Ever since the disastrous foiled invasion of Manchu China in the 12th century, there has been a collective awareness amongst followers of the Cult of the Dying Pilchard regarding the vital importance of food before any great undertaking. Our present band of conspirators had thus adjourned to a small restaurant down the street from the bank to go over the plan one last time, drink coffee and eat huge, disgusting rounds of Swiss cheeses....
Sreka laughed. 'No, no. Let me tell you what "Mmmbop" was all about. It is not just some happy, summery tune. Hanson are too smart for that.'
Vandeveer raised an eyebrow. 'Convince me.'
The Russian leaned forward. 'Okay, what "Mmmbop" is really about, it is about this chick. And I'm talking about a regular f—'
Mary, seated at the head of the table, rapped her knuckles on the Formica surface. 'Enough of this gay banter!' she barked. 'We are professionals, aren't we?' Sreka made a face and sat back.
Now von Trapp scraped a tiny amount of cheese from his front tooth, flicked it at the passing waiter and spoke, addressing Vandeveer, Sreka and Daltmooreby collectively. 'My colleague has, of course, hit the proverbial Steufel on the proverbial Kopf. You are of course by now aware that we are representatives of an organisation known as The Cult — it is not given to you to know any more.' Von Trapp looked pointedly at Vandeveer, simmering at the other end of the table. 'Mary and I were tasked with bringing together a team of certain abilities, the best in the world, to complete a particular task.' Those assembled around the table gave small grins and preened slightly. 'Unfortunately, we found ourselves restricted to Central Europe and an unforgiving deadline, so you will have to suffice.' Several egos deflated slightly.
Mary continued. 'Sean, your father was a loyal occultist amongst our number. We look to you now, as a former Agent with some insight into the workings of those who pursue us, should they trouble us further, to see that they fail.' She turned then to Sreka and smiled kindly. 'Andrei, as you do not tire of telling us, your impressive criminal background has given you the means and capability to effectively infiltrate any secure location. You will prove this to us today, no doubt.' The Russian exposed his teeth and nodded like a sinister jack-in-the-box.
Vandeveer cleared his throat, realised he wasn't fulfilling his supervillainous charter and banged on the table. 'And what of me?'
Von Trapp grinned nastily. 'Aha, the degenerate Dutchman speaks.' He leaned over the table and spoke into Vandeveer's face. 'Your role will become clear to you. And with your cooperation, you may just see your daughter attend her riding class next week. Hmm.'
Vandeveer turned red, then white, then finally settled for his flustered pink.
More coffee was ordered, and Mary spoke up again. 'Once again, let us review the tasks you have been appointed, so we all know where we stand. Sean?'
The ex-Agent flicked a loose strand of hair from his brow and attempted a seductive burr. 'Yes, my dear?'
She looked at him blankly for a moment with the air of one unused to being addressed that way, then smiled hugely. 'Sean. It gives me great pleasure to remind you that... you're in the shit.'
Ten minutes later and Daltmooreby was up to his waist — in waste. He flicked on his penlight, glanced at the laminated map strapped to his arm and waded down a branching passageway. The raw stink from an adjoining pipe made him gag, and he again considered the possibility of retirement. Too many glamorous nights out at casinos, beautiful women hanging off his arm ended the next morning with him broke, hungover, in debt and occasionally missing his pants, sometimes washing dishes to pay off his colossal debts. No, there was no money left. To work.
He clambered up a short ladder, did something fiendishly complicated to the security system attached to the manhole cover and passed on up into fresher air. He shed the wetsuit and slithered through the vents until he came to a grate. Beneath him, six off-duty security guards were playing poker. He hunkered over the grate, rested the gun on his left forearm and waited. Three minutes later, a voice in his ear spoke: 'Proceed.'
Tossing her fiery mane like the heroine of a cheap paperback romance, Mary turned to Sreka. 'You understand your job?'
