Errors of Comedy - Chapter 30
In a small but comfortable house on Estate 253 in the Southern Quarter, David and Deborah Daniels sat in front of their television set, trying to digest what 'The Comedian' had said.
'They've taken over the Daily Thompson,' said David quietly. 'My office.'
'Never mind your office,' replied Deborah in a state of shock. 'What about Derek?' David looked at her, unsure of what to say.
'I'm sure Derek can look after himself,' he said, a little uncertainly. He took Deborah's hand and added more firmly, 'of course he can look after himself. He's my son.'
Deborah didn't look too happy about that analysis, but David's eyes were no longer focused on her face. They were currently staring at a point practically indistinguishable from infinity, so it was fortunate that his brain wasn't processing the information it was receiving from them...
Derek was standing in the newsroom at the Daily Thompson. 'The Comedian' came bursting through the door. OK, so 'The Comedian' was actually at the television studios, but symbolically it was him that had just entered the room.
'Ah there you are Daniels.'
How he knew who Derek was, David couldn't explain to himself, but it didn't matter.
'I've been waiting for you, "The Comedian",' said Derek heroically, if not grammatically.
'You can't stop me, Daniels.'
'That's what you think, "The Comedian".'
No, this was no good. He was going to have to stop saying that. How about, 'That's what you think, Mr so-called "Comedian"'? That was much better. OK, so...
'That's what you think, Mr so-called "Comedian",' replied Derek. 'The Comedian' leapt across the room at him but Derek somersaulted backwards onto a desk and aimed a kick at his head. 'The Comedian' ducked and Derek spun around, coming to rest in a defensive posture just in time to parry 'The Comedian's' next blow. Now, how was he going to end this? A combination of punches to 'The Comedian's' head and body reduced him to a quivering, bleeding mass on the floor. Derek leapt lightly from the desk and landed next to him. 'The Comedian' raised his head.
'I give up. You win this time, Daniels. But I'll be back.' He slunk out of the room with his head bowed as the staff of the newsroom gathered around Derek to congratulate him.
The sensation of Deborah gripping his hand pulled David away from the victory celebrations. He looked her in the eyes.
'Of course he can look after himself,' he repeated.
* * *
Outside the Central Hospital, any plans that Ernest Ramsden and his army had for invasion had been well and truly thwarted, although an outside observer would have had some difficulty determining exactly how. One minute they had been standing patiently at a cross-roads, waiting to be shown to the hospital. The man in the white coat, who they had, quite reasonably, assumed was a doctor, had dashed off to make a telephone call. He had come back, mumbled something about 'attending to a heart attack victim' and then run away. The next minute they had been set upon by a squadron of red helicopters spraying thick, white, sticky, suffocating foam everywhere. Or it seemed like everywhere to Ernest and his men, from their vantage point at the epicentre.
In fact the foam was directed with extreme precision to cover the army but leave the nearby buildings and streets unsmothered. They had tried to resist the onslaught at first, but pitchforks and shovels had proved singularly ineffective at repelling the foam and they had eventually fallen. Now they lay in a enormous, white heap in the street, looking as though a gigantic custard-pie fight had taken place there. A few of the more robust individuals made some effort to move but found themselves pinned firmly to the ground by a substance that seemed determined to keep them firmly in their place. One by one they gave up until all that remained was something that resembled a giant, dead trifle.
Inside the hospital, the commotion did not go unnoticed. Doctors, nurses and patients alike all rushed, hobbled, limped or crawled to the windows to see what was going on. Seeing the fire helicopters appear over the horizon, the doctors whooped with delight and rushed to break out the stocks of foam remover. Unfortunately, a couple of the younger doctors got a bit too enthusiastic and dashed out into the street before the fire helicopters had finished their job. The doctors realised their mistake but as they turned to run back into the safety of the hospital, the 'People Are Flammable' programme registered their presence and opened foam on them. The more senior doctors watching from the windows above roared with laughter at the sight of two of their number wallowing in the foam. This would keep them in after-dinner speeches for years to come.
* * *
While all this was happening, Lisa Bach had left the safety of the reclaimed Daily Thompson building and taken a monorail to Sprawling Metropolis television. From her position on the monorail platform, high above the city, she could see the column of men waiting outside the studios. So, the front door wasn't really going to be an option. Well, there had to be another way. She was about to step into the elevator when her reporter's brain gave her a nudge. She returned to the platform, notebook in hand, and wrote a quick description of the scene below, before making her way to street level.
The layout of Sprawling Metropolis, with its network of connecting alleyways, seemed almost custom built to allow her to take a rapid detour to the back of the studio building. There was a fire escape three floors up with a metal staircase that wound its way down to the ground. Lisa climbed the stairs and pushed gently at the door, surprised to see it swing open. She entered the building and looked around. It seemed deserted. Perhaps the staff had been sent home for the day. Would 'The Comedian' mind if he didn't find anyone here when he arrived? That presumably depended on what his plan was. It seemed logical to assume that he wanted the television studios so that he could make more propaganda broadcasts. If that was the case then he would probably be pleased to find no-one in his way. If, however, he was just looking for a fight then he might be a bit upset that there was no-one in his way. Lisa tried not to imagine what a psychotic Northerner was like when he got 'a bit upset'.
