The Further Further Adventures of Aardvark Jenkins
Well, chapters two to twelve - which is a little bit further...
The man crashed on through the undergrowth. He was a big man and was having trouble pushing through the mass of leaves, stems, lianas and roots. A hundred metres in, he stopped, and listened. He was certain he'd heard something. Or someone.
But the only noise he could single out in the constant hubbub of the jungle was the screech of a cicada.
He looked for tracks, but didn't really know what signs to watch out for. Then he saw... a bright glimpse of yellow! And it was moving, coming towards him!
He edged silently behind a great tree trunk. He could hear it now - a soft scratch, scratch as whoever it was came closer.
He leapt out from behind the tree.
The monkey dropped the banana skin and fled, screeching, into the shelter of the jungle.
The man smiled ruefully, picked up the banana skin, and flung it after the terrified creature. Then he made his way slowly back to the road.
Simpson, who had been watching this curious pantomime from the gully, somehow knew he had to remain silent. Henrietta was silent too, but she didn't seem to be sleeping. Simpson nudged her with his nose and yipped softly. She didn't move, so he nudged her again, harder.
Was it a game? He walked round Henrietta and wuffed quietly. Then he yelped. He took a shoe in his mouth and pulled. Still no movement.
This was definitely worrying. Simpson whined as loud as he dared, then he struggled up to the top of the steep slope and looked to where the man had gone.
The man in the hat jumped down into the road just in time to see the grey van shoot off down the road.
After it had gone fifty metres, it stopped and the doors opened. The men inside trotted back to where the man in the hat was looking at a stopwatch.
"Two minutes, forty two seconds. Not bad, not bad at all. But we need to get it down to under two." The other men gathered round. "Any ideas?"
"It's moving the money takes most of the time. Can we get help with that?"
The man with the stopwatch shook his head. "Three people would only get in each other's way. And it would mean smaller shares."
"Can we blow the door?"
"No - too noisy."
The discussion went on for another ten minutes, then the man in the hat stuck the stopwatch in his pocket. "Okay. We'll try a shorter distance between the blocking vehicles. Sammy, you only move on fifty metres after you've dropped the nails. Chong - come as close to the bend as you dare. Right. Once more, then we'll pack up."
"Once more, then we'll pack up." Thomas's great uncle passed him the ball. "You know, basketball wasn't even invented when I was your age."
"Oh, yeah." Thomas was unimpressed. He bounced the ball twice, took careful aim and let fly. It gently touched the back board, then fell straight through the hoop."
Evens then," he called. "Your turn. If you score, I clean your car; if you miss we go for ice cream."
The sprightly old gentleman took the ball and walked to the line. He wriggled his shoulders, then his backside, cleared his throat and shot. The ball hit the hoop, bounced off the board, tottered on the rim for a while, then fell to the ground."
Yeah!" cried Thomas. "Swensons here we come."
His great uncle Dan was saved from making feeble excuses by a frantic barking and yelping from the front gate."
It's Simpson! Hello Simpson. Where's Hal?" Thomas opened the gate to lead the beagle in, but Simpson dashed off down the road and stopped to look back.
"Come on, Simpson." Thomas picked up a bit of wood and threw it for the dog to retrieve.
"Dog looks a bit worried about something," said uncle Dan, frowning. "Who's Hal?"
"Friend of mine. It's her dog."
Simpson was running backwards and forwards now, yelping and barking.
"If this happened in one of those Lassie films I'd say your friend Hal was in some sort of trouble. But this isn't Hollywood," said uncle Dan. He looked at Simpson, who certainly wasn't being playful. "All the same, reckon you'd better go and see what he wants."
But Thomas was already unlocking his bike.
"Cavalry to the rescue, eh?"
Thomas didn't answer. He was too busy pedalling after Simpson. And the dog was racing off into the distance now he knew he was being followed.
At the roller-hockey pitch he jammed on his brakes. "Rick. Hey, Rick!"
But Richard was too busy to notice one more onlooker. He neatly out-manoeuvred an opponent and was just about to score.
"RICHARD!" Thomas looked for something to throw at the other boy. Then he let off his brakes and cycled straight into the mass of hockey players.
"What the ... ?"
Richard was perfectly lined up for a beautiful goal. He raised his stick and let fly. Just as something crashed into his back. The ball skidded two metres and rolled to a stop."
You total ... Tee!" Richard lowered the stick he'd been going to use on his attacker.
"No! Hal. It's Hal!"
"Hal? What do you mean?"
"Get off!" The other roller-blade enthusiasts were jeering and chivvying.
Simpson arrived back at the group and began barking even louder than before.
"Hal?" asked Richard. Then he turned. "Come on, then!"
The odd trio raced off down the road; the beagle, the cyclist and the roller-blader.
Henrietta groaned. Her head! How her head hurt! She slowly opened her eyes. Leaves. Earth. Oh yes, that man chasing her. She tried to sit up and her head screamed at her to stop. She raised a hand and gingerly felt the bump on her temple.
She groaned again and managed to roll over on her side. It hurt a little less like that and after a while she managed to sit up.
"Simpson!" It came out as little more than a whisper.
"Simpson!" A little louder this time. But no barking in return.
Henrietta licked a finger and touched it to her throbbing head. Blood! She wanted to cry, but only soppy girls cry.
If Rick had run into a tree, he'd just laugh and hit it with his hockey stick, she thought. Somehow this cheered her, and after a while she managed to sit up.
"SIMPSON!" Much louder this time.
In reply there was the sound of someone crashing through the bushes.
The man! She'd given away where she was!
But instead of the man in the dirty brown shirt there was a small black and beige dog with a wet red tongue and a lot of sharp barks.
"Hal!" Richard and Thomas came tumbling down the slope. "What happened?"
It all came out in a rush. The van and the guns and the men and the vans and the guns and the chase and the tree.
Henrietta began again. Slower this time, and the boys began to get the gist of it.
"A robbery! Here?"
"Yes, they had guns!"
Eventually she managed to blurt out everything she'd seen. By the time they'd carried Henrietta up the slope and to the road, Thomas and Richard were expecting to see huge pools of blood, if not actual dead bodies.
The road was completely empty.
Henrietta stared in incomprehension. There should have been something. Spent cartridges from the guns; a few banknotes fluttering in the breeze; the van the sacks had come from, at least. "Maybe the men that were held up escaped, and drove off to hospital or the police. Yes, that must be it."
"Are you sure this is the right place?" Thomas looked around. "I mean; all these demolished houses look the same."
"Yes. This is it. Sixty one, the same as home." Henrietta sat down in the road, her legs wobbly all of a sudden.
She was even more exhausted an hour later. The boys got her on Thomas's bike, then wheeled her as far as the main road. A kindly lorry driver gave them a lift most of the rest of the way. They would have been even more grateful if he'd not been a fish salesman but, as Thomas put it, any port in a storm. Simpson thought it was just fine.
The boys wanted to go straight to the police, but Henrietta overruled them. Her head hurt like anything, and she felt really dreadful. She wanted a wash and a hot drink. And even the bravest, most independent twelve-year-old needs her mum sometimes.
But when they arrived at her house, there was already a police car in the driveway. And every light in the house was on! The party stumbled, exhausted, in through the front door.
"I saw them!" Henrietta was the first to speak. "I saw the robbers."
"Hetty! Are you all right?" Mrs Lim looked quite distraught. "Oh my god! You're such a mess." She hugged her daughter to her, raising quite a scream when she touched the bump on Henrietta's head.
"If I might ask a few questions." The senior policeman seemed quite nice. "Just what did you see? Can you remember what they looked like?"
"They had guns. And one had a brown hat. The others had sort of grey overalls."
"Slowly, slowly. Where did you see them?" He smiled and took Henrietta's hand.
"The kampong, of course."
"Where the hold-up was."
"Yes, the hold-up. The armoured car."
"Armoured car? Look, lets start from the beginning. They must have used a ladder to get in, is that where you saw them?"
Now it was Henrietta's turn to look startled. "Ladder?"
"To get to the bedroom window. To steal your mother's jewellery. Now when did you see them? Coming out again?"
"Who?" She was near to tears now.
"Hetty darling, my ring. My beautiful ring. Did you see the men who stole it?"
This time, Henrietta really did cry. She held onto her mother and sobbed and sobbed. Just how many crooks were there out and about today?
"But Mum, I did see it. I really did."
"Don't worry about it, dear." Mrs Lim tucked the sheets in tightly and kissed Henrietta on the head.
"Now hush. You heard what the doctor said. People who've had bad concussion quite often confuse dreams and reality. You had a bad bang on the head and then my ring got stolen and your mind made up the rest."
"No! I saw it!"
"There was nothing to see. There was no hold-up reported. The police even went to the kampong and they found nothing."
Henrietta folded her arms and looked stubborn. "Bet they didn't look very hard."
"Now Hetty darling, you've got to pull yourself together. Is there anything you want?"
"I just want people to believe me." Henrietta slumped back on the pillows. "Ow, my head." She gingerly felt the bandage.
Simpson shuffled a little closer and edged his nose under her other hand. The bed was forbidden territory and he was hoping nobody would notice he was there if he kept very quiet.
"Rest." Mrs Lim pulled down the blind. "That's what the doctor said. Lots of rest."
The door closed softly.
And so did Henrietta's eyes.
But not for long. She sat up and poked Simpson in the ribs.
"Simpson, you saw them, didn't you. If only you could talk."
Simpson didn't talk. He yawned instead. He'd had a lot of exercise and needed to catch up on his beauty sleep.
Henrietta got out of bed and tiptoed to the window. Yes, her mother was off out. She waited a moment to be sure the car had definitely gone, then made a beeline for the telephone. She made two calls; one to Richard and one to the pizza delivery service. There was some serious thinking to be done, and serious thinking got done better on a full stomach.
Henrietta's mother was having serious thoughts about insurance companies.
"You mean you've been taking my premiums for twelve years, and now you refuse to pay out?" She snapped her handbag shut.
"It's not like that at all madam," the agent rubbed his hands together. "But the policy is quite clear in that it requires you to keep the ring under lock and key at all times."
"I was only out of the house for ten minutes."
"Which was long enough for someone to remove the ring. But none of the other jewellery, curiously."
"It is a famous stone. Six hundred thousand dollars at last valuation."
"I would help you if I could, but the terms of the policy are quite clear."
