Ben Fletcher

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  • Ben Fletcher


Chapter Seventeen


This Is Cheese as Cheese Should Be


No one was.

Instead, a decorative stone pedestal stood alone in the middle of the chamber, and on top of it, a small wooden box which quite unmistakably had the Bewitched Brie inside of it; even from here Billy could smell it.

Billy moved forward to take it, but as he got close —

“Oh, damn,” he heard a voice say. “I wasn’t ready for you.”

To Billy’s great surprise, it wasn’t Grape, but Professor Quigley who stepped out of the darkness and approached him.

“I didn’t know how long you were going to be, so I was reading a book — Getting Past a Giant Duck With Two Pounds of Doolin and a Little Bit of Luck by Émile Arquette, have you heard of it? — anyway, would you mind stepping outside and coming in again? Just so we can do this properly.

Perplexed, Billy went along with his request and left the room. He waited a moment, then entered again. Quigley was now stood facing the pedestal, a sinister figure under the shadows cast by the light of lanterns falling against the giant plinths that lined the chamber.

As Billy stepped forward, Quigley slowly turned around to face him.

“I was wondering when you might — actually, it would be much better if I had one of those revolving chairs and perhaps a cat like they have in the movies, you know? Never mind, there’s no time to find a cat now.”

“Do you want me to do the entrance again?” asked Billy.

“Would you? I don’t want to put you out, but that’s very kind.”

Billy left, waited a moment, then entered a third time. As before, Quigley was stood facing the pedestal, and again, as Billy approached, he began turning slowly to face him. Billy stopped and thought for a moment. Then he took a few steps back, and Quigley turned back towards the pedestal. Then he walked forward and Quigley turned back to him. A few steps back, and he turned back to the pedestal again. After amusing himself by walking forward, then backward for a while, Billy finally approached.

“I was wondering when you might show up here, Billy Smith,” said Quigley in a cold and calculating voice. “I was starting to get bored with waiting here all day instead of taking the Brie and making my escape long before anybody could stop me.”

“You!” gasped Billy.

Quigley smiled, but it wasn’t a welcoming smile.

“Not who you were expecting, Smith?”

“I thought — Professor Grape —”

“Grape?” Quigley laughed. “Yes, I suppose Grape does seem the type, doesn’t he? It certainly is helpful to have somebody like him walking around with all the suspicion he casts upon himself. It takes the attention away from me, see.”

Billy couldn’t believe it. Quigley was the last person he expected to find stood in front of him.

“But I thought Grape wanted to kill me?”

“Oh, he does. He thought he had the perfect plan at your first Frogsports match, but your friend Miss Parker put a stop to that when she set fire to the teacher’s stand. Another few moments and he’d have succeeded.”

“So he sent those daggers after me?”

“Of course,” said Quigley cooly. “And he was ever so disappointed it didn’t work. Why do you think he wanted to referee your next match? He wanted to have another go at finishing the job, but then he got that turkey to the face. He found out Crumbleceiling had bribed the school inspector to overlook a few irregularities, and so he used it to blackmail the headmaster into appointing him the match official. He did make himself unpopular with the other teachers, though. They all wanted to force the headmaster into giving them a raise instead.”

“But I don’t understand,” said Billy.

“Don’t you?” said Quigley, going to stroke a cat in his arms before remembering he didn’t have one. “It really is quite straightforward. Grape was at school with your mother and father. He despised your father, but your mother, oh how he loved her. She didn’t love him back, however, so naturally he went on to murder many people and become a servant to evil as though to imply it was all her fault for rejecting him. But never mind any of that, I suppose. He gets his redemption, of course.”

Billy’s mind was racing. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. What sort of person’s mind comes up with these sub-plots?

“He put all that effort into executing his revenge on you this year, but for what? When I’m going to be the one to kill you tonight.”

