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Pest

Pest

 

James Field

Published by James Field at Shakespir

Copyright 2017 James Field

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this free ebook. You are welcome to share it with your friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and redistributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form.

 

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Edited by: Alexander Rollins

 

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Pest

 

Alf had just collected the mail and was busy tearing the cellophane envelope from his motorcycle magazine. Bert fiddled with his smartphone. When it peeped a tone he’d never heard before, he almost dropped it. ‘Cor, it works,’ he said.

‘What works?’

‘This dating app what young Master Trevor fixed for me.’

‘Yeah, what’s it say then?’

‘It says, Alf me old mate, that I’ve got a ninety-seven percent match within five-hundred metres.’

Alf screwed the cellophane into a ball and tossed it into the sink. ‘We live in a gatehouse in the middle of nowhere, Bert. Ain’t no woman around here–’

A sudden metallic crash made him stop and glance at the kitchen wall as if he could see straight through it. ‘Blimey!’ he said, climbing to his feet. ‘A van’s smashed into the boom barrier.’

Despite his jumbo size and weight, Bert was no slouch. He reached the door first and rushed out, his two Alsatians at heel. A small van stood with its bonnet crumpled against the bent boom barrier. He wrenched the van’s door open and peered inside.

‘Yeah!’ he said. ‘I knew it. You’re a lady.’

The woman released the steering wheel and smiled. ‘Well, thank you,’ she said, pushing her jet-black hair away from her meticulously made-up face.

‘Are you all right? You ain’t had a fit or nothing have you? I thought you might have had a heart attack, or a stroke, or one of those epilepsy attacks.’ He winked. ‘I thought I might have to give you the kiss of life, but I can see I ain’t that lucky.’ His grin turned into a frown. ‘Are you sure you’re all right, lady? You look like you been dragged through the bushes.’

She twisted the rear-view mirror and stared at herself. ‘I’m shaken,’ she said. ‘This has never happened before. The engine started making funny noises, so I pulled in here. Then my phone peeped with a tone I’d never heard before, and I got all flustered and bumped into your bar thing there. Sorry.’

Bert pulled his head out and called to his muscle-bound friend. ‘No need to call the ambulance, Alf. There’s nothing wrong here, just a lady who ain’t got much gumption. We better push her away from the barrier so I can get the bonnet open and see what’s wrong.’

The two men swapped places and Alf thrust his battered and scarred head through the door. He studied her for a moment and said, ‘Oh, shit, it’s you!’

The lady stopped breathing for a split second but maintained her friendly smile.

‘Right, Bert,’ said Alf, ducking back out, ‘I know her. Her name’s Olive. I don’t want nothing to do with her so let’s give her a shove and get rid of her quick.’

Bert stuck his head back in. ‘Me and me mate Alf are going to push you away from the barrier. Are you ready?’

‘Yes.’ Her cheeks flushed. ‘Why are you staring at me?’

‘It’s your eyelashes,’ said Bert. ‘I never seen such long eyelashes, every time you blink there’s a draught.’ He winked at her again. ‘Those long purple fingernails are a cracker too, but those eyelashes… wow!’

‘Are you always so outspoken?’

Bert turned away and studied the instrument panel. ‘I see the problem. Your tank’s empty.’

‘Is it? Now isn’t that annoying.’

‘Is it diesel or petrol? We got some whatever it is.’

‘Hmm, I know nothing about that sort of thing. My boyfriend fills it for me.’

Bert’s face slackened and his voice lowered. ‘Oh, got a boyfriend, have you?’

‘Yes, and he must have forgotten to fill the tank. He’s been getting on my nerves lately, like he doesn’t care about me any more. Last week he forgot to buy the groceries. I even gave him a note. And the other day…’

‘Oi!’ Alf thumped the bonnet. ‘What’s going on? Come and push.’

While Bert joined Alf, Olive wriggled up straight in her seat and took hold of the steering wheel. The van rocked but didn’t move. Instead, new dents popped into the van’s panels beneath the men’s hands. A moment later, Bert opened the driver’s door and stuck his head inside again. This time, he put his arm around her shoulder and leaned across her lap. ‘Take the handbrake off,’ he said.

Olive twisted her lipstick out of harm’s way and dropped it into her handbag. ‘I didn’t put it on.’

‘Blimey, what’s that smell?’ said Bert, snuffling and poking his head further into the van.

