Publication: 17 April-3 July 1976
Artist: Phil Townsend
Ten school girls are to spend their holiday exploring a derelict canal on the old narrow boat. It starts with ten, but the opening blurb tells us the numbers will reduce on a trip that is to turn into a nightmare. It starts right away when Tina, who finds it ominous that the boat is called Water Witch, finds the gangplank break under her feet. She hurts her ankle and is off the trip. Gail replaces her, so the number stays at ten – for now. The other girls do not like Gail much as she is a bit pushy and does not like taking orders, but she soon blends in. And she is soon overtaking Sharon, the leader of the group, in terms of brains, courage and leadership qualities.
The supernatural element is further reinforced the moment they meet the boatman’s wife who is in charge of them. She is a creepy looking gypsy like woman and her name is Mrs Bogle. How subtle. She tells them they are heading off to Creeping Weed Pool. And once they reach it, they see a warning sign that says “Beware: Lucifer Canal”. Now this is getting spookier by the minute. And it gets worse when Pickles and Jill wake up in the night to find the creeping weed all over their boat. And then it grabs Jill. She is saved from being dragged under but is scared off the trip. Down to nine.
In order that their jobs are allotted fairly, Sharon has marked ten dolls with each girl’s name for the roster. But as you might have guessed, the dolls are soon marking something far more sinister. After Jill has her encounter with the weed, they find her doll smashed. The template of things to come. And others are getting rattled by the warning sign that sailing further on the canal is dangerous and getting ideas that it is haunted.
And so it goes on, with one spooky thing after another, with girls getting progressively scared off and their corresponding dolls getting mysteriously smashed. The stops they make give the impression of haunting – or do they? At one point they stop at a supposed derelict inn, but find a sumptuous banquet inside and everything cosy. But when they wake up next morning, the place is derelict and cobwebby and nobody could have lived there for years. And Gail finds a question mark etched on the table. But what really scares even her off are the bats. Afterwards, Gail finds tyre tracks and a can of soup that is the same brand as the one they consumed at the inn. Coincidence or clue? At another, they encounter a ghost in a mill, but Gail finds it is just a bunch of clothes tied to a rope.
From the outset, Gail has been level-headed about it all and says they are just accidents. But now she thinks someone is trying to scare them off. Gail suspects Mrs Bogle as she does seem to be trying to persuade them to leave, winding them up with stories that the canal is cursed. At one point she even tries to get the police to send them home. Gail’s suspicions are confirmed when she finds Mrs Bogle’s brooch beside yet another smashed doll.
By this time the ten is down to the titular three – Gail, Pickles and Sharon. Convinced that Mrs Bogle is trying to stop them reaching the end of the canal, the girls pull a ruse to make her think she has succeeded. They pretend to turn back and put on an act of being scared off for Mrs Bogle’s benefit. She buys it and believes it is safe to tell the others it is safe to carry out the final stages of their plan. Now what can that be? Well, we know now it can’t be hauntings.
The girls sneak to the end of the canal to investigate. They find an iron grille gate and – giant frogs the size of men?!? Sharon loses her nerve at this and goes back. Down to two. Pickles and Gail swim in and find a counterfeiting ring in operation. The giant frogs are men in frog suits (literally) which explains how they managed to rig things along the canal for the girls. Gail and Pickles are captured by the counterfeiters and are locked in. The counterfeiters are now ready to roll with their forgeries and proceed to make their getaway. But the girls manage to escape. Gail knew it all along because she brought their dolls so they would not get mysteriously smashed like the others. Obviously, Mrs Bogle had been breaking them to throw a scare into each girl before arranging an accident for her.
They go on the trail of the counterfeiters, who find their getaway blocked by the Water Witch. In fact, they smash into it and are tipped into the water. Sharon had gone to the police, who had been hunting for the forgers for a while. The forgers fell into the trap set by the police and Sharon. They are soon rounded up, with Pickles and Gail personally catching Mrs Bogle.
Now the girls turn back along the canal, revisiting the various places where they got their various scares and discuss how the counterfeiters must have rigged them. This time, though, things are more peaceful. When they are back where they started the trip, the other girls who had been scared off return to cheer the three who had stuck it out until the end.
The title and opening blurb of the story make it clear what is going to happen. And when you meet Mrs Bogle (is that her real name?) you immediately share Gail’s suspicions about her. The question is, how does it all fit together? From the way the opening panel sets things up, you wonder if Mrs Bogle is going to spirit these girls away one by one or something. The girls are all winding themselves up for supernatural events. So do the people who have lived on the canal, judging by the names they have given these stops. Creeping Weed Pool? Lucifer Canal? Maybe that is why the canal is derelict. And with Mrs Bogle sharing the same theme of name, you may wonder if she is a real witch. And maybe the accidents are accidents, but why so many of them, and why does a doll smash around the same time an accident occurs? Could there really be supernatural forces closing in on them?
The scares the criminals set up for the girls are brilliant, and it would not be surprising if they had pulled similar tricks on other people. The scene where they pull the weed all over the barge is extremely creepy. And the haunted inn scene would have just about anyone believing they had been in some kind of time warp to the past and come back to the present. But afterwards the criminals start making mistakes. It had to happen. And the ghost of the mill that turns out to be a rigged up dummy is where Gail is really tipped off. The crooks must have been losing their touch there. It is not surprising that their game starts to unravel after this.
But until then, you can’t make out what is causing all these strange events at all. Are they unlucky coincidences, accidents and overactive imaginations? Or is there some supernatural force at work that is growing ever more dangerous the more the girls venture down the canal? It comes as a relief to discover that it is all sabotage and scares rigged by criminals. And they would have gotten away with it all if Gail had not joined the crew at the last minute. Her level-headedness, courage and quick wits, and determination to stay when others dropped out in fear is what carries the trip and the story through to the happy ending.
“Then There Were 3…” may not be one of Jinty’s classics, but it is an effective, well crafted story of fear and mystery that would give readers lots of creeps and scares before the girls start to turn the tables. And we have plenty of action, adventure, and and exciting ending when Sharon, the leader who supposedly chickens out turns up trumps with the police. But it would not have ended that way if not for Gail’s determination and, more importantly, her skepticism.