Quigley pulled his enchanted celery out of his pocket and gave it a flick. At once, cans of silly string appeared out of nowhere and began spraying themselves onto Billy until he was bound so tightly he was unable to move.

“You’re far too nosy for your own good, Smith.”

As Billy stood there helpless, Quigley strode over and whispered into his ear. “But what would be the fun in killing you now when I could waste time until you’ve found a way to escape instead?”

He went back over to the pedestal.

“Now, wait quietly, Smith. I need to examine this cheese board.”

Quigley reached out to touch the box, but quickly recoiled in pain. “Heh,” he laughed. “Trust Crumbleceiling to come up with something like this. He’s made it impossible to simply reach out and take the Bewitched Brie.”

This is cheese as cheese should be. The Bewitched Brie is the cheese for me. HEY!

Billy felt his arms move, but bound as he was, he couldn’t wave his hands in the air.

“Don’t say its name, fool!” said a new, third voice.

“I’m sorry, master,” said Quigley, his own voice faltering.

“Who was that?” asked Billy.

Quigley quickly regained his cool. “We’ll come to that soon enough,” he said. “But first, this sorcery of Crumbleceiling’s…”

All Billy could think to do was keep Quigley talking, to stop him concentrating on the pedestal.

“Crumbleceiling knows somebody is trying to steal the Brie tonight.”

And then Billy heard something. Was that Crumbleceiling now? He looked up and Yodel flew into view. In one sweep, she dropped a letter in front of him, and then ploughed hard into one of the stone pillars and fell back.

Quigley picked up the letter and scanned the front. Then he started to laugh.

“It appears the headmaster does not know after all.”

Quigley held up the letter for Billy to see. It was unmistakably addressed in Elahoraella’s handwriting, but stamped in red ink at the top was Insufficient Postage: The recipient declined to pay the fee due. Return to sender. Billy’s heart sank.

“But enough of this messing around,” said Quigley, returning to the pedestal. “Crumbleceiling has set up some sort of barrier… but how to break it?” He flicked his enchanted celery, but nothing appeared to happen. “Of course, not,” he muttered to himself. “That would be far too simple.”

Then Billy saw that something had happened. As he looked beyond Quigley, he noticed a second pedestal that hadn’t been there a moment before.

“The boy sees…” It was the mystery voice speaking again.

Billy tried to avert his gaze, but he wasn’t quick enough. Quigley had seen where he was looking, and now he saw the second pedestal too.

“He always has to play his little games.”

Quigley went over to the second pedestal and picked up the object that was sat atop it. He laughed again, then walked back over to Billy with the object in hand.

“So simple, really,” he said. “Yes, this must be the way to break the barrier.” He held up a large small medium-sized pebble with a cheese knife sticking out the top of it. He tried pulling the knife out, but it wouldn’t come loose.

“Master, Crumbleceiling is playing a game with us. I cannot remove the knife from the pebble.”

The voice spoke again.

“Use the boy to remove it…”

“Of course,” said Quigley, rounding on Billy. “The headmaster will not have felt the needed to protect the Brie from students.”

Quigley clicked his fingers, and the silly string binding Billy dissolved into nothing.

“Come here, Smith.”

Billy walked slowly towards him.

He thought Quigley was probably right, but he mustn’t show it if he was. I must be gentle, he thought to himself. Just make it look like I’m trying to pull the knife out, that’s all.

Quigley held out the pebble. Billy reached out and closed his hand on the wooden handle of the cheese knife. It was smooth. It gripped well in his hand. The quality was good, too, thought Billy. For a moment, he wondered if a full set of these knives was available for three easy payments of twenty-nine ninety-nine plus shipping and VAT. Then he remembered where he was.

He moved his hand the tiniest amount he could without Quigley noticing. The knife was loose. If he pulled any harder, it was sure to come straight out of the pebble.

“Well?” said Quigley impatiently. “Can you pull it out?”

Billy summoned all the courage he had as he let go, then looked up to stare at the expectant yet frustrated expression on Quigley’s face.

