This strange adventure took place in India when Freddie lived in Panchgani near Bombay. It was the spring of 1962. He was staying with his grandparents and his artistic Aunt Sheroo during a school holiday.
His aunt, who had been giving him some useful tips on figure drawing, suggested he might like to make sketches at the colourful spring Festival of Holi. Freddie liked the idea, and so set off for Bombay at an early hour in company with Kamal, one of the family's houseboys.
Kamal, who was four years older than Freddie, had grown up in Bombay and was well acquainted with much of the city which is built on a number of islands connected by a system of causeways. Thus he was able to lead our hero by the back ways to the best places for watching the festival.
The pair were just about to turn into a narrow passageway when Kamal grabbed Freddie's arm and dragged him aside.
"I do not think it would be a good idea to go that way, Sahib," he whispered, looking alarmed.
"Why not? What's the matter?"
"Thuggee!" Kamal hissed, trying to listen to the muffled voices.
"How do you know?"
"They are talking, Sahib, of a plot to kidnap Prince Mohan. He is the infant son of Mahendra, the Maharajah of Maharashtra. The family is attending the festival. We must go away immediately!"
"No, keep listening," Freddie ordered, curious to know more.
"Please, Sahib! They will kill us..."
But Freddie was adamant, so Kamal softly relayed what was being said. "The Prince will be taken to their hide-out... They will demand a ransom of twenty million rupees... When the ransom is paid, they will - they will sacrifice the child to Kali..."
"How can they deceive his family like that," Freddie asked aghast.
"Easily. Do you not know that their name comes from the Sanskrit word 'sthaga', meaning deceiver?" Kamal told him, trying to pull him away from the dangerous corner.
"We must warn the authorities - or something..." said Freddie, resisting.
"It is not possible, Sahib. By the time we get through the crush of people, it will be too late. They will have snatched the child and disappeared. Now please let us be gone from here!"
"No. We can't just walk away."
"Yes we can," Kamal insisted fearfully as Freddie looked around the shady alley.
The whitewashed mud walls on either side had overhanging shingles, and an irregular array of doors and windows set in them at intervals which suggested that the properties were a mixture of dwellings and storehouses.
"Give me a leg up," Freddie commanded, then swung himself up on to the roof.
He reached down and helped the unwilling houseboy to join him.
"We'll be safer here," he said. "People don't usually look up and we can scout around."
Catlike, Freddie crept over the roofs to where he thought the thugs might be, and heard voices below. Summoning Kamal, he lay down on the warm shingles and peered into the passageway below.
Three men in dark robes had their heads together and showed no sign of suspicion. Freddie silently signalled to the houseboy to listen. After several minutes, the three split up, one disappearing along the passageway and the other two into the premises below the two watchers.
"Did you hear anything relevant?" Freddie whispered.
"Quite a lot, Sahib. We are above a safe house of the Cult of Kali, but it is not the centre of their activities. I do not know where that is. The hide-out they spoke of is in the Western Ghats - a cave, I think - called the Mouth of Heaven, hidden in the jungle. The Prince is to be taken there."
"Do you know how they're taking him?"
"First, he will be hidden in a merchant's cart that travels around the bazaars in this district. It belongs to Nandi, the carpet-seller and he will drive the Prince to the waterside. They are concerned that his cart is drawn by a white ox which is quite conspicuous. Then they will go across the water."
"Any idea which way they'll go?"
"No, Sahib, though the obvious route would be to the east."
"Obvious to us, or obvious to the authorities - assuming they don't know who's behind it?"
"Ah! They would expect the evil ones to go north across the causeway and along the Thana peninsula, or maybe westwards out to sea."
"I think we head east then," Freddie decided.
"We? But Sahib, what could we do?"
"I don't know - yet - but when Fate offers me an opportunity for an interesting adventure, I'm not going to turn her down."
"But Sahib, I am supposed to protect you. We would be in great danger. What will your family say if you are hurt or ..."
"Oh, be damned to your 'buts'. I'm going and there's an end to it. Now are you coming or not?"
Kamal gave a tight-lipped nod. "You'd never find your way out of here if I didn't," he muttered morosely as Freddie set off back across the shingles to the alley.
As he reached the edge of the roof, Freddie heard familiar voices raised in alarm just below him. He inwardly cursed his carelessness and pressed himself flat against the shingles.
"Miaou, miaou!" he trilled, and was gratified to hear the edge of panic leave the voices of those below and also to pick out the words 'billi' and 'buddh !' in their conversation. He grinned to himself, recognizing them as 'cat' and 'fool!'
