A Short Bus Ride
The rain continued falling. It fell against the windscreen of the double-decker bus. Unlike the driver’s cabin there were no windscreen wipers upstairs, no rubber blades to swoosh the water away. The sound of rain was a splattering of droplets blown hard and fast. They covered the glass until they all merged into one sheet of water distorting the outside world into an odd panorama. This is how it must look for aqua-mariners when they explore the ocean floor thought Billy Twist.
Beside Billy, Sally was thinking of home; of how she missed her mum and dad and of how she wanted to be there now. She knew this thought was immature but she was fed up with always having to act acting mature, fed up with being the sensible daughter, for all she wanted now was to be safe and being safe meant being home. She so wished she hadn’t suggested catching the bus. Had they found a telephone box, all bold and bright shiny red, they would have contacted her parents and they would be on their way to fetch them now.
The drive from
to Portsmouth took longer than either of them
conceived. It would have been better, more direct and far quicker had they
caught a train. They may have had to wait until they found one that stopped at
Fekenham, and they were few and far between, but at least that way they would
have arrived in the village. The bus they were on would stop at Winchester Bus
Depot where they would have to disembark. Then they still had to find a
telephone box before phoning her parents. By the time Shazli and Anita arrived
it would be evening. Although this was their second day away from home it felt
more like a month. Winchester
As the bus pulled into the depot so the passengers rose from their seats in readiness to disembark. Billy, detecting some sort of mood change in Sally, took her hand and led her to the stairs. They had to wait there as the passengers, one by one, climbed down and walked into the terminus.
The Winchester Bus Depot is large. It contains not only ten sets of departure lounges but also shops from which passengers are able to purchase a variety of goods. There is also a small area where vehicles are allowed to park, by means of a pre-purchased ticket, when collecting friends or family from the buses.
Sally and Billy were the last to leave the bus. The first thing they did was to check the depot’s arrivals and departures board. The next bus to Fekenham had been cancelled. The first after that would not leave for an hour. Sally had no intention of waiting any longer.
“Let’s phone my Dad like we said we would.”
“Sure,” said Billy. “Mind you, by the time he drives from Fekenham to Winchester and back again an hour will have passed so we won’t be home any earlier.”
“Billy, I don’t care. I just want to get home and I’d rather wait for Dad if you don’t mind.”
“Okay. No worries,” conceded Billy.
As they stood discussing the best options on getting home a cab pulled into the area behind the bus. A dark-haired woman in thick-lensed spectacles wound down the window and called out to them. She had a scarf around her neck that covered part of her face.
“I’m the transfer taxi service. As buses have been cancelled to Birchtickle, Fekenham, Arkenfelt and Muckleford the company has laid on taxis, for free, to take anyone there who lives that way. Do either of you want a lift?”
Billy turned to Sally obviously delighted with the idea and offer.
“We’d be home in half the time and it’s for free!”
Sally was unsure but Billy’s logic seemed inarguable.
“Fine, I just want to get home and see Mum and Dad again.”
Billy opened the door for Sally who slipped inside. Billy slid in beside her. The woman nodded at them in her rear-view-mirror smiling as she did, revealing a large set of teeth. The cab rolled away moving with speed through the streets of Winchester. The teenagers sat in the back, not really paying much attention to where they were going. Sally still seemed different to Billy. Her mood had become introverted as it something was playing on her mind.. Billy had seen her cross before but had never seen her act like this.
“Is everything alright?” asked Billy. “You seem to be faraway, sort of sad and quiet and somehow distant.”
Sally took hold of Billy’s hand and kissed it.
“I do love you Billy Twist,” she said as she smiled at him. “Sorry if I have been a bit moody. I miss being near Mum and Dad.”
“You’re with me!”
“And I love being with you but the way were grabbed by those awful men has left me feeling uncomfortable. I don’t usually miss home so much but I think the way we were taken has robbed me of that feeling of always being secure in the village I just want to be back there so that I can sort of reconnect with what I have always known: that sense of belonging and being safe. Does that make sense?”
Billy didn’t like to say that it didn’t but instead pretended he understood.
