Mike Scantleburywww.mikescantlebury.com



I saw the red triangle on the side of the road and thought it might be an accident up ahead. I slowed. Just around the bend I came upon a police-car parked right across my lane. I hadn't expected that. A cop was standing in front of it, swinging his flashlight from side to side and waving me down. I pulled in tight against the kerb and waited. He came up slowlu, with that surly expression that they always have and a deliberate swagger in his walk.

He shone the light into my eyes.

"Trouble. officer?" I asked calmly.

"Out!" he snarled, and grabbed at my door handle.

I always keep it locked. He looked a bit foolish as he tugged vainly at the handle, and it didn't improve his temper. I decided there was no cause for antagonism on my part tight then, so climbed out. He wasn't satisfied, and grabbed my coat; he swung me roughly round and pushed me back over the bonnet. Flash still in one hand, he tried frisking me inexpertly. He didn't find the gun in my sock.

"What's the trouble?" I asked again.

"Where are you going?" he snapped, breathing heavily.

"Home. It's been a long night."

"You usually out this time of night?"

"I work late."

He swung me round again. He was a good inch shorter than me, but tried staring me out anyway, intimidating as best he could. I stared back levelly, y@trying not to get upset, but my patience was wearing thin.

"Don't be funny with me," he went on. "I want some straight answers or there's going to be trouble for you."

"Then maybe you better start by being a bit more polite," I said, and began to grin, suddenly not caring any longer what he thought.

His lips curved in a little sneer as he went on trying to look tough. His eyes darted sideways for a moment and I could tell that something was coming; his knee swung, aiming for my groin, but I shifted my weight and he missed. He slammed into my thigh anyway, and it hit a nerve and sent my leg numb. It was some amount of pain, so I let out a good long groan and sank to one knee.

"Now you'll learn who you're dealing with," he said in satisfaction, and hauled me to my feet.

"You can't treat me like this," I mumbled.

"Oh no?" he grated. "Who says? You some kind of important person? Maybe you want to be some kind of hero, eh?"

"Not me," I said, wincing with imaginary pain. "But I think you better look in my pockets."

"Yeah," he said. "That's right. Maybe you better empty your pockets. Who knows what we may find, eh?"

I yanked out my wallet, cards and papers, and dumped the lot on top of the bonnet. He began to sift through them with his spare hand.

"You alone?" I asked, looking over his shoulder towards his car. "I thought you uniformed guys worked in pairs."

"Not on this routine," he muttered.

"No, not on this routine," I agreed, reached across and picked up the little leather folder. I flipped it open and showed him the badge. He took it and held it under his flashlight.

"So you're a cop too," he said in wonder.

"No," I answered. "I'm the only one."

I swept his light aside and let him have it right in the mouth. Then I grabbed him as he fell, swung him over my hip and let him fall against my car. He lost a tooth or two on the way down and left some blood on the paintwork, but it wasn't my car anyway; if he had bothered to look inside, he would have seen the radio and other equipment. Must be a real beginner, I thought to myself: he didn't check anything. Could be his first time. Here's hoping it's his last.

I dragged him onto the pavement and searched his pockets, looking for something to pin him down. There was nothing definite either way: he had a gun, handcuffs, all the usuak things, and that was more than you could say for some of them, sometimes not bothering to get anything more than the obvious costume. Still, there had to be something wrong somewhere: there always was. I undid his tie and tore the collar of his shirt back. That was it - it wasn't a standard make, and that would mean it wouldn't have a laundry mark either, for ours is a small town, and all the force's laundry goes through the same cleaner. It's something the clothes hirers haven't got onto yet.

That was enough to justify taking him in, and after a few questions, he'd probably cave in like they all did and confess the lot. Fair enough, but it didn't make me very happy. These guys were beginning to annoy me. I picked up his gun and let it rest on my palm for a minute; sometimes I felt that it would be so much easier to just let him have one and say that he resisted arrest, but I knew well enough that the Chief would never stand for it. I'd be in uniform and back on the streets till I collected my pension. That was no good.

I rolled him onto hi side so that he could breathe and the dribbling blood wouldn't get onto his nice clean clothes, but it wasn't enough, so I tapped his head on the pavement a few times to give him some bruises and make him think twice before trying the trick again. He would have a pretty sore head when he woke up.

I went back to my car and got busy on the radio.

