From Temps, Roc 1991
picks up the papers she spilled on the carpet last night,
holds them up to the light.
Pulls on her glasses,
tries to decipher the scribble she writes in her sleep;
decides it'll keep.
All the lonely Talents, where do they all come from...'
Bernie winced as he listened to Elvis Grady's latest attempt at music. It wasn't the total lack of originality or skill; he'd never represented a star who had any. Elvis, or Eric if you went by his birth certificate, thought he was musical, and that, plus hype, was usually enough to con a few thousand suckers into buying a record. This time, though, Grady should have realized that there were a few problems ...
'I'm sorry, Elvis, I think that tune's just a little too derivative. The lyrics are a bit familiar too. The Performing Rights Society would have your guts for garters if you recorded it.'
'No one listens to the music, Bernie. It's just got to sound good.'
'That's an interesting argument, but I don't think the Performing Rights boys would agree. Anyway, she'd sue.'
'What do you mean she'd sue – who would?'
I'm surrounded by cretins, thought Bernie, saying 'Madame Cassandra would sue. I read the Sunday Sport, you know. London's Premier Psychic, they call her.'
'Damn. I thought I'd made it up. I must have been pissed on Sunday.'
'Well, everyone has too many drinks now and again.' For Elvis it was more or less a permanent condition, but Bernie wasn't going to risk losing his ten per cent saying so. 'Look, it's been fun, but I've got an appointment with Captain Croak in a few minutes, so we'll have leave it there. Why don't you go home and write something else. While you're at it do something about the acne, it's looking a bit nasty again. I'll pencil in another appointment in two weeks.'
'You're a hard man to please, Bernie.',
'Look, I'm an agent, not Doctor Miraculous. Give me something to sell and I'll sell it; give me rubbish and all I can do is bin it.'
Elvis slung his guitar on his back, pushed on his cycle clips, and trudged downstairs. Bernie sighed. Life just wasn't fair. American agents got to represent interesting people like Michael Jackson or Doctor Miraculous; Bernie was stuck with losers like Elvis Grady and Captain Croak, probably the world's most boring paranorm...
Matilda Richards (Madame Cassandra: Psychic By Appointment To The Stars) usually felt a tingle in her right ear when someone was talking about her. It wasn't much use, because she never knew what they were saying, but it was nice that someone was interested in her. Today a few hundred volts might have penetrated her hangover, but a faint tingle didn't stand a chance.
As usual she began the day by tidying up the mess her astral body had left while she was asleep. Astra (well, you had to call her something) didn't seem to be deliberately untidy, just extremely accident-prone. Matilda supposed it came from being made of ectoplasm, or maybe she needed glasses. Sometimes Astra tried to cook, and that could leave egg and flour smears all over the house. Today things weren't really too bad; she'd broken a couple of plates and a potted plant, and a quick run with the Hoover took care of that. Matilda's headache was much worse by the time she switched it off and started to search the flat.
Eventually Matilda found a crumpled piece of paper under the flour bin; Astra had never grasped the idea of leaving her notes in the same place every day. This morning the writing was even worse than usual, and the spelling and punctuation were at an all-time low; Matilda wasn't sure how three glasses of port could affect an astral body, but there was no denying that it did something. Come to think of it, maybe it had been four glasses.
YU LfT Thr Cr kYS iN frig bHNd eGs — SholdN drive wen u aR pissed. TinNkBell wins 1.45 at antree. thEy Gon tu KiL ken in CORNatiON StrEet next week. On saTdy a tAll drk frog wIL svE loNdOn. Yu'll geT 9 to 2 on TiNKrbell if yu try.
Matilda read the note through, translated the semi-literate scrawl into her neat italics, and tried to work out what the message meant. The car keys were easy to check; she found them in a bowl of peas on the shelf below the eggs. Maybe they'd slipped through the bars. Tinkerbell was running at Aintree, but the odds were only four to one. It might be worth a bet. Astra didn't understand photo-finishes and stewards' inquiries, so it wasn't quite a sure thing. Coronation Street? That was in the Sun a week ago; everyone knew it was go to happen sooner or later.
On Saturday a tall dark frog will save London. A bit odd, that. Astra wasn't usually so cryptic, and Matilda couldn't think of anyone who met that description. General de Gaulle died years ago, and he'd certainly never turned up in any of her seances. One thing was certain it meant that London was in some sort of danger.
