The girl in the back of the first car craned round at the car behind them. It was in the distance, but it was gaining, and its clangour was beginning to be heard beneath the electronic squawk of her own vehicle.
"Who are those maniacs?" asked one of the policewomen in the front.
"I don't know, and we don't have time to find out," replied the driver.
"What kind of a jazzed-up old banger is that?" asked the first speaker. "It must be nearly fifty years old and it's gaining on us."
The girl in the back sat silent. She had been sick with fear ever since she had entered the vehicle. What was happening now? Rescue in some form? Hardly likely, even though the very air suddenly seemed somehow softer and kinder, almost pink-tinged. But all that was subjective imagination surely. What was really happening? Some terrible new complication? Perhaps. Most probably nothing at all. Just an odd incident on the way to her fate. The car would turn off and it would be forgotten in ten minutes.
She was wrong. The bell grew louder and louder, vying in decibels with the Martian whooping of the car she was in.
The first policewoman started speaking into her wireless set.
"This is car 14. We've got a couple of jokers behind us in an old police car. They've done something to the engine. That car can really move, and they're acting like they want us to pull over. We're travelling north on the 405 just outside Newtown. If you've got anyone nearby----"
"Manus should be about half a mile from you," crackled the electrical reply "he'll be with you in five."
Suddenly, with an astonishing burst of speed, the black car pulled out, overtook and turned to block the road some fifty yards ahead. The driver hit the brakes and screeched to a stop. The two occupants of the first car were already out of the vehicle. The were wearing identical navy-blue uniforms, something like old-fashioned police uniforms, except that they incorporated calf-length skirts flared as widely as those of a 1950s rock 'n' roll dancer. Both were women, both with dark hair, one's cut in a short, but not masculine, style, the other's flowing in permanent waves. Their lips were deep-red with lipstick, moist and warmly feminine; untouched by a hint of the hardness that characterised the mouths and stances of the other policewomen, and yet they had an air of gentle, confident authority. The short-haired one was putting on a silver-coloured metal helmet with a gold insignia incorporating the monogram EIIR.
It also became clear at close quarters that the black car was not actually an old car at all. Apart from the fact that it was obviously newly made, its design was not that of any car from the past. It had the dignity and solid quality of an old car, while its outward form was in some respects reminiscent of a 1950s conception of the future as exemplified in science-fiction films of the period. It seemed, more than anything, a glimpse of how the design of cars might have developed if the cultural collapse of the 1960s had not taken place.
The driver of the white car, a young policewoman, opened her door and leapt out, angry questions falling over each other for first utterance. The silver-helmeted woman. however, got in first. Her voice was calm and measured and she took out a notebook as she spoke.
"What's going on here, then?" she asked.
"What do you mean, what's going on?" asked the driver, her voice rising to an involuntarily high pitch. "What are you mucking about at? You don't seriously think you can get away with this, do you."
The helmeted woman made a note in her book. She had about her an air of authority that was hard to ignore. "You aren't going to improve your position by that sort of outburst, young woman," she said. "You are breaking the speed limit. That car is an offence against the Public Decorum Act. So is the noise it was making, and you are not allowed to have `Police' written on it. Who is that you've got in the back?"
"She's in Police custody."
"Yes, well that's where you're all likely to be. Eileen get her out."
The second occupant of the black car moved toward the rear door of the white one. The second occupant of the white car moved to guard the door.
"I'd advise you not to resist," said the woman with the notebook meaningly.
"It's alright," said the driver of the white car, "Manus will be here any minute."
"Why isn't he here now?"
The rear door was opened and the girl from the back stepped out.
"Who are you?" asked the woman with the notebook.
"Deborah Cunningham," replied the girl.
"And who are these two?"
"Policewomen, of course."
"Of course. I take it you are riding with them volutarily."
"Well, not exactly voluntarily----"
"Are they holding you against your will?"
"Well I suppose you could put it that way----"
"It's not a question of how I put it, miss. Either you got into that car of your own free will or you didn't. Now which was it?"
The second occupant of the white car was talking into her personal wireless set.
"We've got a couple of live ones here. How long is Manus going to be?"
"What are you doing with that?" asked the second occupant of the black car, snatching the wireless receiver and putting it to her ear.
"Manus's been up and down your section of the 405 twice. He can't locate you," crackled the machine.
"What are you two up to?" demanded the driver of the white car. "What would you have done if there had been a couple of men in our vehicle?"
"A couple of what?"
"Have you any notion what she's talking about?" asked the woman with the notebook.
"Classical reference," said her colleague, Eileen. "Men--mythical creatures: like humans but very ferocious and cruel. Said to inhabit the Northern wastes in ancient times. Sabrina the Younger mentions them; so does Ulalua."
"Very learned," said the woman with the notebook. "You're not University students on a rag, by any chance?"
"You're insane," said the driver of the white car. "There'll be another Police car along any minute you know."
"Yes, we know all about that."
"What do you think's going to happen then?"
"We'll have to take you in, I suppose, if we haven't done so already. I don't think we really need any help with you three."
"I think we ought to wait for the patrol." whispered Eileen. "I think something is seriously amiss. They look as if they'd put up a fight."
A sense of truce descended on the little group. All were now awaiting reinforcements, all willing to temporise.
"One question", asked the woman with the notebook. "You were driving the car. You seem to be in charge of the practical side of things. Isn't that a bit unusual?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well," said the woman with the notebook, as if the explanation were quite superfluous and unnecessary, "You're blonde and your friend here is brunette."
"What the hell has that got to do with it?"
"Fanatics," whispered Eileen.
"Perverts if you ask me," whispered her colleague.
"Look what's coming!" shouted the driver of the white car, pointing up ahead.
"Oh, my God!" cried her colleague.
Down the road was coming another Police car--a black one.
With a single movement the two women were inside the white car. In a very neat piece of manoevring, it backed rapidly for twenty-five yards, executed a lightning three-point turn and sped in the direction it had come. Within a minute two black cars were behind it, bells ringing.
The driver of the first black car had put away her notebook and removed her helmet with a dignified leisure.
"It's all right," she said, "that ridiculous heap of garish tin can't possibly outrun us. We've already established that. There it is now. We just have to wait for a stretch of straight road long enough to overtake on."
"What's that across the highway?" asked Eileen.
"Some sort of shimmering light--quite faint--the car ahead is passing through it and--its gone! Did I see correctly?"
"I think so, but keep going."
They passed through the shimmering haze after the white car. Nothing happened, but the car was still nowhere in sight. There were no turnings for a mile and a half, and they covered that mile and a half at a speed they knew the white car could not match; but there was no sign of it.
"What are we going to say?" asked the driver.
"What can we say?" said Eileen, "The truth."
"But that car--what sort of a car was it? How would you describe it?"
"Grotesque is the only word that comes to mind. A car designed for a circus-clown by a carpet-biting lunatic."