Chambre Ardente :: Research activities #3... 'Blood on the Willows'
The more that I find out about Inky the more worried I become… I’ve always had the utmost respect for his intelligence and taste… but now I find that he’s a secret espionage thriller reader. Look at this! ‘Blood on the Willows’ indeed!
I’ve confiscated it, of course… if you read a few random extracts you’ll agree with the necessity. I can’t have Inky living in some Mitty-esque fantasy world when there’s so much to be done around here. He should be worrying about spongecats, not sloping off.
The wind whistled in remorselessly from the North Sea, blowing before it a mist that blanketed the breakwaters and the remnants of the battered 'Wolf Packs' which had once held the nautical passageways in the grip of terror. Through the mist lights blinked fitfully at the heads of the breakwaters that shielded the harbour and the fearsome U-Boats rocking gently at their moorings. Uberleutnant Gerhard Reichter paced the gangway as the children, rugged up against the cold and tearfully parting from their parents, were led into the submarine. At the top of the breakwater, dimly lit against the glow of the mist caused by the lights of the last ditch efforts going on in the U-boat pens, the childrens' parents kept up the pretence of stoicism.
This was his strangest assignment. As the Third Reich collapsed in ashes and blood about The Fuhrer's ears the Luetnant, a fighting man, had been assigned to ferry children. It made no sense. But orders were orders and he had never before questioned the directives that had issued from Der Fuhrer Bunker. He turned on his heel as the last of the children disappeared below decks. It was done. He gave the order to sail.
As the U-boat slid beneath the oily dark waves of the harbour the children were spared the sound of the machines guns that raked the breakwater and the screams of the parents as they realised the finality of their parting.
The office bore all the signs of success. Too much marble, over-designed under-used furniture, and a vaulted roof which screamed arrogance. The weasels fidgeted uncomfortably. Creatures of the underworld, they had spent years trying to 'legitimise' their 'business' but none felt comfortable in this bastion of enterprise. Some tried to interest themselves in the view of London which spread below the huge wall to ceiling windows when the massive oak doors which led to the office burst open revealing a youthful silhouette, the light glinting off blond hair. "Gentlemen, please take your seats," said the figure as he entered, "We have business to discuss." He radiated self-assurance as he paced to the seat behind the vast oak desk. Those weasels who had been admiring the view scurried over and under furniture to find vacant seats.
"Yes, business," said the leader of the weasels, a long dark creature whose luxuriant fur coat did not hide the scars she had earned on her path to the top. Her minions might have joked that her fur was dyed but none would dare denounce the scars -- too many had seen friends die just to appease her anger. "Why have you kept us waiting? We are important animals you know..." she said leaning forward. A manicured fist slammed down onto the desk, "Important? Your value lies solely in usefulness to me, you carnivorous cul-de-sac. Do you have the commodity you claim needs placement?"
"Oh, yes the Yellow Cake is..." a small bespectacled weasel clutching a brief case suggested, and then froze. Cold eyes sliced across the room like a frozen sheet of glass. All sound ceased, movement was a thing of the past. "You will not mention it by name." the words seemed to emerge from the frozen air.
"The...the product is available in abundance," coughed the cowering accountant "and ready for shipment. Do you have a site ready?"
"...and waiting." the answer dripped like honey off a peach. "Do you know of the rabbit warren in the north-east corner. It's yours," he said rolling his wrist through the air "No papers, no permits, nothing." he finished.
"...or almost nothing" he murmured into the silence that followed. The silence lengthened and, somehow, thickened. An almost palpable tension grew. They had been waiting for the catch...but what was it? Nobody had ever given a weasel a free lunch ...and not even the most naive amongst them expected anyone to do so now.
The silence went right on lengthening. The accountant, counting the cost as the moments mounted, collapsed into himself, his briefcase held before him as though warding off the knife thrust of an inevitable future. Even the leader shifted her weight minutely on the metal stilloettes of her strap sandels. They flexed reassuringly. Moments slowly become eons.
"It's no big deal", the cold voice choked. The leader, realising that the peculiar strain to the sound was meant to be a chuckle, shuddered inwardly. She said nothing, but her eyebrow askance spoke volumes about her sang froid if not her inner fear. Or her inner desire. "No", he said slowly and distantly, "No, that land is yours to do with what you will -- and you can do what you want, no questions asked -- but we must be seen to be doing business in a legal and proper manner. We don't want questions asked. And none will be asked. Buy the land from Toad. He holds the deeds. With the deeds comes droit reign. He'll sell." The leader smiled slowly, her lips curling up to reveal very expensive canines. She was looking forward to the interview with Toad already.