Matilda scrutinized the note again, and picked up the telephone. There were still a few bookies that didn't know her name; she wasn't surprised to find that one was offering 9 to 2 on Tinkerbell. She called her sister in Birmingham, and arranged to stay for a few nights. Finally she called the Department of Paranormal Resources. As usual the main office line was busy, so she left a message on an answering machine on another number. An hour later she was on the M1, heading north past Watford services.
His name was Arnold Spaulding, but he wanted to be called Captain Croak, Crimefighter. It really wasn't fair; America gave paranorms everything from fancy costumes to their own TV series, and called them superheroes. Britain gave paranorms the DPR, an organization that routinely took six months and ten memos to process a £5 expenses claim, and sent him an annoyed letter whenever he tried to use his 'heroic' identity instead of his real name. He'd given up trying to persuade them to make him a special costume, and settled for a pair of elasticated swimming trunks. Yes, there was no doubt about it; America was the place for a paranorm with ambition, and Arnold was determined to get there somehow. With the right contacts he could give up his career in local government, and join one of the US superhero groups. Make it big like Doctor Miraculous or the Amazing Stugatski Brothers. It would happen one of these days .. .
As Arnold climbed off the bus outside his agent's office a greasy-looking lout in sequinned trousers rode his bicycle across the pavement, clipping Arnold with a handle-bar and the neck of a battered guitar. 'Get out of the road, four-eyes!' shouted Elvis, and wobbled away. Arnold straightened his glasses, pushed the daydream to the back of his mind, summoned the tattered remnants of his dignity, and went in.
'It isn't as though your Talent isn't interesting,' Bernie lied, 'it's just not very exciting. Not when you look at some of the paranorms the Americans have got. My cousin Maynard lives out there; he's representing a girl who can spray superglue from her nostrils – she's been sticking muggers to lampposts all over Boston. Maynard reckons there are five TV networks bidding for a series, and she's got all the big hero teams lining up to sign her on. Now, you turn into a frog...
'A man-sized frog.'
'All right, a giant frog. That's a good start, but there's something about your presentation that doesn't quite work. You don't leap about much...'
'I may be a frog, but I still weigh twelve stone. I can only leap a couple of feet.'
'You don't talk much when you're in frog form.'
'I have to burp if I want to say anything, and it usually comes out sounding like a croak.'
'Pity. It would be much better if you could make heroic speeches. We've got to give you a more positive image. Maybe we could change your name?'
'No. I've checked, comic book companies have trademarked all the obvious frog names. You know what they're like – do you remember the fuss when they forced Doctor Miraculous to drop his old name?'
'Forget I asked. Now, can you do anything about the slimy skin?'
'Well, there's no way they'll ever want you as a stand-in on the Muppet Show, is there? Look... um... Captain, I'm doing my best, but you've got to help. Have you done something interesting since we last met? Something you could talk about on TV? Solved some crimes, or broken up an international spy ring?'
'I caught some vandals.'
'Yes, I heard about that. Four teenagers with spray cans, two of them got away, and one is suing you for wrongful arrest. Not exactly the Mafia, is it?'
'Can I help it if the DPR never gives me any missions?'
'It doesn't make it easy to build up your image.'
'Mr Sabbith, I took the day off work to come and see you. Surely there's something you can do to help.'
'Well... as it happens, I have heard of something. It's not very much, but maybe you'll find it interesting. A friend of my brother-in-law Melvin is directing a short film for television this Saturday. I think we can get you a cameo role in that.'
'It sounds wonderful! What do I have to do?'
'Well, the film's about swimming and water safety, one of those public information things they show sometimes. You'd be the lifeguard, saving kids from drowning.' Bernie saw Arnold frown, and added, 'I know it's not much of a part, but it's a start. It'll get your face on the box.'
'It isn't that. It's just that I can't swim very well.'
'A frog that can't swim? What sort of paranorm are you?'
'I never learned properly. I was excused games at school.'
'Bloody hell ... Hang on a mo, though, that might work quite well. I'll call up Melvin right away, and ask him to see if they can change the script. They could make you one of the people having swimming lessons. Setting an example, showing that even paranorms have to learn. Then maybe when you've learned properly they could do another one, and show you saving someone's life because you learned to swim properly. With a little luck you could be as big as the Green Cross man.'
