Meadows of Fantasy



MR. MARTIN ST. Martin, Member of Parliment for the Thisbury Division, was made a Baron in the New Year's Honors. For reasons of high state the parlimentary writ was applied for immediately, and Thisbury was thus plunged into a winter by-election.

Thisbury itself is a town of small industries, and its population tends to be pretty evenly balanced between Conservative and Labour supporters. The constituency, however, takes in a large rural area to one side of the town, and thus as a whole constitutes a safe Conservative seat. The interest in the election was therefore based not on who would win -- which was a foregone conclusion -- but on how great a majority the Tories would be able to romp home with.

The Thisbury and District Science Fiction Circle included various shades of political opinion. Harry the First sat on the Borough Council as a member of the so-called Municipal Party, by which designation was indicated by the conservatively-minded element of the local citizenry. Harry the Second, on the other hand, was a staunch and voluble Labour supporter. Owen declared that if he'd been old enough to vote he'd have voted Liberal like a shot if there'd been a Liberal candidate -- which there wasn't. Dave, who was old enough but lived at Upside Down which was in the next constituency, tended to distrust the Conservatives on principle but admitted that their practice was usually better than their principles. Cynthia, who was in any case far too young to have the vote, held somewhat similar ideas in a more extreme form and maintained that the whole thing was a farce -- it wouldn't matter which party won. And Mine, who both had the vote and had it in the right constituency, couldn't care less on the grounds that her heart was now in Much Wenlock and her body would be following before many months.

It was Tom who dropped the bombshell -- nice gentle Tom, whom unfortunately they seldom saw nowadays. He wandered along every now and again, however, when he could get away -- there was somebody aboard the Turtle most nights, and he needed the refreshing company. He clambered gingerly down the ladder, found a sextet in occupation, was welcomed aboard, and grabbed a chair.

"D'you know who's been picked for the Conversative candidate?" he asked them when he was comfortable.

Everybody admitted ignorance.

"Arnold Horton."

This was received in silence. Then...

"Who's Arnold Horton?" Owen voiced the thoughts of the company.

"You know -- the scoutmaster."

Pandemonium broke loose at this. "You mean him?" -- "That Horton?" -- "Our Mr. Horton?" -- "Didn't know he had a Christian name." -- "Never!" -- "Tom, you're kidding!"

"I am not kidding," Tom assured them. "That's what I thought, too, when I heard. No, it's the truth all right. So it looks as if we'll have a bit of influence in high places from now on."

"But fancy," said Dave. "Him of all people. Oh, he's harmless, and well-meaning, and..."

"And a nincompoop," Cynthia finished for him. "How bloody ridiculous can you get -- I ask you? He won't understand the first thing..."

"Our Cynth sounds worried," said Owen. "I thought you said it was all a farce anyway, Cynth."

"Oh, that. But this is worse than a farce -- sort of like a farce within a farce." She spoke forcefully. "What party they belong to doesn't matter a damn -- but at least they can look as if they know the difference between a -- a foreign policy and a duck-billed platypus." Bert seemed to be about to make a pun, but (for once in a way) thought better of it. "Damn it -- he might give the order that starts the third world war."

Mine had not, so far, contributed anything to the conversation. Now she took the opportunity to put her spoke in.

"I very much doubt it," she said quietly. "I can see him in Parliament all right -- but only on the back benches. They need back benchers as well as front benchers, you know -- and he's almost the ideal type when you come to consider. He's got the right accent, and harbours the right well-bred sympathies, and knows how to take orders..." -- here she glanced at Dave for a moment -- "...and can be relied on either to parrot off the right responses or dry up and let someone else come to the rescue. Admittedly, any of my kids would be more of an asset to the country..."

"Oh, what's the use arguing?" put in Cynthia again. "It makes me sick, that's all, just to think of it. That nincompoop..."

"Anybody know what the Labour bloke's like?" Dave asked.

"An estate-agent," said Ian.

"Accountant," Tom corrected. "Keen and young and if he does well here they'll let him try somewhere else next time. Perhaps."

"They should've had a woman," said Ian. "At least that'd have given us something to look at."

