Part Thirty: An Epilogue...

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Part Thirty: An Epilogue…

The rest, as the Bard knocked out when the bill for the roof needed paying, is silence. Or not really. The rest was actually a tad noisy.

The YMCE jeep was a hardy one, a tad crunchy on the corners but otherwise game and true as a Derby colt. I roared away from the Highlands.

There were cans of petrol in the back, of course, and food, blankets, torches and a gun. Bivouacking in fields, travelling at dusk, I drove.

As I drove, without comfort other than the hum of the wind and the regular splat of insects in my teeth, I was given occasion to think.

I thought through the extraordinary events of what was, on count-back, only the last few days. I had adventured, all right. I had lived!

Others had not. Poor Sam Phraxby, drained of blood by a demonic Flea in a cistern deep below one of London’s more insalubrious boroughs.

At least he was the only good guy to have bought it, Simon the Kapo and the YMCE, Holman-Hunt and Galanthus having paid the dearest price.

I supposed I should count the Archbishop of Canterbury in that too - he had, after all, rather saved the day and foiled the plot. Fair dos.

Galanthus. Vespa. Maxine. Whatever her name was. I thought, as I camped out on moor and scree, of her deception. Of her lies! Her treachery!

Of her kiss… I don’t suppose it surprising that, as I flew south, I thought often of that kiss, on the ledge over the boiling pit of lava.

It had seemed I had won her back. Galanthus! Max Galanthus! A woman who directed governments, started wars, poisoned worlds! Won by a kiss!

I’ll allow that I allowed myself a conceited chuckle, only to be brought and caught short by the subsequent remembrance of her fiery demise.

I remembered her reaching for the book, the Taxus Brevifola, the Lambeth Treasure itself! I saw her fall, her scream! Her hideous death!

Couldn’t be helped, I supposed, and she or I couldn’t say she hadn’t had it coming, what? No. The world was safer without Maxine Galanthus.

And without the Taxus Brevifola and the Reverend Francis Gibbous Moon. But here too, approaching Leeds, if I recall, I had cause to pause.

I had not seen the Taxus Brevifola destroyed. I had seen it float away on a diminishing scrap of rock, adrift on a sea of magma and death.

But I had not seen it destroyed. Nor, of course, had I confirmed the fate of the dastard Moon, who had skedaddled at doom’s first crack.

Naturally the blackguard had run! I had not seen him, though, in the course of my subsequent escape. He could, I knew, have escaped too.

I hoped he had been squashed by a chunk of volcanic rock. It would have fitted, given his usual air of having scuttled from beneath a stone.

But I had no proof of his death, not even having seen a convenient dog collar afloat on a pool of spitting lava. That would have been nice.

I chased Moon from my mind. Frankly, if he had escaped, so much the better for future adventures. We might well, would well, meet again.

About the possible survival of the Taxus Brevifola, possibly, madly, in the possession of said Moon, I thought even less. It didn’t bare it.

And it was unlikely. That was enough, and as I drove south and the landscape softened, an odd lull, a sense of completeness, came upon me.

Such feelings descend at the end of adventures, be they kayaking the ice floes with Taktuk desperadoes or popping to the shops for lunch.

By the time I reached Lambeth, at night on the seventh day, and parked the jeep under a railway arch, I felt at one with all and sundry.

I crept into Blake’s house – by smashing a window, granted – and retrieved Sam Phraxby’s corpse from behind the chaise longue in the study.

Drained of vitals, he was light as a feather. I couldn’t, I realised, give the poor fellow a decent (I hesitated to say ‘Christian’) burial.

I stashed him in the Labyrinth. Popped down, alert for Flea, Gout Devil or Night Mare, and took him where Moon first manifested himself.

I laid Sam on the table in the middle of the room. Closed his eyes (which had been staring hideously, rather) and retreated to the door.

‘Goodbye, Phraxby old chum,’ I said, taking a look at what would be his eternal tomb. There was an awkward silence. ‘Cheero, then,’ I said.

I left him. Climbing back to the silence of Blake’s study, I pondered my next move. To the river, obviously. Find some passing traffic.

East! That way lay further adventure! And Tilbury. And there lay fine ships, bound to need a stout hand for impending voyages! Abroad!

But I holed up at Sam’s place first, sorting my canvas bag, bathing, shaving and stocking up on Clipstone Ceylon Tea and hard-tack biscuits.

