Meanwhile Back at the Den…

Beryl followed the Thames down stream from Richmond half-tide lock, past Isleworth.

“You could never understand,” she told Ferdy, “Grass is such a bright green, rooftops such a gaudy grey. Everything glows like it’s made from neon tubing. The sunlight on the river is a firework display. And I am part of an eternal, infinite wholeness.”

“Good for you. Could we just concentrate on our driving?” During her enthusiastic praise of the beneficial effects of whatever concoction it was that she’d acquired from Rotskagg’s corsairs Beryl had veered away from the river and was heading for Greenford. “More black coffee up here please.”

Having got Beryl back on track Ferdy took a spell at the helm. He flew the Do-X over Hammersmith Bridge, past the Buddha in Battersea Park, and beyond the old Palace of Westminster, now a Steamroller factory. As they passed over Tower Bridge and the Lower Pool he was aware of thick smoke obscuring the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs.

“Looks like trouble down by Greenwich.”

As soon as they neared Bozzy’s Catnip Den Ferdy dumped the flying boat onto the river. He taxied up to a handy buoy and while the Do-X was being tethered the dinghy was launched.

“All aboard the Skylark!” And they headed for the shore. Sam was out on the den’s patio and as the gang scrambled up the ladder he organised a bosun’s chair for Lady Augusta. Once they were all inside Flo headed for the bar and Boz grabbed Sam’s arm.

“What’s going on?”

Sam took a breath, “Les Chats have been running rampage. They’ve occupied the Millwall Docks and Aunty Stella has rushed her troops to Greenwich to take them head on. It’s a reckless mission; my agents say Les Chats are well prepared and heavily armed.”

“Pints all round? Jugs or sleevers?” Dark Flo had a hand on the nearest in a row of beer engine handles, London porter, but before she could start to pump there came an urgent tapping on the trapdoor beneath her feet. “Who’ve you got in the cellar, Sam?”

“No one, I’ve been on my own all day.”

“Hmm.” She produced a baseball bat from under the counter and tossed it to Boz. “Cover me. Let’s see what’s going on.” With Boz poised by her side Flo grabbed the ring in the trapdoor and pulled it open. The black hole gaped. Then an orange plumed hat appeared, and an oriental face, and Master Dorje clambered out from the beer cellar.

Mrs King gave a gasp of surprise and clumped across the room on her crutches to greet him.

“Augusta my child, much important news for all of you I have.”

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CSS Überkatzen

Back inside they finalised their plan. Dark Flo had assumed command. “Ferdy, you’d better co-pilot Beryl, make sure she doesn’t drop out, turn on, or whatever it is she’s inclined to do. Once we’ve found the carrier I’ll go first and take out the defences. Then the rest of you parachute drop onto the deck.”

“Me? Parachute?” cried Zelda.

“It’s a buddy sky-dive for you,” continued Flo, “in tandem with the bear.”

“I might need a spot of that stuff Beryl’s on,” said Ginsbergbear.

“Me too,” said Lady Augusta, “What exactly does this para-thingying involve?”

“No one’s going to be on anything until this op’s over. It’s serious. You all heard the Analytical Engine. It’s a matter of life or death. Now, get kitted up and let’s be off.”

“I’d better get back to my regiment,” said Aunty Stella. “When Les Chats get wind of what you’re up to they’re bound to make a move. Good luck all of you.”

“And I’ve got to see a man about a dog,” said Slasher. “Want a lift in the Duesy, Mrs S?” They walked together out into Narrow Street.

The cumbersome Dornier was lumbering above Tiger Bay when two radial engined fighters caught up with them and took up station off the flying boat’s wing tips, Polly’s scarlet replacement Rata to starboard and an off-white I-16 with a red star on the tail to port. The DoX’s radio crackled:

“We’re your escort, Mr Boz,” said wing-Comrade Polly Karpova.

“Fab,” replied Beryl, “this beano could well turn toasty hot.”

Flo grabbed control of the radio, “Stay frosty, Pol. We’ve only a vague idea what we’ll be up against.” But they had to find the drone ship first, in a very large ocean.

