In a cheap hotel room in London, Bob's ears had just perked up. He was sitting on the bed trying to open a packet of cheese and watch the telly, while the others argued behind him about the allotment of blame, despite the fact that there was plenty to go round.
Without cause or explanation he blacked out and keeled over backwards.
Bob didn't know that divine grace was being bestowed upon him, which is just as well, as if he had he would have locked himself in the bathroom for the rest of the day.
In the next room, Heddingly and Jill were sat around a table playing poker.
It had been several days since the disastrous end of the Rock Concert and the destruction of the Smittington Bakery concert Amphitheatre. In the melee Jill had dragged the unconscious form of Bob out by his shirt collar from the collapsing building, Heddingly had staggered out a moment later clutching his ribs from the blow dealt to him by the deranged cryo-clown.
Jill had bundled them both into the Secret Agent Range Rover still parked out-side.
AL chirped into life, "PLEASE STATE YOUR INTENDED DESTINATION..."
"Just drive." screamed Jill.
AL Knowing better than to quiz a woman on the warpath depressed his accelerator hotly, the wheels spun and they had fled.
That had been last week.
Bob had spent the past few days with his leg up, nursing his three broken toes. Heddingly had been badly bruised all down his left side but had with Jill's considerable help nursed both him and Bob, using his training as a witch-doctor to cook up some special remedies to ease the pain, back to health.
They had regrouped but were diminished. This evening had passed like all the others. Jill sat behind her cards looking pensive. The scene however was deceptive, her body might have been playing cards her mind was elsewhere.
'Gonzarrolio had been snatched by some mysterious figure driving in a black limousine - Jill had been helpless, busy trying to safely load the others into the waiting vehicle - watching the car cruise up like a shark and two hands reach out and pull the clown inside.'
She was worried of course but had already been briefed on his more than considerable talents as an ex-assassin and was more than confident in his wiley ability to survive. Besides she reasoned whoever had taken him and taken him for a reason. If they'd just wanted him dead, then...
Her train of thought was broken by the emergence of Bob, limping painfully on bad foot. She remembered him running in to tackle that monster machine as it had tried to abduct her. 'What a brave and b***dy stupid thing to do....' she'd thought.
Bob motioned for some attention and announced to the group:
"Say look I've had this idea... I... I think we need to go to Stone Henge."
Jill, who long ago had mastered the art of listening with only one ear whilst at the same time carrying out all number of tasks, stopped trying to tactically out play Heddingly at poker (as it happened, she was, in fact, losing.) and turned to face Bob with a look of what can only be described as utter incredulity.
"Sorry?... say that again. I could have sworn you said we should go to Stone Henge." she said laughing at the very prospect.
"No, no - that is what I said." nodded Bob with naive simplicity.
"Then I must be going mad." said Jill, her voice firm. "You want us to go to Stone Henge. May I beg of you a reason for this little venture... or do you have the sudden urge to see the sights before the world ends?" she asked sarcastically.
Bob didn't want to tell her about the Voice coming through the television set with it's dire prophecies of doom or when he had been pinned to the bed by an unseen force and the knowledge had be cold-dropped directly into his brain making him want to thrash about like he'd been dropped into an ice-bath. He knew where he had to go, when and worst of all WHY.
Jill was pacing her room at the hotel... there was nothing else for it... they'd need The Shop's help on this one. She dug the satellite phone out of her satchel and prepared to call The Agency.
The front of the La Scala Opera House in Milan was a dazzling display of gardens, statuary, pillars and beautiful facades.
'Just my luck', thought UPS Guy, 'that I get to take the back way in.'
Typically the alley round back was dank and stinking, with steam rising from the vents and the giant skips brimming over with rubbish. Guy adjusted his cap, produced his clipboard and knocked. The door was opened by a harassed-looking stagehand, and a burst of 'Rigoletto' escaped.
"Delivery for Mr Pavarotti."
"Give it here. He's about to go on stage." said the stagehand. 1
"I need his signature" said Guy thinking quickly.
Relenting, Guy was beckoned into the shadowy backstage area, all ropes, crates and rolled-up backcloths, and led up a rickety staircase into the dressing-room corridor.
"Here is his dressing-room, but be quick. What is the package, anyway?"
Guy racked his brains, unpleasantly aware that he had no plausible story.
"Pasta!" he blurted out, then cursed his stupidity.
"Ah! Go in. Mr Pavarotti is expecting you"
The dressing-room was plush, with couches and tasteful prints on the wall. Guy saw the familiar hulking figure of the famous tenor sitting before a mirror polishing off a plate of meatballs. He glanced up briefly from his exertions.
"Are you the pasta man?" he inquired through a mouthful of minestrone.
"That's right," said Guy, approaching the unsuspecting singer and gripping the blackjack in his pocket "The pasta man..."