'Do you really think it'll work? I wouldn't want people to think I was just looking for cheap notoriety.'
'You are looking for cheap notoriety, Arnie; we just need to wrap it up a little, make it more acceptable. If we can just get you on TV people will start to notice you. Who knows where that could lead. The Wogan show? That might just be the start. Now pop out into the waiting room, get yourself a coffee. This'll take a while. Melvin always chats for hours when I phone him. And relax. Have I ever let you down ... ?'
In the DPR's London office Marcia waved her fingers, and calculated that her nail varnish was probably dry enough to let her do some typing. She stirred three spoonfuls of sweetener into her coffee, thought about typing, and decided to call her alter ego in Newcastle instead. As she dialled, her finger slipped, and the end of the nail cracked. Marcia swore, and rummaged in her bag for an emery board. Her elbow hit the eject button on the answerphone, and a tape flipped across the desk and knocked her coffee to the floor. By the time she'd cleared up the mess a dozen expense claims were in the bin, along with the coffee-sodden cassette. Marcia never noticed it was missing.
> INCOMING CALL FROM AGENT CODENAMED 'COUGAR'
'Activate counter-systems, then connect.'
> ANTI-TRACE SYSTEM IS OPERATING
> SCRAMBLE SYSTEM IS OPERATING
> VOICE DISTORTION SYSTEM IS OPERATING
> CONNECTING AGENT 'COUGAR'
'Hello? Are you there? The password is lemon meringue pasta.'
'Acknowledged. The countersign is chocolate chip sandwich.'
'Good. My men are poised and ready to act; do you want us to proceed with the operation?'
'Yes ... carry on.. Conditions are perfect on Saturday, all weather forecasts are favourable.'
'Good. What about the diversions?'
'All diversions are proceeding as planned. Four major football matches and a tax protest march are scheduled in London on Saturday, they should keep the police out of the way. Acting on an anonymous tip, army and police units have commenced a major anti-terrorist operation at Heathrow airport, while other army units are on NATO exercises in Europe. There are minimal units in Central London. No British intelligence organization is aware of the plan. No foreign agency has been in contact with the British government.'
'What about paranorms, the DPR and so forth?'
'Don't worry about those incompetents – they're civil servants, their offices will close at five on Friday evening and won't open until Monday. In any case they have no idea of the plan. This isn't America, you won't get a dozen costumed idiots throwing cars at you.'
'You're sure that they know nothing.'
'Absolutely. You should be in and out before anyone knows you are there.'
'Right then. We'll destroy London on Saturday, if you're still sure that's what you want.'
'Very good. You'll receive the rest of your payment when the job is done. Unless there is something else...?'
> AGENT 'COUGAR' HAS REPLACED RECEIVER
'Deactivate telephone link, then self destruct.'
> TELEPHONE LINES DISCONNECTED AT EXCHANGE
> ANTI-TRACE SYSTEM DEACTIVATED
> SCRAMBLE SYSTEM DEACTIVATED
> VOICE DISTORTION DEACTIVATED
> SELF DESTRUCT SEQUENCE INITIA...DDDDDDDFTRY JRY5HRHTYJ
'...and patches of fog on high ground. In the morning expect gale-force winds on the east and south-east coast, with strong winds and scattered showers further inland. In most parts of London temperatures will be about 15 °C, approximately 60 °F.'
'Well, Bob, it sounds like the weather isn't going to be too good tomorrow. Do you think it will affect the matches?'
'It's hard to tell. All four pitches have good drainage, so none of the games should be cancelled, but it'll be hard going for the players if the ground gets really wet. We'll have to see what happens.'
'Any other sporting events in London tomorrow?'
'Nothing major. Greyhound racing at White City, the finals of the Carlsford Trophy, and amateur athletics at Olympia. Otherwise it's going to be a pretty quiet day.'
Laura Smythe looked at her Rolex, and glanced at the clipboard and the shooting script. She raised a small loud-hailer.
'OK, we'll try another shot. This time you kids try to look really happy and excited. You too, ah ... Captain. Quiet please ... Brian, love, would you stop that water splashing, the needle's going off the scale here. We'll have to do all the sound in the studio if we aren't careful ... That's better, big smiles everyone . . . right, action!'
