by Trevor Hopkins

Luncardy reacted before anybody else could move. Even me - a fact which I have to admit impressed me somewhat. She scurried down the line of the hedgerow at that bent-double position adopted when moving rapidly under fire. I followed her, wondering which ill-advised member of the squad had been foolish enough to break through with neither instruction nor backup.

As I got closer, I could not for a moment recognise the motionless figure, although I had the feeling that I really ought to. It was the walking stick that gave it away: lying in the grass was the stout cane I had last seen in the possession of Clathy's aged grandmother.

"It's Argaty!" Luncardy exclaimed, evidently shocked by the sight and forgetting momentarily that the glamour that amplified her voice was still active.

Her exclamation must have carried to the house and been plainly audible inside. The Inspector swore fluently, a most unladylike explosion that I would not have expected, about half of which would have been clearly audible to every Goblin in the vicinity. It cut off abruptly when Luncardy remembered the control which temporarily disabled the magical amplification. The members of her squad I could see looked variously amused or shocked. I was impressed, although I resisted the temptation to wildly applaud her stream of fluent profanity.

But we had a serious problem to content with - another more serious problem. It was no laughing matter. An innocent - at least, I assumed so - was lying injured, perhaps even dead in the field of fire. There was no cover, none at all, and anybody attempting assistance would be exposed to further shots from the house.

I heard irregular footsteps behind me. I swung around and saw another of Luncardy's squad, one of those who had been sent to collect Clathy's grandmother.

"What happened?" Luncardy hissed as the young officer limped up.

"She hit me," he said, wheezing, "Nearly broke my ankle. Made a dash for it."

"Wimp!" the Inspector snarled, "Letting a grandma get away from you!"

The youngster's face immediately turned the deep puce of a Goblin blush. It seemed that he had carried out his instructions to the letter: persuaded Argaty that Clathy was in trouble and that the police needed her help in sorting things out. He had escorted Argaty in her wheelchair through the lower realms and to the surface by the same route we had used earlier, then been driven from the exit in another of the eclectic collection of vehicles used by the official forces when in this part of the surface world.

Realising that a siege was in progress - the bright lights and the amplified threats would have made that just a bit obvious - the copper had held back, very sensibly keeping Argaty out of the danger zone. But she was not to be so easily dissuaded. The young officer had been whacked in the legs by the stout cane that she habitually used to support her aged body. Then she had levered herself from the wheelchair and somehow managed a burst of speed that had taken her the last stretch of the roadway and through the hedge, spurred on, no doubt, by the sound of her granddaughter's voice. Amazing what fear and familial concern can do.

As the young cop spluttered out his explanation, there was a cry from the house, one which was not electronically amplified. Every head swung around as the surrounding police force came to high alert. The scream was followed by a crash as the cellar door opened and Clathy emerged, her emotional state so heightened that she managed to ignore the score of armed cops that encircled the place and rushed straight over to where her grandmother lay.

Drummond's voice sounded out from the house, also without artificial aid. He sounded panicked, uncertain and vulnerable.

"Come back," he bellowed, "Leave her! You can't help her!"

Clathy ignored the instruction and knelt over the prone body, first attempting to rouse Argaty and then, with no response to her most urgent attentions, collapsed in hysterics over the body, weeping with her face in her hands.

Sensing a moment of opportunity, the Inspector reacted with characteristic speed and decisiveness, and grasped it with both hands.

"Move in," she commanded, making frantic hand gestures to her squad, "Everybody, move in!"

She turned to me, raising an admonishing finger like an irate schoolteacher.

"You," she instructed, "Stay here. And keep your head down, dammit."

Part 84 Part 86