Errors of Comedy - Chapter 31
In a monorail car, speeding Northwards, sat Commissioner Parker and his faithful deputy. Next to them sat Harold Simpson, all his resistance gone. Behind them were another nine cars, all filled with displaced Northerners. It had taken a few stressful minutes of arguing with a computer before someone human at Monorail Control decided to take over. After which it took another few stressful minutes of shouting down the telephone before he agreed to run this unprecedented number of monorail cars together. The logistical problems involved in packing two thousand men into ten monorail cars had seemed like child's-play afterwards. Eventually the doors had closed and the convoy made its way North.
A number of different emotions were running through the minds of the returning Northerners. There was a sense of relief that everything was over; and tiredness after the long march. They were certainly glad to be going home to their wives and families. Pervading everything was a feeling of confusion as to why they needed to be going home. Why weren't they at home already? Why had they come all this way? More to the point, why had they come all this way for nothing? Some of them had more idea than others. Some had no idea at all. Such was the thorough job that Billy Hilarious had done with his brain-washing that, when the haze had lifted, very few memories remained. So they stood. Staring out of the window if they were lucky. Staring at someone else's back or chest if they weren't.
At the head of the convoy, Eric and Commissioner Parker had just finished watching Billy's broadcast on the small television screens built into the arm of each chair. They looked at each other and then round at Harold, who hadn't moved. Either he hadn't been listening or he didn't care any more. Whichever it was, he was a broken man. The two officers returned to gazing out of the windows at the receding landscape. Eric was the first to speak.
'It's getting a bit serious, isn't it Chief?' Commissioner Parker didn't say anything. 'Still, look on the bright side. "The Comedian" still thinks that this lot have succeeded. We're winning.'
The Commissioner broke his silence.
'They're holding four hostages, including the Mayor, and you think we're "winning" do you?' Eric look shame-faced for a moment and then brightened.
'But they're holding Dick Jones as well.'
'That's not, how shall I put it, "amusing".'
'It is a bit,' said Eric sulkily and then changed the subject. 'So which one are we going to when we get back?'
'Which one what?'
'Well, 'The Comedian' is at Sprawling Metropolis Television and his other armies are at the hospital and the Presidential Theatre.'
'I wonder what he wants with the theatre?' mused Commissioner Parker.
'He does call himself "The Comedian". Perhaps he's going to do some stand-up. We haven't had a decent comedian since William Randall died and that must be about twenty years ago.'
'Stop rambling,' interrupted the Commissioner, 'I'm trying to think.'
Eric shut up, only for the Commissioner's concentration to be broken by his telephone. Before he could react, Eric had grabbed the telephone and answered it.
'Good afternoon, you have reached the Sprawling Metropolis Mobile Police Unit. Please state the nature of your problem and we'll be round later today.'
Commissioner Parker snatched the telephone back.
'Hello?' said the voice on the other end, sounding a little confused.
'Police Commissioner Parker speaking. How may I help you?'
'My name is Horace Lundy. I've just come from the Central Hospital...'
* * *
'Carry on, Mr Lundy,' said Commissioner Parker after Horace had explained about his daring escape and subsequent single-handed calling of the fire-department. 'Where are you now?''I'm standing in a bar and I've just seen "The Comedian's" broadcast on the television.'
Horace stopped. There was something about the broadcast that hadn't quite registered. Suddenly it hit him.
'He's got my wife,' he shouted, dropping the telephone.
'Mr Lundy?' called Commissioner Parker. 'Mr Lundy?' He turned to Eric. 'He's gone.'
'What do you think he'll do?'
'I imagine he'll try and rescue his wife. He's obviously a bit, how can I put it, "deranged". He seems to think he's Dave Brady.'
'So we head for the television studios then?'
'No,' repeated the Commissioner, 'we head for the Presidential Theatre.'
'And your reasoning?'
'Two of the three, what shall I call them, "side-armies" have been defeated quite easily. Due, it seems, to their own incompetence as much as anything else.' He sneaked a quick glance at Harold. No response. 'I think we'd stand a much better chance if went after the third army rather than going after "The Comedian" himself. Besides, having proof of the defeat of all three of his armies will put us in a much better, how shall I put it, "bargaining position".'
Eric nodded slowly.
'And the real reason?' The Commissioner looked at him and a slight grin appeared on his face.
'The situation at the television studios seems to be getting a little too, how shall I put it, "complicated".''I quite agree,' said Eric relieved. 'You never know, by the time we get there, Horace "Paradoxical" Lundy might have sorted everything out for us.'