Mine shook her head. "If they ever find a woman they think is a suitable candidate," she explained, "they hang on to her carefully and run her where she has some chance of getting in. Otherwise there'd be no women M.P.s at all."

"Somewhere like Much Wenlock, for instance?" Owen suggested.

Mine blushed scarlet, then laughed. "Much Wenlock isn't a constituency," she told them. "It's in The Wrekin. And it has a man M.P., anyway."

"I wrekin Mine's been investigating the locality," said Bert.

"That pun," Dave rejoined, "is positively wrekin."

"Let's talk about something cheerful," said Owen. "Are we getting a block booking for the front row at the Woodlice?"

The Woodlice were of course one of the best-known segments of Merseyside's contribution to the national entertainment scene. It transpired that one of the quartet, hight Stan Oliver, had been born not on Merseyside but in Thisbury, his parents having moved to Liverpool when he was nine (or possibly eleven -- accounts differed). So, although Thisbury had no hall anywhere near the break-even size for a top hit group, it had been deemed good publicity to arrange a concert in Stan's old home-town. The Town Hall had been booked, and the youth of Thisbury and district had queued all night for tickets. Needless to say, there were now no singles to be had -- let alone block bookings.

Ian shuddered expressively. "Better death," he intoned.

"Oh, they're not all that bad," said Cynthia. "Quite fun as these things go. At least they're alive -- which is more than can be said for Sinatra and those."

This was deliberately intended to needle Ian, which was duly the case. "There's more life in Sinatra," he informed her, "that in both of us put together."

"Oh," said Cynthia disinterestedly. "We'll have to try it some time and see."

"They're better than the Beatles, anyway," said Bert.

"Only because they have crew-cuts," said Owen. "So they can actually see their instruments when they play."

"Only one of them can even read music," Ian argued. "And that's the drummer."

"Yes," said Owen with a wicked grin. "They tell me he plays the drums trumpet style -- like Louis Armstrong."

After which they talked mildly about sex for an hour or so.


Worse was to follow, however. After the Woodlice concert had been sold out weeks in advance, it was discovered that it was timed for the eve-of-poll night -- and both candidates wanted the Town Hall of their final meetings. If there had been any question of any one other building in Thisbury being of sufficient size, the concert would probably have been cancelled. However, inasmuch as only one party at a time would have been able to use the Town Hall in any case, the concert gave the Town Clerk a valid excuse to avoid having to decide between rival political claimants whose applications arrived virtually simultaneously. So the concert was On, and the politicians were out in the cold -- literally. Both candidates protested loudly and volubly, not to mention at considerable length, until somebody pointed out to them that their exasperation was giving them an anti-pop-music image that would probably cost them both a good slice of the early-twenties vote. So with a bad grace they settled for the inevitable and arranged to hold their rallies in the open air -- the Labour Party in the Square, the Conservaties on Galley Meadows.

There was less than a week to go before polling day when Owen, still handsomely bearded, climbed down into a nice warm Turtle to find Cynthia holding forth to an audience of Ian, Russ Harbottle and his Jean, and Geoff McNab. She looked up. "Come and hear the latest," she invited.

"What latest?"

"About Arnold." Since they'd realised that Mr. Horton had a given name, Thisbury fandom had unanimously begun to call him by it -- strictly behind his back, of course.

"What's he done this time?"

"Oh -- he was only going to have the Sea Scouts operating a hot dog stall at the Tory rally next Wednesday."

"Well -- that's a legitimate way of earning themselves a bit of the necessary, surely? Like their bob-a-jobbery lark."

"And having the Labour parents withdrawing their sons from membership en masse? It's annoyed a parent or two finding that Arnold's a Tory anyway."

"Well, what's to prevent them having two stands -- one at each rally?"

"Only the little matter of Arnold's reluctance to help warm the bellies of the other mob. Anyway, he's been sat on, and the Scouts aren't getting their feet wet at all."

"And so the noble and merciful task of providing succour to frosted supporters is to be left to crass commercial interests, is it?"

"Private enterprise," said Geoff. "Tories are all for it. Haven't you ever noticed?"

