chapter 1
chapter 2
chapter 3
chapter 4
chapter 5
chapter 6
chapter 7
chapter 8
chapter 9
chapter 10
chapter 11
chapter 12
chapter 13
chapter 14
chapter 15
chapter 16
chapter 17
chapter 18
chapter 19
chapter 20
chapter 21
chapter 22
chapter 23
chapter 24
chapter 25
Chapter 10
The Rat Squad.

It was five o'clock on Saturday afternoon and the crowd poured out of Villa Park. Among that crowd were Biffer and Skin. They looked especially pleased.
    "That goal by Dean Saunders," enthused Skin, imitating his hero by swinging a foot at an imaginary ball. "First time volley, crack! Straight into the top of the net."
    Biffer grinned. "Yeh, two – one was a great result. But Newcastle played well too. Beardsley's goal was a peach."
    The two boys were slowly making their way home, continuing to re-live the match, when Biffer suddenly grabbed Skin by the top of the arm and pulled him close against a wall. "Take a look over there," he announced, with a nod of his head, indicating three boys on the other side of the street.
    " 'The Rat Squad'," breathed Skin. "I thought those villains were still doing borstal. What crackpot decided to let them out?"
    They watched as the gang strode down the street, three abreast, in a most arrogant fashion.
    "Shall we follow them?" Skin asked.
    "You betcha."
    'The Rat Squad' was the arch-enemy of Biffer and Skin. The gang consisted of three bullyboys: Gobbie, the self-appointed leader, and his two sidekicks, Monkaster and Bates.
    They continued to aggressively bulldoze their way through the town, pushing one child into a hedge and knocking a cap off another. On one occasion, Gobbie produced a key from his pocket and, to the loud approval of his companions, scratched a deep groove down the length of a brand new car parked at the roadside.
    Biffer and Skin looked on in disgust. "I see they haven't learned to act like decent human beings in their absence," growled Biffer. "You just wait. One day I will teach them a lesson they will remember for the rest of their lives."
    The gang of three were easy to follow for they caused a disturbance wherever they went. Through the market place, down alleyways and eventually turning into a road that Skin knew very well. The Avenue. To Biffer and Skins utter amazement, Gobbie stopped right outside Impala Lodge and punched in a special code on the button panel set into the red brick support. The huge wrought iron gates swung open automatically, allowing 'The Rat Squad' to enter, before closing again with a crash.
    Skin stood agape. "What do you make of that, Biff?"
    Biffer shook his head in bewilderment. "I don't know, Skin. Maybe Impala Lodge is trying to tell us something. I mean, there are too many things that have occurred recently connecting us directly to Impala Lodge. Take your encounter with Mr. Fugg for instance. What a nasty character he is. And where does he come from? Impala Lodge. A black panther attacks you. Where? Impala Lodge. Now we follow our old enemy 'The Rat Squad' and where do they lead us to?" Biffer shrugged his shoulders and held out his hands face up. "Need I say more?"
    "No. It is all a bit peculiar," agreed Skin. "But what do we do now?"
    The two boys had stopped some twenty metres before Impala Lodge, on the opposite side of the road.
    "I'll tell you what we're gonna do, Skin. We're gonna investigate and we're gonna start right now." Biffer stood quietly for a moment before continuing. "You know this area quite well, don't you, Skin? That lane between Impala Lodge and the house on the far side. Where does it go to?"
    Skin was positive. "It leads right down to Hollyoak Wood."
    "O.K. Good. Now what we'll do is carry on walking down The Avenue some way and if all is quiet we'll cross over, double back and take a gander down the side."
    Everything went according to plan. The Impala lodge estate was large, over an acre, and surrounded by a high wall topped with jagged shards of glass.
    "Someone is sure keen to keep out intruders," remarked Biffer.
    The mansion itself towered up from behind the wall, stretching back a surprising distance, but then stepped down into a flat roofed two-storied affair, added almost as an afterthought.
    Biffer gazed up at the top of the wall and swallowed deeply. "I would love to check out the back of the house and the garden," he said. "But I don't fancy being torn to shreds by that glass. Maybe there will be an opening further down."
    The two boys eventually reached the bottom of the estate where the wall turned off at right angles. The lane ended abruptly here, too, but a simple well-trodden path continued off into thick woodland.
    "What about this path. Where does that lead?" asked Biffer.
    Skin smiled. "That ends up at the river Tame. Don't you remember us taking a boat out a few months back to do some fishing?"
    "How could I forget," chuckled Biffer. "When you landed that monster, squirmy eel and Jane Burnett jumped up and screamed her head off. The stupid girl tipped the boat over and we all finished up in the drink."
    They both laughed out loud at the memory. Biffer led the way along the back wall and was delighted when he came across a stout wooden door. His delight was short lived, however, when he found the door was firmly bolted from the inside.
    Skin stood back and commented on how the wood had been cleared back from the wall. "I suppose that is to stop anyone using a tree to climb over."
