Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Excerpt: Middle-Reader -Teen adventure novella DOG HEAD CODE

After inheriting an old book containing a map from his Great Uncle Jake, Joe Jones travels to Dog Head Island, keen to find buried treasure. But in this isolated, inhospitable place, nothing is as it seems. Nothing, but the snakes that inhabited it. And Jake has a strong aversion to snakes! 
Joe’s Inheritance
A green blob wobbled from the end of Mr. Grant‟s nose. He waved his hands
about as he explained the results of his scientific experiment, and the blob fell
to join the puddle of algae soup on his desk.
This experiment failed to grab me. I looked around at the sterile gray walls,
microscopes, Bunsen burners and test tubes of the science lab. It all seemed like
a giant waste of time. I‟d never need this stuff to make a living.
The tension built in the room. Feet shuffled and pens tapped out a rock beat
on the desks. It was two minutes to bell time during the last period on Friday,
and all but a few of the class planned to go to a rock concert that evening to see
Take No Prisoners. They were the hottest band around.
A paper plane circled and landed on top of my book. It slid off onto Fatty
Graham‟s desk. He snapped it up with a look of glee and crumpled it, throwing
it under the desk in front. I slid down in my seat and herded it towards me with
my shoe. Leaning down, I batted it with my ruler and picked it up.
Fatty Graham sniggered. Nobody liked him much, not because he was fat,
but because he threw his weight around. And no one was convinced it had been
an accident when he sat on Tabitha Hewitt‟s pet lizard.
I smoothed out the note in my lap: Bus stop 7-30. 2 nite. Be there. Unsigned.
Mr. Grant‟s voice droned on and I scanned the room. I immediately dismissed a
group of girls who stuck together like Superglue. At this moment, they were
ogling the teacher, whom they thought was hot. “Looks a bit like that actor,
Brad Grant,” I‟d heard one say in the canteen.
Colin Bowls sat alone in a corner. Everyone called him “Bowels” behind his
back. What can I say? The guy had some pretty unattractive habits. In front of
Bowels sat Sam Chen, head down writing furiously. Beside him, Ben turned
with a grin and I gave him the thumbs up.
My gaze came to rest on Annie Larson, her hair swinging over her book
as she copied Mr. Grant‟s notes from the blackboard. Annie hadn't been at
Northumber High for long, but long enough for her to have made some friends.
For some reason she wasn't having it.
Small and neat with shiny red hair, Annie had this cute habit of pushing it
back behind her ears. We lived close, in the same part of town. I often rode past
her as she cycled home on her bike and we‟d just say hi or wave. I would've liked
to stop and talk, but I sensed that for some reason it wouldn't be welcome.
At last, the final bell rang and the class moved in a noisy mass towards the
door. The fire alarm wouldn't have cleared the room any faster. Within minutes,
the teacher and I were alone. I pulled the book from my backpack and cleared
my throat.
“Can I have a minute, Mr. Grant?”
“Of course, Joe.” He looked surprised and pleased. “Questions about the
“Er, no.” I laid the heavy, leather-bound book on his desk. “This is a book my
Great-Uncle Jake left me in his will. It‟s written in a weird language. I wondered
if you could tell me what it is.”
Mr. Grant polished his glasses again with a handkerchief stained green from
an experiment, which had smelt like rotten eggs. A nasty memory that still
floated in the air. He shoved it back in his pocket without a glance. “What‟s
this?” He turned the pages with care. “Extraordinary. Some sort of
hieroglyphics. Not an ancient language of note.”
“Are you sure, sir?” I asked, my heart sinking. I‟d been hoping for a mystery
from the past.
“It‟s not Arabic or Hebrew, nor Aramaic or Ancient Greek, and not Latin. It‟s
not Etruscan or Middle Persian. In fact, it‟s nothing I've ever come across.” He
looked at me over the top of his glasses and smiled. “Of course, there are other
famous writing systems from the past that are yet to be solved. This is made up
of a lot of strange symbols–possibly some kind of cipher.”
“What‟s a cipher, sir?”
“Well, it's just a form of secret writing really. Codes and ciphers have been
around since ancient times. They were of vital importance in the American civil
war and the two world wars. Governments used machines to decode them.”