They had been stooging around the North Atlantic for more than an hour and had investigated two targets that turned out to be innocent container vessels before Phoebles showed signs of over excitement, bouncing about and pointing out of his allotted porthole.

“I can see another wake,” he shouted, “down there.”

Boz grabbed up the big binoculars (Kronos 20x60s) from their box by the chart table. “Looks like her. It’s huge.” As they closed in on the ship he could make out the flight deck, the bridge and air traffic control towers. She was dazzle painted in the red, yellow and silver grey beloved of Les Chats Souterrains, with the Uber logo on her superstructures and CSS ÜBERKATZEN stencilled in large capitals along the sides of her hull.

“We’re on. Take us up to ten thousand feet,” said Dark Flo, zipping into her wing suit. “I’m going to bail. Keep out of range of her defences till I call.”

They climbed slowly, and then…

“We’re at 10,000 feet,” reported Ferdy. Without another word Flow flung herself head first out through the hatchway.

Almost immediately three of the Sea-Whizz pods rose up out of the Überkatzen’s deck and began to pan around, unable to get a fix on the tiny blue avian. One of the pods fired a short burst from its M61 Vulcan cannon. The Polikarpov I-16s instantly broke formation.

“We’ll cover you, draw their fire,” Polly called over the radio. “Let’s demonstrate some soviet aerobatics Tovarishch Lilya, show them what our Ishaks*8 can do.” The pair of Ratas barrelled and looped around the azure sky whilst Flo spiralled in towards the carrier. Moments later a General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper launched from the Überkatzen. It locked onto Flo almost immediately. She banked hard, but could not shake it, so she tucked her arms into her sides and went into a steep dive. The drone followed. Flo opened her wings and slowed. The Reaper passed her, pulled up, and she crashed onto its back, clinging on to the fuselage with arms, legs and sheer willpower. Bracing her knees against the robotic beast and freeing an ugly, heavy bladed bowie knife from the sheath strapped to her thigh she began to prise open a maintenance flap on top of the drone. It gave way suddenly and flew off in the slipstream. Flo peered into the interior, pulled out two wires, one orange the other striped purple and yellow, and cut them both. The confused drone began to waver. Next Flo stripped back the insulation off the wires, swapped them over and twisted the ends together. The Reaper steadied, turned and headed back to the carrier.

The Kronstadt Ratas were still dodging bullets, but with Dark Flo out of immediate danger they broke off and returned to the flying boat. Comrade Lilya performed a quick barrel roll, just for the hell of it. Flo hung on to her mount.

As the drone lined up, somewhat erratically, with the carrier flight deck Flo leapt to her feet and rode the Reaper like a surfer. At the first uncertain bounce she sprang back and landed with a forward roll. The drone tipped nose down and flipped, toppling head over heals along the deck and over the side.

“I think she’s alright,” cried Boz, still hogging the binoculars. “She’s up. She’s out of her wing suit. She’s heading for the bridge.”

 

*8 – The Polikarpov I-16 was nicknamed Rata (Rat) by the Spanish Nationalists, Mosca (Fly) by the Republicans, and Ishak (Donkey) by the Soviets.

 

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Beryl Flies High

The sewer outlet, when they eventually reached it, was obstructed by heavy wrought-iron bars through which they could see the London River and on the far bank make out the Rotherhithe skyline.

“Oh, no!” exclaimed a heavily soiled Ferdy, “what do we do now?”

“Out the way,” growled Zelda, splashing to the fore. She flicked off the safety on her SPAS-15 and fired two rounds from the hip while everyone else waded for cover. Brick chippings and cement dust flew in all directions. There was silence for a moment and then three of the bars toppled outwards with a clang.

“Zelda!” protested Slasher. Yet the geek’s rash action had facilitated their egress.

The tide was out when the gang dropped down from the culvert onto a muddy foreshore strewn with plastic bottles, shopping trolleys and old car tyres. Gathering their bearings they turned up stream and trudged along the stinking beach until they reached the ladder at the back of Bozzys Den. As they entered through the French windows the back room cleared, its nip-addled clientele rushing the door.

