THERE WAS a gap of half a metre between the rafters I was lying on and those overhead. It wasn't much, and it made life very uncomfortable, but it was more than I'd expected.
Stretching out flat, I listened for sounds of pursuit in the cell below. There weren't any. I could hear people colliding with each other and barking out orders in the corridor, so either the police weren't aware I'd broken out, or had found their way blocked by the panicked crowds.
Whatever the answer, I had time on my side; time I hadn't bargained for, which I could put to good use. I'd planned to flee as swiftly as possible, leaving Mr Crepsley and Harkat behind, but now I was in a position to go and look for them.
But where to look? The light was pretty good up here - there were many cracks between the plaster tiles, and light seeped up from the rooms and corridors below - and I could see for ten or twelve metres whichever way I looked. This was a big building, and if my friends were being held on another floor, I hadn't a hope in hell of finding them. But if they were nearby, and I hurried ?
Scuttling over the rafters, I reached the ceiling of the cell next to mine, paused and cocked my ears. My sharp sense of hearing would detect any sound above that of a heartbeat. I waited a few seconds, but heard nothing. I moved on.
The next two cells were empty. In the third I heard someone scratching himself. I thought about calling out Mr Crepsley and Harkat's names, but if there were police in the cell, they would raise the alarm. There was only one thing for it. Taking a deep breath, I gripped the rafters on either side with my hands and feet, then punched through the thin material of the ceiling with my head.
I blew dust from my lips and blinked it out of my eyes, then focused on the scene below. I was ready to drop through the ceiling if either of my friends was within, but the only occupant was a bearded old man who stared up at me, mouth agape, blinking rapidly.
"Sorry," I said, forcing a quick smile. "Wrong room."
Withdrawing, I scurried forward, leaving the startled prisoner behind.
Three more empty cells. The next was occupied, but by two loud-talking men who'd been captured trying to rob a corner shop. I didn't stop to check on them - the police were hardly likely to lump a potential killer in with a couple of burglars.
Another empty cell. I thought the next was empty too, and had almost moved on when my ears picked up on the faint rustling of fabric. I came to a halt and listened intently, but there were no further sounds. Crawling backwards, skin itching from the insulating flakes which littered the ceiling tiles like snow, I got into position, took another deep breath, then head-butted through the tiles.
A wary Harkat Mulds jumped out of the chair he'd been sitting in and brought his arms up defensively as my head broke through and clouds of dust descended. Then the Little Person saw who it was, reached up, tore loose his mask (Dave had obviously been lying when he said they'd taken it away) and shouted my name with unconstrained delight. "Darren!"
"Howdy, pardner," I grinned, using my hands to widen the hole. I shook the dust from my hair and eyebrows.
"What are you doing - up there?" Harkat asked.
I groaned at the dumb question. "Sightseeing!" I snapped, then lowered a hand. "C'mon - we haven't much time, and we have to find Mr Crepsley."
I'm sure Harkat had a thousand questions - I had too, like how come he was all alone, and why wasn't he handcuffed? - but he realized how perilous our position was, grabbed the offered hand and let me drag him up, saying nothing.
He had a harder time squeezing on to the rafters than me - his body was a lot rounder than mine - but finally he was lying out flat beside me and we crawled forward, side by side, without discussing our plight.
The next eight or nine cells were empty or occupied by humans. I was growing anxious about the amount of time that had passed. Regardless of what was happening with Steve Leopard, my escape was bound to be noticed sooner rather than later, and pursuit would be fierce when it came. I was wondering whether it would be wiser to quit while we were ahead, when someone spoke from a spot in the cell underneath, just ahead of me.
"I am ready to make a statement now," said the voice, and by the second syllable I had the speaker pegged - Mr Crepsley!
I held up a hand for Harkat to stop, but he'd heard it too and had already come to a standstill (or rather, acrawl still).
"About time," a policeman said. "Let me check that our recorder's working ?"
"Never mind your infernal recording device," Mr Crepsley sniffed. "I do not address myself to inanimate machines. Nor do I waste words on buffoons. I will speak to neither you nor your partner on my left. As for that cretin by the door with the rifle ?"
I had to stifle a giggle. The sly old fox! He must have heard us crawling about up here and was letting us know exactly how things stood in the cell, how many police were present and where they were.
