aroline and Sinead were sitting scrunched up in the cupboard under the stairs. A lighted candle, wobbling on a box, threw more shadows than light around them. On the outside of the door a notice said: WALLACE AND REILLY: DETECTIVES. STAY AWAY.
But Catherine leaned against the door, listening to the muffled voices inside.
“What’s the use of being detectives if we have nothing to detect,” grumbled Sinead. She felt that a week was long enough to be a detective without cases. Caroline sat frowning, thinking it over.
“Well,” she decided at last, “if people won’t bring cases to us to solve, we’ll have to go out and find them ourselves.”
There was another long silence and Catherine grew so tired of waiting that she leaned too heavily against the door and it creaked.
“Go away, Catherine!” called Caroline crossly.
Catherine stepped back a bit and waited. The voices started up again and she leaned closer.
“I heard Mammy talking about that house outside town you know, the one where no one lives – “, Caroline was saying.
“What about it?” asked Sinead, shifting to try to make herself more comfortable and almost knocking the candle off the box. The shadows leaped around the cupboard.
Caroline grabbed the candle and hot wax splashed from it. She yelped and flapped her burning hand.
“Can’t you be more careful? What do you want to go jumping around for?”
“There’s no room,” grumbled Sinead. “I’ve got pins and needles all over me from sitting like this. This is an awful place for an office.”
“Can you get a better place?”
Sinead sighed and rubbed her leg.
“What was your mother saying about the house?”
“She says someone told her that the house is haunted. Someone says they saw something there.”
“What sort of something?”
“I don’t know what sort,” said Caroline vaguely, “but they saw a thing!”
“I thought we were detectives, not ghostbusters.”
“It’s all the same.”
“Is it?” asked Sinead doubtfully.
“Of course it is. We’ve got to find out what’s haunting it.”
Sinead stared at the candle flame to keep her mind off the shadows quivering about them on the walls of the cupboard.
“And what’ll we do when we find out?”
This problem hadn’t occurred to Caroline, but she wasn’t going to be without an answer.
“We tell it to go away,” she said firmly.
“Ummmmm!” said Sinead.
“We’ll start now!” declared Caroline energetically
Sinead looked uneasy.
“But it’s getting dark.”
“Best time for ghosts,” Caroline assured her. “You wouldn’t expect to see ghosts in the daytime, would you?”
The door creaked again and this time Sinead did upset the candle.
“Catherine!” yelled Caroline in a fury. “I’m coming out after you.”
But when she crawled out, Catherine was nowhere to be seen. Caroline didn’t waste time searching for her. The grey of the sky was getting darker all the time.
“Come on,” she said to Sinead. “Before she comes back.”
They went out and hurried off down the street, looking behind them. When they turned the corner, they ran. At that moment, Catherine popped her head up from behind the garden wall and ran down to the corner after them. But when she arrived and peered cautiously around it, they were gone. She walked a little along the road, but she soon stopped. She wasn’t exactly sure where the house was and night was not the best time to get lost.
I’ll wait here for them and follow them back, she decided. So she sat down and took out her notebook and biro. Under the heading, Catherine’s Report, she began to write down all she had heard them say. Meanwhile Caroline and Sinead were coming near to the old house. They had left the last lights of town behind and the shadows on the open road appeared not only darker but colder.
“It looks like rain,” murmured Sinead.
“Just around this corner,” said Caroline encouragingly. “Look, here it is -. “
They both stopped suddenly and clutched each other.
“T-there’s a light,” breathed Sinead.
In one of the windows of the house was a pale yellow glow. As they watched, it flickered.
Caroline laughed in relief and put ghosts firmly behind her.
“It’s a candle.”
“But that means there’s someone there,” said Sinead. “Let’s come back tomorrow. We can find clues better in the daytime.”
Caroline was strongly tempted, but having come so far, she felt it would be tame to turn back now.
“Let’s just take one look,” she whispered. “If we’re quiet, whoever it is won’t even know we’re there. Maybe we can solve the mystery tonight.”