“No.”

Quigley swore loudly.

“Move out of the way,” he said, pushing Billy to one side. Billy lost his balance and fell to the floor. As he pulled himself back up, the voice returned.

“The boy lies… he lies…”

“Smith!” Quigley shouted. “Tell me the truth. Can you pull the knife from the pebble?”

“Let me speak to him… face-to-face…”

“Master, you do not have the strength.”

“I have the strength for this…”

“But…” said Quigley, seeming to panic a little. “I’m… I’m shy —”

“Let me speak!”

Billy couldn’t move. Terrified, he watched as Quigley began unbuttoning the front of his shirt from top to bottom. What was going on? The shirt fell open, and it took Billy a moment to realise what he was looking at. He wanted to scream, but seemed unable to make any sound. He was staring at a face. The most terrible face Billy had ever seen. It was a ghostly white with piercing red eyes and an entirely flat nose. The hair on Quigley’s chest gave it a beard, quiff, and eye brows.

“Bill Smith…” the face whispered. “I see the headmaster was right about you. I must pay him for a bet.”

“Steven,” said Billy.

“You dare to speak my name? How very gallant of you, but still, it is unwise.”

Billy tried to move back, but he couldn’t.

“Do you see what I have become?” said the face. “I do not live, but merely exist. I do not possess my own body, but instead I —”

“You’re living on his chest,” said Billy.

“Yes, I am living on his chest, but what did you expect? Did you expect me to be living on the back of his head and hidden under a turban, perhaps? That would be cultural appropriation. That would be lazily taking advantage of offensive racial anxieties and implying that turbans are worn by the evil to hide evil.”

Billy thought about this for a moment, and it struck him how amazing it was that no one had thought to change it for the adaptation.

“What happened to your nose?” asked Billy.

Quigley looked scared now.

“Halloween,” he said quickly. “I tripped over in the Banquet Hall and —”

“You squashed my nose,” said the face.

“But how do you smell?”

“Awful — this man does not shower often enough.”

“Master, please accept my forgiveness.”

“Be quiet, fool! Steven does not forgive. But you, Billy — you can help me. All I require is but a single bite of that cheese, and then I will be free of this body… Now… why don’t you pull that knife from the pebble for me?”

So Steven knew he could pull the knife out. Sensation returned suddenly to his legs, and feeling as though he could move again, Billy stepped backward.

“There’s no point in trying to run,” sneered the face. “You are better off by joining me… Help me return to my own body, and you may walk alongside and share my power.”

“NEVER!”

Billy made for the door, but Steven screamed, “STOP HIM!” and next second, he felt Quigley’s hand close on his arm. At once, he felt a sharp pain across his trademark. He screamed out. Then suddenly the pain went away. Quigley had let go of his arm. Billy looked around to see where Quigley had gone, and saw him staring down at his hand, no longer fleshy and alive, but solid grey stone instead.

“STOP HIM!” shrieked Steven again, and Quigley held out his stone hand and went for Billy’s neck — his trademark was burning from pain, but Quigley was screaming out too. The stone was spreading.

“Master, I cannot — my arm — it’s stone!”

Quigley let go and fell back.

“Then kill him and have this over with!” shouted Steven.

Quigley raised his enchanted celery in his other, non-stone hand, but then an idea came to Billy — “You’ll never get your hands on the Bewitched Brie!” he said, and all three of them beginning to sing.

This is cheese as cheese should be. The Bewitched Brie is the cheese for me. HEY!

As his hands were forced up to wave, Quigley let go of his enchanted celery and threw it behind him.

“Master, my celery —”

Billy knew what he had to do. He stood up, grabbed Quigley’s arm, and didn’t let go. Quigley screamed and tried to kick him away, but Billy didn’t loosen his grip — he wasn’t sure which of them was screaming louder — all he could see was black — all he could feel was burning in his head — he heard a voice, “Billy! Billy!”

