Boz & Co – The Derbyshire Question

Book III

The Derbyshire Question

 

Chapter 1

Forget the Fish!

England was not yet an anarchist utopia, but under Larry’s random and light pawed guidance it was becoming co-operative.   Its people were quietly becoming self reliant, involved and innovative – and in some small way, happy.

Superficially Limehousesailortown was unchanged.   Steamers, clippers and tramps still jostled for a place at the quayside; bars, stews and music halls still spewed rowdy, boisterous, swaying parties of intoxicated matelots out onto the narrow streets; ships’ cats still slunk in and out of dingy catnip dens.   Homesick seafarers still sought temporary solace in companionable, rentable substitutes for their dimly remembered mothers and sweethearts; but somewhere along the line the claustrophobic alleyways had lost their edginess.

The penthousebedsit was pretty much the same as well.   A kettle whistled on the range, the little black and white TV set was showing Land and Freedom – its brown Bakelite case had become loose and an eerie mauve glow escaped around the cathode ray tube.   Monochrome posters of Ernesto Guevara and Albert Camus eyed each other from opposing walls.   Ginsbergbear was lounging in an old armchair, feet up on the mantelpiece and catnip shag dangling from an as yet unlit Peterson briar, Boz was trying to concentrate on the latest, slightly crumpled, copy of International Catnip Times whilst Phoebles pointed out good bits that he had written and Ferdy, having warmed the teapot, was toasting pikelets under a small gas grill. The pals were relaxing between adventures when…

There came a coded rap on the door.   Phoebles opened it and Slasher McGoogs was standing before him.   He was wearing a pair of St Michael’s aertex Y-fronts over a cerise spandex hooded one-piece.   The hood formed a close fitting mask over his upper face and a serpentine gilded S was emblazoned on his chest.

“B****r me!” expleted Boz.

Ferdy raised an eyebrow, “I know the nation’s dress code is somewhat more relaxed under Larry’s leadership,” He glanced pointedly at Phoebles’ voluminous Smarty-spotted trousers and rainbow bracers, “but surely there are still limits.”

“It’s not easy, suddenly finding you’re a superhero after all those years of covert operating.”   Slasher stalked into the room and perched on the edge of the dining table.

“Er, I’m not sure the table is all that sturdy.” Boz warned, but Slasher ignored him.

“Turn up the sound on the telly, I don’t want to be overheard.”   He could barely be heard at all as the film climaxed in a crescendo of gunfire and Spanish shouting.

“My contacts within the Aldershot Ghurkha Community warn of rumours from their homeland that the Merovingian Lizard Kings are on the move and strange discs have been seen in the sky above the mountain peaks.   Agents in the north report of Reivers raiding south of the wall, and Les Chats Souterrains have been seen mingling amongst the revellers at the Castleton Goth Festival – Speedwell Cavern has been closed to the public.   Corsairs aboard black whale hunters with 40mm Bofors or twin 12.7mm DShK’s mounted on the prow have been hi-jacking Arctic Coleyfishtrawlers and holding their cargo’s to ransom!”

Boz gasped. “Coleyfish pirates?   Destitute fishmongers?   A coleyfish famine?   This is a disaster!”   Ferdy tried to calm him.

Ginsbergbear had not really been paying attention during the exchange and was idly flicking channels on the old TV.   Up popped the COD CHANNEL.

In lill ole England during the terrible insurgency against democracy their prime minister and some of his aids were cut off and surrounded by drug crazed and heathen anarchists.   Knowing that if they were captured they would be tortured horribly, in ways I cannot describe on television, they determined to take their own lives rather than be captured.   As the screaming demons closed in yelling their blood curdling war cry and the English Gentlemen prepared to meet their end, the baying horde suddenly stopped, stunned into silence, and knelt in prayer.   The astounded British ministers looked about – and in the sky above swam COD in Glory, glowing pink and gold.

And COD spake, “Let my people be!”

Needless to say, the terrorists fled.

Although the forces of Anarchy and Atheism are currently in the ascendant, COD and Democracy will one day prevail. The Army of COD is being assembled and we need your donations.   For every $ we receive an amount will be put towards armbands, stickers and Tetrafin Delica Bloodworms (COD’s favourite).   Contribute today.   Support the cause.

“More trouble.” Mused Ginsbergbear.

“Don’t worry about them,” said Slasher, “They’re too busy fleecing their own to really bother us.   The true danger lurks in the caves of Derbyshire.”

Phoebles was aghast.   “You expect us to take on the Merovingian Lizard Kings, the Dark Lords of myth, the shades behind all that is twisted in the world?   Isn’t that a bit ambitious?”

“Just a little nibble at the trouser cuffs of their ambition, a tentative toe into the custard bowl of Machiavellian malevolence.   See what we can stir up.”               McGoogs’ eyes blazed behind the mask.   Ginsbergbear had begun to pay attention and Boz swallowed, “We can’t just sit back and do nothing – the coleyfish.”

 

Downstairs, the lounge-bar was all but empty – two worn out Kittens of Chaos were recovering along a red plush chaise longue over hookahs and tiny cups of treacle-black Monsoon Malabar, Sam was mangling a boogie-woogie improv, flat fingered across the tobacco stained ivories of an aging upright, smoke-grey derby pushed to the back of his head, striped shirt with white collar and cuffs folded back from the bony wrists, breakfast stained flannel waistcoat ruckling as he played.

“Your usual, boys?”

Dark Flo was doing service behind the bar.   She was slight and pallid with sunken eyes and raven hair that hung about her face like dead crows on barbed wire; waif-like, vulnerable and yet hard as black-iron nails.   She could pull a perfect pint, Yorkshire head judged to the millimetre, with one hand tied behind her back and the other skewered to the bar by a Bowie knife.   She might dispense or relish pain with equal measure, quell a riot with her contortions at the pole, or empty the bar with a single, gentle command.   For now she pulled pints of tawny London Porter and served them up with Talisker chasers.   Before Slasher McGoogs she assembled a shot glass of Tres Amigos Anejos, saltcellar and a half lemon on a cracked white bone china saucer.

Phoebles and Boz moved over to their favoured table in the bay that looked out onto Narrow Street and sat on the window bench. Ferdy and Ginsbergbear pulled up bentwood cane-bottomed chairs and McGoogs perched on a leatherette-padded stool. They huddled conspiratorially.

‘My plan is that we explore the caves south of Mam Tor and discover what is going on.’ began Slasher McGoogs, producing a dog-eared copy of The Potholer’s Handbook for Derbyshire, IIIrd Pocket Edition, 1956; printed on storm resistant paper. Within the chapter headed Castleton Caverns it included a handy sketch map of the Speedwell and Peak cave system. It did not show Titan, which at the time of printing was still to be discovered, but Slasher had roughly pencilled in the location of the gigantic chamber.

