“An IOU’s not really money is it. I can’t just go changing the script. I’ll be up before the College of Professors and drummed out of the Punchmen’s Guild.
“We’re not offering you a choice,” growled the bear. “Get your hand up the puppet and read the script when you’re cued.”
“Really, I can’t,” whined the professor. “Such a substantial deviation from the standard plot… If word got out it would be more than my job’s worth. I will lose my livelihood. I have a wife, children.”
Quietly Beryl picked up a swaddled bundle from the props basket and held it at arm’s length. “You will do as you are told Mr Flosso. Shape up or the baby gets it.”
“No. Please. Not the bairn… I can’t bear this. The world is too cruel. I will do as you demand, though it will be the end of my career.”
“Oh, come on prof, your College will never know. Have a good stab at this and you might just save the world,” said Zelda.
“A punchman’s skill is never in question.”
There was a good deal of shuffling and muttering along the front rows of audience seating in the Lecture theatre. They were crammed with Sphinx-like, self-important Chats in three-piece suits or flamboyant military uniforms. A sea of pallid faces with beady pink eyes and huge ears surveyed the stage. On the platform the monks and a reluctant Mr Fluffy stood before a large projector screen. Master Dorje and Lady Augusta were at the podium. She plugged her i-Phone into an HDMI port and opened the FaceTime App.
“Gentlemen, heeding my advice it would seem that you are incapable of. Drastic measures called for are. Behold your nemesis.”
Mrs king dialled Zelda’s mobile number.
“Sister Zelda, is everything prepared?” asked Master Dorje in a commanding voice.
Zelda’s head appeared on screen. With an orange towel draped about her shoulders she appeared convincingly monkish.
“It is master, His eminence would speak with the miscreants now.”
“Ready we are.”
The screen went dark. As light slowly returned a hideous reptilian face emerged. Lit from below its yellow eyes glowed and rows of pointed teeth gleamed in a Colgate smirk. The high collar of an imperial robe framed its head. Close to, the word Kellogg’s could just be discerned beneath still wet poster paint. But the shocked audience saw only a Merovingian Lizard Lord.
“Minions.” The squawking comb-and-paper voice rasped on shattered nerves. The gaping jaws clacked noisily as they moved. “Wretched minions, you have provoked our wrath.”
As one cat, the audience fell grovelling to their knees. A groan echoed within the auditorium. Mr Fluffy started.
“No. Get up, all of you. It’s some sort of a trick.”
The groaning grew louder.
“My poor misguided children. What am I to do with you? Your treachery will not go unpunished, but what form should that chastisement take? Return to your tunnels and contemplate your fate. Listen to me. The Andromeda Geräte has been dispatched. Be below ground when it arrives, the surface is to be purged.”
The Lizard Lord reached down out of shot and reappeared with a string of sausages in its mouth. A large, unfocused hand quickly blocked the lens and with a pop the phone link was cut.
The majority of chats rushed for the doors, others shouted angrily at each other, fear filling their eyes.
“Now look what you’ve done.”
“Me? This putsch was your idea.”
“Not me. Someone else is to blame.”
“Andromeda what?” asked Mr Fluffy.
Master Dorje’s party was urgently escorted into the soaring, domed vestibule of a gilded extravaganza. A vast hall stretched away into the far distance, every square inch of wall and ceiling embellished with scenes of baroque fantasia. Legions of naked muscular men, buxom women and gambolling cherubs yearned towards their martial monarch and his sombre queen; clustered about the ornate, gold painted sterns of men o’ war; squatted on pastoral banks or rocky outcrops. A winged Adonis lounged a little too intimately alongside a wary and anachronistic white bull. Every triumph of trade and empire was glorified in the flamboyant panels; England at her best in the best of all possible worlds.
The captain of the guard felt that his charges must be impressed, “Behold a masterpiece of the interior decorator’s art, executed by the painter Sir James Thornhill at the dawn of this nation’s imperialist venture.”
“Your Mr Thornhill must have OD’d on Beryl’s cough drops,” observed Lady Augusta.
“Just keep walking.”
They traversed the lower hall, mounted a short staircase to an upper level and, at last, faced an end wall where Mr Fluffy was dwarfed before a Trompe-l’œil arch spewing fleshy, classical deities and lugubrious worthies into the room. The circle of stars at Mr Fluffy’s collar and gilded braid of his general’s cap blazed in the twinkling candlelight of grandiose chandeliers. His corncob pipe belched smoke like an old tramp steamer. He waited as Master Dorje and company crossed the checkerboard marble floor and held out a hand to the old monk, which the latter did not take.
“Here to speak with the leadership of Les Chats Souterrains I am, not their lap dog.”
“I am empowered to negotiate on behalf of le Conseil Supérieur des Chats.” Replied Mr Fluffy, with an air of self-importance.