Carefully, he crept across the roofs, following the sound of the voices as they went along the alley. Reaching the corner, he listened to determine which way they would go next, then cautiously peered over the eaves. He watched the two thugs take the third turning from his corner, then slithered into the alley, followed by the reluctant Kamal.
The alley was almost deserted, as most people had gone to the city centre for the festival, so they were able to make an unhindered dash for the appropriate turning. A cautious peek around the corner revealed an empty street.
"Damn! Lost them," Freddie cursed.
"Good! Then we can return to the festival and forget all about it," said a hopeful Kamal.
"Oh no," Freddie declared, squinting at the sun, "I'm not giving up so easily. This street runs roughly east. Let's see where it goes to."
"Very well if we must," Kamal responded, surrendering to an unkind Fate that had saddled him with our headstrong hero. "This street leads to the bazaars around Crawford Market. It's not far from the waterside."
"Great! Sounds like we're on the right track then. Come on, keep up!"
The bazaar, in the nature of bazaars, was bustling. The narrow streets were crammed with stalls, and exotic wares spilled from shop fronts slowing progress to a meandering crawl. The pair were constantly assailed by importunate merchants begging them to admire the fine quality of their goods - fine silks, jewellery, brass-ware, succulent fruits, carpets... Carpets?
One small emporium had a very limited supply of these, and their owner was nowhere in sight. Kamal questioned a neighbour. Freddie followed little of what was being said, but he did hear the name, 'Nandi', mentioned once or twice, and also Bassein, a port some fifty miles to the north.
"It seems we were mistaken about them going east," Kamal reported. "Nandi set off for Bassein a couple of hours ago."
"I don't think so," Freddie mused. "In his shoes, I reckon I'd give out the same disinformation, or maybe, when he's delivered the Prince, he'll go on to Bassein to establish an alibi."
"Maybe, Sahib. You still wish to go east?"
They continued their tortuous way through the bazaar and Freddie was just thinking they had done very well to avoid buying anything when a young woman, heavily veiled, stepped in front of them so that they were obliged to stop.
"Sahib, I see that you are in great danger, and unarmed too," she began. "You will have need of some protection. I beg you will take this amulet of Lakshmi, goddess of good fortune. It is very important and will help you in time of need."
She pressed a silver pendant in the shape of a lotus into Freddie's hand and disappeared into the crowd before Freddie had time to say anything. He shrugged and slid the silver chain over his head, slipping the amulet inside his shirt.
The pair reached the waterside in time to see a white ox pulling a cartload of carpets away from the jetties in a northerly direction. A little way across the bay, a pulwar, one of many light flat-bottomed river boats plying their trade, was heading east towards the forest-covered mainland with a cargo of carpets. There were also six men aboard, all wearing dark robes.
"Now do you think we were mistaken?" Freddie asked triumphantly.
"Obviously not, Sahib, but I still don't see what we can do."
"Hire a boat and go after them, of course! Oh, and see if you can find a guide to the Mouth of Heaven."
Kamal looked at his young master in slack-jawed horror.
Kamal's mouth snapped shut in a thin line as he went to negotiate passage across the bay and find, Heaven knew how! a guide. Freddie stayed on the waterfront watching the pulwar's progress. It had reached the farther shore by the time Kamal returned in company with a toothless geriatric in a grubby dhoti. This animated skeleton was introduced as a sage named Yogesh.
Freddie was even less enamoured of the river craft that Kamal had hired. It was small, dilapidated and propelled by an unkempt, sullen-looking man of the 'wouldn't-fancy-meeting-him-in-a-dark-alley' variety. It was also Hobson's choice, so Freddie deigned to embark.
He was not surprised that the passengers were obliged to indulge in fairly energetic bailing before they had reached half-way - two of the passengers anyway. Yogesh told Kamal that bailing out wasn't part of the agreement.
It was more surprising that they reached shallow water without capsizing as it was almost up to the gunnels. The passengers disembarked while oarsman upended his craft, then they re-embarked and followed the mainland coast south until they reached the distinctive clump of trees that marked the point where the pulwar had disappeared from view.
The trees were on a narrow neck of land with a hidden inlet behind it. The pulwar had been pulled up on shore. One carpet was unrolled. There was no trace of either Prince or thugs, for which Kamal offered up a silent prayer of thanks to Lakshmi.
There was no stopping Freddie, however, who was looking for clues along a narrow path that disappeared into the jungle. A number of fresh footprints and a broken shoot still oozing sap indicated that several people had passed that way very recently.
"Can Yogesh find the Mouth of Heaven from here?" Freddie asked Kamal. "It's time he earned his fee..."