‘Have you cleared any of this with Larry?’ asked Boz.

‘I have told Larry nothing. I despise despots and Larry is Gato Número Uno.’

‘That’s hardly fair,’ chipped in Phoebles, ‘We and the Revolutionary Committee did all agree he should be PM.’

‘And it’s not as if he’s done any harm since taking office. In fact he’s done sweet FA. I’m amazed he doesn’t get bored,’ added Ginsbergbear.

‘If I may interject at this point,’ interjected Ferdy, ‘Mr Larry can in no way have ‘done sweet Fanny Adams’ despite the accusations in Mr Fluffy’s Chicken News on US telly. Firstly she was not all that sweet – she was a grubby little tyke. Secondly, she was ‘done’ many decades ago and her story has passed into myth. And thirdl…’

The tail end of a steel wire ladder dropped past their window into the street outside. It was followed by the descent of a pair of improbably long legs and finally by the top half, only, of a bottle-green chauffer’s uniform. As the door to the catnip den opened and Barrymore, Larry’s indispensable feline factotum, entered, the inmates could hear the Vwwshsh of the twin VW vectored screw engines of the incumbent Acting Prime Minister’s personal dirigible. She lifted her goggles and perched them above the peak of her cap as the wire ladder began to drift slowly down Narrow Street.

‘Stay!’ commanded Barrymore into the discreet mouthpiece that curved elegantly out from under her headgear. The drifting ceased instantly.

‘Blimey!’ exclaimed Boz, ‘Is the Den bugged?’

‘Certainly not, Mr Boris. I just happened to be passing and am graced with unusually acute hearing. Larry wanted you to know that he intends to despatch the Coleyfishspytrawler Lord Ancaster towards Antarctica to investigate the rumours.’

‘What rumours?’ asked a slightly ruffled Slasher.

‘Ah, Mr McGoogs, a pie without your sticky paw in it? Makes a refreshing change. There’s reports of unusual activity at the US airbase – UFO under the ice – that sort of thing. Leave it with us. You have Larry’s full approval for your own little enterprise.’

‘Man… Larry knows of our enterprise?” Ginsbergbear spoke, “I’m not sure even we know about our enterprise yet.’

Sashaying over to the door Barrymore looked back over a coquettishly inclined shoulder and said, ‘Carry on.’

Wrapping one leg around the wire ladder with the sensuality of a trapeze artist, she ascended into the heavens.

‘There’s stuff going on we don’t know about.’ observed Boz. ‘Now, what about those poor coleyfish?’

‘Forget the fish,’ snapped McGoogs, ‘You heard; our Derbyshire venture is officially sanctioned. We’re doing the caves.’

Ferdy called up the Silvertown Airways control tower, situated in the Royal Docks, on his smart-phone and asked to speak to his chief pilot, Beryl Clutterbuck. She was mid-channel, returning a Handley Page H.P. 42 from their aerodrome on Guernsey, but was able to be put through via the radio.

‘Beryl, we need the flying boat for a trip up north.’

Once Ferdinand was off the phone they finalised some of the minor details and Phoebles voiced the reservation of the majority.

‘Well, I suppose that’s settled then, but…’

To toast the venture they downed their tots of single malt and took long draughts from their pints. Slasher licked his left paw, sprinkled a little salt on it and then in a series of swift, smooth movements, sucked the salty paw, slugged back the shot of tequila and bit hard on the lemon. For a brief moment his eyes screwed and his nose wrinkled. Then his composure reasserted itself, ‘I’ll be going up to Derbyshire in the Duesenberg. See you up there.’

The 1934 Graber-Duesenberg SJ Cabriolet, shimmering ‘Outrageous Illusion’ red/gold paint job, upholstered in light tan mohair, white walled tyres, was parked, half on the pavement, opposite the Den. It glistened colourfully against the backdrop of monochrome bonded warehouses and depositories along the narrow highway. Slasher sauntered unnoticed, as if his Lycra one-piece rendered him invisible, through the growing crowd that had been attracted to the antics of Larry’s dirigible and its stunning tortoise-shell chauffeur. Phoebles’ yellow, Multi spotted pantaloons, conversely, were drawing less than favourable remarks from pointing urchins with their noses pressed to the Catnip Den bay window. A burbling roar of supercharged Duesenberg echoed off the surrounding walls; the straight 8 cylinder flat-head bored out, souped-up and the tank full of jet fuel.

‘That thing’s a bomb on wheels!’

There was a grinding of gears, a high-pitched whine from under the bonnet and the Duesenberg sprang forward. McGoogs was away through the narrow, cobbled lanes of Limehousesailortown.

The remaining foursome returned to the bedsit to pack their kitbags whilst Dark Flo prepared sandwiches of Herrings In, nautically known as HITS, on white bread, piled on a blue and white Staffordshire Ironstone plate decorated with a Flying P windjammer under full sail. She wrapped the lot – plate and all – in cling film and placed them in a small hamper along with a bottle of Pusser’s Rum and a packet of Russian Caravan tea.

As the boys came down she was adding a sealed tin of Soma Catnip to the supplies.

‘How did you get that?’ gasped Ginsbergbear, ‘That stuff’s rarer than rocking horse dung. Never leaves the Sub-Continent.’

‘The bell-hop in the Eden Hotel in Kathmandu bunged me a bit from under the counter in gratitude for a particular favour. Cut it with your Black Alamout Catnip Shag or Phoebles’ stash of White Goddess. There’s not much of it and it’s expensive.’

At this they became aware of the rhythmic thrub of a dozen unsynchronised piston engines. The Dornier Do X was doing a circuit over Bozzy’s Catnip Den and the gang rushed out onto the balcony to watch it landing on the London River in a shower of spray like an obese drake on an oily duck pond.

The gigantic silver flugschiff had had the clapped out air-cooled Jupiter engines replaced with six pairs of only slightly second hand 610 hp Curtiss Conqueror water-cooled 12-cylinder inline engines and now sported an art deco Silvertown Airways logo below the portholes along the length of the hull.

Beryl’s voice crackled over the Marconi Marine Nautilus transceiver that sat behind the bar.

‘Come aboard, when you are ready.’

Waving goodbye to Dark Flo they dropped the kitbags into a dumpy clinker build skiff that was tied to a ladder out back of the den. The hamper and crew followed and an invigorating five minutes was spent tugging on a cord wound round the head of a recalcitrant Seagull outboard. In a sudden cloud of blue smoke and with a tuc… tuc… hick, tuc… tuc-tuc-tuc-tuc-tuc the motor sprang into life and they were weaving their way out into the river, trailing a rainbow scar of two-stroke across the surface of the water.

