Adam’s hands were sweating, his throat was dry and he had no ideas. He’d expected to solve problems not set them. But the Lateral Thinkers club did things differently. He looked at the expectant faces. Nathan was smiling encouragement.
“Time’s up,” said Laura, the Lateral Leader, “what’s your question?”
Adam shook his head. His eyes swept around the tree-house looking for inspiration. He gazed hopelessly out the window.
“Where have the conkers gone?” he said.
Nathan gave a thumbs-up and the questions started.
“Is it the conker season?” – Yes
“Are there conker trees?” – Yes
“Are the trees too old?” – No
After five minutes Laura held up her hand.
“Congratulations Adam. You’ve done it.”
Adam had passed the test and could join the Lateral Thinkers club.
“Are you going to tell us the answer? Or will you use this question to get your Lateral IQ rating?” asked Laura.
“I’ll use this one,” said Adam.
“Ok gang.” said Laura. “You know the rules. Meet here in the tree-house every day at four, until we solve Adam’s problem. Email questions by midnight and Adam’ll answer at the meeting. Adam scores a point for every question we ask.”
Nathan pulled Adam’s arm
“You were great,” he said.
Adam looked around before whispering, “I don’t know the answer.”
“What?” said Nathan.
“It’s real,” said Adam. “There really are no conkers. I couldn’t think of anything, and then I saw the conker trees and realised that I haven’t seen any conkers.”
“Really?” asked Nathan.
Adam nodded, “What am I going to do? If I don’t have an answer I won’t be able to join the gang.”
“Think laterally,” said Nathan. “Make something up, or find out what’s really happening.”
“Let’s check out the park,” said Adam.
The two boys looked under a conker tree – there were no conkers, no sticks, no broken glass and, unbelievably, no dog poo.
“It’s like someone’s swept the place clean,” said Nathan.
“Look,” said Adam, “there’s a conker on the tree. Let’s get it down.”
There was nothing to throw and the branches were too high to climb. Despite their best lateral thinking they couldn’t get the conker without extra resources, and decided to return better equipped tomorrow.
At eight o’clock in the morning Adam and Nathan were back.
“It’s only clean in a circle around the tree,” said Nathan.
Adam kicked a piece of paper and a bottle into the circle to check they didn’t evaporate or teleport away.
A sudden shout startled them, “Oy, what you lot up to?”
“Clear out of here,” shouted the park-keeper. “I’ve work to do and can’t have you littering up the place.”
Adam and Nathan were so startled that they walked away without arguing.
“What’s his problem?” said Nathan.
Adam shrugged and looked around. The park-keeper picked up the paper, smiled and walked away.
“I reckon he’s got obsessive disorder and can’t stand mess,” said Nathan.
“Can’t be.” said Adam. “He picked up the paper but not the bottle.”
“So what is going on?”
“That paper must be important. Come on let’s follow him.”
The keeper went to the keepers’ compound and into the lodge. Adam and Nathan sprinted across and carefully opened the door.
“Thank God you got it,” they heard. “That’ll get the Bull of our back. Pass it over and I’ll email.”
“What’s with all these numbers anyway?”
“We don’t want trouble. Even if someone reads this message they won’t know what it means.”
“Well what does it mean?”
“How the hell should I know? Here, you read the numbers out so I can check I’ve got it right.”
Adam quickly dug into his back-pack, pushed aside the climbing rope and binoculars, and grabbed a pen and notebook. He was just in time to write the numbers down:
“Got it,” said Adam. “Let’s get out of here and crack this code.”
The rest of the day was spent on Adam’s computer. Adam’s mum came to stop them playing games and was so surprised to see them doing maths calculations that she brought them pizza and coke for lunch.
“C’mon,” said Nathan, “or we’ll be late. You got your Lateral Club answers ready?”
Adam held up his notebook, “Sorted.”
Adam answered most of the questions from memory but needed his notes to answer Laura’s question.
“The conker leaf miner moth has only reached as far north as Northamptonshire – it’s not in Yorkshire yet.”
Laura invited further questions and Nathan managed to ask about secret codes so that Adam could pass on everything they had found out.
“This is a great,” said Laura. “I thought it was boring, you know – just a disease or something. I love codes – I’ll crack this tonight.”
“Great,” said Adam.
“Not for you,” said Laura. “If I crack it, your Lateral IQ rating will be pretty low.”
Adam and Nathan walked home through the park.
“Look,” said Nathan, “there are conkers on the ground.”
“Not many,” said Adam. “Let’s watch to see what happens to them.”
“Not from here. We’ll be seen.”
“In the tree-house,” said Adam. “The gang will have gone and I’ve got binoculars.”
The two boys quietly climbed to the empty tree-house. Laura’s garden backed onto the park so it was the perfect lookout. Adam used his binoculars to scan across the park.
“I can see into the keepers’ office. They’re pouring conkers into a box. We should creep up and listen.”
“What if they come out?” said Nathan.
“You be look out. Text me if they move.”
Adam couldn’t hear well enough even with the door open so he crept along the corridor. If the keepers came out they would see him. He reached a corner, lay on the ground and peered around. He could see the keepers’ legs and hear every word.
“The Bull will give us hell if we don’t send it.”
“It’s too late – we’ll have to post it on Monday.”
“Can you do the sweep tonight?”
“Do we need to?”
“Yeah, we still need some large ones.”
“Okay – I’ll do it.”
