When they arrived at the place where Hilda’s coat had been found, the area had been blocked off and surrounded with large warning notices.
“Oh, bother,” said Millie, who been entertaining delightful visions of herself discovering all manner of clues and putting her brother and Sphinx to shame. Sphinx gave her a grin that made the words she had been about to say vanish from her mind.
“Good thing rope isn’t an impenetrable barrier,” he said, lifting it up politely so that she could cross under it. Millie hesitated.
“Won’t we get into trouble?”
“There’s no-one around to catch us,” Phoebe pointed out. Since even John appeared to have no qualms about crossing the barrier, Millie said no more but ducked under the rope. Sphinx followed.
“That’s fine,” said Phoebe. “I’ll just climb over all by myself, shall I?” She stepped gracefully over the rope, not looking noticeably upset. “What shall we do?” she went on. “Split the area into four sections? It’s probably the quickest way of getting the job done.”
“Good idea,” said Millie, getting in before Sphinx could speak. She and Phoebe between them divided the area into four sections and sent the boys off to one each. They looked at each other for a moment.
“Good luck,” said Phoebe. She turned and went off to her own section, her stylishly cut trousers and elegant shirt suggesting that she was out for a gentle stroll rather than hunting for clues to the whereabouts of a kidnapped prime minister.
Millie began a painstaking search, beginning to wish that she was a little better at woodcraft. It was fine talking about hunting about and finding clues, but she really only had a hazy idea of what she was actually looking for. All very well for the Emersons, who, from their stories, appeared to be experienced and expert criminologists and quite accustomed to this sort of thing. But she was just the daughter of a politician. She’d never tried to solve a crime before in her life.
She stopped this train of thought firmly. It was one of Dad’s mantras, that if you thought a thing for long enough it would probably come to pass. I’m going to find an amazing clue and set us on the trail to finding Hilda, she told herself. It wasn’t as though she was stupid. She’d always been top of her form at school and, which she was far more proud of, been able to hold her own with Dad’s friends and colleagues. So what should she be looking for? Well, that was obvious, surely. Signs of recent disturbances. Anywhere where someone might have been carried, struggling. Except, of course, Hilda might not have been able to struggle. Millie repressed a sick feeling when she thought this.
Her section had the clearing in it that Sphinx and John had explored by torchlight the previous night. She wished she had Sphinx to help her now; she was afraid that she might miss something because of her inexperience. Or Phoebe, or anyone who knew what they were doing, really, she thought, annoyed with herself. There was no point in thinking of Sphinx in that way, since he was an arrogant idiot and not someone she’d want to spend more time with. At all.
She was moving slowly, scouring the ground for some sign that something violent and dramatic had happened there recently, and it was some time until she arrived at the clearing. She stood in the middle of it, looking around. This was hopeless, she hadn’t spotted anything and she probably wouldn’t. Well, maybe it wasn’t any good looking for the subtle clues. Sphinx had said that they should look for somewhere Hilda could be hidden – they wouldn’t have brought her here for nothing. Well, that she could do.
It was obvious that there wasn’t anything in the clearing, but the faint, narrow path – and, she supposed, the fact that none of the others had yelled that they’d found anything yet – suggested that they would have brought her this way. So, as she wasn’t here, they must have taken her away again. But where? She began to pace around the clearing’s edge.
It turned out that there were three different paths out of the clearing. She quickly ruled out the first, because it led her with difficulty through tangled brambles for some minutes until it came to a sudden end and there was nowhere to go except through six foot high solid thorns. Millie went back. The second path curved round until it joined the main road again a few minutes later. The undergrowth it went through wasn’t as thick here, but although Millie was careful to study it thoroughly she couldn’t see any signs that anyone had left the path. She sighed and retraced her steps.
She’d left the third path till last partly because it looked the most hopeful. It was narrow and led through thick undergrowth, but it wasn’t almost impassable as the first had been. Quite close to the start of it there was a bush from which a branch had been almost completely torn and although that was the only clue she could find, she hoped it meant something. Of course, it could just mean that some animal had bumped into the bush or something. Still, her heart beat a little faster with anticipation as she set off.