The Balloon Carnival

He’s closing

in on us!” yelled Sarah.
          “The helicopter’s too fast,” said Tom, discouraged.
          Sarah glanced ahead and saw the sky dotted with exquisite colors: dazzling blues, radiant reds, bright greens and fluorescent purples.
          “Tom, over by the hills. It looks like . . .” she paused, mystified, then grabbed the binoculars. “Balloons . . . hundreds of them.” Sarah looked back. The helicopter was getting closer: twenty-five miles — twenty miles — fifteen miles . . .
          “He’s almost here!”
          Reacting fast, Tom slowly released some hot air and lowered the balloon to around 1000 feet. “Let’s aim directly for the festival. Maybe we could blend in.”

             Sprinkled throughout the sky were balloons displaying every conceivable color and design. People from all over the world had gathered for this annual event. Some of the balloons resembled figures, like a large turtle, Rupert the Bear, The Scottish Piper, a pint of beer and a towering gothic castle. Many of the baskets flaunted their country flags, such as France, Spain, Germany and Austria. The atmosphere was filled with music and singing, celebration and laughter. As Tom and Sarah watched this extravaganza, the sky soon became crowded, like a circus suspended in midair.

* * * *

      Gowerstone watched

             as hundreds of flying objects hypnotically drifted in every direction; it was an impossible situation. For a moment in his long and illustrious career, Detective Gowerstone was stumped. Nevertheless, he was exhilarated by the challenge of what was proving to be two brilliant adversaries.

          Gowerstone glanced at his watch and turned to the pilot. “It’s almost noon. Depending on how much propane they’ve used, their fuel will be running out shortly.” He then surveyed his map and searched the area. “We’re passing over Warwick now. These children are smart. If they’re going to land, they’ll pick a major area — easier to blend in with the crowd and still get to a train station,” he stated, grabbing the radio. “Carlson, get a team of men over to Oxford. I also want some officers dressed in plain clothes. Station them at cafés, bakeries, bus stops and especially train stations.”

A strong breeze

shot across the sky as Sarah and Tom followed the pack of balloons over Oxfordshire. Known as the Thames Valley, this lush countryside was a multicolored patchwork of square farmlands crisscrossed by hedgerows and rock walls. The Thames River gracefully snaked through the open fields covered with extravagant mansions that were built centuries ago.

Although most of

the balloons headed toward Canterbury, some floated off in opposite directions. By mid-afternoon, most of them had vanished. Tom and Sarah followed behind a few but soon lost them in the hazy clouds. Every so often, Tom gave the balloon a long blast of hot air to maintain its altitude.

      Another hour crept

           by as the two discussed the clue, talked about the past and shared stories. The clouds nestled together in large patches of whimsical patterns and soon exploded in a watercolor of bright pinks and reds. The air cooled as dusk settled in.

         Although Detective Gowerstone was nowhere in sight, the balloon had been tracked from a distance. While some officers followed it from the ground, others watched from hilltops.

         As Tom pulled the rope again, one of the propane tanks suddenly sputtered, gasped for its last breath and went dead.

         “What was that?” exclaimed Sarah, staring at the propane tank and hoping her instincts were wrong.

         Tom turned the knob back and forth, putting his ear to the gauge and jiggling the tank.

         “What’s wrong with it?” she continued, anxiety building.

          “It’s empty.”

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