MAGPIES: who is stealing from Lewis's house? Short online fantasy fiction for kids, free from Megamouse Books.
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by Emma Laybourn

It was the Year of the Magpie.

Everyone was heartily relieved that the old year had ended at last. The Year of the Rat had been most unpleasant, what with the swarms of rodents scurrying around the garden, creeping out of drains, and even pilfering from the kitchen if you didn't watch out.

Before that, it had been the Year of the Rooster, an extremely wearing year. It hadn't been too bad in winter; but come the summer, being awoken by flocks of loudly braying birds at sunrise had been no fun at all.

A year from now it would be the Year of the Snake. Most people preferred not to even think about that one.

All in all, the arrival of the Year of the Magpie was seen as a welcome breathing space. It was true that magpies could be noisy at times; but at least they didn't breed in the sewers, bite your ankle or scream 'cock a doodle doo' at four o'clock in the morning.

So the town had a very relaxing three months until April, when the magpies started to nest.

'My Mum's lost her engagement ring,' said Lewis to his friends as they were swinging on the gate.

'Mag-pie! Mag-pie!' chanted Tom.

'That was careless of your Mum,' Fiona said. 'Hasn't she read the notices?' She quoted from them in their headmistress's voice. 'On no account should small, shiny items of value be left unattended this year. Remember the traditional habits of magpies! Guard your smaller valuables!'

Tom giggled, but Lewis didn't feel like laughing. His Mum had been too upset.

'She forgot,' he said. 'She only put the ring on the window-sill for a minute, while she washed up. And the window was open. And when she turned round, there it was, gone.'

Fiona tut-tutted.

Tom remarked, 'My sister lost an ear-ring last week, I think. She didn't tell anyone, but I overheard her swearing.'

'Silly girl,' Fiona said. 'She's old enough to remember the last Year of the Magpie.'

'Hardly!' Tom protested. 'It was twelve years ago. She was only three back then.'

'I can't wait till the Year of the Bear,' said Lewis wistfully.

Fiona shrieked. 'No, thank you! We're going to move away and live in Dextra that year. Dad said so.'

'Bor-ing,' said Tom. 'In Dextra, all the years are the same. They only have numbers. Animals are much more interesting.'

Lewis said nothing. He liked the idea of animals, but the reality could be disappointing. The roosters had got on his nerves, and his attempts to tame the rats had failed humiliatingly. Although the monkeys three years ago had been fun, even they just got to be a nuisance in the end.

And now the magpies had upset his Mum. He sighed.

'I suppose I'd better climb up and check their nests,' he said.

* * * * *

There were several magpie nests in the tall pine tree in the back garden. Lewis borrowed his Dad's ladders (which was strictly forbidden) and lugged them from the garage to the tree, gouging deep troughs in the lawn on the way.

The ladders got him up as far as the bottom two nests. After that, he had to climb the tree (which was even more strictly forbidden), trying not to look down. The magpies flapping and cackling from the branches did not help.

When he finally reached the topmost nests, his limbs were trembling with the strain. And there was nothing there.

'Just eggs,' he reported afterwards to Tom. 'A couple of bits of broken glass. A penny. Nothing else. It must be another magpie coming into our garden. I'll have to track it down.'

'How are you going to do that?' asked Tom.

Lewis thought for a moment.

'Bait,' he said.

Next morning he got up while everyone else was still asleep. Dressing silently, he crept out into the dusky garden to scatter his bait carefully. Then he retreated into the house to watch from behind the blinds.

He waited. Imperceptibly the garden turned from mysterious grey-blue to everyday green. A blackbird sang from the hedge, and sparrows hopped on the grass: but there were no magpies. Although Lewis waited for an hour, by the time Dad came lumbering down for breakfast the bait still lay untouched on the lawn.

'You're up early,' said Dad, yawning. 'What for?'

'Looking for magpies.'

Dad peered short-sightedly out of the window. He had left his glasses upstairs. 'Can't see any,' he commented. 'What's all that stuff on the grass?'

'Bottle tops and silver foil, to lure them down,' muttered Lewis, feeling rather foolish.

'Well, it isn't working. You go and pick that lot up. We don't want rubbish all over our garden.'

'I will, after breakfast,' said Lewis. He fetched a bowl of cereal and ate gloomily.

When he went to rinse his bowl, he glanced out of the window. The bowl fell with a clatter into the sink.