He felt his grip loosen, but there was nothing he could do.

Billy heard a voice speaking from somewhere close by.

“I see you were correct, Headmaster. You must remind me to pay you that bet.”

“I did tell you all.”

He opened his eyes. Someone was looking down at him, but it wasn’t Quigley or Steven. It was a woman he’d never seen before.

He sat up and saw Professor Crumbleceiling sat in a chair in front of him. Noticing Billy was awake, Crumbleceiling smiled and put down the magazine he was reading.

“Good afternoon, Billy,” he said. “Have you met the school doctor? Allow me to introduce Madam Pepper,” and he pointed at the woman who stood over him.

“I will leave you to it, Headmaster,” said Madam Pepper.

“Thank you, doctor,” said Crumbleceiling.

As Madam Pepper left, Crumbleceiling looked back at Billy.

Billy stared back at him. Then he remembered: “Sir! It was Quigley! He’s taken the Bewitched —”

“Please calm yourself,” said Crumbleceiling, raising his hand. “Best not to finish that off just now, your arm being how it is. I can assure you, however, that Quigley does not have anything.”

Billy looked down at his arm. It was in a thick cast. Then he looked around him and realised he must be in the hospital wing. He looked across to the next bed where Yodel was laying with her wing in a sling, a thermometer in her mouth, and a tiny cool pack on her head. At the other side of the room, Madam Pepper was now tending to an injured reindeer. He stared back at Crumbleceiling.

“I was just reading about two priests who visited South America,” said Crumbleceiling, picking up his magazine and showing Billy the cover. “It’s amazing what they think people will read in hospital.”

Billy read the title of the magazine: Roaming Catholics. Then he noticed the table next to Crumbleceiling, which was piled high with boxes of fresh cooking ingredients, foreign chocolates, ethical snacks, jars of sweets, shaving kits, and more.

“Ah, yes,” said Crumbleceiling. “It would appear that you didn’t have the chance to cancel a few free trials while you’ve been here, and they all seem to have renewed at once. Though I believe your teammates, Chad and Larry Beaversley, did attempt to send you four kayaks. No doubt they thought it would amuse you. Madam Pepper, however, felt they were a little unnecessary for hospital.”

“How long have I been in here?”

“A little over a week,” said Crumbleceiling. “Your friends Edward Beaversley and Elahoraella Parker will be delighted to hear you have woken up, they have been extremely concerned.”

“But sir, what about the —”

“I see you are not going to relax until you know what has happened. Very well, the… shall we call it the fromage to save your arm the effort of waving? Professor Quigley did not manage to take it. I arrived in time to prevent that, and to stop him from taking your life.”

“You got there? But Elahoraella’s letter, it was returned.”

“Yes, but the extra fees they charge for incorrect postage are simply ridiculous. I’m not paying those,” said Crumbleceiling. “Nevertheless, I was able to read what the letter said before it was sent back to you, and as soon as I had finished in London, I returned to the school.”

“You — you didn’t come straight back? Even though you knew I was in danger?”

“Well, of course, Billy. I may have read the letter, but I did not pay to do so. It would have been immoral for me to have acted upon the information it contained, would it not?”

Billy stared at Crumbleceiling.

“But by chance, it turned out I was not actually needed at the Secretariat of Sorcery, and I was able to return to the school sooner than expected, which coincidentally, just happened to be at the right time. I am sure that had I been needed, however, I would still have conveniently arrived at precisely the right moment no matter what — I think it is safe to assume that you shall never be in any real peril at Frogsports, Billy. There are too many people getting rich from you to ever let you die… Or to ever take a meaningful stance against hate, apparently.”

“What happened to the… fromage?”

“It has been destroyed.”

“Destroyed?” said Billy. “But your friend — Émile Arquette —”

“Oh, you know about Émile?” said Crumbleceiling. “Have you read his latest book, Making Things Better With My Sidekick Filetta? — anyway, Émile and I have spoken about things, and agreed it was for the best. He said he was starting to prefer truffle anyway.”

