Sergeant Hanks of the Metropolitan Police and second in command of the Special Borrible Group sat on a chair outside the office of the District Assistant Commissioner and picked his nose in a state of unalloyed rapture. He had excavated very successfully for ten minutes in the left nostril and he was now delving in the right one. As the curved nail of his index finger dug into something soft and spongy his eyes closed with the joy of an exquisite physical pleasure, and when, at last, the moist and luxuriant bogey was pulled reluctantly away from its tenacious root and coaxed out into the light, Hanks just half opened a single eye and examined his trophy with a close and professional interest.
'Hmm,' he said, 'first class that one, looks like a well-fed whelk.' And he stuck it under his chair and crossed his fat ankles in utter contentment. This was the life.
Inside the office, Sergeant Hanks's superior, Inspector Sussworth, was not enjoying himself. Quite the contrary. He was standing to attention before a large leather-topped desk, his lips tightly clenched and his postage stamp of a moustache humming with indignation. Sussworth was in serious trouble and the District Assistant Commissioner was making sure that he knew it.
'It's not good enough,' said the DAC, 'just not good enough. Two months ago I was assured that you had these Borribles all cooped up in Wandsworth. No way out, eh? That's what you said. And the horse, eh? Where are they now?'
Inspector Sussworth opened his mouth to answer but shut it again immediately as the DAC held up his hand for silence.
'Escaped, that's what, escaped.' The DAC's voice was pointed and half-transparent, like shards of bone china. He was elegantly turned out in a well-cut suit of dark grey and a shirt that was as crisp as newly fallen snow. His tie indicated, discreetly, that he had once been connected with an exclusive regiment, and his shoes shone so brilliantly that it was impossible to tell what colour they were.
He examined one of those shoes for a second, on the end of a stiffly straight leg, and, satisfied with the sheen, he got to his feet, rising easily from his swivel chair. 'You see, Sussworth,' he continued, 'I gave you the command of the finest body of men to be found in any police force in the world, in the world mark you, and all you have managed to achieve is a spectacular failure.' The DAC snorted and began to pace the olive-green carpet that covered the wide expanses of his office floor.
Sussworth gazed out of the window and down on to the jumbled skyline of London. It was wet out there, and cold. It had stopped raining but only so that it could start again presently. Only midway through the afternoon and the office lights were already gleaming across the dark from a thousand windows in a hundred skyscrapers.
Sussworth sighed. London was his patch, all of it. He sighed again. It was the Borribles' patch too; the whole town was lousy with them. At that very moment Borribles were out on the streets stealing stuff like nobody's business; and if they weren't stealing they were idling and lounging about in empty houses; activities that Sussworth had sworn to stop.
The DAC returned from his stroll and stood once again behind the desk, facing the inspector. He was tall and languid, the DAC, and his face was well bred and haughty and pink, like a judge's in a wig. He sighed too, deeply, as if exhausted by being alive; the road of his life had been strewn with fools.
'All you have done, Sussworth,' he said, 'is to smash up some Transit vans on Eel Brook Common, get some twenty of your men injured and invalided out of the force, and then allowed these Borrible ringleaders to escape.' He raised his hand as Sussworth took a breath. '"Safe and sound, sir," you said. "Safe and sound in Wandsworth. They can't get away." Can't get away, eh? Not only did they get away but they got away with a horse. Dash it all man, a horse! It escapedfrom your own police station. Why, you were the laughin' stock of everyone'.
Sussworth fidgeted on his feet but made no attempt to answer.
'I admit,' went on the DAC, setting off on another stroll, 'that you've captured a few Borribles and clipped their ears, but you couldn't call them important, they aren't the chaps we want. Concentrate on the ringleaders.'
Sussworth twitched his neck. He could not bear to stand still for so long. He needed to be on the go; stamping, turning, marching.