"In small print. Very small print."
"I'm sorry madam, it's quite out of my hands."
"You've got it all over your hands." Henrietta offered Richard a box of tissues.
"Splendiferous," said Thomas patting his stomach. "And it's got the old grey cells working."
Richard checked the pizza box to make quite certain it was empty. "As Hercules Parrot would have said."
"Do you mean Hercule Poirot?"
"Yeah, him as well," said Richard vaguely. "Anyway, my grey cells are buzzing away thinking what we should do is get detecting. Simpson's a good tracking dog. And we've got plaster of Paris for taking moulds of footprints. Let's go on over to the kampong and see what we can see. Okay?"
"That's presuming there is something to see. I mean, are you sure, Hal?" Richard turned to Henrietta who was beginning to thrust out her chin.
"Cross my heart and hope to die," she said.
She wasn't immediately struck by a bolt of lightning, but that didn't carry great weight with Richard. "I mean, a hold-up! Not reported to the police!"
"She could be right." Thomas was staring out of the window. "I saw a film, don't know the name, but it was all about a gang of crooks who went round stealing from people who couldn't complain."
"Why couldn't complain?"
"Like, people who'd managed to keep money away from the income tax, so they didn't officially have it. So if it was stolen they could hardly admit it without going to jail themselves."
"That's it!" Henrietta leapt to her feet. "Thomas, you're a computer nerd but you're brilliant."
"So what do we do now?" Richard wasn't convinced.
"Go to the police and tell them about the film?" Henrietta was a bit doubtful.
"Bad move," said Richard. "Only convince them it's all fiction."
"Only one thing to do." Thomas leant back in his chair and nearly toppled over. "We've go to go there and find a clue. QED."
Richard and Henrietta looked at him. "QED?"
"Quite. Elementary. Don'tchaknow!" Thomas laughed so hard at his own joke that this time he really did overbalance his chair. Now two of the three had painful lumps on their heads.
It was even more of a headache getting permission for Henrietta to leave the house the next day. Mrs Lim was pleased at how much better her daughter seemed, but was reluctant to let her go back to the kampong again.
It was only after Thomas and Richard had promised they'd take her there in a taxi that she relented. In fact she dug into her handbag and produced money for the taxi fare.
Now as the driver sped away, after promising to come back for them in two hours, the trio was not quite sure where to start.
"It's much easier in the books," grumbled Thomas. "The great detective just looks at the bottom of the victim's shoe and says the assailant had red hair, a mole on his left elbow and talks with a lisp."
"Oh goodneth, you don't thay!" said Richard. "With a lithp, eh?"
"Hey, come on you guys, this is serious, okay?" Henrietta's head was beginning to hurt again. She wandered around the ruined house wondering what a clue looked like when you saw one. She looked for the enamel bowl that she'd knocked over in her panic. It didn't seem to be around. It all looked so different in bright sunlight.
They looked everywhere. They checked the road for tyre tracks, searched under old doors and bits of furniture, even emptied the water out of all the old pots lying around. An hour later they had made no progress whatsoever. Richard had given up and was playing with an old tennis ball he'd found.
"Come on Rick," called Thomas. "You won't find anything like that."
"You can only find things when there's something to find."
"What's that mean?"
"What I said."
Thomas looked over his shoulder to make sure Henrietta was out of earshot. "You mean you think Hal's lying."
"I never said that."
"Well what are you saying?"
"She had a bang on the head. She just had a dream, that's all."
"I thought you were her friend."
Just as the argument seemed as if it might erupt into something stronger, there was a rustle behind them and Simpson came trotting past.
"I ... Oh, never mind." Richard went back to tossing the ball in the air. Thomas began to shift a pile of old roofing tiles.
The beagle went straight up to Henrietta and lay down next to her, panting. She bent down to pat him.
"Hey, Simpson. What's that you've got?"
The beagle nudged it forward with his nose.
Thomas and Richard span round. Henrietta was staring at the ground and holding her head.
"Aaah!" she mentioned again, but whether it was because of what she saw or because the first aaah had hurt her head they couldn't tell.
"That's it!" she said. "That's it."
"He didn't have red hair. Or a mole. But he did have a red hankie. A red and white hankie!"
"A clue!" said Thomas, grinning like a madman. "A real clue."
"Don't touch it," cautioned Richard. "You have to pick it up with a pencil and put it in a plastic bag. It's forensic."
Henrietta poked it with her toe. "I don't want to touch it, thank you. But anyway, Simpson's slobbered all over it."
"Detective Constable Simpson!" Thomas patted the dog on the head."
Sergeant, thank you," said Henrietta. Her headache had vanished now. "Come on Simpson, come on. Show us where you got it."
The beagle leapt to his feet. It was obviously a new game. He trotted off with the trio following closely. He didn't know how the game was played, but they wanted to go somewhere, obviously. The most interesting place he knew around there was the place where he'd found the nice smelly cloth. So that's where he went.
Simpson leapt over the remains of a wall and stood there barking. Henrietta, Thomas and Richard followed. Thomas bent and picked up a small square of wood. He turned it around in his hands.
"Exhibit number two, gentlemen of the jury." He showed it to them. "House number sixty one. Or is it," he turned it upside down, "nineteen?!"
"Yes, and that's where the van stopped. And the other van was over there. And here's the bowl I tripped over. This is it! This is the place."
Henrietta was pacing up and down. "I recognise it now. These old houses all look the same."
"Well it's not really a lot, you know," Thomas looked thoughtful. "A red and white hankie and a bowl. We need a proper clue. A bullet or something."
For the second time that day they began to search a half-demolished house.
Sherlock Holmes himself never scoured the scene of a crime so thoroughly. They moved every brick, every piece of glass and every lump of wood in sight.
And found ... ants!
They searched every inch of the road. But it was as devoid of clues as the house.
Richard flung himself down on the grass verge, mindless of the ants who were still looking for lunch. "Nothing. Not even a cigarette end with lipstick on."
Henrietta looked at him in surprise. "There weren't any women there."
"Doesn't matter. All the detective stories I've read have cigarette ends with lipstick on them."
Thomas flung down the stick he'd been using to poke at the grass. "What we need is a scientific approach."
"Looking for clues is scientific," said Henrietta. "We just haven't looked hard enough."
Richard lay back. "I've had enough of ants for one day."
"No!" said Thomas. "A proper scientific approach. We'll re-create the events of that fateful day!"
"Fateful day!" sneered Richard. "How? There's only us here, and no vans or guns."
"Never mind. We get Henrietta to go over it in her mind."
"What! Like a hypnotist?" she asked."
Well sort of. Where were you when you first saw the van?"
"About here, I think." Henrietta moved over to the low wall. "It came from down there." She pointed over to her left. "And it sort of skidded sideways and stopped there."
"What happened then? Describe the van. Close your eyes and tell me what you see."
Henrietta closed her eyes and made her hands into fists.
"It screeched to a stop and sort of wobbled. This man got out. He ... he had a brown hat on. And he had curly hair!"
"Good, good." Thomas smiled at Richard. "Curly hair. It's working. Go on Hal."
"And then there was another van. And guns."
Richard got up and moved closer. "What kind of guns?" he asked. "AK47s?"
Thomas waved him to be quiet. "No, what about the vans? What colour were they?"
Henrietta scrunched up her eyes to think better. "Er ... They were different colours."
"Okay. Come on Hal, the first van. That's the important one."
"I think ... grey. Yes, grey!"
"I think it was grey."
"Okay, what about the men?"
"They were dressed in grey. No, brown. Grey."
Richard turned away and sat down again.
Thomas gritted his teeth. "Come on Hal, think! Okay, the van. The first van. It was sideways in the road. Did it have any writing on?"
"Yes. No! I don't think so."
"Are you sure? Vans usually have writing on."
"I ... don't think so."
"Okay, but it was grey?"
"Dark grey." She paused, then the words came out in a rush. "And it had a dent just near the driver's door, and it had yellow paint on the dent, and the dent looked like a ... a pyramid, upside down."
She opened her eyes. They were bright. "I saw it!"
"Hal, you are brilliant." Thomas punched her on the arm. "And so am I for my scientific deductions." He looked down. "And Simpson is totally brilliant too, of course."
"Hummph!" shrugged Richard.
"Hummph!" shrugged the sergeant an hour later. "A red spotted handkerchief, you say?"
Thomas held it up in its plastic bag.
"And a white bowl?"
"And a grey van. Two grey vans."
"Have you any idea just how many grey vans there are in Singapore?" The policeman looked at the trio.
Richard eased himself a little behind the other two.
"No, well neither have I. There must be thousands. Red and white handkerchiefs are a little more rare, I admit. But there's nothing in your original report about either a handkerchief or a grey van, miss."
He shut the report file and looked at them sternly. "There has been no report of any attack on any van in any part of Singapore. I think you three amateur detectives will agree that if anyone had been held up, he might have mentioned it to us by now."
"Not if it was money from an illegal drugs operation." Richard's chin was up. "Not if it was ... "
"Now look here young man. Your games are all very well if you keep them to yourselves, but when it comes to wasting police time, I strongly advise you to think again. I shan't warn you again. There has been NO robbery. I repeat; NO ROBBERY. Good day to you."
He walked to the door and held it open. They filed out in silence.
"Good day to you too," muttered Thomas when they were safely out of earshot. "What now?"
"Why won't they believe me?" Henrietta shook her head. "I saw it. The grey van. I really did."
Richard looked up at the police station, then to Henrietta. "Look Hal. There might have been a grey van there. And a man with a spotted hankie. But guns? Are you honestly sure there were guns?"
"Could it have been a car backfiring?"
"No! And I saw the money."
"Sacks. That's all. People shift things from vans to cars or other vans for all sorts of reasons. And maybe ..."
"And you didn't tell us about the hankie until after Simpson found it."
"Rick. What do you mean?"
"I don't think there was any robbery at all! I think you're making it up."
Thomas stepped in. "Look Rick. You were there. You saw Hal had been knocked out."
"Yeah. By a tree. Not by a bunch of drug dealers. And I'm surprised she didn't invent a kidnap as well."
"Richard!" Henrietta stamped her foot. "Ah!"
He turned and walked off. "I'll see you later."
Henrietta stared after him horrified.
Thomas put his arm round her shoulder. "Never mind, old Hal old pal. He's just a bit fed up, that's all."