Owen had hold of the germ of an idea, though. "Where were the Scouts going to get the stall from?" he asked.

"They've already got it," said Cynthia. "Part of their camp equipment. They eat them at night while singing clean songs round the old camp fire."

"D'you think they'd let us borrow it?"

Cynthia stared at him. "Are you suggesting that we should soil our splendid souls by flogging hot dogs to chilled Conservatives?" she demanded. "Because if you are, it's the best idea I've heard since the seat became vacant. We could pay rent for it, too -- they wouldn't have to know officially why we wanted it."

"Would Arnold allow it?" Russ Harbottle put in.

"So long as we promised to keep it in the Meadows I think he'd jump at it," said Cynthia. "Anyway, it's only a sort of large open put over a burner. If it's no sale next door, we shouldn't have any trouble in laying one on from somewhere. And since we're right on the spot to start with, we've got a perfect pitch. We can't lose."

Dave, when he heard the plan, was not so enthusiastic. Whilst an election's a necessary evil, he grumbled, there was no point in encouraging them to make a habit of it. Even Mine's more humane instincts were not such as to prompt her to spend an evening standing around in the open at that time of year for no better reason than a political pep-talk she couldn't even listen to. "What you mean," Cynthia informed her point-blank," is that you're beginning to feel your age. The lot of you. Talk about life beginning at forty -- in Thisbury it stops at twenty." She grinned engagingly to take the sting out of her taunt. "But it's true, Mine. It's only the younger element that's keeping us going. If you old 'uns can't handle it, we will."

"With the youngest of all in full command, eh?" said Dave. "Ultimogeniture comes into its own at last."

"Ultimogeniture with the light brown hair," warbled Bert Duckbarrow. So with one accord the two girls joined forces to take what they considered to be appropriate action. Owen grinned at the others.

"I guess Mine's still young at heart after all," he stage-whispered.


Even so, it was only those who were indisputably young in body who chose to participate in the hot-dog kitchen. And not even all of those -- Ian wasn't interested, and Jean was going to the concert with a party of girls. But Cynthia managed to muster a trio of male assistants to stand beside her -- Owen, Geoff, and Russ Harbottle. The not-quite-so-young element had at least raised no objection to the Circle's treasure-chest being invested in hire of a plant and purchase of raw materials, and everything was assembled in good time. The weather was ideal -- there was snow on the ground and ice on the water, but virtually no wind, and the stars sparkled brilliantly in a clear black sky. The meeting had been set up for the landward side of the Meadows, and a battery of floodlights illuminated the site. The hot-dog kitchen -- a large open pot on a glowing brazier, the whole barricaded by three benches -- was erected on the back right at the head of the Turtle's gangway. There was, it had been decided, no need to advertise the project in any way either before or during the event -- the brazier's friendly glow coupled with subsequent word-of-mouth should soon start bringing in the custom in satisfactory quantity.

Cynthia removed her mittened hands from her duffle-coat pockets in order to spread them sensuously before the blaze.

"There is a terrible famine in Detheim," she improvised. "The Grand Duchess Peracynth has ordered Wenmo, her palace steward, to throw open the grand ducal kitchens to the populace." She spoke in the third person, as had become customary when they operated in the floating world.

"What about these two?" asked Owen (alias Wenmo above-mentioned). "They're not in it."

"We are now and away," said Geoff. "Nab MacGeoff, soldier of fortune, liable to turn up in anybody's country without warning."

"What was it Mine called me?" Russ reflected. "Bottle-nose the Hard, the notorious international spy and cattle-thief -- at your service, your Gross Grace."

"The famine was probably caused by his depredations in the first place," said Owen.

"But I -- I mean he -- has unconditionally donated ten per cent of his haul to his noble light-o'love in order that her subjects may not starve."

"Do you mind?" put in Cynthia abruptly. "What's all this 'light-o'love' business?"

"Well, dark-o'love then. They still nourish an uncontrollable passion for each other, although they are unable to marry owing to too marked a discrepancy in their ancestry. Also of course, Jean wouldn't let me -- him."