Seemingly he could, so leaving the boatman to await their return, they set off in single file along the path. The serpentine trackway climbed steadily as they travelled inland. Heat and humidity were high, and the jungle sang with a myriad strange voices of which the buzzing ones were the most annoying.
The sun was past the zenith by the time they reached the hide-out of the Cult of Kali. The track came to a sudden end at the base of a steep and rocky cliff that ran north-south. In the past, great forces must have been at work to buckle the rock in front of them to leave a triangular cave entrance - the Mouth of Heaven.
"Wait here," Freddie ordered. "I'll go in and take a look around. If I'm not back in ten minutes, you and Yogesh go back to the city and alert the authorities."
"I can't help thinking that's what we should have done in the first place," Kamal responded uneasily. "No one knows where we are, and I shall get the blame for this, for sure."
"Why? You have no control over me. My grandparents know that. Look, if it'll make you feel any better, why not go back now and raise the alarm?"
"Certainly not, Sahib! I cannot desert you, but Yogesh could be sent... Where is Yogesh?" Kamal finished in alarm.
"Maybe he went back to the boat. He's done what he was paid for, and he wasn't too keen to do anything extra, I seem to remember."
"But I only paid him half his fee in advance, the rest to be paid after he fulfilled his task..."
His eyes widened in fear as he saw two dark figures creeping up behind Freddie. Freddie read the situation instantly from what he saw behind Kamal, and leapt nimbly aside. He shouted a warning to his henchman as he swung around a stout sapling and up into the trees with the agility of a monkey.
The unfortunate houseboy, less sharp than his young master, was not quick enough to escape as two hooded figures grabbed him from behind. It was not difficult for Freddie to conceal himself among the foliage while the thugs thrashed around in the undergrowth for some minutes before abandoning the search.
This gave him some time for uncomfortable reflection. "It's going to be my ass in a sling if I don't get him out of there in one piece," he thought a little guiltily. "Maybe I should have paid more attention to him...?"
He asked himself where the four thugs had come from. Certainly not from the cave entrance; they had been facing that when they were attacked. Another entrance further along maybe, or possibly on top of the cliff? It was almost vertical, but the rough surface would provide plenty of handholds.
The next problem for consideration was, would the thugs expect him to try to rescue Kamal, assuming he wasn't - gulp - dead? No, not dead. They could easily have killed him outside the cave. Another sacrifice to Kali? Live bait to lure him into the cave?
And what had happened to Yogesh? Presumably he had been caught first. It would certainly explain why he hadn't claimed the rest of his fee! So - it was all down to him now...
He suddenly realized that the sounds of the search were diminishing, but towards the west. Perhaps they thought he would try to make a run for it back to the coast? Well, that was two less to deal with in the cave. It would them take quite a while to go back to the boats, search around and then return.
The familiar background noises of the jungle had closed like theatre curtains over the silence left by the departing thugs, so probably it was safe to come down now. Freddie climbed down from his perch as quietly as he could. He was quite pleased to note that the curtain of sound was undisturbed.
He opted for a frontal assault, creeping silently into the dark opening. He found himself in a large cavern which ended in a rock-fall at the farther end which completely blocked the way so far as he could tell in the dim light.
Retracing his steps, he explored the area along the base of the cliff and did indeed find another, smaller opening some fifty yards to the north. He listened carefully before ducking under the low entrance into a narrow cave.
Fighting off a mild attack of claustrophobia, Freddie felt his way cautiously along the rough walls into a deeper darkness. It was a place where, it seemed, time did not exist. There was certainly no way of marking it. Then, in the distance, Freddie thought he saw a faint smudge of light, and quickened his steps a little.
Yes, there was light coming from a sharp turn to the right. The light came from another cavern which, Freddie suspected, was roughly behind the rock-fall that had blocked his way earlier. There was a sizeable heap of debris half blocking the way into this second cavern which provided Freddie with a convenient refuge to hide behind.
The cavern was lit by several flaming torches in cressets around the walls. These illuminated what appeared to be a temple devoted to Kali. Behind an altar was a large statue of the four-armed dark goddess bearing a necklace of human skulls and a girdle of severed arms. One right hand brandished a blooded sword, the other the trident of Shiv. One left hand grasped a head by its hair while the other reached out to her devotees.
Freddie dragged his horrified gaze from the statue and looked around further. In a shadowy corner, he spied Kamal, tightly bound and gagged, leaning against a small boy similarly trussed. There was no sign of any of the thugs.
Warily, Freddie came out of hiding. Still no thugs. Wasting no further time, he dashed across the cavern to the captives, pulling out a sharp pen-knife as he ran. He put his finger to his lips before quickly cutting the thongs that bound the prisoners.