'The bait - it's gone!'

'Lucky you. That's saved you a job.'

'But where are the magpies?' cried Lewis.

He rushed outside. Every bottletop and scrap of foil had disappeared. A single magpie sat bobbing its tail in the pine tree: but how could one magpie account for all that lot?

At school, Lewis was distracted. He spent the lessons staring into space, and the breaks fishing sweet-wrappers out of the classroom bins. After a few attempts at conversation, Tom and Fiona shrugged and left him to it.

By four o'clock, the glittering sweet-wrappers were spread about the lawn. Lewis watched and waited. Occasionally a magpie flew across the garden, but none alighted. The bait remained untouched until teatime.

Lewis's mother refused to let him eat his tea while standing by the window. Considering it was her ring that he was hunting for, it was really most unreasonable of her, he thought as he bolted his spaghetti.

And when he was allowed up from the table, his annoyance was complete. While he had been eating, the lawn had been swept clean as if by a giant vacuum cleaner. Not a single sweet-wrapper remained.

'Into thin air!' muttered Lewis as he scanned the sky for magpies, unsuccessfully.

Once again he dragged the ladders across the grass to check the nests in the pine tree. Once again he made the vertiginous climb to the higher branches.

All for nothing. The nests were nearly empty.

Lewis slid down the ladder in a temper. He was going to find those magpies, somehow.

What he needed was more bait...

'Lewis,' said his mother, later that evening, 'Have you been in the fridge? Someone's taken the lids off all the yoghurt pots.'

'Lewis,' said his Dad, 'what happened to that box of clout nails?'

'Lewis!' wailed his little brother Sidney. 'I can't find my marbles!'

'It's in a good cause,' explained Lewis from his lookout at the window. 'They're only in the porch. I've left the door open. I'm trying to get the magpies to come really close.'

'But I need those clout nails,' complained his Dad.

'That yoghurt'll go off,' his mother warned.

'I want my marbles!' Sidney howled.

'Oh, all right then.'

However, when Lewis stepped out to the porch to collect them, he was too late.

* * * * *

In the following days, more things went missing. Paper-clips. Thumb-tacks. Key-rings. Badges. More seriously, his mother's silver bracelet. His father's tie-pin. And Lewis's own watch.

'But I didn't take them,' protested Lewis for the umpteenth time. 'Well, only the paper-clips. I didn't take any of the others.'

Mum was angry. 'So you mean to tell me those magpies flew into the house without any of us seeing them, and pulled the thumb-tacks out of the pinboard by themselves? And my bracelet was in a drawer!'

'I need my pirate badge,' whined Sidney. 'It's my best badge. Give it back to me, Lewis.'

'But I haven't got it! I didn't take any of them!'

'Except the paper-clips,' said Mum drily. 'Well, you're the one who lured the magpies right up to the porch. So if they've decided to come inside the house, you'd better either catch them or find out where they're nesting. Soon.'

Lewis did his best. He climbed tree after tree, and gained nothing except torn trousers. He borrowed Fiona's binoculars and scanned the skies: to no avail.

Meanwhile his mother's temper was growing shorter. Small change kept disappearing from her purse, and she did not know who - or what - to blame. All her pins had vanished, and her thimble.

Then the nail scissors went, followed by the teaspoons. Mum took to wearing her house keys on a string around her neck, which was just as well because the spare ones vanished two days later.

So did a necklace, a small glass horse, a pair of compasses and Dad's steel tape measure.

'And that's heavy!' Lewis told Tom. 'For a magpie, anyway.'

Tom studied him doubtfully. 'It's not really you, is it?'

'Of course it's not! I wouldn't take all that stuff. I'm in enough trouble as it is. Hasn't anything gone missing in your house?'

'I don't think so,' said Tom. 'Though Mum did say we were a knife short. And something about the salt-cellar.' He fell silent, wondering.

But soon reports from other houses began to multiply. At first, people shrugged them off.

'Those magpies are up to their old tricks again,' they said. 'Remember the last time, twelve years ago?'

There seemed to be no other explanation, until households started reporting tin-openers lost, and the tins to go with them, and beer bottles, and cut-glass vases, and pinking shears, and light bulbs.

'This is not the work of magpies,' said Lewis's Dad finally. 'This is the work of some sneak thief.'