"Not accepted," Cynthia ruled (as was her right), this correcting the record on that particular matter.

"How does Jean come into this?" Geoff asked.

"She gets the other ninety per cent of the takings, of course."

"And all that Nab MacGeoff gets out of it," remarked his alter ego, "is the knowledge that he is serving his fellow-mortals as best he may. That and a brief tumble with a stray serving-wench behind the corn-bins, of course."

"The palace serving-wenches are entirely at his disposal," Cynthia announced graciously. "One or two of them may cast roguish eyes on Bottle-face..."

"Bottle-nose, please."

"Correction accepted. But fearing the wrath of the maiden Jean, currently occupied elsewhere in combating arthropodic infestation with her powerful magic, he turns his eyes virtuously away."

"He seeks audience with her Grand Duchesty."

"Audience granted -- he may kiss the hem of the Grand Duchess's gown while he prostrates himself."

"Look out," said Owen. "Customers."

"Fuzz," said Geoff as a couple of helmeted figures loomed up in the starlight. "Oh-oh -- bet there's a by-law against flogging hot dogs after six o'clock or something."

The police greeted them affably enough, though. "This is your boat?" the spokesman asked, which they freely admitted. Then; "How long have you been here this evening?"

"I"ve been here the better part of two hours," Owen told them.

"Been outside all that time?"

"No -- one of us has been at the brazier continuously for about three quarters of an hour."

"You haven't noticed anybody you didn't know in the vicinity of any of the boats, I suppose?"

They hadn't -- nor, come to that, anybody they did know. There was nobody aboard the Turtle now, and Cynthia thought that one or another of them had looked in every compartment aboard.

"Who are you looking for?" asked Owen.

"Geordie Watts -- late of Dartmoor. He's been seen in Thisbury this afternoon."

Just to be on the safe side, Owen showed the two constables over the Turtle, then, since under a long-standing arrangement for mutual protection they had a key to the Sea Scouts' barge, he showed them over that as well. There was nobody at home, by invitation or otherwise, on either vessel. The police spokesman thanked Owen as they moved on to look over the next boat. "If you should happen to see anything suspicious, there's a sergeant over by the platform," was his parting message.

Owen rejoined his confederates, who by now had made the first sales of the evening.

"What's Watts doing in Thisbury, anyway?" asked Russ through a mouthful of perks.

"Supposed to be on his way to Glasgow," Owen retailed. "He comes from there."

"I thought he was a Geordie," said Cynthia as she slopped mustard on the finished product. "Ninepence, please. Thank you. So why Glasgow?"

"He is a Geordie -- but not the Tyneside variety."

"I didn't know there was any other variety."

"Any Scot will answer to Geordie if his name's George."

"Oh, damn," said Geoff. "And me a hundred per cent quarter-breed Scotsman."

"Shut up and pass some more rolls," said Cynthia.

For a while the quartet concentrated on the trade. Then: "Look who's here," said Owen as Harry the Second materialised in front of the stall. "Ninepence each, Harry. Or seeing as how you're a friend, sixpence."

"Whatever are you doing here, anyway?" Cynthia asked.

"Heckling. What else? I'll have three please -- and I'll pay for two of them. The other's for me."

"If you have three you'll pay for three -- unless you care to come backstage and help us instead."

"Oh all right then. Sorry, mates -- no time to stop and talk." So he was served, paid his money, and was away back to the meeting.

Both trade and politics were now distinctly brisk. There seemed to be a reciprocal relationship, though. It went in waves -- a few minutes of relative quiet on the political front brought the customers swarming like flies, for them to fall away again as the meeting livened up. All of a sudden things became really noisy -- and the entire queue melted away almost like magic.

"That's our Harry," said Owen. "Taking all the trade away from us again. I've half a mind to put in a supplementary bill for the extra three threepences."

"Excuse me, boys..."

Everybody turned to face the newcomer. This was a woman, fortyish and somewhat frail, who lived in a houseboat a short distance along the bank -- they knew her as Miss Stokes.

"Ninepence each, Miss Stokes," said Owen cheerfully. "Or eightpence for a resident."