The camera panned along the row of happy children clutching polystyrene floats, then cut back to the giant frog in green trunks in the middle of the row. Arnold gripped his inflatable rubber life-ring and wondered any amount of publicity could be worth this humiliation.
'Sod it, cut! Captain, would you please stop it. The the third time we've tried to film this scene. Once the camera's jammed, and twice you've had your tongue out. None of the kids are doing it, which is a sodding miracle, so you have to spoil the shot. Don't you want to be on TV?'
One of the children shouted 'Ugh ... Miss, he's eating flies!', and the rest happily pretended to vomit or catch insects of their own. Arnold guiltily swallowed the bluebottle, and shook his head in apology. A moment's inattention, and no one would let you hear the last of it. Sometimes he wished that the metamorphosis wasn't so thorough. At least there weren't any worms around, last time he'd tried to catch one his tongue had ended up wrapped around his own ankle.
'This is all I need, a frog that can't control his sodding appetite. My old dad said I should never work children or animals, and I should have listened to him. Can we try again, and this time would everyone try to concentrate PLEASE! ... Right, that's better. Quiet now, and . . . Action!'
The camera panned along the row of children again, then cut back to Arnold and zoomed out to take in the rest of the poolside. A lifeguard blew his whistle, and the children happily leaped into the pool. Arnold teetered on the edge, clutching his ring and dipping a green webbed foot in the water. The chlorine stung his skin. The children started to shout:
'Come on, last one in's a tadpole.'
'Frog's afraid of the water!'
'What's green and can't swim?'
The lifeguard stepped forward to stand beside Arnold and was revealed as Kim Yeovil, one of the hosts from Blue Peter. He began to read his lines so naturally that it was almost impossible to spot his eyes following the autocue: 'A lot of people hate to admit that they can't swim, but it's nothing to be ashamed of, and it's never too late to learn. Our friend here is a paranorm, and with a body like this you'd think he'd be at home in the water. Unfortunately, you can't always judge...'
Laura shouted 'Cut' again. A bearded man in a dirty brown overall was walking into shot along the poolside, mopping the tiles and whistling tunelessly. 'Would you PLEASE get out of it, grandad, we're trying to film here!'
The old man ignored Laura, and swept on. Abruptly he pulled off his beard, opened the coat, and produced a huge red book. Arnold gaped, recognizing a famous chin, as a familiar voice said 'You thought you were here to make a film about water safety, but we had other plans. Tonight Kim Yeovil, journalist and star of children's television, This is Your Life!' He put his arm over the dazed Yeovil's shoulder, and led him out through an exit where another camera was waiting.
Laura picked up her megaphone and shouted, 'All right, Steve, cut for real now. The other crew will follow them to the studio. The rest of you, I'm sorry we couldn't warn you. We didn't want to risk tipping him off. You'll all be paid for a full day's filming, and we'll make the real film next Saturday.' As she spoke, there was a loud warbling beep from the pile of equipment by the pool. One of the crew picked up a cellphone, listened, and handed it to Laura.
'Yes? ... Oh ... Oh, I see. Where? ... If we were much closer I could spit on them ... Right, we'll be there in ten minutes.'
She dropped the phone, and shouted, 'OK, everyone, pack up. Get everything in the van, pronto. Marion, stay here and make sure that the parents pick up these little darlings, the rest of you get ready to move. We've got to get over to the Thames Barrier, some lunatics are trying to blow it up, and we're the only spare film crew in the area!'
'... was completely unsuspected until an anonymous caller reported masked gunmen in the control building car-park. The terrorists are armed with machine guns, and have already fired at the police, who have erected road blocks on both sides of the river. Several river police boats are waiting up- and downstream from the Barrier, and have also come under fire.
'A film crew was in the area when the news broke, and a courier has just brought the first tapes of the siege.'
The screen shows a momentary view of a swimming pool, with several children and a large frog, then abruptly jumps to a vista of the river, bridged by the domed ramparts of the Thames Barrier. Police are gathered around several cars in the surrounding streets. The camera zooms in on several black dots on the Barrier, revealing them as masked men carrying ominous-looking steel boxes and cable drums.