“Oh phew!” Sam left off playing Got My Mojo Working. “Hot baths all round by the looks. D’you want those clothes burned or do you expect some poor sod to wash them?”

“I’ll make my own arrangements,” said Slasher, departing by the front door. “See you all in the morning.” Dark Flo rang Beryl.

Scrubbed up and luxuriating in fresh clean clothes the gang met up again at their table in the bay window. Flo descended the stairs, pristine in a slinky black satin gown, raven hair combed over her left eye, marched over to the Amplion 4 M Carbon Spring Microphone that stood alongside Sam’s piano and launched into The Moon and I, pitched low to match her sultry voice. At the end of the number, rewarded with a subdued ripple of applause and a couple of wolf whistles, she brought a bottle of Absinth over to the table. “Beryl will be down first thing with the DoX. I’ve just rung the Local Friends in Salmon Lane for a Chinese takeaway. It will be here shortly.”

Next morning saw them sitting at the same window table. The den was all but deserted. A few of the girls, who had no homes to go to, slumbered on chaises longues, Flo was washing up behind the bar. Boz piled up the breakfast plates and put them on a neighbouring table as Slasher walked in. The masked cat sat and Zelda produced the chart that she had brought out of the nubble universe. A curving dotted line from Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia to an area of sea just north of Le Havre showed the carrier’s great circle track. A series of red dots with hour and date indicated the ships estimated location at given times.

“What’s the other bit of paper?” asked Phoebles.

“It’s the centre spread from a recent Eagle comic,” said Zelda unfolding a full colour cutaway illustration of their target. It was titled Ro8 Supercarrier and showed the interior layout in considerable detail.

“Handy,” said Slasher.

“And what are those?” asked Boz, pointing to several grey pods labelled (2).

Zelda read the blurb, “Phalanx Sea-Whiz radar controlled anti-aircraft/missile close-in weapon systems.”

“Bugger,” said Boz.

“No probs. They’re my department,” called Flo, opening the French windows so they all heard the distinctive drone of the Dornier flying boat’s twelve engines. “That’ll be Beryl now.

They gathered on the balcony in time to see the DoX drop anchor and a small launch head for the Den. A startling apparition mounted the ladder. Blonde dreadlocks poked out from under her flying helmet. She was wearing a floral Afghan Kuchi frock under a thin grey cardigan and striped woollen socks with huaraches sandals.

“Beryl?” said Flo, “What’s got into you?”

“Stress not, girl. I’m great. Rotskagg’s crew liberated this amazing stash after the Jersey Zoo debacle. You wouldn’t believe… Try some.”

“Black coffee might be a better idea,” replied Flo.

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Sailortown

Barrymore dropped Boz and his companions off in Whitechapel. The entrances to Aldgate East station were heavily barricaded and guarded by an armed contingent of Brick Lane Zapatistas who were clustered around a brazier. The gang exchanged pleasantries with the troopers and then walked briskly down Leman Street. Just off Cable Street they could hear Wilton’s Music Hall in full swing. Underneath the Arches was being sung above the accompanying Wurlitzer organ and periodically drowned out by heckling from an enthusiastic, mostly inebriated audience. When they reached Ratcliff Highway it was alive. Sailors and their doxies lurched in huddled groups about the pavements, cursing costermongers wheeled their barrows through the crowds, a dozen different accents and languages sang out. Barrel organs vied with each other in the middle of the thoroughfare, pop music blared from the jukeboxes of every pub and bar, squeals from every brothel. Fast food vendors shouted enticements to passers by and the scent of fish and chips made Phoebles’ mouth water. Pulsating, pastel coloured neon signs directed the unwary to strip joints and tattoo parlours.

“Hullo deary, fancy a quick one? Oh, sorry Mr Boz. I didn’t recognise you straight away. You been in the wars?”

“Hello Mavis. Just singed. Things nearly got on top of me a bit back, but I’m fine now. Thanks for asking.”

There was a good deal of squawking and not a few growls as they passed Jamrach’s Pet Emporium.