Olive raised her pert nose. ‘Do you mean the perfume I’ve just dabbed behind my ears?’

‘Yeah, that’s it. Smells like one of those air fresheners me and Alf hang in our car after we’ve been down to the horse stables. Gawd, it stinks down there. You should come and have whiff one day, especially when it’s warm.’ He pointed to the gear stick. ‘Put it in neutral and take your foot off the brake.’

Olive untangled her handbag from the gear stick and waggled it into position. This time, the van rolled with ease. Bert shouted to her. ‘Wait here until I fill your van. I’ll be right back.’

When he returned, panting, he noticed Olive slouched in her seat, head bent, fiddling with her smartphone. ‘Are you sure you’re all right?’

‘Oh yes.’ Her cheeks flushed. ‘I’ve got one of these dating apps and that’s what peeped when I pulled in here.’

Bert’s toes curled in his boots. ‘It’s me,’ he said. Tingles swept up the back of his neck, across his face, and into his ears, making him feel feverishly hot.

‘I feel faint,’ said Olive. ‘Any chance of inviting me in for a sit-down and a nice cup of tea?’

Bert scratched his head, then fanned his face. ‘Yeah, don’t suppose it can do much harm. You can’t stay long though. Come on, you’ve had a shock, but we’ll soon have you right as rain.’

Olive flung her door open and staggered out. With her handbag slung over her shoulder she held the back of her other hand against her brow.

Bert stared at her for a moment, with real concern on his face. ‘I ain’t surprised you’re dizzy. Why did you borrow your daughter’s clothes? They’re too tight for you.’

Olive wore a skintight Bob Marley T-shirt, purple metallic jacket, fluorescent green hipsters, and patent-black stiletto sandals. Here and there, the odd roll of fat bulged out. She looked down at herself. ‘It’s all the fashion,’ she said, ‘and I don’t have any children.’

‘I think you look great.’ Bert tore his eyes away and found the van’s petrol cap.

‘Do you?’ said Olive, watching him fill her van from a huge red can. She leaned against the van’s bonnet as if she were a model in a French motor show.

‘There,’ said Bert, ‘five gallons. That ought to get you to the next petrol station.’ He wrenched the bonnet open, scanned the motor, and slammed it shut again. A wheel cap fell off. ‘Nothing wrong in there,’ he said, kicking the cap under the van. ‘Have you got time for that cup of tea?’

‘I’m still shaken. Can I take your arm?’

‘Oh, yeah, right.’ Bert threw the can into the bushes, rubbed his hands on his threadbare jeans, and placed his right hand more or less where his hip lay hidden beneath the flab.

Olive linked arms, leant her weight against him, and sagged all the way to the ivy-covered gatehouse, making noises like a pigeon in heat.

Apart from low, dark beams, riddled with maggot holes, and sun-bleached curtains that looked as though they’d never been opened, the kitchen was top-modern. Alf sat at a sturdy wooden table, studying his motorcycle magazine, and greeted them with the briefest of glances. ‘What’s she doing here?’ he grunted.

Ignoring him, Bert pulled out a chair, steadied Olive as she sat, and slid them both into the table. Satisfied she was comfortable, he busied himself finding mugs and biscuits.

‘Fancy me conking out here of all places,’ said Olive, ‘the most secret mansion in the whole of England. I bet it’s full of treasure. Are you two servants or gardeners or something?’

‘Me and Alf is security,’ said Bert, puffing out his chest. ‘Yeah, there’s lots of riches in the mansion, but nobody gets past me and Alf, do they, Alf?’

Alf grunted and turned the page of his magazine.

‘Does anybody live in the mansion?’ asked Olive.

‘The young masters are mostly away,’ said Bert, pouring tea, ‘and when they’re home, they’re always busy. Young Master Trevor invents things, and young Master Russell teaches martial arts. Me and Alf think they’re a bit nuts, don’t we Alf? They reckon they’ve been to outer space and Master Trevor’s got a dumb football floating around his head. Apart from them, the only person in the house is Sibyl. She’s the cook and housekeeper. You’d like her, wouldn’t she, Alf?’

Alf concentrated on reading, following the words with a finger. ‘Yeah, she’s a brick.’

‘Alf’s got one of Master Trevor’s inventions in his bonce,’ said Bert, pointing to his own brow. ‘He can see in the dark, even with his eyes closed. He can see through walls and trees and furniture and clothes, can’t you, Alf?’

