A witch? An actual witch.

“No, it couldn’t be,” Clyde said. “We were mistaken.”

“All of us?” Sarah Jane queried. “All of us mistaken at once?”

“I suppose so.” Clyde looked less certain.

“It looked like a witch to me,” Luke ventured. “Pointy hat, black cloak, broomstick… that is a witch isn’t it? I’ve seen pictures.”

“Oh, wait!” Maria slapped her forehead with her first. “I know what it is. Rosetta Lupo.”

“Who?” Sarah Jane asked.

“Rosetta Lupo!” the three youngsters chorused as the boys caught up with what Maria was saying.

“Of COURSE!” Clyde exclaimed. “How dumb are we?”

“It IS a witch,” Maria explained to Sarah Jane. “But not… not a real one. It’s a balloon. One of those big ones on ropes. They’ve been using it all week in town, as an advertisement. In the shopping centre car park, even outside school until the headmaster told them to go away because they weren’t allowed to advertise commercial products on school premises.”

“Rosetta Lupo?” Sarah Jane repeated.

“It’s a novelty toy shop,” Clyde added. “They opened up in the shopping centre. They sell all sorts of joke things like smoke bombs and hand buzzers, and magic card tricks and spiderman costumes and stuff like that. And of course, loads of Halloween stuff. They have loads of Halloween masks and they were giving them away to the little kids.”

“GIVING them away?” Sarah Jane looked suspicious. “Why?”

“Dunno,” Clyde shrugged. “I tried to get one, but they said it was for under 12s only. Not that I wanted one. They look rubbish to me.”

“Why would anyone GIVE something away that they KNOW people are going to buy like mad in the run up to Halloween? I mean, if they were doing it tomorrow, when they would be chucking out the unsold stock. But before…”

“I don’t know,” Maria shrugged. “But it explains the ‘witch’. It must have come loose and blown away on the wind.”

“Yes, that must be it,” Sarah Jane said. “Of course it is.”

Except there WASN’T any wind.

And it didn’t look like any balloon to her. It looked like a woman in a black cloak flying on a broomstick.

“Is that ANOTHER siren?” she asked as she decided they’d walked far enough and they started to head back towards home. “It really is a noisy night. How many Halloween bonfires ARE there?”

“It is not fire service sirens,” K9 intoned. “I am picking up multiple radio messages from the police.”

“You’ve got a police scanner?” Clyde looked at K9 with renewed awe. “Cool. Illegal but cool.”

“Negative,” K9. “I do not have a scanner. The radio signals interfere with my internalgyroscope.”

“You mean, they’re making you dizzy?” Maria asked him.

“Affirmative, mistress,” he replied and as if to prove it he suddenly began to skew off the path, towards the river. Everyone ran after him and set him on the path again.

“I am attempting to block the signals so that my movement is not impaired again,” K9 told them.

“How about you keep monitoring the signals and we’ll just give you a nudge if you go astray,” Sarah Jane said. “I’m wondering if this could be important.”

“Well, of course it’s important,” Clyde pointed out. “But is it anything to do with us? Could be just a bunch of burglaries. With so many people out at parties and trick or treating…”

“Anyone who doesn’t answer their door to the kiddies, empty house…” Maria added. It sounded plausible. Sarah Jane looked concerned, still.

Maybe, Maria wondered, and hated herself for wondering it. Maybe Sarah Jane was a bit TOO quick to think of sinister things, alien things, when there were ordinary explanations. Like the ‘witch’ for example. Of course, she HAD seen a lot of weirdness. They all had when they hung out with her. But just this once couldn’t it just be burglars?

“Well,” Sarah Jane said. “Seeing as MY house is empty and we have the guard dog out with us, maybe we should hurry home.”

They did hurry. In the end, Sarah Jane picked up K9 and carried him, covered with her coat. There really was no way they could have got him down Bannerman Road unnoticed otherwise. There were TWO police cars and a van in the street and there were people standing around, talking to each other in small groups. Maria was sure they were all staring at them as they made their way to Sarah Jane’s house. And she was sure they were talking about them when they were out of earshot.

Ok, she admonished herself. Now I’M getting paranoid.

They went up to Sarah Jane’s attic room where all her alien artefacts were as well as Mr Smith, the amazing computer. Sarah Jane made tea and asked if anyone felt like eating the pumpkin pie that was still in the kitchen. But nobody did, just yet.

“K9,” Sarah Jane said. “Are you still getting those police scanner messages?”

“I am, mistress,” he answered. “I have all of the messages saved to memory. I will download them to Mr Smith presently.”

“But can you tell me what they were about? Was there any kind of common theme to them?”

“Eighty per cent of the messages were in relation to missing persons,” K9 told her.

