Issue 6, 2019

Phantoms of Madagascar (part one)

story by Geoffrey McSkimming , illustrated by Peter Sheehan

1. Sniffing out a scribbler

The skies had been clear, the clouds soft and the wind just strong enough to propel the Airship Cumulus across the southern hemisphere without too much wobbliness or discomfort for Jools the ocelot and Vern the meerkat.

Whoo-hiss-whhhoooooosssshhhhhh! Whoo-hiss-whhhoooooosssshhhhhh! Whoo-hiss-whhhoooooosssshhhhhh! came the sound of the steam filling the sail.

‘I say, Jools,’ Vern called from the helm, ‘we’re setting a splendid pace.’ He turned the steering wheel slowly as he scanned the skies ahead. ‘By my estimations we should be sighting Madagascar in … ooh, let me see … about half a shake of a whale’s tail.’

Jools the ocelot came up from belowdecks, putting on her special tropical wide-brimmed purple hat with the bright green feather in the band. ‘That’s wonderful, Vern,’ she said, going across to the editing desks and turning on one of the weatherproof computers. ‘I’ll just send a quick email off to Mrs Sayers and tell her we’ll be seeing her this afterrrrnoon, shall I?’

‘That’s a fine idea, if I may say,’ replied Vern. ‘I am looking forward to meeting her, and to seeing what stories she might have for the magazine.’

‘And I’m looking forrrrward to seeing her again, Vern,’ Jools said, finding Mrs Sayers’s details in her email account. ‘It’s been a long time since she and I last met.’

Mrs Sayers was a writer of mystery stories, and Jools was most eager to see if Mrs Sayers might have anything new that could be published in Blast Off.

‘I do enjoy a good mystery story,’ mused Vern as he steered the airship. ‘Especially one that involves custard. Although I’ve only ever found one story like that—The Unpleasantness of the Wobbling Pudding. It was very good, but I thought it could have had more custard in it.’

Jools had been typing away. When she finished her email she pressed send, and the email was whisked away to Mrs Sayers.

‘I don’t think I ever rrrread The Unpleasantness of the Wobbling Pudding,’ said Jools. ‘But I have read some of Mrs Sayers’s other short mysteries: Crime in Cullottes; Lord Peter Views the Gherkin; The Affair of the Runaway Pretzel; Murder on the Disoriented Express. She rrrreally knows how to tell a story.’

All at once, the inbox bell on Jools’s computer went ding. ‘Oh, that was quick,’ purred the ocelot.

‘Mrs Sayers?’ asked Vern.

‘Yes,’ Jools began reading the email that had just come through. ‘Oh good. Oh … dear …’

‘Is something wrong?’ asked Vern, sensing the change in Jools’s voice.

‘Why, yes, it seems something is wrong,’ she replied, her whiskers twitching worriedly.

‘Can’t Mrs Sayers see us?’

‘Oh, she can see us, all right, Vern. She says she’s looking forward to our visit, and to sharing her mysteries with us. But she has a small problem.’

‘Ooh,’ oohed Vern, jerking up and down as he steered the wheel. ‘What sort of problem?’

‘It seems she has a case of phantoms in her house!’

‘Phantoms?’ Vern looked shocked.

‘R-r-r-r-r-r-r,’ nodded Jools.

‘You mean, as in ghosts?’

‘That’s what she says in her email. And these phantoms seem to be stealing from her.’

‘Stealing?’

‘Rr-rr-rr.’

“‘What are they taking?’ asked Vern.

‘Her pens. Listen to what she wrote.’ Jools read out loud a bit of the email: ‘“Oh, my dear Jools, these pesky phantoms are only stealing my pens! Nothing else! Just my pens! Every time I put down a pen and go off to get a cup of tea or to stretch my legs or to have a small bowl of custard—”

‘Mmmm,’ Vernon said, licking his lips approvingly.

‘"—when I come back to my desk, my pen has disappeared! It must have happened at least fifty times since last Wednesday! And whenever I return to my pen-less desk, I always see a shadow moving across the wall! But please, Jools, don’t be put off—I still look forward to your and Vernon’s visit.”’

‘Well,’ said Vern, a little nervously, ‘I’m certainly glad she still wants to see us. We have cloud-sailed a long way, after all …’

‘We have,’ Jools agreed, turning off the computer.

‘Phantoms,’ muttered Vern. ‘Oh, dear me …’

‘Oh, you’re not afrrrraid of ghosts, are you, Vern?’ Jools gave him a challenging look.

Vern jerked up and down indignantly. ‘I most certainly am not!’ he declared. ‘It’s just that … well, let’s just say that I’m not exactly fond of the thought of them.’

Jools raised her furry eyebrow.

‘By my strrrripes, Vernon, I do believe you’re scared!’

