It was Poppy who woke some time later with the smell of cigarette smoke tickling her nostrils. She lay in bed for a while, deliciously warm but wrinkling her nose up from time to time. No, it was no good. She pushed the blankets back and scrambled onto a chair so that she’d be able to reach the sash window.
The moon was so bright, it was like a huge lamp in the sky. She could see bits of the garden, looking pale and strangely shaped. There was a rustle and a tiny grunt. Poppy leaned out of the window, thinking it might be a hedgehog, or even a badger. She’d once seen one, when Dad had taken her and Ashley and Stacia out for a walk in the middle of the night. They’d sat as still and quiet as mice, almost holding their breaths, until the badger came stumping through the clearing, nosing into the undergrowth and making an awful lot of noise. This wasn’t a badger, though. There was someone standing by the hedge, not so very far from her bedroom, and the tiniest little light showed that they were smoking a cigarette.
Poppy drew her head back in, climbed down from the stool and stood for a minute, thinking. They must be waiting to kidnap somebody else, maybe Dad. Poppy clenched her jaw. They definitely weren’t going to get away with that, not if she had anything to do with it. She grabbed her dressing gown and pulled her slippers on, then crept out of her room and into Stacia’s, next door.
Stacia always woke noisily, but Poppy managed to make her be quiet by covering her face up with her dressing gown, which made the yells a bit quieter. Refusing to explain what was going on, she pulled her sister into Ashley’s room and poked her awake with some difficulty.
“Whuzgoinon?” mumbled Ashley, peering at them blearily. “It’s night.”
“I know,” Poppy whispered, so close to Ashley’s ear that she squealed and clapped a hand to that organ. “Ssshhhh,” hissed Poppy reproachfully. “There’s someone smoking a cigarette outside my window and I think it’s one of the kidnappers.”
Ashley, instantly awake, sat up sharply.
“What?” she gasped.
“There’s a kidnapper smoking a cigarette outside,” said Poppy again, successfully fitting the story into a nutshell.
“Do you think we should wake Dad?” said Stacia, her brown eyes wide.
“But he might be scared,” said Poppy anxiously. Poor Dad had been so worried about Aunty Hilda being kidnapped, and if he had to hear about this too... she didn’t like seeing him worried. It made her feel scared. “Can’t we do something ourselves?”
The other two looked at her consideringly. It was true, thought Ashley, that Dad had been looking especially tired and anxious since Hilda got kidnapped. Maybe it would be kinder if they were to help out a bit first. Mind you, she wasn’t really sure that they could actually catch the kidnapper all by themselves. Perhaps they could go and get Ricky and Randa to help. No, that would take too long. But as she thought of Ricky and Randa she realised that they simply must catch this person. The Emersons would be disgusted if they realised the three of them had had this chance and hadn’t taken it.
Some ten minutes later, Charles and Charlie came dashing down the stairs, their older offspring at their heels, all of them horrified and alarmed at the sudden cacophony of sound that had arisen from the front of the house.
“Let me go first!” bellowed Charles, attempting to be gentlemanly as he elbowed his wife out of the way, almost knocking her to the ground. He snatched the front door key from its hook and fumbled with the latch. A moment later the door flew open and he was racing across the grass.
The yelling was coming from behind the hedge, close to the corner of the house, and Charles sped towards it, only to be brought up short by the hedge. Not wanting to waste time by running all the way round by the front gate, he picked the bit of the hedge that looked thinnest and, spurred on by renewed shrieks, scrabbled his way through, arriving just as Charlie, Millie, John and Will arrived, having taken the longer but easier route.
Charles, not waiting to find out what was going on, dived into the fray and emerged clutching a violently wriggling Poppy, from whom most of the screeches were emanating.
“What on earth is going on?” he demanded as his youngest daughter gave a wriggle so forceful that she kicked him in the elbow and he dropped her with an exclamation.
“It’s the kidnapper!” she shouted. “Quick, Dad, we’ve caught him, but I think he’s going to get away!” Before he could stop her, she had dived again into the melee, crying “hit him on the head, Ash, quick!”
John, standing a little closer, also made a grab, managed to clutch Poppy by the shoulder and was dragged along as she launched herself forward. A moment later he tripped over a flailing leg, and landed, with a thump that provoked a yell of anguish, on top of someone. Instantly, he found someone taking a firm grip on his hair and someone else attempting to roll him over and suffocate him. Instinctively he lashed out with a fist and made contact with something that felt satisfyingly like a nose.
A bright light dazzled him – obviously someone had had enough foresight to snatch up a torch on the way out – and he flung off the person who was hanging onto his hair, rolled over and landed a hearty punch on the nose he’d already injured. His victim emitted a roar of fury, reached a hand up, and grabbed him by the throat. He could hear his mother shrieking and felt a jolt of fear. What if there were more of them? Hurting her? He slammed his fist into the elbow of the arm that was trying to choke him, managed to jab his opponent in a strategic and, by the subsequent bellow, painful place, landed a few more well-placed punches, then rose to his feet and launched himself at his mother, who was just behind the light.
“John!” she shrieked as he flung his arms round her shoulders protectively and peered into the darkness, searching for attackers. “What are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?” he shouted. “I thought someone was attacking you from the way you were screaming.”
“I was screaming at you to tell you you were attacking Mary-Lou,” she said tartly, pushing him off.
He swung round, and his jaw dropped. Poppy, Stacia and Ashley were enthusiastically finishing off the job he’d started. They must have obtained some rope from somewhere – later they found that they had simply cut the washing line down using a knife from the kitchen – and were currently engaged in cocooning their victim in an enormous length of it. And his mother was right, John realised. He’d only met Mary-Lou once, when he’d been quite young, but he’d seen pictures and anyway, she wasn’t the sort of person you could forget. Even now, with her face all bloody, most of her covered with swarming children and her features contorted with pain and fury.
Charles, meanwhile, seemed to have given up on the idea of trying to stop the chain of events and was simply standing there, his mouth slightly open, as his younger offspring finished off their capture with a series of huge and vicious looking knots. At last they stood up and turned to face their elders, their faces wearing almost identical expressions of exhilaration and triumph. Charles pulled himself together.
“What is going on here?” he demanded, with a passable imitation of sternness.
Some of the pride trickled away. Stacia’s face took on an expression of extreme innocence which made her father’s stomach sink with horror. It was Ashley, predictably, who summoned up the courage to face his wrath and answer his question.
“The – the kidnapper,” she faltered. “We’ve caught him.”