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Von Gobstopper's Arcade (Strangest Adventures), page 1


Von Gobstopper's Arcade (Strangest Adventures)

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Von Gobstopper's Arcade (Strangest Adventures)

  To my mother, Grace, and my Aunt Ida for their ceaseless devotion, without which none of this would have happened.

  ‘Peter,’ said Wendy the comforter, ‘I should love you in a beard’; and Mrs Darling stretched out her arms to him, but he repulsed her.

  ‘Keep back, lady, no one is going to catch me and make me a man.’

  Peter Pan and Wendy

  J.M. Barrie

  Table of Contents

  Cover Page




  Part I A Place Called Home

  Chapter One Safety First

  Chapter Two A New Phase Begins

  Chapter Three Birds of a Feather

  Chapter Four News at Assembly

  Part II Rewards and Surprises

  Chapter Five Excursion Fever

  Chapter Six Meeting Boi Toi

  Chapter Seven A Message in the Snow

  Chapter Eight Toys Underground

  Chapter Nine A Bond is Forged

  Chapter Ten The Botchers

  Part III Dark Discoveries

  Chapter Eleven Fritz Braun

  Chapter Twelve Hack Ward

  Chapter Thirteen Geppetto’s Notebook

  Chapter Fourteen A Visitor in the Night

  Chapter Fifteen Saved by the Bard

  Chapter Sixteen A Wicked Conglomerate

  Chapter Seventeen Loyal’s Sacrifice

  Part IV A Stronger Power

  Chapter Eighteen Sleigh Ride

  Chapter Nineteen The Countdown

  Chapter Twenty Love is Blind

  Chapter Twenty-One The Best-kept Secret


  About The Author



  About the Publisher


  The old wizard curled a withered hand into a fist, the bones visible through bluish skin. His lustreless eyes had difficulty focusing and his face twitched in anticipation. In his weakened state it was a struggle for him to keep himself upright in his chair and his breath came in spasms. The windowless room he sat in was cramped and lit only by dim candlelight.

  The door was opened by a lithe young woman carrying a goblet filled with a congealed liquid the colour of calf’s liver. She set the goblet down before the old man and heard him groan in relief.

  ‘Drink, Master,’ she urged, ‘and your strength will return.’

  The wizard grasped the cup in both hands and downed its contents in a single gulp. Some colour returned to his cheeks as he looked vacantly at his attendant and wiped away the trickle dribbling down his chin. He sat up straighter and waited for his breathing to become more regular. He stretched out an arm from the elbow, as if testing it for renewed strength.

  ‘I have been too rash,’ the old man said. ‘In my eagerness for victory I left holes in my plans, holes large enough for the enemy to slip through, again.’ He laughed bitterly at some private recollection. ‘We both know I cannot sustain another failure. The next strike must be infallible.’

  ‘You cannot fail, Master,’ breathed the woman, her cheeks flushed with excitement. When the old man beckoned to her she moved swiftly to kneel by his side. He whispered into her ear and her eyes closed in an expression of rapture.

  ‘It is inspired!’ the young woman cried, almost moved to tears by what she had heard. ‘Pure genius.’

  Pleased with the response, Lord Aldor’s eyes lit up and his face twisted into a crazed smile.

  Part I

  A Place Called Home


  Safety First

  As children, we sometimes inhabit imaginary worlds where some of our best friends are inanimate playthings better known as toys. Do you have a favourite? I certainly do. His name is Lavender Ted and he has been my faithful sleeping companion ever since we became acquainted on my tenth birthday in 2003. He was given to me by my BFF (Best Friend Forever), Hailey, who has since moved to another city. Lavender Ted, as you may have already guessed, smells deliciously of lavender. That is hardly surprising as he is stuffed full of dried lavender seeds. It is a very comforting smell when you are trying to drift off to sleep.

  Lavender Ted and I share a history. After our initial, instant connection I insisted he accompany us everywhere, including the occasional holiday to other continents. It is a habit I have struggled to outgrow. Somehow, I am not able to enjoy myself knowing that Lavender Ted is home alone when he might be soaking up the sun and sea air or feasting his eyes on the magnificent architecture that came out of Renaissance Venice. After all, it seems to me just as important for a bear to be well-travelled as it is for a child.

  Lavender Ted is indeed a special favourite, but he is not the only toy whose comfort and wellbeing I felt personally responsible for whilst growing up. There was Molly, an almost-bald doll in checked overalls who was always a little bit rough and tumble. She used to enjoy riding on my tricycle and we often went on trips together to the bottom of the garden after packing a picnic lunch of fairy bread and frozen pineapple rings. There was bib-wearing Chocolate Bunny, so named because of his colour as well as his addiction to anything containing cocoa, and Tick-Tock Rabbit with his immaculate green waistcoat, fob watch and constantly anxious expression. Then there was a quartet of porcelain dolls, Ally, Buttercup-Daisy, Lizzie and Polly, who formed a rather elite girls’ club. It was impossible not to be seduced by their glossy curls, perfect features and satin frocks and stockings. I also had an odd and shameless attachment to a box full of marbles. For a while (and to my mother’s consternation) I played with them almost every day; petting and scolding them as well as encouraging some friendly competition between them, for, as we children know, a little competition can bring out the best in us and is nowhere near as destructive as some experts would have us believe.