I also sat down at poor Sam’s desk and, among the fossil paperweights and textbooks, wrote and wrote and wrote. Steadily, a manuscript grew.

The resultant khaki packet I trussed up with string and sent to the Hack Pengelly, care of whichever quack pamphleteer now employed him.

Before dawn, I left Hercules Road, noticing happily a council notice proclaiming the demolition of the terrace in which Blake’s house stood.

The Lambeth Labyrinth would be sealed at its secular end. At the ecclesiastical one, Moon’s robot Archbishop would, hopefully, stand guard.

I chased all loose ends from my mind. East! At the river I found a happily unguarded rowboat. Hopping in, I applied oaken oar to rollock.

Lusty strokes had me out in midstream, under the gaze of Lambeth Palace. ‘Cheero!’ I shouted, and set forth. Hard east, into the rising sun!

Part Twenty-Nine: A Shattering Climax!

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Part Twenty-Nine: A Shattering Climax!

At the lip of what was a precipitous crevasse above seething, boiling death, I paused, holding tightly to Galanthus and the Taxus Brevifola.

The crater of Tavis Knoyle seethed with abominable, apocalyptic suffering. YMCE soldiers teetered, flailed and fell to their fiery doom.

Rock fell from the walls in jagged chunks, like enormous prehistoric flint axe heads. Tanks and guns were cleaved by the monstrous shards!

Armour plating buckled and groaned; vulcanised rubber tyres blistered, hissed, bubbled and blew out in the rising heat of Tavis Knoyle.

Flesh stood no chance: YMCE maidens fell in bloody swathes, like sheaves of corn. I ducked, pulling Galanthus to me, as rock fell above us.

We were unscathed, but we would not be so for too long. I could see to the other side of the crater – the staircase by which we had entered!

The rope rail hung limp and split, useless. But at the staircase’s top a doorway was still intact, and through it glimmered… Yes! Light!

An escape route lay open! The YMCE seemed not to have considered taking it – they were, as it were, going down with their ship. Stout lads.

But misguided, like the idiot boy who stood on the burning deck or the violinists who accompanied the Titanic to the inkiest dark depths...

Casting an eye, I espied a route down to the crater floor and, upon that floor, a reasonably intact path through burning tanks and corpses.

‘Come on!’ I shouted, rather relishing the prospect of a dash to death, most likely, or glory, possibly. I hadn’t had one in nigh-on an age.

‘Wait!’ shrieked Galanthus, struggling to arrest my already fatal momentum. ‘Wait!’ I stopped, puzzled. ‘What’s this now, woman?’ I asked.

‘Wait, Leinigen,’ said Galanthus, panting, a wild look in her eyes. ‘Moon! Where is he?’ I said I couldn’t care less, but she protested.

‘I want his hide!’ Galanthus snarled. I allowed she had a point. I rather wanted it too. ‘He has deserted me!’ she cried. ‘He has run away!’

He had. I scanned the seething, dying crater before us but of the Reverend Francis Gibbous Moon there was no sign. He’d just have to wait.

Assuming the collapse of Tavis Knoyle (and with it his plans for theocratic domination and so on, which was a boon) didn’t do for him first.

I shouted at Galanthus, tried to tell her she was wasting precious time, but she raved, quite mad with anger, jealousy and betrayed rage!

Women will do this, in times of stress. I considered slapping her across the chops, to shock some sense into her. But I couldn’t do that.

One does not raise one’s hand to a lady. A gentleman does not. More so, a chap does not, and if I am anything I am a chap. A jolly good one.

And Galanthus, despite her megalomania, her sponsorship of terror, blight, plague and small-scale credit-card fraud, had some good in her.

Well, maybe not, but when she had been Vespa Cryptoides, inamorata and co-adventurer, she had been good. At things. Interesting things.

I had to get her out. To save her. In order to have her arrested and locked up in one of the more secure women’s wings, true. But still.

But still she raved and raged at the treacherous Moon. Still time ran out! Still the crater shook, rock fell and lava boiled! Screams grew!

So I deployed my last, most potent weapon. Holding Galanthus tighter, I pulled her to me, looked into her ice-blue eyes, and kissed her!

I kissed and I kissed and I kissed. After a moment’s shocked repose, Galanthus yielded. She kissed me. My moustache excited her. And me.

I tasted Vespa. I tasted Athens again – raki, pinenuts and so on. Revolution. The closest I have ever come to being in, falling in… love.