Mole busied himself about the flat. Cleaning and dusting. He wasn't a fastidious creature, but his 'little rituals' had become part of his imposed retirement. He had been one of the government's most trusted agents - years ago. Years ago, as all the young hot-shots in their Saville Row suits clutching their mobile phones, would remind him. He was old, passed it, used up; but he knew too much. They weren't going to kill him, or whatever the latest euphemism was for what was really part-and-parcel or their trade -- he could still be useful.
However, he had become used this gilded cage. He still kept in touch with the few 'old boys' who still kept their jobs but, by and large, went about an ordered and sedentary life. Maybe it was the routineness of everyday existence that let him fail to notice the dark sedan parked a few houses down the street.
Finally he threw the dust pan into the cupboard. "Hang Spring-cleaning," he said "I'm off to the local". He walked down the hall to get his coat when he heard the front door snick open. He froze. All his senses came alive. His whiskers quivered as long forgotten training came to the fore. He was a numbers man, a thinker. He had never been cut out for field work. Yet the job required that he be trained in the rudimentaries of field craft. And, in the course of the many 'little jobs' he had performed, he had been forced to use those field skills. It was that old training that now told him something was amiss. None of his friends or neighbours would enter the house without knocking. And what stranger would do so? He had no weapon, evasion was his only hope. He hunched himself into the smallest possible target and scurried for the kitchen. Peering over his shoulder he saw a tall dark figure loom into the hallway. He had seconds in which to act. He rolled across the kitchen floor and drew himself up to the windowsill. Through the frosted glass he saw a grey figure amongst the blurry bushes of the back garden. The figure, though indistinct, was obviously raising something to its shoulder.
Mole could hear footsteps approaching down the hall. "Trapped like a badger" he thought as he rolled toward the pantry. He looked around frantically for weapon. His training told him that an agent could find plenty of weapons in a kitchen. The old joke had it that you should be able to kill a man with any domestic appliance -- and cook a three course dinner with the left overs. "A bad time for bad jokes" thought Mole reaching for the large carving knife as it stood in the carving block.
"Don't even bother, rodent." said a chilling voice. Mole looked up. A tall shadow filled the doorway. Sunlight shining through the windows glinted off a blond fringe that fell across the coldest eyes Mole had ever seen. A hard smile crossed the figures lips as the click of a gun being cocked filled the room. Suddenly all hell broke loose. There was a thundering and shattering noise as the windows burst in and a hail of bullets tore a ragged line across the kitchen wall. This time Mole did not think. His reflexes carried him backwards through the side door. Without putting on his jacket Mole ran. As he fled down the narrow path beside his house he heard his assailant speak into a walkie-talkie. "That was me you almost killed you ass"...
(scrabbles his way through the dirt up into the wild wood...)
The weasel leader wasn't enjoying her interview with Toad nearly as much as she had hoped. Toad was being resistent. Toad was being recalcitrant. In point of fact, Toad was being bloody minded. He had never minded playing on the class card when it came down to it. He was born a snob and there was no reason for anyone not to confidently expect that he would die a snob. And who, apart from a very few very old and close friends, who would think that his off-hand dismissal of the weasels' offer as though beneath serious consideration, who would guess its genesis in the abiding emnity and continuing suspicion that Toad harboured for the now respectable weasels. He could not trust them now, he would never truly trust them, and he feared them. He had seen what they could do. He had been forced to watch them do it to some very close relatives -- he would not dwell on this -- and it might not have been these precise weasels, but Toad knew their kind. All in all, it seemed that making them aware of their breeding was the most efficient method of making them disappear. Fear always had the effect of lending Toad's voice a testy lordliness and it did so now. "I may have toyed at one time with the notion of selling my land", he ennunciated languidly but coldly, "But that was some time ago. I shall not insult you by even suggesting that I could take such a bid seriously."
"You misunderstand me", the weasel leader murmered in her most silky tone, "This was an opening bid and if..."
"No Madam, you misunderstand me. My land is not for sale to you or any of your kind. Not now. Not tomorrow. Never." Toad snapped, "And you will do me the kindness of leaving and never raising this issue again."
