The sky was copper where the park still burned beyond the horizon. As dawn crept up, returning tank buster single-seater ‘dragons’ careered recklessly in through the Queen Anne’s midships hanger bays to pull up sharply as their tail hooks engaged with the arrestor wire, each urgently manhandled to one side before the next warbird arrived. Cumbersome roach-like bombers circled Captain Rotskagg Blenkinsopp’s dirigible, waiting for their turn to be craned up into the ventral hanger. Ferdy, in his Cierva, bumped down onto the topside flight deck. He stood at the edge of the platform as a lift lowered him and his autogyro into the cavernous interior. He was met by the expectant enquiring faces of Phoebles and Flo.
“There’s no sign of him.” Ferdinand said dejectedly. Nothing had been heard from Boz since he called down the air strike, and the trio had accompanied the attack fleet in the hope of picking him up.
“But what can have happened to him,” said Phoebles.
“All be not yet lost.” Rotskagg came up from behind and placed a hand on the ginger cat’s shoulder. “We’ll be back in camp soon and gather together your colleagues to plan our next move.”
Ginsbergbear was outside the stockade watching the Queen Anne’s Bounty approach through his little brass pocket spyglass. He jumped as a scarlet, stubby, monoplane fighter roared overhead, barely clearing the blockhouse roof; its Shvetsov M-63 supercharged radial engine spraying oil and smoking. Two gaudy red and yellow Grumman J2F Ducks were hard on its tail firing bursts from the heavy machine guns gaffer-taped to their top wings. Within seconds the ack-ack battery immediately forward of the Queen Anne’s majestic four funnels opened up with a QF 2-pounder pom-pom. One of the Ducks erupted in a ball of fire and spiralled away. The other broke off and, with shells exploding all around, turned it’s rear end to the airship. The red Rata executed a 180-degree handbrake turn, losing height all the time. It banged down heavily, at speed, onto the cleared killing zone surrounding the corsair compound. It roared past Ginsbergbear and into the woods, sacrificing its wings and many other vital bits as it ploughed on between the trees. The bear broke into a trot, following the gouged scar of snapped twigs and flattened foliage. And eventually, there was Wing-Comrade Polly Karpova sitting astride the tail section of her I-16 and downing a long swig of something suspect out of a plastic milk bottle. She unzipped her flying jacket and pulled a Rizla from the breast pocket of her dungarees.
“Ginsbergbear. Swap you the last of this Ukrainian horilka samohon for a roll of nip.”
The teddy bear offered up his tobacco pouch. “You be careful with a naked flame near to that moonshine,” but she tossed the bottle down to him before lighting up. “Where’s the rest of your plane?”
“Most of it’s on down there a ways.” Polly waved a thumb over her shoulder. “Not sure where I left the wings, I had my eyes shut. Think she’s going to be a bit of a challenge for the maintenance guys.
“Are Boz and the rest of the gang here? I’ve some important news.”
“I’ve got the others to safety in the woods. Now all we have to do is join them and not get caught on the way. Follow me.” And with that she disappeared.
“Er, Flo. We can’t see you.”
“Hang on.” Dark Flo rummaged around in the nearest dustbin and returned triumphantly clutching a crumpled front page of the Beano, No 2275 from February 22nd 1986, depicting Dennis the Menace and Gnasher. She produced a large safety pin from the folds of her Shinobi shozoko. “Pin this to my backside. Carefully.”
“You’d better do it, Slasher. I’m too petrified.” Boz was indeed quaking. “She’s more terrifying than that Captain Tierrasmedias.”
“Shush. Now, come along. And keep low.”
After an age in pursuit of the waggling comic, crawling and pausing and melting into the shadows, the trio reached a hole cut neatly in the chain link boundary fence. Beyond it small paper flags of all nations, on wooden sticks, marked the location of various booby traps.
“Boz, pick up the flags as we pass them. And for Cod’s sake look where you’re putting your feet. Both of you.”
Having reached the edge of the woods they could breath again. Dark Flo led them through the undergrowth and followed a muddy ditch deep into the forest. Until…
“Boz! Slasher? We’re all here.” Ginsbergbear popped up in front of them and Phoebles pushed past him to rush at his comrades. There was whispered jubilation and hugs all round. Flo had an arm each around Phoebles and Ferdy, but Boz stood alone, quivering.