He yawned, and nodded. 'It is... quite simple. Da.'
Ten minutes later, Sreka yawned again. Now he was sitting in the security centre of the Pfennigstohler bank, in a concrete bunker somewhere deep inside the bank interior. On the monitors in front of him, images of the bank's lobby, offices, vaults and security posts flickered in monochrome. Discarded on the floor behind him was a garish uniform and an empty pile of pizza boxes.
Trembling in front of him was the security chief of the bank, a god-fearing, loyal family man with a shameful craving for extra toppings that had proved his undoing. The Russian had been amusing himself by gently tapping out popular tunes from the music hall on the man's balding skull, when he noticed three figures enter the lobby on the monitor. Three minutes later, a voice in his ear spoke: 'Proceed.'
Von Trapp slurped his coffee appreciatively. 'And you, Vandeveer, will be coming with Miss Mary and me. We will enter the lobby at precisely eleven thirty-eight...'
'You will need this,' Mary said, handing Vandeveer a bulky 'antler' suit-carrier.
Ten minutes later, at precisely eleven-thirty-eight, Horst Pfennigstohler strode forward to greet his illustrious client in the marble bank lobby, completely unaware that he would be dead in three minutes. Had he known, his smile might have been a little less ingratiating, his voice a touch less servile... or perhaps not. He was a banker to the core.
'General Drnstbetsky!' he crowed. 'A pleasure to meet you at last, sir! And this must be your lady-wife — enchanté, madame.'
The General, immaculately presented in military dress whites, fingered his collar uncomfortably and perspired visibly. He gave a shallow bow. His wife, a stunning redhead, beamed and let the banker take her hand. Their bodyguard, who bore an uncanny similarity to a young Telly Savalas, stood patiently by.
'I am authorised to tell you that there will be no problem at all with your deposit, General. We are a discreet operation; it is not for us to enquire as to the origin of your millions, and we all feel very strongly that media reports on this matter have greatly exaggerated your part in the — ahaha — Armenian... unpleasantness — ahaha — won't you please step this way?'
Three minutes later, in the manager's office, Mary pressed a finger to her ear and said 'Proceed.' Horst wondered what she meant, but not for very long.
Mary folded her arms. 'Are we all clear, then, on our respective roles? Good.' She stood up and patted her jacket. 'I'll settle the bill. You people... think you can manage the tip for the waiter?'
Sreka spat. 'I do not tip.'
Von Trapp clucked. 'Come on, a few francs won't kill you...'
Sreka pouted. 'I do not believe in it.'
Mary growled. 'Well.'
'I will settle the question,' announced Sreka wearily and, producing a silenced pistol, he neutralised the waiter with two shots to the back. After the crashing and clattering of plates had disappeared, there was a disgusted silence around the table and somebody muttered, 'Cheap sod...' Then they got up and went to work.
The dense vegetation cleared and Arthur and X found themselves on an active and popular ski-slope. Weaving occasionally to avoid the skiers barrelling past, Arthur and X waded through snow and up a steep incline, following the slope towards the ski-lift platform near the top of the range that would take them safely back to ground level. The Premier was already waiting there impatiently with Sfret.
The Premier was grunting to himself, shadow-boxing and occasionally hitting the lift-poles till the ice cracked and fell. The monk was tracing hermetic symbols in the snow and singing quietly to himself. When the Agents appeared over the brow of the hill, the Premier waved his arms impatiently. 'Come! We are wasting time.'
At this moment the lift juddered to a halt at the platform. 'Put your hands in the air, bags of scum! Polizei!'
A phalanx of armed, uniformed men piled out of the cab and took up strategic positions in the immediate environment; another handful formed a small corridor, down which walked a figure the Prime Minster recognised in an instant. 'Vice-Premier Gustav Knett!' The secondmost senior politician in Switzerland sneered at his superior's exclamation and clicked his booted heels together.
'At your service, sir.'