The strains of 'Libiamo Ne'lieti Calici2' filled the air, masking the surprised grunt and thump.
Five minutes later the famous tenor appeared on stage, and the assembled opera critics instantly noted that he seemed ill at ease. 'Probably another no-show by the pasta man', they whispered among themselves, and braced themselves for a disappointing evening.
Amongst the operatic cognoscenti it was a well known fact that he didn't perform well without a gut full of mince.
The great man waddled out on stage for the Drinking Song, and seemed to be scanning the chorus of happy townsfolk. One of their number seemed to be occupying a lot of his attention.
'Glory to God', whispered the Le Monde correspondent, 'he's about to go cannibal'. He gripped his pencil a little tighter.
Agents were trained to operate under extreme stress, and having six cushions stuffed up your shirt with the eyes of five thousand people on you and your makeup beginning to run with the sweat was stressful, to be sure, but Guy, a field operative to his bones, still found his man.
There, between a rosy Gypsy lass and a hawker of potatoes on sticks, there was a clown juggling, very badly as it hadn't been programmed well.
Guy recognised it at once as one of the Cryo-Clowns of Doom, soon to explode and take half of Milan with it. He fingered the hilt of his prop sword.
Now the orchestra pounded in with the overture to the famous Drinking Song, and Guy faced another unpleasant realisation - he had no idea what the song lyrics were, and had only a very rudimentary grasp of the Italian required to bluff one's way into opera houses. Too late - the little plinky up-and-down bit that meant he had to sing had arrived. He cleared his throat and sang, in a slightly quavering alto-bass:
"Vieta-to fumare! Camer-iere! La lista de vini! Tagli-atelli!"3
In the orchestra pit the conductor had bitten his baton in half, but the music went on. Guy hopped a few dance steps across the stage towards the cyborg juggler. The robot's head turned suspiciously towards him, and its eyes blazed red. He swallowed hard, and began to sing again.
"Il pom-eriggio! Carte di cred-ito! Il frutti-vendolo! Camere con bag-no!"4
Muted sounds of someone choking on an aperitif were emanating from one of the balconies, but by now Guy had skipped his way over to the juggling cyborg and, with an operatic twirl, he tore its face off.
The gunmetal grey face of the clown, enlivened only by the sinister red grin daubed across the mouth region, glowered out at the audience. They gasped. Somewhere a woman screamed and collapsed dramatically.
Realising even with its very basic programming that the jig was very much up, the Cryo-Clown lunged at Guy with a wickedly sharp steel forearm blade, and ripped his stomach open.
A blinding drift of feathers emerged from the perforated pillows, and Guy hopped nimbly backwards through the cloud. The clown lumbered after him buzzing incoherently and flailing wildly...5
... only to find Guy poised with a slim fencing epée, which he swished around professionally.
"Have at you," he suggested.
The Cryo-Clown decided to have at Guy instead and, to great applause6, jumped forward with programmed hatred in its dead red eyes.
Guy stepped backwards again and raised the blade, which punched through the triple-reinforced titanium hide of the robot and pierced a very precise spot in the dark innards.
The clown suddenly toppled forward, landing on Guy, crushing him beneath its torso. A quiet voice burbled in his ear.
"You have selected the failsafe shutdown procedure. Are you sure you wish to shut down this unit?"
Guy tried twisting the sword blade a quarter turn to the left.
"You have selected 'Yes'. Please wait while this unit shuts down."
"It is now safe to turn off this unit. Thank you. In accordance with protocol #23a, we recommend that this be done remotely from a distance of approximately 53 miles as this unit will self-destruct in one minute. Have a nice day. In so far as that is possible. Fifty-five seconds."
"It never ends..." growled Guy to himself and, clambering to his feet, he shouted to the rapt audience. "Umm... mi scusi! The... um... the fire exits are located to your left and right as you leave the auditorium..." gesturing wildly as the riot started.
An hour later, when the fire had been put out and the carabinieri recalled, Guy was strolling through the Parco Sempione beside the lake trying to rub the scorch marks out of his brown suit. His secret Agency cell phone burst into a plinky rendition of Beethoven's 'Ode To Joy'. He flipped it out and to his ear with the practised ease of a life-long poser.
"Agent Orange here" he quipped.
"Who? Is that you, Guy?"
"Yes, Jill, it's me. Yes, Italy is nice. Yes, it's mostly all still here. Thank you, I do my best. What can I help you with?"
Two minutes later he was on his way to the aeroporto for a plane back to England.
"A quite daring interpretation of the classic, but not, one feels, one worthy of repetition. Kudos to Maestro Alfonso for his choreography though..." ~ Kultur Zeitschrifte, Opera Review.6"An uninspiring performance from the great tenor's understudy. Fire this man immediately!" ~ Quentin Zeitgesit Opera Highlights.