Olive folded her arms across her chest and turned away from Alf, keeping a watchful eye on him.

‘Of course, there’s Sibyl’s husband,’ said Bert, ‘but he lives mostly in the potting shed. He can make anything grow, he can. How many sugars do you want?’

‘Um, it’s a big mug, seven will do, I’m on a diet.’ Olive took a handful of chocolate-coated biscuits from a tin barrel. With her free hand, she reached across the table and tapped Alf’s magazine. ‘Have you got a motorbike?’

He ignored her. Olive’s face reddened but her voice stayed calm. ‘Can’t we still be friends?’ she said. ‘We were only kids back then. Can’t we forget the past?’ She let her hand drift across the magazine and rest on the back of Alf’s hand. ‘We mostly had good times, didn’t we?’

Without giving her a glance, Alf dragged his magazine out of her reach.

‘No, he ain’t got no bike,’ said Bert. ‘He can’t afford one like those. We don’t get much pay here, do we, Alf?’

Alf slammed his magazine shut and pushed it aside. ‘Ain’t no peace to get. Want me to rub more ointment on your bites, Bert?’

‘Yeah,’ said Bert, bending forward, ‘spread some sludge where I can’t reach. They itch like hell.’ He pulled up his T-shirt and turned his back to them.

‘Hold still then.’ Alf lifted a small pot from a shelf and dipped his finger in.

Olive stopped chewing her biscuit, placed the remaining few on the table, and gaped at Bert’s back. Huge, bloody welts dotted his broad expanse of skin like miniature volcanoes. ‘What are they?’ she asked.

‘Horsefly bites,’ said Bert. ‘Ruddy pests sneak up from behind and take whacking great chunks of meat. There’s millions of them down at the stables.’

‘Have you tried bees?’

Bert scratched his bristly hair. ‘Er, yeah, they sting too, but horseflies are worse. They’re sly and scheming, and their bites hurt more.’

Olive almost choked on her biscuit. ‘I don’t mean like that, silly. I seem to remember hearing that horseflies and bees are enemies. Have you got any beehives?’

Alf stepped between them and smeared greasy ointment on Bert’s welts. With each application, Bert flinched and gripped fistfuls of his T-shirt.

‘Enemies?’ said Bert between gritted teeth, trying to look over his shoulder.

‘Yes. Bees are useful little creatures in more ways than one. They’ll chase the horseflies away. And where on Earth did you get that disgusting cream? It smells of rotting fish and toothpaste.’

‘Sibyl made it. She’s a witch in her spare time, ain’t she, Alf?’

‘Sit still before I make you eat the shit,’ said Alf. He finished, wiped his finger on Bert’s T-shirt, slammed the pot back on the shelf, and told them he was going out for exercise. Just then, the thunderous commotion of motorbikes sounded outside and he grinned. ‘Hurry up and get dressed, Bert,’ he said. ‘We better go see what they want.’

*

As they left the cottage, Alf grabbed Bert’s arm and marched him out of Olive’s earshot. ‘I’ve seen the way you’re making up to her. Best you leave her alone.’

‘But she likes me. We’re a perfect match. I ain’t never had a proper girlfriend, Alf. I give them the willies.’

‘Me and her had a thing going when we were kids. She’s a trickster, a user and a liar. I’m telling you, the only thing open between us was my wallet.’

‘Perhaps she’s changed, like what you have.’

‘She’s trouble, Bert, listen to your old mate and leave her be.’

Bert dragged himself free. He whistled, and his two Alsatians galloped to his side. Ahead, Alf saw a large white van and six Harley Davidsons chugging behind the boom barrier. Other cars had started gathering too, keeping their distance, parking on the grass by the driveway’s side.

One motorbike rider swung out his stand and stepped off. If Hell’s Angels held a ‘Mr Loathsome’ competition, Alf thought the big, leather clad, bearded, long-haired, pot-bellied rider in his forties would win it. The lout raised his left arm, the other motorcycles fell silent, and he stepped forward to meet Alf and Bert.

Alf ignored him, jogged straight to the man’s motorcycle and gazed at it wide-eyed, leaving Bert to deal with the stranger. ‘Nice bikes you got there,’ he heard Bert say. ‘Who are you?’

‘Call me Pest,’ growled the rider. ‘Is one of you two Alf “Basher” Baldwin?’