In one fluid movement the weasel was out of the uncomfortable chippendale chair that she had been perching on --Toad had enjoyed receiving the deputation in the cold and stiffly formal little room that he generally only used for interviews with tardy leasees -- and, faster than seemed animally possible, had Toad by his shirtfront. "Look, you jumped-up little amphibian, this is a mere courtesy that we are extending you" she hissed, "We can make your life miserable -- very miserable." She stroked the side of Toad's face with one highly pedicured paw, "I can be very very nice" she purred, "Or I can be very very nasty" she added as she unsheathed one luridly-coloured claw and drew it swiftly down the side of his sweating visage. Toad's cry of pain came instinctively as he jerked back from the razor-sharp talon. Weasel chose to let him go at the same time.
The warren was dusty and, in parts, ill-kempt -- but hey, no one paid rent and it was home. Each afternoon as she walked home from another day in the fields she had to remind herself thus. The burrow she and her mother shared was quite sumptous, it was just that neither of them ever got around to making-a-go of it. Mum, or Aunty Ché as she was lovingly known around the warren, spent most of her time in bed. From the bed she would dispense all kinds of old wisdom to the young radical rabbits who would bring her things - food, drink, the odd joint or two. She was passed pottering about the flat, she was quite capable but couldn't be bothered, and who could blame her? Whereas, herself, what was her excuse? O.K. she worked in the fields for eight hours a day and had classes in post-marxist-activism plus the collective meetings thrice weekly. A bit more effort? Frankly she was too tired to take an interest in the finer things. That was dear Moley's job. Moley the perfect gentleman. Moley's, whose ordered existence enraptured her. Moley could move in and he would order their lives. She could study and Ma, who shared some very dark secrets with Moley, would simply love his company.
But no. Moley who she thought she loved, if only she could get him to say he loved her first, could never become part of the warren. His past, the past he never talked about - apart from joking with Ma - kept him forever from becoming part of a shared thing like the warrren. As she turned the key her reverie was broken as Mole's head appeared from under a clump of freshly turned earth behind her."Mole?!" she exclaimed. "Shhhh" he spluttered as racing from the hole her tackled her about the waist and the two of them went tumbling backwards through the door.
As she lay under Mole in her hallway she raised a paw to his muzzle, "Moley, I've never know you to be so forward before." she said as drifts of dust and dirt fell from his shoulders, and a small root stuck comically out from behind one of his ears.
"Sshussh...Don't say anything" he breathed huskily into her lustrously silken ear. His breath tickled down her neck and all the hairs raised themselves in a primal response to his musky nearness.
"Oohhhh Moley you are a t...",.
"Shut up", Mole snapped, his muzzle tightening and his teeth gleaming whitely behind his thin lips. Dragging Flo roughly deeper into the ersatz -- but oh so welcome -- security of the burrow, Mole released her -- although every cell in his body cried out to hold -- nay, to tighten -- his firm clasp of her her lithe form.
"What...But...Are you...?" Flopsy pulled herself together, suddenly becoming aware of the undignified dishevelment of the always dignified Mole. "Quickly", she said as every fibre of her being sensed that time was limited and Mole's need immediate. Instinctively she hugged him near as they hurried through the convoluted byways of the burrow.
By the time they tumbled into an extraordinarily spacious opening in the narrow passage way Flo had collected herself enough to be gratified by the astonishment in Mole's eyes as he surveyed the Great Hall. "How...what...when..." he spluttered as he surveyed the vista which had opened before him.
"I thought that that was my line", Flo quipped and then became serious as she glimpsed the panic scarcely controlled in Mole's eyes, "We don't use the hall often...especially since the Myxo scare of '89, and only Ma and a few of the older ones remember it, but you seemed to need a bit of anonymity shall I say..."
Ratty pushed the punt leisurely from the shore. This was the life. Far away from the dusty, bloody, freezing existence of his time in Afghanistan. That was the old days. The bad old days, he reminded himself. The big picture where he and his fellows fended off minks from Minsk, voles from Volensk and the worst the old enemy could throw at them.
He was years away and amongst friends. New friends admittedly, but true friends. The salt of the earth, they asked no questions and told no lies. They took a rodent as they saw him. What they made of his obviously 'trained' physique and, sometimes disconcertingly, rapid reflexes Ratty did not care to think.
He had to stop himself becoming so introspective. He looked up. The dazzle of the water blinded him. He squinted, pulled the brim of his hat a bit lower and tried to see the course of the stream ahead. He knew the stream like the back of his paw but sometimes strange currents could emerge to lead an unwary rat to the embarrassment of being towed off the shore by the passing, despicable, day-tripper.
