It wasn’t until the flame jumped out from my lighter that I realised how dark it had become. The last throes of winter were manifesting in perpetual cold, miserable and overcast clouds and early nights. The steady tick of the grandfather clock as rhythmic to me as the music that had long since stopped, the fire slumbering in ember serving no purpose to me.
I sat at my desk rereading the message I’d sent a few hours ago to a recent acquaintance I’d made during my Copenhagen Venture. It was a rather important message and I was frankly irritated at the lack of response. I’d been in a spot of trouble in Copenhagen - not being quite as connected as I once was.
I hadn’t really spoken much about why our ranks deflated so - I suppose it’s because I don’t have the answer. Some had other commitments. Some had stronger views on self preservation. Some died. Some betrayed us. While we still had allies and friends to call upon, to them the Order was second priority. Though as I tell myself in the darkest of times - we are not the only ones fighting the Foe. Our allies are embroiled in conflicts with the Foe’s forces every day - forces that continue to grow at an alarming pace. My mind drifted back to the last meeting we had, just over a year ago, with Lucinda, Bebelia, Jimothy, Mexican Gregory, Benson, Serj, Chrome on video call, Parrbossa... hell, even Daphne had sobered up enough to turn up!
I sat at the head of the table, Fitz on my left, Greg on my right. They all knew what I was going to say, yet listened with grave concern regardless.
‘The Foe... is not dead. He is not alone. But he is reeling. We stopped his attack on London, though not without sacrifice.’
Greg huffed. ‘Some of us more than others, I’d say.’
Fitz gave him a disapproving look. ‘Alright old chap, you might have died but at least you’re still here. I lost my Pfeifer you know.’
We all bowed our heads briefly in sorrowful memory as Fitz stifled a sob.
‘Aaaaanyway,’ I continued, ‘It is because of our enemy’s rapid expansion that I propose this: an international Order. It was always Monty’s dream to see our ranks swell with bodies from across our brave new world and now we’re a few weeks away from its realisation!’
Gregory raised his hand, his face etched with concern. ‘This all sounds very expensive. Can we afford it?’
The room erupted with laughter. Fitz clapped Greg on the back, tears in his eyes as Greg looked proud that he’d made a funny. I controlled my own laughter and tried to retain my audience’s focus.
‘Very funny, Greg. Oh, that reminds me! I’d like to congratulate everyone on keeping to our booze budget. In fact, we’re UNDER the budget!’
Everyone clapped, clearly pleased with themselves.
‘That’s right, our budget of course was £4,000,000 - we’ve only spent £3,999,991!’
Parrbossa cleared his throat. ‘Actually, I may have purchased some rum this morning for about £12...’
‘Ah... well, it’s no matter! We’ve still only spent a tenth of what it was last year!’
‘Good on us!’
‘Let’s celebrate... making a plan to celebrate with booze!’
I banged my fist on the table to regain their ears.
‘Back to the international initiative. I’m sure we could fund it fairly easily, but why waste our money on something we can’t consume, when someone else is delighted to do so for us? Ladies and gentlemen, I have managed to gain us a sponsor. One Mr Daniel D Danson, the diamond baron. He apologises for not being available to make our acquaintance today, but he gives you all a diamond ring as a token of his friendship... he also left some diamond toilet paper, which I can assure you is really diamond and really uncomfortable, so I took the liberty of not distributing it. It can sit on the Anomaly Shelf, next to Fitz’s Ten Pints Of Blood Which May Or May Not Belong To Him.’
A box was passed round and everyone retrieved and slipped on their diamond rings.
Daphne was inspecting hers with a jeweller’s magnifying eyepiece. ‘Not bad, I could definitely sell it for about £200 at the very least...’
Benson was staring at her, confused. ‘Don’t you own Waitrose?’
Daphne sighed. ‘Used to, didn’t I? But then I only went and sold it for a bag of weed!’
Jimothy nodded. ‘I know what you mean, I had rentboys to pay off so I had to borrow some money from Woolworths... sank it.’ He looked up and realised the others were looking at him with slight revulsion and in one (constant) case, confusion (Benson). ‘Er, how are these other branches going to be set up, Tarq?’
‘We will each set up a branch in a location predetermined by myself and the chaps at HMSSS. So, without further ado, your placements!’
‘Fitz - Melbourne, Australia.’
My old friend grinned. ‘I’m sure I have a few contacts there, a bit of family even.’
‘I’m sure you do, you brute! Greg - Mombasa, Kenya.’
‘The front line, eh? I’m up for it!’