'Don't you realize, Sussworth, that the more you let these Borribles get away with things the more they undermine society? We can't allow it. It is our responsibility to see that society stays where it is. We can't have Borribles doin' what they like, livin' as they like, goin' where they like. You must find this gang of Borribles and eliminate them. Above all you must find their horse, which seems to act as some kind of mascot, and you will turn it into catsmeat. If you fail, Sussworth, then I'm afraid I shall be obliged to hand your job over to Chief Superintendent Birdlime of C Division. He's an up and comin' chap, you know, and as keen as mustard.'
Sussworth was allowed to speak at last: 'I've tried everything sir, but London's such a huge place. It is not plain sailing to apprehend these malcontents.'
The DAC gave Sussworth a pitying smile from the fireplace, where he had propped himself at an angle against the wall. 'My dear Sussworth,' he said, 'it is your duty to apprehend them, and once apprehended to make sure they have no chance to get away again. If the old methods are not successful you must try new methods; you must be crafty, sly and even evil if necessary. Do you think that Caesar and Alexander got to the top by playing the white man? Think, Sussworth, think. You must infiltrate Borrible culture; you need a fifth column, spies, traitors. Do anythin' to achieve your end ... but don't tell me about it. Inform me of your success, but not how you do it.'
Sussworth's moustache began to twitch in anger but he restrained himself. He nodded vigorously. 'Yes sir, infiltrate, bribe, corrupt. Yes sir.'
The DAC ambled back to his seat and lowered his body into it. He placed his elbows on the desk and laced the fingers of his right handwith those of his left. 'Don't you realize, Sussworth, that life is a game of snakes and ladders? If we are successful, you and I, there is promotion in this. We would both be up the ladder. I could be Commissioner this time next year and you ... Well, for a man of your energy and intelligence, the sky's the limit, the sky.'
The DAC smiled wisely and rotated his chair at a leisurely speed so that he could look out through the plate glass of his window. The storm clouds, heavy with rain, had lowered themselves down to a dim horizon, and the endless confusion of London roofs and buildings was fading into one dull tone of dark blue.
The DAC stretched his arms. 'Winter's comin',' he said as if the statement were philosophy, 'and that can only help. Not so many people on the streets; the Borribles will be easier to spot. It's up to you, Sussworth, complete annihilation of this criminal band of Borribles, nothing else will satisfy me. Don't let me hear anythin' but good news, do you follow? Eh? Or it will be bad news for you. Birdlime is waitin', Birdlime is waitin'.'
'Yes sir,' said Sussworth. 'Of course, sir.' He stood hesitant, not knowing if he had been dismissed or not. He waited for the DAC to swivel round from the window, but the DAC remained gazing into the darkening panorama spread out below him, watching the lights shine ever brighter.
Sussworth decided to leave. His moustache twitched and twirled, and he saluted and turned in one nervous movement and marched quickly over the carpet towards the polished oak door of the office. He opened it and passed through, closing it reverentially behind him, the muscles of his face rigid with hate.
Inspector Sussworth seized his hands behind his back and strutted between the door and the window of his office like Admiral Nelson on his quarterdeck. Sergeant Hanks had hooked his large and wobbly buttocks on the desk, folded his arms over his egg-stained tunic and was cocking his fleshy ears to scoop up every word his superior was about to utter. Both men were in the SBG headquarters, Micklethwaite. Road, Fulham.
'That was a high-powered conference at Scotland Yard,' Sussworth said, 'very high-powered.'
Hanks loosened his fat lips and smiled blankly. At the same time hepushed his hand into a coat pocket and drew out a bar of chocolate. 'I'm glad to hear it, sir,' he said. 'Care for some fruit and nut?'
Sussworth waved his hand impatiently and spun on his heel through a hundred and eighty degrees, about ninety degrees more than he had intended, and was somewhat surprised to find himself facing the window overlooking the street. 'There is more to life than fruit and nut,' he said, his voice sombre. 'We have problems, Hanks, vast problems.'
Hanks looked at the inspector's back and shoved half the chocolate into his mouth, salivating so freely that the moisture dribbled down his chin. It was a brown colour flecked with chewed raisins.
