you understand what I just explained about Granma?'

Her dad frowned. ‘Yes, just about. I can't believe it. Is she all right? Are you two all right?'

Ivy shrugged. ‘We're OK.'

‘Seb,' their mum said sternly, ‘are you looking after your sister?'

Seb was slouched in the hospital chair beside Ivy, his scuffed white trainers resting on a plastic coffee table with the phone wedged between his knees. His headphones snaked into his lap.

‘Yes,' he muttered. ‘Don't worry.'

Ivy thought for a moment. ‘Seb lied about his age; he told them he was sixteen.'

Seb's eyes turned to slits as he looked at her. ‘If you're sixteen, you can be on your own. It's the law.'

Ivy pulled a face at him.

‘It doesn't matter about that now,' their dad said. ‘As long as you stay together. How's Granma?'

Ivy gazed over at the blue cotton curtain fluttering a few metres behind Seb's shoulder. It concealed a small room where Granma Sylvie was lying on her stretcher. Ivy paused before answering, trying not to get upset again. ‘She's asleep right now. We're in A and E but the doctor said she's going for an X-ray later. What do you think we should do?'

Her dad hesitated. Ivy could hear the rattle of the train in the background.

‘There's only one option, really,' their mum said, pursing her lips. ‘You both return to Granma's house and sit tight till we get there. Even if I leave now, it'll be a good few hours before I get to Bletchy Scrubb.'

Their dad started nodding. ‘Agreed. Seb, you can pay for the bus back to Granma's house out of that money I gave you yesterday.'

Ivy's heart lifted. ‘So you're coming back? Both of you?'

Her mum swept a hand across her forehead. ‘Of course we are. You've done a great job so far, but don't worry. We'll sort everything out when we get there.'

‘I might not arrive till late this evening, but I'll be there,' Ivy's dad told her. ‘You'll be OK, won't you? Make sure you have something to eat – look after each other.' He paused and lowered his voice. ‘Or at least
try
to.'

Ivy glanced at Seb, who was flicking through the track-list on his iPod, only half concentrating on the screen. ‘I'll try.'

After their dad had waved goodbye, their mum blew a kiss and hung up. Seb put his phone away and his headphones in his ears without saying another word. Ivy sank back in her chair, her thick blue duffel coat creasing up around her. She wished her mum and dad were with her now; this place was horrible.

She crossed her arms and stared out aimlessly across the waiting room. A man in a grey trench coat was coming through the main doors. He was wearing pointed black shoes and a wide-brimmed hat that hid his face. Ivy watched as he slipped between the staff and patients around the reception desk and then flitted past a pair of security guards. He was heading towards them; towards the cubicles where people were taken from the ambulances.

The longer Ivy watched the man, the more certain she felt that he didn't want anyone else to notice him. He kept looking from side to side, timing his movements to coincide with those of everyone around him. As he drew closer, Ivy spied two gnarled yellow appendages poking out of his coat sleeves. She recoiled as she realized what they were.

His hands!

The skin across both palms was covered in pustules and shrivelled, so that his fingers looked like diseased, rotting twigs.

Ivy lowered her face as he went past. She wondered what had happened to him. Maybe he had been in some terrible chemical accident. Certainly it was nothing normal – she'd never seen anything like it, not even in movies. When she raised her eyes, he was standing at the end of a long line of cubicles – the row that Granma Sylvie was in. He peeked behind the nearest curtain, waited a moment, then turned and tried the next one. Ivy watched him repeat the process again and again. He seemed to be looking for something.

Or someone
, Ivy thought. She froze as she realized that he was heading in Granma Sylvie's direction.

Seb was nodding his head to a beat, air drumming in his lap.

Ivy sprang out of her seat, thumping him on the shoulder. ‘Seb!'

He shrugged her off and pulled one headphone away from his ear. ‘Ivy, what's—?'

‘There's this man . . .' She turned. He was three curtains away. ‘Quick!'

She hurdled over Seb's legs and dashed along the row of chairs, her wellies squeaking on the lino.

