‘They’re coming back!’ cried Roger.
‘Get down or they’ll see you!’ hissed Susan, pulling her brother below the window sill.
Now both crouching, the two children peered through the partly open window to see the car swinging into the driveway of the house opposite, its whitewall tyres revolving slowly. It crunched its way across the gravel as it slunk behind the tall laurel hedge until only the ends of its tailfins could be seen. The engine stopped. Roger and Susan could hear voices arguing and the thud of car doors. They watched as the three figures came into sight and made their way to the front porch. The small boy tried to free his hand from the woman’s grip, but when the man hit him on the back of the head he stopped. The three of them disappeared inside the house.
‘Come on!’ said Roger. ‘Let’s go and see!’
‘They’ve probably kidnapped him and are going to hide him in the attic until somebody pays a ransom!’
‘What’s a ransom?’ asked Susan.
‘It’s what you pay to buy somebody back when they’ve been kidnapped. Come on!’ Roger dashed out of the bedroom.
‘What if they kidnap us?’
But her brother was already thundering down the stairs.
They closed the garden gate behind them very carefully, hoping that its squeak would not betray them. They crossed over the avenue and stole along the laurel bushes, still dripping from the morning’s rain, with Roger leading the way. When they arrived at the end of the hedge, he stopped and peeped round into the garden.
The monstrous car lay silently in the driveway, its unnatural dimensions a testimony to the sinister goings-on inside the house. Father said the car was vulgar and another, longer word, which Roger could not remember. He had never been so close to it. For a moment he was captivated not just by its sheer size, but by its strange roof and lines of shining chrome. Beyond stood the house with its impenetrable red and white walls, gable ends poised like giant, pointed-hatted sentries, and bay windows criss-crossed with dark, thin bars. It looked empty, but they knew they were in there.
‘The coast’s clear!’ whispered Roger.
‘I’m scared,’ said Susan, suddenly feeling the coldness of the spring air.
‘Follow me! And don’t make a noise!’
They crept as quietly as they could across the endless gravel that stretched as far as the front door and the flower beds that skirted the bay windows on either side. As the children got nearer to the house, they instinctively began crouching until they reached the first window. Susan glanced round nervously at the car.
Its huge headlights stared at them unseeingly, but looked as if they could flash awake at any moment. Slowly, Roger lifted himself up until he could peep through the diamonds of the window.
‘Can you see anyone?’ whispered Susan.
‘No,’ said Roger, sinking back down. ‘We’ll have to go on.’
He led the way past the porch and on to the next bay window. Once again, he drew himself up just high enough to look inside, but this room, too, was empty.
‘I think they’ve locked him up somewhere behind a secret door, so nobody will ever find him,’ said Susan.
‘We’ll have to go round the back.’
‘What if they see us?’ Butterflies fluttered in Susan’s stomach where lunch should have been.
‘Don’t be such a scaredy cat!’ taunted Roger, already at the corner of the house. ‘They won’t see us – not if we’re careful.’
Susan hesitated: she did not want to go further, but nor did she want to have to creep all the way back on her own. Reluctantly, she scuttled over to her brother.
‘Ssh! Don’t make so much noise!’ he snarled, as the gravel announced her every step.
Slowly, they carried on along the side of the house, leaving the escape route of the front garden, guarded by the dormant car, ever farther behind. On one side, row upon row of red bricks towered above them. On the other, almost close enough to touch and seemingly as high as the house, was the laurel hedge. Half way along the windowless wall was a door. Roger and Susan sneaked past it nervously, hardly daring to breathe and shivering at the chill of the damp air on the backs of their necks.
Finally, they reached a conservatory. Roger could feel his heart thumping as he sneaked a look through the window.
‘It’s him! I can see the boy!’ he exclaimed.
Suddenly, there was a noise. Roger and Susan spun round to see the door they had just passed swing open.