'The DAC and I,' continued the inspector, 'have decided that the situation, re the Borribles, is critical and chronic. A new initiative must be implemented. We are going to concentrate our efforts on the main criminal gang, the gang from Eel Brook Common. Those ragamuffins must be apprehended and their ears clipped without delay. Their hideouts must be demolished. They've got to be made to behave like everyone else, earn money like everyone else and grow up like everyone else. Society is our responsibility, Hanks.'
'It is indeed, sir,' agreed Hanks, masticating slowly, lips smacking.
'There is a slackness in the ranks, Hanks. Both the DAC and I had a long discussion about this. The Borribles are undermining the pillars of society and when that happens those pillars topple. Freedom leads to anarchy. They must conform to law and order.'
'They must conform indeed,' said Hanks. He lifted his weight from the desk and waded to a food cabinet which stood just outside the door of the office. He opened this cupboard and, taking out a roll, he cut it in half, buttered it and then spread it with thick honey.
'I likes this stuff,' he announced, and squeezed the roll between his teeth so that the honey oozed over his chin and on to his tunic.
Sussworth ignored the remark and performed a reverse turn quickstep across the room and around the desk. He sat down and then got up again immediately as if he had sat in something wet and nasty. His expression hardened and his moustache twitched from side to side, matching the movements of his feet.
'The men will have to be reprimanded,' he said, 'and then retrained. We have to get those Borribles and above all that horse. This is a crisis. We must think of something new: bribery, corruption.'
'That's not new, sir.'
'There's promotion in the offing, Hanks. You will become an inspector; I shall rise to DAC and the DAC will get a knighthood. Imagine the glory, Hanks. Knighthoods. Sir Sergeant Hanks. Lord Sussworth of Fulham. The mind boggles.'
'Boggles,' said Hanks.
Sussworth raised a hand to his forehead and fell into his chair. 'This is our last chance. If we fail we will be demoted to the ranks and Birdlime will be in. We have to think of some means of penetrating the Borrible infrastructure.'
'What we need is someone on the inside,' said Hanks. 'That's what we need.'
Sussworth got out of his chair again, stamped both feet at once and strode to the window. His hands, still behind his back, made a determined attempt to strangle one another. 'Precisely,' he said, and emotion steamed out of his ears like there were two kettles boiling in his head.
Hanks stood in the middle of the room, lifted a finger to his nose and screwed it into a nostril just as far as it would go, about the second knuckle. 'What we want,' he said, 'is a regiment of bloody dwarfs.'
Silence slid down over the room like a tipper-truck load of wet cement. Sussworth suddenly crouched and turned from the window very slowly, inch by inch, pointing a rigid finger at his subordinate who continued to stand, all innocent, grappling with a bogey. Sussworth laughed the laugh of contentment.
'Ha! Hanks, ha! I have just had the most brilliant idea.' Sussworth advanced towards his sergeant, still crouching and still pointing. 'Did you know I was top of my year at Hendon Police College? My brain is a computer that never stops computing, taking in information and storing it until the day when, compressed by the white heat of necessity ... You Reeker! Out comes the desired answer. In other words, what we need is a regiment of dwarfs.'
A look of puzzlement wandered over Hanks's face and he removed the finger from his nose without even looking at it. 'I just said that,' he said. He took a teapot from the cupboard and ladled some tea into it. 'I could have sworn I said that.'
Sussworth straightened his back and dropped his pointing arm. He jigged around to the rear of the desk and sat down. 'Don't be foolish, Hanks,' he said. 'I do not want to see you change the habits of a lifetime, habits that have stood you in good stead. Your job is not inception but implementation.'
'Oh,' said Hanks, and he flicked on the switch that controlled the electric kettle.
'That's why I am in my position and you are in yours, Sergeant,' said Sussworth as prim as a parson. 'Now listen to me. We shall place advertisements, discreetly, in the newspapers, especially the trade papers--The Stage, The Circus and Sideshow, Fun-Fair Weekly--all of them, offering employment to young adult midgets and dwarfs. Got that, Hanks? We only want the young-looking ones.'
Hanks unplugged the boiling kettle and poured its contents into the teapot.