“What’s the matter, Boz?” enquired Ferdy.
The ginger cat turned. His hands were shaking and staring eyes glistened.
“This obscenity has to be ended. It stops here and it stops now. Flo, get them to safety. I’m going to finish him tonight. Just me. I can’t ask anyone else to do it.”
“But Bozzy, we don’t do that…” began Phoebles.
The ninja began ushering the protesting chums away. She glanced back, an anxious look in her tearful eyes, but she obeyed the command.
Once he was alone Boz slid down into the foul dyke. He stripped off his shirt and wallowed in the mud until his fur was caked and umber. Only his bloodshot eyes were visible against the growing darkness. He returned to the gap in the wire fence. Inside the stench of putrefaction seemed stronger than ever. The demonic amber glow from braziers and blazing torches danced intense shadows about the compound. Clashing gongs and booming drums drowned out all other sounds in a satanic cacophony. Capitáno Tierrasmedias’ drug crazed horde was working itself up into a frenzy before descending on the hapless defenders of liberty and freedom. Boz slithered unseen towards Les Augrès Manor.
After a while he was inching towards something indescribable that blocked his path, something with a Dayak Parang sticking in it. Boz pulled out the machete, wiped the blade on his trouser leg and tested its weight. Perfect. He crawled on.
A spectral figure rose slowly behind one of the dodo statues, eyes glinting gold in the flickering firelight, matted fur blending into the darkness. Boz strode up the steps to the mansion and sought out the Capitáno’s lair. The sofa was unoccupied. An empty Tennents lager can rolled noisily across the floor, coming to rest at his feet. The prostrate Napoleon lay in front of him on a moth-eaten kilim. A skeletal matchstick body, luminous skin stretched taught over bone, appended the globular head it no longer strove to support. Face to the ceiling, wide sightless eyes sunk deep into the skull, the deranged, hyperactive brain had finally drained all but the last vestige of vitality from its wasted host. The lips moved imperceptibly, were they trying to form words? Boz leaned towards the toothless mouth and suddenly a claw like hand grasped his shoulder, dragged him close.
“Crows’ blood!” it cried in anguish. Then, a rattle in the hollow throat, and Capitáno Tierrasmedias was gone.
Boz heard the padding splayed footfalls, the swish of a tail, the clicking of claws on bare floorboards, approaching at speed. He dropped the parang and legged it.
The Routemaster was still where they’d left it, partially burned out, but the radio and battery had escaped the fire.
“Versailles this is Bald Eagle!”
“Smee, is that you? It’s Boz here. Dump everything you’ve got on the Jersey Zoo. I want that abomination flattened, wiped off the face of the earth.”
Smoke from incense burners and josticks curled in serpentine swirls about the room, their mixture of pungent aromas masking a sweeter, pervasive and much more disturbing smell, the lingering stench of decay.
“Has no one heard of Febreze?” exclaimed Phoebles
“I would discourse with Mr Boz,” said the capitáno, “the other one is irrelevant. Feed it to the hammerhead sharks.”
“Now just hang on one minute.” Phoebles’ response was urgent if a little squeaky.
“We have no hammerhead sharks,” replied Nimitta.
“Why not? Well, feed it to something.”
There was a movement in the deep shadows behind Capitáno Tierrasmedias and a figure stepped into the half-light, a figure in a grey homburg, black mask and gabardine trench coat.
“Sla…” began Phoebles.
Boz kicked his ankle.
“Perhaps he could be returned to his cage whilst your minions source a suitable carnivore.”
“I value your advice as always Mr McGoogs. Take it away.
“Now Mr Boz, are you familiar with the works of Nietzsche?” Silence. “Übermensch?” Still no response. “I shall explain. I am become Superman. Or to be more accurate, I will become Superman as soon as my brigands can find me a phone box in which to change.” Boz remained unenlightened.
“Milne then, have you read anything of his?” asked Tierrasmedias. Boz brightened at the mention of a more familiar author.
