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Why are two men meeting beneath the campsite in the dead of night? What is going on in the disused ...
Why are two men meeting beneath the campsite in the dead of night? What is going on in the disused windmill? And who is Harry?
The anwer to these questions and the strange happenings that make up the Mystery At Mainswell all await you as you join Archer, the boys and Rebecca.
The next morning dawned with the promise of fine weather. The boys woke early enough to watch the dawn uncertainly stagger into being, early enough to watch the first rays of sunshine glisten off the roof tops that were still wet from the deluge of the previous night. Archer too was awake. In fact, Archer had been awake most of the night. He had lain outside the older boy's bedroom door, and his wakefulness was not of his doing.
A low-pitched humming sound from the other side of the door had held his attention. It had begun soon after the boys had gone up the previous evening, and Archer had made a mental note of it as he had nestled down in his basket in the utility room. After the adults had gone upstairs he had become curious by the continuing sound. Softly, slowly, carefully, lest he should disturb anyone, and please God don't let it be the master, he had padded up the stairs, his ears pricked as he sought out the source of the hum. He had reached the boy's bedroom door and stuck his nose to the small crack beneath it. He was sure the hum came from within, his sixth sense, his in-built radar, told him where the sound was coming from. His curiosity aroused, yet fearful of spending the rest of the night outdoors, he had simply lain by the door waiting for the teenager to open it so he could satisfy his curiosity.
He had been awake, more or less, all the night. Twice he had really stirred. On both occasions the hum had changed into a cacophony of digital notes. No earthly music was this, much rather something created by a machine. Each burst lasted only a few seconds, and in reality wasn't really loud at all, but to Archer's supersensitive ears it was an unnerving sound.His ears had been pricked and the hackles on the back of his neck had risen. Even after the sound had died away it had taken him several minutes to settle back into his resting alertness. Thus when morning came, Archer was already awake.
Finally the door opened and the teenager came out, rubbing his eyes that were still heavy with the sleepiness of the night.
"Good morning, Archer, what are you doing there? I nearly fell over you,' he exclaimed as he fell out of the doorway and almost tripped over the prostrate canine. By way of reply Archer roused himself, stood on all four feet and, as if to say 'How do you expect me to sleep when you're making all that noise all night long?' shook himself vigorously. As the boy went off to the bathroom, the dog padded into the bedroom. He came face to face with what looked awfully like a television screen. The hum was coming from the box on which the screen was sitting. Archer looked at the blank screen. He'd done this many times before and, almost without thinking, his tongue flicked quickly over the bottom of the screen, leaving a trail of saliva in its wake. Then his nose found the on/off button and pushed it. Suddenly, with a faint popping sound, the screen came to life, filled with many colours, and an awful lot of writing.
"Grr,' Archer instinctively growled at the computer terminal. 'Grr.' He knew all about the computer. He'd watched the boys for hours as they worked and played on it. He'd tried endlessly to catch the missiles, aircraft and creatures that formed parts of the games the boys played, and he always failed. Now though, he watched with intrigue as the colours changed and the writing moved up the screen. Now the boys weren't playing on the computer, it was doing it itself, and this confused Archer. 'Grrr,' he repeated, but the dumb machine just continued with the task it was performing.
"Grrr,' he repeated more loudly.
"Grrr,' the speaker behind the screen suddenly replied. Astounded by this attempt to communicate with him, Archer whined a long, low whine. A second later his effort was repeated by the machine. After the initial shock, this became fun. Archer could hear water running in the bathroom and knew he would be alone for a while yet.
"Grr, woof, grrrrrrrr,' he snapped at the computer.
"Grr, oofff, grrrr,' came the reply.
"Woof, woof, woof,' he barked rapidly but not too loudly. Even as the screen replayed his dialogue, another bedroom door opened. An untidy mop of hair appeared in the doorway.
"Archer, what are you doing?' the younger boy laughed.
"Woof,' barked the dog.
"Woof,' added the computer.
A third door opened and was rapidly followed by a deeper, tired, annoyed exclamation; 'Shut up, some of us are trying to sleep'.