“But that means he’ll die, doesn’t it?”

“I can see why you may conclude that, but no, he will not die.’

Crumbleceiling smiled.

“Immortal means you can never die, no matter the circumstances”, he explained. “If you had to keep consuming something to survive, that wouldn’t be immortality.”

So Elahoraella was right, Billy thought to himself.

“The funny thing is,” Crumbleceiling went on, “I think after all this time, Émile may actually be starting to wish he wasn’t immortal. After all, when one has lived their life, to die would be an awfully big adventure — or perhaps something that sounds a little less obviously stolen straight from the work of J.M. Barrie. You know, the fromage was really not such a wonderful thing. Living forever and having enough money to do whatever you want? The two things that stop you from being able to appreciate what and who truly makes your whole life worth living in the first place.”

Billy lay there, lost for words. Crumbleceiling smiled again.

“Sir?” said Billy. “What happened to Professor Quigley?”

“Ah. I’m afraid to say he has not come out of the whole situation quite as well as you have yourself.”

Billy eyed Crumbleceiling questioningly.

“He has turned to stone,” Crumbleceiling explained. “I must say, though, it’s nice to know I was right about him all along. I knew he was up to something this year. That’s why I asked Professor Grape to keep a watch of him.”

“But why did he turn to stone?”

Crumbleceiling shrugged his shoulders. “Magic,” he said simply.

“What about Ste — hold on, did you just say you suspected Quigley all along?”

“That’s right,” said Crumbleceiling.

“And you put everybody in danger by never doing anything to stop him?”

“I’m glad to see you’re following along. Now, you wanted to ask me another question…”

Billy decided to move on.

“What about Steven? What happened to him?”

“It is very thoughtful of you to use his actual name. I do not appear to have an umbrella with me,” said Crumbleceiling. “But to answer your question, I’m afraid he will have survived. Not having a soul, he cannot die. He will find a way to carry on, perhaps find another body to share. We shall just have to wait.”

Crumbleceiling now glanced over at the injured reindeer, who was giving him a death stare.

“And there’s something else,” said Billy.

Crumbleceiling gave the reindeer a nervous wave, then turned back to Billy.

“Quigley said Grape knew my mother and father, and that he went on to murder a man —”

“Many a man, Billy.”

“Yes, many a man — but Quigley said he did that and now hates me because my mother once rejected him. Is that true?”

“Well, yes, when I think about it, I suppose it is true. But you are forgetting one small detail.”

“What?”

“Professor Grape is a cis-gendered white man, and so naturally, his problematic past carriers neither scrutiny nor consequence.”

“Isn’t it messed up for anybody to write him like that?”

“Yes…” said Crumbleceiling thoughtfully. “Funny, the way people’s minds work, isn’t it? In my opinion, it’s almost as if they pick and choose what is right or wrong based on convenience rather than anything tangible.”

Billy attempted to make sense of this, but it made his head pound, so he stopped.

“And sir, there’s one more thing…”

“Only one?”

“Why was I able to lift the cheese knife from the pebble?”

“Ah, now, I’m glad you’ve brought that up. The whole knife in the pebble thing was one of my better ideas. You see, I thought it best if only those who wanted to protect the fromage would be able to lift the knife. I knew that would be you, and so upon casting the sorcery, I made it so that for yourself, the knife was merely resting in the pebble.”

“You knew I was going to protect it?”

“Naturally, Billy. I’ve known what you’ve been up to all year.”

“And you still let me advance into a situation where you knew somebody wanted to kill me?”

Crumbleceiling ignored him. Instead, he turned to the boxes on the table and said, “Enough questions for today, I think. You need to relax and make a start on some of these.”

As Crumbleceiling opened a box of chocolates, Billy caught on to something else he had just said.