Sinead nodded. Perhaps it would be better to get it over with right away.
Slowly, they crept up to the house, so silently that their breathing sounded loud. Halfway there they stopped as the shape of the light became suddenly clearer. Now they saw that there were four lights in all, two glowing eyes, a glowing nose and a glowing mouth, all on their own in the dark with no head to be seen.
“It’s a g-ghost!” squealed Sinead. Caroline thought so, too, but she had lost her voice. They stood there, frozen still for what seemed like an hour. Gradually they could make out the face, which was a little lighter than the darkness. They turned to each other at the same moment.
“It’s a pumpkin!”
“A pumpkin lantern!”
Caroline tried to pretend she had known it all along.
“Come on,” she whispered and this time they crept right up to the wall of the house.
They put their backs against it and edged their way along towards the window. Caroline ducked down and crawled to the other side. While she was doing it, Sinead edged nearer and risked a quick peep.
She saw a man, seated at a table, with a candle in front of him. His back was towards her, so she looked longer the next time. And now Caroline, on the other side, looked, too.
The man was eating. He had. fat square sandwiches in front of him and a tin mug, out of which he drank greasy tea with a loud noise. They couldn’t see his face, but he seemed to have a beard for bits of it stuck out on either side of his head. Still, it was difficult to be sure about this, for his black, rough hair was thick and tangled. After watching for a while, Caroline crawled back under the window and beckoned Sinead away.
They dared not say a word until the house was out of sight and well behind them, and then they only spoke in whispers that gradually got louder.
“It’s only a tramp,” said Sinead, glad to be away and hoping she wouldn’t have to go back.
Caroline’s eyes were gleaming with excitement.
“Yes, but why did he have a pumpkin-lantern on the window?”
“I suppose he wants to keep people away and he thinks it will scare them,” ventured Sinead. “And it does. Everyone but us thinks the place is haunted.”
“But why should he want to keep people away?”
Sinead shrugged, a little irritated. Here was Caroline determined to make something out of it!
“I suppose he just doesn’t like people.”
“I think he’s a villain and he’s up to something,” said Caroline grimly.
“Well, he does look like a villain,” admitted Sinead. “But so do other people. Look at our geography teacher.”
“I don’t mean that kind of villain,” said Caroline. “I mean like robbery and so on.”
They were back in their own street by now. Unnoticed, Catherine stepped out from behind the wall and followed them, listening eagerly.
“We’ve got no proof he’s a robber,” Sinead was saying. “I mean, no one’s even robbed anything that we know of.”
“We’ll find proof then,” said Caroline determinedly. “Tomorrow we’ll go out and look for clues.”
“But we’ll have to be careful he’s not around,” Sinead reminded her anxiously.
“We’ll be careful,” Caroline assured her. They said good-bye at Caroline’s gate and Caroline went in. Catherine went around to the back door and went in there.
She met Caroline in the doorway of the sitting-room.
“What did you find?” she asked. “Were there ghosts?”
“Yes!” said Caroline. “Fierce, big, horrible ones, so you better stay away.”
“I know there weren’t!” cried Catherine angrily. “And I bet I solve this mystery before you do.”
“You don’t know anything!” said Caroline scornfully and she slammed the door in her sister’s face.
“You wait and see,” muttered Catherine to the door.
She took out her notebook and started to write everything down in it.
The next day was Halloween. Caroline and Catherine had been so busy trying to outwit each other that they had almost forgotten all about it. But now it was the mystery that was forgotten for a time as everyone made their masks and costumes for the night. Catherine made a witches mask, bright green with warts all over it, and then made a hat out of rolled paper. painted black with stuck on silver stars. Caroline made an orange-coloured monster’s face. Both their costumes were a lot simpler, just black plastic refuse sacks with holes cut out for their heads and arms. It was after dinner before Caroline remembered the haunted house.