“Of course it does, Sal. It will soon all be behind us. It will be like a bad dream: the sort that leaves you shaking when you wake but soon seems silly when the sun rises. I bet your Dad will be pleased to see you and your Mum too. They will probably give you a ticking off though ‘cos that’s what parents always do. It’s meant to give the impression of them being in control and still caring. Just keep your lips shut and let them go on a bit. They’ll soon calm down. Oh yes, and your Mum will cry. I guarantee that. Mums always do. When you become a Mum you will cry at things that make you laugh, things that make you angry and things that your husband, me, either should have done, didn’t do or did do but did wrong. It’s what Mums are like.”
Sally couldn’t help but laugh at her boyfriend’s observations. Some of what he said was true but a whole lot of it was the little boy in the teenager talking a lot of juvenile tommy rot. She kissed him again this time on his mouth. It was as she leant away that she looked out of the window. A road sign indicated that Muckleford, the market town and therefore most notable place in their area, was in the opposite direction to where they were now being driven.
“Excuse me,” she said to the driver, “but we are going the wrong way.”
Sally and Billy watched as the lady cabbie looked back at them in her rear-view-mirror.
“The wrong direction? I think not. I think I am going in the right direction, right for me that is.”
The female behind the steering wheel put her left hand up to her head and pulled off the wig she was wearing revealing a mane of white. The woman that stared back at them stony faced was Flora Gusset. She looked like evil personified.
Mick and Lenny Stag sat huddled together. Neither of them could find Flora. Mick suspected that she had sneaked away just after they had boarded. Why she had was still debatable but it looked like she was performing a double-cross on them and her old boss, Robin Banks. Ivan and Dick had made their way down to the cargo deck to the first of the three cars that had been driven onto the ferry by other members of the Banks gang. The idea had been that, having dumped the van they had made their getaway in at the port, they would look less suspicious if Mick and Lenny drove off the ferry in one car, Dick and Ivan in another and Flora in the third. Flora’s scheming had put paid to one vehicle but the other two remained.
“Come on Lenny, we’d better go with the rest of the passengers and get in our car. The sooner we drive to the airport the better.”
Lenny nodded as he stood up.
“What about Flora?” Lenny queried.
“As soon as we have docked and the cars have all driven off I will contact Robin. He’ll sort her out.”
Lenny looked mystified.
“What I don’t get is why would someone who has been loyal to Robin Banks for nigh on forty years suddenly turn and double cross him?”
Mick laughed. It was a brittle sound without any mirth.
“I have learnt in life Lenny that people are capable of doing things you wouldn’t credit them with. You would swear that so and so is your mate and mate they may be until money comes between them. From what you overheard I reckon Flora has nicked the heist money for her pension fund.”
The passengers were forming into a disorderly queue. Mick and Lenny joined them, looking to all intents and purposes like two brothers about to go on holiday on the Isle-of-Wight. Lenny leant in close to Mick to avoid being overheard.
“What will Banks do?”
“I don’t know mate but I wouldn’t like to be in Flora’s shoes when he catches up with her. She is, after all, family.”
The doors to the lower decks opened and the passengers began their slow shuffle down two flights of stairs. Once in the cargo hold they could see their cars. Mick and Lenny, holding onto their hand luggage, made their way to their vehicle, a Ford Majestic. They opened the boot which contained two large suitcases previously packed with their clothing. They put their hand luggage in beside the suitcases then climbed into the car. Five cars in front of them Dick and Ivan had done the same thing. They then waited until the large cargo bay doors hissed open then switched the ignition on. There was a sudden sound of engines being started. The vehicles had been parked in three lines. One of the crew stepped in front of the first line and proceeded to wave them off the ferry. Once the first line had disembarked he moved to the second line then finally the third. The whole process took ten minutes.
As the gang of fake Father Christmases were driving off to their respective destinations so Ralph Ramhard and Vicar Linkthorpe were drowning their sorrows. Ralph had been surprised to discover that the ferry bound for France stocked bourbon. It was a drink he had enjoyed during his days as a top flight New York lawyer. He had spent many an evening, and often a night, working away at a case with a glass of Jack Daniels beside him. He was not, and never had been, a heavy drinker. The same could not be said of Elvis Linkthorpe who was half way through his first bottle of ginger wine.
“Do you really like that stuff?” asked Ralph equably.
“I love it. I love that hidden kick it holds after the sweetness dissipates. It is like tasting the dawn rising,” replied the vicar.
“I find it rather syrupy. A little too sweet for me I guess.”