"Oh Tee, I feel sick." She took a big breath and shook her head. "Oh, pooh to him. I saw it, and I know that I saw it."
Simpson whined. He knew something was wrong. He also knew that it was time for his supper.
"Come on Simpson," said Thomas. "Let's take him home, then we'll go and invest in a very large ice cream sundae at Swenson's. Your mum gave us far more than the taxi cost."
"Bad idea," said Henrietta.
"An ice cream sundae."
"And what's a better idea than an ice cream sundae?"
"Two ice cream sundaes!"
They raced off down the road, Simpson out in front by a long way.
"Four-three to us, then," Richard called. "Better wake your ideas up!"
The opposing captain took a better grip on his stick and curved off to have a word with his team.
The roller blade hockey derby was into its last five minutes. It was just a friendly game, but winning was a matter of pride and honour.
The whistle blew, the rollers spun, and the sticks clacked. For another two minutes the cul-de-sac was a flurry of whirling players. Then Richard got the ball and for a minute he was unmarked. He shot down the pitch, blades screaming; a masterful piece of dribbling.
He was just twenty metres from the goal. From nowhere, an opposing defender appeared, flashed across his path and hoiked the ball away.
Richard spun round and tackled him. Sticks clashed, and the ball shot off sideways. They both made a mad dash for it. It was win or lose time.
Then somebody's stick got in the way of somebody's rollers, it was too quick to tell whose, and Richard shot out of the cul-de-sac and into the road, tumbling head over heels.
There was a huge screech of brakes and he wrapped his arms around his head and squeezed his eyes shut. A second later he opened them again.
Just a few centimetres away was a large black tyre. It was connected to a grey van. The grey van had a dent with yellow paint on it. And the dent was like an inverted pyramid!
"What did you do then?"
"Well, for a minute I was so stunned I just stared at the dent in the van. Then this bloke got out and asked me if I was okay." Richard stretched and leaned back. "That's when I had the mega idea of the century."
"But what did you do?" repeated Henrietta.
"I groaned. I groaned and I moaned and I held my head and groaned a lot."
"Doesn't sound so brilliant to me," said Thomas.
"You haven't heard it yet. I kept groaning and saying 'Ambulance, ambulance'. And it worked."
"An ambulance came?" queried Henrietta.
"No. Well yes, I expect it did later, but not just then."
"So what did happen just then?"
"My groaning was so well acted the driver panicked. He got some of the other players to look after me and went running off to find a telephone."
"So, he'd gone. My plan had worked."
"What was so good about that?"
"Then I recovered. And I nipped up into the van and looked inside!"
"It was empty."
"So? This is like getting blood out of a stone." Henrietta was bouncing up and down on the chair.
"Well there was just one small thing."
From his pocket Richard produced a crumpled piece of paper. "A pile of delivery notes. From the company that owns the van. Lucky Prawn Private Limited. And the address. In Kranji."
He smiled at his audience. "Who's a clever chap, then?"
"You are, Rick," cried Henrietta, taking the piece of paper and gazing at it. "You are."
Thomas sniffed. "Have you ever looked closely at a van?"
"What do you mean?" Richard looked puzzled.
"Just that every van that's owned by a company has the name of that company, and the address, in large letters just near the passenger's door. It was probably six inches from your head all the time you were moaning and groaning and hamming it up." Thomas smiled. "Still, never mind. Good work Rick." He looked over Henrietta's shoulder at the note. "Lucky Prawn, eh. Sounds very dodgy if you ask me."
"But what do we do now?" asked Henrietta folding the note and flattening it with care. "Police again?"
Thomas looked at Richard, then back to Henrietta. "Hmmm."
"Well, maybe not." She shrugged. "But we've got to do something."
Thomas took the note and unfolded it. "'Timber merchants and suppliers'. Suppose we've got to go to Kranji then."
"Case the joint?" asked Richard.
"Sort of. But we can't just walk in. Especially you, Rick. 'The Mystery of the Vanishing Corpse'!"
"But we can just go and have a look around, can't we?" asked Henrietta. "Especially if we go after dark. Then Rick can come too."
"Yes, but you can't."
Henrietta looked rebellious. "Why not?"
"Why not? You were knocked out the day before yesterday."
"I'm fine now. I'm as fit as you are."
Richard stood up. "You try convincing your mum about that. He's right Hal. Look. We'll just go and have a look round. Just look, that's all. We'll come and tell you about it tomorrow. Okay?"
"Just look? Outside?"
"All right then, but no cheating."
"Abso-certainly! Richard looked at her earnestly. "Scout's honour."
"I saw you," said Thomas as they pedalled northwards. "Honourable scouts don't have their fingers crossed behind their backs."
"Just in case we happen to find an open door or something."
"Or in case a door happens to open right in front of us, you mean."
"Well, you never know your luck."
But luck wasn't with them that night. At least, not in the shape of an open door. The factory was more like a fortress than a timber yard. It was surrounded by a high brick wall topped with barbed wire.
Thomas and Richard crept all the way round and found there was just one entrance. A large pair of double gates, securely padlocked, had more barbed wire running across the top. The building itself was fairly small - a two storey building that was lit by a bright floodlight at each corner.
"How are you at picking locks?" whispered Richard.
"About the same as you, I expect."
"Let's have a try. Got any keys in your pocket?"
They tried the couple of keys they had with them, but none even went into the lock. They stood back and surveyed the place."
What about that drain?" Richard pointed to where a concrete channel met the wall at right angles.
"Drains? This isn't The Third Man, you know."
"No. The third man is at home in bed!"
They crept along to the drain and dropped down to the bottom. A small trickle of water flowed from the tunnel that led under the wall. The tunnel was just about big enough to squeeze through. Or it would have been if it didn't have a thick metal grill across it.
"Well, if we can't go through and we can't go under, we'll have to go over." Richard looked around at the odds and ends of wood lying around. "We could build a ladder."
"Held together with string, I suppose."
"Pity we haven't got a trampoline."
After much discussion of tactics, they dragged the thickest chunks of wood round to the side wall away from the road. When they'd piled all the bits of wood on top of each other, they'd got a pile about the size of a kitchen chair. Then Richard plonked a big square bit of plywood down on top.
"It's not very high," he said. "And what about the barbed wire?"
"Well in the movies the guy always has an old coat he slings over the wire." Thomas looked around for something suitable. Richard picked up a large bit of corrugated plastic. "Right. This should do. Okay - I'll give you a leg up. Then you drop down the other side and ..."
"And there I am on one side of the wall and you're on the other."
"There might be a ladder over there."
"And there might not." Thomas glared at Richard. "All right. Come on, give me a leg up and I'll see what's over there."
Richard climbed up first and hauled Thomas up after him. Then he linked his hands and hoisted Thomas up the rest of the way. "What can you see?"
Thomas peered cautiously over. "Nothing. Higher. More. Hey yes, what's that? Up. There's a ... YAAH."
The radical alteration in the distribution of weight proved too much for their rough and ready launch platform. It gave way unceremoniously. Thomas and Richard unwillingly complied with the law of gravity and descended to the ground followed by a lot of heavy bits of wood. It sounded like a thousand bowling balls hitting the pins at the same time.
"What? What you are ... What is? Thief! Thieves!" The shout from the other side was followed by shuffling footsteps and the sound of the gates being rattled.
"Run!" Richard was the first to recover. He bounced up and shot off towards the road.
"Wait for me!" hissed Thomas, struggling to his feet. "The bikes! He'll see our bikes." He stared desperately towards the road and the gateway. "Can you make a noise like an owl? No, forget it, forget it!"
"I could do a lion. Or a tiger."
"I said forget it." Thomas's heart was thumping fit to burst. "Come on, Rick. Have an idea. Quick."
They say danger concentrates the mind like nothing else. But Richard's brain had never heard this saying and continued to register a total blank.
Thomas's eye fell on an old rusty Coke can. "Okay. Try this." He picked it up and gave it to Richard.
"I don't mean try it, drink it! I mean try it, throw it over the wall. I've hurt my arm."
Richard hurled the can over the wall towards the factory building, aiming away from the gate. The noise it made, while nothing compared with the landslide earlier, appeared to be sufficient to distract the man behind the wall. There was a muttered curse, then the footsteps shuffled off away from the gate.
Thomas tripped on the mad dash to the bikes, but Richard just saved him from going full length into the dirt. They shot out onto the road, grabbed the bikes and pedalled like they were in the Tour de France.
"That was just a bit close," panted Richard after they'd put a good kilometre between themselves and the factory. "You all right?"
"Yeah, okay." Thomas rubbed his arm. "Reckon I left half my elbow on that wall, though. You?"
"No problem." Richard laughed. "Tell you what, though."
"That's all three of us got banged about this week."
They pedalled off down the road, Richard laughing away like a madman; Thomas alternately laughing and saying, "Ouch!"
"So what was it you saw?"
The committee was back in session in Henrietta's room.
"Saw? Oh. Nothing. Just an old man in a turban having a sleep."
"So you decided to wake him up."
"Rick dropped me!"
"I like that! I was the one doing all the work."
"Never mind. Never mind." Henrietta touched the bandage on her head. "Anyway, if there's a night watchman, it means two things."
"It means we can't get in at night."
"Yes. And it also means there's something worth guarding. You don't need a watchman for a load of old bits of wood."
"Yeah!" nodded the two boys, together.
During the long silence while they tried to think of their next move, Henrietta's mother appeared with a tray. "You three look terribly serious about something."
"Oh. It's ... er ... a project for school, mum. We're trying to have a brainwave."
"Well maybe this will give you food for thought." She put down three bowls of ice cream. "I've got to go out now. If your project takes you out and about, make sure to lock up securely. One robbery in a week is quite enough." The three looked at each other. If only she knew!
"You will make sure the house is locked?"
"Scout's honour mum."
"Guide's honour, I should think." She left the room and there was another silence as the team concentrated on ice cream and the problem of the factory.
"That's it!" Thomas put down his spoon.
"I," he announced, "am totally brilliant." He smiled a smug smile. "What happens this week?"
"Don't know. Your grandmother's birthday?"
"No, be serious. What week is it?"
"I don't know. Stop playing riddles."
"It's Scout Job Week."
"So, scout's honour. It's the one week of the year when a couple of innocent young scouts can spend a whole day spying on a factory. And get paid for it!"
"Tee!" Henrietta was very impressed. "That is an ace idea."
