Yellow, fetid clouds boiled over the countryside, casting a feverish glow on the landscape and the monoliths of Stonehenge. Strange flashes of light were seen deep in the clouds; in Stoke-on-Trent there was a rain of fish.
In London, the ravens flocked the air on clamorous wings, departing the Tower and setting off down the river towards the sea.
All over the world, the great colourful carnival that was the end of the world wound up towards its deafening climax.
In a field a short way from Stonehenge, a thin, dapper little man had settled down to have a picnic. Tim reasoned that he may as well face death on a full stomach, and the roadside café had really good luncheon rolls. Now he settled his back against a fence post, and unwrapped the roll, setting the wrapper neatly on his knees to catch the crumbs. He felt, strangely, at peace, for the first time in several weeks. Since he had met the monk, in fact.
Now there was nothing more he could do. He had tried to get in to the Stonehenge complex, but been turned back by the Marine guards. If the Twilight of the Gods was really upon them, it would have to do without his contribution.
The happy assassin took a small bite out of the roll, and wiped his chin free of tomato juice. He was his own master again. Life was good.
In this peaceful frame of mind, he was totally unprepared for the spitting, clawing ball of fur which suddenly dropped on his head.
He felt a razor-sharp pain along his forehead, yelped and jerked back. The breakfast roll went flying unfinished into the hedge. He felt claws scrabbling on his shirt, pinpricks in his chest, saw a totally evil little cat face thrust into his.
"ttiimmmMM..." it whined.
"Boss?!? is it YOU?"
"yoo BRoUght me BaCK, tiM...diDN't You?"
"Sure boss. Course I did."
The fact that this was stretching the truth a little didn't even cross Tim's mind.
"wee'VE gOt tO geT oOUt of HEere TiM... tHoSe b******s hAve CaTniiP... yOU'll tAke CAre oF mEEe, WoN'T yoU, tIm? MeeOOWWW..."
"Oh yes boss. Absolutely." Cats are notorious for their ability to manipulate humans; in this case the Leicestercat was helped by some strategically placed claws. Tim didn't so much speak as squeak.
"i'LL mAKe thOse AgENCy DogS pAaaAyyy... buT fIrst, Do yOU KNoW wHat I WAnt?"
"A saucer of cream and a ball of string, boss?"
"shTOp sNiggerwing, tiiiM. mY neeeDs aRE dIfFereNT NoW, That'Sss aLL. aLSo, sOmE wHIshkAs..."
The dastardly duo walked and padded down the motorway and out of our story, for the moment. But it would be foolish to underestimate the evil malevolence of the Leicestercat - we haven't heard the last of him...
Back in the Apocalypse Chamber, things had taken a turn for the Biblical.
Bob stepped forward, uncomfortable in his bulky heavenly armour, and hefted the heavy fiery sword. He was sweating profusely, uncomfortably aware that something was expected of him. The bloodied monk was staring at him with those deep-set, grey eyes... Bob felt himself slipping...
A sharp crack on the head brought him to his senses. Jill glared at him.
"Focus, you lemon. And if you mess this up..." chided Jill.
Bob gulped, and turned back to the monk, who was looking on, amused, and tapping his foot.
"Trouble vis ze voman, yah? Unt you call yourself a Champion..."
The Champion, feeling distinctly ordinary, took another step into the chamber, and tried to fix the monk with a steely glare.
"Now see here - " he began. Then he realised that Rasputin wasn't paying attention. The monk had in fact turned his back and was messing with the laundry wringer, oblivious to Bob's presence.
"Hey, hey! I wasn't finished! Excuse me, umm... Mr Rasputin? Stop that! What are you doing?!? Stop!"
Rasputin slapped his forehead. he looked over his shoulder, and grinned. It was a terrible sight. The ground began rumbling slightly, like distant thunder.
"Vy don't you make me stop, you silly little Henglishman? You nekulturny turd, I haf seen more life in a... Digestive biscuit. Hah!"