Ratty settled back into the slow rhythmic motion of the paddle. This was his river and he was not going to let an old friend get the better of him. He leaned into the oar and 'pluck!' a strange - but strangely familiar - noise, plus a slight tug of the whole boat made him look to his left. A pure, white gouge creased the gun'l. A deep instinct, or was it training?, made him lean further to his left thus upturning the keel slightly. It was just wood, but true old wood that could probably stop all but the most high-powered bullets.
His true self had time to say "What?!", before his limbs took over. Responding in an almost primeval way, his legs thrust him to the bow of the boat. His hand plowed into the coiled rope. Coiled so neatly to conceal the weapon beneath. His hands fitted snugly around the grip and the trigger. It was a weapon no young new trainee would recognise. Based on the Kalashnikov, it had been stripped even further back. The stock could fit snugly into the elbow while the firing mechanism had been brought forward to allow it to be fired while the arm was bent. Ratty had found the ability to shoot while running bent-double, whilst nothing to be proud of, had its benefits.
As now. The punt rolled slowly back to the right. Ratty rolled hard to port. He had no idea where the bullets had come from. Letting the craft lean over would expose him to whatever assasin lay out there. Thud, thud, thud - three spots of daylight appeared on the up-turned hull. Below the water line, Ratty's brain registered. He had no option. He rolled hard right with the roll of the boat. For a second he saw daylight and the river edge. And somewhere in there his enemy. He raked the horizon with his gun. Damn good weapon; it never failed to fire, and with special ammunition, could be like Gottdammerug to the recipient.
In one movement Ratty had slipped the strap of his gun over his shoulders and was in the water. This was his element...
Pooh and Eeyore ducked behind the ever present willows. The enemy could not get a clear shot at them. Eeyore appeared to be having a great time, and quite successful, firing blindly into the flashes from the assasins' guns. "You get to Piglet's. I'll follow" the donkey yelled as he pushed Pooh through the snow drift and into the narrow lane beside...
Badger looked around. "There can be no other solution" he said, "someone is betraying us." The room fell dark. The once safe confines became claustrophobic. The windows, once eyes on the world, became the menacing eyes of a predator. "What, a spy, a turncoat?! Who can it be?" squeaked Mole. Every eye in the room narrowed on him. "Oh, Come on guys." he pleaded.
Pooh suddenly realised the dilemma. He was exposed on a snow covered bridge and if Tigger stayed where he was Pooh could probably make it. But no. There was Tigger skipping across the bridge as though nothing mattered. Pooh raced forward. "No, Tigger, get down" he cried. Too late. The bullet was probably in the air before he even noticed Tigger. In an instant Tigger disappeared in a puff of stuffing. Anger, grief, pity flashed through Pooh's mind, but it was anger that stayed. Pooh pulled his gun from his waistcoat and let fly in the direction of the flashes that had killed Tigger. Screams from the darkness sated his killing fervour for a moment...
"Oh, Christ..." muttered Piglet as he threw Pooh and himself out the window. If luck was on their side they would slide down the face of the mountain and not die in the process. Cascading snow and the lights of the distant town were the first things he saw. Then below, God's luck, car headlights. He and Pooh careered down the slope and slewed on to the road. The headlights raced toward them then slowed. A car's shape started to emerge out of the dusk. Piglet levelled his gun at what he guessed was the windscreen. Pooh had instinctively rolled off the road and was already covering the vehicle from the shade of the trees.
The car ground to a halt. "I say, do you chaps want a lift?" echoed the resounding tones of Toad. Piglet leapt to his feet and almost tore the front passenger door from its hinges throwing himself into the car. "Wait for Pooh, then hit it!" he screamed at a startled Toad.
Pooh entered with a crash through the back door. "Go, go, go!" he screamed. Toad hit the pedal. For all of his faults he could drive. And he was going to show these two boys that he was their equal on his ground. The car burst forward. PIglet was thrown back in his seat. Pooh smashed the back window out with a burst from the gun he had managed to keep with him. "No one behind yet." he said.
The car bucked and bounced like a wild thing over the rutted roads but Toad kept a firm control. He had taken up many fads - boating, skiing, hang-gliding - and rally driving was just another one of them. But just because they were passing fads did not mean that he could not excel at them. He slalomed the car down slopes that were risky in the best of weather and careered around corners with aplomb undisturbed by the looming shapes of the pine trees that flickered close passed the side windows.
Pooh was looking out the backwindow when he felt the car slow down. "What's the matter?" he asked turning around. "Roadblock" muttered Toad as the car rolled to a stop at the side of the road. Piglet pushed open his door and climbed out. "I'll be back," he said and disappeared into the darkness. Within minutes he was back, "Seven of them, all heavily armed and dressed in uniforms." he said.