'Experts believe that the boxes are limpet mines filled with plastic explosive, powerful enough to smash the gates and the hydraulic motors that move them. The high tide and storms off the coast make flooding inevitable if the Barrier is breached. At least four personnel were manning the control centre, and are believed to be hostages.
'Underground stations in the danger area are closing, and houses and offices near the Barrier have been evacuated. There are unconfirmed reports that SAS units have left the security exercise at Heathrow and are on their way to the scene.
'We hope to have live coverage of the siege in our afternoon bulletin. Now back to Wembley...'
Arnold shivered in the back of the van. He was wrapped in a couple of towels and a pair of trunks that were four sizes too big for his human form, and saw the world as a vague blur that began a few feet from his nose. Steve Watkins put down the hand-held camera he was adjusting, and poured Arnold a cup of coffee. He gratefully drained it in a few gulps.
'Sorry about this, mate. I'm sure we'll find your clothes and glasses eventually, they've got to be in here somewhere. We just loaded so fast that they're buried under everything else.'
'I hope so. Nice coffee.'
'I'm surprised you aren't streaking into action. Using your super powers, like.'
'What could I do? There are about a dozen of them, and they're all carrying machine guns. I'm not Doctor Miraculous.'
'It's a pity, it'd be marvellous footage. Great publicity for the safety film. Another cup?'
Momentarily the van was flooded with the noise of a police helicopter, and more sirens from the main road. Arnold accepted another cup of coffee, and sipped it a little more slowly. It tasted very good, and was warming him nicely.
'Of course the DPR never did appreciate my talents. It'd serve them right if I did streak into action.'
'Well yes, I suppose so.'
'I've half a mind ... Got any more of that coffee?'
'Just a drop. Look, you do know there's brandy in it, don't your
'I do now. Thanks. Do you think I'd get on the Wogan show if I sorted it out? Saved London, I mean.'
'Count on it. Daytime Live too.'
'Right, then, let's talk to the police ...'
Chief Inspector Geoffrey Pargetter struggled to retain the frayed shards of his temper. It wasn't easy.
'What do you mean, the SAS are caught in a traffic jam?' 'Sorry, guy,' the voice on the other end of the radio apologized, 'there's a huge snarl on the M4, thousands of people panicking and trying to get out before the tidal wave.'
'There isn't going to be a bloody tidal wave. If the Barrier goes all that'll happen is that the Thames overflows a little. People will get their feet wet, and bits of central London will be flooded after a few hours, but that's hardly a tidal wave.'
'I know, guv, but try telling them that. There's also the tax demo in the way. They seem to have decided that it's a cunning trick to get them to give up the march. God knows what will happen when the SAS run into that lot.'
'Isn't anyone else available? What about the rest of the army?'
'Most of them still seem to be out at Heathrow. Someone in the Cabinet apparently decided this could be a diversion, cover for a main attack at the airport.' 'Wonderful. Where are Commander CID and the Assistant Commissioner?'
'The Commander's on leave, won't be back until Wednesday. The AC's on his way back from Wembley, we're trying to get a helicopter to pick him up, but it'll be at least twenty minutes.'
'Look, I need some backup fast, and some more men for crowd control. All the nutters will crawl out of the woodwork soon. I've already had one pillock turn up in swimming trunks, pretending to be a paranorm, and it's going to get much worse if we don't get something done quickly. Can't you get hold of anyone? The RAF? The Navy? What about the funny mobs, Intelligence and all that shower?'
'I'm trying, but you know what it's like getting anything done at the weekend ...'
Brian Tiptree, alias Cougar, was seriously annoyed. It didn't seem fair; he'd spent years trying to build up a reputation as a mercenary, which isn't easy for someone born in Bognor, and now his first big contract had gone wrong. Whoever the client was, he wouldn't be pleased. He wiped the sweat from his eyes, then pulled down his ski mask and risked a quick look through the control centre window. He wondered what the police would try next. His plan had been good, perfect if some passing busybody hadn't noticed one of his men. One little slip, and before you know it you're in the middle of a siege. The charges were already in place and ready to detonate, and he didn't fancy staying around while they blew. He fingered the radio trigger nervously. His men were already restless; if they didn't get out soon they might start to give him real problems.
'You ought to surrender,' said one of the hostages. 'You'll never get away with this.'