* * *
At about this time, Arnold Ramsden, purveyor of fine carpets and brother of Ernest, was marching at the head of Billy Hilarious's unplanned fifth army as it approached the Central Hospital. Billy Hilarious himself was unaware of this addition to his forces, although it's doubtful if its presence would have given him any cause for celebration. The small group of salesman had followed Ernest and his army at a discreet distance, taking the opportunity to brush up on their selling techniques on the way. Two members of the group, specially appointed by Arnold, had spent much of the time avidly studying their copy of 'Air-Conditioning Monthly'. Now that they were reaching the end of their journey, they hoped they had acquired sufficient knowledge to enable them to sell air-conditioning to every man, woman and child in the Southern Quarter. Of course, it would be a lot easier if Ernest's army had actually managed to break all the existing air-conditioning units first.
Now Arnold stood, as Ernest had done before him, at a cross-roads, contemplating the road ahead. Following Ernest across the Northern wastelands hadn't been particularly difficult. It had been a simple matter to keep the army just over the horizon. There was never any real danger of losing them. They were heading South. It was a straight line with very little cover for anyone to get lost behind. Here in the Central Region however, things were a little different. Arnold contemplated each of the roads leading away from him. There seemed to be something of a commotion coming from a little way down one of them. With nothing to lose, he decided that that was the way to go. Even if it wasn't Ernest causing all the fuss, it might be someone that they could sell things to.
They walked down the street and turned the corner to witness a bizarre sight. A number of doctors were running up and down carrying what looked like flame-throwers. Sprawling on the ground were hundreds of men covered in foam. Hundreds more stood beside them looking very bedraggled, wringing the excess liquid from their clothing. The doctors aimed their hoses mainly at the men on the ground, but on occasion they would strafe the bystanders, just for the hell of it. At the edge of the group, Arnold noticed his brother and ran over to greet him. This turned out to be a bit of a mistake, as the doctors turned their fire on this new group of 'patients'. They didn't seem to be covered in foam, but you could never be too sure...
Arnold and Ernest stood side by side and dripped. Their armies stood, sat and lay around the street and dripped. The doctors were congratulating each other, with plenty of hand-shaking and back-slapping, but no dripping.
'What are you doing here,' asked Ernest when the torrent of foam-remover down his face had abated sufficiently.
'We...' Arnold spat out a few stray drops, '... came to sell some carpets.'
'And air-conditioning,' called one of the specialists weakly.
'Yeah,' agreed Arnold.
They stood there for a little while longer. By this time, the doctors had gone back into the hospital for a cup of coffee, carrying their foamed, and subsequently soaked, comrades on their shoulders. Arnold watched them disappear through the main doors.
'They were doctors then.' Ernest nodded, feeling as though an extended conversation were beyond him. Arnold rubbed his hands together. 'Good people, doctors. People of taste. Money, too. They probably appreciate a good carpet when they see one.'
Ernest painfully raised his head.
'You're not going to do what I think you're going to do, are you?''Why not? We've come all this way only for them to attack us with their hose-pipes. The least they can do is to buy some carpets.' He signalled to his sales force and they picked themselves up and trooped into the hospital. Arnold stood on a chair and cleared his throat loudly. Everyone turned to see what was going on.
'Northerners!' shouted a porter. 'They've come for our jobs.'
The reaction was mixed. The nurses reached instinctively for their tranquilliser guns. The senior doctors reached instinctively for their tranquillisers. The junior doctors hid behind the senior doctors. The receptionist took off her horn-rimmed spectacles stood up and walked out from behind the desk.
'Excuse me, young man,' she said, 'but if you take a seat, a doctor will see you shortly. And please stop dripping on the floor.'
Arnold looked down at the vivid carpet with its green and brown swirls and the interesting pattern that the trail of wet shoes had left. His keen salesman's brain sensed an opening.
'Friends,' he began, 'we come not to bury the South, but to sell you durable, hard-wearing, stain-resistant, high quality, low cost floor coverings.'
* * *
After rushing out of the bar, leaving the telephone swinging to and fro, Horace had ground to a halt after a few yards. He knew he was going to the television studios. He just didn't know where the television studios were. So it was that Horace joined the ever-increasing list of people who had spent some or all of that afternoon standing at cross-roads, contemplating the way ahead.