“I suppose we could suggest that our taste in alcohol matches our taste in women,” winked the priest, wagging a finger against his nose. Ralph didn’t understand and said so. Elvis explained. “Verity is like a good stiff shot of bourbon; a powerful, intoxicating brew once you have grown accustomed to it. Susanne is like ginger wine: sweet but naughty.”
“I’m not sure either of our women folk would like to be so described but I get your point. Verity is a bit strong for some people’s taste but for me she is perfection. How’s Susanne settling in? I hear she has caused quite a stir opening up that bordello.”
Linkthorpe took another slug of ginger wine, stretched his arms expansively then yawned.
“Fekenham is like that. It can either accept you straight away of grow fond of you as time passes. I am a very conservative sort of chap but not everyone in the village took to me when I first arrived. People like Susanne. How could they not. Once they get used to having a brothel they’ll embrace the concept.”
Ralph finished his glass of bourbon then screwed the top firmly back onto the bottle.
“The idea of something is very different to the actuality. I bet my bottom dollar that Lupini will not easily embrace such an enterprise.”
Elvis poured another glass of ginger wine, took a deep swig at it and then addressed Ralph’s point.
“It isn’t the notion of a bordello that Lupini objects to; it is the proximity of Delores to Arthur that she minds. That woman has put up with a lot.”
“Delores does put a lot up but it was not her I was referring to but Lupini. She has tolerated Arthur’s philandering for more years than I care to remember.”
“He seems to have changed his ways,” opined Ralph.
“Leopards and spots, spots and leopards,” responded Elvis with a loud burp.
With three quarters of a bottle of ginger wine consumed the vicar should have been drunk. The fact he wasn’t amazed and scared Ralph who stood up, indicating Elvis to follow suit.
“Let’s go grab some air,” declared the American.
Elvis calmly downed the remains of his glass, replaced the cap on the bottle twisting it tight with a flourish before he stood up, smiling.
Outside the sea threw up some large waves that hammered against the hull. It had stopped raining now; at least it had in the channel. What it was like in
Albion or for
neither of the men knew. Ralph took a grip on the hand rail and peered over the
side. Elvis stood beside him swaying slightly. France
“Damn shame about the comwand,” intoned Ralph. “We have no way of communicating with Verity or with DI Lazarus.”
Linkthorpe shifted uneasily.
“Sorry about that. Dropping the comwand I mean.”
“It wasn’t your fault. It could have happened to anyone,” Elvis felt he was being generous but listened as Ralph continued. “I am not sure how we are going to achieve what we set out to do without being able to know what’s going on with the others.”
Elvis chuckled knowingly.
“We will follow the divine instinct. That will lead us to where we need to be.”
Uncertain of what the ‘divine instinct’ was or how it would lead them, Ralph simply nodded.
“I guess we are about half way across. Once we arrive I will see if I can find a phone. Maybe we can contact Verity that way.”
Linkthorpe looked back to where he thought
Albion was and pointed.
“I wonder what Verity and Arthur are doing at this precise moment?”
Had Arthur been a more observant man or if Verity hadn’t been otherwise engaged buying tickets to board the Isle-of-Wight ferry, they may have seen a dark-haired woman driving a blue car going in the opposite direction to them. The woman, heavily disguised, had been Flora Gusset. Arthur had seen the car and the woman but hadn’t twigged who the driver was. He turned to greet Verity as she walked up to him.
“Get the tickets?”
“Of course. The ferry leaves in twenty minutes. We had better join the queue and get on board,” she stopped mid flow then announced. “You look ridiculous in that crash helmet.”
Unfazed by the ex-headmistress of
sharp comments Arthur asked the one question that was gnawing at him. Fekenham Senior School
“Have you tried contactin’ either Ralph or the vicar again?”
“I have but I am still getting no response.”
“That’s a bit of a bugger. The right hand don’t know what the left is doin’.”
“We must stick to the plan we all agreed to.”
“Ralph and Arthur pursue the circus. We chase the robbers.”
“But the circus didn’t have Sally or Billy hidden did they? It’s all a bit of wild goose chase.”
“For Ralph and Elvis maybe but not for us.”
“You really think that Sally and Billy are with the gang who robbed the bank?”
“I think it is one possibility, one worth investigating."
Arthur reluctantly agreed. He was in the habit of pinching his nose when thinking. He did this now. It was not a fetching look.
“If we catch these villains then what, I mean there is just the two of us?”