Hearing his nickname mentioned, Alf raised his head and saw Bert nod in his direction. ‘Him over there, that’s Alf, dribbling all over your moped. I’m his manager, Bert. What do you want?’

Pest glanced at Alf. ‘Tell him to get away from my bike before I have my men flatten him.’

‘Funny sort of name you’ve got,’ said Bert. ‘Pest? We’ve got enough of them here already, I squish them between my fingers. Ain’t never heard of you. Tell us what you want before I set me dogs on you.’ Sensing the tension, his Alsatians growled.

‘I want a match with your boy,’ said Pest. ‘Here and now.’

Alf felt his anger grow. Some people were just plain ignorant of the skill needed, or the agonising pain involved with a bare-knuckle fight. In the underground world of street fighting, he was the undisputed reigning champion, the one everybody wanted to fight. Like Bert, he’d never heard of Pest.

He stepped up to face Pest, straightened his back, and flexed his bulging muscles. Pest was tall, but Alf still looked down at him. He saw a man with solid muscles covered with a soft layer of fat. Alf guessed their weights were even, but he knew the man had never fought seriously. He still had a straight nose, whole ears, no scars on his face, and his own rotting teeth.

To make sure his breath carried the right smell, Alf ate raw onion and garlic for breakfast. He leant closer to Pest’s face and breathed hard, making sure a shower of spit accompanied his words. ‘Puh-iss off home to your mummy, Puh-est.’

Pest staggered back, wiping his face on his sleeve. ‘Jeeeze man, how much horse shit did you eat for breakfast?’

‘Okay,’ said Bert, clapping Alf’s back, ‘Pest here fancies a few weeks in hospital. Let’s agree on the stakes and get it over with.’

‘I’ll bet me all-terrain vehicle against his Harley,’ said Alf. He knew the wager was ridiculously low, but expected the contest would be over in the first five seconds.

‘Why should I want a motorised wheelchair?’ said Pest. ‘You’ll need it yourself after our little tussle.’

Without taking his eyes from Pest, Alf flexed his right arm and bounced his calloused fist against Pest’s nose with just enough force to flatten it without breaking the bone. ‘If you want the pleasure of having your snout busted with this,’ said Alf, waving his clenched fist, ‘those are the odds. Tuh-ake it or leave it.’

Pest’s head jerked back. Then, with fists clenched rigid against his sides, he bashed his forehead against Alf’s and glared into his eyes. ‘You’re a dead man,’ he growled.

Alf stood taut, his forehead butting against Pest’s, playing the stare each other down game, until Bert pressed himself between them.

Pest tested his nose was still straight, wiped a trickle of blood from his nostrils, sniffed, and spat at Alf’s feet. ‘You’re on,’ he said.

‘Give me five minutes while Bert grabs me bag from inside,’ said Alf, smothering a phoney yawn, ‘then follow us down to the glade we use.’

*

A gentle breeze ruffled the treetops high above, but down on the glade, the air felt warm, humid, and smelled of cut grass. Alf loved this spot, usually so serene, boarded on one side by the estate’s tiny lake, isolated from the rest of the world by ancient forest. He massaged his chorded neck muscles, irritated by the intrusion.

‘Before we start,’ said Pest, ‘let’s agree on the rules.’

‘No rules,’ said Alf, dropping his teeth in a jar. ‘Exfept I knock your teef out and flatten your nose for good.’

‘Me?’ Pest shook his head. ‘No, you’re not fighting me, you’re fighting him over there in the sidecar. His name is Crusher.’

‘Crusher!’ said Alf and Bert together. Crusher was new on the scene, a fighter who had come from nowhere and rapidly made a name for himself, defeating every contender, most left crippled for life.

‘Oh dear,’ said Pest, ‘is Alf “Basher” Baldwin frightened? Do I notice your knees knocking?’ He enjoyed the flurry of laughter from his gang, then raised his arm to silence them. ‘Well it’s too late to back down now. Let’s see how good you are, sucker.’

The other cars had followed Pest and his thugs to the glade. Promoters, gamblers, fans of all types come to witness the fight and spread the news. Alf and Bert did a round of handshaking, but the only man Alf found honourable in the bunch was his challenger, sitting in the sidecar with folded arms, smiling.

The unforeseen switch of opponent annoyed Alf, but he channelled his anger, saving it for Crusher. He’d never seen Crusher in action. All he’d heard was that Crusher’s strength was gargantuan, and once he held his combatant in a headlock, the fight was over within seconds.