He beamed. "Yes, but - well, it's no good."
"Well I promised - I promised faithfully - I'd be around for the dreaded relatives this week. I missed out the past couple of days, and the whole family's going to Sentosa tomorrow. I've been press-ganged into going."
"Well I can still go," Richard stood up and yawned. "If you don't mind me using your idea."
"Okay, no prob ... " Thomas slapped his forehead. "No! No, you can't."
"Because scouts always go round in pairs. It's a rule or something."
"Oh, they won't know that."
Thomas was doubtful. "They might. And if the scout is the vanishing corpse, they could be mighty suspicious."
"Tee is right." Henrietta shook her head. "The driver must have missed his invoice by now."
Richard scratched his head as if that would release an idea. "Come on brain, it must be possible somehow."
There was a pause during which Henrietta slipped from the room.
"So who do we know who's a scout and wouldn't mind joining in?" asked Thomas after a while.
"You mean get someone else into it?" Richard shook his head. "I don't know."
"Hang on. I've got a class list in my bag downstairs." Thomas got up and made for the door, but before he could reach it, it opened and a boy scout stepped into the room.
"Can I join in?"
Thomas and Richard stared open-mouthed.
"Clean round your factory, mister?" the newcomer grinned.
Thomas gaped in amazement. "Hal? Is that you? Is that really you?"
The new scout whipped off his cap. "S'me all right. Scouts honour!"
"But what? ... where?"
"My brother's uniform. He won't need it in California." Henrietta beamed. "Fits me perfectly and I don't even need to get my hair cut."
Thomas shook his head. "Oh no Hal. No!"
"Oh yes, yes, yes, brother scout."
"No." Richard stood up. "No!"
Thomas pointed a finger at her. "No. Absolutely not. It's out. Bad plan. No way. Completely forbidden. You may not. Finally and definitely, NO."
Henrietta didn't even bother arguing. She smiled an even bigger smile. "You want to catch some bank robbers or not?"
And so it was decided. Next day, she and Richard, both in scout uniform, set off for the timber factory in Kranji.
The next morning the gates were open and the factory was busy. The steel shutters had been rolled up and both sides of the building were now open, revealing huge machines. Buzz saws sliced through whole logs of wood; power planes cleaned up the planks and a giant shredder ate all the useless, odd shaped bits of wood, spewing the result into chips for manufactured board.
The lady with the large teeth opened the door to a tiny room. "Mr Lalcacca, here's some help for you."
A photocopying machine was whirring away, attended by a very thin, old man. There were piles of paper everywhere.
"Mr Lalcacca, this is Henry."
The old man nodded.
Henrietta looked around the room. "What do you do here?" she asked in her lowest voice. Richard managed not to laugh.
She tried again, louder. "What do you do?"
It was Henrietta's turn to look puzzled.
"Stuffing, dear." The toothy lady smiled. "You put these leaflets into these envelopes and then you label them ready for the franking machine."
"Oh, er ..." Henrietta looked around her at the huge piles of paper and envelopes. Then she brightened. "It's my hay fever," she said. "I'm afraid I can't work in a dusty room."
Richard looked amazed. "Your hay ... " He was silenced by a short jab in the ribs.
Henrietta sneezed a little sneeze to demonstrate the power of dust.
"Oh well." The lady displayed her extensive collection of teeth again. "Richard, are you allergic to dust?"
"I suppose not," he muttered. "I'll see to you later, Sneezy." he looked daggers at Henrietta as the dentist's delight led her from the room.
Richard looked at his new mentor. "Hello Mr Lalcacca. How many envelopes have we got to stuff today"
"How many?" Richard pointed.
"How many? Oh, just six thousand or so."
The first ten weren't too bad. The second ten were pretty tedious. The third ten were completely, mind-bogglingly boring. By the time he'd done two hundred and thirty three envelopes, leaflets and labels, Richard was certain he would go mad. His sanity was only saved by Mr Lalcacca's announcement that it was time for a break.
The Coke was cool and refreshing. Richard sat and slurped it while considering just what he would do to Henrietta when he found her. Then he looked up and began to laugh.
The bedraggled figure that flopped down next to him was almost unrecognisable as the trim neat scout that had accompanied him to the factory that morning.
"A nice open air job, away from dusty offices. That's what she said," groaned Henry/Henrietta. "So what do you think I'm doing? What I am doing is shifting garbage. That is what I am doing. In the open air." She grabbed Richard's Coke and finished it off in one long swallow.
He didn't reply, just beamed.
"Oh, that's better." She put down the can and tried to wipe some dirt off her knee. She only succeeded in smearing the black muck even more.
"Good job I've got clean clothes with me. Think I ought to take a walk through a car wash." She flopped back against the wall and looked at her filthy hands.
"Yuk!" she said and stood up. She walked off towards the door marked LADIES.
"Henry!" called Richard. "HENRY!"
But Henrietta didn't pause. She opened the door and swept in.
Then she swept rapidly out again, followed by a piercing scream and the toothy lady.
"You filthy-minded little boy!" she yelled. "How dare you peep at me? You invade the sanctity of the ... Don't your parents teach you right and wrong? You ... you ... bad person!" She stormed off, her teeth looking even whiter against the red of her face.
Henrietta stood open-mouthed.
"Nice one Hal!" called Richard. "Good move there."
"Oh shut up you." She looked tearful. "But I've got to go!"
"Come on then." Richard stood up. "I'll show you where the gents is, shall I?"
Henrietta glowered at him. Then she kicked at a bit of wood and followed him to the other end of the factory.
But by lunchtime she was in a slightly better mood. She'd finished her garbage duties and had been reassigned to counting planks of wood as they were loaded onto the lorries. She'd even managed to clean up a little.
"Come on, Richard. Eat up." She looked around the now quiet factory floor. Most of the machinists had finished lunch and were having a quiet snooze.
"Time for a bit of snooping."
The ground floor was quick and easy to check. No surprises at all. They crept up the stairs that led to the offices above. There were eight doors, four on each side of a short corridor.
"What do we do?" asked Richard in a whisper. "We shouldn't even be up here."
"Just knock and march in."
"If we creep in, it's obvious we're up to something. If we walk straight in and anyone asks, we're just looking for ... oh, Mr Lewis."
"Who's Mr Lewis?"
"Rick! You aren't very good as a burglar, are you?"
He gave her a dirty look and tapped on the first door. When nobody answered, he opened it and peered in.
There were two desks, some filing cabinets, telephones, and a fax machine. There was also a complicated looking chart on the wall. Papers were everywhere.
"Mr Lewis," called Richard in a low voice.
"Stop messing around." Henrietta nipped past him and opened a filing cabinet. "Close the door and wait outside. If anyone comes, knock three times."
Richard slid out, his heart pounding. Henrietta had said the men she saw had guns. If anyone came along he'd be okay, but Henrietta was in deep danger.
He opened the door again. "Hal!"
Henrietta quickly slid the drawer shut, then darted out into the corridor.
"I wonder which one is Mr Lewis's office," she said in a stagey voice. Then she realised they were alone.
"You idiot!" she hissed. "I might have been just about to find something."
"Look! This is just too dangerous. And if they had got something to hide - guns or some incriminating evidence - they'd lock it up."
"Hmm. Well, yes, okay. I suppose you're right."
They trudged down the stairs in deep thought.
"What we need," said Richard, "is a key to the gate and a key to the building. Then we can come back here at night and search properly."
The first objective proved to be ridiculously easy to obtain; the other, impossible.
They sauntered, still deep in thought, out through the little reception area. The receptionist was still at lunch. On the spur of the moment, Richard nipped behind the desk and opened a cabinet on the wall. It was filled with racks of keys, each neatly labelled.
Most of them were for cars, but the top left hand one read, quite clearly, MAIN GATE.
"You can't just take it!" hissed Henrietta. "They'll miss it."
Richard tapped his nose and smiled. "Wait here."
He dashed off into the factory and was back in less than twenty seconds. "Thank goodness for old fashioned places with real soap, not bottled stuff," he grinned. "I've never done this before, but I've read about it. Keep a look out."
Carefully he pressed the key into the soap, first one side, then the other. Then he put the key back on the rack and wrapped the soap in several layers of lavatory paper.
He handed the prize to Henrietta. "Bung this in your pocket."
She took it almost reverently. "Sometimes, oh great envelope stuffer, you surprise me."
"Why thank you, miss sneezing garbage collector!"
Then the hooter blew for the end of lunchtime and the factory came back to life.
At four o'clock they were twenty dollars richer, but no nearer acquiring a key to the factory. They walked round the outside of the building hoping to spot an alternative way in.
"There must be something. What about that key rack?"
"No such luck." Richard shook his head. "They were all car and van keys except for the one for the gate."
"We unlock it now and get in through it later."
"They're all barred."
"Ah, pooey to it," yelled Henrietta. "Let's cheer ourselves up and plan what to do with our gains. All this garbage handling has given me quite an appetite - what good nibbles can we get for twenty dollars?"
"We can't spend it!" Richard was horrified. "It's for the scouts."
"But I'm not a scout. I can spend my half."
"But that's just as bad as ..." Richard broke off. He was staring over her head. Henrietta turned round to look.
"A window with no bars!"
"Right Hal. Right. Er. Pace it out to the corner. Then we pace it out inside to see what room it is."
"Forty-six forty-seven, that's it."
They were slap bang outside the ladies. And hovering just nearby was the toothy lady. She looked at them suspiciously.
"Just on our way." Richard grabbed Henrietta by the arm and dragged her away.
They stopped at the door and looked back. The woman was staring at them, her arms folded, teeth bared. They turned and made their way to the cycle shelter.
"What now?" asked Henrietta as they wearily unlocked their bikes. "We were so near."
Richard shrugged his shoulders. "Old buck teeth will stand on guard for hours. You can't go in there. What we need is a helpful female."
"And that's just what we haven't got. A helpful female." Henrietta opened her saddle bag. She looked inside and suddenly her whole attitude brightened. She looked up and beamed at him. "Or have we?!"
He looked around. There was nobody near them at all.
"What is a female," beamed Henrietta, "but someone in a skirt and blouse?" She took out the clothes she'd worn to leave the house that morning. "And you're just the same size as me."
"Come on Rick."
"No. You put them on."
"No good. She's seen me hanging around there twice, she'd be bound to spot me. But she wouldn't recognise you."