“Sir, you described Grape as cis-gendered. But the term cis-gendered would imply the existence of non-cisgendered people, wouldn’t it?”

“I believe some would prefer if that wasn’t the case,” said Crumbleceiling. “But in the real word, things don’t cease to be how they are simply because they make insecure people feel uncomfortable.”

Madam Pepper was a compassionate woman, but she was also meticulous and very strict.

“Please, just ten minutes,” Billy pleaded with her.

“Absolutely not. You need to rest.”

“But I am resting, see. I’m in bed and everything. Oh, go on, Madam Pepper…”

“Oh, very well then,” she said, sighing. “But only ten minutes.”

And she let Ed and Elahoraella in to see him.

“Billy! We were so worried — we thought you might —”

Elahoraella seemed lost for words.

“Good to see you,” said Ed.

“Crumbleceiling wouldn’t tell us anything,” said Elahoraella. “What actually happened?”

Ed and Elahoraella sat and listened as Billy told them everything that had happened with Quigley, and how he had been hiding Steven all this time.

“So the Brie is gone then?” said Ed finally. “Does that mean Émile Arquette is just going to die?”

“That’s what I thought, but — that reminds me,” said Billy, turning to Elahoraella. “You were right all along — Crumbleceiling told me that immortal does mean you never die. Arquette doesn’t have to keep eating anything.”

“I knew it,” said Elahoraella. “If you had to keep consuming something to survive, that would make it a medicine, not a source of immortality.”

“Do you think Crumbleceiling meant for you to face Quigley?” said Ed.

“That is entirely a ridiculous suggestion,” said Elahoraella.

“No, it isn’t,” said Billy. “Crumbleceiling knew we were on to something all year, and he never stopped us. He even knew Quigley was behind it all from the start.”

“Well then, he should be struck off the teacher’s register and never be allowed to work with children again.”

“She’s got a point, you know?” said Ed. “Maybe you should sue.”

They decided to change the subject.

“You missed the final Frogsports match,” Ed told him. “But the results ended up being void — something about Crumbleceiling tricking the Gluteal team to take part in match fixing. Anyway, you’ve got to come to the feast tomorrow. The Crocodilians have topped the table, of course, but that doesn’t mean the food won’t be good.”

“What are you staring at?” Billy asked Elahoraella, noticing she was looking over at Madam Pepper.

“I was just wondering, why doesn’t Madam Pepper have her title in her name?” said Elahoraella. “I mean, she is a doctor, isn’t she?”

Billy pointed to the trademark on his forehead and Elahoraella nodded.

“Yes,” she said. “That makes sense.”

The next morning, Billy felt much better. Now that he was conscious, Madam Pepper was able to fix his arm almost straight away, and after a good night’s sleep, his head had stopped hurting too.

“I can go to the feast tonight, can’t I?” he asked her when she came over to see how he was feeling.

“The headmaster has said you are to go,” she said stiffly. “But before you do, we have the small matter of the bill to sort out.”

“The bill?” said Billy.

“This is a private school, Mr Smith. You didn’t really think the headmaster wouldn’t outsource our hospital to an American corporation, did you?”

It it wasn’t for the risk of it increasing further, Billy’s recovery would have stalled when he saw the amount he owed. He tried to argue that he couldn’t possibly have agreed to any of these charges while he was unconscious, and eventually, Madam Pepper agreed to discount the balance by fifty percent.

“If you’re able to discount the amount owed, you’re clearly making too much profit to begin with,” said Billy, but Madam Pepper ignored him.

“You’ve got another visitor,” she said.

“Who is it?”

Barry came through the door as he spoke. He sat down on the chair next to Billy, took one look at him, then began crying.

“Ah’m sorry,” he sobbed, his face in his hands. “It’s all me fault. Ah told ‘im ‘ow t’ gerr’ past Waddles.”

“It’s okay, Barry,” said Billy. “It’s over. Steven can’t get the Brie.”