With his good-natured smile, Crusher climbed out of the sidecar. The springs sighed with relief. He lifted a thick metal rod and grasped each end. While lumbering towards them, he bent the rod into a ‘U’ and tossed it aside. When he reached Alf, he raised his fist in the street fighter’s greeting. Alf knocked it with his fist. The sensation was like knocking against one of the mansion’s many stone statues. He tried not to show his surprise.

Alf remained still, alert and curious, studying the squat man. He saw baggy shorts that hung almost to his ankles, held up by a broad leather belt, and a shapeless red tracksuit jacket that flapped around his barrel-shaped chest, stretched tight at the wrists and zipped up to the chin.

Crusher waddled toward the centre of the circle, stopped, and blinked at Alf. He appeared fearless and stood with a wide stance, fists on hips, elbows wide.

Pest stepped in, clapped Crusher’s back, and raised his right hand into the air. Crusher, still smiling, continued to face Alf. Pest dropped his hand and Crusher broke into a clumsy run, heading straight for Alf.

Nimble footed, Alf closed the gap, pounded his right fist into Crusher’s face and leapt clear.

Crusher’s expression remained the same, except his nose was now flat.

Alf blew on his stinging knuckle. He’d hit Crusher with enough force to knock out a horse, but apart from a momentary wobble, Crusher seemed unaffected.

Alf thought he had the measure of the man though. Although Crusher was short, he was solid and packed with muscle. Alf classified him as one of those tough men who soaked up punishment until his opponent tired, then grabbed them in a crushing headlock. Alf glanced at Bert, seeking reassurance; he’d fought many men who used those tactics, and those were the fights he’d come closest to losing.

Crusher turned and followed Alf, feet shuffling, head down, elbows forward, wrists tight against his ears.

Alf met him, jabbed with his famous left-left-right combination, and retreated. Crusher swayed with each walloping strike, arms flailing desperate to grab hold, and continued to chase Alf.

Three clashes later, Alf’s knuckles were bloody and raw. Each blow sent agonising stabs of pain along his arms. After the fight, he promised himself he’d buy Crusher a steak. Nobody had endured such punishment and remained on their feet.

Painful fists dangling at his sides, Alf tried to catch Crusher off balance and knock him down so he could wrestle the man into submission. He nudged, barged and shoved, always avoiding a clinch. Crusher refused to topple; he was too squat, too close to the ground, too sturdy.

The springiness drained from Alf’s muscles, and he craved rest. He backed away, turning to run, drawing gasps of disbelief from his fans and boos from Pest’s gang.

Crusher turned to Pest and waved as if showing his willingness to fight on. Alf saw an opening and rushed in. He used his favourite judo-throw and toppled Crusher backwards.

As Crusher fell, he grabbed Alf’s arm and hung on tight. Alf landed on Crusher’s chest, wrapped his free arm around his neck, and squeezed. Adrenalin surged through Alf. He’d forced many contenders into submission with a headlock and it would be fitting to defeat Crusher at his own game.

Instead, with muscles trembling from the effort, Crusher stood, dragging Alf with him like an overstuffed rucksack. Exerting every ounce of strength he could muster, Alf put a knee in Crusher’s back, tightened his headlock and tried to pull him off balance. Crusher stood firm, slipped his arms around Alf’s waist, linked hands, and squeezed.

At once, Alf’s lungs constricted and his eyes bulged. He released Crusher’s neck and tried to pry open the crushing hold. Crusher let go, but before Alf could draw a breath, Crusher shifted his grip to Alf’s neck, holding him in the dreaded headlock.

In all his years of wrestling, Alf had never experienced such brute force. Already dizzy, he realised the fight was lost. Unable to breathe, and worried his neck would snap, he transferred his remaining strength to his neck muscles. With no alternative, he raised his arms to signal submission. Bert threw in the towel. Pest laughed.

With blurry vision, Alf saw Bert lunge forward and dig his thumbs into Crusher’s eyes. Most men would have screamed in agony and protected themselves, but Crusher seemed impervious to pain and held his death grip.

With a short whistle and tap of his shanks, Bert’s Alsatians bit into Crusher’s calves. At first, their teeth made no impression, but with enough force in their jaws to break open flesh and crush bone with only a few bites, Crusher’s skin tore. Beneath the skin stretched a layer of foam padding, moulded to the shape of muscle. Below that flexed a network of plastic tubes, metal rods and pistons. White fluid sprayed from severed tubes, smelling of hydraulic oil, and Crusher collapsed like an air mattress with a puncture.