“‘You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes,’ said Pooh. Well we are coming, Mr Boz. We are coming.”
“If the person you are talking to does not appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in this ear,” replied Boz.
“Deep, Mr Boz. Profound. I can see that we will get on spiffingly. Sit.”
The captain had talked for hours.
“There can be no justice in war. Your dragon slayers like Beowulf, St George, John Lambton did not prevail because they were chivalrous and bold, they won because they were harder, more persistent and more brutal than the dragons. Your revolution did not succeed because you were just, but because Mr McGoogs here was more devious than the Government. Our counterrevolution will not succeed because we are patriotic, but because we have the greater force and will not fail to use it. Your countercounterrevolution will not founder because you do not have right on your side, but because you are weaker than me. Might and badass commanders win battles. And I am the biggest badass of them all.”
“But we must strive for justice and freedom and equality,” replied Boz.
“Why? I am going to win. I am going to win because no horror is inconceivable if it brings me victory.” Captain Midlands grew tired of the conversation. “Go now.”
“I will escort the prisoner back to his pen,” said McGoogs, “Perhaps tomorrow…”
Slasher and Boz walked at a steady pace across the compound, the stench of burning tyres hanging on the still air, the sound of clanging cymbals and subhuman howls drifting from behind the bike sheds.
“What in hell are you up to, Slasher?” demanded Boz.
“That nutter is doing more damage to his own side than he is to ours. I have been manipulating him.” Replied McGoogs.
“Well it’s got to stop.”
They reached the big cat enclosure and stared, stunned into silence. The cage had only one occupant, Nimitta, bound and gagged. There came a whisper from somewhere behind them.
“To me. Now.”
“We’ll be reaching the old Durrell Zoo pretty soon,” said the Navy Seal, “That’s where we’re based. Best drive straight up ter the entrance. The perimeter’s heavily booby-trapped, lay-holes, pitfalls and the like.”
“Stop the bus,” Boz called through to Phoebles in the driver’s cab. “Me and Phoebles will go in on foot with Nimitta. Ginsbergbear, Ferdy, get this charabang off the road and behind a hedge or something. Stay hidden. If you don’t hear from us in the next twenty-four hours call up Rotskagg and mount a rescue.”
The walk was considerably further than Boz had expected, but at least Ferdy and Ginsbergbear were a safe distance away. At the unguarded main gate a sign began ‘Welcome to’, but ‘Jersey Zoo’ had been scored through in blood-red paint and overwritten with ‘RAGNARÖK’. Nimitta ushered them quickly past the derelict visitors’ centre. All the buildings they could see were in ruins, enclosures broken open and everywhere forest was reclaiming the park. Hideous corpse like shapes dangled in the trees. Dark smoke hung above the camp, illuminated from below by the menacing ochre glow of numerous, unseen fires.
Small groups of clustering humanity began to emerge. Few at first but growing in number until a horde of savages surrounded them. Many wore tattered vestiges of uniform, some had not bothered, all were tattooed and armed with assault rifles and machetes. They hemmed in on all sides. Boz and Phoebles were pushed and pummelled. As they were bound and dragged the pair realised, with mounting dread, that Nimitta Matram had drifted away. He was not to be seen anywhere.
Frogmarched towards a row of animal enclosures they were tossed into a big-cat cage and the gate was slammed shut behind them, with a decisive clang. Happily the big-cat was long gone.
“I don’t think this lot are going to respond to reason,” said Phoebles.
“We demand to be taken to your leader,” shouted Boz to the scoffing, receding crowd. He turned to Phoebles. “It’ll be all right. When we don’t reappear Ginsbergbear will call up Rotskagg.”
There are times when an excess of optimism is taken as a challenge by the fates. The crowd returned and opened the cage door. In they pushed the trussed and helpless Ginsbergbear, followed by Ferdy.
“About to go extinct for a second time, eh, Mr Dodo?” leered a particularly unsavoury captor with ‘Who Dares Dies’ freshly carved and oozing blood across his barrel chest.
“Bugger!” said Boz.
Nimitta appeared early next morning,
“HE will see them now,” he addressed an anorexic urchin who had been standing watch since first light, “just the cats. The others stay here.”