Seb sauntered after her, fixing her with a stare. ‘
What is wrong with you?
'

Her heartbeat quickening, Ivy ripped open the curtain to Granma Sylvie's cubicle. ‘Granma, are you . . . ? Oh.'

Her granma looked peaceful, her eyes closed and her hands placed delicately across her stomach – exactly as she had been when Ivy saw her last.

Ivy looked back along the corridor, searching for the man in grey. It was empty; but the man couldn't possibly have had time to disappear. She'd looked away for barely a second.

Seb tramped up to her shoulder. ‘This better be good.'

‘You don't understand,' she whispered. ‘There was this strange man here. I thought he was going to do something to Granma.'

‘
What?
' Seb's jaw tightened. ‘Why can't you be normal? Like, for once . . . ?'

It was just starting to rain when they reached Granma Sylvie's house, almost an hour's bus ride later. Droplets drummed against Ivy's hood and tumbled through the frizzy hair that stuck out beneath it. She looked up at the familiar higgledy-piggledy outline of the house, with its clay chimney and crumbling plaster walls. It used to be a farmhouse, or so Ivy's dad had told her, which explained why it was in the middle of nowhere.

‘You're paranoid,' Seb said, striding past her. ‘You know that, right? All the books you read have, like, twisted your mind or something.'

Ivy marched after him. ‘I'm
not
making this up,' she insisted. ‘There was a man in there with gross hands, and as we were leaving A and E, I heard a nurse say that Granma's notes had gone missing. What if it was the man who took them?'

Seb sighed. ‘Ivy, that guy – whoever he was – was obviously just a patient or something. Like, a burns victim. Maybe he was crazy like you. Whatever, anyway – I just want to get inside and eat.'

Ivy yanked angrily on the strap of Granma Sylvie's handbag as she swept past Seb towards the front door. If books had ‘twisted her mind', then playing the drums had made her brother deaf to reason. He never listened to her. Ever.

‘Ivy . . .' All of a sudden Seb's voice sounded odd.

‘
What?
' she snapped, turning back to him. He was holding a shaky finger out towards the house. Ivy followed it and almost tripped over. She didn't understand how she could have missed it . . .

The front door was ajar. The frame was splintered, and there were deep scratch marks around the lock.

Seb lowered his finger to his side as if he wasn't sure whether to stay or run. Finally he whispered, ‘Police.' He got out his phone and tapped the screen. Ivy could see it from where she was standing. The words
No Service
flashed as he tried to make the call.
Perfect.

‘What do we do?' she asked.

Seb tiptoed over the gravel towards the house and peered in through the front windows. ‘The curtains are drawn,' he hissed. ‘I'll have to go in and use the landline.'

Ivy nodded.
Right. Good idea.
‘What about me?'

Seb looked back at the door. ‘We'll go in together; you stay behind me.'

As Ivy set foot over the threshold, her skin prickled. There was a slow scratching noise coming from inside, like thick wallpaper being ripped off a wall.

Her eyes flitted into the shadows of the hallway. She just about recognized Granma Sylvie's antique writing desk – the one with the curling legs and tea-stained top – toppled over on the floor. The drawers were all missing and a pile of thick cream writing paper had been strewn across the carpet.

Seb removed a walking stick from an upturned umbrella stand and raised it above his head. As Ivy followed him, her mind raced. That scratching noise was definitely getting louder the further they went into the house. She wondered what could be making it. She waited as Seb paused to open the kitchen door.

‘Ready?' He reached for the doorknob with a trembling hand.

Ivy nodded. As the door opened and the air from the kitchen slipped out, she caught a strong whiff of damp dog.
Strange
. The kitchen never smelled of anything other than baking.

The lights were already on, even though Ivy was certain she'd turned them off before they got into the ambulance. Her heart raced as she inched forward. To her left, the kitchen cupboards were minus their doors. Fragments of wood, exploded food cans and torn packets lay scattered across the worktops, and smashed crockery filled the sink. A dirty patch on the wall was the only evidence of where the fridge used to stand. It now lay belly-up on the kitchen tiles, its contents pooling out like vomit.