Beryl met them at the starboard stub and deftly caught the thrown painter.   She was tall, slender and clad, somewhat incongruously, in a sheepskin-flying jacket over her flowered cotton frock; neither matched her sky blue fur-lined ankle-boots.   Inside the hull a small crew of Kronstadt sailors was lined up for inspection. They saluted Boz as he came aboard and their Starshina (Chief Petty Officer) piped a high-pitched whistle that hurt Phoebles’ ears.

‘Commodore Desai, would you like to pilot the old girl for the first part of the trip? I will operate the throttles in the machine centre,’ suggested Beryl, addressing Ferdy, ‘And we can swap round once we’re over Rugby.’

 

Chapter 2

Sky Riders.

POEM

Our silver hull rends the sky

Propellers drilling tunnels through the atmosphere

Gautama floats cross-legged over cumulus fractus

Shiva rides the rainbow

Cthulhu calls down the waterspout

Yeshua walks on the waters

The elements are at war within this ethereal realm

Yet Blake’s angels buoy us up

and we luxuriate in Teutonic splendour

Phoebles don’t touch that it will break   …told you

Helios scorched Icarus falls

but the sons of Hermes sail on air

Bleached felines of Duat quiver

For captain America comes

The brown dwarf Nemesis lurks beyond the Oort cloud

waiting on his rightful time

Dark Lords

the Merovingian Lizard Kings stir in the House of Snow

Furnaces roar and hammers clash

Titan’s chamber echoes to the clamour of industry

Fata Morgana fashioned in steel and rivets

Mass produced engines of doom

From the bowels of terra

And we…

A muscle-bound and fake-tanned Kronstadt sailor in neat air-stewardess uniform, pearl earrings, crew-cut and high heels enters at this moment, pushing a refreshment trolley.

‘Coffee or tea?   Pork scratchings?’

‘Tea, please, strong two sugars.’

‘Have you got a latté?’

‘Lapsang Souchong for the pilot?’

‘Americana please, shaken not stirred.’

…few

we happy few

rush towards our wyrd

Do we wish to live forever?

In the name of all things felid, what are we getting ourselves into?

Pass the catnip

Enkidu formed of clay

saliva of Aruru

heed my words

Hold the Mayan Apocalypse – till another day

 

Ginsbergbear, beat poet

Mid air over Milton Keynes

2012

 

 

Chapter 3

Larry’s communication

 Dear reader, although the following communication has no relevance in the current adventure it, and Lt Thorvsen’s compliance, are of supreme significance later on. And it was whilst we were in the air over Matlock Bath that Larry entrusted his letter to the Downing Street post box.

Lt Reider Cook Thorvsen

KNMS Thorodd

Dundee

Dear Lt Thorvsen,

On behalf of the people and cats of Britain I would be grateful if you would consider releasing your ship’s dog, Bamse to be temporarily seconded onto the crew of the Spyship Lord Ancaster that is to embark upon a perilous mission in Antarctic waters. The cold weather experience of said St Bernard combined with his exemplary record for reliability and enterprise make him particularly suited to the venture.

We will make every effort to ensure that he is returned in good order at the end of the mission.

Kindest Regards,

Larry

British Prime Minister (Acting).

 

 Chapter 4

The Snake Pass Zapatistas.

‘…If you could take your seats, boys, I’ll be putting her down shortly.’

Boz could see the Ladybower reservoir and stone built Derwent Dam ahead. Woodland rushed by on either side as the Dornier Do X lost height and flew down the length of the lower reservoir. Dark trees, scattered gorse, sheep-grazed pasture interspersed with falls of scree clothed the steep sides. The twelve Curtiss Conquerors roared as the flying boat pulled up and swept in low over the dam, between the towers, and set down on the man made lake. The view through the portholes was obliterated by spray. The movement slowed, the plane wallowed and the tortured, piston engine din subsided; a chain rattled.

Beryl emerged from the flight deck. Ferdy came into the cabin from a stint in the Machine Centre and the Kronstadt Starshina also appeared, moving aft, to report, ‘Comrades, I’ve dropped the hook and a small craft already appears to be heading out towards us. It’s moving too fast to be a boat.’

By the time they had stepped out onto the stub wing the silver, dart-like vessel was close, skimming just above the water. As it neared they could hear it throttle back and watched it settle in the water only feet away. There was a solid bump as it drifted alongside and the Do X gave a slight shudder. The pilot emerged, blue striped t-shirt visible at the open neck of his soiled white boiler suit, black star prominent on a red beret. He lobbed a painter to one of the Kronstadt sailors who held the two craft together as the gang stepped aboard. Before they had time to sit there was a wheeze from a dodgy looking ramjet engine, accompanied by some spluttering, a pulsing blast of orange-yellow flame and the craft hurtled towards the shore. The pilot scowled over his shoulder and blew a smoke ring through a stub of clay pipe. Beryl waved them away from the Dornier’s hatchway and the line of Kronstadt sailors broke into mournful song.

Over the hills and through the dales

The Division advances to battle.

Conquer the White Cats, tweak their tails.

Infiltrate the troglodyte castle.

 

With the dark blood of ancient wounds,

Their fluttering banners stained in red,

Brave partisans who know no bounds,

Swift and dashing, fierce and dread.

 

The fame of these days shall never dim.

Fade away it never will.

Of guerrilla units, sing their hymn.

They’ll take Mam Tor, the hollow hill.

 Looking to the shore Phoebles could see movement within a copse that topped the hillside and a large contingent of mounted irregulars moved into the sunlight, a wolf pack waiting, watching. Black banners fluttered, there was the occasional glint of sunlight on gunmetal and one prominent figure on a tall grey raised binoculars to his eyes.

‘That is Subcomandante Everyman of the Snake Pass Zapatistas.’

The ground effect craft skimmed across the mirror surface of the reservoir, skidded, engine still screaming, up a shingle beach and halted with a soft thud. Something important fell off the hull near the stern and the jet flame popped out.

The boys clambered, barely shaken, out of the cockpit and onto the beach.   The pilot joined them and glanced back at his craft. The ekranoplan sat at an awkward angle and an oily scar stretched from its tail back to the water’s edge. Sensing an affinity between pilots and offering a fill of Ginsbergbear’s Navy Catnip Shag Ferdy tried to engage the pilot in conversation, none too successfully. However, he did get a response.

‘It’s not a plane, it’s a boat, just happens to be a plane shaped boat. And I am a sailor.’ He glanced across the water to the great Dornier and almost smiled, ‘Still, I suppose that is a boat too. Come on ‘comrade’, we have to walk as far as the road.’

On the hill a light horse drawn carriage detached itself from the Cossack group and careered down a farm track to meet the newcomers. It arrived at the roadside at the same time as they did. Its driver, wearing a grey Bolshevist budionovka chosen for its pretty blue and red star, was slender, hyperactive and profoundly impressed. She looked across the reservoir at the anchored, brightly glittering flying boat with its baroque tail icon depicting Ché slaying the capitalist dragon; then down at the boys.