I pulled away. Galanthus, no longer the supervillain I’d known her for, was limp in my arms. I looked deep into her now limpid blue eyes.

‘Come on, old girl,’ I said. ‘Let’s save our own skins, eh? Moon’s ratty hide ain’t worth a pickled egg. Eh?’ She laughed. ‘OK,’ she said.

That was OK with me. I let go of Galanthus, that she might propel herself, and in a trice we were sprinting to the heaving crater floor!

As we hit level ground, what was left of it, the noise of Tavis Knoyle’s demise seemed to rise! A waterfall of lava burst through the wall!

‘Run for it!’ I shouted, and Galanthus, nimble and spry as a Swiss mountain goat, responded. We tore towards our staircase to salvation!

Around us, the last of the YMCE army went to its doom. Some women, chillingly, clasped babes to their breast and leapt to die in the lava!

I tried not to look. The staircase was close; two or three more bounds would do it! One! Two! Nearly there! I looked round for Galanthus!

She was hard behind me, but then fate struck me, as fate will, a lusty blow in the happy sacks! Not looking where I ran, I tripped and fell!

I landed safely on a little plateau of solid rock. Galanthus, following, landed on me. Unfortunately, in falling I lost my grip on the book.

The Taxus Brevifola! It tumbled from my grasp, a rebound flipping it up and over a freshly opened crack in the volcanic, erupting floor!

It was intact, but lost. I could not reach it, for at any moment the floor would give way further. Red lava seethed and spat in the crack!

Quick calculations suggested that this was no bad thing. The damned book would be destroyed! I had saved myself a job. And temptation.

The Lambeth Treasure had to be destroyed. With it and a quick masters at some technical institute, I would have been a very dangerous man.

I ran, leaving the infernal book to its fiery grave. I was up on the path to life, air and sanity when I saw Galanthus had not followed.

Insanely, jitterily, she was reaching for the book. One of her boots skittered on the edge of a heaving, unsteady stone. Still she reached!

‘Galanthus!’ I roared. She ignored me and reached further! Her fingertips brushed the vellum binding of the Taxus Brevifola! ‘Galanthus!’

At a crack and roar, the stone upon which Galanthus stood lurched and the crack between her and the Taxus Brevifola widened, a grinning maw!

She kept her balance, somehow. ‘Galanthus!’ I roared. I ran! She would not reach the book! She would fall to a hideous, boiling death!

I grabbed her arm. ‘Stop this madness!’ I cried. ‘You’ll never reach it!’ ‘I can… reach… it…!’ She stretched. ‘No!’ I roared. ‘Yes! I can!’

Galanthus had the edge of the Taxus Brevifola’s frontispiece between ring finger and pinkie. I had her by her arm. Then the floor gave way.

‘Leinigen!’ The shriek was piercing, shrill and, perhaps fortunately, brutally cut off. I staggered, gained my balance. Galanthus was gone.

Where she had fallen, lava belched and seethed. I fancied I saw a face, sinking in its boiling depths. In death, Galanthus became… Vespa.

In death. She was gone. Moon was gone. Probably. Simon and Holman-Hunt and the Archbishop of Canterbury were gone. The YMCE were all gone.

The Lambeth Treasure sat on its ledge, floating slowly away on a sea of boiling, melting, nastily magmatic soup. I waved to it, and ran.

I made the top of the staircase, two steps at a time, as a hideous roar, as of a thousand tidal waves, announced the death of Tavis Knoyle.

I ran upwards through tunnels which shook and fell about me. As I burst into daylight, dank, grim Highland air filled my grateful lungs.

The YMCE jeep stood where we had left it. I hotwired it and, in a screech of rubber and shattering rock, drove as fast as I could to safety!

Part Twenty-Eight: A Dread Crack of Doom!

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Part Twenty-Eight: A Dread Crack of Doom!

I do enjoy it when cliché breaks loose and generally sums up situations rather well. In this instance, for example, all hell broke loose.

Possibly literally, I suppose, although this wasn’t the time to arrive at metaphysical crossroads like that without map, chart or sextant.

All hell, as I said, broke loose. Tavis Knoyle, the hollowed-out Highland volcanic plug in which I and my foes stood, imploded. Essentially.

After the first doom-laden crack from the ceiling above, Judgement Day, prompted by the Archbishop’s use of the Taxus Brevifola, arrived.

And it arrived in pretty short order. After the crack, a slab of roof dislodged like a chunk of stale cake and fell lethally to the floor!