  The point I am trying to make through all of this rambling is that toys are often a child’s closest companions. These ties are not easily broken, even by well-intentioned adults in a hurry to see us grow up and move on to more useful endeavours. Toys never abandon us, even if we abandon them. Some children (As I have seen my own friends do) pack away their toys when they feel they have outgrown them, stuffing them in the backs of cupboards to gather dust. These children do not realise they are rejecting the most loyal friends they may ever have. If you are frowning now because you recognise that you fall into this category, do not despair. Fortunately, toys do not hold grudges, and once you realise the error of your ways and make amends they will welcome you back with open arms and never hold your previous unkindness against you.

  I suppose by now you must be wondering where this preamble is leading and why on earth I have chosen to harangue you about the importance of toys and the pivotal role they play in our early lives. You may have guessed that this story is about several remarkable toys, to whom you will soon be introduced. At this point, however, I think it is high time we dropped in on the town of Drabville to check on its resilient occupants. I call Drabvillians resilient because, as you may recall, the town’s courage has been tested more than once by the scheming of a mad magician who should have been planning how best to spend his twilight years rather than wreaking havoc on the innocent. Twice already the dauntless children of Drabville, led by Millipop Klompet and Ernest Perriclof, had defeated this oppressor.

  The first time, Lord Aldor masterminded an insidious plot to steal the town’s shadows. After his fiendishness was exposed and he was forced to beat a humiliating retreat, Drabvillians embraced life with a new vigour. Suddenly, being a Drabvillian actually meant something. It came to be associated with noble attitudes and behaviou
rs, such as striving for freedom, fighting oppression and the use of ingenuity to overcome obstacles.

  Then, as suddenly as it had sprung up, the town’s euphoria dissolved one afternoon with the abduction of its children. It took very little time for the realisation to dawn that Lord Aldor had returned. The intriguing and fascinating Lampo Circus was a front for his revenge on the citizens of Drabville, its lavish big top tent swooping up their children and whisking them off to become pawns in Aldor’s plot to destroy Queen Fidelis and her Fairy realm of Mirth. In their shock and horror the people of Drabville were quick to apportion blame. Fathers blamed mothers for not being more intuitive, and mothers blamed fathers for not being more authoritative. Everyone blamed the Bureau of Healthy Diversions for failing to check the credentials of the circus. The truth was, it had happened under their very noses and they had all been too preoccupied with celebration and self-expression to notice the danger. They were the adults and their primary duty was to protect their offspring. Instead they had delivered them with smiling faces into the hands of a villain.

  Then one sunny afternoon, as mysteriously as they had vanished, the children returned. They were spotted by a local farmer, Shovèl Oats, as he ploughed his fields, sitting somewhat dazedly in the exact spot where the infamous Lampo Circus had once set up camp. The children’s defeat of Lord Aldor for a second time was received with more reservation. The adults’ overwhelming relief at seeing their children safely returned was tempered by caution. How could Drabville ensure that something this wicked never occurred again? The town decided to make security its first priority. They would not be caught off-guard again. They would not fail their children a second time.

  Measures were put in place which, although stifling at times, were designed to ensure the safety of all children. Firstly, a public awareness campaign encouraged citizens to report immediately the sighting of any suspicious characters or objects that could in any way compromise child safety. Reaction from some quarters was ridiculous. Let me give you some examples. In those early days after the children’s return, a special voluntary group was set up called Protectors of the Safety and Security of Minors (POSSOM). On more than one occasion its members, wearing their possum-shaped berets and armed with rolling pins (batons being in short supply), were called out in the middle of the night because someone had found a spider with a malicious glint in its eye in their parlour, or heard strange laughter coming from their garden. Even an unattended shopping trolley filled with too many treats for responsible parenting was suddenly enough to raise the alarm. ‘Better call POSSOM,’ someone would suggest, and within minutes members of this organisation were immediately at the scene, examining the trolley’s contents and blocking access to the aisles with giant yellow tape. Sometimes it would be hours before the all clear was given. Another thing that happened was the reform of the regulations surrounding the sale of confectionery. Every chocolate bar, lollipop or bag of sweets had to bear an official seal (a naked cherub blowing a trumpet) indicating that it had first been tested on a team of adult volunteers with no deleterious effects. Lastly, those in positions of responsibility with regard to the care of children had to reapply for their jobs. A full working knowledge of nursery rhymes as well as proven alertness in a crisis were suddenly highly desirable qualifications for anyone seeking re-employment.

  Lord Aldor’s return and his near success in abducting the children had dealt a serious blow to Drabville’s faith in its own abilities. The town had developed what can only be described as a siege mentality. This means most people behaved as if an attack could come at any time and from anywhere and were forever looking over their shoulders.