She went off to find Sinead straight away. By the time Catherine knew she had gone, they were both nearing the haunted house again. They crept up to it cautiously and looked in the window. There was no one in the room. One after another they tried all the other windows and the results were the same.
“He’s not there,” said Caroline. “Now’s our chance.”
The door had no lock, only a latch. When Caroline pushed it open, it creaked so loudly that anyone within a hundred metres would have heard it. They stood still and listened, their hearts thumping.
After about a minute, Caroline said: “Quick, before he comes back. We must search.”
Tentatively, they stepped inside the door, leaving it open behind them.
“For what?” asked Sinead, looking helplessly around the bare, dusty room.
“Clues, of course,” hissed Caroline. “Something to tell us what he’s doing here.”
“He’s drinking stout,” said, Sinead, kicking two empty bottles along the floor.
“Yes, but it’s not against the law to drink. We want to find something to incriminate him. And shush, for goodness sake!”
Most of the other rooms had a smell of damp and were chilly. Only one had any furniture in it, a chair and a small, rickety table, leaning against the wall. On top of it lay a strong canvas duffel bag. Sinead picked it up and looked inside. It was empty.
“Well, that’s that,” she said with some relief. “There’s no clues anywhere.”
“But this is one,” said Caroline, taking the bag from her and turning it inside out to get a better look. “This is what he carried his stolen stuff in.”
“But how do you know?” protested Sinead. “It’s empty and so is the rest of the house.”
“I’ll bet he’s got a hiding hole somewhere. Under the floorboards, or something.”
Caroline stamped on the floorboards and the sound boomed out loudly in the empty house.
“Who’s making noise now?”
Sinead looked nervously out of the window.
“We’d better go before he comes back. I have to get ready for tonight.”
“Yes, there’s that,” agreed Caroline. “I’ll help you. What are you going to be?”
“Probably a ghost,” said Sinead sadly.
Pillow cases and sheets were not very exciting, but having left it to the last moment, she had nothing else.
“Ghosts aren’t so bad,” said Caroline as she shut the door of the house behind them. “Remember all those ones in ‘Ghostbusters’?”
Sinead began to feel more interested in the idea.
“I’ve got some poster paints,” she ventured. “Lovely phosphorous greens and yellows and bloody reds!”
“Great! You’ll frighten the whole street. We’d better hurry if we’re going to get it all done.”
However, they took so long over it that all the other ghosts and ghouls had a start on them. Catherine had gone out long before with her friend, Sally, an evil-looking pirate. Everyone was generous and their bag was bulging by the time they reached the old people’s homes. It was there, much later, that Caroline and Sinead fell over them, crouched in a gateway.
“What’re you doing?” cried Caroline angrily as she and Sinead scrabbled around for their nuts and sweets, scattered along the pavement.
“Caroline!” whispered Catherine urgently. “There’s a pumpkin-man going around the houses. He’s got a big bag.”
“You can’t scare us!” said Caroline scornfully.
“But it’s true! He’s down near the end now.”
Sally nodded fearfully.
“He’s got a pumpkin for a head.”
Her voice shook.
“There is someone,” said Sinead, who was looking down the street. “It’s someone big.” Caroline looked, too.
“He’s got a big head, anyway,” she agreed. “Sinead! It’s him!”
“Him who?” said Sinead stupidly.
Then she realized.
“And he’s trick or treating! If we don’t hurry, he’ll have taken all our stuff.”
“I’ll bet he’s stealing,” said Caroline excitedly. Her eyes were shining.
“Come on, we’ll stalk him. you stay here,” she said sternly to Catherine and Sally. “Mind our bag.”
Followed by Sinead, she glided from gate to gate, ducking down whenever she thought the pumpkin-man was going to turn his head. At the last house but one, they stole along by the wall until they were only a few metres away from where he stood, before the door of the house. It was the man from the old house, all right. Now they were near enough, Caroline was certain. Although he wore the huge pumpkin over his head, he had on the same heavy green jersey. He was talking to one of the old ladies who lived in the house, although they couldn’t hear a word of what was being said, no matter how they strained their ears. They saw the old lady smile and nod and go back into the house, leaving the door open.