“To be a negotiation there is not. Here to pronounce I am. This current enterprise of Les Chats, unacceptable to the Merovingian Lizard Kings it is. Very cross they are.”
“Your reptilian masters may well be cross, but they are impotent.” Mr Fluffy’s eyes gleamed, “For millennia they have fiddled around the edges of momentous events, but everyone knows they do not indulge in direct intervention. Les Chats wish to return to the surface, they crave the light. But your world is a disorderly mess. It will be better, it will be perfected. World peace, harmony, tranquillity, that is what they want for you. A new world order achieved through world domination, global felicity, does that not appeal? Who would not want to live within the Pax Feles?”
“I quite like a little mess,” mused Lady Augusta.
“Les Chats’ treasured goal to me is known, but misguided they are. Utopia is to be sought, imposed it cannot be. Their methods are not to be tolerated. They underestimate the Lizard Lords. A contract breached has been. Contrition they must demonstrate.
“Like I said, your lords will bluster. They will send emissaries like yourself to threaten and cajole. But they will do nothing. Their power is a myth.”
“Trust me, a demonstration of their mythical power you do not want. But for this banter I have no time. Do you possess a video projector?”
“In the lecture theatre, but…”
“Direct me. And try to persuade your Supreme Council to join us there.”
“Oh good,” she panted, “Could you two lend me a hand? I’ve an urgent job to do for Master Dorje.”
“Why not?” Together they rushed past a cluster of laughing urchins toasting marshmallows in the radiant heat from the fire raging aboard the iconic tea clipper. A tramp wearing an Air Raid Warden’s armband was sidling up to the children with the intention of administering Health and Safety advice whilst cadging one of the confections.
“We’ve got to find Professor Flosso’s Punch and Judy,” said Zelda, breaking into a run and heading for the covered market.
Displaying little regard for the conflict that had been raging up the hill the market stalls were doing steady business. Those traders willing to move with the times were all but sold out of gas masks, tin hats and primus stoves. Knitwear was selling well but there was little interest in the Rhassoul Clay and Argan Oil spa treatments or themed mouse-mats so prevalent in the town’s trendier past. The artisan bakery had abandoned Malthouse Sourdough, Ciabatta, and Dampfnudel; going over instead to the dispensing of easily stored and transported tinned or dry comestibles.
“Punch and Judy?” a wheezing Ginsbergbear enquired of one of the costermongers.
“Far corner, mate. You’ve missed the best bits, show’s nearly over.”
An optimistic profusion of benches had been arranged in rows before the red and white striped booth. They were all but deserted. Two infants huddled, wailing on the front row and a hunched crone in a Pakamac sat at the back eating a sandwich.
“That’s the way to do it.” A motley clad Punch was beating a crimson devil with his slapstick. Ginsbergbear bent over clutching his knees while he got his breath back.
“Wow, man,” exclaimed Beryl, “This is soo profound!”
“Really?” replied Zelda. “Child abuse, domestic violence, police brutality; it’s a socio-feminist nightmare.” The old lady clapped enthusiastically as the drama closed and croaked, “encore,” when Toby leapt up onto the stage. Punch and his wife took a bow and the weeping children departed.
“Quick, round the back while he’s packing up,” said Zelda.
“Hello!” They pulled back the curtain at the rear of the booth. The professor cringed.
“I told your boss I’d pay up as soon as I had the money.” The plaintive plea was rendered even more pathetic by the swazzle that he had omitted to remove from his mouth.
“We’re not here about that. We would like to engage you for a private performance.”
Professor Flosso was still shaking, “Well I’m pretty booked up. When and where?”
“Here. And now. I am authorised to offer you a blank IOU. You can fill in any amount you feel to be appropriate. You do have a crocodile don’t you?”
“Halt! Who goes there?”
“My companions and I, emissaries from the Himalayan stronghold of the Merovingian Lizard Kings are. Taking me to your leader you will be.”
One of the guards idly watched the dogfight unfolding above. The other leered.
“Yeh, like that’s going to happen. Bugger off old man.”
Dorje stood his ground. “Failing to comprehend the situation you are. Imperative to the very survival of your high command my mission is. Insisting I must be that detaining us you are not.”
What the sentry lacked in intelligence he made up for in bulk and aggression and he was not used to being contradicted. “It’s you that’s failing to comprehend, mush. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a war going on. If you were to get shot no-one’s going to care about a few extra dead gooks. Collateral damage.” At this moment of mounting tension a Lieutenant emerged from the guardhouse polishing the lenses of his goggles with a paisley silk handkerchief.
“What’s going on soldier?”
“These chinks want to see the commander, sir. I think they’re taking the piss.”
Master Dorje stepped forward, produced a small parchment scroll from the depths of his robes, and presented it to the officer.
