by Trevor Hopkins

I had no immediate opportunity to cogitate on that particular question. Somehow I never do. At times like this, events seem to unfold onto themselves at breakneck pace. Maybe it's just my luck.

I could just make out a tuneless whistling emanating from the direction Mayfield and I had just come from. I picked up my ears. Mayfield could hear it too and even Glen's inadequate human hearing managed to pick up something. All three of up pulled ourselves up to the edge of the hollow and peered through the luxuriant undergrowth. The whistling grew louder, now accompanied by the sound of soft footsteps. Somebody - no, two somebodies - were tailing us. And they were making no attempt to conceal their presence - indeed, they obviously wanted us to know they were there.

Two short figures appeared around a bend in the track, both bundled up in oversize coats and wearing unfashionable brightly-coloured hats. In the darkness, and from a distance, they might have been taken for a couple out for a bracing stroll in the woods, although why they were doing it this late at night would have been a mystery. It's not as if they were walking a dog, or anything.

As they drew closer, there were a few little things that, to a keen observer, gave them away. Those shapeless woolly hats sat on their heads in a way which looked distinctly odd, and hinted at the large and mobile ears concealed underneath. Then there was the gait: both walked stiff-legged, with a bit of a waddle. The night was not cold, but both were bundled up with scarves and turned-up coat collars. And the sunglasses were a dead giveaway.

I knew these guys. And they would recognise me, I was sure. Not that we were friends, in any way. Or even professional colleagues. Tarsapple and his junior Glenshee were two of the very few Goblins who get even more practice in impersonating humans than I do. I had encountered them on more than one occasion in the past, and all three of us have the scars to show for it.

Tarsapple is a senior – or at least, long-standing - member of a secretive force which polices Goblins on the surface. I've never found out the name of the organisation, although its reach seems to be very extensive. Nor have I discovered the true extent of their powers; they do seem to have little time and less respect of the independent operator or private investigator operating on what they see as their patch.

Most of the time, Goblins up here are left strictly alone, provided they keep themselves to themselves. In any case, anybody electing to spend much time on the surface is likely to have reasons of their own to prefer being separated from the bulk of their society. But every now and then, these hermits and misfits make a nuisance of themselves, usually when they risk making the humans aware of the existence of the race living beneath their feet. And the role of Tarsapple's organisation is to prevent such disclosures or, more usually, covering them up when they have happened.

Tarsapple and his companion stopped not ten yards from our hiding spot and looked around in a proprietary way. Then he spoke in the Goblin tongue.

"Miss Mayfield Westwood," he said calmly, "Please come out."

She turned to me with a panicked look.

"It's all right," I whispered, "I know these people. Although they’re not friends."

The expression of baffled astonishment on Mayfield's face was answer enough.

"It'll be fine," I added reassuringly, with more confidence than I really felt, "I'll go first."

Affecting a degree of nonchalance, Tarsapple was looking down the track in the direction he had come from. He heard the rustling of the bushes as I pushed my way through the undergrowth and turned in my direction as I emerged. His grin of smug self-satisfaction was swiftly replaced with a petulant scowl when he saw me brushing leaves from my overcoat.

"Why is it always you, Gask?" he snarled.

Part 16 Part 18