'Why would a sneak thief want your nail-clippers?' Lewis asked.

'Well, who else could it be?' His father ran his hands through his thinning hair, exasperated. 'We'll be losing the saucepans next.'

The saucepans went exactly a week later, closely followed by the kettle. They had to cook the meals in two old brown casserole dishes, and gave up drinking tea. The steel teapot had gone too.

Sidney's trumpet and xylophone disappeared.

'That's no loss,' said Lewis. But he was furious when his roller-blades went missing, along with the borrowed binoculars.

So Lewis set a trap.

He cut a crown out of golden card and put it in his bedroom drawer. Then, without asking, he borrowed his father's vice and set it up on his desk.

Next - again without asking - he took the expensive new camcorder, and with the help of sticky tape, plasticine and string, rigged it up so that the camera should start to run as soon as the drawer was opened.

He left the window wide open, hid behind the wardrobe and stared hard at the drawer for ten minutes. Nothing happened.

Lewis scattered a layer of talcum powder on the window sill. Then he went out of the room and sat on the floor outside his bedroom door. Still nothing happened, except that Sidney came along whining.

'I've lost my dumper truck! My best one, the big yellow one!'

'I haven't got it,' said Lewis.

'You have!' yelled Sidney. He knelt down and began to thump Lewis on the chest with his fists. 'You have! You have!' And he started to cry.

'Cut it out, Sid,' said Lewis, but Sidney went on thumping and crying. All at once there was a loud clatter and a bang from the bedroom. Sidney stopped hitting Lewis, stuck his thumb in his mouth and ran away.

Lewis scrambled to his feet and flung open the door.

His drawer was on the floor, upside down. Lewis picked it up, leaving a pile of socks on the carpet. The cardboard crown had vanished. He hurried to the window, where the talc lay undisturbed. Lewis spun round. So how had they managed to get the crown?

And, he realised with a sick feeling, the vice...

And the brand new camcorder.

* * * * *

After that, Lewis set no more traps. He lay very low and kept his head down. Luckily his father never asked him if he knew anything about the camcorder, instead complaining at great length to the police over the phone.

So Lewis kept his mouth shut. Even when the hedge-clippers and lawn-mower went, he had nothing to say.

However, he was thinking hard. Whoever was taking all this stuff had to be keeping it somewhere. Surely a huge collection of lawn-mowers and camcorders and roller-blades couldn't be that difficult to find?

The next day, he went down to the Building Society and drew out all his savings.

Then he went to an electrical shop in the precinct, where he'd often stopped to gape through the window at the TVs on display.

Today the windows were nearly empty.

'Can I help you?' said the shop-keeper. 'No, I don't suppose I can, unless you want a keyboard. They're all still here, for some reason. Not a great deal else is, as you can see.'

'Have you got a metal detector?' enquired Lewis.

'I think they've all gone... Not sold, just gone. Hang on. I'll check the storeroom, if you like.'

He returned a minute later carrying a long box. 'Last one. You were just in time. I don't suppose it'll be there next week.'

'Great! I'll have it.' Lewis dug in his pockets. He didn't have quite enough money, but the shopkeeper didn't mind.

'I'll just take the notes,' he said. 'You keep the change. It won't stay in the till.'

'Thanks!' Lewis grabbed the box in both arms and hurried away to the playground, where he could sit and read the instructions in peace. On the way, he noticed that the slide had disappeared.

Having read the leaflet twice, and tried out the metal detector on the roundabout - which it detected quite easily - Lewis began his search.

Since he had no idea where to begin, the playground seemed as good a place as any. He checked the sandpit and the flowerbeds and under the hedges; anywhere that things could have been buried.

He found nothing at all - not even the old tin cans he'd been expecting. Disgruntled, he set off across the car park, and was brought up short by the metal detector's ear-splitting wail.

Lewis was bewildered. There was nothing here. The cars were all parked at the other end, by the shops. The empty tarmac looked exactly the same as it always had.

He scratched his head. 'Drains,' he said uncertainly. 'Or cables. Or something.'

He dismissed it until the same thing happened as he walked past the newsagent's. The detector suddenly went haywire.

He raised and lowered it. It went quiet at ground level, and shrieked loudly as he lifted it, warning of something in mid-air that Lewis could neither see nor feel.

In short, it was detecting something that wasn't there.