'We want midgets from all walks of life,' said Sussworth. 'We'll train them and get them ready; we'll tell them all about Borrible customs, everything. They'll steal and live in broken houses like Borribles and they'll know all the proverbs, just like Borribles. They will infiltrate, insinuate and penetrate.'
Hanks sucked at his tea and made a noise like water going down a drain in the middle of a storm. 'Dwarfs don't have pointed ears,' he observed. 'Borribles do.' The sergeant smiled like a quicksand smiling at the sound of approaching footsteps; there was no answer to that.
Sussworth banged the desk and stamped the floor. 'You can't beat me,' he said. 'Honours at Hendon, that's what I got. We'll have special plastic ears fabricated, pointed, and we'll clip them on.'
Hanks's vast stomach rolled under his stained tunic like water in a balloon. 'I don't think that will work, sir. If a Borrible gets suspicious of one of your spies and pulls at his ears, why, then the lugholes would come off and bye-bye dwarfs. The Borribles would have their guts for garters.' He handed the inspector a mugful of tea, hot, black and strong.
Sussworth sipped. 'Difficulties,' he said, 'only exist to be overcome by minds like mine. If clips won't achieve our purpose then we shall affix the ears with superglue; nothing gets that off, I can assure you, however a Borrible might pull at it.'
'Superglue,' said Hanks. 'But them dwarfs'd never get the ears unstuck again. I can't see them standing for that ... I wouldn't.'
'You are not an impoverished midget,' said Sussworth looking closely at his fingernails, 'except in a metaphorical and figurative way, of course. Given enough cash, the human species can be induced to indulge in almost any activity. Everything has been and will be done for money.'
'Not Borribles,' said Hanks. He pursed his lips, peeved.
'That has always been a problem,' agreed Sussworth, 'but the dwarfs we are intending to bribe are not Borribles. I shall train them to a peak of accomplishment, and furthermore I will have one in every market and when those Borribles move I shall know it before they do. We'll have their ears clipped and they'll have to grow up and old like the rest of us ... and work too. As for that moth-eaten horse of theirs, it will end up as tinned chunks of steak for cats to eat. This time it's curtains, Hanks, curtains.' And the two police officers smirked and raised their tea mugs and clinked them together.
'We'll call it Operation Catsmeat,' went on Sussworth, 'that's what we'll call it,' and he was so pleased with himself that he burst into an impromptu song on the spot. A jaunty little jig it was and the melody of it made the inspector strut and hop in the most energetic fashion.
'It's a catsmeat operation With a limited objective--Oh I'd like to tin the nation But for now we'll be selective.
'Just the horse'll do for starters, And I'll show you what my wit is When I have the guts for garters While its meat is feeding kitties.
'It's a catsmeat operation, Starting small then growing bigger. First the horse--and then my mission I shall prosecute with vigour.
'All the anti-social sinners Who are ruining Great Britain I'll have processed into dinners, Shiny tins for cats and kittens.
'I'll make catsmeat of the shirkers And malingering midday drinkers, Of the disobedient workers And the independent thinkers.
'I'll make catsmeat of the steppers Out of line, the by-law breakers, And of all the social lepers Who are punks and trouble-makers.
'Every dissident defaulter, Be he Borrible or not, I shall apprehend and alter--I'll make catsmeat of the lot!'
At the end of this song Hanks grinned and wagged his head it astonishment. 'Wonderful, sir,' he said, 'absolutely wonderful.' He grinned again and poured tea into his mouth.
As he did so a squall of rain rattled against the walls of the house and Sussworth scuttled to the window. He attempted to peer out into the night but it was as dark as dark in the street and the light from a nearby lamp post hardly fell as far as the pavement.
Sussworth danced with glee. 'Look at that cold rain,' he crowed. 'I wouldn't want to be a Borrible in a broken-down old house right now, Hanks, not right now or ever.'
Hanks laughed. 'Winter's coming,' he said, 'a long hard winter.'
'It will be for the Borribles,' said Sussworth, his moustache moving from side to side like a windscreen wiper. 'A long hard winter for Borribles. I'll drink another cup of tea to that.'