‘Parrbossa - HMS Swordfish, Lightly Peppered And Served With A Herb Sauce, our state of the art cruiser bestowed upon us by the Royals themselves and serving as a mobile base to be situated in, the Caribbean.’
‘There’s not being another choice fer me!’
‘Mexican Gregory - now, it’s a bit of a no brainer with you, right?’
‘Wrong, you’ll be on the Swordfish with Parrbossa, though mostly you’ll be a land operative around the Caribbean and South America.’
Mexican Gregory sighed. ‘Fine...’
‘Benson - H-’
‘HOLYHEAD! The one in the atlas, next to London!’
‘No... what? It’s not next to... Oh, nevermind. Benson - Hong Kong.’
‘Ah, the area previously loaned to Britain until 1997 at which point ownership was returned to the People’s Republic of China with a population of 7.06 million?’
Fitz pursed his lips. ‘Are you, somewhat, schizophrenic?’
‘Not at all. In fact, I enjoy enclosed spaces.’
I jumped in before it became yet another taxing and intensely confusing conversation. ‘Lucinda - Mumbai, India. Daphne - Cali, Colombia. Jimothy and Bebelia, Moscow, Russia.’
Bebelia looked slightly worried. ‘That’s the warm one with the swimming pools, right?’
We all looked at each other.
‘Finally, possibly the most vitally important part of this international operation - a safe, secure lozcation that will be almost impossible to find and practically invincible by means of political protection. Our Emergency Rendezvous and Research Centre, staffed by Serj and Chrome - McMurdo Sound, Antarctica.’
Serj raised his eyebrows. ‘I signed up to kick the shit out of some evil bastard hellbent on destroying all we hold dear, not to sit in some boring fucking igloo in the middle of an icy wasteland and babysit our tech support!’
‘Hey!’ Chrome called from across the table.
I shook my head. ‘It’s not an igloo in an icy wasteland.’
‘Weeeeeell it looks like one!’
‘Yeah!’ Fitz growled.
‘It’s a research centre!’
‘It’s a shithole!’
‘Your job is to test extremely dangerous and destructive technology!’
I nodded. ‘Well it makes sense, you’re an expert with just about anything that kills, you love making noise and you’ll get to sit in a high tech underground bunker with a built in simulation system that’ll allow you to hone your combat skills for when they’re needed.’
He looked quite taken aback, yet pleased. ‘I could do that.’
Chrome cleared his throat. ‘There’s a reason I don’t already live in Antarctica. Well, two reasons - one, they usually rely on shitey generators that can power one or two computers from the 90s. Two, it is literally a slab of ice piled high with things that could not only kill me within a few seconds, but would enjoy spicing up their day by doing so. Can’t I stay here?’
‘Here is where the Foe will hit first. If not simply out of spite, then in the hope that some of us will remain here. No, HMSSS is in charge of keeping the Foe away from the British populace now. We must leave. Also, in response to your scathing opinion on the technology that will be available to you, we have a blank cheque that we will use via your direction. Anything you need, or really anything that takes your fancy at all even slightly, is yours.’
‘You had me at blank cheque. When do we leave?’
‘As soon as possible. You will all have a HMSSS liason waiting for you at your respective embassies and the HQs are almost fully complete. I’m afraid that this will strike most of you as an underwhelming farewell, but time is of the essence and I would very much like to introduce you all to the man who will be occupying this HQ for us while we’re gone. I’m told he’s the most efficient agent Mychris and HMSSS have.’
I turned my head to the door. ‘Make your entrance!’
The door opened and a sharply dressed man with avant garde brown hair and steely eyes walked in. He nodded in greeting to us all, before smiling.
‘Good day to you all. The name’s Bourbon... James Bourbon.’
I grabbed my old fedora as we entered the foyer. My American friends were all ready to go, uncomfortable that it had taken so long to retrieve me. I placed my hand on the front door handle but suddenly a grating robotic voice tore through the gloom.
‘HALT. IDENTIFY YOURSELF.’
‘Foebot!’ Ned spun round and aimed his gun at the robot that was now clanking its way towards us.
I forced his arm down before he could fire. ‘That’s not a Foebot, it’s a Montybot!’
He stared at me like I was mad (madder than I am). ‘A Montybot?’
‘Yes, custom security for the house. Monty was my mentor, but he was killed a while back by the Foe. His intention was that we would transfer his brain to this robot until he was able to be cloned. Unfortunately, we never retrieved his body, therefore this robot became defunct. I tinkered with it before we left for the overseas branches as a security drone for the house. I’ll sort this out.’
I stepped forward and the Montybot’s dimly glowing eyes stared at me.
I nodded in greeting at it. ‘Ahem, Sir Tarquin Lamb Pasanda. Order Code 002.’