At once the pumpkin-man stepped up to the door and looked in. He seemed to be listening carefully. Then, suddenly, he slipped inside the door and vanished from their view. Caroline and Sinead looked at each other.
“I told you so,” said Caroline with satisfaction.
“Maybe we should call the guards?” whispered Sinead.
Caroline shook her head.
“We got to be sure.”
“But how can we be surer than that?”
“We have to catch him red-handed. Duck!”
The pumpkin-man emerged from the house as silently as he had gone in. After a few seconds, Caroline risked a peep. She nudged Sinead. The man was standing facing the door again, waiting.
The old lady came out with a bag of nuts and handed it to him. There was another exchange of unheard words and the old lady smiled once more and closed the door. The pumpkin-man started back down the path. They heard the gate creak as he closed it. As he passed the garden they were hiding in, he tossed the bag of nuts casually over the wall and his duffle-bag clinked.
Caroline nodded to Sinead.
“Give him time,” she whispered. “We know where he’s going.”
The minutes seemed terribly long. They were anxious not to be too close to him, but, finally, they felt there was a danger of being too far behind. They rose from their cramped position and walked back up the path. Catherine was still crouched inside the gate, but Sally had gone home.
“You go home, too,” instructed Caroline. “This is dangerous.”
Catherine just stared at them and when they went on, she followed. Caroline was vexed, but it was hardly the place or the time for a noisy scene.
“You’ll have to be quiet,” she said warningly. “And do what you’re told.”
Catherine nodded and they walked on cautiously, keeping a careful watch ahead, in case the pumpkin-man might have stopped and was lying in wait for them. But there was no sign of him and they reached the old house without any trouble. Catherine kept close beside her sister. The dark out here was darker than she had expected.
They could see the window was lit up, but they realised when they got nearer that the pumpkin was no longer on the windowsill. They crept towards the oblong of light, as silently as they could manage. Catherine found Caroline’s hand and held on tightly. Carefully they looked through the window.
The man was sitting as they had seen him before, but now the table before him was spread with all sorts of objects, necklaces, bracelets, small statuettes, ear studs and finger rings, and a whole heap of coins and banknotes. The money had been moved to one side and the man was examining the other objects, one by one. Some he put into his duffel-bag, a few he carelessly tossed on to the floor. They watched him for a long time. It was just like watching a film. It was Caroline who came to herself first. She nudged Sinead and the three of them moved away until they were a safe distance from the house.
“We’ll keep watch,” Caroline told Catherine, “in case he tries to get away. You go and tell Mam and get her to phone for the guards. Hurry! As quick as you can!”
And she said it so urgently that Catherine didn’t think to argue, but turned at once and ran away towards the town. Her legs soon began to feel like jelly and her throat dry rand sore, but she never stopped running once. She had almost no breath left when she burst into the kitchen and stood before her astonished mother, and for a time she couldn’t talk, only gasp. At last she got some of her wind back.
“Call the guards, quick! Caroline and Sinead have got a burglar at the haunted house!”
“What are you talking about?” asked her mother, half laughing, but half fearful.
Catherine took several deep breaths and told her everything.
“You stay here and don’t move,” her mother instructed her when she had finished. “I’m going across to Mary’s to phone.”
But she had no sooner gone out the door than Catherine slipped out after her and started for the old house again. Caroline and Sinead weren’t going to have all the glory to themselves. Meanwhile the two detectives were watching through the window as the pumpkin-man put the last of the jewelry into his duffel-bag, drew the string tight and started to gather the money together.
“He’ll get away,” whispered Caroline in agony. “We’ve got to do something about it.”
“But how’re we going to stop him?”
Caroline thought furiously.
“You go and hide and I’ll try to get him to run after me. As soon as he comes out, you go in and take his bag and run back to town with it.”
Sinead tried to think of objections, but none would come.
“All right,” she agreed reluctantly. “But don’t let him catch you.”