'Certainly, sir,' said the sergeant, and he propelled his huge body across the room in the direction of the kettle.
Bingo Borrible pulled his woollen hat down over his ears, turned up the collar of his combat jacket and heaved himself up to the top of the railway embankment. The wind was vicious; the rain stung his face like nails from a catapult. He twisted his head to look behind him. 'Come on, Stonks,' he said. 'There's a couple of trucks in the siding.'
There was a scrabbling noise from below and out of the stormy swirling of the dark rain the head of Stonks appeared. Stonks was big for a Borrible and with a face that was slow to let you know what it was thinking. For all that he was well liked by those who knew him; trusted to the death and as strong as a man. Behind Stonks came Twilight, the Bangladeshi from Whitechapel.
'Well damn me,' he said. 'After that summer, this winter; I need a new raincoat.'
'First thing to do,' interrupted Bingo, 'is to find some food for Sam. He only had a couple of carrots this morning.'
'You think there's anything in those trucks?' asked Stonks. He looked behind and below towards the sparse lighting of Battersea High Street. 'It's a bit exposed up here.'
'Don't worry,' answered Bingo. 'Someone told me there was a load of cattle cake knocking about. I'll go over to the trucks while you keep watch.'
Bingo eased himself over the edge of the embankment and, keeping low, crossed the tracks and went towards the goods siding. Soon Stonks and Twilight had lost sight of their companion, but after a minute or two they heard his call and went to join him.
'What's in there?' asked Stonks. He stood by one of the huge wagon wheels, Twilight beside him.
'Not sure, exactly,' said Bingo. His voice came from inside the truck and his words were ripped apart by the wind. 'There's some stuff in plastic sacks. I had a quick glim with me torch and it seems to be some sort of animal grub.'
'Throw one down,' said Stonks. 'I'll carry it back to the factory.'
'And another,' added Twilight. 'That'll keep Sam going for a few days.'
As the second sack hit the ground there was a loud cry from belowthem on the far side of the railway line. 'Stay where you are,' roared a man's voice, 'you're under arrest.'
'Railway police,' said Twilight. 'Come on, Bingo, out of that truck.' The Bangladeshi pulled a catapult from his belt, loaded it and fired a shot in the general direction of the shouts. He fired another shot and the voice was raised again. Others joined it.
'You can't get away, we've got men on both sides of the track.'
Bingo jumped to the ground. 'They're lying,' he said, 'otherwise they wouldn't have told us. Come on, into the High Street.'
'What about this cattle cake?' asked Stonks, steadfast as ever. 'The horse is hungry.'
'We can't take it now,' said Twilight, 'it'll slow us down.'
Stonks stooped and picked up a sack and threw it over his shoulder. 'I'll give it a try,' he said.
That was the end of that discussion. The three Borribles turned and ran, stumbling in the dark down their side of the embankment. At the bottom they were brought up against the back wall of the yards that ran behind the shops of Battersea High Street. Bingo had been right; there were no police lying in ambush there. They stood still for a moment listening. The voices were above them now, up by the trucks.
'Over we go,' said Bingo. He joined his hands to make a step and, placing a foot on it, Twilight levered himself to the top of the wail. As soon as he was there Stonks and Bingo slung the sack up to him and Twilight guided it over to the far side where it landed with a gentle thud. Stonks then climbed the wall in his turn, stretched out an arm and pulled Bingo up next to him.
For a while all three of them sat on the wall and held their breath; listening as the shouts and whistles of the police diminished in the distance; listening to make sure that no one lay in wait for them below. They sat with patience, not moving, not speaking. They were used to it; in that kind of darkness you never knew who was near, ready to get you. And while they waited the smell of the back yard rose in their nostrils: cats' pee and concrete, mildew and dead dog.
When ten minutes had passed and the whole area was quiet again the three Borribles slipped off the wall and Stonks hoisted the sack ofcattle feed on to his shoulder. 'It's all right,' he said. 'We can get back to the factory now.'
