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Ah, Devon, said Arthur Bryant, thumbing through his ancient map book. A million people and only fourteen surnames. The battered white Bedford van left the arterial route at a junction and coasted onto a snowy tree-lined road free of traffic. Low clouds beyond the hills reflected soft saffron light from a distant town. You see, said Bryant, thats Plymouth to the right of us. Five miles at the most.

But the road curved away to the left down a one-in-seven hill, dropping them into a valley surrounded by wind-blasted woodland. By now the last vestiges of daylight had faded, and the snow bleached all remaining features from their surroundings. May turned the wipers up as high as they would go, but they could no longer keep the windscreen clear.

I dont like the look of this. He angled the heater nozzles so that they warmed the glass and provided him with some vague visibility.

The road ahead was as direct as desert blacktop, Roman in its refusal to deviate for the lands natural features. It cut over the far side of the valley in a perfect straight line, and was hemmed on either side by hawthorn hedge. May felt the traction in his tyres give as he started on the downward slope. The rear of the van fishtailed on the hardening snow tracks left by the previous vehicle. He gripped the wheel tightly, struggling to keep the van from ploughing into walls of dense brush. The engine squealed as the tyres spun, gripped, spun again.

I was just thinking about the Malleus Maleficarum, the Witches Hammer, said Bryant, who had clearly failed to notice that they were in difficulty. Have you ever actually tried reading the 1486 edition? I mean, its intriguing that we vilify Mein Kampf, a volume with which it shares the same fundamental fear and hatred of anyone different, while most practising Christians still have the same beliefs that the Hammer puts forward, so that if you hold the contemporary view of piety that places Wicca on the opposite side of Christianity, youre aligned with the same witch-burning mentality that existed over five centuries ago.

He watched as the headlights flashed across bushes, then road, then bushes again. I mean, even Galileo was considered heretical for thinking about the planets in terms of their gravitational fields rather than their holy design. I suppose what Im really trying to say is-

May never found out what Bryant was really trying to say, for at that moment the wheel spun out of his hands as the tyres locked into a set of frozen truck tracks. He fought to correct the trajectory of the Bedford van, then changed gear and applied the brakes when that failed. Bryant was thrown against the passenger door as they slipped sideways across the road and came to an angled halt against the hawthorn bank.

May flooded the engine trying to restart it. As the snow clouds briefly parted, he saw that there were at least half a dozen vehicles littering the road ahead. Opening his window and looking back through the spattering white flakes, he could see a Spar supermarket truck coming in behind him, and another vehicle pulling up behind that. If they blocked the road, nobody would be able to leave.

As he closed the window, the wind rose in an ear-battering bluster, and the flurries turned back into a blizzard. Well, thats it, he said, sitting back in his seat. Were not going anywhere tonight. Well have to wait for the emergency services to come and dig us out. You realise this wouldnt have happened if wed stayed on the main highway.

Dont blame me, said Bryant indignantly. You should have paid more heed to the weather report. We cant just stay here. I have to be at tomorrows opening ceremony in Plymouth.

Well, I wouldnt suggest trying to walk there tonight, especially as you managed to forget your stick. The snows getting deep, and youd never get across the fields while its like this. I think were on the closest main road running beside the southern part of Dartmoor. Your shortcut appears to have taken us over the most inhospitable piece of land in the whole of Southern England.

It looks like there are plenty of others in the same boat, Bryant pointed out. At least we shouldnt have to wait here for very long.

I wouldnt bet on it. It looks like the road is already impassable. They wont be able to get a snowplough down here. When this happened last year, the Devon and Cornwall rescue services had to send out British Navy helicopters to airlift over sixty drivers and passengers to safety. Their vehicles were flooded out when the thaw came.

This is exactly the sort of thing I always expect to happen in the countryside, Bryant complained. You read about people falling into bogs and quarries, being trampled by cows and drowned in chicken slurry. Youre better off getting mugged and stabbed in London. I read The Hound of the Baskervilles; I know about treacherous patches of quicksand lurking on the moors.

May fixed him with an annoyed stare, but chose to remain silent.

Look at the bright side, John. Weve plenty of warm clothing in the back. You helped me pack all those outfits for the show.

If you think Im sitting here dressed in a fig-leaf body stocking and a Protestant clerics cassock, Arthur, youre sadly mistaken.

Bryant huddled down inside his voluminous overcoat. It was just an idea. We still have plenty of Almas sandwiches to keep us going. We could probably feed everyone whos been stranded here. I wonder why triangular ones are considered posher than oblong ones?

Most of the cars in front look empty, said May. It looks like their drivers had the good sense to get out and head for the nearest town before the blizzard started up again. At least we know that things cant get any worse tonight.

Just then his mobile rang. The display told him that Janice Longbright was calling from the unit. With a growing sense of ill-ease he tried to take the call, but the connection suddenly vanished.