'That's just the sort of unimaginative remark I expect from a bourgeois pig like you. A typical product of the class system,' said Brian, without much real feeling. It was always a good idea to pretend that you were politically motivated, he'd heard. Made people take you seriously. Brian's main motive was his bank balance, but he supposed that some people needed causes. At the moment getting out without getting shot or arrested would do very nicely for Brian.
'Look, Captain, the police wouldn't let you help. Don't you think that trying to have a go anyway is asking for trouble?'
'The police are just jealous. The sergeant said he didn't believe I was a paranorm, and wanted to see my DPR identity card. They weren't even interested in letting me change shape to prove it. They all said they'd never heard of me.'
'Well, you said it yourself, you aren't Doctor Miraculous. Mind you, I do think they went a bit far threatening to arrest you for indecent exposure and obstruction.' Steve clipped the side panel back on his camera, and started to check meter readings and switch settings. 'Maybe it's just as well. There are terrorists out there, you know, they'll shoot you if you try to stop them. Leave it to the police.'
'No way. They're just watching the Barrier and drinking tea, we'll be flooded if someone doesn't get their finger out. Just give me a few minutes to get started then tell your director what's happening. Don't say anything to the police, they'll only stop me.'
'Maybe someone should.'
'This is my big chance. Just pump up that ring for me, and let me get changed. It'll be all right.'
Arnold bent his back and knees slightly, spread his legs and waited patiently for the transformation. As usual it started in his toes, which slowly elongated and webbed. For some reason the toes always reminded him of his childhood visit to the Cumbrian coast and the pet frog he'd caught near St Bees Head. There was a sudden twinge of pain as his leg muscles quivered and began to change shape. A tingle in his arms told him that his skin was starting to soften and secrete slime. By now there was a little pain, as his bones began to soften and distort, and his testicles and penis retracted into his groin. Maybe British Nuclear Fuels would like to use him in their advertising — after all, he'd found the frog just outside the Windscale reactor complex, and changed for the first time a week after it bit him — perhaps there was some connection. His tongue flicked out and back and his eyes swelled as the sockets moved to the top of his head, improving his sight considerably. His arms shrank, and his mouth widened as his teeth sank into his gums. For a few seconds he felt breathless and dizzy, then his altered metabolism stabilized. As he recovered he decided that he'd tell the frog story on the Wogan show; someone was sure to ask him how he got his power, and it would fill a few minutes nicely.
Arnold made sure that the trunks were on properly, not that it mattered much now, and took the rubber ring from the suddenly nervous engineer.
'Blimey, I've never seen anything like that up close before. Gave me a nasty turn. Hope you didn't mind me filming you.'
Arnold hadn't noticed. He tried to say, 'Let's hope I scare the terrorists too.' As usual, all that came out was a mumbling croak.
The Thames isn't particularly badly polluted for a river that passes through one of the world's largest cities and is fed by dozens of sewage outlets. With the ring under his arms Arnold's nostrils and eyes just protruded above the water. He tried to fend off floating cans, contraceptives, and other little souvenirs. He was starting to get the knack of swimming with webbed feet, though not particularly well, and making his first tentative efforts to steer towards one of the piers of the barrage, a hundred yards ahead. A strand of toilet paper got past his guard and plastered itself across one eye, and he ducked under for a moment to wash it off. As he came up again a puzzled seagull swooped in for a closer look, and seemed to he ready to land on his head and peck at an eye. Arnold decided to swim the rest of the way underwater; one advantage of being a frog, you could hold your breath for a while. He tried to dive, but the ring would only let him bob up and down. He cursed mentally, groped for the plug, and started to sink as it deflated, then carried on struggling towards the Barrier.
'Cougar,' said Colin Braddock. There's something moving underwater out there, about sixty yards out. See, it's leaving a trail of bubbles. I think it's heading for the second piling.'
'A diver, I suppose. Maybe they think they can disarm the charges without us noticing. Give him a warm welcome.'
'He won't know what hit him.' Braddock turned towards the door.
'Wait. Don't shoot him if you can avoid it. Try to take him alive, we could do with more hostages...' Braddock nodded. '...but don't let that stop you if things look dangerous. If you have to kill him, kill him.'
'I'll see to it personally.'