The factory was at the end of Battersea High Street near the junction with Vicarage Crescent, and by keeping to the shadows and climbing over back walls the Borribles arrived without further trouble. To the side of the factory, lying between it and the railway embankment, was a piece of wasteland littered with rubbish and debris. The Borribles crossed this and came to a large door made from wide and heavy planks.
Bingo halted here and gave the Borrible knock: one long, two short, one long, scraping his knuckles. After a moment the door eased open on freshly oiled hinges and a white smudge appeared in the dark. It was the face of Sydney. 'Well,' she said.
'Bingo, Twilight and Stonks,' said Bingo.
Sydney grunted and opened the door just enough for the three Borribles to enter. As soon as they had done so she closed it again. It was darker in than out.
She asked, 'Did you get anything?'
Stonks patted the sack on his shoulder. 'Half hundredweight of cattle cake,' he said. 'That should do it.'
'Good,' said Sydney. 'Go and feed him then.' And they heard her step to the nearest window to resume her watch.
The three Borribles moved away in the blackness, their feet quite accustomed to the uneven floor and its covering of rubble. When they reached the end of the building they went through a hatch in a wall, round a corner and then down a wide ramp which led to a deep cellar.
This cellar was their home. The factory had lain empty for years now and was really too large and draughty for Borribles. Borribles normally prefer small rooms because they are easier to keep warm, easier to furnish. This time the Adventurers had not had a great deal of choice. On their return from Wandsworth some two months before, escaping from Inspector Sussworth and the SBG, they had been obliged to take cover forthwith and also to find a place big enough to hide Sam the horse in. The factory had fitted their bill exactly.
At the bottom of the ramp the Borribles doubled back on themselves and walked to the far end of the cellar, where a solitary electricbulb dangled from a frayed length of flex and gave a weak light. There, in a large space hollowed out under the highest part of the ramp, Stonks threw down the sack and, kneeling beside it, drew his knife and slit the plastic open.
'Looks all right,' he said. 'Come on, Sam, try this.'
A small undistinguished horse, half brown half black as if it didn't really know what colour it wanted to be, stirred in a corner of the cellar and miserably shook its head. This was Sam.
He came forward and dropped his nose into the open sack and chewed upon what lay there. He did not like the taste of it and after only the smallest of samples he blew through his nostrils and backed away.
'Oh, Sam,' said Twilight, anxiety making one of his eyebrows twitch up his forehead, 'you've got to eat; you're not looking well at all.'
Bingo lifted a bucket of clean water. He swirled it round so that it made a sloshing noise. 'Perhaps he's thirsty,' he said.
As Bingo spoke another light was switched on and showed two or three bunks to one side of the cellar and three or four mattresses on the floor as well. Under the archway of the ramp the Borribles had made a kind of rough sitting room with two or three wrecked armchairs, their stuffings and springs visible. There was also a long table made from scaffolding planks supported on saw-horses. Stools had been improvised from orange boxes and barrels. Dirty blankets and torn cushions gave what little comfort there was.
Bingo looked up as the light came on. Faces appeared from the shadows. Knocker threw his blanket back and rose, fully dressed, from his bed on the floor. He came to stand with the others, close to Sam.
'He doesn't look well, does he?' he said.
Chalotte propped herself up on her elbow and looked out from her bunk. 'He's not getting any fresh air,' she said. 'That's what he needs, and exercise.' There was an orange under her pillow. She pulled it out and began to peel it.
There was a loud yawn next and then a burst of swearing and Vulge emerged from under a pile of blankets and sacks. 'Well,' he said, 'as long as the lights are on and you're going to start chatting I might aswell make us all a pot of tea.' He filled a kettle from a tap in the wall and plugged it in to boil. 'What time is it, anyway?'
Chalotte looked at her watch. 'It's three o'clock,' she said. 'In the morning.'
Napoleon Boot was next awake. 'Strewth,' he said. 'What the old Mother 'ubbard's going on here?'
'We got some cattle cake for Sam,' said Bingo. 'Do horses like cattle cake?'
There was silence for a while. Everyone watched Vulge make the tea and when it was ready Knocker took a mugful and sat at the table. 'Who's on guard?' he said.