It fell on Holman-Hunt. If that was his name. Which it hadn’t been, and wouldn’t be, now. Not be a very long and rather squashed shot.

The rest of us – me, the Archbishop, Galanthus and Moon – gaped. I think I heard the roar of static as Holman-Hunt dissolved to nothing.

You know, like old Homicidal Cardinal Wolsey did, back in Lambeth Palace what seemed like so long ago. A creation uncreated, if you like.

The thought, opportunately, allowed me to recover from the shock of seeing Jesus squished by a chunk of basalt rather faster than the rest.

Naturally, the Archbishop of Canterbury was rather stunned by the sight. With that and the bullet wound in his breast, he seemed all in. 

Scooping the Taxus Brevifola in my arms, I bent down to where he sat, slumped, against the stone altar in the middle of the shaking chamber.

The old chap looked at me with fading eyes. ‘My dear fellow…’ he said. ‘My dear fellow…’ Even in my shaking hellhole, a tear came to my eye.

A manly one, obviously. ‘Natch’, as the saying goes. But still, a tear. I’m not a particularly godly fellow, but the Bish had been a brick.

‘My dear fellow,’ he said, coughing a gout of scarlet blood on to his rich purple cassock. ‘My dear fellow… I… rather think… I’m done for.’

Not cheering words, but I had to allow they were true. The Archbishop coughed, and fell a deathlier pale. I put a hand on his shoulder.

‘Glad I could help,’ he said, wits restored in the last moments of his earthly. ‘Thought I’d teach that blighter Moon. Dreadful little man.’

He coughed. Chunks of rock skittered from ceiling and wall. I knew I should be getting on. Fortunately, the Archbishop seemed to sense this.

To put it rather baldly, which often helps, the Archbishop snuffed it there and then, on the disintegrating stone floor. I laid him down.

And looked round. The chamber in the depths of Tavis Knoyle shook and groaned; thousands of terrible screams sounded from the main cavern!

Tavis Knoyle was collapsing. It being a volcanic plug, and the word ‘volcanic’ implying the proximity of lava, I wasn’t keen to hang about.

Nor, evidently, was the Reverend Francis Gibbous Moon. He had disappeared. Galanthus still stood, however, shaking and staring wildly.

Moon, the blackguard, had left a woman in such deadly peril – never mind me too. I swore, under my breath, that I would have his lousy hide!

That, however, would mean finding him, and finding him would mean escaping from Tavis Knoyle before I was entombed in its death throes!

I tucked the Taxus Brevifola under one arm and grabbed Galanthus with the other. She seemed to start from a trance. ‘Leinigen!’ she cried.

‘No time for protesting!’ I roared. ‘My girl, you’re coming with me!’ At that, I sprang for the door, lifting Galanthus in a desperate dive!

Around us, as if the apocalyptic storm brought forth by Project John Martin had regathered its fury, the chamber simply disintegrated.

Showers of rock crashed down, pumice dust mushrooming on impact into miniature atomic clouds. The Archbishop’s body disappeared from view.

Simon the YMCE kapo, or what was left of him after the Sten gun’s dirty work, disappeared. The rock under which lay Holman-Hunt disappeared.

Galanthus and I tumbled into the rock-corridor as the ceiling hammered down. The chamber with the altar existed no more. It was entombed.

There was, of course, no time for further reflection. Tightening my grip on Galanthus, from whom the fight seemed completely gone, I ran.

As I did so the tunnel floor seemed, disconcertingly, to peel upwards, slabs and shards of stone flicking up as if impelled by a giant hand!

Tiny explosions like bullet strikes pinged and paffed from the walls, sending nasty shards of granite whizzing about our retreating forms!

The mountain was dying, loudly, and we had not one second to spare! I knew if I ran, I could make it. Galanthus and the Book could be saved.

Saved for prompt arrest, incarceration and, in terms of the Taxus Brevifola at least, incineration. Moon too, if I could find the bounder.

But escape was all that mattered now, as I hurtled towards light, air and safety. I hoped Tavis Knoyle would contain this lethal force...

Presumably, Judgement Day had only been released upon and within this accursed boil, this seething anthill of diabolical, insectoid evil!

The allusion was apt. As I skidded to the edge of a precipitous staircase down to the volcano floor, an astonishing sight presented itself.

On the floor of Tavis Knoyle, the YMCE army – men, women, even the children too – was dying. It explained the screams I’d heard earlier.