Well, whatever he was like, she had a job to do. Clutching her notepad, she moved stealthily along the corridor, which ended in a door. Stepping carefully through, she found herself on what appeared to be a balcony of some sort. All the way along were banks of controls, which Lisa assumed were for the huge lights that hung just above her head. She went further in and peered over the railing. Below her stood 'The Comedian' and a number of his men. They were doing something with a camera and a large, tangled mass of cables. Apparently they were about to make another broadcast, presumably to announce their successful take-over of the central region. Not that successful, though. Part of the attack had already been defeated. She wondered if he knew about that. Oh well, he would find out sooner or later. The men continued to prepare the broadcasting equipment. Lisa considered trying to stop them, but what could she do on her own. This whole operation seemed to be more efficient than Harold's. She got the feeling that things were getting a lot more serious. Even with Andy and the police, it was doubtful whether anything could be done. Not even Derek and his mop would be able to do anything. If only Witty Put-Down Man were here.
On the floor below, Billy continued to direct his men in the preparation for his broadcast.
'Right. You get those two women in here. You fetch the Mayor and that director bloke from next door.' There was a general scurrying around as they complied with his orders. 'Are you ready with that camera?'
'One more minute, Mr Hilarious,' came the tentative reply.
'Good. Sound ready?'
'Yes, Mr Hilarious.'
'Right. We're getting somewhere. Where are those hostages?'
Two doors opened simultaneously. Doris and Sharon were bundled through one, Mayor Burdon and Dick Jones through the other.
'You four, sit down there. And shut up or I'll have you gagged.' He looked round for the most photogenically evil of his men. 'You, you and you, stand behind and look like you're about to kill them.' The men moved into position, weapons hefted. 'And if they move or say anything without my permission, you can.'
Doris, Sharon, Dick Jones and the Mayor tensed involuntarily. High above on the balcony, Lisa winced. A reporter had to witness many unpleasant things, but Mayor Burdon with a pickaxe through him wasn't something anyone should have to see.
Billy turned back to the camera crew, growing impatient.
'Are you ready yet?'
'Ready, Mr Hilarious.'
'Right. Start rolling.'
'Camera rolling.' Billy took a deep breath.
'People of the South,' he began, 'it's me again!'
All over the central region and Southern Quarter, people who had been idly waiting for 'The Paradoxicals' to start suddenly started listening to the television as if their lives depended on it. Which, perhaps, they did.
'You probably don't recognise the room that I'm standing in,' Billy continued, 'there's no reason why you should. But you might just have worked out that it's not the Northern Quarter monorail station. No, my army and I have come a long way since that first broadcast. Literally and metaphorically. Or am I using words that are too long for you? I am sorry. Let me put it another way. This room that I'm standing in, talking to you now, is actually the main studio at your television centre.' He paused for effect. 'Yes. That's right. The television studios. In the central region. We are among you already. Not only have we taken over the television station, but my armies are also occupying the Daily Thompson, the Central Hospital and the Presidential Theatre.'
Billy paused again. He didn't know that for a fact. He was relying on his generals, which didn't give him too much cause for hope. Still, whether it was true or not, it was the psychological effect he was looking for. By the time they found out whether or not they really were occupied, it would be too late.
Tucked away in her hiding place, Lisa was feeling a little more optimistic. So Billy thought that the Daily Thompson had been occupied. That meant that there couldn't be any form of communication between the various parts of his army. And if the attack on the Daily Thompson had failed, there was no guarantee that any of the others had succeeded. The hospital and... the Presidential Theatre? It seemed a strange choice of target, but presumably 'The Comedian' knew what he was doing. Or thought he did.
'Now then,' Billy ploughed relentlessly on, 'let's get down to business. What we wanted was the replacement of Northerners by Southerners on a one-to-one basis. We get your carpets and your air-conditioning. You get to work sixteen hour shifts in dangerous, smelly, dirty, stifling factories. Sounds fair to me. Now, on the off-chance that you don't agree and you're not willing to leave your nice, plush carpets and your cool, clean air-conditioning, I'd like to offer you a little incentive. That's the kind of generous guy that I am.'
He began laughing insanely as the camera swung round to the vignette of four hostages sitting with the axes and shovels hanging over them like some agricultural equivalent of Damocles' sword. Billy's voice continued over the scene.
'What you, the people of the South, are going to do is to turn up here, at Sprawling Metropolis Television and sign yourselves up for the job of your choice in the Northern Quarter. The earlier you turn up, the better job you get. At least you would... if there were any 'better jobs'...' His laughter started again as the picture dissolved into static on screens all over the city. The faint hum from the recording equipment stopped. The laughter didn't.
* * *
While all this was going on inside the studios, two ghosts hung around outside, waiting for Derek to arrive. They looked up at the building with its giant antenna on the roof.
'Quite impressive, isn't it?' said the Irish ghost.
'The higher the buildings, the lower the morals,' said the English ghost.