'My greatest nemesis!' The Premier backed off slightly and the unsettling sound of guns being cocked filled the mountain air. Sfret scratched his head and tried to look inoffensive.
'Or should I say that I was at your service...' Arms folded behind his back, flanked by his masked gunmen, Knett advanced on the Premier and smiled like a satisfied watermelon. '... until your unfortunate death while taking a skiing holiday. You should have had the good grace to die back in your office, Herr Premier.'
The Premier growled and cracked his knuckles. 'It was you who organised it! For the love of God, Knett, does my job mean that much to you? What of the nation?'
Down the slope, some way off but within earshot of all of this, were Arthur and X. At the first sign of trouble, Arthur and X had dived for cover behind a drift that had formed around a recumbent American lady-tourist who was having difficulty getting up. Peering around her flanks, they observed the drama unfolding.
X chambered a round in his pistol, and Arthur grabbed his right arm. 'Too many, old friend.'
X turned around and something immediately caught his eye. 'I have an idea,' he said.
Arthur followed his partner's gaze, and grinned. 'It would just be criminal not to steal that...'
Knett arched an eyebrow. 'What of it? I have in mind a new nation... a nation governed by myself and my new colleagues, a glorious new theocracy where the weakness and vacillation of your democracy are cast aside and replaced with the glorious certainties of the whip and the barbed wire....' He spread his arms in an all-encompassing gesture and closed his eyes ecstatically. '...one nation under the Pilchard!'
Caressing a pistol in his gloved hands, he stepped closer to the Premier, his thugs advancing alongside him. 'Now. On your knees, old man.'
The Premier clambered onto the aforementioned knees with bad grace, hissing to Sfret. 'When I move, dive behind the pole and stay there.' More loudly, he declared, 'You'll never get away with this, Gustav, you madman.'
The Vice-Premier chortled. 'Mad, Herr Premier? I am enlightened and you will be dead. Now...' He levelled the pistol at the Premier's head, the dark barrel a bare inch from the old politician's forehead. 'I propose a motion of no confidence. Ahahaha!" He laughed maniacally. His finger tensed on the trigger...
...and then the world went very fast for a moment, which ended with Knett clutching at his throat, sprawled on his back in the snow, with the Premier standing over him, gun in hand, pointing at the traitor's forehead. The Premier flicked an errant strand from his comb-over and drawled, 'Motion not carried.' The elite guard around the Vice-Premier were backing off in confusion. It wasn't supposed to go like this, and Sfret also scrambled to his feet.
'Now, Herr Premier... d-d-don't do anything you'll r-r-regret!' the Vice-Premier quavered. The Premier's eyes didn't leave Knett, who had started twitching. 'What... what are you going to do to me, sir?' asked the treacherous Vice-Premier.
His master smiled horribly. 'I'm going to fire you, Gustav.' A hot, tense moment followed, in which the Premier's arm flexed and Knett threw up his arms. Then the Premier spoke again. 'You're fired. Have your ministry cleared out by five o' clock.' Sfret sagged in relief as the Premier turned and walked away.
Seconds later, the Premier detected the unmistakable sound of a serrated blade being drawn from a sheaf around the ankle. He swung around even before he heard the strangled cry: 'Auf Wiedersehen, Herr Premier!'
The Swiss Prime Minister fired and the knife flew from his attacker's hands to thump gently into the snow, which was, coincidentally, also what the Vice-Premier had just done. Either he had messily removed his own head as an elaborate bluff, or he was very dead. The Premier curled his lip. 'Auf Wiedersehen, Knett.' A triumphant little guitar riff hung in the air for a moment, the origin of which was never detected.
Now a volley of shots1 rang out from behind them. 'Freeze, thieves!'
At this opportune moment, Arthur and X made their long-delayed arrival in what appeared to be a sleigh drawn by a small team of reindeer. The Swiss Premier collected Sfret and the pair hopped in. X whipped up the team, swung the sleigh round madly and careened down the slope.