As when malevolent little boys boil a kettle and pour its scalding contents on blameless ants or termites, so the YMCE perished. Hideously.

The floor of the crater had cracked. The walls had cracked. And, for some good geographical reason, falling rock was not the only hazard.

Lava bubbled and poured through the cavern! Hot lava! Hotter than the fires of hell! And it was rising! And the YMCE army could not escape!

Part Twenty-Seven: A Desperate Battle Rages!

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Part Twenty-Seven: A Desperate Battle Rages!

Simon the kapo fired first. That I could present as fact at any necessary inquest, tribunal or coroner’s hearing. Yes. I said ‘coroner’.

I dare say I could also prove I fired second; infinitesimally close to spontaneously, yes, given reflexes akin to cat or cobra. But second.

Of ballistical science, I have forgotten more than the average chap in a lab has learned, through extensive, explosive field experience.

Unfortunately, however, I have forgotten from which shooter a bullet or slug flies faster: the trusty Sten, or a government-issue revolver.

So as to whose shot hit first, well, I cannot tell, even at such a thankful remove from the all-round rather ghastly moment in question.

It is however safe to say that the YMCE kapo shot at me with my own gun, taken from me in Lambeth, and I shot at him with his chum’s Sten! 

I hit. He missed. Or rather, he missed me. Hit the Archbishop of Canterbury instead. Fetched him a nasty one in the breast. The Bish fell.

But, as I say, I hit. Somewhere round the Adam’s apple, which in Simon’s case was rather prominent. And I hit with a burst from a Sten.

Moon and Holman-Hunt (if that was his name…) caught their share of the mess. I shan’t illustrate further. It wasn’t too pretty, after all.

Simon the kapo was no more, evidently. The Archbishop of Canterbury was at best decidedly unwell. Moon and Holman-Hunt seemed in shock.

Galanthus, predictably enough, seemed unmoved. ‘My-my,’ she said, when the echo of the simultaneous salvoes had died harshly away to nought. 

‘This is now serious, Leinigen,’ she said. ‘Do not let it become seriouser still.’ Seriouser? Was that even a word? Damned Swiss liberties!

I bristled. The Archbishop moaned and slid to the floor. I stepped towards Galanthus, Moon and Holman-Hunt. This had to end. Pronto. Now.

I said so. I would arrest ’em. I wasn’t overly sure how to get them past the teeming nest of YMCE drones outside, but I’d figure it out.

Galanthus laughed. I glared. She laughed again. I asked her what the devil she meant by such behaviour. She smiled icily, and spoke. Icily.

‘Do not you see your position is hopeless?’ she asked. ‘Do not you see you cannot win? You have killed one YMCE soldier. I have thousands!’

I was willing to concede that, but brute resolution, not to mention moral outrage, had me in its grip. Lacking words, I flourished my gun.

‘Empty gestures!’ cried Galanthus. ‘Mere impotent rages!’ I glared more fiercely still. Seduction had failed her; so would base abuse.

She seemed to sense it, and softened. ‘Why do you not see? Why do you not accept? Why do you not – ‘ I knew it was coming – ‘join us?’

I drew breath to respond, but there was more. ‘Why do you not fight for a winning side?’ Galanthus smiled. ‘Why do you not fight for… God?’

With that she gestured at the gore-splattered Moon and Holman-Hunt (if that was his name…) The two of them stood there mute, still shocked.

They presented an unappetising picture. Not enough to tempt me off the straight, narrow, clean and true. Not by a long way. I shook my head.

‘Join you?’ I said. ‘Your evil crusade? Never!’ Galanthus tutted. ‘Always the Boy Scout,’ she said. ‘Always the sense of honour. Ah, well.’

The Archbishop, slumped by the altar behind me, grunted and seemed to slump to the floor. I had to save him. A plan began, slowly, to form.

Take Galanthus captive. Possibly – it had to be faced – after killing, or at least incapacitating, Moon and Holman-Hunt. Sans brackets.

The latter, if the Homicidal Portrait of Cardinal Wolsey had been a guide, would merely dissolve if I shot him. He wasn’t really real.

Moon? I could wing him. Leave him here to rot. Needs must. With the Archbish on my back and Galanthus at gunpoint, I might make it out.

Past the YMCE army. Past the guns and the tanks and a thousand dead-eyed, not to say deadly stares. Without Galanthus, they were nothing.