“Wow!”

Ferdy was the first to greet her. “Hello Snowdrop. What are you doing with this mob?”

‘I’m M/C-Gunner Snowdrop these days. D’yer want a lift?’ she replied, ‘I’m sorry it’s a bit cluttered, we haven’t really got any suitable transport for guests. You clamber up here with me,’ to Boz, ‘and Ferdy, Phoebles and Mr Ginsbergbear, will you be OK in the back?’

‘In the back’ was indeed cluttered. A heavy machine gun was mounted where the rear seats should have been, there were boxes of ammunition, a bundle of political pamphlets tied with string, a black umbrella, folding unicycle and, scattered on the floor, a large number of crisp packets and empty soft drink cans. Ginsbergbear cleared a space on the forward bench and sat with Ferdy, their backs to the horses. Phoebles grabbed the machine gun and panned it around shouting “Ratatatata,” mowing down imaginary Chats Souterrains. They turned away from the water and set off along a steady inclining drovers’ road, followed by the company of Snake Pass Zapatistas and with Snowdrop chatting excitedly to an unusually quiet Boz.

Before long the mounted guerrillas had caught up and were trotting past on each side, rough riders on tall horses, in leather double-breasted reefer jackets, sheep skin jerkins, bandoliers, budionovka pixie hats, Breton caps, many in well-worn jungle-green combat fatigues, khaki open necked shirts, olive patch pocketed cargo trousers and fraying forage caps. All wore ski masks. There was a seemingly infinite variety of exotic weaponry with a definite preference for the AK-47 and, almost universally, each carried a three or four string guitar.

As they passed by many of the brigands made jokey remarks to Snowdrop concerning her passengers’ discomfort. Subcomandante Everyman trotted up alongside and adjusted his pace to match the tachanka. He was flamboyantly clad in a black, heavily frogged hussar jacket, open over his blue striped t-shirt, midnight blue jodhpurs sporting a Cossack crimson stripe down the leg and glistening patent leather knee-high boots, with spurs. His face was hidden by a balaclava helmet topped by a Kronstadt peakless sailor’s cap with “CHAOS” emblazoned on the ribbon. There were bandoliers of ammunition crossed loosely over his chest, a Mauser machine pistol and Dragoon Colt at his belt, he carried a Royal Navy 1901 Pattern cutlass and, over his shoulder, an SMLE jungle carbine. The racket from bells hung from the horse harness and on bangles above his mount’s fetlocks threatened to drown out any lengthy conversation. Riding alongside him a young rider carried a black banner sporting a death’s-head of cat skull and crossed thighbones. He acknowledged Snowdrop with a nod and then addressed Boz.

‘We’ll talk properly when we’re camped, but welcome. Is our machine-gunner looking after you?’ He glanced at the crew in the back, who were bouncing about uncontrollably and hanging on tightly to anything that looked to be bolted firmly down. ‘This is not the best of roads.’

‘Thank you.’ Boz warmed to this imposing dandy. ‘Your men look magnificent.’

‘My…?’ Subcomandante Everyman laughed. ‘Do they really look as if they belong to anyone?’

As the cavalryman prepared to move away Boz looked searchingly into the familiar eyes that smiled behind the balaclava.

“Slasher?”

 

Chapter Five

Edale YHA

Once over the ridge they descended to cross the River Ashop at Haggwater Bridge, clattering over the narrow stone-built, 18th Century packhorse bridge and passing beyond the lower end of Jaggers’ Clough. Above, the all but invisible dot of a skylark twittered loudly and in the valley below a whistling shepherd trained his dogs for the Hope Show, with the reluctant aid of an uncooperative cluster of grumbling White Faced Woodlands. Snowdrop gabbled incessantly.

‘The Subcommandanté says you’re going down the caves…

‘He says you’ve got to find out why Les Chats Souterrains have popped up round here…

‘He says the Merovingian Lizard Kings are up to something…

‘Are you sure that taking on centuries old international evil masterminds, manipulators of world strife and suffering, the power behind global capitalism, dictatorships, sham democracies and Fluffy News Corp isn’t a bit big for the four of you?’

‘It’s just a bit of a recci, I hope. Not planning on taking any major risks,’ replied Boz with a barely noticeable quiver of the lower lip. The occupants of the carriage were silenced by their own dread doubts for the remainder of the journey, the squeak of an inadequately lubricated axle and the occasional sigh the only sounds until they arrived at the YHA establishment of Lady Booth House. As the company dismounted and began to tend to their horses the warden came bustling out of the towering, grey edifice.

‘I fear that we are unable to cater for such a large party as yourselves, just at the moment.’

Subcommandanté Slasher remained firmly in the Spanish saddle of his grey.   He looked down at the fit, but ageing supervisor.

‘Fear not, we are totally self contained. We merely intend to camp for the night in your grounds.’ Slasher’s voice was a little muffled through his balaclava mask and neither the feigned Mexican accent nor the Dunhill bulldog briar clamped between his teeth made his diction any the clearer. The conversation was punctuated by squeals from an adventure playground fenced off in front of the House. Children in hard hats, knee protectors and safety-harnesses were learning the fundamentals of teamwork around a zip-wire construct.

‘What is all that?’ enquired Boz as Snowdrop unharnessed the trio of horses from her techanka.

‘Outdoor activities,’ replied the warden.

‘In a playground? You have Kinderscout just up there.’ Boz indicated the looming escarpment that hung above and behind the house.

Take them on the moor, are you mad? Health and safety; their parents would have kittens. No disrespect, he added quickly as Boz scowled.

Ginsbergbear joined them. ‘If you ever met The Kittens you would me far less inclined to use that particular cliché.’

Undeterred, the warden continued to address Subcomandanté Slasher, ‘And if you could please keep your animals away from the kids too. Any contact and they’ll all go down with Escherichia coli, come out in an all over body rash, or worse.’

As they talked a colourful encampment of tents, pavilions, yurts and flags had risen up around them. The Snake Pass Zapatistas really liked their flags. Smoke was already issuing from stovepipes that projected through the canopy of a large field kitchen marquee and the guerrillas were in the process of erecting trestle tables and laying them for supper.

 

Chapter Six

A Digression

 The Festival of Britain, on the south bank of the London River, had been a triumphal two-fingered salute to brutalist reality, a barely bridled moment of joy sandwiched between a bleak past and an even bleaker future.   The sole survivor of that forlorn gesture against the post war gloom was the Festival Music Hall, now standing in solitary majesty amidst a spiritual wasteland of reinforced concrete.   Sam and Consuella regularly performed there, though it had so far avoided the misfortune of a staging of the Kittens of Chaos’ Giselle.