"No -- it's not that," said Miss Stokes -- who sounded a trifle out of breath. "I -- I think there's somebody on my boat."

They looked at one another again for an instant. "Ge..." said somebody. "Wa..." said somebody else -- but neither of them completed the word. "There shouldn't be," Owen told the woman. "There were a couple of policemen looking all along the bank just before the meeting got going."

"I think there must be. The latch seems to be broken."

Owen put down the tongs.

"Let's go and look, lads."

"What about the..." Geoff began.

"Never get through the crush," Owen pronounced. "Hang on to the stall, Cynth. Come on..."

"I'm coming too," said Cynthia, stuffing half a hot dog into her mouth as she spoke.

"No you're not," said Russ cruelly. "Get back to your woman's work."

"You master-minded the stall," Geoff pointed out. "We'll only be a mo."

Cynthia almost followed them as it was -- only the thought that three would be as much use as four dissuaded her. Russ's crack hurt. She was, she considered, every bit as much use in a scrap as a boy of her age. This was an exaggeration -- muscle for muscle, the average boy should be her master. On the other hand, an opponent would tend to make undue allowances for her sex, also perhaps let her get away with tricks he wouldn't take from another male -- thereby giving her an advantage that the others wouldn't have. On balance, then, her estimate of her prowess was probably not far from wrong -- though not for quite the reasons she supposed. So she stood fuming over the boiling sausage-pot while her three confederates advanced stealthily on Miss Stoke's uninvited guests.

The latch was indeed broken, and the door swung inwards into the hatchway. Below, all was pitch darkness. Owen stood poised at the top of the steps.

"Who's in there?" he called.

The three youths -- Miss Stokes had remained at a safe distance -- heard the sound of a sharply-drawn breath. Nothing else.

"Come on -- we know you're down there. And you're on the wrong boat."


"Anybody got the torch?" asked Owen.

"Here," said Russ. "Shall I put it on?"

"No. Be ready when I say though. You down there -- come on out."

There was a stirring now, the sound of movement. Owen drew back imperceptively from the edge. Then something creaked. And again. The intruder was coming up.

"Now, Russ," Owen hissed. The beam of light stabbed out into the darkness, to reveal a close-cropped head over a wild and unshaven visage. The visage hesitated where it stood.

Owen's gaze dropped momentarily from the scene illuminated by the flashlight. His hand, gloved in undressed sheepskin, wandered along the railing at the edge of the gangway. He thought so -- barbed wire. He gave an experimental tug, then another -- the single strand came away easily. The wire continued along the railing of the boat itself, and when the further end came away he had a useful length of some eight or ten feet in his hand. He returned to the main focus of attention, which had stayed in obliging tableau the while.

"OK," he snapped. "Come up."

The visitor came up. Momentarily Owen stood facing him. Owen was the shorter of the two, he noticed, by a good head. The flashlight beam never wavered. Behind Owen, Geoff and Russ stood side by side across the gangway.

"Put your hands behind you," snapped Owen again. "Behind you I said." He was sure it was the elusive Geordie Watts, as in fact indeed it was. "Right -- now turn around and don't move. If he moves, Geoff, you know what to do to his head." Geoff didn't -- nor had he anything to do with it. Still, it sounded good. And it worked. Meekly, his hands behind his back, the uninvited guest swivelled round and stood there. "Cross your wrists." He obeyed. In a trice Owen had whipped one end of the wire round both wrists at once, round again, and given the ends a sharp twist to hold them. "There. If you don't struggle it won't hurt you." Briskly he stooped, slipped the other end between the man's legs. This was the most dangerous part. But if the man had intended to make use of his feet while he still had them to himself, it was too late. Owen gave the wire another couple of twists, then stood up.

"So far so good," he commented. "What do we do next?"

"Take him back to the camp-fire," suggested somebody. "Then the lady can have her boat back."

"Good idea." Owen took a firm grip on the trailing end of the wire. "Can you hop? Well hop then."

His prisoner hopped.

The meeting was still showing good form, and the hot dog stand was deserted except for Cynthia when the three youths returned with their haul.