If I had Galanthus, I had a shield. The book too, the Taxus Brevifola. Galanthus could carry it. I assumed she needed Moon to operate it.

It wasn’t much of a plan, and it required the shooting of a man and a magically animated Pre-Raphaelite painting in reasonably cold blood.

I found a little residue resolution from somewhere within me, and tightened my finger on the trigger of the still smoking Sten. This was it. 

As it turned out, it was, indeed, it. But the it was something else. Something different. Something mad, dangerous, terrifying and glorious!  

Unnoticed, the Archbishop had not slumped to the floor – he had dragged himself up to his feet. He had leant, bloodily, on the stone altar.

Unnoticed, the Archbishop had opened the heavy leaves of the Taxus Brevifola, smearing the pages with the very crimson force of his life!

Unnoticed by Galanthus and I, and the catatonic Moon and Holman-Hunt, the Archbishop of Canterbury was intoning a list of familiar names!

‘Ames-Lewis, Hartt, Fried and Nochlin,’ he said. ‘Penrose, Richardson, Burckhardt, Nead.’ Art historians! The whole, glorious lot of them!

The Archbishop of Canterbury was initiating Project John Martin! Here, in Tavis Knoyle! In Galanthus and the YMCE’s volcanic Highland den!

As this marvellous truth dawned, Galanthus and I gaped at the determined, faltering, weakened Archbishop. Incantation done, he collapsed!

‘No!’ cried Galanthus. ‘No!’ chorused Moon and Holman-Hunt. ‘Yes!’ cried I! The Archbishop, a brainy egg with artistic leanings, had struck!

The Taxus Brevifola had been turned against its operators! Project John Martin was beginning, and not in the skies over London as intended!

There was a moment or two of chilled silence. The Archbishop groaned. I looked to Galanthus, and Galanthus looked to me. Tension reigned.

And then, from the cold roof of the cavern above us, there came a groan. Ancient rock heaved and tore apart. Judgement Day had arrived!

Part Twenty-Six: A Shattering Climax Nears!

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Part Twenty-Six: A Shattering Climax Nears!

At the door of the earthen chamber within which my quarry plotted, I clamped a hand firmly across the Archbishop of Canterbury’s mouth.

I wasn’t totally comforted by my action – his beard itched, for one thing – but His Grace took it, appropriately, with considerable grace.

Flattening myself to the rock wall of the tunnel within the volcanic plug known as Tavis Knoyle, I listened in to a chilling conversation.

‘March… south… Westminster… armoured columns… rendezvous… pincer movement… total victory… mopping up.’ That was Galanthus, icy and precise.

‘Firm government… control… retribution… Bible study… coffee mornings… executions… hangings… burnings… garrotted first, for mercy.’ Moon!

The blackguard was set on a vicious C of E theocracy that would have made Savonarola blanche! I gripped tighter on Archbishop and Sten.

My thoughts, as often in situations when blood boils and my prey, stalked for days or even months is near, tended towards violent action.

I could whirl round the corner, leaving the Bish to his own devices for a second, and strafe the lot of ’em with my trusty purloined Sten.

I’d seen such nasty little firearms make ’em pirouette, on fields urban as well as rurally martial. Capone, I can tell you, was a tiger.

Fortunately, experience and a spell with a flotilla of monk chappies at the top of Nepal in twenty-two kicked in. I held my passion tight.

Releasing a slow, careful breath, I poked my head around the rock-hewn frame of the door. As they connived, none inside the chamber saw me.

My foes stood at a rock table, not unlike an altar such as used for early Christian rights or black masses in the loucher parts of Chelsea.

Galanthus, Moon, Holman-Hunt (if that was his name, and so on) and Simon of the YMCE. Quiet, they gazed at something perched atop the altar.
I knew what it was, of course. The Taxus Brevifola, that damned medieval codex, that accursed tome, that volume of hideous black depths.

Were they going to start Project John Martin? Was this it? Was this the moment when my adventure reached its point of literally no return?

Events subsequent were to prove, as events subsequent often do, that this was not the case. But at the time at hand, I could not know that.

It turned out, I was to find, that the Taxus Brevifola could only be used locally; it’s affects took effect in situ. It had to go to London.

Possibly the YMCE planned to use it as they travelled south, laying waste to England like some horde of painted medieval Scots nasties.

I did not know that. I could not take a chance. You’ll remember my waffling on about single viewpoints and the lack of an omniscient author.