They are booked in for a short run during the post-panto season in 2013 – tickets still available.

Some weeks before Slasher McGoogs’ visit to the penthouse bedsit Boz was visiting the South Bank for a lunchtime concert in which Sam was to play alongside Jools Holland – and after the set he took a stroll along the embankment.   The wide promenade is a venue for second hand bookstalls and he was idly fingering through various shop-soiled tomes when a thin, red cover caught his eye.   It was an Ordinance Survey, One Inch to the Mile, Series Seven map of the Southern Pennines and Derbyshire Dales, Sheet 111.   Printed on almost indestructible fabric-backed paper, it dated very much from the time of the concert hall’s inauguration and seemed irresistible – red AND indestructible.   His purchase was to prove serendipitous in ways he could not have foreseen.

 

Chapter Seven

Cave Dale

Next morning the company awoke to the smells of yet more cooking.   Gallons of kedgeree, mountains of snorkers and fresh baked bread attracted small, eager faced children, fed-up with gluten-free muesli, who were beginning to gather hopefully around the field-ovens.   As the aroma of toasting crumpets spread round the camp troopers began to emerge.   Boz and Co. had been cosy in their allotted yurt with its central, pot-bellied stove, but the shrieking of owls, barking of foxes and coughing of feral mountain sheep had intermittently disturbed their slumber.   They rose to be greeted by an infuriatingly boisterous Slasher.

“Are we all fired up for the mission?” he asked, to be answered with general mumblings, scratchings and yawnings.   Ginsbergbear was grabbing a quick fix of catnip shag as Phoebles emerged, wide eyed, from behind the latrine screens.

“It’s disgustingly primitive in there.”

However a good breakfast soon saw the heroes raring to go.

In preparation for their foray into Castleton our quintet disguised themselves as ramblers in heavily dubbined hiking boots, red socks, knee-length corduroy shorts, anoraks and bobble hats. To his outfit Slasher McGoogs had added Groucho Marx specs complete with moustache, eyebrows and nose.   They carried Leki Treckies and Bergen rucksacks packed with Kendal Mintcake, Ginger Beer, a Saturator AK-47 water pistol each and several fully loaded magazines.

“I have put fresh batteries in all the assault rifles.”   Boz took out his one-inch OS map – somewhat out of date, but it was still true enough, the natives of the Dales only reluctantly embrace change – folded it neatly to expose the section covering Edale and the Hope Valley, and slid it into his map-case.   He consulted his trusty Dan Dare Space Cadet compass and waving the others to follow set off on foot over Hollins Cross into Castleton.   It was a tough climb along the winding path taken in older times by the deceased of Edale to the cemetery in Castleton.   But the view from the ridge was spectacular.   The descent was paved for much of the way and easier, though precipitous.

Once they reached the outskirts of Castleton the gang could see that the Goth Festival was still in full swing.   In the centre of town they squeezed their way between blue haired, dark eyed maidens in black lace; shock haired, pale faced youths in black frock coats and dead man toppers; tall vampires with even whiter skin, redder lips and yellow fangs.   They pushed betwixt cyberpunks and diesel punks; took note of pale cats with brass goggles, dark glazed in ruby or purple, swathed in white leather great coats, mingling conspicuously with the glum revellers; and veered away from zombies that jerkily lurched in festering groups from one pub to the next.   Once they were over Cross Street, Castleton’s Main Drag, and out of the crowds the ramblers ducked up Castle Street, with its grey stone buildings and grey stone walls, where Phoebles managed to trip over the slumped and sobbing form of a diminutive EMO.   As he scrambled to his knees and she rubbed a nasty bruise that was developing on her ankle, she observed Phoebles through her tears, “You can’t win you know.   We are all flushing headlong down the toilet-pan of existential ennui towards the cesspit of despair.   Our fate is inevitable.   Turn back!   …Oh, and avoid the zombies.”

The gang were disappearing up the road apparently unaware of Phoebles’ absence and the wan and excessively body-pierced creature was inconsolable.

“I’m really sorry.   Wish I could cheer you up.   Try not to fret.   We’re going to do our best.   Got to go now.

“Er… Guys!” Phoebles cried as he rushed to catch up, “There’s a sad heap down here might have something important to tell us.”

By the time Phoebles had caught up with his companions the zebra haired harbinger of doom was out of sight and all but out of mind.   He was gasping for breath but managed to recount a redacted version of her warning.   Boz was the first to reply.

“Don’t worry about the zombies.   The Chats Souterrains should prove more than enough to contend with.   Impending doom is undermining people’s confidence.   Action – that’s what’s required.   Let’s crack on.”

The little group made for Bargate, winding up hill and out of the town, and soon found the claustrophobic canyon entrance to the jagged gash of Cave Dale which, carved by melt water at the end of a long past ice age, climbs south from the town to the moorland above.   The narrow gateway, hemmed in by limestone cliffs had boasted a natural arch well into the age of industry, though it was now but a memory.   The lower reaches of the dale are overseen by the glowering Norman cliff-top castle and Ferdy could make out white-furred and darkly begoggled faces under pickelhaubes and sallets peering down from the crenulated battlements at the jolly hikers so very far below.

Ginsbergbear broke into ‘I Love to Go A Wandering’ in a growly basso profundo.

“Try to look happy,” wheezed Boz; for theirs was a relentless, up-hill slog.   The party hunched their shoulders, stomped down with their Leki poles and whistled along with the bear.

As they climbed, the dale widened.   Where the steep rocky sides met the grassy bottom tubby, brown birds chattered, fed and fluttered.   Gnarled and stunted trees clung to damp crevices in the moss-cloaked rock.   Meadow flowers buzzed with pollinating bees.   Soon the hiking party had rounded a bare pinnacle and were out of sight of the watchers on the keep.   Pausing to peruse his map and check his compass Boz veered off along an indistinct track and with the gang following as quickly as they could, discovered a low orifice at the base of the cliff.   On reaching the small cave mouth they found the apparently deep but restricted vent was secured by an iron gate that bore a yellow sign inscribed:

Danger of death!

A low frequency hum welled up towards the intrepid group from the depths of the dank cavern.

After a brief sit down and the partaking of a square or two of mint-cake, Ferdy produced his Victorinox Spymaster Multitool Swiss Army Ensemble and, utilising the magnifying glass attachment, examined the lock.   He considered for a moment and then folding out two long thin lock-picking tools began to fiddle.   After a fruitless few minutes he re-examined the lock under the magnifying glass, flicked out two more attachments with twiddly bits on the ends and began again.   Several tense minutes of deft manipulation later there was a click, the gate swung back in well-greased silence and they had gained access to a steep ventilation shaft.

Pausing only to take out their Petzl Pathfinder 21 head torches and fix them firmly over their bobble hats they warily began their penetration of the realm of Les Chats Souterrains.