Verity rubbed her hands together. She did this whenever she was exasperated and Arthur had that effect on her. She knew he didn’t mean to but his very presence could, at times, irritate her.
“Arthur,” she said, trying not to sound too patronising, “should we locate these villains as you called them and, supposing they have Sally and Billy with them, we will not engage them. What we will do is call the police using my comwand. We will monitor the gang until the officers of the law arrive to deal with them as they see fit. If there is the slightest hint of danger we will remove ourselves to a safe distance but still maintain our vigilance.”
Arthur pulled his mouth down at the corners giving him a hangdog expression. This was not a particularly fetching look either but Verity managed, with a degree of self-control not to say anything. Arthur though was feeling slighted.
“When I said there was just the two of us it was you I was thinking of. I used to box. I can handle meself. I didn’t want t’ put you in any sort of jeopardy.”
Verity knew she had misjudged the publican. It was not a habit she wanted to start but she thought it best to apologise. Then she thought better of it.
“That was very noble of you Arthur but I too can, handle myself.”
Arthur laughed heartily.
“I think we all know that Verity but even you, unless you know martial arts, would be best advised not to take on four fellas.”
Verity smiled that smile that guaranteed men’s sinews to stiffen, and if not their sinews then parts unmentionable in polite society.
“It wouldn’t be the first time I have taken on four men Arthur. Now then, we had best get on to the ferry. We don’t want to miss it sailing do we?”
The mention of Verity taking on four men made Arthur’s jaw go slack and his imagination run wild. He watched once again as Verity threw her leg over the motorbike revealing even more thigh than before. Arthur wondered, not for the first time, what Ralph had over him then he visualised Lupini armed with a pair of garden shears. It was a sobering thought. He climbed up behind Verity as she turned the ignition. The bike roared into life as Verity eased it into the queue waiting to board the ferry.
“I wonder what’s going on in the village?” Arthur remarked
Ernie had stayed close to Tommy Tickleshaft and Urpington Crust supporting the injured man until Crust announced the coast was clear. Together, he, and the long absent Lord, walked the wounded Tickleshaft back to Trimpton House. Brigadier Largepiece had been expecting them. The elderly ex-military man greeted then holding an antique blunderbuss.
“Ah!” he said casting an eye left and right “It’s you chaps. Jolly good show. Sorry about old Bowel Buster but I thought you might have been that other lot come back again”
Urpington Crust grunted a response as he staggered a little under his comrade’s weight.
“Do you think we might come in old chap? Tommy weighs more than I like to carry and it’s bloody chilly out here.”
“Of course, come in, come in.” The Brigadier waved his arms about in a rather vague way then spotted Ernie. “I say Stallworthy, I didn’t see you there. Embroiled in this business too are you?”
Ernie shifted his feet still supporting Tommy Tickleshaft. “Yeah, I am. I saw these two lurking about then copped an eyeful of the ugly sisters looking for them. Putting two and two together I figured my help might be needed.”
The Brigadier nodded. “Always good to have someone sound on your side. If you take the wounded through to the sitting room I’ll rustle up some food and drink. Do you think we need to post a sentry?”
Tickleshaft limped, still supported by Crust and Stallworthy, toward where the Brigadier indicated. Crust called back over his shoulder.
“We should be fine for now. Just make sure all your doors are firmly looked. We don’t want those bastards sneaking in on us.”
The Brigadier hurriedly bolted the front door then went to each and every other entrance that Trimpton House had and did the same. When he returned, Urpington Crust was standing over the injured Tickleshaft. Ernie was leaning against the French windows peeking out from behind the curtains.
“The only thing out there I can see are my dogs, Codpiece and Scrubbs, but no signs of the two men.”
“Your dogs are welcome to come in here.” suggested the Brigadier.
“Nah, you’re alright, they’ll be fine out there. They’ll bark if and when those geezers return, giving us a bit of a warning.”
“Brigadier may we have some hot water and clean bandages if you have any?” asked Crust looking at Tickleshaft’s leg wound. “I think the bullet went clean through but a clean-up and change of dressing wouldn’t come amiss.”
“Always keep my first aid kit up to date. I’ll go and fetch some for. Ernest, you know where the kitchen is don’t you? Would mind fetching a bowl of hot water?”