"You'd better watch yourself," the policeman snapped.
"I've a good mind to?"
"You have no sort of mind at all," Mr Crepsley interrupted. "You are a fool. The officer who was here earlier, on the other hand - Matt - struck me as a sensible man. Fetch him and I will confess. Otherwise my lips remain sealed."
The officer cursed, then shuffled to his feet and started for the door. "Keep an eye on him," he told the other two. "The first sign of a twitch - hit him hard! Remember who and what he is. Take no chances."
"Find out what the fuss is about while you're out there," one of the other officers said as his colleague was leaving. "The way people are rushing about, there must be some emergency."
"Will do," the officer said, then called for the door to be opened and let himself out.
I pointed Harkat off to the left, where the guard by the door would be. He slid forward silently, stopping when he got a fix on the policeman. I listened for sounds of the officer closer to Mr Crepsley, tuned into his heavy breathing, shifted back a metre or so, then held my left hand up, the thumb and first two fingers spread. I counted to two and lowered my middle finger. Another couple of seconds and I bent down my index finger. Finally, nodding swiftly at Harkat, I lowered my thumb.
At the signal, Harkat let go of the rafters and dropped through the plaster tiles of the ceiling, smashing them to pieces in the process. I followed almost instantly, bringing my legs down first, howling like a wolf for added effect.
The policemen didn't know what to make of our sudden appearance. The guard by the door tried to bring his rifle up, but Harkat's plummeting body collided with his arms and knocked it free of his grip. My officer, meanwhile, only gawped at me, making no move to protect himself.
While Harkat clambered to his feet and threw punches at the guard, I drew a fist back to let the officer have a bunch of fives in the face. Mr Crepsley stopped me. "Please," he said politely, getting to his feet and tapping the officer on the shoulder. "Let me."
The officer turned as though hypnotized. Mr Crepsley opened his mouth and breathed the special knockout gas of the vampires over him. One whiff of it and the officer's eyes were rolling in their sockets. I caught him as he fell, and gently lowered him to the floor.
"I was not expecting you so soon," Mr Crepsley said conversationally, picking at the lock of his left handcuff with the fingers of his right.
"We didn't want to keep you waiting," I said tightly, eager to be out of there, but not wanting to appear any less composed than my old friend and mentor, who looked entirely untroubled.
"You should not have rushed on my account," Mr Crepsley said, his handcuffs snapping free with a click. He bent to work on the chains around his ankles. "I was perfectly content. These are old-style handcuffs, I was wriggling out of their kind before the officers holding me were even born. It was never a question ofif I was going to escape, but ratherwhen ."
"He can be an annoying - know-it-all sometimes," Harkat commented dryly. He'd knocked the guard out and had shuffled over to the table, to make his way back up to the safety of the ceiling.
"We can leave you behind and return for you later," I suggested to the vampire as he stepped out of his leg restraints.
"No," he said. "I might as well depart now that you are here." He winced as he took a step forward. "But, seriously, a few extra hours would not have been unwelcome. My ankle has healed considerably, but is not yet one hundred per cent. Further rest would have been beneficial."
"Will you be able to walk?" I asked.
He nodded. "I will win no races, but nor shall I be a hindrance. I am more worried about the sun - I have over two and a half hours of it to deal with."
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," I snapped. "Now, are you ready to continue, or do you want to stand here and shoot the breeze all day until the police come back?"
"Nervous?" Mr Crepsley asked, a glint in his eye.
"Yes," I said.
"Do not be," he told me. "The worst the humans can do is kill us." He got up on the table and paused. "By the end of the coming night, death may seem a blessing."
With that cheerless comment, he followed Harkat up into the gloomy half-world of the rafters. I waited for him to pull his legs clear, then jumped up after him. We spread out so we weren't in one another's way, then Mr Crepsley asked which direction we should take.
"Right," I replied. "That leads to the rear of the building, I think."
"Very well," Mr Crepsley said, wriggling ahead of us. "Crawl slowly," he whispered over his shoulder, "and try not to pick up any splinters."
Harkat and I shared a rueful look - the phrase "cool as a cucumber" could have been invented with Mr Crepsley in mind - then hurried after the departing vampire before he got too far ahead and left us behind.