“He won’t!” said Caroline confidently. “Now, go on!”
She gave Sinead a push. After a quick search, Sinead found a large enough bush and hid herself behind it.
Caroline didn’t give herself time to be nervous. She banged her hand against the window. The man inside froze for a second, then swung around quickly. Caroline didn’t have to pretend to be terrified when she met his eyes. It was like looking at a savage dog. The man pushed his chair over with a clatter and sprang for the door. Not waiting to make sure he was coming, Caroline sprinted away, only remembering at the last moment to run away from the direction of the town.
Once she was started, she knew he couldn’t catch her and that gave her confidence to run even faster. But that was a mistake. The man also realized he couldn’t catch her and stopped and turned back before he had gone thirty metres. He was just in time to see Sinead emerging from the doorway with his duffel-bag. With a roar, he gave chase. Sinead, the bag bumping heavily against her knees, knew she could never escape him on the long empty road, so she headed instead into the wild scrub of the field, looking desperately for somewhere to hide. But the bag slowed her and he was gaining at every step.
Running between two bushes, she was just about to throw the bag away in despair, when she heard the man behind her fall heavily to the ground. Next moment, she found Catherine beside her, limping.
“I tripped him. He hurt my leg. Where’s Caroline?”
“Here!” said Caroline, appearing suddenly. “Quick, quick! To the road! We can carry the bag between us.”
With Catherine hopping impatiently around them, they ran back to the road, as well as they were able, Caroline holding one side of the bag, Sinead holding the other. Catherine would have liked to help, too, but there really wasn’t room. Instead she kept a look out behind, in case the pumpkin-man should recover and follow them. She saw him get to his feet and hold his head. Then he looked in their direction and for a moment it seemed he was going to come after them. But he stopped suddenly, hesitated for several seconds, then turned and ran in the opposite direction across the fields.
“He’s running away,” Catherine told her sister happily.
And then they all saw why. A bright light swept over them and there was a long screech of brakes. They turned to see a squad car grinding to a halt at the side of the road, its tires grating on the loose gravel. Doors opened and slammed shut and three huge guards surrounded them.
“He went that way,” said Caroline, dropping her side of the bag to point. “He’s getting away. We got his bag.”
Two of the guards ran off in the direction the man had taken, the third said, “Let’s see.”
He opened the bag and looked inside.
“He stole it from the old people’s houses,” Sinead explained.
“We knew he was going to do it and we watched him,” said Caroline.
“Quite the little detectives, aren’t you?” said the guard. “I’ll take care of this. You’d better get along home, now.”
The three walked back to town, feeling somehow deflated after all the excitement of the past hour.
“They let him get away,” said Caroline. “After all we did, they let him get away.”
“You don’t suppose he’ll come back and murder us?” asked Sinead. “He must be mad.”
“I hope he tries,” said Caroline darkly. “He won’t get away next time.”
Their mothers were very cross when they reached home. The Wallace and Reilly Detective Agency was banned on the spot and they were told that if they couldn’t be more responsible, they’d have to stay where eyes could be kept on them.
“You’d think we’d done something wrong,” complained Caroline the next day, as they both sat on the wall outside her house, swinging their legs idly. “Well, if that’s all the thanks we get, they can catch their own crooks next time.”
“There’s old Mrs Sullivan,” said Sinead suddenly. Mrs Sullivan was one of those living in the old people’s houses. “I hope we’re not in more trouble.”
But Mrs Sullivan was smiling. She came up to where they were sitting and rested her arms on the wall.
“We all want to thank you for getting our valuables back,” she explained. “And we want you to have these as a reward. There’s one for your little sister, too.”
From the pocket of her cardigan she took three tiny ballerina figures, beautiful and perfect. Neither Caroline nor Sinead knew what to say, except, “Thanks!”
But as they watched the old woman walk away, Caroline said: “Now all we got to do is find a new case!”
THE HALLOWEEN MAN by Tim Houlihan
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