    Biffer's eyes immediately lit up. "You've got it my old pal. That's the answer. But we don't want to climb over the wall, do we? Just look over. It should be easy to find a tall enough tree amongst this lot."
    And it was. Almost at once Skin pointed to a magnificent Oak with outstretched boughs that soared up way above any tree close by.
    "What about this one?"
    "Perfect," replied Biffer. Then he remembered. "How is your arm, Skin? Will you be O.K. to climb?"
    Skin grinned. "Of course. It is throbbing a bit, but Kathy bandaged it up well." He ran his eye up the Oak tree in question. "I could climb that with no hands at all."
    Biffer was now fired up and full of energy. He took a running jump and hauled himself up onto the lowest branch and without stopping to think, leaned down to give Skin a helping hand. The two boys were excellent climbers and, even with an injured arm, Skin was soon sitting amongst the top branches with Biffer and gazing down on a splendid view of Impala Lodge.
    The mansion itself stood way off to the right, and from the nearest corner of the flat roof rose a substantial radio mast bristling with satellite dishes and strangely shaped aerials. Closer, and to the left, was a natural pond surrounded by trees. Two young dogs played roll-me-over on the grass and an old gardener, bent double, pottered amongst the flowerbeds.
    "The first thing I am going to do is search for signs of the panther," said Skin, leaning forward, his bad arm linked around the trunk. "Look Biff. Up close to the wall. Surely that's where it lives."
    It certainly did appear that way. A long covered enclosure, with bars on the front, ran alongside the wall and opened out into a caged area up against the house, close to the back door.
    Biffer agreed. "Yep, that's what it is alright. But it's too far away and too much in the shadows to see inside."
    A light breeze rustled the leaves and gently swayed the branches on which they sat.
    "O.K." said Biffer, after a bit. "There doesn't seem to be much happening at the moment, but you are Impala Lodge's paper boy. Why don't you go over everything you know while we are waiting?"
    Skin sat and thought for a moment, before beginning. "I've bin delivering down The Avenue for more than a year now. A jolly, old guy owned Impala Lodge then. He had a wife and two children, but the children were grown up and had left home. I reckon he was a bookie 'cos I was always delivering magazines and journals on horse racing and the dogs. Sporting Life. Breeders weekly. Stuff like that. Of course, owning this pad meant he must have made loadsa money." Skin's face suddenly lit up. "Gave me a whopping Christmas box too!"
    He shifted on his branch to get more comfortable before continuing. "It was not long after Christmas that he sold up. The new folks didn't move in straight away. No. The builders arrived first and totally gutted the inside. The place was swarming with workmen for a good two months. The last thing they did was put up the front iron railings and gates."
    "What do you know about the new owners?" asked Biffer.
    "Not a great deal, really, because there are not many people about when I deliver the papers. As you know, I do collect payments from a few houses later on a Saturday morning. Not from Impala Lodge, you understand, but when I've cycled past I've seen the old guy tending the garden at the front and sometimes a woman comes out to him with a cup of tea and maybe a sandwich. There was a delivery van parked outside once. A couple of guys were carrying in masses of electronic equipment. Computers and such."
    Biffer nodded. "Yes, that makes sense. What was the company name that our Mr. Fugg spoke of? 'Cyber Electronics'?"
    "Yes, that was it," agreed Skin. "I suppose the big radio mast over there with all those complicated aerials stuck to it has something to do with the workings of the company."
    The mention of Mr. Fugg reminded Skin of the pile of credit cards he had found in the Jaguar's glove compartment. He spoke of it to Biffer now.
    "Well, well, that is interesting," declared Biffer. "Not what you might call above board, I'll be bound."
    The two boys continued to look out over Impala Lodge and were just on the point of leaving when something peculiar happened. The gardener had already finished for the day and had gone inside. The two dogs lay on the grass exhausted after their play and the light was beginning to fade when the back door opened unexpectedly and out strode the unmistakeable figure of Mr. Fugg. He was carrying something. Something small and black. Something alive. Was it a cat?
    Mr. Fugg picked up a stepladder, stood it up close to the back of the house and began to climb. Fixed to the house, about twenty feet up, was a line of boxes that had hitherto gone unnoticed by the watching boys. Mr. Fugg thrust the cat inside one of the boxes and closed the door. He proceeded to do the same in turn with the two dogs putting one into each of the remaining boxes. Finally he replaced the ladder and went back inside the house.
    "This is getting too strange for words," announced Skin.
    Biffer nodded. "Yes, but it's about time we made a move or there'll be a line of people outside The Buccaneer tonight waiting to get in. I suggest we come back tomorrow and spend the day here. We'll have a big breakfast at the Cafe in the morning and get them to make us some sandwiches to take away."
    "Great idea Biff. And we'll buy a couple of large bottles of drink as well."
    "What we really need is a pair of binoculars. Then we could see right in through the windows."
    "Mr. Wood has a pair of those. I saw some on the bench in the workshop only the other day."
    "Perfect. I'll pop into the garage on my way back from the paper round and pick them up."

chapter 11