“Theur could av’ died n’ everythin’.”

“But I didn’t die. I’m perfectly fine. The only person who died was Professor Quigley — what’s wrong?” Billy asked, for Barry seemed to be crying harder now.

“Quigley — ‘e agreed t’ buy summa’ from me book, but now ‘e’s dead…”

That evening, after agreeing a payment plan to settle the bill and packing his things up, Billy left the hospital wing to go down to the Banquet Hall and join the rest of the school. As he walked out the door, he passed an ongoing argument.

“I want to see a doctor!”

“For the last time, Karen,” Madam Pepper was saying, “you are a ghost. You can’t get ill or be inured. And besides that, hurt feelings don’t require medical attention.”

“You’re just discriminating against me,” said Karen, defiantly.

Madam Pepper pulled out a phone and held it up.

“No… No… Aaaargh…” And Karen flew off down the corridor.

Held up by Madam Pepper’s insistence that she give him one last check-up, by the time Billy made it to the Banquet Hall, the tables were already full of students talking and laughing with each other.

The whole hall had been decorated in the green and silver of Crocodilian house to celebrate them coming top of the table for yet another year. Above the teacher’s table hung a giant banner depicting the Crocodilian alligator.

Billy tried not to draw any attention to himself as he made his way up the hall and slipped into an empty space between Ed and Elahoraella at the Osphranter table. Unfortunately, once one person had noticed he was there, it wasn’t long before the whole hall had fallen silent to look over at him.

To his relief, Crumbleceiling limped into the hall on crutches moments later and everyone’s attention turned to him instead.

“Me and that reindeer have unfinished business,” he said to Professor McDouglass as she came over to help him make his way over to a podium in front of the teacher’s table.

Professor McDouglass put his crutches to one side, and Crumbleceiling turned to address the school.

“Another year is over!” he began cheerfully. “But before we can begin our end-of-year feast, I understand there is the small matter of the house table to attend to. In fourth place, Osphranter house, with three hundred and eighty-two credits; in third place, Eudyptula house, with five hundred and ninety-six credits; second is Gluteal house, with eight hundred and fifty-five credits; and in first place, Crocodilian house, with nine hundred and ninety-two credits.”

Cheering broke out from the Crocodilian table as they began stomping their feet on the floor and banging their fists on the table.

Billy looked up at the teacher’s table where Grape was doing a bad job of trying to hide his smug glee from the other teachers.

“Yes, well done, Crocodilian house,” said Crumbleceiling. “But there are some recent events which must be taken into account.”

The room fell silent and the smile on Grape’s face faltered a little.

“First — to Mr Edward Beaversley…”

Ed went bright red.

“… for showing true loyalty to his friend and standing by his side as he faced danger, I award Osphranter house two hundred credits.”

The whole of Osphranter house began cheering. At the teacher’s table, Professor Millbrook whispered something to Professor McDouglass. Eventually, silence fell again and Crumbleceiling continued.

“Second — to Miss Elahoraella Parker… for demonstrating true patriotism by reciting the diary of a member of the Royal Family while under pressure, I award Osphranter house two hundred credits.”

There was no cheers this time. People seems to know that Crumbleceiling had more to say and they held on to his every word expectantly. “Third — to Mr Billy Smith…” said Crumbleceiling. “… as full and final settlement for any damages he may attempt to claim from the school, I award Osphranter house two hundred credits.”

Talk was breaking out between those who could add up quickly enough to work out that Osphranter house now had nine hundred and eighty-two credits — just ten behind the Crocodilians.

Billy noticed a smile on Professor McDouglass’ face. Did she know Crumbleceiling had more?

Crumbleceiling raised his hand and the room fell silent once more.

“There are many differences in this world,” he said, as everyone listened expectantly. “But perhaps none are greater than the way in which men and women are treated for doing exactly the same thing. While when Miss Elahoraella Parker stood up to her friends it was considered interfering and annoying, Mr Joshua Hansen’s equal actions can only be described as heroic and courageous. I therefore award Mr Hansen nine credits.”