It lowered its arm and Ned sighed noisily with relief. I stepped forward to inspect it. ‘Not bad, the armour we installed seems to have prevented much rusting to your primar-ECK!’
The Montybot had grasped me round the neck and was now lifting me up, its eyes flared bright, blood red.
‘002 HAS BEEN CLASSED AS TOP PRIORITY ENEMY OF THE ORDER - YOU MUST BE DETAINED.’
‘What...are...you...talking...about?’ I gasped, fighting for breath. I was going to have to shut him down!
I tried to loosen his grasp on my neck. Behind me I could hear Ned, Ted and Redd shouting at the bot. I had no choice but to deactivate it.
‘I’m sorry, Montybot! Activate Failsafe 014687D!’ The code that would gut the bot’s internal systems.
Suddenly the bot released me. It stood there, swaying slightly. I turned, triumphant to my companions. ‘There we are. I told you I’d sort it out, one way or another.’
‘FAILSAFE 014687D HAS BEEN AUTOMATICALLY OVERIDDEN. NEW ORDER - 002 MUST BE DESTROYED.’
It swung at me with its huge hydraulic arm as I dived to the floor. I combat rolled out of reach and drew my pistol as Montybot advanced towards Ned and his men. They opened fire, rounds pumping into the head and chest, but all it did was slow the bot. I yelled at Ned to get to their car.
He shook his head. ‘I was told to extract you from here, you gotta come with us!’ He ducked as Montybot threw another deadly haymaker. I shook my head violently.
‘I have my own ride, try and distract it so I can reach the garage!’
Ned nodded. ‘Gotcha, HEY! ROBOPOMMY!’ He fired a few more rounds at the bot, which turned and began swiping wildly at the rapidly retreating firer. With my adversary distracted I spun and hurtled down a corridor in the direction of the descending stairs labelled GARAGE. I went three steps at a time, but as my foot hit the ground, I heard the bot crashing after me. I flung the door open and slammed it shut, looking for what I needed.
The garage smelt of mildew and hadn't been used during HMSSS's stint in the house. I rapidly scanned my dank surroundings for a vehicle and spotted a modified Mercedes with armour and bulletproof glass and a top speed of 700mph!
SHIT! We'd broken it last time we were out on the town with Her Majesty - Fitz had hit someone over the head with the steering wheel. Suddenly, I was all too aware of my assailant's terrifying proximity - he had almost smashed through the reinforced door. I pulled out my pistol. This would be my last stand.
But wait! Behind the Mercedes - a Triumph motorcycle, leant against a pillar. I didn't recognise it but it looked old. Oh well, I had no time to dilly dally. Allons y!
I climbed on and kickstarted the bike. Thankfully it roared to life just as the fiendish bot finally shattered the doorway. It fixed me with a lifeless stare.
'HALT 002. YOU MUST BE DESTROYED.'
I laughed at it. 'I'll tell you the same thing I told Joanna Lumley. No matter how many times you try, you won't kill me. Next time, I'LL be waiting for YOU.'
With that, I revved the bike and headed for the... LOCKED GARAGE DOORS!
'Shit, shitty shitting shit!' I yelled. How foolish of me! The door release was behind the advancing Montybot. Out of reach.
I opened the garage door to find Fitz fiddling with his brand new Mercedes. I whistled in admiration. 'She's quite a beauty!'
He nodded. 'Indeed she is, old chap. Bought her on the market for about 20% cheaper than usual. Had some poor bugger die in her apparently.'
'What, did he make a bloody mess?'
'No, heart failure. Just superstition.'
'Well, what have you managed to do so far?'
'Very little. I've only just started on her - I was applying the finishing touches to the emergency garage door opener.'
I gave him a puzzled look as he continued. 'Say that for whatever reason we are in a rush to leave and we simply haven't the option or the time to activate the mechanism. This is admittedly very much a once off trick, but I've installed a codeword operated emergency opener. It's really rather simple - you say Barbara Windsor thrice.'
I was intrigued. 'Barbara Windsor? Thrice?'
'WAIT!' I yelled. That would be three times, wouldn't it?'
'I don't think that applies, it has to be in quick succession and uttered by the same person thrice.'
'What happens when you say said name thrice?'
'I've no idea. I was absolutely stonemasoned when I designed it.'
'Ah. Nothing too dangerous I hope?'
'It's probably just a circuit override.'
I was rapidly approaching the garage door - it was now or never!
'Barbara Windsor, Barbara Windsor, Barbara Windsor!'
Nothing! I was hurtling towards a locked garage door with no-
The entire garage door was blown apart by a huge explosion - Fitz's override was a little more low tech than I'd expected. No matter, it wasn't like I was coming back any time soon.