Ivy took a few steps forward, crunching over spilled breakfast cereal and vegetables. Her gaze fell upon a set of muddy animal tracks trailing across the kitchen floor.

Seb's voice was faint. ‘Over there . . .'

Ivy drew her eyes away from the prints and followed his hovering finger . . . Right across the opposite wall three words had appeared:

WE CAN SEE

Each of the letters was the size of a dinner plate and appeared to have been scratched into the pastel wallpaper, which now revealed the blood-red of the previous decor.

The implement inflicting this damage, she saw, was a feather – large, glossy and black.

As it continued to write, it hovered in the air like a wasp; then, after scoring two further words into the wall, it disappeared with an indignant puff. In its place, a tiny silver coin materialized, dropping to the floor with a
ping
.

With a gasp, Ivy read the words in all their bloody glory:

WE CAN SEE YOU NOW

Chapter Three

Seb paced up and down the kitchen floor, carving a path through the smashed glass and food tins with his trainers. He was holding what remained of Granma Sylvie's only telephone. The receiver was broken and the cord had been ripped out of the base.

Ivy steadied herself against the back of a chair. Her skin was prickling with shock. ‘You saw it flying too – right? What was it?'

‘I don't know.' Seb's face was stony. He rubbed his hands down the back of his jeans. Ivy could see sweat forming on his brow. ‘What does
We can see you now
even mean?' He gestured around the room. ‘And the break-in doesn't make any sense. I've checked the other rooms downstairs but it doesn't look like anything's been stolen. Whoever was here, they've just trashed the place.'

Ivy scanned the room again, picking out what remained of her granma's unique furniture, old books and favourite photos. Her throat swelled. Most of what Granma Sylvie had collected over the years was irreplaceable. Ivy couldn't understand what someone would gain from destroying it. It didn't make sense.

As Seb put the phone down on the kitchen table, she studied the animal tracks again. She splayed out her fingers. The prints were at least four times the size of her hand. Whatever animal had been here, it was much bigger than a domestic pet.

‘There's no way to call the police from here now,' Seb said. ‘We'll have to cycle towards Bletchy Scrubb till we get mobile signal and then try Mum and Dad.'

Ivy nodded in agreement as the wall behind her crackled. She rotated slowly till she was facing it again. ‘Are you seeing that?' she asked.

Seb swallowed.

The
We can see you now
was disappearing shred by shred, as if the wallpaper was repairing itself like living skin.

Seb dragged his hands down his face, pulling his cheeks as if trying to wake himself up. ‘Why is this getting worse?'

Ivy clenched her fists. The only way to stop herself from freaking out was to try to understand what was going on. There must be some logic to it. She re-ran the last ten minutes from the beginning. Granma Sylvie's front door . . . the scratching . . . the fridge . . . the animal tracks . . . the feather . . . the coin.

The coin.

Ivy searched the kitchen tiles and spotted it in a puddle of tomato soup.

‘Careful,' Seb warned as she bent to retrieve it.

Ivy's fingers floated above the coin for a moment before she picked it up and wiped it off. It was about the size of a one pence piece, except silver and bent slightly in the middle, so that it hugged the curve of her palm. After a split-second she discovered something else. The coin was
warm
; like it had been left out in the sun.

‘Anything?' Seb asked, stepping closer.

Ivy tossed the coin into her opposite hand to discover that the temperature wasn't the only odd thing about it. It was as if the coin was tickling her, leaving behind a strange – but not unpleasant – tingle on her skin. Squinting, she held it up to the light. The metal was worn in places but she could still make out words written around the outside. ‘It says:
Blackclaw
,
Ragwort
,
Wolfsbane
and
Dirge
.' She looked up. ‘What do you think they mean?'

Seb jerked his head back. ‘How do I know? Maybe it's one of Granma's old antiques. She sold coins in her shop, didn't she?'

Ivy thought back to the little leaded windows of Granma Sylvie's antique shop in Bletchy Scrubb – she'd run it with Granpa Ernest right up until his death. ‘Yeah,' she agreed. ‘But they weren't like this.'

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