 

Chapter Eight

Into the Bowels of the Earth they Venture

With Boz in the lead and Slasher McGoogs bringing up the rear the adventurers wriggled and crawled down the narrow flu. Slasher checked regularly over his shoulder for any sign that they were followed and surreptitiously fingered his Mauser Red Nine, his security blanket; the rest of them would be furious if they knew he was toting a real and loaded weapon. The atmosphere was oppressive and damp, the hum grew louder as they descended and there was a definite breeze coming up from below. Soon the tunnel widened slightly and Bozzy stopped.

“There is a large extractor fan fixed into the tunnel, blocking our way. Can I have that Swiss Army Knife of yours, please Ferdy?”

Using the Philips screwdriver attachment, Boz removed a small service cover and with the insulated wire cutting attachment snipped a brown insulated wire. The fan stopped. The sudden silence was not comforting. He next undid the wire safety cage with the flat bladed screwdriver attachment and then used the adjustable spanner attachment to unscrew a large nut on the hub. With the fan removed and a large hole snipped out of the far safety cover, using the heavy-duty wire cutter attachment, the gang were able to squeeze through. Phoebles got a bit stuck due to an excessively generous breakfast, but a firm push from behind by Ferdy soon freed him. Slasher was the last cat through.

“We’d best press on.   Someone might come to investigate why the fan’s not working,” he whispered.

The tunnel was still descending steeply, but from here on in it had been chiselled out to a reasonable diameter and it was paved. Moving quickly downwards they eventually came to an almost vertical shaft with iron rungs set into the wall. At the bottom they were in a sizeable cave chamber, part of the Peak Cavern system. There were stalactites hanging down and dripping, and rounder orange or yellow topped stalagmites reaching up. Occasionally mite met tite to form a thin column of almost gothic tracery. From oozing cracks in the walls green fingers of limestone deposit had dribbled over millennia, forming grotesque gargoyle guardians to terrorise the feint of heart. A narrow path wove through the natural hypostyle, between petrified forests of sculpted rock and a fast-running stream carved deep into the cave floor. They were in the dark – a creeping, all encompassing darkness that seeped into the soul; a darkness broken only by the narrow beams of their headlamps which cast menacing shadows about the interior, shadows of hideous beings that could only exist in such blackness. Not helping in any way to dispel their disquiet, the silence was total and they were entirely alone. The Peak Cavern had been closed to visitors since inexplicable, phantom, will o’ the wisp lights and unnatural humming sounds had terrified the tourists. Not that weirdness was unknown within the cave system. Excremental toilet odours bubbling up from the bowels and moans and farts amplified and echoing about the antediluvian orifice had led the pious medieval serfs of Castleton to christen this The Devil’s Arse – a name which stuck until a visit by the Queen Empress had required a less graphic appellation. For the next hundred years it became the Peak Cavern, an improvement to their address that was more than welcomed by the rope winders who lived and worked within the vast cave mouth.

Approaching the back of the chamber the gang found that the stream issued from a low culvert.   The pathway had originally terminated at a small quay alongside which lay coffin-like barges in which recumbent adventurers were, in times gone by, pulled one at a time under the rocky vault and into the chamber beyond. Luckily, nineteenth century etiquette could not allow such demeaning transport for a visiting monarch and a relief tunnel had been dynamited through to the next stage of the tour. It is a low passage, for Queen Victoria was short.

The second chamber was even larger than the first, fewer stalactites, but their path, stepped in places, carved out from the natural rock wall, clambered over a tumbling mass of hardened mineral sediment that cascaded down to the stream in terraces filled with crescent moons of still, black water before veering to cross, high above the stream on an iron footbridge supported on slim, fluted, floriform columns. Passing a side gallery they could make out a derelict narrow gauge railway track to nowhere and a derailed, rusted and battered wagon. Beyond this their path descended through a straight, well-constructed tunnel with a brick floor, rust-red plumbing ran along the foot of the passage wall, old iron pipes, repainted many times, new aluminium pipes silver-gleaming in the light of their headlamps. The companions could hear rushing water ahead and at the bottom of the decline the track ended at a handrail; they were overlooking a wide, fast running underground river; the tourist trail ended here. However, the pipes turned to disappear into holes drilled through the rock wall and next to them was an old, weathered wooden door, blue-grey paint flaking, something indecipherable and worn stencilled in no-longer white letters.   There was a latch, but no lock.

Pausing only for a moment to quell their doubts the little group of nervous adventurers entered what was apparently a service tunnel. The pipes, now running along wall and ceiling, were joined by many others. Thick and thin, new and old, the pipes congregated, merged and parted, wove around each other. There were valves and junctions, U-bends and Z-bends, a labyrinthine tangle dreamed up by a plumber spaced out on something stronger than catnip. Heavy-duty cables sheathed in lead festooned the walls, fed steel boxes that buzzed and tiny coloured lamps that flickered. A socket, corroded by the damp, beside one such box, was joined by an outdated, frayed a twisted flex to a faintly glowing glass orb which seemed to hang in the air by its own will power. It sang – a wordless and disquieting song. They did not investigate, wanted to move on and as they progressed further a large riveted iron tank with a brass tap that dripped, almost filled the chamber.

“We’ll have to remove our rucksacks in order to squeeze past,” observed Phoebles.

Even holding their packs the going was tight for some of the stouter members of the group, heads got bumped, and clothing snagged. The tunnel was not straight – it snaked inexplicably; plant life thrived on the dank walls and the odours of rot and decay hung around every unscrubbed nook and neglected cranny.

“Great God!   This is an awful place…” quoted Ginsbergbear.

“We are very near the end, but have not and will not lose our good cheer,” responded Ferdy.

“I think the end may be in sight,” chipped in Boz.

The large hatch that faced them was battleship grey. It had a porthole, which was painted over. It had steel clamps at the corners, which Boz undid. It had a maroon wheel handle, which he turned. The heavy door swung back and Boz found himself teetering above an impenetrably gloomy void. Ahead was a polished, lightly greased, brass pole. Without thinking too hard he wrapped his arms tightly around it and jumped.

“Shi…!”

And the others followed.

“Geronimo!”

“Mother!”

“Timothy Leary!”

As the pile of bodies at the base of the pole grew, they heard the steady clunk clunk clunk of hobnailed hiking boots on iron rungs. The voice from above belonged to Slasher McGoogs.