‘Oh, madam!’ Vern spluttered. Then, spying the lush green coastline of Madagascar appearing in the distance, he quickly changed the subject. ‘Land ahoy!’ he shouted. ‘Madagascar on the horizon!’

‘Mrs Sayers, here we come,’ Jools announced, the gentle, warm breeze riffling through her sleek, striped fur.

‘And phantoms, here we come,’ Vern muttered to himself, shuddering, as he began bringing the Cumulus into its descent.

2. Haunted happenings

Mrs Sayers lived in a big, old mansion by a lonely stretch of beach, on the eastern coast of Madagascar.

‘Ah!’ exclaimed Vern, spying all the golden sand. ‘The perfect place to berth the Cumulus. Prepare for landing, Madam Jools!’

Jools gripped the editing desk firmly and slid onto one of the stools. Her tail swished excitedly as Vern brought the airship’s rudder about to starboard and lowered the large penny-farthing wheels beneath the hull.

Whoo-hiss-whhhoooooosssshhhhhh! Whoo-hiss-whhhoooooosssshhhhhh! went the steam as Vern let it dwindle down.

With a gentle tilting, the Cumulus settled softly onto the golden sand.

Jools put on her sunglasses to protect her eyes from the sudden glare. ‘Topnotch landing, Vern,’ she congratulated him.

‘Why, thank you, madam,’ said the meerkat.

They had landed not far from Mrs Sayers’s mansion. ‘Look,’ said Jools. ‘There’s Mrs Sayers on the front porrrch!’

Vern spied a big woman at the top of the stairs, waving a large white handkerchief at them in a vigorously welcoming manner.

‘Yoo hoo!’ she called. ‘Hullo, Jools!’

Jools sprang over the side of the Cumulus, landing on the sand with a soft thud. She scampered across the sand and up the stairs. Vern carefully climbed down the rope ladder onto the beach and he followed his friend.

‘What a grand airship you have!’ exclaimed Mrs Sayers. ‘Wonderful to see you again, my dear!’

‘Wonderrrful to see you too,’ said Jools.

Vern came to the bottom of the stairs.

‘Mrs Sayers, this is my friend and navigator and builder of the Airship Cumulus, Vern. Vern, I’d like you to meet Mrs Sayers.’

‘Don’t be a stranger!’ boomed Mrs Sayers heartily. ‘Come up and let me shake your paw!’

Vern hurried up the stairs and shook Mrs Sayers’s hand. ‘So pleased to make your acquaintance,’ he said.

‘Likewise, I’m sure,’ said Mrs Sayers. ‘Now come inside and I’ll put a pot of tea on—because I’m tired of wearing this dress!’

Vern looked startled. Jools burst out laughing.

Mrs Sayers slapped Vern heartily on the back, nearly sending him sprawling down the stairs. ‘Ha ha! Just my little joke,’ she said, ushering them into the huge house. ‘I don’t think a pot of tea would suit my legs, do you? Ha ha!’

‘Oh, very droll,’ Vern said.

Inside, Mrs Sayers led them into a huge sitting room where Jools and Vern made themselves comfortable while Mrs Sayers went and made the tea. When they were sipping the hot brew, and nibbling on freshly baked chocolate and zucchini muffins, Vern said, ‘We hear you’re troubled by ph … ph … phantoms?’

Mrs Sayers snorted through a mouthful of muffin crumbs. ‘Pests!’ she said. ‘Every night when I’m writing, no sooner is my back turned than I lose another pen!’

‘Sounds verrry weird,’ Jools said.

‘It is weird,’ snorted Mrs Sayers. ‘It only happens at night, and I always see the same sort of shadow creeping across the wall in my writing room. Goodness only knows why they want to steal my pens. Maybe they want to be ghost writers. Ha ha! Ghost writers! Get it, Vern? Ha!’

Vern nodded, but he couldn’t help feeling uneasy, thinking that he was sitting in the same house where phantoms lurked.

‘I do like a meerkat with a sense of humour,’ Mrs Sayers said.

‘Maybe we can help you catch the phantoms,’ Jools offered.

‘Oh, Ms Jools!’ Vern objected.

‘Yes, Vern?’ Jools purred.

‘Well, I’m … I’m sure Mrs Sayers doesn’t want us interfering,’ Vern said. ‘And maybe the phantoms don’t want us interfering either …’

‘Piffle!’ said Mrs Sayers. ‘I think that’s a super idea, Jools. How about we try to catch the shifty shape shifters this evening?’

‘Um …’ said Vern, twitching. ‘Er …’

‘I think we will,’ said Jools. ‘Let’s get to the bottom of this rrrriddle, Mrs Sayers.’

‘Agreed,’ nodded the mystery writer.

And Vern twitched some more.

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Will Jools and Vern help Mrs Sayers solve the mystery of the pen-pinching phantoms?
Find out in part two!

 

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Worksheet

Identifying and using sound repetition