Pest and his gang surged forward. A signal from Bert sent his Alsatians flying to meet them, their fangs dripping with saliva, eyes savage, delirious to protect their master. The gang reeled to protecting themselves. The Alsatians stood their ground, snarling, ready to strike at anyone who approached.

Alf pulled himself up on all fours, head hanging. By slow degrees, he sat back on his heels and rubbed his neck. ‘A ruddy robot,’ he spat.

‘He had you beat,’ said Pest, ‘fair and square. Call off your dogs so we can take your buggies and get out of here.’

‘You cheated,’ said Bert. The witnesses at his back nodded in agreement. ‘You didn’t say nothing about no robot, did he, Alf?’

Alf climbed to his feet, strode to Pest, and waved his bloody fists in his face. ‘No contest. I’ll take two of your bikes as compensation. I still got enough strength to bust your nose, pretty boy, so get out of here, quick.’

‘I’ll take Crusher–’

‘Leave it. I ain’t going to tell you again. Get out of here.’

The Alsatians crept forward.

‘Easy, Chums,’ said Bert, ‘I’ll tell you when.’

Pest pointed at three of his gang members and flicked his wrist. Without delay, one of them climbed into the vacant sidecar, the other two jumped into the passenger side of the white van. Pest straddled one of the three vacant motorcycles and let his finger hover above the start button. ‘You’ve just made the biggest mistake of your life,’ he snarled. ‘I’ll be back with reinforcements. If I were you, I’d leave the country.’ His finger hit the button and the exhaust spat flames. His back wheel spun, sliding the bike around, spraying grass, mud and stones at Alf and Bert. The other gang members followed his example, forcing Alf and Bert to turn their backs and duck. With a thunderous roar, the gang left, leaving two glorious Harleys and the still smiling Crusher.

*

While Alf and Bert were engrossed with the fight, Olive sneaked away and wandered down the long gravelled driveway to the mansion. As much as she would have liked to watch Alf get his brains bashed out, this was her chance to check the mansion’s security. So far, everything was going to plan.

She teetered up onto the mansion’s massive stone forecourt, pressed the doorbell and waited. After pressing the button twice more, she heard heavy bolts driven back. One of the mansion’s lumbering oak doors was opened by a tall, stout woman. She gazed out, stern faced and blinking in the bright daylight. A crisp, white, bibbed apron covered most of her heavy, grey, calf-length dress. Her dark hair, flecked with grey, was tied in a tight bun. Behind her back, she held a medieval mace.

Olive reached into her handbag for her bottle of pepper spray and held it ready, out of sight. She’d learned how affective it was when she’d squirted some on her neighbour’s cat, front and back, and that was the last time it pissed on her doorstep. If this woman tried any funny business…

‘Hello,’ said Olive, stepping back. ‘Are you Sibyl?’

The woman swung the mace into full view, making it look light in her chubby arms. Olive tightened her grip on the pepper spray.

‘Yes, I’m Sibyl. How do you know my name, who are you, and what do you want?’

‘My name is Olive, and I’m a friend of Bert. He sent me up here.’

Sibyl relaxed, hid the mace behind the door and smiled. Olive returned the smile. She had trouble placing Sibyl’s age, well past her prime but still young enough to be attractive; at least to a gorilla.

‘A friend of Bert you say?’ said Sibyl. ‘Well, well, I never would have guessed. He’s a dark horse is that one. Don’t just stand there, come in and tell me all about it.’ She stopped on the threshold and listened. ‘What are those two up to now? Another of Alf’s fights I’ve no doubt.’

‘Yes,’ said Olive. ‘That’s the reason I came here. I hate violence. Bert sent me up here until they’re finished.’

‘He did right,’ said Sibyl, leading the way through an expansive entrance hall. It reminded Olive of a museum with its suits of metal armour and coats of arms. One broad staircase led upward in a broad arc, another swung down on the opposite wall. As far as she could tell, there were no surveillance cameras, motion detectors, control panels, or any other sign of burglar alarm. Good.