Pooh finished the cigarette he had borrowed from Toad, carefully shielding the glow with his paw. "Shit," he spat, "outnumbered and out-gunned." Toad chuckled, "Not neccessarily. If you care to check the boot..." Pooh looked puzzled but immediately did as he was bidden. In the boot lay a small armoury. "I still like a bit o' huntin'" smiled Toad.
"Shit," squeaked Piglet, "with this lot we can roll the car down the road with no lights or engine and when we're in range let them have it. They'll never know what hit 'em!"
"I like your thinking." smiled Pooh calmly loading an evil looking firearm known to the South African Police as 'the streetsweeper'.
"We're surrounded." gasped Christopher Robin, "There are weasels everywhere."
Pooh shrugged. Ratty and Piglet obviously knew their stuff, but Christopher Robin was running about like a Berserker. Was Chris the weak link? His next thoughts were obliterated by the sound of shells. He looked up to see Christopher running down the hall seemingly using the tear gas as a shield. He caught up to Chris halfway down the hall and hauled them both into a gas-free side room. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" screamed Pooh.
"They can't see enough to shoot me and I don't need to see them.!" Christopher replied crouching for a spring and slapping a new magazine into his gun. It was true throughout this entire time Chris had not so much as gained a scratch, he seemed to lead a charmed existence. "If that's the case; then watch this." yelled Pooh adjusting the flamethrower he had been carrying all this time. "Stand back!" he cried. The hallway dissolved into sheet of flame. From the corner of his eye Pooh saw Christopher Robin's face pale. As though he had not wanted so much havoc rendered upon his enemy.
Suddenly Chris was up and through the door blocking Pooh's line of fire down the hall. "Follow me," he called. Pooh didn't rush straight after Chris. There was something Pooh had seen in Chris's expression that disturbed him. Somehow Chris seemed to have a plan that did not include the rest of them. Pooh shook his head, it was madness. C.R. had been around as long if not longer than any of them. Pooh stood and stepped carefully into the hallway.
"We're surrounded." gasped Mrs. Badger. Eeyore thought back to when they were students on the barricades in Warsaw. The terror she, he and Badger shared. In the long run it was he that was to go on with the 'revolution' while the two 'young radicals' settled down. Badger the serious one who would have worked for the Stasi as willingly as for the Revolution. Badger was a believer. "Luckily, he's on our side" Eeyore had said and his colleagues Pooh, Piglet and Chris had nodded their heads.
But now as the flames licked down the tunnel walls with their hides stake nothing mattered. The passion that had carried them through the summer of '68 was rekindled. They looked into each other's eyes. The passion and the flame was there. With Badger's body cooling in the snow their bond was consummated. Their muzzles met...
Mole stared at his reflection. He did not recognise the stranger that looked back at him. There was a kind of familiarity in the features, but the lineaments were suddenly strange to him. Who was that the stern stranger who looked back at him? What had he seen...what had he done...that left their traces so indelibly etched into his visage. What had made his eyes so hard, his muzzle so unforgiving. What had etched lines of hatred and weariness and grief so deeply into his visage?
With a superanimal effort he tore himself away from his self-inspection. The what and why didn't matter anymore. All that mattered was how he would exact his revenge...
Pushing the rabbit softly with one paw, he repeated, "tell me again bunny...and this time tell me the truth." The rabbit's huge eyes stared up blankly at him, the realisation of his escape and his current predicament slowly growing to reality behind their liquescent surfaces. He seemed to shrink into his fur, becoming even smaller and, somehow, even more anonymous.
And yet resolve was growing behind his timid exterior and, somewhere deep inside his shaking frame, a flame of hope slowly, tentatively, came into being. It was fuelled by the almost impersonal expression on his captor's face until suddenly it was a bonfire. There was an escape...with a little bit of cunning and a lot of luck. He had a bolthole if he could only manouver his small frame closer to the window. As though he read the rabbit's thoughts the heavy paw on his shoulder tightened its grip. "Not so fast bozo" his gravel-voiced captor rasped, "you're not going anywhere"
She was one of the young radicals rabbits. In her student days they had squatted in the newly discovered burrows until the whole tribe had to ceded their demands including naming the central complex of warrens The William S. Burrows...
He cast a distressed glance over Eeyore's injuries. He was badly scuffed, the seam down his right fore leg was fraying badly, stuffing was flowing from it freely and his tail was hanging by a thread. Pooh shook his head. How long could he depend on the donkey before he came apart?