"Well, there's no need to get personal..."
Realising that he wasn't quite filling his armour, so to speak, Bob lunged forward and swung clumsily with the fiery sword. Rasputin side-stepped with a cackle, and shot out his arm. Bob overbalanced and landed with a small cloud of dust on the floor next to the altar. The fiery sword flew out of his grip, and out of reach.
"B****r! Come back here..." said Bob clambering after it.
Bob struggled in the heavy armour, and managed to roll over.
All around him, the ground was shaking. Rocks began falling from the domed ceiling, bouncing around and over him. Twisting his head, he saw the ground around the altar was falling away - a sudden rush of heat from the crevase made him strain backwards as the chasm opened up into into a pit of churning lava.
He was left on an island, isolated from the other Agents, with the sacrificial alter, Apocolyptic laundry wringer and Rasputin. Flickering red light filled the chamber, giving an appropriately sinister air. This is about where the 'Dominus' chorus would kick in, if this was a film. You'll just have to hum it to yourself...
Now the monk was looming over him, grinning evilly.
"Vot do you sink off my little toy? It does bluddy good tricks, da? Now maybe I mess YOU up, like I mess up your very funny friend, Mr Clown"
He was hauled up, and slammed back on the altar by the wiry but incredibly strong President of the United States, who then produced a stiletto blade and pressed it up against his throat. Bob smelt oil, blood and sweat as Rasputin thrust his lined, twitching face very close.
"Now you vill all DIE, vot do you sink of that, eh, my Henglish friend?"
And suddenly Bob was overtaken by a great surge of annoyance. He hadn't asked to be mixed up in secret agent games or apocalyptic conspiracies, or chosen as some kind of divine tool, or fight megalomaniacs over pits of lava. It was, what, eight o' clock? All he wished was to be on his comfy sofa-bed watching "Ready, Steady, Cook!" and wearing slippers. This immense tide of miffed-ness swept through his body like a red tide, eventually reaching his mouth, where it erupted.
"OH, WHY DON'T YOU JUST PUSH OFF!!!"
He roared, shoving back the monk with unexpected strength, and slapping him upside the face in the process. Rasputin fell back, nearly toppled over into the abyss, but regained his balance with cat-like grace and cast an appreciative look at Bob.
"Aha, not all tea unt crumpets, zen? Very vell - let's dance!"
Meanwhile across the sea of molten rock....
"What's happening now?" demanded Richter.
"They're circling each other... Rasputin is saying something to Bob...." Guy squinted "What..? I think Gonzaroolio is trying something..."
Horrible pain clouded Gonzaroolio's mind. Before the Agents had arrived, Rasputin had used him for amusement for several minutes, and now his face was laced with blood, with a broken nose and two black eyes. He had somehow retained his little red nose, and this was a comfort to him in what all his carefully honed assassins instincts screamed to be an inescapable situation.
Diminished as he was by the years of drinking... he knew these were his last moments. And no clown was going to die with out a large red hooter.
Now episodes from his long, eventful life played out on the ragged cinema screen of his mind. The first time he had told the old Don that he wanted to become a clown, and the old man's fury. His first unicycle. His first cycle-by shooting. The giddy thrill he had gotten after killing the Communist Premier of Czechoslovakia with a bunch of flowers. Great days...
He felt his life ebbing away, his blood flowing out, weakening him. Worse, he was unpleasantly aware that he would have to do something incredibly noble before he died, to make up for a life of crime and depravation.
The old Don, his father, would have called it a 'debt of honour'.
Gonzaroolio saw it as a massive incovienience and a bloody pain. 'may as well get on with it.'
Gritting his teeth against the terrible agony that flew down his arms as he tried to negotiate his fractured shoulder through a twist, he turned over and slipped the ropes off his wrist - escapology was one of his specialities - and shook his head groggily.