Kamal picked up the little prince and followed Freddie as he led the way across the cavern, then they stopped smartly as the sound of voices echoed along the tunnel. The hunters were returning. They were trapped!
Grabbing Freddie's arm, Kamal half dragged him back to their dark corner. "There was a current of air blowing into the cave from behind us," he whispered.
Sure enough, there was a narrow crack in the rock, just wide enough for the skinny lads to squeeze through. It led, via a steeply sloping passageway, to a small cave. Daylight filtered through a small hole high above them. It was, so far as Freddie could tell, the only other exit...
There were hiding places, but it could not be long before they were found. Freddie cursed. "Sorry I got you into this," he said. "Any ideas?"
Before Kamal could answer, something completely unexpected happened. From the hole above came tumbling down a slender rope! Who? How? What was going on? Legs appeared dangling through the hole, then a body eclipsed the light. The trio looked upwards, mystified.
The climber, or rather the descender, was half way down before they recognized the rough ferryman who had fetched them across the bay. In a few short words, he explained that he had followed the thugs back from the coast. He knew enough English to understand a little of what had passed between Freddie and Kamal and thought they might need help. If the two older boys could climb the rope, he would then tie the rope around the prince whom they could haul to safety then let the rope down again for him to climb out.
Alas for this simple plan! No sooner had Freddie put his hand to the rope than it came snaking downwards. His first thought - that it had not been tied securely - was instantly banished as the sky above was darkened by the head of one of the thugs. An evil laugh echoed eerily round the chamber, then the face was gone.
The ferryman, Rajiv, was completely unfazed, merely pulling out a strange bulbous flute which he began to play. Freddie watched in amazement as the cut end of the rope began to twitch. Slowly it rose, swaying in time to the harsh, reedy notes, until it had nearly reached the opening above. Then the music ceased abruptly and the rope fell to earth once again.
Freddie turned to see a thug, cosh in hand, standing over the inert form of Rajiv. The thug gestured to Freddie and Kamal to carry the would-be rescuer into the cavern. Prince Mohan followed, looking lost and bewildered.
In the temple cavern, the other thugs were involved in a heated discussion of which Freddie understood not a single word except 'Kali' which was repeated several times. One voice was familiar though, the creaking, sing-song voice of Yogesh.
"They say Kali demands a sacrifice now for the profaning of her temple," Kamal whispered. "Oh, Sahib, I am very afraid!"
The group of thugs parted and Yogesh stepped forward, pointed to Rajiv, and spoke unemotionally.
"Rajiv is the chosen one," Kamal said under his breath. "because he expected Yogesh to perform a menial task..."
Freddie was horrified. "You mean Yogesh is one of them?" He suddenly noticed the guide's eyes upon him.
"I am a servant of Kali, yes," the old man responded in perfect English. "She will find a good use for you, too. Your family will be pleased to pay for your - safe - return, I think." He gave a cackling laugh, said something to one of the thugs who leapt into action immediately.
"Looks like Yogesh is their leader," Freddie commented wryly. "No wonder he knew the whereabouts of this place! I think we'd better start praying for a miracle..."
He put his hand to his neck nervously, and, feeling the chain, suddenly remembered the silver lotus. 'Help in time of need' the woman had said. Well, Rajiv was most in need of help right now. Freddie removed the amulet and put it round the neck of the boatman.
As he did so, the thugs elbowed him and Kamal aside and carried Rajiv to the altar. Another presented Yogesh with a wicked-looking khanjarli. The old man took up his position before the altar, raised his arms to the statue and began an incantation.
Freddie and Kamal winced in horror as silence - and the knife - fell... But the khanjarli did not reach its target. As it touched the amulet, a radiant silver light burst over the altar, brilliantly illuminating the cavern. Above the altar, standing on a lotus, was the woman from the bazaar, no longer veiled.
"Lakshmi!" cried Kamal, prostrating himself before her. Freddie and Prince Mohan looked on in wonder, mesmerized by her golden beauty, while the thugs fled in panic. Of Yogesh there was no trace.
The voice of Lakshmi, though soft and gentle, filled the cavern with unearthly sound. Still unconscious, Rajiv floated from the altar and assumed a vertical position where he gently awoke.
"You too, Kamal," she said and smiled. "Time to go home, Mohan and Freddie, you may keep my silver lotus; it will bring you good fortune. Though your days will not be long, they will be prosperous, and the whole world will salute your greatness on your passing."
Freddie looked down to see the amulet once more around his neck, then realized he was standing on a marble floor. The four had been mysteriously translocated, and found themselves in the royal palace - and in the centre of happy celebrations at the safe return of Prince Mohan...
Also by Horace Cope