Arnold struggled on to one of the Barrier pilings, and coughed out the polluted water he'd swallowed when he swam into the concrete wall. As he finished, a mocking voice said 'I've heard of frogmen, but this is ridiculous. Put your hands up.'
There were two of them, both wearing fashionable terrorist's clothing: camouflage jacket and trousers, leather boots, bandoliers loaded with grenades and clips of ammunition, radios, and scarves covering most of their faces. Both held machine pistols. Arnold tried to sigh, croaked instead, and raised his hands.
'What do you mean, you've caught a frog? Do you mean a frogman, Colin? Over.'
'No, a giant frog. Over.'
'How big? Over.'
'Man-sized. It's wearing swimming trunks, must be a paranorm. Over.'
'What has it got to say for itself? Over.'
'Nothing. It just croaked a bit. Over.'
'Bring it to the control building, and be very. careful. If it's a paranorm there's no telling what it can do. Over.'
'Don't worry, we'll tie its hands. It doesn't look very strong, shouldn't be a problem. Over and out.'
As the terrorists pushed him down a steep steel staircase inside the piling, Arnold cursed himself for a fool. All he'd done was give them another hostage, with nothing to show for it. He slipped on a damp grating, swaying as he tried to regain his balance. One of the gunmen pushed him in the back, and he staggered and slid down several steps to the next landing, leaving a trail of soft skin, slime, and blood behind him.
'Shit. That's a paranorm? My grandmother could put up more of a fight. It can't even walk downstairs without falling over. Get up, creep.'
This one sounded like he came from the Midlands. Arnold was surprised that they weren't Arabs or Irish. He struggled back on to his feet and started down again, the terrorists following. As the second man crossed the landing he slipped on some of Arnold's slime, stumbling forward and pushing the other.
'Watch it. You nearly had us both over. Stop there, frog.'
Arnold realized that he was at the bottom, in an echoing tunnel linking the piers deep below the Thames. He turned towards the gunmen, a sudden plan crossing his mind, and tried to look harmless.
'Get on with it, we haven't got all day.'
The chatty terrorist raised his gun and poked Arnold in the stomach. Arnold flicked his tongue out to one of the gunman's grenades, and frantically tried to pull the pin. It wouldn't budge. The terrorist punched Arnold in the jaw and knocked him to the floor.
'Bloody hell, be careful. He nearly had you then.'
Braddock kicked Arnold in the stomach, drew a knife, and grabbed the end of Arnold's tongue. He pulled sharply, then coughed and toppled to the floor. The other terrorist spun round, and fell clutching his chest. He landed on Arnold, slamming his head against the tunnel floor.
As Arnold's vision dimmed he saw blood oozing from Colin's forehead, and the blurred shapes of his rescuers. He just had time to feel surprised before he passed out.
'How are you feeling?' Steve Watkins poked his head around the door to Arnold's hospital room, following it with a body carrying a bunch of grapes and a bottle of Scotch. 'Not too bad, really.' Arnold squirmed in the bed not wanting to reveal that his wounds were embarrassingly superficial, mostly scraped skin and bruises.
'Those commandos certainly turned up in the nick of time. You were bloody lucky.' Watkins absent-mindedly took a couple of the largest grapes, and popped them into his mouth.
Arnold winced as he remembered. 'Someone told me they were on a scuba training exercise a couple of miles upstream. When they heard about the terrorists they just loaded up with real ammunition and set off downstream. Didn't even bother waiting for authorization.'
'Yes ... they're in a lot of trouble about that, or would be if the papers weren't calling them heroes.'
'They are heroes, they caught the rest of the terrorists without anyone else getting hurt.'
'Funny thing, that.'
'Seems that the terrorists weren't up to much. The bloke who was leading them was some sort of Rambo fan. He read all the mercenary magazines. Seems he answered an advert and found himself talking to a computer that seemed to think he was a big-time terrorist. He played along, and it told him where to pick up the equipment. All the others were his friends and people who advertised in the magazine. Funny, that.'
'It wouldn't have been funny if they'd set off the explosives.'
'Didn't anyone tell you? They did. He pressed the button when the commandos broke in. Lots of smoke and noise, plenty of pyrotechnics, but it hardly damaged the paint-work on the Barrier. They surrendered pretty quickly after that. Their guns and grenades weren't up to much either: old military-surplus practice ammo with reduced charges. They could have killed you, but they would have had to work at it.'