He saw the monk inches away from him, facing away, shouting something at... was that Bob??
"Ve vill see hif your spit unt vinegar vill last, eh?, ven I haf buried zis knife in your guts, haha! Vere is your pretty sword gone, Henglishman? Maybe you vill knock me out viz your big stiff hupper lip, da?"
Rasputin seemed to swim in the heat haze rising from the lava pit, and he tossed the stiletto blade from one hand to the other. He was grinning madly, and foaming slightly.
Bob spat out a bloody tooth, knocked out when he had fallen, and growled. Unfortunately he was a mild-mannered chap at heart, and found it hard to keep in the berserker frame of mind. The Russian's incessant chattering didn't help, either.
"Why don't you just shut up, you dirty, silly fool!" he shouted hoarsely. Insults weren't his strong point. The monk reared up in mock-horror, and whistled.
Bob saw it first: A dark, twitching figure rise up behind the monk; from the smeared makeup and bruised red nose, he knew it could only be Gonzaroolio.
The clown winked painfully at him, and reached into his sleeve. He fumbled for a moment, then drew out a long line of colourful handkerchiefs, all tied together. A pigeon flew out too, cooed and fluttered off in a cloud of feathers.
Rasputin half-turned at the bird-call, but it was too late. The clown's garotte was viciously yanked around his neck, and dragged him back. Gonzaroolio put every particle of his remaining strength into pulling back on the colourful choker, trying to cut off the monk's windpipe.
Rasputin struggled with wild fury, lashing back with fingernails and feet, but the grim clown stood firm.
"Bob, grab his arms!" shouted the clown.
Bob darted forward and circling around, attempted to get hold of Rasputin's flailing limbs, but only caught a hand in the face for his trouble, which sent him teetering at the edge of the precipice. He lost balance, half-fell and swung an arm over the edge in time to save himself.
The heavenly armour weighed him down, making every movement an effort. Tremendous heat washed over him from the Pit, as he scrabbled for a handhold. He heard grunts and sounds of the fight proceeding.
Eventually dragging himself over the edge, he saw that the mad, half-dead monk had somehow slipped his multi-coloured noose and had now facing the haggard clown, who stood on the edge.
Time stopped. Bob's eyes met Gonzaroolio's own. He could see the resignation and tiredness in his swollen, bloody eyes.
Gonzarolio looked upwards at the looming figure of the monk.
"I don't suppose you'd care to sniff my button hole?" he hoarsely enquired of the evil monk.
"Vot? Do you plead for mercy?"
The clown shrugged fatalistically. There was a blur of robes, a sharp crack, and then he was just gone, disappeared over the edge.
Rasputin turned, and Bob cringed. The monk had a livid red line around his neck, dripping blood all over his black cassock and giving him a well-hard appearance. He snarled, an animal sound, and advanced.
"You see vot happens to your very funny friend, Mr Clown? Vell, I vill take my TIME viz you, Henglishman, make you beg for ze Lord's forgiveness..."
Only Annabel, from her position trussed up on the altar, could see that Gonzaroolio had left more behind than a few bloodstains.
Directly in the monk's path, there lay a blackened, shrivelled old banana peel...
It is, of course, universally acknowledged that the Universe loves a good joke. Just take giraffes for example. And the simpler a joke is, the better. This one is really going to have them rolling around on the floor.
Feels like I'm falling... or...
Gonzaroolio opened his eyes.
Gonzaroolio sat up.
He felt an odd disquiet. Not because he was uncomfortable - quite the reverse in fact. All his wounds inflicted by Rasputin had vanished, the old aches and twinges had dissolved away; the pull in the pit of stomach, the parched sensation at the back of his throat, the legacy of years of alcohol abuse, were all gone. He felt well. For the first time... ever.
"Feels strange doesn't it?"
Gonzaroolio shifted on his hands, turning around, trying to locate the source of the voice.