"Just for five minutes."
"Not for five seconds."
"I'll give my share of the twenty dollars to the scouts."
"No, no, no, no, no. N, O spells NO! And that is final!"
And so it was that just a few minutes later a demure figure emerged from behind the dustbin shed. It wore a long flared skirt, a pink blouse, a headscarf and a terrified expression.
The coy young maiden stepped hesitantly into the factory building and re-emerged thirty seconds later moving at almost the speed of light.
"One word, just one word to Tee, and I'll murder you!" she hissed.
Screech ... screech ... screech ... screech.
Thomas put down the file, unclamped the vice and removed the key. He dipped it in a mug of water to cool it, then checked the outline against the soap mould.
"Perfect. Just perfect." He looked at Richard. "Good team eh? You measure them, I file them. We could get in anywhere."
He dried the key on an old rag. "Seriously, Rick, that was a pretty good idea you had. Corny, but good."
Richard took the key and held it up to the light. "Reckon it'll work?"
"Hope so. You say the key there was very old and worn?"
"Almost an antique."
Thomas shrugged. "Then the lock will probably be worn too. The fit shouldn't be critical."
"Let's hope so. No other way in. You nervous?"
"About tonight? No." Thomas shrugged. "Well ... well just a bit!"
"Me too. But don't tell Hal." Thomas put the file and other things away, then checked to see they hadn't left any mess lying around the garage.
"Okay," he said. "What's the plan for tonight?"
"Can you get out OK?"
"No problem. I've told Mum and Dad I'm staying over with you. They know we're busy on something - I told them it was a school project. And with all the uncles and aunts around the house they're glad to be rid of me."
"Yeah. Relations!" Richard gave the key back to Thomas. "Okay - plan of war. Let's go and consult Singapore's first lady scout."
It was getting dark by the time they arrived at Henrietta's house. As they opened the gate and walked up the path, a light came on over the front door. Presuming that Henrietta or her mother had seen them arrive, they waited for the door to open.
It remained closed, though, and after a while the light went off.
"Funny!" Richard moved towards the doorbell. As he did so, the light came on again. He paused and looked at the door expectantly, but nothing happened. A few seconds later, the light went off.
"What on earth?" Thomas moved back to see if there were lights on upstairs. Just then the porch light came on again.
"This is weird." He didn't wait to see if the light went off again, but pressed the doorbell hard.
A cheerful barking from inside the house was followed by a rattling of bolts and the door opened. Simpson recognised his old friends and greeted them in the usual doggy way.
"Hal! What's going on?" Richard fended off the beagle. "What were you up to?"
Henrietta looked puzzled. "Up to?"
"The light. It kept going on, then off. Every time we moved the light went on, then it went off again."
Mrs Lim appeared in the doorway. "Ah, it works then."
They looked blank.
"My burglar alarm system. Come on in." She led them into the sitting room. "I was so upset after my ring was stolen I got a burglar alarm system installed."
"But we didn't try to break in. We didn't even ring the doorbell."
"But the automatic light's part of it. It detects movement and puts the light on. The salesman told me it would make a burglar think someone had seen him and he'd run away." She laughed. "Never mind, how about some home-made ice cream? It's chocolate."
"The guys don't want ice cream, mum. We've got to discuss our, er, project."
Thomas and Richard looked at Henrietta as if she had taken leave of her senses. Of course they wanted ice cream! Mrs Lim understood perfectly and went off to the kitchen.
Henrietta glared at the boys. "We haven't got time."
"There's always time for ice cream," said Thomas. "Especially your mum's home-made."
"And chocolate is my favourite," added Richard.
"You'd better have a large bowl then," said Mrs Lim returning with a loaded tray. She spooned out the delicious concoction. In spite of her protestations of haste, Henrietta accepted a large bowl too. Simpson curled up on the rug next to his mistress. He knew that ice cream was totally banned. He also knew that Henrietta might let him lick the bowl later.
"Now, tell me," said her mum, when they were all spooning away like mad. "What's this mysterious project all about?"
The trio looked at each other in alarm. Three chocolate-coated mouths gaped. They hadn't been prepared for this.
"Er ..." said Thomas, "computers."
"Housing trends," Richard.
"Transport." Henrietta finished off, lamely.
"Well actually," Thomas was thinking quicker than the others, "it's about how computers ... er, how information technology will affect housing design and public transport." He looked up, pretty pleased at how plausible he'd sounded.
"Yes." Henrietta nodded, not quite so plausibly.
"This ice cream is really delicious, Mrs Lim." Richard tried to distract her from any further enquiries about the non-existent project.
"Well if you come up with a high tech way of finding out who stole my ring, I'll make you ice cream every day of the year. The police seem to be completely baffled." Mrs Lim stood up. "Anyway I've got to be moving. I'll be back in a couple of hours. Finish up the tub." As she left the room, three pairs of hands made a grab for the remaining ice cream.
Thomas was the first to put down his spoon. "So come on, action plan time."
Henrietta collected up the bowls and put them on the tray. "Well all we do is go to the factory, and see whatever there is to be seen."
"Yes, but we need to have a plan. We need torches for a start ..."
"And a camera in case we find a big clue," put in Henrietta. "It'll be dark!"
"My camera's got a flash."
"No! No flashes." Thomas was quite adamant.
"Right, we take torches. No camera. What else?"
Richard thought about it hard. "A disguise?"
"No! Even if we dressed as ... as priests we'd still be in trouble if they caught us."
"Is it very dangerous?" Henrietta wanted to know.
"Not as long as we're careful." Thomas didn't really think so, but he wanted to reassure her. "Anyway, is that all? We've got keys, we've got - you did leave the window open, Hal?"
"Well, I ..."
"Did you or didn't you?"
She looked at Richard, trying not to laugh. "It's open all right, isn't it Rick?"
"Er yes. I ... um ... distinctly remember seeing it ajar as we left."
"What?" Thomas looked worried. "Then anyone passing by could have seen it. It might be locked by now."
"Well, when I say ajar, I mean not very much ajar. Just a little bit." Richard was beginning to go red in the face.
Henrietta grinned. "Go on, Rick, you might as well tell him."
"Tell him what?"
Richard looked at her in anguish.
"You know!" She smiled as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.
"No I don't!" he growled at her from between clenched teeth.
Thomas looked from one to the other in bewilderment. "What? We'll be here all night if you keep up this double act."
"Oh, just that we passed the window as we were on our way out and saw that it was a bit open and Rick pushed it closed so nobody else would spot it. Didn't you Rick?"
He grinned the weakest grin ever grinned. "Yes. Yes, that was it. Thank you Hal. Thank you for reminding me, that is." He stood up. "I've er ... I've got to go now."
He headed for the door. "What time shall we meet?"
Thomas stood up. "Er, why don't you and Hal meet me there about half-past one?"
"There?" Richard was beginning to recover from his near-unmasking as the frocked window unlocker. "What are you up to?"
"Haven't worked it all out yet. I'll tell you later."
Richard gave him a suspicious look. "No going in on your own."
"I won't. Scout's honour."
"Okay. About one o'clock, Hal?"
"Okay," she shrugged. "Hey, I've got to go out too. Simpson hasn't had his walk."
The beagle heard the magic word and began to bark and jump around. The best part of the day had arrived.
"Er, one thing, Hal," Thomas seemed very sheepish. "Does your dad have any XO, any whisky?"
"XO!" she looked shocked. "Tee. What are you up to? Okay, hang on Simpson."
"Just trust me. Have you got any?"
"Yes, there's all the bottles of XO and things people give him at Christmas and Chinese New Year, and he never drinks any. But why?"
"Can I have one?"
"I'm sure he wouldn't mind. He wouldn't even notice one, but ... what are you up to?"
"Oh, all right. But you'd better explain later. Promise."
"Cross my heart and hope to die." He looked at her. "Well, not literally, you know."
"Oh! ... Come on Simpson."
Richard braked to a stop outside Henrietta's house. Her bedroom light was on. That was their pre-arranged signal that something was up, and she couldn't make it. He sighed, and was just about to pedal off when the light went out and the window opened.
A bundle appeared, then Henrietta's head and shoulders. "Catch," she hissed and began lowering the bundle on a rope. It was wriggling and squirming as if it had a life of its own.
Henrietta jumped out of the window after it. She tiptoed across the flat roof of the patio and shinned down the drainpipe. She bent and undid the rucksack and Simpson wriggled out wuffing and shaking himself.
Richard shook his head in alarm. "We can't take a dog."
"Well I can't leave him in my bedroom. He'd bark the house down." She vanished behind the house and appeared a few seconds later pedalling her bike. "I've already woken up the whole family."
"My mum's burglar alarm. I forgot all about it. I opened the window to get out and it triggered the whole system. Bells ringing, lights flashing ..." she paused for breath. "I said I was sorry, I just wanted some air."
"So how did you get out?"
"Easy! First year physics. I unscrewed the little magnet from the window frame and stuck it on the sensor with sticky tape. The stupid system thinks the window's shut tight."
"So who's the little electronic genius, then?" Richard was genuinely impressed.
"Oh, it was nothing." She tried not to look too pleased. "Come on Simpson. Big walkies." She slung her leg over her bike. "Tee. Did you find out what he was up to?"
"He wouldn't say, he was very mysterious. Come on, it's a long way to Kranji."
It seemed even further in the dark than it had the day before, and they were very glad when the familiar floodlamps came in sight. Thomas stepped out into the road in front of them, and showed them where to hide their bikes behind a wall. Henrietta explained about having to bring Simpson along.
"All right," he said. "But he can't come into the factory. We'll have to leave him outside."
"Okay," said his mistress. "But what have you been up to? What was all that about the whisky?"
"I've been arranging things," he replied. "Come on. Quiet Simpson. Quiet, okay?"
The beagle wagged his tail as if he understood. But then, he wagged his tail like mad whenever anyone spoke to him. He fell into step behind the three.
They were halfway to the gate when Richard suddenly stopped.
"Hey! Stupid! Stupid, stupid, stupid!" he said. "That man. We forgot the old man. The night watchman!"
"Oh no we didn't."
Henrietta and Richard looked blankly at Thomas.
"While we were planning earlier," he looked pleased with himself, "I was thinking about the old man."
"Let's hope he's sound asleep," said Richard.
