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 16
The Panther Lullaby.

Elké and Rebecca stood for a while on the landing, outside Keith's door, to allow their eyes to become accustomed to the darkness.
    "I know we have our torches," whispered Elké. "But I do not want us to use them until we are in the kitchen."
    Elké led the way down the stairs, keeping close against the banisters and testing each step for creakiness before putting her full weight on it. A small amount of light, from the street lamp outside, filtered through the bay windows into the entrance hall and allowed Elké to just make out the door Keith had spoken of. "It is the door to the left of The Rat Squad's room, but on the other wall," he had said. "This opens out into a passage and the kitchen door is the first door on the right."
    The passage was completely dark. Pitch black. Elké could see nothing at all. She put out her right hand, found the wall and slowly edged along until she felt something that was certainly a door and hopefully to the kitchen. The two girls stepped through, closed the door behind them and switched on their torches.
    "Thank goodness," breathed Rebecca, relieved.
    This was definitely the kitchen and, like all the rooms at Impala Lodge, it was of an immense size. Each girl went her separate way.
    Elké knew exactly what she was looking for and very soon found it: a large upright refrigerator. She opened the door and immediately light spilled out into the kitchen, causing Rebecca to jump violently. She had imagined someone had come in and turned on the light, catching them both red-handed.
    Rebecca went across and peered over Elké's shoulder. "Has Mrs. Applebee left any goodies in here?" she whispered.
    Elké laughed. "Yes, plenty, but what I am after is the special meat intended for the panther." She pulled out a drawer at the bottom. "Aha! What's this?"
    There were two large slabs of red meat, sealed inside plastic bags. Elké picked one up. There was something printed on the outside. 'Not For Human Consumption'.
    "What does 'consumption' mean?" asked Elké.
    "Something to do with eating, I think."
    "Oh! I thought it was some sort of illness," said Elké, with a grin. "This must be it then. But there are only two bags. I can't take either of these. It will be too obvious." She put the package back and closed the fridge door. "There must be lots more about somewhere. Sheba would eat as much as that in one session."
        It was Rebecca that found them. She was nosing about in the room next door: the Scullery. Most of the cleaning equipment was kept in here and also a washing machine, a dryer, a dishwasher and a chest freezer. She lifted up the lid of the freezer and found one section full of similar slabs of meat, sealed inside the same type of plastic bag.
    Elké was pleased. "What I will do," she said "is swap one of these frozen bags with another from the fridge. It will surely thaw out by morning."
    She did that and cut the unfrozen slab of meat into four equal pieces and dropped them into a plastic carrier bag. "All I need now," said Elké, "is some string."
    That was easily found and Elké cut off a long length and stuffed it into her pocket. "Come on," she whispered. "Let's get back."
    The girls left the kitchen and crept as silent as ghosts across the entrance hall, to the stairs. But unbeknown to them, the ceiling above their heads was studded with tiny infrared L.E.D.'s emitting a light that was undetectable to their eyes, but not to the micro-camera set high up in one corner.
    All the rooms on the top floor of Impala Lodge are bathed in a soft, red light. In one of these rooms sits a man. He sits upon the floor on a round, raffia mat. He sits crossed-legged in what is known as the lotus position. His back is straight, his arms are folded but not close against the chest. No. They are folded in front of him, level with his shoulders, reminiscent of an old sepia photograph of 'Big Chief Sitting Bull'. His face is lean and expressionless. His eyes are impassive, but watching. He is watching a television screen. The picture on the screen is also red. It shows two figures flitting, ghost-like, across the downstairs entrance hall. It shows them climbing a set of stairs, with care. Abruptly the camera shot changes and now we see them creeping along the landing to the last door but one. One of the figures enters the room. The other can be seen to lock the door and hang up the key. This figure retraces its steps a short distance along the landing and disappears down a passageway. The screen goes blank. The show is over. The man still sits. His face and eyes are still expressionless.
    He sits for how long? We do not know. Then slowly he begins to rise. No, it is not levitation but something almost as remarkable. One leg is unfolding underneath his body. He is rising as the scissor jack rises in Mr. Wood's garage. When this leg is straight, the other leg slowly unfolds, until it too reaches the floor. The man turns and prowls, cat-like, to the adjoining room: a gymnasium.
    Elké climbed back in through the window and jumped to the floor. She and Rebecca clasped hands. "Mission accomplished," they both said.
    "Now where is that meat?" asked Elké, eager to get on. "It's time to give Sheba a treat."
    "Listen," said Rebecca. "I think I'm going to get some shut-eye. You don't need me, do you?"
    "No, no, or course not," said Elké, quite happy. "You go ahead and get some sleep. This is going to take some time. You can't rush making friends with a big cat."
    Elké cut a hole in one of the sections of meat with her Swiss army knife, threaded the string through and tied a knot. "Time to do a little fishing," she said to herself, with a chuckle and lowered the bait out of the window. "What will it be today? Me thinks cat fish."
    When she had judged the meat to be roughly a metre from the ground, she tied the string to the window latch and began her own special technique, custom designed to enchant a black panther.
    Rebecca was snucked up in bed safe and warm when Elké began to sing Sheba a lullaby in her gentle, melodic voice. She lay with her eyes closed and allowed the song to flow over her, like soft feathery down. Slowly, Rebecca drifted off into what was to become the most satisfying sleep of her life.
    For Rebecca and Elké the next three days followed a similar pattern to that first Monday at Impala Lodge. The mornings would be taken up by intense training in the workshop and afterwards they were allowed one hour in the garden to play with Aitch. At night, Elké would sneak down stairs to get another slab of meat and spend some time leaning out of the window making friends with Sheba.
    They did not speak with Keith again but once or twice, from their living room window, they saw Amanda, Maria and Paul playing with the dogs in the garden.
    It was Friday morning. Rebecca and Elké were in the workshop dressed in their yellow overalls. Gobbie was leaning against a pillar looking decidedly bored.
    The menacing Mr. Fugg stood before them, hands upon his hips. "This is the final rehearsal," he growled. "Tonight at six thirty will be the real thing. You girls performed O.K. yesterday, but today you will become perfect.'
    Mr. Fugg turned and indicated a wooden bench containing two cash machines and the drilling equipment. "This bench represents the van," he went on. "It is in the same relative position to this special wall as the van will be to the bank tonight when I park it in the road, close to the curb. Got that?"
    He glared at each of them in turn. All three nodded. "Inside the van will be you two girls and Gobbie here. The first thing you girls will do is jump out of the van and put up the crowd control barriers. And don't forget you are workmen. I want this operation performed as quickly as possible, but do not run and do not rush. Real workmen move slowly. And ignore the public. You are dressed in bright yellow overalls. They will avoid you, believe me."
    Mr. Fugg clapped his hands together. "O.K., let's see the three of you on top of that bench right now and begin when I say so."
    Rebecca and Elké spent over three hours jumping on and off the bench, putting up barriers and drilling holes to fix the cash machines to the special wall.
    Eventually, Mr. Fugg seemed satisfied and called a halt. "O.K. that's enough. If you do as well as this tonight everything will be fine." He stood up and opened the back door to the garden. "Now I want you to take all this equipment out to the van and make sure you load it in the correct order. The cash machines go in first and the barriers last."
    The van was parked in a double garage at the end of the drive. It was painted the same yellow as their overalls and had the words 'National Bank Services' emblazoned on each side in large, red lettering.

chapter 17