The lieutenant read the scroll with an air of suspicion. He studied the crested heading, the signature, and the back of the document. He sniffed at the parchment. “Seems in order.” He reached through the open guardhouse window and picked up a phone. “I think you should see this, sir.” He listened for a reply. “Of course, sir. I’ll organise an escort and send them through.” He turned to Master Dorje, “Are these hippies with you too?”
Boz, Phoebles and Ferdy were whistling innocently as they ambled away in the direction of the pier. Flo had disappeared. Ginsbergbear, arm in arm with Beryl, turned in feigned surprise.
“Us? Nope, never seen the little fellows before today. Haven’t even been to the Himalayas.”
Augusta was lighting a fresh new cheroot from the smouldering nub end of her last.
“I’m with the monks,” she called out as they strode in through the gates.
The heavily guarded party was crossing an open quad when, with a blood-chilling siren scream, the foo-fighter dove almost vertically towards them from out of the firmament. It zoomed overhead still pursued by the three Tsetse warbirds that barely cleared the rooftops, the clatter of their flapping gossamer wings clearly audible to the group below. For a split second the Chat Ray-gunner managed to get one of the tormentors on to the cross hairs of his weapon’s sights and fired. Lightning bolts crackled and zigzagged through the air. There was the distinctive, acrid stench of ozone. At the same moment yet another shell from the lead ornithopter exploded beneath the flying saucer. The craft tipped and the death ray went wide, slicing an arc through space until it met with one of the Naval College towers. Classical columns split apart and the cupola exploded. A tangled brass weathercock landed at Augusta’s feet.
“Could we just get under cover, a bit smartish?”
At last the gang had their pints; best bitter, mild ale, or porter, Black Velvet for Augusta and warming Po Cha for Master Dorje, served from a copper teapot with a dragon spout into a delicate china bowl with only one small chip out of the rim.
“Impressed I am. Where in Limehouse, yak butter did you manage to acquire?”
“Under the counter at Jamrach’s Exotic Pet Emporium on Ratcliffe Highway,” replied Sam, looking over his shoulder as he sat at the piano, “They also do a side line in Kopi Luwak, a natural by-product from the feline department.”
“Civet poo coffee,” shouted Flo from behind the bar.
“No thanks!” sang out the entire company, in unison.
“Now, Master Dorje,” enquired Augusta, “what is your important news?”
“Ah, so. The Merovingian Lizard Kings my news concerns. The Dark Lords of Pandemonium are well displeased with this coup by Les Chats Souterrains. My companions and I…” There came renewed hammering on the cellar trapdoor. Flo jumped and then, baseball bat in hand, cautiously lifted the trap. Three more Tibetan worthies emerged. They were marginally less wizened than Dorje, identically clad in tall hats and yak skin coats, and similarly lacking in stature. They did not speak. “Aware were you that within your beer cellar a portal there is?”
“Do you think we’d have spent all that time wallowing around in the sewers if we’d known we had a portal of our own?” asked Phoebles.
“Ancient as time it is, referenced only in one single, rare, coded Sanskrit text, and known to no-one but the Lizard Lords. Also, fiendishly difficult to activate it has proved. But, to continue – my companions and I charged with bringing Les Chats to order are.”
Beryl was sitting alone in a dark corner of the room with a hubbly-bubbly pipe and a glass of Absinth. She stopped sucking. “Heavy, man. I hope you’re in time to save Aunty Stella. When we flew in it looked like a seriously bad trip was unfolding down the river.”
“Let us hope… Somewhat lacking in detail my instructions were. To improvise I am required.”
“Not again,” said Phoebles.
Outside clouds parted and a shaft of sunlight shone down, through the den’s bay window, to illuminate the back of master Dorje’s head. He rose, haloed in glowing gold:
“Have faith. Get me to Greenwich.”
Da da da dum. The long, final E-flat reverberated around the low ceilinged room, Sam hunched over the upright his fingers resting on the keys, the gang froze and Dark Flo looked up, stirred from the innocent act of tea-towelling a nonic beer glass. There was a pause, pregnant with dimly perceived significance.
“Right,” said Boz, “that will be ‘everyone back in the flying boat’ then.”
Ferdy butted the nose of the Do-X up against Greenwich Pier and Ginsbergbear tied the mooring line to a handy bubblegum dispenser. Overhead Les Chat’s foo-fighter ducked and wove about the sky, emitting a frenetic, wavering Wooh sound and mobbed by three corsair ‘Tsetse’ ornithopter ship-busters. The pursuers were blasting away, randomly and ceaselessly with their Molins six-pounders, pouring 57-mm round after 57-mm round into the vicinity of the flying saucer and giving it no chance to bring its death ray to bear. As Boz and the gang watched a stray round took out that woebegone relic of the golden age of sail, trade, and empire, the emasculated, land-bound Cutty Sark. They marched past the blazing hulk, strode up to the Chats’ guards on the West Gate of the Naval College, and pushed Master Dorje to the fore.