An hour or so later, having cleaned and re-dressed Tickleshaft’s wound, the three men had helped him to bed in one of Largepiece’s spare rooms. The three men had then retired to the sitting room where the Brigadier had poured three stiff whiskies for them. Indicating with a wave of his tumbler for the two to sit, he turned toward Urpington Crust.
“Spot of bother you two chaps are in, what?”
Crust raised his eyebrows rakishly as he stroked his blonde, cavaliers’ beard.
“One of many Tommy and I have had in the last thirteen years.”
“You said you were going to explain once we got into the Brigadier’s gaff, off you go then,” said Ernie, taking a long slug at his drink.
The handsome Lord, with his long blonde hair and neatly trimmed beard, revealed a perfect set of teeth as he grinned at his two friends.
“I did say that didn’t I? Okay then I shall.”
He too took a sip at his whisky, licked his lips then, holding the glass in the palm of his hand, swirled the contents around.
“When I left Crust Manor all those years ago it was to pursue a life of adventure. I suppose I had a bit of a romantic notion about it which may have been due to my upbringing. You see, heirs to a long-standing line of Lords are trained in the social graces but not in the ways of counter espionage. I was recruited by Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service, the S.I.S for short, who were looking for men of a certain calibre. As I said, I had a rather soft upbringing compared to many but they obviously saw something about me they liked. I first met Sergeant Tommy. I. Tickleshaft on an airfield. He was a former member of the Airfoce’s Special Armed Service and had served on many occasions in covert operations mostly in China. The S.I.S normally takes the elite of their armed forces men and Tommy had been highly recommended. He has a chest full of medals you know? He even has a Victoria Cross which is seldom given to men who live to tell the tale. Anyway, it was Tommy who took me under his wing, trained me and taught me all I needed to know to cover out my duties.”
Crust paused as he took another sip of whisky. Then he stroked his beard absentmindedly.
“Come on mate, don’t start a story then stop half way. Let’s be having the rest of it,” prompted Ernie.
Again the third Urpington Crust grinned his winning, toothy smile.
“What the S.I.S wanted were two men who could convincingly act undercover. You see they had a huge problem, of which the government knew of but could do nothing about. The East India Trading Company had existed for years but had grown virtually as powerful as the nation they were meant to serve. It was well known that Wynkyn de Worde
III was little more than a corporate dictator, a
man who abused his position and used the power he had for his, and the huge
conglomerate he runs, own purposes.
“The S.I.S had uncovered a series of deals that been authorised by de Worde that involved selling highly sensitive information, along with weapons, to the Commonwealth’s greatest enemy, Imperial China. The Albion government were powerless to do anything as they too were dependent on East India Trading and feared cataclysmic repercussions if they made a song and dance about it without having full and convincing proofs. Tommy and I had to infiltrate the world’s oldest and largest trading company to find whatever we could that would put a spanner in their works.”
Crust took another swig from his drink then put the empty glass down.
“It has taken us years to find irrevocable and indisputable facts but finally we have; the men who shot Tommy and who are currently out there seeking to kill us both work for the East India Corporation. They are part of a secret elite known as The Brethren, a division of the Special Executive.”
Ernie gasped at the mention of the name of The Brethren.
“But I thought that bunch of losers were nothing more than a gang of racists led by Rupert Snatch-Kiss!” exclaimed Ernie.
“A subterfuge created by Regus Nasaltwist.”
“The Tory Chief Whip?” roared a flabbergasted Largepiece.
“The very same; let me explain. When Snatch-Kiss made it known he wanted to run for office it was to Nasaltwist he spoke. Of course he had no idea that he was speaking to one of the most corrupt men within the Tory party. Regus Nasaltwist is employed by Wynkyn de Worde who wants, when the time is right, to make himself leader of the Tory party. Regus belongs to The East India Trading Company heart and soul.”
“Snatch-Kiss was told it would enhance his career if he were to head the Fekenham branch of the bogus Brethren the whole concept of which was entirely of Nasaltwist’s making. It was the Tory Chief whip who had relations with Hazel Thorny. It was he, Nasaltwist that is, out of some twisted desire to hurt this community, who started the fake racist flag-wavers in the first place.”
The Brigadier looked utterly perplexed.
“Buy why? What has this village ever done to him?”
“Not the village itself but one of the villagers in particular,” answered Lord Crust.
Both the jaws and eyes of Humphrey Largepiece and Ernie Stallworthy opened wide.
“Who?” They echoed in curious harmony.
. Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.