'Sid and Torrey,' answered Vulge. 'I'll take 'em a drink.' He scooped up two mugs and walked off into the darkness, limping slightly.
'I'm worried about that horse,' said Knocker between sips, 'very worried. He looks unhealthy. Look at his coat, half brown and half black; he looks like a carpet.'
'It's the dye that Knibbsie put on him,' said Chalotte. 'The black's wearing out.'
'He eats the carrots we get,' said Bingo, 'and the apples and the cabbages.'
'Course he does,' said Twilight, 'but he's not a bleedin' goat, is he? He needs hay and that.'
'It's the lack of fresh air.' That was Sydney's voice and everyone turned to look at her. She had just come into the light from the bottom of the ramp. Her face was lined with worry. All the Adventurers were fond of the horse but Sydney loved him. For her Sam was something special.
Orococco dropped from a top bunk without a sound, took a cup of tea and went to sit by Knocker. 'How long we been hiding now,' he asked, 'about two or three months?'
'Long enough,' said Napoleon with more than his usual bitterness. 'Long enough for a long summer to turn into a long winter.'
There was another silence as each Adventurer thought his or her own thoughts. Only a few weeks had brought them to this feeling of imprisonment; it was like being under siege. They had returned fromWandsworth in such high spirits too, with Ben the tramp and Knibbsie the stableman. They had only taken refuge in the factory as a temporary measure, hiding until the hue and cry had died down, waiting until it was safe to take Sam to Neasden.
But things had gone wrong, seriously wrong. The search by the SBG had not slackened as the Borribles had hoped and they found their movements terribly restricted. They were hemmed in on every side. There were policemen on every bridge across the River Thames. There were policemen disguised as costermongers. There were policemen guarding every crossroads with their SBG vans circling round and round, like carrion crows. On York Road and at Prince's Head groups of Woollies stopped children at random and inspected their ears. Any stray Borrible who was discovered had his ears clipped as soon as he or she had been questioned. It was even difficult to steal things in the market, the only source of food, and feeding Sam was the biggest problem of all. The Borribles were forced to move about almost entirely at night when there was less food to be had. The danger of capture was always with them and seemed to be increasing every day. They felt they were being strangled. They had become downhearted and homesick for the old Borrible life of independence and freedom; they were too dispirited even to quarrel.
Chalotte swung her legs out of bed and threw her orange-skin into a corner of the cellar; she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
'It's been two months too long,' she said. 'We've got to get out of this place and find somewhere quiet to spend the winter. Sussworth knows we're here or hereabouts and the longer we stay the more chance we have of being caught. We won't do Sam any good if we've all had our ears clipped and are growing up like nice little boys and girls in some foster home. After a few months we wouldn't even remember Sam. The memory goes, they say, when you've had your ears done.'
'What if we left Sam just for a while,' suggested Napoleon, 'got out for the winter and then captured him back later?'
No one answered. Knocker looked at Chalotte and then both of them looked at Sydney. It was she who spoke for the horse.
Sydney sat hunched on a barrel; she did not raise her head when she spoke and her voice was low and sad.
'Look,' she said, 'I know you've done more than enough for Sam ... all that trouble with Spiff and the fighting in the sewers and the digging in the mine. I thought it was all over when we got back here. I thought I would simply take Sam back to Neasden and that would be that. Perhaps Napoleon's right; there is no point in us all getting caught. Perhaps you should all go home until next spring and I'll stay with Sam, keep feeding him and hope I don't get caught.'
'It's not that, Sid,' said Chalotte, 'it's Sam. He's been cooped up in this cellar for two months; it ain't healthy. He'll die if we don't get him out.'
Sydney lowered her head into her hands. 'And so will we, one way or the other. Sussworth's got us on the run.'
Knocker got to his feet and moved from the dark into the light. 'We can't carry on like this,' he said, then he quoted from the Borrible Book of Proverbs: '"A Borrible who does not live like a Borrible is not a Borrible." We've got to go somewhere else.'