They passed through a small door under one stairwell, entered a narrow passageway, tramped down a shallow flight of stairs and emerged into a large, bright, kitchen. The smell of roasting meat reminded Olive she hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

‘Sit at the table while I put the kettle on,’ said Sibyl. ‘Are you staying for dinner? I’ve a joint of beef in the oven. Alf and Bert like their meat, but I expect you know that. Now then, tell me, how long have you known Bert?’

‘Oh, um, well actually, I only just met him.’

Sibyl’s smile slipped, then returned, weaker but still friendly. ‘Ah, I see. Did you meet him down at the stables? He hardly goes anywhere else.’

Olive dragged a chair from the table. It weighed a ton and grated against the stone floor. ‘Well, no. I only just met him, now, this morning, after my van ran out of petrol.’

‘And you’re his friend already?’ said Sibyl, eyebrows raised, a tea-loaded teaspoon hanging above the pot.

‘I… I like him, and I think he likes me.’

A frown crossed Sibyl’s face as she busied herself with the tea. ‘We’ll give it five minutes to brew,’ she said, carrying the pot to the table. ‘I shan’t strain yours. I want to read your leaves when you’re finished.’ She sat beside Olive, took her right hand, held it palm up, and studied the creases. After a moment she said, ‘I can’t really see you and Bert are compatible. But I see you lead a complicated life. You’re not happy, are you?’

Olive swore under her breath and snatched her hand back. She hated nosey-parkers prying into her affairs. Then she thought it best to play along and dived into her handbag for a tissue. ‘It’s my boyfriend,’ she said, dabbing her eyes. ‘I can’t get rid of him. He’s such a pig. Always has been. Right from the day I met him.’

‘Most men are pigs,’ said Sibyl, lifting the teapot lid and swirling a spoon inside. ‘The ones around here aren’t too bad though…’

‘Do you mean Alf and Bert?’

‘Mostly them, yes.’

‘Don’t they live in the gatehouse?’

‘Yes, but they eat most of their meals here.’

‘Does that mean you live in this great big house all by yourself? Don’t you find it lonesome?’

‘Lonesome?’ Sibyl chuckled. ‘No, the mansion is full of ghosts and ghouls.’

Olive stopped breathing and glanced over her shoulder. She hadn’t thought of that, but business was business so she swallowed and ploughed on. ‘What about burglaries? There must be lots of jewellery and gold worth stealing and lots of crooks trying to break in? How can you sleep at night?’

Sibyl folded her arms and leaned back. ‘Why all the interest?’

‘Oh, nothing, I thought you must be lonely and nervous. I would be.’

Sibyl narrowed her eyes before answering. ‘I feel exquisitely safe. I have my husband, and one of the owner’s sons, Master Trevor, has all sorts of specially designed ‘intruder’ gadgets planted around the house. God help anyone who tries to break in.’

‘Gadgets, really, like what?’

Sibyl snorted and didn’t respond. She poured a cup of tea and pushed the steaming brew in front of Olive.

Olive added a dash of milk, five sugar lumps, gave it a stir, blew on it and took a careful sip. Happy with the temperature, she gulped it, too fast, and spat tea leaves back into the cup.

‘Good,’ said Sibyl. ‘Give your cup three twists, then turn it upside down onto the saucer.’

Olive did as asked and waited. After a moment, Sibyl lifted the cup and gazed inside, her expression blank.

‘Do you see anything?’ asked Olive, tugging at her tissue.

Sibyl nodded. ‘According to these, you’re in for a devastating setback.’

Olive made a grimace and shrugged.

‘I wouldn’t want be in your shoes,’ mumbled Sibyl as she ambled to the sink. She rinsed the cup and refilled it with tea using the strainer this time.

‘What else did the leaves say about my future?’ asked Olive, cradling her cup in both hands. ‘What setback?’

‘Only you know what tomorrow will bring. Your future depends on the choices you make. How can tea leaves know anything about that? I can predict your future by listening to your experiences, by examining the evidence written on your palms, and by reading your tea leaves. But you could prove me wrong by making other choices. It’s up to you how much you confide in me.’

A black cat jumped onto Sibyl’s lap. Sibyl stroked its head, and it settled down, never taking its gaze away from Olive.

‘Does your boyfriend ever take you out?’ asked Sibyl.

‘No, but sometimes he boots me out.’

‘Does he buy you flowers?’

‘He sent me a picture of a rose once, on my smartphone.’

‘Does he ever hold your hand?’

‘The only thing he holds are cans of beer.’