"He will be. Hal gave me a bottle of whisky. And I put on my cap and cycled up here and presented it to the old geezer as a gift from the Rotarians. Told him all the night watchmen were getting a bottle." He laughed. "I'm getting all the ideas this week, aren't I?"
"That bang on the head must have done you good," said Richard dryly. "Come on."
In spite of Thomas's preparations, they didn't take any chances. They tiptoed up to the gates and peered through. Nothing.
Thomas went first to the gatepost where he dribbled oil from a small can on the gate hinges. Then he crossed his fingers, slid the key into the lock, turned it, and the lock snapped open.
"Yi!" he whispered in glee.
They pushed the gates open. In spite of Thomas's lubrication there was a loud squeal from one hinge and Henrietta's heart gave a lurch.
But there was no challenging shout and they peered round the gatepost.
"Sleeping like a baby," whispered Thomas looking at the snoring figure on an old wood and string bed. "Come on."
"Hang on a minute." Henrietta turned and began closing the gates behind her.
"What are you doing, Hal?" hissed Thomas. "That's our escape route."
"You're not the only one around here who thinks," she answered. "What if a police patrol car passes or the man wakes up?"
"Yeah, okay." Thomas nodded and she clicked the padlock shut. "Right," he said. "Where's this window?"
Henrietta and Richard led him round the side of the building out of sight of the non-watching watchman, but not out of earshot of his snores. They found the right window, and it was still unlocked.
"Right, Simpson," whispered Henrietta. "This is as far as you go." The beagle sat down and put his head on one side.
"What if he goes and wakes up the night watchman?" Richard indicated the snoring. "Shouldn't we have tied him to our bikes or something?"
"He'll be fine here. Honest." She patted the beagle on the head. "Simpson. Stay! Stay!"
Simpson yawned and lay down. He didn't mind a bit of a rest. He liked a good run, but Kranji was quite a distance. He closed his eyes and was soon dreaming of fine doggy things.
"Come on. Help me stack these cans." Thomas began piling some old paint cans under the open window. A few moments all three were standing in the ladies lavatory.
Richard eased open the door and peered out. The huge machines looked ominous in the pale light coming in through the barred windows, and he licked his lips nervously.
"Come on!" hissed Thomas. "We haven't got all night."
"Oh yes we have," Richard relaxed a little. "All night long!"
They padded silently along the empty corridor that led to the wooden stairs. Richard led the way, with Henrietta close behind and Thomas bringing up the rear.
The machines looked even more threatening now they were up close to them. Just as disturbing were the soft rustling noises from the darker corners of the factory. Henrietta shuddered at the thought of rats and giant cockroaches.
They arrived at the stairs and began to climb, their hearts going pitter-patter and their mouths dry. They weren't afraid; more sort of terrified.
"This is the office we checked out this afternoon." Richard turned the handle and opened the door. It was pitch black inside.
Richard flicked on his torch and panned it round the room.
"There's nothing in here," said Henrietta decisively. "Let's try the others."
She moved to the next door and opened it. Her torch shone briefly. "Looks just like the other one."
The office opposite was the one Richard had been stuffing in all day. He was quite certain there was nothing of any interest at all in there.
They tried the next one and the next one. Nothing. Big offices and small offices, but just offices. Richard moved to the door at the end of the row and tried to turn the handle.
"Hey! This one's locked. This is it."
Henrietta and Thomas joined him at the door.
"What do you know about picking locks?" asked Henrietta.
Both boys shrugged and shook their heads. "Not a thing," said Thomas.
"Neither do I, but I've seen it done. You need a hair clip."
Richard nipped into the office next door and reappeared with a paper clip. He handed it to Henrietta who straightened it out and began to poke at the lock.
"Hey, hold the torch for me, someone," she said.
Thomas pointed his own torch at the lock. Henrietta twiddled and twiddled and muttered and twiddled, but still the handle refused to turn.
"Come on Hal." All this waiting about was making Richard even more nervous.
She stood up and motioned to the door. "Richard Wong. If you think you can do better, feel free to try."
He moved forward to take the paper clip from her, but tripped on a loose carpet tile and fell against the door. It swung open.
He grinned up at them in the torchlight. "How's that for service?"
Thomas looked at the door. "The lock's broken. There's not even any works inside it!"
Henrietta helped Richard up and they looked around the office. It was bigger than the others, but was almost entirely filled by a conference table and chairs. No cupboards, no desks, nowhere to hide anything.
They trooped out and closed the door.
"This must be the one then." Henrietta moved to the door on the other side of the corridor. She tried the handle, but it didn't move. Thomas pushed hopefully at the door, but this one was definitely locked.
"Right," he said. "Want to try your paperclip again?"
But before Henrietta could answer there was a hooting noise from outside and car headlamps swept across the ceiling of the factory.
For a moment, they froze. Then as car doors slammed outside they came to life again.
"Quick!" hissed Richard. "The ladies." He darted down the stairs.
"No! Up here." Thomas back into the first office.
Henrietta ran after him, then down the stairs, then up again.
"Tee!" she called in a stage whisper. "They must be going to the offices. They wouldn't be running the factory at night. Quick, downstairs."
He came shooting out of the office and grabbed her arm, dragging her down the stairs three at a time. They galloped across the floor towards the ladies. Straight into Richard who was heading back towards them. They collapsed in a heap. From the main door came the sound of a key turning in a lock.
The trio looked desperately about them. "In the toilet."
"Behind the fork lift."
"Back up the stairs."
Now they could hear voices and footsteps. The overhead lights came on.
"Under here!" Richard grabbed the other two by the arms and dragged them underneath the bed of a giant circular saw.
They pressed back against the huge blade as two pairs of trouser legs passed close by. The legs disappeared towards the back of the factory.
"Phew! That was close!" whispered Henrietta.
Then one pair of legs returned. And stopped, near enough to reach out and touch.
Thomas, Richard and Henrietta stuffed their hands in their mouths to stop themselves crying out. Their eyes widened with fear. Henrietta couldn't imagine why the stranger couldn't hear her heart beating. To her it seemed louder than a jumbo jet.
"Will this one do?" The owner of the legs called.
"Looks good. Big enough for you?"
"Nice, nice. Just right."
"Help yourself," the second voice offered.
The trousers came right up to the saw bench.
Time seemed to slow down all of a sudden. Thomas looked at the saw blade. It glinted, wickedly. He'd seen it ripping through great logs of wood. Now all three of them were packed hard against it. If it turned they'd be cut to ribbons...
And if they moved away, they'd be grabbed. Thomas had no illusions about what a gang of armed robbers would do to three spies.
The trouser owner's hand reached out towards the big switch by Thomas's shoulder. It reached for the big recessed red button. The button that would spin the murderous blade into action.
Henrietta opened her mouth to scream.
BANG!!! Clunk clang clang CLANG!!!
"What was that!?" The hand moved away.
The trousers followed. Two pairs of footsteps receded towards the source of the sudden noise.
"Out! Quick!" Richard rolled away from the threat of the saw blade.
They shot out from under the saw bed and behind the safer prospect of a forklift truck.
"False alarm," they heard a voice call. "Strange, though. There was a pile of old cans outside, and now they're all over the place. When I went round there some dog started barking at me. Didn't know we had a guard dog!"
Henrietta grabbed Richard's arm. "Good old Simpson!" she breathed.
Then the footsteps came closer again and the power saw was switched on.
Henrietta shivered. For the next few minutes all the trio could hear was the howl of the blade biting into wood. They shivered as they listened.
The saw whined down to a halt, and there was a lot of banging and cursing from the invisible men. Richard risked a quick look round the side of the big red forklift truck.
"Can't see much," he whispered. "They've got their backs to me and they're doing something on a bench."
Eventually the banging ceased, then the main lights went out. Footsteps tramped away and up the steps, and one of the office doors slammed.
"Phew! That was close!" Henrietta stood up slowly. "If we hadn't brought Simpson along, it might have been us getting sliced in two!"
Richard didn't waste any time imagining bisection. He ran to the corridor between the machines and looked up at the one lighted window. "They're up there. Let's phone the police." He made for the reception area.
Thomas held him back. "Hang on," he whispered. "Let's not rush into anything. We broke in - we're here illegally remember. And if you lift up a phone there how do you know it isn't an extension of one upstairs. I don't want to be sliced up like a load of plywood."
Henrietta was in agreement. "The police wouldn't believe us anyway. What we need is evidence."
Richard looked thoughtful. "Yeah, okay. We'd better see where they went. Come on."
They tiptoed up the stairs. Low voices came from the first office on the right. Thomas motioned them into the one next to it. They followed him in and closed the door quietly.
The voices were a little louder in here, but still muffled.
They pressed their ears to the wall in an effort to make out what was being said, but to no avail.
They looked around for something to help. Henrietta shone her torch on a complicated looking device she was hoping was an intercom, but it was just a fax machine.
Richard pointed at the ceiling. "Hey, Tee," he breathed. "Give me a hand."
He picked up a chair and put it carefully on top of one of the desks, making sure he was silent about it. Then he climbed up on the desk, onto the chair and pushed at one of the ceiling tiles. It didn't move. He pushed harder. The tile screeched against the metal supports and Richard let go quickly. It dropped back into place with a heavy clunk.
The three froze. The mumbled voices from next door ceased. Henrietta squeezed her eyes shut, emulating an ostrich.
Then the voices began again. The silence had only lasted five seconds or so but it seemed like hours to the terrified three.
But terrified or not, they were determined to press on. Richard put his hands to the tile again and looked at the other two.
"Careful!" Thomas mouthed in the gloom.
Richard pushed at one side of the tile and it slid slowly and silently upwards. He eased it sideways and gently lowered it on top of the next one. He grimaced at Henrietta and Thomas, then put one hand either side of the hole and leaned some of his weight on the supports.
The thin aluminium bent alarmingly. He made a wry face, eased the tile back in place and climbed back down. "Too flimsy," he whispered.
Henrietta carefully lifted the chair down and put it back under the desk.
The children stood in the alien room, their hearts beating like kettle drums.
Thomas looked around the room, then picked up a glass from a tray. He sniffed it, then wiped it on his grubby T-shirt.
"Don't know if this works, but I've seen it in films." He held the glass to the wall and pressed his ear against the glass.
"Nothing! Stupid films."
Henrietta took the glass from him and reversed it so the open end was against the wall. She leant her ear against it and smiled superciliously at Thomas. Then her eyes opened wide.