"Should we take him to the sergeant, or bring the sergeant to him?" Owen wondered.

"Right now," Cynthia appraised the situation, "we can hardly do either. Can't we get him into town somehow and deliver him ourselves?"

"How?" asked Geoff.

"Harry's van of course," Owen exclaimed. "It'll be out there somewhere -- and I can sort of drive it."

"How do we get in it?" Geoff then wanted to know.

Owen rattled his key-chain. "With keys of course. We're an organised club, Geoff. Keys for everything -- within reason."

"We'll never be able to get near the cop-shop while the Labour meeting's going on," Russ pointed out. "Tonight the lawbreakers walk with impunity."

"Pity we can't deliver him to the Town Hall while we're about it," Owen mused. "He'd look geer on stage with the Woodlice."

Cynthia let out her breath sharply.

"But we can!"

"Never get in. All the police that aren't on duty at the rallies will be barricading all exits."

"We can get in through the Institute for Further Education though."

"And how," demanded Russ, "is one supposed to get into the Institute for Further Education?"

"Just walk in, silly. It's open every night -- that's what it's for."

Her enthusiasm took hold of the others. Objections were brushed aside like ninepins. They had -- they hoped -- transport. The Institute entrance should not be blocked by the rally. Cynthia swore she knew the way. And if it could be done, it would be a giggle. Owen momentarily took the reins again.

"I'll go and find the van," he told them. "Meet you at the end gate. Er -- who's going to mind the stall though?"

"Cynth?" suggested Geoff half-heartedly -- he didn't want it to be himself.

"I know the way though," Cynthia pointed out. "Owen's got to drive. What about Russ though? He seems to know a lot about woman's work..."

"Touché, Russ," Owen grinned. "I'm off. See you in five minutes."


Geoff and Cynthia threaded their arms through those of their captive, and half-carried him as he hopped his way across the Meadows. He was shivering, Cynthia noticed, and it occurred to her that had he been reasonably warm and better-nourished than he apparently now was, his resistance to capture and subsequent transportation would probably have been considerably stiffer -- even, possibly, successful. She felt a pang of compassion for him -- after all, she didn't even know what he was in prison for in the first place. However, she consoled hrself that it was probably something violent and anti-social, and in any case he would shortly be warmed and fed by the local constabulary. There was nobody about in the vicinity of the end gate, although several cars were parked nearby. Then with a grind of low gears Harry's van drew up alongside them. Cynthia gave Owen a "thumbs-up" sign as the latter threw open the rear door, and they hoisted their captive unceremoniously into the back, face down, clambering in to crouch beside him. Geoff knocked on the panel, and the vehicle ground back into movement again.

The prisoner attempted to lean up on one elbow, a difficult manoeuvre that was probably nullified as the van cornered abruptly. It was not going fast, by any means -- Owen never took the gear-level above second -- but the road was slippery and the corners sharp. The prisoner slewed his face round first to one side, then to the other.

"Wheer're ye tekkin' me?" he asked, facing towards Geoff. It was the first time he had spoken.

"Never you mind," Geoff told him -- not unkindly. "We're nearly there, I think, anyway."

The van cornered again, then swung round a gentle crescent. For a moment the blare of a loudspeaker could be heard -- that'd be the Labour meeting in the Square. Then they drew up with a sudden jerk that knocked both Cynthia and Geoff off their balance, and the motor cut out. Owen dashed round and opened the rear door again. There was a dust-sheet or something hanging over one of the slats.

"Let's cover him with that," he suggested. "Then we can carry him between us."

Cynthia suppressed agiggle as she took hold of the lower end of the sheet-draped form. Then, Owen in front of her on the same side and Geoff opposite to them in the middle, they hoisted. It was clumsy, but functional. The outer doors of the Institute gaped wide. They shouldered their way through the inner swinging doors, and then, scarved and balaclava'd to a useful anonymity, they were safely within the building.