'It's all very odd.'
'Well, I've got my own ideas about that, and there are some funny rumours going around at the Beeb. Do you remember a few years ago, what they called the Falklands' factor? They reckon the government was re-elected on the strength of that war, and the Iranian embassy siege before that didn't hurt either. Showed they were tough enough for the job.'
'So?' Arnold grabbed a few grapes from the rapidly-vanishing bunch.
'Well ... The government's bloody unpopular right now. The betting is that there'll be an election in a few months. If the commandos hadn't shown up there would have been a long siege, then everyone reckons the SAS would have taken the terrorists out without letting them detonate the charges. They've got the equipment and the paranorms to handle that sort of problem. If they'd gone in shooting there wouldn't have been any survivors, just dead terrorists and bags of publicity. The bomb-disposal people would have steamed off the explosives without finding out how feeble they were. The government shows that it's tough and waves all the old flags; land of hope and glory, the bulldog breed, and so forth. They would have walked it at the polls.'
'Well, it's all looking a little silly now. A bunch of dangerous terrorists threatening to destroy London is one thing, a bunch of incompetent amateurs with fire-works is something else. It looks like their weapons were diverted from Army stores, so everyone has egg on their faces. If I'm right, my guess is that the government will try to play the whole thing down now. Pretend it never happened.'
'If you're right about what?'
'Someone must have pulled a lot of strings to organize that raid, and they never did find out who reported it to the police. Now suppose that someone high up in the government was behind it all...'
'That's paranoia. There's no evidence.'
'None. Never will be, if my guess is right'
'Wouldn't the government have made sure that the commandos were out of the way?'
'They weren't supposed to be there until next week, but someone mixed up two sets of orders. If they'd got it right they would have been in Portsmouth on Saturday. I'm not sure what to make of that; it could just be a normal cock-up, or maybe someone decided to put a spoke in the government's wheel. There's no way of knowing.'
'Do you really believe all that?'
'Why not? I can't prove it, so what does it matter?'
'What about me?'
'What about you? Most of the papers seem to think you were one of the hostages, the rest reckon you just got in the way. We didn't get any footage, because the police moved the camera van back while you were swimming out to the Barrier. At the moment everyone in the media is keeping a very low profile. I doubt they'll have you on the Wogan show, someone might ask the wrong sort of questions.'
'Wonderful. You've really made my day.'
After Watkins left, Arnold glared at the ceiling and wondered about his future. He didn't really believe in a conspiracy, but there certainly hadn't been much of a rush to interview him in hospital. He was interrupted as the door swung open again.
'Arnold — I mean ... um ... Captain Croak — well done.'
'Hello, Mr Sabbith.'
'You're a genius, Captain. A bloody genius.'
'I don't understand.'
'That little film you made on Saturday.'
'What, at the swimming pool?' Arnold angrily remembered the fake documentary.
'No, afterwards, the film of you turning into a frog.'
Arnold thought for a moment, then remembered Steve Watkins holding a camera. 'I remember it. What about it?'
'The chap that filmed you showed it to some friends. One of them happens to work in the BBC special-effects department.'
'So, do you know how much something like that would cost if you tried to fake it? I'll tell you: thousands of pounds. As soon as he saw it he got on to me, offering you a job. Of course you'll have to spend most of your time in frog form, and wear a lot of makeup, but it's a chance in a million. At least four episodes, maybe six if we're lucky.'
'Episodes of what?'
'Didn't I say? Doctor Who, what else! I think they're going to call it "The Toad-Devils of Xenopus", or something like that. Every kid in the country will watch it. You're going to be famous!'
'As a special effect?' Arnold said indignantly.
'Look at it this way. They'll pay you to do it, and its bound to give you a bit of publicity. Anything unusual gets attention. And that's not all ...'
'What do you mean?'
'My nephew Reuben works for the Children's Film Foundation, and he's told me that they want to make their own monster movie. They're already working on the model city. They were going to use a bloke in a rubber suit, but if the Doctor Who deal goes through Reuben's practically guaranteed to give you a starring role. Keep your diary clear for the end of August, that's when you'll be destroying London!'
Arnold leaned back against the pillow, munched the last grape, and began to smile.