"I've got one out here on South Road," I said. "He was pretending to be a cop. Better send an ambulance for him, and a driver to take the car back. It could be stolen."

"Check, Lieutenant," a male voice said. "Taking action now. And will you hold for a moment: the Captain wants a word with you."

"I'm sorry, Jeff," Captain Coombes said, after a slight delay. "It's bad news. Your son's been kidnapped."


I should have waited for the a mbuiulance, but I let the guy bleed on the road and raced to the hospital with my siren screaming. It took less that four minutes. Jenny was in a Reception Room, doubled over in a chair and crying freely. Sergeant Gaines, tall and burly, was standing beside her, looking helpless.

"Bad business, Jeff," he said and tried a smile.

"Where's a doctor?" I said irritably. "Can you find one, Joe?"

He went off, glad to have something to do, and I bent down to Jenny. She grabbed me, sobbing, and I held her for a long time while she cried and cried and didn't say anything that made any sense. I tried to ask her what happened.

"Oh, Jeff, I thought they were real," she cried.

The doctor walked in looking apologetic, but I had no time for that. I wanted to be out getting the ones who did it.

"She's in a terrible state," I said. "Have you got a room you can put her in for tonight? She needs a lot of rest."

"Bring her through here," he said. "I can giver her a sedative later. She needs a good night's sleep before she does any talking."

We went down a side corridor and into a small but expensive-looking room with wide windows and a view of the river. The lights of town were sparkling and shining all the way up the hill. At the top there was the faint glow of the rising moon. It was very quiet.

I put Jenny into the large bed and a nurse helped her undress. The doctor came back and gave her an injection, and slowly her crying stopped and she breathed more easily. She looked at me, sadly, regretfully, like a wounded, defeated animal. I held her hand. Mine was quite cold: I was bitter and angry inside. I needed someone to hit.

"They were so sure of themselves," she whispered. "They seemed to know what they were doing. One of them gave him oxygen."

"Take it easy, honey," I said, forcing kindness into my voice. "We'll talk about it in the morning. Everything will be all right."

"He's dead, honey," she said, suddenly very calm. There was a tiny glint in her eyes, but no tears now. "I know it. I can feel it. He's gone, and it's too late to do anything. It's over."

She closed her eyes and lay back on the piled-up pillows with a sigh. I waited while her breathing became sure and regular, and it wasn''t very long before she seemed to be asleep. I made for the door as quietly as I could, measuring my steps across the deep carpet, desparate to get out and be doing something.

I paused at the door and turned the lights gently down, so that they only made a faint, reassuring glow in the room. I don't know what made me turn. Her face was in shadow, but it was as though she was watching me. Yet she seemed so peaceful. It was odd.

Was she dreaming about what might happen?

I whispered: "We'll find him, Jenny. I can promise you that. Joe Gaines and I will bring him back Sleep peacefully now. I'll be here in the morning."

I closed the door and walked down the corridor, hardly daring to think, dazed by it all. There was a vending machine on the corner and I helped myself to a cup of black coffee. Then I went into the Reception Room and Gaines was sitting there as before, his notebook open on his lap. He looked up as I approached, and his big red face showed concern.

"You look worn out, Jeff," he said.

I ran a hand through my hair and sipped the coffee.

"Had a run-in with an Actor earlier. He was pretending to be a cop," I said. "He wasn't very good at it." I allowed myself to collapse into one of the huge cosy chairs by the window. I felt very old and tired, as though every single year of my past was weighing on my shoulders. I couldn't beat off an ominous feeling of dread, and Jenny's words were going round and round in my brain, giving me no peace. She had to be wrong, I told myself. She had to be.

"The guy was bad, Joe," I told him. "Incompetent. Well, WE'RE the real cops, and we're going to have to show how clever we can be; I've got to find that kid, Joe. There's no other way."

"Sure, Jeff. You said it. WE can do it."

"Tell me what you know."

"It was just a lousy piece of bad luck," he said, and flipped a page in his notebook. "Your wife was getting your son ready for bed. She was doing something, tidying the bathroom or something, and the kid wandered off. He's only three, isn't he? He went scooting away, and the next thing, well, she heard him fall down the stairs. Just some noise and then a scream."

I looked at him sharply.

"That's how it started," he said. "She found him lying at the foot of the stairs, moaning and bleeding from the mouth. He may have had internal injuries, she thought, and that's bad. So your wife panics; nothing she can do but run for help. She gets out into the road, and there's this ambulance coming down the street."