“That place always depresses me,” said Ferdy.

“Oh it’s not so bad nowadays,” Ginsbergbear replied, “Jamrach Jnr has abandoned the sale of exotics and runs an endangered species breeding program. He even has a Bornean Orang-utan working the counter.”

“There is a rumour he also runs illicit interspecies porn shows on the side,” added Phoebles.

Narrow Street was quiet, all but deserted, smelling of Stockholm tar and cinnamon, and appearing reassuringly normal at first. Yet, unusually, there was a Palomino pony tethered to the hitching rail outside Bozzy’s Den. Inside, Dark Flo perched on top of the saloon’s upright piano, her bare right foot pressed gently against Sam’s chest. The left dangled, beating time with her big toe. She was wearing a bowler hat and singing The Ballad of Sexual Obsession. Several local girls were standing in, without much enthusiasm, for the absent Kittens and an aging wizard wielded a cocktail shaker behind the bar.

“Aunty Stella!” cried Ferdy.

Aunty Stella sat in the bay window, in the full-dress uniform of a captain of the Hampshire Light Horse, midnight blue knee length top coat trimmed in gold, crimson paisley cummerbund, an ultramarine and mellow yellow striped turban, white jodhpurs and black patent leather cavalry boots complete with spurs. A Persian style sabre and SMLE .762 bush carbine rested on the table and she was smoking a hookah. She beamed at the bird.

Most of the clientele wore grubby raincoats, trilbies and reflector shades. As Boz led the way towards Aunty Stella one of the punters rose. His gabardine trench coat was not grubby and his homburg neatly brushed. He came over.

“Hello Slasher,” said Aunty Stella.

“So,” he asked Boz, “what’s Larry got to say for himself?”

Phoebles and Augusta pulled up a second table so they could all sit in a group. They parked. With her set concluded Dark Flo came over, wrapping a silk Liberty print kimono about her slender body. She retained the bowler. Sam vamped an extended improv on Blue Rondo à la Turk.

“Nothing new,” said Boz in answer to Slasher McGoogs. “The city’s hanging on by the skin of its teeth and I’m beginning to think Mrs King might be right. We need to gain access to her computer thingy.” He looked over at Aunty Stella. “What’s the situation here?”

“We have deliberately allowed Les Chats Souterrains to infiltrate Sailortown. Specialist units of the Autonomous Revolutionary Insurrectionary Limehousesailortown Irregulars, in mufty, have them under close surveillance. At least that way we can keep an eye on what they’re up to. We have thwarted several attempts to gain access to the docks, but so far they seem unaware that they are being exploited.” Aunty Stella turned to Dark Flo, addressing her in a discrete, concerned tone. “I couldn’t help noticing during that last number, you have some nasty bruises, Flo.”

“They’re fading now,” replied the chanteuse barmaid. “Anyway the punters enjoy a subtle suggestion of off stage S&M. We’ve had a few narrow squeaks since I saw you last. I don’t think anyone’s come out of Jersey totally unscathed.”

“Does one ever?” mused Ginsbergbear.

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Armada

Whirring propeller blades pushed gently astern. The mooring line was dropped and Lady Æthelflæda edged slowly away from the pylon. Making a broad sweep of Farnborough Aerodrome as she rose she turned north and headed for the M3.

“Those were lovely scones Aunty Stella laid on for us.” Beryl didn’t turn round. She was at the helm and looking out for the ribbon of motorway that would guide them up towards the London docks. Phoebles was manning the elevator controls.

“Wortleberry jam is my favourite. I think Ginsbergbear organised a moggy-bag to tide us over for the journey.”

“You two on about food again?” Boz had his atlas open on the chart table and was concentrating hard, trying to decide whether to circumnavigate the coffee stain that obscured Twickenham or fly on through it.

“We’ve a brisk following wind and will be over the Thames before too long,” reported Beryl, “wave as we pass The Den.”

They did.