There was irony in that remark, viz: Moon and his theocratic imaginings, had I but chosen to remark it then, instead of now. Had I had time.

I had not, and no such thoughts entertained my teeming loaf. Instead, pulling the Archbishop closer, I clicked off the Sten’s safety catch.

‘All right, children,’ I said, affecting the voice of a stern, disapproving and, importantly, armed geography master. ‘The party’s over.’

Here, my old friend ‘events subsequent’, even pursuant, took over. And as happens when that happens, what happened next was rather blurred.

I shall try to reconstruct them here – for one thing, the publisher’s contract demands it. But the fog of war has not lifted over time.

When I appeared, toting jutting gun and gibbering Archbishop, Galanthus, Moon and the rest looked up in what seemed considerable surprise.

Galanthus smiled. Simon the YMCE kapo reached, quite naturally, for his gun. But then, rather oddly, the Reverend Moon told him to drop it.

I don’t suppose I meant to appear to hold the Archbishop of Canterbury hostage. I had not uttered the words ‘Freeze, or the Bish gets it!’

After all, student of the life adventurous that I had become, five years at a Welsh Methodist boarding school had not been all for nought.

But still it rather seemed, possibly reasonably given the hot confusion, that he, Moon, thought that was what I, Leinigen, had in my mind.

There ensued what Hollywood film types call a Mexican stand-off, though given that only one of us had a gun, it was possibly only Honduran.

Nonplussed for a mo, I soon twigged. Moon, though having deposed his Archbishop and replaced him with a robot, was still a man of the cloth.

Thus, seeing the old beardy threatened, a sort of mother hen instinct had been pricked. This, disarming Simon the kapo, gave me my chance.

I seized upon it in a vivid flash. ‘Hands up!’ I cried, wildly. ‘Yes, all of you!’ All of them, somewhat surprisingly, complied. Even Jesus.

‘As I said,’ I said, ‘the party’s over!’ I edged into the room, dragging the Archbishop. Galanthus, Moon and Co edged away from the altar.

I motioned them towards the doorway and circled till I stood by the book. The Taxus Brevifola! The key to ending all this madness for good!

‘Leinigen, my dear,’ said Galanthus, her voice and gaze set steady despite her raised hands and plain sight of the oily muzzle of my piece.

‘Save it, sister,’ I said, gripping the Archbishop tighter. Galanthus ignored me. ‘Leinigen, what is it that you are meaning to do now?’

I would have thought that was obvious, but I spelled it out. ‘Destroy your plot, destroy your damned book and destroy you! Yes, all of you!’

Galanthus laughed. I’ll own that I did a little double take. It was Vespa’s laugh, throaty and dark, made of Turkish cigarettes and danger.

‘Leinigen, darling,’ she murmured, seductive. ‘Do not be so hasty. Do not forget our love. Do not forget that night the Peloponnese burned.’

I hadn’t the foggiest what she was on about either, but no matter. Moon, at the door, looked disapproving. Simon sneered. I jutted my jaw.

‘Your lascivious tricks won’t save you,’ I said. ‘It’s the end of the road!’ With that, I let go of the Archbishop and reached for the book.

Which was a mistake. As soon as I did so, Moon motioned to Simon of the YMCE. The kapo reached swiftly for his gun, picked it up and fired!

Part Twenty-Five: A Prelate Proves His Mettle!

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Part Twenty-Five: A Prelate Proves His Mettle

They threw me in a dank cell, hewn out of the rock and isolated from the buzzing military-industrial hub at the centre of Tavis Knoyle.

I landed on the rough stone floor with a thud; as I sprang back to my feet, the door of my oubliette clanged shut. Keys jangled in the lock.

I massaged my chafed wrist and pondered my options. Like pilchards in a fishmonger’s window at closing time they were few, and unappealing.

I rattled the door – no go. At the noise a YMCE goon stationed outside spat with practised accuracy through the bars of its small window. 

I wiped my cheek and snarled at the grille. I supposed a solution would present itself – they usually do – and, at least, I was still alive.

Galanthus might have killed me; it seemed she would have, had I not bluffed an apparent full knowledge of her plot, codename: ‘John Martin.’

Of course, that bluff had also succeeded in eliciting details of her machinations I could not otherwise have hoped to learn. Funny, that. 

Apocalyptic paintings brought to life by a medieval book and deployed in a Calvinist-Anglican plot for world or at least British domination.