"Thirty million!" she hissed. "Thirty million dollars!"
The others pressed close. "What? What's happening?"
She shushed them madly. "Can't hear them very well. I think one of them's on the phone. Hey! Something about bigger lorries."
There was a long pause.
"They're muttering now."
"Hey!" Thomas pointed to the glass. "If this is their tea room they might come in at any moment."
"You're right," whispered Richard. He moved to the door and opened it. "We'd better get -"
The door to the next office opened. The three froze. Their brains told their legs to move, to get them under the desk or behind the filing cabinet pretty smartish, but the legs refused to obey orders. The trio just stood there in full view of anyone passing the door.
But the men didn't bother looking into a dark empty office. They headed straight down the st
Richard was the first to come out of suspended animation. He reached the top of the stairs as the men passed the big circular saw.
"Right," he heard the smaller one say. "You reckon one more run will be enough?"
The other one held up the sinister looking bundle he was carrying. "This should do the trick. Then if the timings are okay tomorrow, we'll be ready for Friday."
The three looked at each other in the dim light. It wasn't a robbery that Henrietta had seen. It was a rehearsal for a robbery!
The three stared at each other, open-mouthed.
"Thirty million!" gasped Richard. "Thirty million!"
Thomas came to life. "But where? When? Which van?"
Henrietta moved over to the office the men had been in. "'Production coordinator'," she read.
Idly she turned the handle. This time the door swung open.
The trio pressed inside eagerly. It looked like any other ordinary office, maybe a bit scruffier than most.
"Clever," said Thomas. "The best way to hide something - leave it lying about, then nobody believes it's worth a second glance." He shone his torch on some papers on the desk. Henrietta peered over his shoulder.
"Quick!" Richard hissed. "They're coming back!"
He quietly closed the door and dashed for the cover of the desks. In the dark he stubbed his toe, and had to fight to stifle his groans.
Footsteps clattered up the stairs. It was almost too much for Henrietta. She wanted to scream, but pressed under one of the desks with the two boys.
The footsteps came on down the corridor to the office. All three children were trembling and sweating now. They held their breath, crossed their fingers and squeezed their eyes shut. The door opened. But instead of the light coming on, the door banged shut again and there was the sound of a key turning in the lock.
The footsteps retreated down the corridor, and in a few moments the sound of the main door slamming came faintly to their ears.
"We're trapped!" Henrietta's voice trembled.
"Don't worry, we'll get out." Richard didn't sound too convinced.
He tiptoed over and tried the door handle, more in hope than expectation. His expectations weren't exceeded - the door was securely locked.
"Do you think they heard us?" Thomas asked. "Or did they just forget to lock up?"
Richard came back to the desk. "The phones. Try the phones." He picked one up and listened. Then he pressed the rest a couple of times. "Nothing."
Henrietta picked up the other phone. She put it to her ear, then shook her head. "They've cut the lines."
"Or just turned off the switchboard." Thomas was always practical. He began to prowl the office looking for a way out.
Henrietta bit her bottom lip. "They had guns. They were shooting people. Richard, I'm scared. I don't mind admitting it. I'm scared."
"We're all scared Hal." Thomas tried to make his voice sound normal. "Look, it's only an office. There's got to be some way out. Lets search everywhere." He shivered and stood up. "Fancy trying the ceiling tiles again?"
Richard repeated his performance with the chair on the desk, but this time he didn't wince when the tile screeched against the support. He shone his torch into the hole. "Not much use, I don't think. There's not a lot of clearance between the ceiling and the roof. And the walls seem to go all the way up."
"What about the air conditioning trunking?" suggested Thomas. "You see people crawling through the trunking in the movies."
"What air conditioning trunking?" asked Richard, pointing at the split unit mounted on the wall of the office.
An hour later they were still no nearer finding a way out. Richard and Thomas were poking around in the filing cabinets looking for something more useful than a list of names and flight numbers; Henrietta was curled up under one of the desks having a snooze. She was dreaming about being bound and gagged and tied to a power saw bench. The blade was coming nearer and nearer. It bit into her shoulder...
She woke up and the blade was still cutting into her.
"Hal. Hal! Wake up!" Richard was shaking her shoulder roughly in his excitement.
"Aaah! What is it?" She sat up and rubbed the sleep from her eyes.
"Got it!" Thomas held a large piece of paper in front of her. "The master plan."
"Uh?" She shook herself fully awake.
"Look! A map of the attack. Roads and vans and things, all marked. Look here; getaway van!"
Henrietta's eyes opened wide, and held out her hand for the map. "It's to 'all personnel, Shazam'," she read. "Friday 24th. The day after tomorrow. That's what they said. And 0930 hours, Sime Road!"
"We've got to get out," said Thomas. "We've just got to get out. We've got to get this to the police.
"Henrietta held her head in her hands. "This is stupid. There must be some way out."
Richard rattled the door handle. "Why don't we just break down the door?" He backed off a couple of paces and hurled himself at the door.
He made quite a noise, but no real impression on the door. He tried a couple more times, then gave up. "Trouble is, this door opens inwards. If it opened outwards I'd have done it. Easy!" He sat down, rubbing his shoulder ruefully.
"Never mind, Ricky, it was worth a try." Henrietta's voice trailed off as she realised they were really trapped.
Thomas hadn't been watching this performance. He'd been staring into space. Now he sat up. "I saw this movie once -"
"Oh not again, Tee!"
"No, really. Anyway, this was how these blokes got out when they'd been locked in. First of all, it only works if the key's in the door." Thomas went across to check.
"If the key was in the door, we'd turn it and get out." Richard wasn't much more cheerful than Henrietta.
"On the other side I mean. Yes, it's there! Now we want a large bit of paper."
Richard produced an old newspaper he'd found in the desk drawers. "Will this do?"
Thomas pushed it under the door so most of it was in the corridor, then pushed gently at the key with a pencil.
"Too fat. Where's that paper clip?"
Henrietta passed it to him and came to watch over his shoulder. He prodded at the keyhole and after a few seconds there was a soft clunk. Thomas pulled the newspaper back under the door, and in the middle of the page, right on top of the television listings, was the key!
"Tee. You are an okay guy, you know that?" Richard patted him on the shoulder.
Henrietta hugged him and would have kissed him if he hadn't squirmed away in embarrassment.
"Right, okay. No sweat. Lets get out of here."
The journey back down the stairs, and through the ladies lavatory window was accomplished with no problems whatever. Simpson was waiting dutifully by the pile of cans and they made a huge fuss of him. Richard promised to buy the beagle a huge marrow bone with his next pocket money.
They tiptoed to the corner and peered round. They needn't have bothered with the caution; the night watchman was snoring away as soundly as ever. He looked as if he hadn't moved the whole night.
They padlocked the gate after them and ran to their bikes.
"Right!" said Henrietta. "We've got proof now. Straight to the police?"
Thomas thought about it for a moment. "I think the morning might be best. I mean the boss policemen will be there then, and I reckon we all need a bit of sleep."
"I don't," said Henrietta. "I need a lot of sleep. About twenty-four hours should be enough. What a day!"
"Double that for me," said Richard. "You got the map, Hal?"
"Right here in my pocket." She patted her jeans.
They agreed to meet at nine the next morning and pedalled off in silence. They were all very tired by the time they reached home. Henrietta climbed in through her bedroom window, hauled Simpson up after her, and went straight to bed. She slept like the proverbial log. She didn't even wake up when her mother came in and took her clothes away to wash them. Including the jeans with the map in the pocket!
The policeman poked tentatively at the whitish lump of congealed cardboard on the station desk. "And that's it, is it?"
Henrietta smiled wanly. "Yes. Sorry. It sort of got washed."
"And this is the map you drew from memory." He pulled a piece of paper towards him.
"Yes. I'm pretty sure it's accurate."
"It's very detailed," said Thomas.
Richard moved forward. "There were other copies there. All you've got to do is raid the place and you'll have a new one."
"Thank you. But I think it's rather unlikely that the inspector will decide to mount a raid."
"No raid?" Thomas's voice went up in pitch. "It's a hold-up of an armoured car, and you can prevent it."
"I've noted what you told me, and the inspector will decide what to do from here."
"All you have to do is send a car to the factory and -"
"There will be no hold-up. There can't be a hold-up. We'd be notified of any shipment of bullion or notes as large as thirty million. None of the banks is moving that sort of money tomorrow morning. Moreover, none uses the road you indicated."
"But we heard them. The thieves. They were -"
"Now look here, young man." The policeman stood up. "The doctor's report on this lady here says she had a nasty bang on the head. She reported a robbery. We investigated and found nothing. Now you tell me it's a future robbery. Now I know young people like watching cops and robbers films, but you've got to realise the difference between them and real life." He relaxed a little. "My advice to you is to go home and read a nice book or something. You're lucky the inspector isn't here right now or he'd run you in for wasting police time!"
The trio looked at him, then, without a word, turned and filed out of the building.
"Well, that's that," said Richard, kicking at a large yellow leaf.
Thomas shook his head "We could go to the insurance company."
"If we knew which van, and which insurance company."
"Or to the Straits Times."
"The bank, then."
"But which bank?"
"Well maybe we can find out," said Henrietta. "We could telephone them all and ask them." She didn't seem too convinced of her own argument.
"Oh yes." Richard shook his head. "They'd be bound to tell every caller exactly when they're going to shift thirty million about. And that policeman says there is no van going down there tomorrow."
They walked on to where their bikes were chained to a fence.
"I saw this..." Thomas broke off. "I've thought of something. Maybe it's not a bank."
The others looked at him.
"I mean maybe it's not a usual bank shipment. What if it's maybe the central bank sending old notes to be incinerated? Something like that."
"Yes!" Henrietta beamed.
"Tee, old Tee." Richard patted him on the back. "Sometimes you are a complete walking, inspired computer brain. "That must be it!"
"But." Thomas looked troubled. "Even if it is. What can we do about it?"
The other's faces fell.
"Oh I'm sick of this!" Richard suddenly punched his saddle. "We're just getting lost in things that don't concern us. It was past four when I got to bed, and now the police don't want to know and ... oh, I'm fed up."
"We can't just give up now." Henrietta pressed. "I've still got my ten dollars left for working for those thieves. As long as it's not stolen money, I'm for spending it on some thinking food."
Richard was scandalised. "You promised to give that money to the scouts if I put on that..." He tailed off. "Anyway, you promised."