Arthur stuck his head over the back of the sleigh. Not to pressure you, old friend...' A shot rang out and a shower of woodchips erupted from the back of the sleigh. '...but they're following us on skis.' He turned around to find a more pressing concern approaching, and yelled with Sfret and the Premier: 'Watch out for that tree!'
X did miss it, very deftly slipping to one side just before it whipped by, up the slope. One of their pursuers was not so mindful and broke several ribs with a hilarious crump noise. The Premier leant over the back of the sleigh and took a few pot shots at the pursuers with Knett's revolver. X blinked some sweat out of his eyes and peered over the straining backs of the team of reindeer. Machine-gun fire whined over his head and he flinched. There seemed to be rather less mountain than he was anticipating... he vaguely remembered passing a series of large red signs warning of treacherous drops...
But by the time the three passengers yelled: 'Watch out for that cliff!' There was honestly very little he could do. Legs flailing in the empty air, the reindeer shot over the edge of the cliff, pulling the hapless sleigh behind them. In a perfect world, it would have been silhouetted against a full moon — but it wasn't. In a perfect world, it would have flown — but it didn't. The fact that this is regrettably not a perfect world was not foremost in the minds of our heroes as they plunged screaming towards the rooftops of the town far below....
Bjorn the daredevil trapeze artist had arranged this all himself; he was very proud. His friends and family were all in the front row. Several local newspaper reporters formed a tight circle, huddled together sipping coffee and exchanging pleasantries in that way that journalists do. This was his grandest-ever stunt — and all for charity. The orphans would get that new extension he had promised them.
All those months of practising in the barn would pay off today. Carefully placing one foot across the taught wire, he once again steadied his balance and looked out to his goal. 'I just need to concentrate,' he thought. He was not quite a third of the way across when the most unexpected thing happened. A distant gasp from below distracted him, and like the rest of the crowd and assembled media, he looked up. A bright red sleigh eclipsed the sky and all Bjorn could do was to stare aghast at the impending disaster about to befall him.
The sleigh landed astride the wire that held Bjorn aloft, bending the poles at either end inward and pulling the wire into an unnatural dip. Bjorn began to slide uncontrollably toward the sleigh. He gripped his pole fiercely, trying not to tip over. The reindeer at the front of the sleigh fell into a thankfully deep drift of snow and their harnesses broke. Suddenly freed of this frontal ballast, the sleigh did what came natural to it, flipping head over-heels and flinging the occupants out in a high arc. The sleigh pinwheeled to the ground and smashed into a thousand splinters.
The rope, devoid of this great weight, snapped back to its former taut state. Bjorn was catapulted 100 feet into the air2.
Arthur, X and Sfret, who had been sitting in the front of the sleigh, tumbled through the air. Above the wind, Arthur managed 'This... is... going... to... hurt' before the three disappeared through the upper skylight of a local warehouse.
The Swiss Premier, who had been sitting in the back and had been shot on a different trajectory, landed abruptly and unceremoniously in a different snow drift with a sort of 'flumpf' sound as he disappeared up to his ankles in snow, on the far side of the street from Bjorn's impressive gymnastics. He wriggled and pulled himself free of the snow bank and stared into the lenses of the assembled media, some of whom were looking for survivors. Others knew better and feared their editors more, so had hung around for a few more photographs. There was a generally acclaimed shock as the Prime Minister emerged, looking a bit bedraggled, from the drift of snow. 'Um, did you see where the others went?' he asked.
The paparazzi, not letting their fingers off their shutters, which continued to clatter open and shut, used their others' hands to point the way to the pillow factory across the way. 'Much obliged, fellas.' He gave them a quick salute and, open-jawed, eyes agape, no one could help but to salute back. The Prime Minister jogged off, illuminated by flashbulbs, to see where his friend Sfret and those British agents had got to.