He wondered how Doris had got to the studio. The last he remembered was her leaving the hospital the other night, just before 'The Paradoxicals' was about to begin. Presumably she had gone back to wherever she was staying. She hadn't gone back to the hospital that morning, so where had she got to? Perhaps she had been on her way to the hospital when 'The Comedian' had kidnapped her and spirited her away to the television studios. Why Doris, though? He thought back to what had been said at the hospital. No-one allowed out because of the attack. In that case, Doris must have been breaking the curfew to come and see him. Which would explain why 'The Comedian' had found her. She would have been the only person on the streets. Horace felt a pang of guilt. Poor Doris. She had been bravely risking everything to come and visit him in hospital and was now being held hostage by a lunatic. It was all his fault.
Well, if it was all his fault, he would just have to put it right... If he could find the television studio. There was only one thing for it. He walked nonchalantly back into the bar, casually replacing the telephone receiver as he went past, and walked up to the barman.
'Excuse me,' he began, wondering exactly how he was going to phrase this. In the end, he decided there was only one way to go about it. 'Could you tell me how to get to Sprawling Metropolis television?' The barman looked at him.
'You want to go to the television studio?'
'Er... yes,' replied Horace, trying to sound heroic.
'You'll forgive me if I ask, why?'
'My wife's one of the hostages,' said Horace bluntly.
The barman's expression changed from one of disbelief to one of concern.
'I'm sorry about that, but are you sure you wouldn't be better off leaving it to the police to sort out?' Horace wasn't sure, but he had to go through with it now.
'Just tell me how to get there.'
'Out of the door, turn left. It's four blocks on your right. You'll see the antenna.'
'Thanks,' said Horace gratefully. He turned to go and then realised what he really needed at that moment. 'Do you have any alcohol at all?' he asked. The barman studied him for a moment and then smiled.
'I guess you need it,' he said, pulling out a bottle from under the counter. 'Genuine bourbon. You want a double?' Horace took the glass and swallowed his drink. He reached in his pocket but the barman shook his head.
'That one's on the house. Good luck.'
Horace shook his hand warmly and returned to the street. The television antenna was indeed visible, a giant, red and white finger pointing the way to the satellites that relayed the signal to the television sets of the city. Like Lisa before him, Horace declined to use the traditional entrance. After his exploits outside the hospital, a fire escape didn't present much of an obstacle. Up on the balcony, he made his way along until he ran into Lisa, who stifled a scream.
'Sorry,' he apologised. Lisa stared at him.
'Who are you?'
'My name's Lundy. Horace Lundy.'
'What are you doing here? Did Commissioner Parker send you?'
'No,' replied Horace, peering over the balcony in horror. 'That's my wife down there.' Lisa took his hand.
'Don't worry, something will happen,' she said reassuringly, but not too convincingly.
Horace nodded. There were lots of things that could happen. Given that Doris was sitting underneath a variety of hefted weapons, most of those things were distinctly unpleasant.
* * *
Derek had been walking along staring at his feet for some time now. As far as he could tell, he had resigned himself to the task ahead. It was going to be his problem. He was going to do something about it. He was going to be victorious in the end. It was going to be very simple. Finally, he looked up, which was a good thing as he was in danger of walking headlong into Billy's army, still waiting patiently outside the television studios. They were prepared to wait there for ever. Mr. Hilarious himself had told them to.
Derek stopped abruptly. He was going to have to take his first decision of the battle. Should he deal with the army first? Or should he sneak around the back and deal with 'The Comedian' straight away? He took the cigarette holder out and looked at it. Something wasn't quite right. Why hadn't his wit-sense been triggered. Here he was, looking at a few thousand hostile Northerners, and his head wasn't throbbing in the slightest. Perhaps he had gained so much control over his wit-sense that it had stopped working altogether. On the other hand, perhaps it was trying to tell him that these men weren't his real target and that he should save his ammunition for 'The Comedian' himself. In which case, sneaking round the back seemed to be the thing to do, but somehow Witty Put-Down Man didn't seem to be the sneaking type. Besides, a smoking jacket wasn't exactly designed for covert operations of any kind. No, the army would have to be dealt with. He'd just have to do it gently, that was all. Derek put the cigarette holder in his mouth and Witty Put-Down Man strolled toward the front door.
Two ghosts stood and watched Witty Put-Down Man approach the army.
'I do hope he'll be successful,' said the English ghost. 'Have you observed any good omens recently?'
There is no such thing as an omen. Destiny does not send us heralds. She is too wise or too cruel for that, said the Irish ghost.