“Perhaps another time you may wish to give some consideration to your actions before leaping… and maybe have a look around for a less thrilling alternative.” He completed his descent of the cast-iron spiral staircase and began to help the boys pick themselves up and dust themselves off. Ferdy had friction burns on some of his wing-stub feathers, Phoebles had grazed his knee, Ginsbergbear had snapped his favourite pencil and they had all landed on top of Boz. There were no other injuries. Once composed they began to look around. They had arrived in one of the main linking shafts of Les Chats Souterrains’ subterranean domain – wide, arched and concrete lined. It carried a tarmacadam roadway and twin narrow gauge railway tracks. The artery and its subsidiary systems existed parallel to or even confluent with the cave system, just a tiny dimensional twist away, kept apart by a micron thin membrane of warped space-time. It was but a miniscule section of the Atlantean world-wide tunnel system, disused for eons and now usurped by the Lizard Kings, which honeycombs the earth’s crust, linking natural cave systems, accessible only under mystic circumstances from every mine, cavern, metro and catacomb; normally undetectable and gateway, some maintain, to the inner world of our hollow earth.

“Wow!” exclaimed Phoebles.

“Just come on!” insisted McGoogs. But they had not gone far when they heard the purr of a combustion engine. Scrambling as quickly as they could up a fall of rock and scree the boys gained a wide ledge, well above eye height, and cautiously peeped down. What they saw was the arrival of a lichen-grey painted Mini Moke Twinny, which halted whilst four characters, uniformly dressed in khaki one-piece overalls, got out. They had ghost-white, narrow faces, tiny pink eyes and overly large ears.   They were armed and they were searching.

“I’ve never seen them without their goggles before,” said Phoebles, “Ugly looking bunch.”

“I don’t think we should hang around here,” said Slasher, wrenching a grill off the wall behind them. “Boz, you come through last, and pull this grating back in place.”

They were in a small, square cross-sectioned shaft that carried a steady draft of warm air. It inclined gently and branched off at regular intervals. At length their somewhat randomly chosen route emerged into a gallery that overlooked a truly vast cavern. Ginsbergbear threw himself back from the edge and pressed into the cave wall. Ferdy and Phoebles gave out simultaneous gasps. This was Titan, the belly of Behemoth – one hundred foot of vault above them and an eighty-foot drop to the floor below. They were looking down into the mother of all chambers – and it swarmed with industry.

Mass tangles of wiring hung between flickering screens and bays of valves, beam tetrodes glowing violet or lime-green. Rainbow lights pulsed along ionized gasses in glass tubes and flasks. Heavy-duty High Tension cables hung from ceramic insulators and harsh strip lighting dangled precariously from chains and improvised scaffolding. High on one wall a huge screen showed:

Project Deadline

[] [] / [] [] / [] [] [] []

Don’t let the Mayans down

“We can’t use the water pistols with all this electricity about – remove your magazines and pass them to Ferdy,” ordered Boz.

They could make out several assembly lines trundling inwards towards the centre of the floor. One carried copper tanks like oversize water heaters.

“Vril accumulators,” pronounced Slasher sagely.

Another line was doing pipe cots, with robot arms sewing canvas covers and welding joints. Yet another bore printed circuit boards, technical bits and electronic pieces, between robots that soldered and snipped, towards half-finished, splayed-bell shaped craft, like bizarre giant hub caps, their shell plates being welded, riveted and spray-painted by beavering robots on the outside, whilst metal mechanics rushed in and out with the fittings as they arrived on the lines. One completed Reichsflugscheiben sat on a flatbed, narrow-gauge railway truck receiving the finishing touches to its paint job. A Chat Souterrain in a silver radiation suit and fish-bowl helmet was stencilling alien symbols around the hull.

µƒß ç¬ø∂^øñ +      

“Looks a bit like Sanskrit to me,” said Phoebles, to everyone else’s surprise.

The pals grouped and squatted in a circle to discuss a plan of action while an apparently uninterested Ginsbergbear opened a nearby junction box that had caught his attention, marked as it was with the inscription ‘DON’T!’ on the door in large, red letters. Once inside he snipped through some of the wiring, mostly blue wires, and a fat bunch of filaments that had all been taped together. He unscrewed a connector block and began swapping connections, yellow wires for green wires; brown wires for the pretty little striped ones. Finally he took two red wires and shorted them together with a crack and a spark. Down below some of the banks of valves flickered and went out. Some of the valves began to glow brighter and brighter. Then they all began to strobe neurotically. The robots lost control, mechanical arms waved and jerked, welding arms lanced and riveting arms sewed. The humming and crackling of barely harnessed alternating current soared orgasmically. White lab-coated overseer Chats looked uncertain, worried, panicked. Bolts of lightening began to arc over the insulators and a maniacally frenzied laser arm sliced a ruby pencil of lethal light through a dangling power cable. The severed conduit swung down till its exposed core shorted against one of the bays, sprayed sparks above the growing pandemonium.

“RUN!” cried Ginsbergbear as he rushed past his comrades, and a small explosion shook the stalactites.

 

Capter Nine

Flight

 Suddenly the vast space was echoing to Klaxon alarms, the walls flashing in reflected crimson light.

“Up There!” someone had shouted above the general ruckus and, with the first bullets ripping and pinging about them, the boys abandoned their rucksacks and scurried after Ginsbergbear as he disappeared back down the ventilation duct. They were scuttling awkwardly in the confined space, but the bumping and scraping behind them told of their pursuit by Chats Souterrains far more comfortable in the claustrophobic darkness. After an eternity of blind shoving, shouting, scrabbling they fell, sweating and wheezing, into the main tunnel and continued their mad dash without any attempt at concealment. As they ran there were distant shouts and explosions behind them. Then they became aware of a throbbing whine rapidly growing in volume.

“Take cover!” shouted Boz, and they pressed against the dark walls as a flying saucer, the very craft they had seen on its railway truck, whooshed past. It veered towards the tunnel wall and directed a static discharge ionising the air ahead, the electromagnetic crackling mingling with a booming sound beam howl, like an amateur brass band attempting a Charles Ives composition. The wall dissolved into tatters akin to a moth eaten lace curtain and the gaping maw of the Devil’s Arse appeared ahead. Boz and Slasher broke cover, the others following close on their heels, and rushed through the shimmering gap before the rock wall could reform and the overlapping universes part company once more. The saucer, silhouetted against the sky, zoomed out and up, scattering jackdaws, its mission unknown and its crew’s attention far from the fleeing group that followed in its wake. Slasher broke his step momentarily to fire his Mauser, once, into the blackness behind them. The shot echoed around the cavern like a fusillade; the others flinched, but the relentless pounding of their commando-booted pursuers did not falter. They fled past the ropewalk and workers hovels out into the winding back alleys of Castleton – ducking, weaving, bouncing off walls in their wild flight.