Adam saw the feet turn towards him. There was no way he could make it out without being caught. Instead, he slid further into the room and under a desk. The keepers passed him and Adam heard the door lock.
Immediately he jumped up and tapped the computer but it needed a password. Adam tried “conkers” with no success.
He thought back on what he’d heard and typed “The Bull” and couldn’t believe it when the computer accepted it.
The screen showed an email. Adam read it and then pressed print. While waiting his mobile phone startled him. He’d forgotten to put it on silent.
It was Nathan – “where r u”.
“Back room” Adam texted.
Nathan replied, “1 man gone, 1 swept conkers on tractor – IS COMING NOW.”
Adam slid under the desk and almost immediately heard the key in the lock. The man placed a box of conkers on the desk. He then switched off the computer without noticing the printed page, picked up his coat and left.
Adam heard the alarm beeping. He was going to be trapped. He grabbed the page from the printer, ran to the back of the building, opened a window and climbed out. He pushed the window closed and sat silent and still, until the beeping stopped and his heart beat slowed down.
“I didn’t think you were going to make it,” said Nathan.
“It was worth it – look, I’ve got the reply,” said Adam.
“But it’s all in code. What’s this mean? 1000163132241749316333312913743290194551729500176863”
“Look at the email address: firstname.lastname@example.org”
They rushed home to Adam’s computer and discovered the Conker World Championships in Northamptonshire started in one week’s time. While reading about the championship an email arrived from Laura.
“She’s cracked it,” said Adam. “Of course – the numbers turn into words when texted on a mobile.”
Nathan used his mobile and the email message became clear:
1000 of each size needed by Friday. Will pay 500 pound.
“That’s it,” exclaimed Adam. “They’re selling our conkers to the Conker World Championship.”
“How do we stop them?” said Nathan.
“We don’t,” said Adam. “We beat them to it and get the money ourselves. It’s time to tell the Lateral Club the whole story and get their help.”
– 34448 –
“But… that’s cheating,” said Laura. “You weren’t really asking a question at all.”
“Sorry,” said Adam. “But this is a real puzzle. Can’t you see? Now you’ve cracked the code we can sell the conkers to the World Championship and get the money.”
“And,” said Nathan, “with five hundred pound we can buy a fridge for the tree house.”
“And a telly.”
“And an Xbox.”
“Okay,” said Laura. “What’s the plan?”
“We need someone to negotiate by email,” said Adam. “Laura – you’ll be best for that. I can get the conkers from the keepers lodge, but how do we collect the rest of the conkers from the trees before Monday.”
“Don’t worry about that,” said Laura. “This is the Lateral Thinkers club. We’ll have a hundred ideas before you’ve even sat down.”
Everyone shouted in agreement and the ideas started.
– 6463 –
Use pogo sticks – too high.
Ladders – too visible.
Long poles – too difficult to control.
Remote control helicopter – wouldn’t work.
Climbing ropes – too slow.
Air rifle – you can’t even hit a bucket.
Vacuum cleaner – no plug socket.
… battery powered – hose too short
… extra hoses – might work – but will it suck enough
… two joined together.
The Lateral Gang spent the rest of the day perfecting their double-barrelled-battery-powered-vacuum-conker-collector while Laura negotiated with the World Conker Championship.
– 836 –
At three o’clock in the morning Adam climbed out of bed fully dressed ready to meet the gang in the park.
Most of them acted as spotters, shining torches into the branches. Adam stretched the telescopic hose and sucked conkers into the pipe. Nathan flicked a lever and the conkers fell to the ground for Laura to grade and count.
“That’s it,” Laura announced. “If you can get that box from the keepers lodge, then we’ve got enough.”
– 353836 –
This was the most dangerous part of the plan, where a mistake could mean serious trouble with the police.
“I’m ready,” said Adam.
Nathan eased open the window and Adam climbed in.
Adam held his breath and moved as slowly as he could – but he wasn’t slow enough. His slight movement set the alarm screaming against the morning silence.
He grabbed the box, ran to the window and poured the conkers out into Nathan’s bag. Adam replaced the box where he’d found it and dived out of the window. Nathan closed the window and started to run away.
“Don’t run,” said Adam, “you’ll look suspicious.”
“But the alarm,” said Nathan.
“We’ve been collecting conkers, the alarm went off, and we came to look.”
Adam led Nathan slowly around the building. A man with two dogs hurried towards them.
“What’s going on?” he said.
“The alarms gone off,” said Adam. “But we can’t see anything.”
“What’s in the bag?” said the man.
“Conkers,” said Adam.
“You’ve a lot there,” said the man.
Adam nodded, Nathan grinned and the man walked his dogs around the lodge looking for trouble.
– 893583 –
“Champions,” shouted the Lateral Gang when Adam and Nathan entered the tree-house.
“Look,” said Laura pointing out the window, “two park-keepers.”
The alarm fell silent. One man came out carrying the now empty box and signalling wildly towards the conker trees. The other man followed him to the nearest tree. They searched around but only found one conker. At the second tree they found nothing. The man threw the box on the floor and gave it a great big kick. The single conker flew out and hit the other man on the nose.
The Lateral Gang laughed.
“We did it – great plan Adam.”
“Yeah,” said Laura. “I’ll order the fridge and xbox as soon as I get the money for the conkers. But Adam, you still need to ask a question before you can join the gang.”
“What?” said Nathan. “You’re joking.”
“It’s okay,” said Adam. “How about this one… there were two men in the park with an empty cardboard box…