  The Custodians of Concord, the elite group of citizens chosen to restore order to the town after Aldor’s first attack, also decided to make security a primary focus. They came up with the new motto ‘Safety First’, which began to crop up in general conversation, not just in science prac classes at Drabville Elementary. The Custodians were also discussing a management plan but had not yet achieved consensus. Should Drabville demonstrate its outrage at what had occurred by investing heavily in surveillance and weaponry? Or should the town adopt a defiantly business-as-usual approach? Milli’s mother, Rosemary Klompet, was a strong supporter of the latter course. If Drabville compromised on its values, she argued vehemently, it would mean an even bigger victory for Aldor. They should be careful by all means, but not regress into old practices of repression.

  And what of our friends, Milli and Ernest? How were they affected by this new wave of conservatism that had washed over their town?

  After their performance at the Shreckal Caverns some years ago, when they had rescued the townsfolk’s shadows, Milli and Ernest had found themselves hailed as heroes. But their latest encounter with Lord Aldor had not had the same result; in fact, quite the reverse. Given Milli and Ernest’s history of getting themselves into hot water, many of the parents considered them responsible for the abduction of their children. Wasn’t it interesting, the whispered speculation went, how that pair always seemed to be at the centre of any catastrophe. Clearly they were a bad influence and their parents were blatantly remiss in allowing them to roam around so freely looking for trouble.

  If you are wondering why these parents placed the blame squarely on Milli’s and Ernest’s shoulders when they had in fact saved their children’s lives, there is a simple explanation. Whenever anything goes seriously wrong, it is human nature to want to point the finger at someone. Somehow this makes people feel better. Once a culprit has been identified, people feel more in control and, better still, not at all responsible themselves. There are many cases in history of individuals being made into scapegoats to carry the responsibility for some catastrophic event. In 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts for example, the townsfolk could not find explanations for various events such as illness or strange behaviour and therefore concluded that Satan was loose in Salem. They branded certain people as witches and believed that if they executed every accused witch in the village then all strangeness would cease.

  It was very simple to accuse somebody back in 1692. Nowadays you need evidence to convict a person in court and send them to prison. In Salem, all you needed to do was visit the magistrate and say, ‘That girl mutters under her breath’ or ‘I’ve seen her chanting in the forest’, and it was enough to have a person convicted and hanged at Gallows Hill. If someone fell ill and suffered spasms or convulsions, or talked in their sleep, they were immediately assumed to be under the enchantment of a witch. Anyone known to be on bad terms with the afflicted became a suspect and was put on trial. Often, young girls would pretend to be possessed; they’d go limp, roll back their eyes and writhe and scream on the ground, making peculiar animal noises. When asked to name her tormentor, the girl would go rigid and point her finger at someone in the room. Let me tell you now, if you were that person, you were more or less DONE FOR. There was nothing you could do to defend yourself if someone claimed you were making them intentionally ill through the use of black magic. Of course, you could always drop to the ground, start writhing and screaming yourself, and accuse somebody else of bewitching you.

  Luckily, the mothers of Drabville were too enlightened for lynching or stoning people and contented themselves with malicious gossip and sidelong glances to liven up their coffee mornings.

  Some people went so far as to suggest that Lord Aldor’s hatred of Milli and Ernest was the main reason he persisted in terrorising the town. It was vengeance against them that had drawn him back a second time. Even though Drabvillians were far too polite to ever express these ideas openly, there are, as we know, more subtle ways of making people feel excluded. The occasional comment picked up at the dinner table found its way into the schoolyard, and Milli and Ernest noticed they received fewer invitations to birthday parties and the like these days. It made them feel a little unsettled and more than a little bit lonely. They compensated by devoting more time to their studies (harder for Milli than for Ernest) and by relying on each other
for entertainment.


  A New Phase Begins

  Their adventures in the Conjurors’ Realm had had very different effects on Milli and Ernest.

  Ernest’s entire belief system had been called into question and he found himself thinking about the world and his place in it. He pondered ideas like the purpose of his own life and the concept of contentment. If evil was such a powerful force in the world, what could one do to ensure one’s immunity against it? Could one individual really change things for the better? What avenues were available to a child who wanted to improve the world? These were the burning questions that consumed Ernest’s free time. One morning the answer presented itself. What the world needed more of, Ernest decided, was not politicians but poets! Poets, as a rule, were not short-term thinkers and therefore could really make a difference. He knew from his classical studies that the ancient poets had done more than construct pretty verse; they were highly regarded and could be instrumental in shaping public opinion. Some, admittedly, had ended their days in exile but the power of their words lived on to shape modern civilisation.

  Ernest padded down to breakfast, still in slippers and a dressing gown, to share his epiphany with the people he held most dear.

  ‘I want you to be the first to know that from this day forward I go out into the world as a sonneteer!’

  His father barely looked up from his morning paper as he muttered, ‘Good for you, son.’ His mother seemed more concerned with making sure his siblings ate over their plates so as to minimise the crumbs she would need to sweep up later. His siblings (even though their mouths were full) showed enough interest to ask whether a sonneteer was related to a musketeer and what worldly goods Ernest might part with in order to follow this new direction. All in all, the reaction could hardly be described as enthusiastic.

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