Augusta strolled along in the dappled shade, a huge, dribbling ice cream clutched in one hand and a flapping map in the other. She was enjoying the warmth of the sun and the sound of the river as it rushed along at her side. It was quite extraordinary, she thought. Never before had she followed someone who seemed so entirely unaware that they were being tailed. The ice cream dripped onto the map, and she bent her head to remove it at, apparently coincidentally, the same moment as Mary-Lou looked behind her for the first and last time.
When she had finished licking away spots of ice cream from Sphinx’s painstakingly drawn map of the ancient monuments of the Upper Nile region, she raised her head. Mary-Lou had changed course and was striding towards one of the tall houses that lined the river path; one that was charmingly secluded with tall trees and thick bushes.
Augusta smiled and made for a nearby bench, where she sat down, swung her legs up and made herself comfortable while she finished the ice cream.
Thirty-seven minutes earlier.
“Maybe we should call the police,” whispered Will.
“What?” said Constance Rose, sounding outraged. “Do you really think they’ll believe us?”
“We’ve got proof.” Will pulled Constance Rose a little further behind the bush. “Poppy’s hanky. We found it outside this house. How else could it have got here unless Hilda had it with her?”
“Yes, but we can’t prove it is hers, even though we’re sure. And there wouldn’t be any evidence against Mary-Lou; they don’t know about the drugs or about her hanging about outside your house. And now that that old lady told us Mary-Lou lives here, well, it simply must be her, and she must be keeping Hilda here.”
“Yes. I know. But maybe we should get Sphinx and the others; they’d know what to do.”
Constance Rose eyed him sternly.
“I know what to do,” she said. “We know Mary-Lou isn’t there at the moment, because she’s on the Platz. So we can just nip in, get Hilda, and nip back out again. Easy. And wouldn’t it be a sell for the others if we rescued Hilda before they even knew anything about it?”
“Well....” Will was clearly weakening at this prospect. After all, from all the stories, it was obvious that any member of the Emerson family was perfectly equal to this situation, even if it was the one that worshipped some Egyptian goddess and went around looking all soulful. Constance Rose sensed his hesitation, grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the door.
Fourteen minutes after Will and Constance Rose enter the house, and twenty-three minutes before Augusta arrives.
“It was that one,” said Phoebe, pointing towards the tall, secluded house. “They asked Frau Liebmann questions about whoever lives there about twenty minutes ago, and then they were hanging around outside. They must have gone in.”
They looked at one another.
“No point standing round,” said Sphinx after a moment. “Let’s get going.”
“Wait – what?” said John. “We can’t just march in there!”
The Emersons stared at him.
“But why not?” said Amy, sounding bewildered.
“It could be dangerous,” said John. He looked at them. “Oh, come on, even you three can’t actually think that you’re invincible.”
“Of course we don’t,” said Phoebe, looking amused. “But we can easily take a few guards, and Will and Connie – sorry, Constance Rose – are already in there.”
“They could be hurt,” said Millie. “We can’t just leave them, John.”
Phoebe opened her mouth to explain that this wasn’t exactly what she’d meant, but Sphinx trod gently on her foot and she desisted. It was evident that the image of his brother as a bleeding victim of the kidnappers was acting on John strongly. He gave a brief nod, his face grim.
“All right. Let’s go,” he said.
The back door opened onto the kitchen. It was dark from the overhanging trees, grimy and filled with unwashed dishes. Millie turned her head away from the damp cigarette butts in the sink, trying not to think about Hilda being fed with food that had been prepared in here.
“What’s the plan?” John whispered, looking across at Sphinx, who was nearest the door into the hall. Sphinx shrugged.
“Find the kids and Hilda, grab them and get out.”
He opened the door, but before any of them could move there was a crash and a high-pitched screech from upstairs.
There was a brief struggle as they all tried to get through the door at the same time, which gave place to a race up the stairs, Sphinx in the lead, Millie close behind and the rest at their heels. The door opposite the stairs was open.
“Take that!” they heard Constance Rose scream. As Sphinx entered the room the man by the door ducked. A large vase sailed past his head and smashed a little too close to Sphinx for comfort. Since the easiest way of deflecting any more poorly aimed missiles seemed to be to get rid of their target, he picked up the largest of the bits of vase – the base, as it happened – and knocked the man firmly on the head with it.
Two more men had converged on Constance Rose and had borne her to the ground. There was a lot of yelling, but Phoebe and Amy were already dashing to the rescue, Amy brandishing her small hammer in a warlike manner. Millie and John, meanwhile, had spotted Will, who was slumped against the wall, apparently about to be hit over the head by a fourth man. Sphinx was reasonably sure that sibling revenge would account for him in a very satisfactory manner.
That left the little oasis of calm in the middle of the battling groups, where a man was lying beneath a bookcase, swearing and waving his arms feebly. The bookcase must have been what made the crash they had heard just before coming upstairs. It was evident that some of the books had been used as missiles, though most had still been on the case when it had been turned over. Sphinx knelt down and carefully removed an elderly copy of Volume 1 (A – Biermolke) of the Deutsches Wörterbuch Grimm from the man’s face.
“What’s going on?” he said in German. He might as well have saved his breath, because all the man would do was swear at him and demand to be released. Growing bored and seeing that the other fights were all starting to peter out, Sphinx picked up a leather bound copy of Heidi and banged him on the head.
The Maynards were hugging one another in tearful excitement. It was their first experience of the sort, Sphinx supposed resignedly. Phoebe and Amy had disposed of Constance Rose’s attackers with brutal efficiency and were hauling her to her feet, Amy dabbing at the blood around Constance Rose’s mouth.