"Morning, Father,' chirped the younger boy. 'It's time to get up. It's time to send us on our cheery way. It's time for peace to reign here once again.'
"Oh. Well, at least shut the dog up. Its bark gives me such a headache.'
"Okay, but it's the last morning for a fortnight. Fancy old Archer getting the computer to talk to him.'
"Fancy old Archer what?'
"He's talking to the computer. Come and see, if you don't believe me.' The boy stood aside as his father appeared in the doorway.
"Woof, grrrrr,' the dog continued, delighted at his new toy and oblivious to his pending demise.
"Woof, grrr,' the machine responded. 'Woof, grr, woof, whhhhiiinneee, grrrrr,' the machine continued. Just then the older boy emerged from the bathroom and, rapidly trying to work out why two people were standing at the doorway of his bedroom peering in, he started to say, 'What's going on--' when he heard the almost doggy sounds coming from within. Pushing his way past his father, he let out a roar of laughter as he saw one very bemused Alsatian staring blankly at a machine which was not letting him get a doggy-word in edge-ways.
"Oops,' the boy continued, 'looks like there's a bug in the voice recognition program. Have to sort that out when we get back.' He reached behind the screen and a second later the sound stopped and the screen went blank. Archer was now very puzzled. From his perspective, his new friend had suddenly been killed off in its prime and he wasn't happy.
"Woof, woof, woof,' he yapped in protest.
"It's all right boy, it was only the computer, nothing to be frightened of.'
"Woof, woof, woof,' he growled uneasily as if to say he wasn't stupid, he knew it was a computer and he wanted to carry on talking to it.
"Sorry, old chap, we might get evicted if we carry on.'
"Mark, why was the computer on anyway?' his father asked out of curiosity.
"Oh, I had some stuff I wanted to download during the night when it was cheap so I just wrote a sign-in batch to do the work at a predetermined time and left it running.'
"Oh I see,' said his father, who was very much aware that his sons were very computer literate and that he had only himself to blame. He had long since decided it wasn't worth his while to try to curb their interest in this field as it was he who had encouraged them from a very early age, so he just left well alone these days. They had an arrangement whereby the lads, who both did odd jobs here and there, paid some of the phone bills for their 'airtime'. As an arrangement it worked quite well, and the boys were responsible enough not to abuse the trust they had been given.
Half an hour later both boys sat round the kitchen table munching cereals, as bacon and eggs sizzled in the frying pan on top of the hob. Mark was looking intently at a piece of paper which looked like a list of items. Against each item was a tick.
"Still can't believe we've packed everything,' he quipped as his mother looked questioningly at the piece of paper.
"Course you have dear. You've been over that list at least three times and you know that everything's packed.'
"True enough, Mother, but I just have a feeling we've forgotten something.'
"Mark,' began the younger boy, his mouth still full with cereal.
"Uh-huh,' came the uninterested reply.
"I know what we've forgotten to do.'
"What?' The interest was returning.
"We haven't told Bec what time we're due to arrive at Mainswell.'
"Brilliant. Only that is on the list as something to do this morning.'
"Don't you think you'd better phone her soon? She may go out this morning.'
"No need to mother dear,' offered the younger boy.
"No? Why not?'
"'Cos we have the power,' continued James with a small laugh.
"The power?' His mother's back was still turned as she cooked the breakfast.
"Yes. All we do is surf the Internet. We drop Bec a simple message. Leave it in her mailbox and she can pick it up when she's in. Simple.'
"Yes, simple, almost too simple. What if she doesn't--what was it--pick it up from her mailbox before you arrive? What then?'
"She might not.'
"She will. She knows we're sending it so she'll keep looking till it arrives. Guaranteed first class delivery. Phones are okay but they're not cool these days. If you want to be really connected you have to use the Internet.'
"Well, we wouldn't want you not to be cool, would we?' His mother sounded slightly sarcastic but she knew her younger son was only playing a game. She continued after a breath. 'How you guys are going to manage without that computer for a whole fortnight I don't know.'
"Easy Mum, we use Rebecca's.'