"If you put on what?" Thomas wanted to know.
Henrietta took Richard's arm. "Come on. I need some ice cream otherwise I might get so weak in the head I start blabbing all sorts of things."
Richard looked horrified.
"Put on what?" repeated Thomas.
"Nothing! Come on then, if we must." Richard pedalled off rapidly, with Henrietta behind, grinning to herself, and Thomas in the rear calling out, "Put on what?"
But ten dollars' worth of ice cream later the ideas well was still dry.
Thomas licked his spoon clean. "My brain's worn out and my body's worn out too."
"Oh we can't stop now." Henrietta held her head and shook it. "It's tomorrow. One more day. Please."
Richard looked at Thomas. "What do movie heroes do at this point then, Tee?"
"Don't know." He thought about it for a while. "Call in the CIA or something."
Henrietta stood up. "Well let's at least go and look at the place."
"Yeah," said Thomas. "Case the joint. That's what James Bond would do. You've been watching some good films, Hal!"
Sime Road was its usual quiet self as they cycled past the cemetery and coasted down towards the bridge under the expressway. The three stopped and clustered round the map. Simpson trotted off to explore an exciting new lot of smells.
Henrietta turned the map to match the road layout. She pointed. "That's where this lorry, A, is to stop across the road. There's another one marked just off Lornie Road. So the main action must be over there." She pointed to a rather derelict building standing back from the road. A number of equally derelict old buses stood around.
They cycled over and parked by one of the buses.
"Let's see. The armoured van will come from down there." Thomas pointed towards the bridge. "According to the map, the other van overtakes it just before that bend, and then cuts in here. So the hold-up will be right in front of us."
"Hey!" Richard's face lit up. "If we can't get the police, we can at least be here. We could hide in there." He pointed at the derelict old house.
"Hey!!!" Henrietta waved her hands about excitedly. "Better. Even better. My dad's got a video camera. We could video the robbery! Then the police would have to believe us."
"Yeah," Richard was getting over his lack of sleep. "There could be a reward. What's ten per cent of thirty million?"
"Three million. Even you don't need a calculator for that, surely." Thomas was looking at the building.
"If I had a calculator I could work out how many tons of Hagen Dazs you could get for three million." Henrietta said in a dreamy voice.
Thomas walked over to the building and turned to look at the road. He looked up and down. Then he looked at the old buses. An idea began to form. And this one was his own - not from any movie.
"The buses!" he said aloud.
"Buses?" Richard turned to look at the old vehicles. "So?"
"What we do ... What we do is ..." Thomas hugged himself. "What we do is hide inside one of them until the raid starts. Then we let off the handbrake!"
He looked at the others. They looked back at him in blank astonishment.
"The bus will run down onto the road. Right into the getaway van! Just when they're about to make off with the money!"
"Okay!" Richard jumped up. "The brainbox has done it again."
Henrietta closed her eyes and leant back. Then she opened them again. "Totally, totally brilliant. Thomas Tan, I award you the order of the rum and raisin."
Thomas did a little unself-conscious dance. "Come on, let's go and pick a bus. We'll catch them!" He started forward, tripped over the kerb and fell, quite hard. He sat up, holding his nose and grinning from ear to ear. "Red handed!"
The next morning Sime Road looked much the same as it had always looked. There were some smart houses, and some rather shabby ones, the concrete of the expressway bridge was as drab as ever; the birds and insects went about their business as usual. The road was its usual sleepy self, especially near the old derelict house with the rusty buses outside.
But inside one of the buses, under a large black plastic sheet, three children and one dog lay in wait. Henrietta had her father's video camera with her and had already tested it a dozen times. Thomas had made her switch it off in case the battery ran out just as the raid began. Richard had arrived complete with his roller blades and hockey stick - like some gladiator of old. He said he wanted to be ready to whack any robber who escaped from the stricken van.
Thomas hadn't brought anything with him except a lot of worry and nervousness. Simpson was the only one who wasn't consumed by nerves, and even he sensed that something was up and it wasn't time to fool around. He lay quietly with one eye open and one closed.
Their nervousness had risen to fever pitch by nine o'clock. Whole squadrons of butterflies fluttered around in all three stomachs. Thomas felt physically sick and had to keep on sticking his head out for fresh air. They didn't talk much, just took it in turns to listen to Henrietta's walkman. It had two sets of headphones, so two people could listen at once. But one person had to be on watch at all times, listening for suspicious noises and checking the time.
Every five minutes they risked a quick look out of the bus windows. At 9:20 they switched off the walkman and the strain grew even more intense.
"Take deep breaths, that's what my dance teacher says," Henrietta whispered.
Richard peered at her in the dim light under the plastic. "What?" He couldn't work out how the dance teacher had got into this.
"When you're nervous. Take deep breaths."
They practised taking breaths for a few minutes, and found that it just made them red in the face. But it did distract them for a while.
Then, just after half past nine, it began to happen. SQUEAAAAAL.
"That's it!" Thomas's teeth were chattering from such an attack of nerves he could hardly speak.
They held their breath. Henrietta had the knuckles of both hands stuffed in her mouth.
They threw back the camouflage and eased themselves up until their eyes were above window level, terrified they'd see gunmen just the other side of the glass.
But what they saw exactly matched the plan they'd found in the office. It looked just like the rehearsal Henrietta had seen.
A van was in the middle of the road, with another one in front. A man was pointing guns at two men lying on the ground. Another man was transferring bulging sacks.
"Right!" said Thomas, climbing into the front seat. "All systems go!"
Henrietta followed him to the front of the bus, her camera in her hand. Richard began strapping on his roller blades now Thomas was too busy to stop him.
BANG! One of the men fired his gun in the air.
Henrietta and Thomas both ducked down. Then, as they heard the sound of the van doors slamming, they sat up again.
"Now!" cried Henrietta, and Thomas grabbed hold of the brake. He heaved at it, but it wouldn't budge.
"Come on!" cried Henrietta. "Quick!" She lifted the video camera and began shooting.
Richard took advantage of the hiatus to nip out of the passenger door. Simpson wanted to go and explore, but he knew his duty lay in being with his mistress.
Thomas stood up and grabbed the brake in both hands. He heaved for all his might, and just as the getaway van started to move, the brake shot off.
But the bus remained exactly where it was.
Thomas stared at the brake, open-mouthed. "But ..." He looked at the van - it had covered half the distance to the bus now, and was accelerating.
"In gear!" screamed out Henrietta.
"In gear. My dad. Parks in gear. On a hill." She jabbed her foot on the clutch. "Help. Push!"
Thomas leant his weight on the clutch pedal and the bus started to roll forward.
"Go, go, go GO!" He encouraged it. It rolled slowly across the road towards the path of the speeding van. At the last minute the van driver seemed to realise what was going on, and swerved madly to one side.
CRUMP! The two vehicles collided, but the van skidded away, leaving only it's rear bumper lying in the road.
It was crushed beneath the bus's wheels, but the getaway van had got away!
Then the bus was rushing towards the trees on the other side of the road.
"Brake! Brake!" Henrietta was trying to get her foot on the brake pedal now. She grabbed at the handbrake too. Her legs got hopelessly entangled with Thomas's, and she toppled over backwards.
BOOMP! The bus was halted in no uncertain manner by the trunk of a rain tree on the far side of the road. There was a small avalanche of branches and leaves.
Thomas just sat there stunned, not by the crash, but from the shock of failure. He just sat there, staring blindly into space. He didn't see Richard pelting down the road, hockey stick at the ready. He didn't see Henrietta rubbing her head and trying to sit up. He didn't see the man in the funny hat jumping about in the middle of the road, waving his arms and shouting, "CUT! CUT!"
He didn't see the big movie camera that was pointing directly at the bus.
"Shazam is a film? You mean you're making a movie?" Thomas accepted an ice cold Coke from the man in the hat.
The man nodded. "Sure are. Or were!"
"It's not a real hold-up at all?" Henrietta didn't really know whether she was happy or disappointed.
"A brilliant movie." He smiled. "Okay, forget the bus thing, s'not the end of the world. Reckon you'd like to meet the stars, eh?"
"Yeah!" Richard looked round at the others. "Yeah!"
"Don'tcha go away now." The hat drifted off.
Henrietta patted Simpson on the head and smiled a funny little smile. "You mean all this time they were rehearsing?"
"Looks like it." Thomas waved his hand at all the lights and cameras and people rushing importantly around. "How about that eh?"
"'Production coordinator'. We should have realised. Hey look at the dent in the bus."
They wandered over to see how much damage they'd done.
Simpson didn't care much for dents in silly old buses. Some of the smells here were very interesting. He began poking about in the mess of leaves and branches that the bus had knocked out of the tree.
"What's the noise about?" Richard knelt down. "Hey, Hal! Look what Simpson's just found."
Henrietta and Thomas peered over his shoulder. Amongst all the debris the bus had dislodged from the rain tree were a couple of birds nests. And one of them was a crow's nest by the looks of things. In the midst of all the twigs and bits of bark were three shiny baubles: a bit of broken mirror, half a Christmas ornament and ... a ring with a large glittering diamond.
"My mum's ring!" Henrietta was dumbfounded. "My mum's ring!" But how ... I mean ... It's just ... What?" She turned the ring over and over in her hand.
"The crime of the century," grinned Thomas. "Chief suspect, one large mynah or crow. I've read about how they like glittery things, but I never really thought it was true!" He laughed. "Looks like we solved a crime after all. Even if we didn't arrest the thief!"
If it's possible for a beagle to look affronted and offended, then that's just what Simpson looked like just then.
"Oh, good old Simpson," said Henrietta. "Well done. You solved the crime, didn't you?"
Richard patted him on the head. "He's already been promoted to Sergeant. Looks like he's well on his way to being Superintendent!"
"Superintendent super-beagle, the canine crime-buster."
It wasn't really very funny, but they all began to laugh - laughing and wuffing, of course. They'd had quite a time of it this past week. They were almost in hysterics when the man with the hat came back - without the star.
"I've just had a word with the big boss. He says that stunt with the bus was the best thing he's seen since Speed. He wants to keep it in."
They looked at him, not quite understanding. "It'd mean you'd have to do a bit more acting, of course. So you'll be able to meet the star face to face. When you're all working on the same film! What do you think?"
There are no prizes for guessing what the answer was.