Flight of the Sore Afraid

                                    Out of the Devil’s Arse we blundered

Into the street where Emos chundered

Scattering Goths

And Punks who wondered

“What the f…”

We did not make reply

Theirs was not to wonder why

Theirs was but to duck or die

Les Chats’ Sten guns thundered

 

Bullets to the left of us

Bullets to the right of us

Bullets from behind us

Buzzed and whined

Blasted with shot and shell

Swiftly we ran… ah well

Out of that mouth of Hell

Nought could our terror quell

I wish we could catch a bus

 

We must be mad as bats

Taking on the pallid Chats

Rounds ripping through our hats

Gasping teddy wheezing cats

Tottering Dodo

Legs all spent

Relentlessly pursued by Paras

Tough old vets of Mons and Arras

Battle hardened bold as brass

Armed to the teeth they’ll kick our ass

Our future looks like diddly squats

 

A miracle’s our only chance

A cavalry with sword and lance

On mighty steeds that rear and prance

Slasher chucks t’ward me a glance

“Is that Plan B?”

“There’s no Plan B”

Grovelling upon all fours

Hammering on shuttered doors

Mourning for our last lost cause

Doomed Amigos of El Boz

Is this really our last dance?

 

Ginsbergbear,

Ms Goldilocks’ Convalescent Home for Bears,

Clamp House,

Chelmondiston.

As the fearful five skidded out onto the High Street a cloud of paragliders rose above Mam Tor and swept towards the fleeing heroes.

“It is Le Régiment Étranger de Chats Parachutists, known colloquially as The Flying Eyebrows; a nick-name deriving from the appearance of the curved, hollow fabric wing of each chute above the eye-like dot of le chat de combat,” explained Boz, hurriedly. “They side with the Dark Forces, so we might have a bit of a problem.”

With our heroes weaving once more between the gathered goths, the paras swooped down onto the town, landing on their feet running, jettisoning their parachutes and firing their PPSh-41s from the hip.   The carnival crowd scattered with a depressed mumble, a few shrieks or screams, the odd groan and thud, to take shelter, for the most part, in the cellars of local hostelries.   The crunch of the shock troops’ hobnail boots, rattle of their blazing submachine guns and zip zipping of randomly scattering 7.62mm Tokarev rounds was withering the resolve of cats and dodo and terrifying the normally resolute bear.

“Don’t let me die dressed like this!” cried Slasher, momentarily shedding his customary cool.

“Amen to that.” sympathised Ferdinand.

With lead and splinters ricocheting all around them the fleeing gang dove into the Rose Cottage Tea Rooms.

“I hear they do an excellent lemon meringue pie,” cried Phoebles excitedly.

They were just putting in an order with a nippy waitress in very short black dress, black stockings, lacy white apron and starched doily perched and pinned to the top of her head when the teashop windows were stoved-in by a thunderous barrage of sound.   An intense pressure wave was shattering plate glass along the length of Cross Street.   Outside, the massed Dark Agents of the Merovingian Lizard Kings stopped their advance, clutching at their ears, then fell back and soon were in full retreat.

Down the road from the neighbouring village of Hope, at full throttle, hurtled the legendary Vicecream van, black and menacing. Its jingle system had been upgraded and a bank of Marshall 350-watt vacuum tube amplifiers was feeding The Kittens of Chaos Mariachi Band’s insanely abandoned live rendition of La Cucaracha into an array of horn woofers and tweeters flanked by twin Megadeath Bass Boomer Geo-Frackers. Consuella was riding the roof, unplugged on tambourine and Dark Flo squatted behind the driver, wringing every last decibel out of the sound desk. The vehicle squealed to a halt half way down the shop lined, unglassed high street and the Snake Pass Zapatistas charged past, guiding their mounts with their knees, firing off short bursts from their AK47s or accompanying the Kittens of Chaos’ in La Cucaracha on their guitars and singing till their lungs ached. Riders and chargers alike had their ears plugged with cotton wool, twists of Bronco toilet paper, or solidified and manipulated dairy products.

“Hurrah!”

Boz was choked with disbelieving emotion as he stared through the café’s wrecked window frame. The gang rushed back outside and Snowdrop’s Techanka drew up alongside Phoebles.

“Jump up!” she signed, over the earth-pounding music. And he swung aboard to man the Maschinengewehr 08, heavy machine gun, its 250-round fabric belt of 7.9mm ammunition snaking wildly. He, in turn, collared a passing teddy, yanked him into the landau and yelled, “Feed me, Ginsberbear!”

Tac-atac-atac-atac-atac-atac-atac-atac-atac-atac-atac-atac-atac-atac-atac-atac-atac!

Throwing the van door open, Dark Flo sprang onto the street, dressed in full oyster-grey Ninja kit and armed with an 18inch feather duster crowned with pheasant plumage. She took off after a small cluster of Les Chats Souterrains that looked as if it might rally.

“Don’t ask. The last man to face the feather duster of Dark Flo spent the next eight weeks in a full body cast and still has to suck his sustenance through a straw,” muttered Boz.

Above the retreating Chats the menacing, angular dazzle camouflaged, Merovingian Flying Frisbee had doubled back and was moving slowly and systematically towards the partisans, waiting for them to come within range of its death-ray. Then it met the full, reverberating force of the ‘Wall of Din’©. It tottered, dropped suddenly, partially recovered in time to avoid hitting the ground and withdrew, spinning erratically. It also started to glow – an unhealthy, bilious glow – as its magneto-shield overheated and the stricken craft wobbled away towards the doom-haunted cleft of Winnat’s Pass. A writhing bundle of Kittens of Chaos fell out of the Vicecream van, the trumpeters and a lone soprano saxophonist now playing an unbridled Marseillaise whilst the remainder threw their sombreros into the air, jeering, mooning and making rude paw gestures after the retreating UFO.

As Cross Street began to calm, and the action moved into the distance, Snowdrop returned; the horses were lathered up and panting, the machine gun overheated and out of ammunition, Ginsbergbear and Phoebles babbling in adrenaline fuelled over-excitement. Aunty Stella, in matching honey-beige pith helmet, snake boots and safari suit, climbed down from the cab of the Vicecream van. She pushed her Halcyon Mk49 goggles up above the rim of her topee and met the charging rush of squealing cats and dodo. There were relieved hugs and enthusiastic welcomes all round, then she explained to the group that Googleberry had gone missing again. Before she had become really worried however she had received a text message from him saying that he was visiting relatives at Chatsworth Hall and to come up, urgently, with the Vicecream van, the Kittens, Consuella and Dark Flo, all would be required and much would be revealed.

“Who’s running the shop?” enquired a fiscally worried Boz.

“Doo not deesturb yoorselv Meester Bozzz,” chipped in Consuella Starcluster, “Sam assurrres us hee ees ayble to hold thee forrrt forrr ay day orrr two.”

“…We were met, en route, by the Zapatistas,” continued Aunty Stella, “and so here we all are.”

“That’ll be ginger beer and lemon meringue all round then. Job well done,” exclaimed Phoebles, fresh from the fray. “Is there a litter tray out the back? I may have got a bit over excited.”

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