“Missing persons?” Sarah Jane stood up straight. Maria and Clyde did, too. They all had a horrible thought that they hoped wasn’t right. Luke looked at them curiously. He had only lived in this world for a year. He wasn’t as cynically familiar with the ordinary, dreadful things that can happen.

“Missing CHILDREN?” Clyde and Maria said together.

“Affirmative,” K9 continued. “In the past two hours there have been fifty-three calls to the emergency services about children who did not come home from ‘trick-a-treating’. All the children are aged ten.”

“All of them?” Sarah Jane was puzzled. “Fifty three missing children, all aged TEN?”

“Are there THAT many ten year olds in the area?” Clyde asked.

“Yes,” Sarah Jane said, thinking about it for a moment. “There are two primary schools between here and the town centre. There’s a Catholic one, and an ordinary non-denominational one. Each of those would have about thirty ten year olds in the year 5/6 classes. Yes, I suppose there must be at least that many ten year olds around here.”

“Not any more,” Luke commented. He didn’t mean to be flippant. It was just the way he was. He had never been ten. He had never had a family who lost him and worried about him. He just didn’t understand the emotional implications.

“There are people at the door,” said Mr Smith a moment before the doorbell rang insistently. On his viewscreen a live picture of the visitors appeared from the hidden security camera over the front door.

It was a pair of policemen. Sarah Jane went to open the door. The others followed. She warned them to shut the attic door.

“Good evening,” the policeman said politely as she opened the door. He identified himself as PC Turner. “Miss er…” he consulted his notebook. “Miss Smith?”

“Yes, that’s right,” she answered. “Is there a problem?”

“We’re investigating the disappearance of two youngsters from this street. Michael and Martin Shields. Twin boys, aged ten.” The second officer held up a photograph that seemed to have been pulled roughly out of a photograph album. It still had a bit of the plastic covering attached.

“I think I’ve seen them around the street,” Sarah Jane answered. “But I don’t know…”

“They came here earlier,” Maria said. “They were dressed as ghosts with white face masks and talc in their hair. They took their masks off to eat the toffee apples. That’s how I noticed them. They were with two other kids about their age. But I don’t know their names.”

“They visited this house earlier? And you didn’t remember?” PC Turner looked at Sarah Jane suspiciously.

“It’s Halloween,” Sarah Jane pointed out. “Dozens of children have been knocking. Most of them were wearing masks. I just gave them toffee apples and sent them off again.”

“I think,” PC Turner said. “We really should come inside and discuss this.”

“No,” Sarah Jane replied. “I don’t think…. No, you can’t.”

“SARAH!” Maria hissed to her. “It’s missing kids. If you don’t let the police in, people will think you did it.”

Maria was right, of course. Sarah Jane reluctantly opened the door. The police officers tried to make it look as if they WEREN’T searching the house at first. One stood in the living room while the other looked into the kitchen and dining room. But really it was obvious that they wanted to see everywhere a child might be hidden and Sarah Jane had to put up with them going upstairs and looking in her bedroom and the spare bedroom, the bathroom, the empty third bedroom with nothing but an old sewing machine and a picture of a cat on the wall. Then, of course, they looked at the attic door.

“I really WOULD prefer that you didn’t go up there,” she said. But she knew she couldn’t stop them. She opened the door with a sigh. As she followed the police officers up the narrow stairs to the attic, though, she took out her mobile phone and dialled a number.

“This is the private line of Brigadier John Benton, Commanding Officer of U.N.I.T, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce,” she said as she handed the phone to PC Turner. The policeman continued to look around the room at the assortment of alien artefacts, at K9, who tried to look inconspicuous, but badly, and at Mr Smith as he listened to the officer telling him that he was to disregard anything unusual he might see in Sarah Jane’s attic as most of it was classified under the Official Secrets Act. He was also told that his Chief Inspector would be glad to talk to him about it if he had any problems with the instruction.

“That will be all,” PC Turner said as he returned the phone. “If you see or hear anything that might help, please call the switchboard.”

“I will, of course,” Sarah Jane answered him. “Clyde… would you see these gentleman out…”

Clyde did so. Sarah Jane sat on her sofa. K9 came to her like a faithful dog. She fondled his ears absently. K9 submitted to the show of affection.

“Sarah,” Maria said to her. “Fifty three missing kids. That’s not NORMAL. I mean, stealing kids isn’t normal anyway. People who do that are sick nutters. But this is even more not NORMAL than ordinary sick nutters. I think this is something we need to investigate.”

“Yes,” Sarah Jane admitted. “Yes, you’re right. You’re quite right.”

“But where do we begin to look for that many children?” Luke asked.

And that was a VERY good question.

To Be Continued..