“It’s all right,” said Constance Rose, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “Isn’t mine. I bit one of them on the arm while he was trying to strangle me. He didn’t like it much. Where’s Will?”
A moment later Will found a pair of arms wrapped tightly round his neck and Constance Rose kissing him enthusiastically – on the cheek, but still...
“He was wonderful,” she said, turning to the others, her face lighting up. “Honestly, he just rushed in and tried to fight them all at once.”
“Of course, they knocked me about and chucked me on the floor in about ten seconds,” said Will, turning red. “Constance Rose was the one who did the real fighting.”
“When you two have finished with the mutual admiration society,” said Phoebe, who looked amused. “I don’t suppose you managed to find out what they’ve done with Hilda?”
“Don’t know,” mumbled Will.
“We think she’s in the other room,” said Constance Rose. “Don’t you remember, Will? We went upstairs first, but there were a whole lot of people in a room up there, so we locked them in and came back down. The other door was locked, so we tried this one first in case the key was here or something.”
Almost before she had finished speaking, Amy was on her knees, pulling a small metal pick out of a pocket on her belt. A few moments’ fiddling, and the door was swinging open. Hilda was there, sitting on a chair at a small desk. She looked up as they entered and her tired face lightened.
“Oh, good,” she said, getting up. “I was hoping all the noise meant that you’d arrived.”
“Hilda!” Millie’s arms were round the older woman’s neck. “Oh, we were so afraid that they – they’d hurt you, or – or something.”
“As though I’d allow that. Now, come along. It’s time for us to leave, I think.”
“Is that so?” said a voice that Millie could only describe as thoroughly nasty, from behind her. She let go of Hilda and turned round, her heart sinking. Not just one man, but, presumably, all the ones Will and Constance Rose had locked into the upstairs room, and a couple of women, too. How big was this gang?
“Oh, hallo!” Phoebe was saying brightly. “Nice to meet you, but I’m afraid we have to go now.”
For one insane moment it looked as though they were going to let her walk through from sheer surprise, but they didn’t, of course. A few seconds later another fight had broken out. Millie found herself out on the landing grappling with one of the women. She’d never really done a lot of fighting, but she found that she was taking to it quite well. On the other hand, the woman had obviously been doing this a lot longer and with far more expertise than Millie had, and it was hard to do much fighting back when someone was lying on top of you with their hands tightly locked around your throat, and you couldn’t breathe, and black spots were dancing in front of your eyes.
Then, miraculously, the pressure ceased. Millie gasped for air, saw that the woman was bearing down on her again and rolled away. She stumbled to her feet and with a viciousness that rather horrified her when she had time to think about it later on, kicked the woman in the head. As she backed away, she tripped over an inert body on the floor and fell over. Before she could get up, a bell-like voice rang out over the sounds of battle.
“What on earth is going on?” Millie stared up at Mary-Lou, relief welling up in some odd, childlike corner of her mind that insisted that now that a real grown-up was there, everything would be all right. A moment later, the relief drained away. The woman she had been fighting got to her feet.
“Would you do something about these stupid children?” she screamed.
And Mary-Lou took a great swing at Sphinx. Millie was barely aware that she was getting up again, grabbing something off the floor, running across the hallway, throwing herself at Mary-Lou. Other people were shouting and screaming, and Mary-Lou had hit her so hard that she crashed on the floor and banged her head, and Sphinx was on the floor, too. She looked up and saw that Phoebe and Constance Rose were converging on Mary-Lou, and then Sphinx was dragging her out of the way, casually knocking out two men as he passed them. They ended up in a corner by the window, close to where Hilda, having successfully beaten one of the men into unconsciousness, was calmly tying his hands with a piece of string.
Millie didn’t know much about fighting, but even she could see that Phoebe and Constance Rose were getting the worst of it. Sphinx was fighting again, this time with the woman who had tried to strangle Millie, and since he seemed occupied, she started forward to help with Mary-Lou.
For a moment they all froze and looked round for the source of the command before Augusta stepped out from behind Mary-Lou.
“What on earth are you all doing?” she demanded. Mary-Lou laughed in a sneering fashion and hit Phoebe round the head. Augusta, wasting no more words, entered the battle enthusiastically in defence of her daughter. Sphinx finished off the woman just as John and Will between them managed to toss a tall, bearded man into the room Hilda had been in and shut the door on him. Millie, standing near the stairs, realised that the Emersons somehow, against all the odds, seemed to be winning.
And then she felt something cold at her neck, and she was held so tightly that she couldn’t move, and the man who was holding her was so strong that she wouldn’t be able to struggle even if she tried. The knife pressed harder against her throat, and she stood as still as a statue.
“All of you,” said the man – the only one left standing, she realised in a cold, terrified sort of way, “Will leave, now. Or I will cut her throat.”
They froze, all of them. Mary-Lou was smiling; Phoebe and Constance Rose stared at Millie, horrified; John and Will, terrified and Hilda white as a sheet, her lips compressed. Only Augusta, apparently carried away by enthusiasm and bloodlust, appeared unfazed.
“Hah!” she cried, and whipped out a small pistol, which she pointed at Mary-Lou. “Do you think I was a spy in Russia for nine years for nothing? Let her go, or your boss dies!”
“You wouldn’t,” growled Millie’s captor. Augusta fired a shot, and the bullet buried itself in the wall two inches from Mary-Lou’s left ear. Mary-Lou, her eyes widening, nodded at Millie’s captor. He loosened his hold and shoved her forward and Millie realised, with a flood of relief, that this time it really was all over.