I revved the motorbike and hared through the twisted metal wreck of the garage door, the Montybot hot on my heels. Ned and the others were already safely beyond the grounds, parked up and waiting for me. I waved frantically at them to get moving - we had no time to waste.
Luckily, Redd saw me and they scrambled into their SUV just before I tore past them. A quick glance in the motorbike's side mirror told me the Montybot was pounding tirelessly after me at an alarming pace. As I whizzed past a crossroads, I saw a sign telling me we were 2 miles from London. The trees that had lined the road parted and London in all its grandeur was revealed to me - I was heading straight for West Ruislip Underground station! I was so focused on the station I didn't notice the red lights, or the car pulling out in front of me. We collided in an underwhelming crunch that sent me over the bonnet and into the station car park.
'Jesus H. Christ! That bloody hurt...' I groaned. In the corner of my eye, beside spots I saw the Montybot stalking towards me, a huge pileup behind him. I realised that I was once again on my own, at least for now. Suddenly I found the strength to get up and stagger into the station itself. People looked on in disbelief when they saw my bloody, ragged figure - then terror when they saw the Montybot.
The station platform itself was thankfully sparse with people - most had the sense to run away. I turned to see my adversary standing in front of the exit. I looked around for something to help level the playing field. In my desperation I almost overlooked a rusted girder the size of a javelin propped against a pillar. I grabbed it and twirled it around, getting the measure of how to swing it fully. At this point, the Montybot surged forward and brought its deadly arms down in a strike with enough power to kill me instantly.
However, the platform echoed with the piercing sound of metal on metal as I blocked the attack. Again, the Montybot struck at my right, at my left, hammering me with blows. Thankfully it took the lightest of movements to block these - perhaps this wasn't such a one sided battle after all. Suddenly midstrike the cunning bot thrust its robotic talons at the centre of the girder, gripped it firmly and kicked me in the chest with enough force to send me across the platform and nearly onto the tracks. I lay there, stunned. My head was buzzing as if the ground I lay upon was shaking.
Then I realised it was shaking.
The Montybot stood over me, emotionless, as it raised the girder over my heart. I suddenly shuffled back so that my chest was over the edge of the platform and to my relief the Montybot adjusted - the girder was poised above my heart once more. As the Montybot prepared to strike, I raised my hands in surrender. It paused.
'Montybot! Wait! Why must you kill me? Why did that change?'
Its eyes flared at the engage. 'ORDERS WERE RECEIEVED THAT OVERRODE PREVIOUS PROTOCOL.'
'Where did those orders come from?'
'A CLOSED FREQUENCY CHANNEL WITH A DIRECT BROADCAST TO THIS UNIT.'
'But where does this frequency originate?!'
'ENOUGH. THIS HAS BEEN INDENTIFIED AS "TIMEWASTING". GOODBYE, 002.'
'Montybot, one last question!'
The ground was rumbling manicly now, a din so unmistakeable and so welcome.
'How good are you with tracks?'
'I AM CAPABLE OF TRACKING A TARGET VIA A MULTITUDE OF BOTH MODERN AND TRADITIONAL TECHNIQUES. IF REQUIRED, I CAN TRACK A TARGET ACROSS AN ENTIRE CON-'
'Actually Montybot, I meant TRAIN TRACKS!'
With that, I hooked my feet around the Montybot's ankles and tugged as hard as I could on the girder. The result was just as I'd hoped - the Montybot fell forwards as I slid beneath its legs to safety. It was briefly in view before the 10:44 Direct to Aylesbury train thundered over it.
I waited until the train had passed, satisfied that the mechanical menace wasn't clinging to the side of the platform before staggering to a wooden bench with peeling paint and sitting down. I wearily exhaled and allowed my body to calm down.
Ned came running onto the platform, saw me and sprinted over. 'What the hell happened? We just had to escape a twelve car pileup caused by you and that robo bull.' He noticed my weary expression and his voice softened slightly. 'You look like you've been ten rounds with a heavyweight, my friend. Where is our mutual mechanic friend?'
'It can't be that long a story!'
'No no, sit down - we've about twenty minutes.'
'Until the next centralbound tube train comes along. Unless you wanted to go in the SUV?'
'Buddy, that thing isn't an SUV anymore. It ain't even a car. It looks like a metal bird that got speared by bagpipes.'
'I expected as much. Looks like we're taking the Tube, then.'
'Christ. Is there anything more dangerous that taking the Tube in London?'
'Yes.' I felt around in my coat pocket for my small and now heavily dented hipflask.
'Flying in America.'