Nobody seemed to be about. "Look," said Cynthia. "Anybody challenges us, we put him down and run. We've rendered him harmless anyway. OK?" The others grunted assent. "To the left, Owen -- down that long corridor." And they moved off again. A lecturer in full cry could be clearly heard as they passed one of the classrooms. Cynthia distinctly heard the word "Quantitativistic", and wondered briefly whether it actually meant anything, never mind what. "Round the corner," she directed. "There, Owen -- that door, with the green baize."

They key was in the lock, and Owen turned it with his gloved fingers, pulling the door towards them. All at once the sounds of a beat group became discernable, with audience-noises not very far in the background. Cynthia strethced out a hand to pull the door to again, and the party found itself in another long corridor.

"Which way's the stage end?" Owen whispered -- albeit there was no need for whispers under the circumstances.

"Left again -- I think." They set off to the left. Another corridor joined theirs, and the roar from the auditorium was suddenly let loose at full throttle. "Carry on," said Cynthia as they momentarily halted. They carried on. And suddenly there in front of them were the heavy drapes screening the stage from the wings. The heavily-amplified poundings and plunkings of the Woodlice overbore the audience noises. Cynthia automatically lowered their burden's feet to the ground, the other two accepting this as their cue to push him upright. Cynthia peeped through the curtains, then turned back with a wild and exultant grin.

"Perfect!" she enthused. "Let's push him through."

She seized one elbow and Owen the other, while Geoff hovered behind to help if needed. He wasn't. Their prisoner seemd to be entirely bemused by the turn events had taken, and made no resistance as they propelled him through the curtains. "Go on," Cynthia urged him in a penetrating whisper. "Forward." Her two comrades-in-arms squeezed against her, looking for eyeholes. The captive stood there in full view of half the audience. One by one the instruments faltered and cut out as their drivers became cognisant of the interruption. For one short moment the noise of the audience fell away to utter silence, to break out again a moment later on a note of bewilderment.

"Come on," said Owen, and the three of them turned and pelted back the way they'd come.

Again, there was nobody to challenge them. Owen locked the green baize door behind him again, and followed his friends down the Institute corridor. Round the corner -- through the swing doors again, and there was the van parked where they'd left it. Cynthia pulled on the handle of the passenger's door, but it was locked so she scrambled into the back again with Geoff and the dust-sheet. Owen switched on and with a grinding of gears they were away on the return journey. Very little was said, because they were out of breath. And in -- it seemed -- next to no time the van had drawn up again and Owen's face appeared at the hatchway.

"Back to the banger-shop," he told them. "I'll follow when I've parked properly."

The conservative meeting still sounded healthy and lively as Cynthia and Geoff slipped breathlessly back into the stall. "What happened?" demanded Russ. "Where's Owen? What...?" The other two collapsed helplessly on one of the benches, supporting each other. Geoff did manage to get through the message that everything ahd gone perfectly, then they clammed up at som more custom approached. All of a sudden there was a noticeable stir in the crowd, which seemed to be splitting apart. Then a party could be seen approaching at a run. Owen bobbed up just in time to meet the police sergeant, with Mr. Horton and several other eager-eyed helpers. Then they were surrounded. "What happened?" (echoing Russ). "Where is he? What did..."

"He got away," Owen told them succinctly. "Over there somewhere. We lost him." There was a rustle as of wings, and the eager-eyed ones were gone again.

"Oh, help!" exclaimed Cynthia weakly. "We have -- been constructive! Just imagine what it would have been like if Arnold had caught the man -- just on the eve of election!"

"So what?" returned Owen. "He'd still have got in."


Precisely how much of the story the police succeeded in learning has never been publicly revealed -- though since Geordie Watts was capable of talking, it had been surmised that there wasn't much that they didn't soon get to know. Be that as it may, the precise means whereby the said Geordie Watts suddenly materialised on the Town Hall stage in the middle of the Woodlice concert never reached the Press -- nor were any of those involved ever invited to account for their activities. Which on the whole was just as well, because certainly the latter part of those activities was somewhat lacking in mature level-headedness -- to say the least. As Dave said afterwards, surely there must be some crime or other involved in what they'd done, even if therew as the undoubted fact of their having captured a wanted man to be offset against it.

And even Cynthia had to admit that it could come in handy to be well in with one's M.P.

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