There was a long moment of silence, and then —

“What the fuck, Richard‽” said Professor McDouglass, giving him a dangerous look as boos rang from every table except the Crocodilian’s.

Crumbleceiling raised his hand for silence.

“Sometimes life just isn’t fair,” he said, and cheers erupted from the Crocodilian table.

Despite Crumbleceiling’s last-minute surprise, it was still one of the best evenings Billy had ever had. Better than winning at Frogsports, or Christmas or anything… though Jacob did keep reminding him he didn’t have to accept the settlement if he didn’t want to, and he could recommend an excellent lawyer that Karen had given him the number of.

Billy had almost forgotten they still had exam results to come, but come they did. The only problem was none of them knew what they actually meant. To their great surprise, Elahoraella had failed everything, while Billy and Ed had both got top marks in Alchemy. Somehow, Josh had come top of the year. Thankfully, Professor McDouglass visited the common room to explain that the Secretariat of Sorcery had decided to try out a new way of awarding grades through the use of algorithms this year, but it hadn’t gone quite as planned. Elahoraella felt a bit better after being told she could appeal and have her marks fixed, though she was frustrated she would have to pay for the privilege.

Before they knew it, their dormitories were empty, their suitcases were packed, and they were walking down the road that led to the station where the Frogsports Express was waiting to take them all back to London. A couple of students who lived in a nearby town were complaining that they still had to take the train because their parents had forgotten to sign the permission slip allowing them to be picked up from school, but otherwise the mood was good.

To Billy’s great surprise, he found Professor Grape waiting for him on the platform.

“Deliver this to your aunt,” he said, handing Billy a package wrapped in brown paper.

“What is —”

“Do not ask questions,” said Grape cooly. “Just deliver the package.”

Billy, Ed, and Elahoraella shared a compartment with Chad and Larry on the journey home, and they laughed and joked together as they sped through towns and countryside. To their great relief, there was no broken down train in front of them this time, and they pulled into platform four and two-thirds at Euston Station just twenty-four minutes late.

It took some time for all the students to leave the platform. The ticket inspector who had stopped Billy on the day they had left for Frogsports was demanding everyone showed him their tickets before being allowed to pass, even though they had already been checked on the train.

“You must come and stay this summer,” said Ed. “Both of you —”

“I don’t think we’ll be able to,” said Elahoraella.

“Why not?”

“This feels like it’s a one-time thing to me.”

Billy, Ed, and Elahoraella passed through the ticket barriers together and found Ed’s mother and younger sister waiting to greet them on the other side.

Mrs Beaversley smiled at them all.

“Good year?” she asked.

“Busy,” said Billy. “Thanks for the jumper, Mrs Beaversley.”

“Oh, it was nothing, dear,” she said, smiling. “And thank you for sending me — I spent a lot of time making that jumper, you know!”

“Ready yet?” said another voice.

Billy looked around. It was Mr Moustache, and he looked incredibly uncomfortable to be surrounded by so many happy young people, not to mention people who owned Oyster cards.

“You must be Billy’s uncle,” said Mrs Beaversley, reaching out her hand to shake his.

“Yes,” he said bluntly, ignoring her hand. “Come on, boy, we’ve got to go.” He walked off.

Billy said goodbye to Elahoraella and the Beaversleys — apologising to Mrs Beaversley and promising to make it up to her next Christmas — and then followed after his uncle.

On their way out of the station, they passed by a bookshop. In the window was a large poster advertising that a special edition book celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of a popular franchise was now available to pre-order. Billy stopped in front of him. He looked at the author’s name, then he laughed to himself and said, “Nah, she can go eat shit!”

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Chapter Sixteen Police Aux Frontières Billy would never be quite sure how he managed to get through all his exams when he was half expecting to be murdered if not by Steven coming through the door at

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