short story

The Case of the Missing Turtles

This story was in the Spy genre, which actually had me stumped for a long time. It had to feature smuggling, and a character who was a mentor. In the end I went for a teenage protagonist and set part of it in one of the waterholes of my youth. The mentor is Danger Mouse. My main problem this time around was time management, as this challenge started on my first week back at work and sadly I left most of the writing until the last two days.


The Case of the Missing Turtles

The waterhole was home to an ecosystem of decomposing leaves, slippery sticks and clumps of brown green algae. Undisturbed, the dark water was a glass mirror of the afternoon sky. Ivy, as part of her teen spy regime, had perfected the art of careful waterhole entry and knew to step lightly over twigs and leaf sludge on the bottom; too much movement and the water would become a murky soup. Once she was in deep enough, Ivy began to swim, a gentle breast stroke, and made her way to her familiar submerged rock where she sat in peace and quiet. On the far bank Ivy noted a group of freshwater turtles, spread out and soaking up the last of the sun through their knobbly green shells. It had been a good breeding season. Now that she was back at school it would be more difficult to keep an eye on the turtles.


She was getting ready to swim back to the bank when she heard a splash and a voice downstream. She couldn’t see who the person was and had left her binoculars on the bank, but she heard snapping sticks and swearing so it was clear that the person wasn’t familiar with the forest. When she heard a second male voice she froze, and focused her senses, trying to see through the trees. She saw a flash of yellow, a face in profile, but she couldn’t tell who it was from this far away. They seemed to be moving off down the creek and were soon out of sight.


When she got home, Ivy’s mother was cooking dinner but still made the time to look her daughter up and down. The wet hair was a give-away. ‘You know I don’t like you swimming in the creek alone. Leave those muddy shoes outside.’ Ivy took her shoes off and tossed them onto the back landing. ‘And tell your brother that dinner’s ready.’


Her brother Conrad kept his room dark. He’d used a staple gun to put a blanket over the window, but he didn’t have an eye for symmetry, so it hung to the side and let some light in. The room also smelt like unwashed oily hair, cheap spray deodorant and an earthy smell she couldn’t quite place. All this contributed to a powerful younger sister forcefield. What was missing from the room now was the lanky frame of Conrad himself. As a dedicated spy, she felt the urge to snoop through his things, although similar ventures in the past had yielded little but lolly wrappers, incomplete homework sheets and a small coin collection. She noticed a few new toys- Kermit the frog on a skateboard and miss piggy in a pink car- and this solved the mystery of why he insisted, at seventeen, of choosing McDonald’s happy meals. As she closed his door again, she heard him come in the back door and passed him in the hallway as he went straight to his room and closed the door. Despite his mother’s mild hysteria over the dinner getting cold, he took a long while coming to the table.


Ivy never planned to become a teenage spy. When she was ten and the family were out Christmas shopping, she’d been delighted to see her mother slip into a camera shop. She was hyper aware of the rectangular box under the tree and opened it last. When she peeled back the paper, it took her brain a full minute to register that inside the box was a pair of binoculars, and not the camera she so desperately wanted. After the disappointment simmered down, she took the binoculars and went out looking for birds. But of course, it was much more fun to spy on the neighbours. Ivy had always been a bit of a daydreaming loner but with the binoculars she became obsessed with imagined crimes, plots, deals and heists. Above her bed was a large poster of Danger Mouse, with his sidekick Penfold. Ivy watched the cartoon religiously, and Danger Mouse had become the perfect teen spy mentor; he spoke 34 languages, could shatter metal with his voice and could perform military style push-ups on his index finger. Ivy had eventually saved up for her own state of the art polaroid camera. It was more expensive to buy film for, but it meant she didn’t have to send the roll away to be developed. She could keep the documentation of her discoveries away from prying eyes. In her first year as a full time spy she had captured evidence of: six drug deals, one case of projectile vomiting, numerous incidents of pre-teen nose picking and one extra-marital affair. The most recent item that Ivy added to her spy kit was a small cassette recorder and she was currently experimenting with ways to conceal the device while recording conversations. She’d tried to record a conversation with Conrad, but her brother’s inability to do more than grunt made things difficult. She’d recorded a one-way phone conversation her mother made to a friend, but the details were little more than basic variations on the following: I know! Can you believe it? How awful, what did she do?


The school yard was always a hive of espionage and extortion. On any given day you could witness blackmail, theft and stand over tactics, and this was just in the canteen line. Conrad was a senior this year, so he could jump the queue of juniors. Although this was vaguely irritating, at least it would finally stop him from hassling Ivy to buy him food or let him push in. When she saw her brother- a boy with no part time job and very little pocket money- pay for a sausage roll with a fifty dollar note, she knew that something odd was going on. Like a good spy, she pretended not to notice. She also pretended not to notice when he gave his mate Riley a twenty and worked even harder to contain herself when she saw him put the rest of the money back into a wallet that seemed to be bulging with notes.


At home that evening Ivy watched Conrad closely. He’d gotten back home much later than usual and went straight to his room without raiding the pantry or fridge for food. Very suspicious. Ivy knocked on his door and lied, ‘Mum wants me to see if you have any dirty cups or bowls in here’. She could hear him moving something around. There was a scraping noise which sounded like he was putting something under his bed. When he opened the door, he grunted and pushed a cup into her hands. She took in the smell inside his room again, but the earthy smell seemed to be gone.