*

As the London River opened out into the Thames estuary the gang could see the commanding Isle of Grain power station chimney on their starboard side, 40,000 tons of towering concrete recently saved from demolition by a preservation order citing its historical and navigational significance; and to port they noted the Destroyer of Worlds refuelling at the end of a long pier off Canvey Island. Phoebles had his brass telescope out and could see her corsair crew scurrying about the pier.

“The Kittens won’t be pleased at having their ekranoplan commandeered.”

“By all accounts,” said Boz, “they’re creating mayhem in Jersey’s interior. They’ll be happy enough.”

As the Lady Æthelflæda passed beyond the Red Sands Sea Forts they met Slasher McGoogs’ armada racing for the English Channel. Scattered across the choppy open sea were a dozen or more Corsair whale-chasers, their hulls garishly tagged and graffitied. They could make out Kapten Nyai’s lug rigged bisquine Bonnie Lass flying a huge skull and cross bones, the mighty gun turret on de Kraken’s foredeck and Inchcolm Lassie audaciously converted into a rocket ship. Not a rocket ship like Flash Gordon’s, that would have been impractical in the time available, but a vessel bristling with banks of unguided rockets intended for the bombardment of Jersey’s coastline. Above the little ships floated the ugly black form of Rotskagg’s Queen Anne’s Bounty with its crimson death’s head insignia, and crowding around her like fawning chicklings, a clutch of smaller dirigibles. Higher still a big-wing of Kronstadt Naval Air Arm Polikarpov Ratas provided air cover. Two brightly coloured Chats Suterrains’ Gumman Ducks were maintaining a cautious distance, despite their dubious status as allies.

“Well this lot should make quite an impression when we turn up off Jersey,” said Beryl.

Away on the northern horizon a plume of oily smoke suggested that some unidentified vessel was rushing to catch up.

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Slasher’s Plan

Corsair Destroyer of WorldsA thick, aromatic fug obscured much of the interior, a fug almost dense enough to muffle the jangling, stannic notes of Sam playing Jelly Roll Blues on an open fronted upright. Entering deeper into Bozzy’s Bohemian Babel and adjusting slowly to the atmosphere Larry discovered Phoebles doing duty behind the bar.

“You’re not the regular bar staff. Where is Dark Flo?” Larry coughed as a swirl of sweet smelling smoke diverted from its random meandering to insinuate his left nostril. A feeling of unaccustomed light heartedness came over him, “Is Mr Boz in?”

Phoebles wiped a tumbler with a corner of his apron, “Flo’s on her hols I suppose. And…”

“…Boz is over there,” announced Barrymore as she strode towards the front bar. Sam’s playing rose to a crescendo.

Boz was sitting at his favourite table in the bay window, affording a comprehensive view of activity within the den and the pavement outside. He was with Ginsbergbear who’s Peterson appeared to be responsible for most of the surrounding smog and, as it seeped out through a fanlight above the door, for a hint of gothic noir in gaslit Narrow Street. Barrymore pulled out a chair for Larry and then seated herself opposite Boz, elbows on the table and glaring uncomfortably closely into his face.

“OK, let’s have it. Dark Flo doesn’t take holidays. And you and your gang aren’t the sort to sit around doing nothing while an adventure is unfolding.”

Boz gazed innocently back at her. “We’ve been a bit worried about Ferdy and the Kittens. They would appear to be lost in the thick of all that mayhem in the Channel Islands. Have you heard about the invasion then?” One eyebrow raised as he tilted his head inquisitively.

“C’mon. Give me more.”

“Oh… OK… Slasher wanted you two kept out of the loop for as long as possible. He and Flo have gone up north to talk to the pirate king, Rotskagg Blenkinsopp. Alongside the Kronstadt Coastal Patrol he sees the Corsairs as our only hope of successfully fighting back. Cod knows how he finds things out, but he says the Corsairs are upgrading The Destroyer of Worlds. They’re fitting banks of von Ohain HeS1 turbojets in the hope of getting her back up as a GEV, that’s a ground effect vehicle,” he added helpfully, “and replacing the missile tubes with six sawn off Japanese Type 94 naval guns. Big bangs, not too much accuracy.”

Larry slid down in his chair. “So we do have a plan. Can we go home now?”

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