Rebecca, often called Bec by her closer friends, was also fifteen years of age. She was Mark's and James's only cousin and it was her father, Uncle Jack, who was taking ultimate responsibility for the welfare of the three teenagers for the fortnight that had just begun. Rebecca had short, cropped, dark hair and was never more at home than when wearing her riding clothes. Indeed, apart from her real passion for horses, she had few interests other than her shared interest in computers. She spent many hours conversing with her cousins over the computer airwaves.
"Well,' continued the mother, 'I think after breakfast you had better get connected don't you?'
"Already taken care of.' Mark looked triumphantly at his younger brother. 'Cyclops will send the message at nine hundred hours precisely.'
"Cyclops?' queried his mother.
"Yeah, something I'm working on to send messages to people at sometime in the future of when the message is written. You write the message and store it away with the time you want it sent and to whom you want to send it to. Then when the computer hits that time, the message gets sent. I've told Cyclops to send Bec a message at nine hundred hours that we will arrive at about half past one this afternoon.' Mark looked at his watch. 'In fact, it should have been sent about now.'
As if in confirmation of his statement the study door flew open and their father appeared. 'Breakfast, good. Someone using the phone?' He looked quizzically at the youngsters. 'Only there's a load of noise on the line and I can't dial out.'
"Yeah, just letting Rebecca know when we'll arrive. It's probably finished by now.'
"You're using the computer to talk to Rebecca while you're having breakfast?'
"Sort of, Dad,' and Mark explained again how his program Cyclops worked.
"Well, my boy, it seems you are definitely onto something with that one. Glad to see you do something useful on the computer once in a while.'
"Look, Dad, I'm going to leave the PC on while we're away. That way we can send you messages if we want to. I'll set it to pick up anything from my Internet address twice a day, first thing in the morning and late at night. If I leave the printer hooked up it will print out anything we send and you can read it when you have time.'
"That's fine by me, if you want to play your little games. How can we contact you?'
"Telephone?' suggested the older boy.
"But, Mark,' interjected his mother, 'that isn't cool, remember?'
"Pardon?' The boy's father looked puzzled.
"It's okay Dad, just Mum having a little joke. If you want to talk to us, the best way is to phone Uncle Jack, and we'll ring you back.'
"Right,' continued the woman holding the frying pan in her left hand, 'who's for eggs and bacon?'
The fried food was served and the family settled down to a few moments of peace as it was devoured. The family, that is, except for one member: Archer. He had smelled the bacon being cooked. His eyes had watered as he remembered days when such smells had brought him generous titbits from young children who regularly disobeyed their father's instruction not to feed the dog at table. His tongue hung loose with sadness as he remembered how those titbits stopped as the boys had grown older. Then, with watering eyes and a hanging-out tongue, Archer wove in and out of the chairs, brushing people's legs in the forlorn hope that he would be remembered. Alas, there would be no titbits forthcoming this morning unless, Archer surmised, something was to happen. A plan formed in his doggy brain. He somehow sensed that he was about to go on holiday, and he was in a jovial mood.
He slipped unnoticed beneath the table and made his way to being just in front of the boys' father. This was an old game to him and he could almost guarantee it would work. Nonchalantly he sidled up to the man and let his big tongue rest on the man's lap. Then, seemingly still unnoticed he eyed the fork of bacon that was being lifted to the man's mouth. He nodded inwardly with appreciation at the precariousness with which the bacon rested on the fork. In one swift movement, and with an agility that had been honed to perfection over the years, Archer let out one raw, penetrating bark.
The result was as instantaneous as it was guaranteed. The boys' father hurled his chair backwards in surprise, his fork jerking aimlessly in the air. With the eagle eye of a veteran campaigner, Archer watched the bacon rise from the fork and begin its descent to the floor. No sooner had the chair begun its backwards travel than Archer stirred. He lunged forwards and upwards until his mouth, now wide open in expectation, was in the perfect place to receive the lost, aimless, bacon. The catch was, as always, perfect, and the morsel had been swallowed with relish for some moments before the dog had fled the breakfast room.