The owner of the voice was a man. The first thing that you noticed about him was he was thin, really, quite extraordinarily thin.
He sat in a chair - well sort of slouched, no he... reclined in a regal sort of manner - leaning into one side of the high-back chair, a leg cast notiantly over on arm-rest.
He was wreathed in many glamourous cloaks that hung around him down to his ankles. He sort of drooped like a sheet blowing in the breeze. He stroked a small grey and whispy beard that extended a couple of inches from his chin.
The real kicker though was his eyes. They sat like electric diamonds beneath his two grey, perpetually arched eyebrows and crackled with an unfathomable joy when they fell upon you. They made you want to laugh.
Gonzaroolio was obviously still taking all of this in.
The man cast his eyes around the pale non-descript milky-whiteness which seemd to extened to limit of sight in every direction.
"How do you feel?" he asked smiling gently.
"Um... okay, I... think... who?"
"Am I?" finished the man with a wry grin and a slow nod.
Gonzaroolio nodded back, his brow furrowed deep in confusion.
"I am Pan." said the man
Something was bothering Gonzaroolio.
"Am I? - "
"Oh." said the clown a little down-beat.
"HIM? No." he self-effaced with tiny chuckle, and steepling his fingers, leaning forward said: "HE is away on business - the workload gets farmed out to the lower divisions if things get a bit busy.
I am the pagan god of mischief."
He tapped his hands on the rests of the chair, gave a quick clap and in a flash was on his feet. Everything about the way Pan moved was a performance and a dance.
"So this is Heaven?" said Gonzaroolio casting a critical eye about the uniformly bland walls.
"Mmm-hmm." nodded Pan through pursed lips and segued like a tap dancer over to where Gonzaroolio stood.
He placed a comforting arm on the clown's shoulder and gestured with his free hand.
"All of this... Heaven - frightfully boring, let me tell you."
"Oh yes. The light entertainment is organised by senior managment and between you and me - Peter couldn't get a rise out yeast."
Gonzaroolio startled on a small chuckle.
"Oh you liked that? I authored all the great ones. Some of the less great ones too. You've heard of The Divine Comedy - that was me. Dante got it all confused of course. I mean I said 'comedy' but these humans all have there own ideas. " said Pan rolling his eyes and spiralling with his index finger round his forehead.
A thought crossed the clown's mind: "The chicken?" mumbled Gonzaroolio in sudden, inspired awe.
"Oh yes." said Pan beaming with incandescent pride. "Would you like to know why?" Pan said grinning like a cat.
"Uh-huh." said Goonzarrolio nodding furiously. No self-respecting clown could possibly expire without at least trying to find out why the chicken had crossed the road.
Pan cupped his hand around the clowns ear and whispered something.
The clown, smiled then the smirk spread across his cheeks and he laughed for a long time. He had to rest his hands on his knees while he fought to regain his breath but all of sudden found he had no need. For he had no breath left to breathe.
Pan reached into his lapel pocket and produced a small black box like a remote control. It had a single button.
When he pressed it, then was the sound as of gears far away sliding into position and from the featureless, milky background two huge gates opened and brilliant white light spilled out.
"Cor!" cooed the clown.
Pan crossed his arm once more behind Gonzaroolio and led him forward, the pair silhouetted aginst the light.
"Do they have a stage?" Gonzaroolio was heard to ask as he disolved into nothingness.
"Cabaret on Wednesdays but we'll soon see to that, eh?" said Pan.
"Yessir." saluted the voice of Gonzaroolio
"I think this could be the start of a long and beautiful friendship."
"You've got talent kid, there's no denying it. That thing with the bannana you just pulled - masterful!"
"It was nothing." self-effaced the clown.
"No, no - it had style."
The textured air that now was the clown could, had any mortal being been there to witness it, have been seen to blush slightly but seeing as this is clearly impossible you'll just have to take our word for it.
"Who's th - "
And with that, the gates of Heaven closed and the light faded....