"Oh no," I said softly. "So that was it."

"She should have been more careful, of course, but there wasn't much time, I suppose. She flagged it down, and the men came in with a stretcher. They seemed to know what they were doing; there were neighbours and all sorts around by then, but not one of them suspected a thing. The guys must have had some sort of training."

"So they put the boy in the wagon?"

"Loaded him up and said they'd rush him to City Hospital. That's the closest Emergency place to your house."

"Why didn't she go with him?" I demanded.

"Well, your wife was pretty hysterical, I think, and some of the neighbours were trying to calm her down. The ambulance men said they'd have to rush, of course, and advised of of the women to bring her in later in her car. Seemed reasonable at the time."

"I get it," I said. "She arrived and there was no sign of them. Nobody had heard of them, right? That's when it dawned on somebody that they must have been Actors. Hell, Joe, you can't call that kidnapping! It was just one of their stupid games!"

"We're fairly sure they're Actors, Jeff," he went on, still in a low, matter-of-fact voice, his forehead knitted in concentration. "I've call every other hospital for miles around and no one brought your son in. He's still out there somewhere. They've got him."

"But where could they have got their equipment?" I asked angrily.

"I've put out a general alert, but there isn't any report of a missing ambulance. Something might turn up, though; it might have been one that was in for repair, or maybe every place hasn't checked their old ones or unused ones. Anybody could break into a garage and steal one."

"All right, Joe. We'll have to keep checking."

I stood up and began to pace the floor. It was a dull time of night and nobody else was in the room, but there was a constant bustle up and down the corridor outside. As I stood there a door banged open at the end and a team of doctors hurried past with a patient on a trolley: it looked like an emergency, and pretty serious at that. "You said they knew what they were doing," I thought aloud. "It means they had some medical knowledge. That's a clue, Joe; we'll need a list of all current cases in Analysis that this business could possibly apply to. Then we'll have to run a full Pattern and turn up anybody likely; if they want to be Ambulance men, it must show up early - a desire to help people, that sort of thing. Do-gooders."

"Maybe they helped your son, Jeff."

"Maybe they did, Joe, but they didn't know when to stop. They couldn't see when the game was over. They could have worked through and brought him in, but they didn't: they chickened out, and it was just the wrong time. If he was really injured, they won't be able to do anything for him properly. He could be dying right now."

"Kidnapping is only Grade Eight Serious these days," Gaines reminded me uneasily. "You'll never be allowed a full computer Pattern read-out on that, even if the Chief clears it with Current Case Load."

"Then we'll call it Murder," I said, "and see how it goes. Look, Joe, I need you in on this: can you phone your boss and tell him I want you transferred to my detail? And we'll need some help tracing the vehicle. I'll call the Captain and get clearence, and then I'll meet you down at Medical Records and we'll go through those names. There has to be a lead somewhere there."

"Is it really Murder, Jeff? Are you saying that?"

"I pray it isn't, Joe. It means too much to me. I have to find that boy alive. I have to. He can't be dead."

Ten minutes later and I'd spoken to Captain Coombes. He wasn't too happy to have me working on the case, but ours is a small town and he could bend the rules when he wanted. He promised me a clear run with Medical Records, and that was the most important thing; their computer would have case histories of everyone within fifty miles undergoing psychiatric treatment. It had to be current I reasoned: some people carry on Acting when they come out of analysis, buut it's usually on a small-scale, individual basis, and dressing-up is rare. These guys had all the equipment and were co-ordinated, which meant they had to be coached. It was too big an Act for them to set up themselves, so there had to be a doctor behind it. He would be the one who gave them the training. We had to find him.

I arrived at the Centre and showed my badge to the night crew. We filled out a few forms and then they set to work; I gave them all the details of the Act and they fed it in. I waited while the computer chewed it over and watched with satisfaction when the printer started tappping, and a list of names and numbers began to appear. I ripped off the paged and went back to the car.

Joe Gaines came swinging into the park and drew up beside me in his patrol car.

"What are you looking so cheerful about?" I demanded.

"The guy who got wheeled in when we were at the hospital," he chuckled. "Did you see him? Pretty bad. He always wanted to be a lion-tamer, but all he got was scratched up. Pretty bad Actor, eh?"

"Some of them deserve it," I said thoughtlessly.


At nine in the morning I was tired and irritable and parked outside Central Psychiatric Hospital.


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