Lewis stopped waving it above his head and gave an embarrassed grin to the small audience that had gathered. Before they could ask any awkward questions, he set off home.

Half way up the empty drive the metal detector wailed at him again.

'Stupid thing,' growled Lewis, and he threw it in the space where the dustbins used to be. When he went to look for it next day, repenting, it had vanished.

* * * * *

As summer ripened into autumn, the disappearances slowed down. Lewis's father went to Dextra to buy another lawn-mower, and this time it stayed put. Shops began to stock needles and scissors again. The jeweller's, which had closed down in despair three months earlier, re-opened.

Mum bought new saucepans, and tinned food came back on the menu. Sidney ate nothing but baked beans for a week. He had been suffering from baked bean deprivation.

With the approach of Christmas, Lewis forgot about the disappearances. The presents in their shiny paper, the baubles and tinsel, the fairy lights all stayed where they were supposed to. Nothing vanished at all, although very soon everyone wished that Sidney's new trumpet would.

Christmas passed, to Lewis's regret. New Year's Eve held no excitement for him, since it seemed to have been invented for adults. There were not even any snakes to look forward to, as they were not expected to put in an appearance until spring.

So he lay in his bed trying to sleep through the bursts of laughter and song that came from the New Year party next door. Sometimes he recognised Mum's or Dad's voice; they were taking it in turns to join the celebrations.

Lewis tossed and turned and checked his watch. Two minutes to twelve. He decided he might as well get up and look out of the window in case anyone nearby set off fireworks at midnight. Next door, the snatches of unsteady singing suddenly coalesced into a chanted count-down:

'Five! Four! Three! Two! One! HAPPY NEW YEAR!'

Outside, there was a long and deafening crash.

Lewis stared at the driveway. A few seconds ago it had been empty. Now it was full of a bumpy, glittery, metallic mountain. Bits of it were still rolling around as if they had fallen through an invisible trapdoor.

'Out of thin air,' he breathed.

The mountain was made of televisions and kettles. It was made of irons, hacksaws, light bulbs and tricycles. Every so often a bit of it would slide down to the bottom of the pile with a clang or a tinkle.

Then all the party-goers came crowding out of next door's house to see, so Lewis went back to bed.

There were a good many arguments over the next week. As well as the shiny heap in the drive, there was another, larger mountain in the playground car-park, a pile just outside the newsagent's, and six or seven more scattered around the town.

It took days to sort out what belonged to who. At the end of the week Lewis's family were left with a lingering pile of junk in their front garden: things like old oilcans and broken buckets that nobody wanted. Lewis never got back his roller-blades - somebody else claimed them first - but he did manage to retrieve his family's camcorder. He knew it was theirs as soon as he played the recording.

His trap had not worked after all. The camera failed to record the thief opening the drawer. But the thief must have fiddled with the camcorder, pressing buttons at random, so that there was ten minutes' worth of jerky, disconnected footage.

Most of it was skewed shots of a junkpile made of washing machines and toasters that for some reason seemed to be inside a cave. Lewis had an impression of slimy rock-walls and a glimpse of stalactites hanging from the roof.

It was only in the very last few seconds that the thief had turned the camera round so that it was pointing at himself. The thief was too close to be properly in focus, but it was clear at once that he was not human.

He was scaly. He had long, serrated teeth, and cavernous nostrils, which steamed up the lens. A glistening red eye stared unblinkingly at Lewis. The camera moved, and filmed a claw as long as the tin tray that the scaly foot was resting on.

The camera moved again. And there were wings.

The screen went blank. Lewis switched the camcorder off and put it in a shoebox on top of his wardrobe, right at the back.

He studied the calendar that hung on the wardrobe door. It was last year's.

Lewis took a pencil and crossed out 'Year of the Magpie.' He began to write something in its place, then stopped.

How could it have been the Year of the Dragon? There were no such things. And the magpies had been plentiful, sure enough, although they had had no chance to steal anything.

If the calendar hadn't got it wrong, the dragons must have. They'd got the wrong town, the wrong planet. Or maybe the wrong dimension.

Next time, Lewis would have to let the dragons know. At least he had twelve years to work out how to do it.

That was if the dragons waited for that long. What was the Year of the Snake famous for?

He recalled the stories. Scaly slitherings underneath the floorboards; disappearing pets, and sharp teeth in dark places.

Well, Lewis would be ready.

What he would need was bait...


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