“Oh, you mean like the decoder machine James Bond stole in From Russia
with Love? I have the video game at home.”
“Ah, yes. Taken from the movie and the book by Ian Fleming. But I digress,
any group who needed to keep their messages secret used some kind of code.
Have you heard of the Enigma code?”
“Mom watched a movie about it. It was in World War II. They cracked it,
didn't they?”
“Not until quite recently.”
I took this in with a jolt of disappointment, and Mr. Grant turned again to
the book. My pulse quickened when he found the last page. “Look at this,” he
said. “It appears to be the map of an island. See?” His finger traced the outlines
of the coast and the island. “It‟s much like a pirate‟s map, showing where the
treasure‟s buried. “X” marks the spot, or in this case, two of them.”
My voice came out in a squeak. “Uncle Jake lived on Dog Head Island.”
“Dog Head Island? Curious name. Where is it?”
“I've never been there. It‟s off the west coast about one thousand miles from
Mr. Grant closed the book. He studied the cover with its faint engravings and
inlaid red and blue-green gemstones. “They‟d have to be glass, I guess.” He
shook his head and handed the book back to me. “I wish I could help you, Joe.
I find it astonishing, but as to what it is, I‟m afraid I have no idea.”
* * * *
Fatty Graham bailed me up on my way out the door. “What‟s that you got,
Jones?” He reached for the book. Fatty was strong, but slow on his feet.
“Nothing you‟d be interested in.” I danced around him, ducking and
weaving, just out of reach of his sausage-like, groping fingers.
“Charlton? Hurry up. We‟re late for your orthodontist appointment.”
I breathed a sigh of relief to see Fatty‟s mother at the gate with her hands on
her hips.
“I‟ll get you, Jones,” Fatty called. He lumbered off across the playground.
Annie walked in while I unchained my bike in the bike shed. I decided to
throw caution to the winds. “Annie! You riding home? I‟ll ride part of the way
with you.” To my relief, she smiled and nodded.
We set off, needing all our breath to get to the top of Chromer Hill, then
coasted down, coming to a screeching halt at the bottom, laughing and gasping.
Annie‟s big brown eyes shone. “What was that strange book I saw you put in
your bag?”
My face grew hot. I hauled the book from my backpack then dropped it, just
missing a muddy puddle. Bending to pick it up, my face flamed like a beacon. I
dusted the book off and handed it to her. While she looked through it, I
explained how I came by it.
Annie stroked the gemstones with awe. “It‟s amazing,” she said in a hushed
voice. She handed it back to me. I replaced it in my bag.
Piles of dead leaves had gathered in the gutters beneath the trees. We took
off again and I rode through the drifts, scattering them about with Annie right
behind me.
“Uncle Jake lived to be one hundred and ten.” I told her when we‟d pulled to
a stop at the corner.
“Wow! Did he live on the island until he died?”
I felt ashamed not to know. “I‟ll have to ask my mom.”
Annie looked at her watch, an urgent note creeping into her voice. “I must
get home.”
“Would it matter if you‟re a few minutes late?”
“I have to do my chores before my step-dad gets home.”
I swallowed. “Do you think you could give me your phone number? I‟ll ring
you if I find out anything more,” I tucked my gum into my cheek and smiled,
but she looked away down the street. “You know, about the book?” I added
She hesitated. “I suppose that‟d be all right. Give me yours too.”
“See you Monday, then,” I called, placing her phone number in the secret
compartment of my wallet, as if it was a hundred-dollar note. Annie waved and
took off, cycling fast. I watched until she disappeared around the corner then
headed for the local newsagents.
When I arrived home, I grabbed a slab of carrot cake and pulled the book
from my bag. Taking a large bite of cake, I held my new magnifying glass up to
its cover, coughing and spluttering when the engraving of a large snake
emerged, its mouth open baring its fangs, its red stone eyes glittering. The
snake curled around the central milky blue-green stone, as if protecting it.
Feathered patterning had been engraved into the leather, thicker around the
snake's tail, making it difficult to decipher the snake from the background.
A creeping sensation crawled up my spine and the hairs stood to attention on
the back of my neck. I‟d once believed a snake bit me when I was a little kid. It
had turned out to be a lizard, but I've never lost my fear of snakes.

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