It was mad but, as I have said before in telling this unlikely, not to say unusual tale, it was and had been proved to be horribly feasible.

I could feel the onset of another brown study, which would not be welcome. Brooding is no use to a man held captive. He might as well pray.

There was irony in that notion, as became apparent halfway through another – that a sachet of Bolivian mesa powder would have been handy.

The blessed stuff was cut from some leaf or other by those johnnies in bowler hats and knitwear and was the whizz for marching the Andes.

Brown studies require such colourful solutions, as the famous detective knew. I wondered how I would stave off the blues (or browns) now.

I sniffed, morosely. But then said irony hit me, square between eyes and schnozz. At a meek half-cough behind me, I turned. I was not alone!

Against the wall of the cell squatted a bearded, purple-cozzied chap, a battered mitre atop his head and dulled garnet rings on his fingers.

The Archbishop of Canterbury! Other than a nagging thought that Moon must have been keeping him alive for a reason, I’d forgotten about him.

‘Oh, dear,’ he said. ‘My dear fellow. I startled you.’ I allowed that he had. I’d been snuck up on by a primate before. In Tanganyika.

As then, if towards a silvery-haired ecclesiastical cove rather than a gigantic buck silverback, I made emollient noises. The Bish simpered.

‘My dear fellow,’ he said, rather spry considering his position and what I knew of his ordeal on the way to this prison. ‘My dear fellow.’

Ah, I thought. Wandering. I supposed it wasn’t a surprise, really. Gone in the scone, quite. ‘My dear fellow,’ he said. ‘My dear fellow.’

As the Archbishop scrabbled for what remained of his wits, out of which he had evidently been startled, I saw the devilry of Moon’s plot.

Who would suspect the automaton put in the real Archbishop’s place, that I had left behind, unwound but intact, in Lambeth Palace Hall?

No-one, I thought, or at least no one in the C of blessed E. Even though the Archbish had a reputation as a bit of an egg, intellectwise.

After all, he had a beard and wrote letters, and not just to the Times to complain about socialism and Gracie Fields. Books too. Dostoevsky.

But now, alas, he seemed quite enfeebled. I squatted, pensive, in the shadows of the cell. ‘My dear fellow, my dear fellow,’ he burbled.

On my haunches, I pondered my best plan of action. Escape was imperative, obviously. I’d have to take the Archbishop with me. Rescue him.

Foil Galanthus’s plot. Foil the Reverend Moon too, and Holman-Hunt (if that was his name…) and the YMCE and the whole damned lot of it.

It was a tall order, taller still if to be accomplished in the company of the gibbering wreck before me. Still, there it was. As usual.

So I fell to further thinking. Stirred from self-pity by my pitiable companion, this was less a brown study than one in ochre. Even puce.

Fortunately, inspiration did not lie particularly far off. After maybe five minutes' hard cogitation, a plan of action formed in my mind.
The Archbishop’s attire did it. I noticed the tarnished glint, in the last of the weak Highland light, of his heavy episcopal crucifix.

It hung from the Archbishop’s neck on a chain of dull brass. It was long, battered and strong and it tapered to a very intriguing point.

I saw immediately what I should do. The Archbishop protested only mildly as I slipped the cross over his head and weighed it in my palm.

I moved noiselessly to the cell door and applied keen ear to cold steel. From without, I heard a precious sound. Rhythmic, guttural snores.

My YMCE guard was, evidently, asleep. Thanking sweet Lady Luck – an old travelling companion, assiduously courted – I bent to the lock.

As a pick, the Archbishop’s crucifix worked a treat. The door eased open. Silently, before beckoning my companion, I removed my right boot.

The door swung inwards on noiseless and well-oiled hinges. I stepped out of the cell, coiled on my haunches like a cougar or mountain lion...

The YMCE guard snored, slumped forward on a small stool. I regarded the nape of his hirsute neck dispassionately. It would do very nicely.

I hit him with the boot. He knew nothing (I assume, for if not his dreams would have been very interesting) as he crumpled to the floor.

I took his sten gun, retreated, replaced my boot, took the Archbishop by the hand – ‘My dear fellow!’ he cried – and walked into the tunnel.

Torches flickered. Military noises echoed. I paused. From surprisingly nearby, I heard voices. Galanthus. Moon. A calming lilt: Holman-Hunt.

That way lay my goal; the conclusion to this mad caper. Salvation or perdition. Pulling the Archbishop with me, I crept towards my fate...