Orococco poured himself another mug of tea. 'We've got to think positive,' he said. 'First, Sussworth doesn't know where we are, not for sure he don't. Second, it's coming on winter. It'll be dark at three o'clock in the afternoon in another month or so, and it rains most of the time; people keeps their heads down. They won't notice us once we're out of the danger zone.'
'And I suppose,' said Napoleon with the old sneer in his voice, 'they won't notice a thumping great horse walking along behind yer. What you going to tell 'em, eh? It's just a Great Dane with a big head?'
'We owe him our lives,' cried Sydney, 'and don't you forget it, Napoleon Boot Wendle.'
'It won't make sense,' said Twilight, 'if we have to give up our freedom and there's no guarantee of Sam getting his. That would be daft.'
'It would be,' agreed Chalotte. 'That is why we have to be crafty, we have to win this one. That horse is important. We have to get it to Neasden so that Sydney can look after it and so that we can go home and lead normal lives.'
'Neasden,' said Napoleon. 'You realize where that is? It's the other side of the bloody moon, that is. And every inch of the way there'll be Woollies, Rumbles, Borrible-snatchers and Inspector Sussworth and Sergeant Hanks and the boys in blue from the SBG. Why Neasden?'
Sydney stood, put her hands on her hips and faced up to the Wendle.'I tell you why Neasden,' she said, 'because I live there and I can look after Sam, and because there's an old bloke who lives in these acres and acres of waste ground by the railway line. Adults hardly go there; they think this bloke's daft in the head. They calls him Mad Mick, but he ain't mad, not by a long chalk. He saves horses and donkeys from the knacker's yard, won't let them be slaughtered. There's some people up there who give him grub and hay and straw and stuff. They throw things out the train windows on their way to work. If Sam was there with all the other horses, Sussworth would never find him and I could see him whenever I wanted ... That's why Neasden, that's why.'
Knocker raised a hand. 'The way I see it is this--the worst thing will be getting out of Battersea because this is the place that Sussworth is watching the hardest. If we could get a few miles away, take it in slow stages, well ... we might do it. As long as we travelled in the dark we'd only have to hide during the daylight hours and there's only about six or seven of them in the winter.'
'We could head away from the river,' suggested Stonks, 'just at first, because we know old Sussworth has got the bridges guarded; he always does that.'
Twilight jumped to his feet and looked at the circle of faces. 'It's a challenge,' he said. 'It'll be a trek right across London. A second name. I shall call myself Twilight Trekker when I get back from Neasden.'
Knocker wagged a finger at the Bangladeshi. 'We've all had enough adventure and glory to last a Borrible lifetime,' he said. 'You take it easy.'
Chalotte lowered her face so that Knocker should not see her smile. How Knocker had changed since she had first met him. Then he had been nothing more than a brash, self-centred Borrible, wanting to win more names than anyone else in creation. Now he was changed out of all recognition; experience had altered him.
'We'll have to get organized,' said Orococco, 'quick too.'
'Yes,' said Vulge, 'we'll need lots of things for a long trek like this, especially in the cold of winter. Warm clothes, raincoats, boots.
'Torches,' said Twilight.
'New catapults,' added Napoleon, 'and bandoliers; two each, carryingforty stones, times ten, that makes a firepower of four hundred rounds. Ace!'
'And some food for Sam,' said Sydney, looking worried. And with that everyone laughed, stopped, and then laughed again because the laughter was so good to hear.
Knocker tilted his head to attract Napoleon's attention. After the long months they had spent digging together in Flinthead's mine a great friendship had grown up between these two, replacing the ancient hatred and rivalry they had once felt for each other. 'I have an idea,' he said, 'a little scouting expedition to find a safe road out of here, for us and the horse. Will you come with me?'
The Wendle nodded. 'I'll come,' he said.
'I will come too,' said Stonks. 'You might need a hand.'
'That's settled then,' said Vulge. 'While you're doing that we'll get what we need from the shops.'
'You know,' said Orococco, 'it won't be easy, getting to Neasden. I've got a feeling that it will make those other adventures of ours look about as dangerous as a game of tiddlywinks.'