"That blasted dog,' began the boy's father as he recovered from the shock, gets worse every day. Now it thinks it can eat my breakfast too. I'm telling you, after this holiday it goes. We find it a home where it will be looked after, where there's space for it to play its stupid games.'
His fury was finally drowned out by the raucous laughter coming from the other members of the family.
"Funny,' said James between laughs.
"What's funny?' returned the father.
"Funny it's you he always picks on for his little antics. Perhaps he does it to wind you up. Perhaps he senses you don't like him and he's just trying to tell you the feeling's mutual.'
"The dog goes when you guys have had your holiday.'
"Dad, you can't do that, it's not fair.'
"What isn't fair?'
"It's not fair to take it out on a dumb, helpless animal.' Mark was almost serious now and his father couldn't be sure if the boy was being sincere or still joking.
"That creature is not dumb, and nor is it helpless. When you come home, it goes. I've had enough. End of conversation.' The boy's father looked at them seriously and they knew better than to answer back.
Breakfast finished, the boys helped tidy away. Their father retired to his precious study and was deeply engrossed in his work when the letterbox opened and shut as the morning paper was delivered. Archer, the canine disaster zone, had reappeared after the boys' father had left the breakfast table. If dogs could grin, this dog was grinning. After all, he'd won another victory. Now he saw the paper lying on the mat he saw one further chance to score a point over his old adversary. He was looking at the paper when James appeared at the top of the stairs.
"Archer,' he hissed in a voice that was low enough to hopefully attract the dog's attention without disturbing his father. 'Archer,' he hissed a little louder when the dog ignored him, but it was too late. The dog had a one-track mind that seemed hell-bent on destruction that morning. He padded noiselessly over to the mat. Sticking out his large pink tongue, which he diligently wrapped round the paper, he folded his teeth round the bundle and bit hard. Then he dropped the paper onto the mat and picked it up again, still without any undue commotion or noise. This was not the action of a mischievous puppy playing a game, James surmised as he began to walk down the stairs, but rather a skilfully worked out strategy of carefully planned moves. Five times the dog picked up, chewed and dropped the newspaper until it was a soggy mess that was totally unreadable. Then the dog picked up the paper and walked to the study door. Raising his right paw, Archer began to stroke the door, gently at first but more forcefully as time progressed. After a few seconds, and unheard to all but the canine, the occupant in the room pushed back the chair behind the desk and took three big strides across the deep-pile carpet in the direction of the door. Archer dropped the paper on the third stride and, just as the door-handle turned, he fled upstairs out of sight, pushing the boy back into the wall as he passed. The door opened, and as it did so James, recovering from his canine assault, retreated quickly back up to the landing.
"Archer,' the voice at the study door screamed as the occupant retrieved the soggy mass. 'Just wait until I get my hands on you, you damn dog. This is the last straw. This time you go, holiday or no holiday.'
"What's going on?' The boys' mother had appeared from the lounge and looked perplexed at the sudden disturbance.
"That blasted dog has eaten the paper again. This time it's curtains.'
"Now, now, dear, in two hours the dog will be gone for a whole fortnight, so just calm down and get back on with your work. James,' continued his mother as she spotted him at the top of the stairs, 'if you find the dog, will you keep him locked up somewhere where he can't disturb your father?'
With a grunt of disapproval the study door was slammed shut, and a few seconds later the soggy newspaper was consigned to the rubbish bin.
"Archer,' said James a few moments later when he joined the dog in his bedroom, 'you're a very naughty dog, annoying Father like that. Now I have to keep you up here until we go.'
"Woof,' replied the dog sorrowfully, though there was a definite twinkle in his eye. Archer knew that this time he had probably gone just a bit too far, but he certainly didn't understand the gravity of the situation that now faced him, though even if he had realised that his old adversary was about to send him away for good, he probably wouldn't have wanted to apologise. Apologies were something Alsatians didn't have to do very often, it was not part of their breeding and, so far as he was concerned, the several years of animosity between the master and himself fully justified his lunatic behaviour from time to time.