Unbound, but roughly handled by the mob Boz and Phoebles were goaded towards Durrell’s old residence. Les Augrès Manor was more or less intact. A pair of dodo statues, chipped, weathered and stained, yet still noble survivors, flanked the approach.
“Ferdy would like them,” observed Phoebles.
An aye-aye squatted near the front door watching them suspiciously. While Nimitta marched them up the front steps the crowd hung back in awe. The interior was squalid and dark. It took several minutes of adapting to the gloom before the cats could make out any detail at all.
“I have brought them as you required, sir,” said the Petty Officer, apparently to an empty, echoing void. A momentary draught through an unglazed window lifted the tattered sacking that did service as a drawn curtain and a shaft of bilious light illuminated the far corners of the room.
Capitáno Tierrasmedias was slouched on a threadbare sofa facing the gutted carcass of a Sony KV-1320UB Trinitron TV set. His emaciated body, naked but for a filthy pair of boxer shorts, appeared barely capable of supporting his ravaged skull. He clutched a tin of Tennent’s in one hand and a sturdy iron chain in the other. The chain snaked down to a spiked collar which restrained the attentive Komodo Dragon reclined at his feet. He did not look at the new arrivals.
“Mr Boz, you came, as I knew you would.” There was a pause while the captain’s laboured breathing rattled around the room. “Omniscience is a terrible burden.”
“I am become Nimitta Matram, Petty Officer, 984-31-78. This here is what happened to us. Before He was wi’ us we was getting nowhere. Wi’ help from us Seals Mr Fluffy’s band a patriotic no-hopers could jus’ about have defeated the Jersey police and a bunch a locals wi’ pitchforks, but not when the Résistance was operating behind our lines. Then Captain Midlands turn up wi’ his irregulars, guerrillas to fight guerrillas. Self sufficient, independent, autonomous units, living off the land, free to respond instantly to rapidly cchanging conditions, genius. Pretty soon we was starving, diseased, demoralised and out a supplies.
“That was when He had an epiphany. You should hear Him. ‘War is not a game. War is lunacy. It can only be legitimised by victory. Victory at all cost. No atrocity, no perversion is unconscionable if the result is victory. Armageddon!’
“He reinvented Hi’self as Capitáno Tierrasmedias and we became His willing acolytes. Magic mushrooms and all-night line dancing orgies helped win over the sceptics. We are His lunatic tools.”
“OK, Mr Matram, that be all most fascinating.” Rotskagg leered into the Petty Officer’s inverted face, intimidating, invading every last vestige of spoliated personal space. “Let’s get you down. Lower away Roger.
“Smee, remove the bucket please. We be contemplating a cautious first contact with your metamorphed commander. I trust you be able to expedite a meeting.”
Nimitta Matram was hauled upright from the floor and dumped in a chair.
“I think we’ll leave you in the straight-jacket just now. We have yet to establish even a modicum of mutual trust.”
“Why, yeh. I can get you to the Boss. He will blow your minds. Believe me, I can be really useful to you.” enthused the pathetic prisoner.
Boz stepped forward. “I believe this is one for the gang. Queen Anne’s Bounty is required here to keep the barbarians from the gates and we need your corsairs…” he was addressing Rotskagg, “…in reserve. I bet we can talk Captain Midlands back down. He’s probably just a bit frustrated. We’ll have this here Nimitta with us while we check out the situation so we should be safe… -ish.”
“Er… Does ‘the gang’ include me?” said Phoebles, “It doesn’t sound all that safe-ish.”
“Yes, you and me, and Ferdy and Ginsbergbear, the old team. We’ll take the bus. Zelda, can you install a transceiver so we can keep in touch?”
And thus it was that the Kronstadt Sailors’ bus disappeared into the forest, trailing a cloud of oily exhaust. Phoebles was at the helm, Boz and Ginsbergbear keeping a cautious eye on Petty Officer Matram and Ferdy checking out the radio.
“Testing Testing, Roger Wilco.”
Dark Flo watched them depart.
Turning to Rotskagg, “I’d best keep an eye…” She pulled the Mountbatten pink veil of her Shinobi shozoko across her face and vanished.