A whole school week had passed before Ivy made it back to the waterhole to check on the turtles. Putting her bag down she noticed a scrunched burger wrapper and a slushy cup. With a frown she shoved them in her bag. She didn’t like to think that people had come here and had disrespected the place enough to leave their rubbish. She slipped into the water quietly and swam to her rock. From there she looked to the far bank but couldn’t see a single turtle. This was quite perplexing. It was the time of day when they would normally be out, catching rays in the late afternoon. This was strange indeed.


When Ivy arrived at school the next day she was surprised to see that Conrad was already there. He and Riley were sitting at the far end of the playground, hunched over, and there was a third person with them who she didn’t recognise. She wouldn’t normally use binoculars at school, lest she get a label as some kind of weird pervert, but she was just too curious to let this meeting go unobserved. She slipped in behind the garden bed where no one else could see her and carefully adjusted the focus until she could make out the trio. The third person looked to be the new casual science teacher. Riley was drinking from a slushy cup and Conrad, shoulders hunched, kept looking around and then leaning in closer to the other two. His lips were moving but it was impossible to hear what they were saying. She was determined to know more.


Later in the day, Ivy was pleasantly surprised when it was the new casual science teacher who welcomed her class into the lab. Being able to observe the man up close was fortuitous indeed. He looked young, even though his haircut and dress were overly neat and formal.  His accent was Australian but had a hint of something more difficult to identify. Was it South African? It was hard to tell. When he wrote his name on the board- Mr. De Bruyn- Ivy smiled to herself. She might not speak thirty-four languages like her mentor Danger Mouse, but she knew that this was a common surname in Afrikaans. The lesson itself was dull, mainly textbook work, and she noticed that when the class were working, Mr. De Bruyn would intermittently take himself into the storeroom at the back of the lab. He was careful to close the door behind him, but when he came back out the last time, Ivy could see that there were a few large glass tanks on the benches in the storeroom, but not what was inside them. She kept pondering the connection between this man and her brother. She had to find out what her brother was involved in. He had money. He was getting up early. He was definitely up to something. She knew that this was the time to be discreet. Conrad must not know that he was under surveillance.


The next morning Ivy was ready for the next phase of her operation. She got up at dawn, pinched a ten dollar note from her mum’s purse and left the house for the little bakery near the school. At this time of day, the bread was hot and the smell of the croissants was enough to drive anyone mad with hunger. She bought two French pastries and a large coffee and made her way to school. No students were at school yet but Brandon, the school cleaner, was just finishing up. He was a man in his forties and he held himself like someone who was truly disillusioned by life. She wasn’t sure it would work, but Ivy was bold. She offered the man a coffee and fresh pastries in exchange for the use of his keys for ten minutes. He agreed. She didn’t even have to make up a story about leaving something in one of the rooms.


The Science block was set apart from the school and was near the teacher’s car park. Without students the lab seemed gray and hollow, and the sound of her shoes made a clicking noise on the tiled floor. When she opened the door to the storeroom she registered an oddly familiar smell, like forest slime. It was the same odour she had smelt in her brother’s room. Along one wall was a long bench and on it were a series of glass tanks. All of them had a small amount of water and a few rocks. As she moved closer, Ivy could detect movement and was shocked to see that one tank was crowded with freshwater turtles, clumsily trying to climb on and over each other. At the back of the room, Ivy lifted a blanket to discover a tank containing a listless brown platypus who was about the size of a hotdog bun; a creature that should never be kept in captivity. Ivy was dismayed. She’d never known the science staff to keep any animals except for tadpoles to teach students the life cycle of amphibians. Something was very wrong here. Even though it was difficult, she left the animals in the storeroom and locked the lab door behind her. On a sheet of paper, Ivy took an outline of the key, so she could make her own copy using her key blank set. Danger Mouse would be proud.


For a second time Ivy got up extra early. It was raining, so she put on her heavy black raincoat with the hood, and her waterproof backpack. Even if she was spotted it would be hard for anyone to make out her true identity. She waited until the cleaners had finished in the Science Block and using the key she had made, was overjoyed to find that it worked to unlock the door.


Inside the lab storeroom she had to move fast. She commandeered one of the large fishing buckets and poured in a little fresh water. Nimbly she plucked out the freshwater turtles one by one and gently plopped them into the bucket, where they squirmed around and over each other. ‘Sorry guys, it’ll be a little crowded in there for a while.’ She counted seventeen all together. At home the night before she’d sat down with the family set of encyclopedias and she knew that when she popped the small platypus into the same bucket, the two species would not attack each other. She’d also done some research into the Australian wild animal trade and knew that turtles were kept as exotic pets in South Africa and that a single platypus could fetch as much as five thousand dollars. Carefully she lifted the shy, plump creature from the other tank and marveled at his flat fleshy bill and smooth, slick fur. ‘I’m going to call you Penfold. Come on buddy, you’re going home.’ Before she left the lab, Ivy did one last thing so that the smugglers would know their plans had been deliberately foiled.


Later that morning there was some commotion in the playground after Mr. Be Bruyn had found several happy meal toys in a glass tank in the Science storeroom. He’d become uncharacteristically agitated and all the witnesses would attest that the teacher was out of line when he’d gone over to where a few seniors were sitting and had shoved a boy by the name of Conrad. The police had been called and Mr. De Bruyn had been escorted from the premises.


Down at the water’s edge, Ivy carefully released the platypus first. Little Penfold was so keen to be back home that his webbed feet started making swimming motions even before he made contact with the water. He slipped under the surface, made a few gentle ripples, then was gone. Carefully she put the turtles on the bank one by one. Each made a slow race for the water and clambered through the leaf litter. Their knobbly shells looked like living rocks as they swam together for the far side of the waterhole. Ivy sat for a long while, alone in the peace and quiet.