‘How did you meet him?’

Olive dropped her shoulders. Without realising what she was saying, her fictitious boyfriend had sounded much like her real boyfriend: Pest. Her voice dropped to a whisper. ‘Through one of those Internet dating websites, we were a perfect match.’

The cat jumped onto Sibyl’s shoulder and meowed in her ear.

‘Yes, Puss,’ said Sibyl, ‘I was about to ask.’ They both faced Olive. ‘Is he ever violent with you?’

‘Not really, apart from the time he got rid of Poop and Pete.’

‘Poop and Pete? Who are they?’

‘My pet bunny rabbits. I used to let them in the house and cuddle them. One day they disappeared, and later, when we were having a row, my boyfriend owned up that he had grilled them on the barbecue. He told me it was chicken.’

Sibyl’s smile broadened again. ‘If you like, I can make you a potion, a strong one that’ll make him want to move out for good. Or I can give you a blend of herbs to slip in his food, make him constipated for a month. Or how about poison?’

‘Thanks, Sibyl. I may take you up on some of that. The poison sounds good.’ She turned away, biting her lip. ‘If I could get to know Bert a little better, you know, spend time with him, I might feel stronger.’

She didn’t think Sibyl looked convinced. ‘Sorry to bother you,’ she said, gathering her handbag. She’d seen and heard enough. ‘I have to go. Can you show me the way out?’

Sibyl sighed and dragged her feet to the garden door. ‘This is the quickest way,’ she said, holding it open.

With a last departing sniff, Olive slipped her stilettos off, turned and ran. She had noticed, with glee, that the door was unlocked.

*

You know we don’t approve of your street fighting,’ said Trevor. ‘What do you propose to do about this gang when they return?’

Master Trevor was a young gentleman in his early twenties who had the knack of appearing much older, especially while frowning and fulfilling his role as guardian of the estate. He was taller than Sibyl, slightly shorter than his security guards, and a whole head shorter than his younger brother Russell. His hair was somewhere between light brown and dark grey with a touch of ginger, depending on the light. It looked as though he had recently stepped from a shower and forgotten to use a comb. He had pail skin from long hours in studies and experimenting, and stooped shoulders and a pot belly from lack of exercise.

Sibyl finished binding the last poultice on Alf’s knuckles and prodded his bruised neck. ‘I can give you a paste for this,’ she said, placing a clay pot on the kitchen table. ‘Rub it in four times a day. In a week’s time, you’ll be as good as new.’

‘Thanks, Sibyl,’ said Alf. ‘Got any grub? I’m starving.’

‘Don’t I always? You boys discuss business while I carve the joint. Bert, go and fetch some of my home-made beer.’

‘Well,’ said Trevor, drumming his fingers on the table, ‘what do you propose to do? I can’t allow gang warfare to break out on our grounds, and I can’t engage the army to sort out your battles. Russell and I employ you to keep people out, not invite them in. How many times do I need to repeat myself? What would happen if the press got hold of this?’

‘We’re right sorry, Master Trevor, ain’t you, Alf?’ said Bert, returning from the pantry with a keg under his arm. ‘We didn’t know they was going to trick us with a robot, did you, Alf?’

‘Robot!’ Trevor’s bushy eyebrows shot up. ‘What robot?’

Bert pointed through the walls. ‘We got it outside, Master Trevor. We thought you might want to take a look, what with all your experiments and stuff.’

Trevor’s stern expression evaporated into a smile, and his face beamed with youth once more. ‘You don’t say. A robot?’

‘Yeah, its name is Crusher. It don’t speak and it ain’t got much gumption, but it’s strong as hell. Nearly killed Alf, didn’t it, Alf?’

‘Are you telling me that Alf had a fight with a robot?’

‘Yes, Master Trevor.’

‘What on earth for?’

‘Like what I said. We didn’t know it was a robot, did you, Alf?’

Trevor turned to Alf. ‘Didn’t you use your third eye to disclose its true form?’

Alf cleared his throat, but the words still came out husky. ‘No, Master Trevor, I never thought of that, but I’ve learned a real good lesson.’

‘Was the robot thinking for itself?’ asked Trevor. ‘Or was it remote controlled?’

‘I took a quick peek in the van they had with them, with me third eye what you fixed. The back was all filled with electronics, and a boy in a white coat sat at a computer.’

‘I see. Any idea who the gang leader is?’

‘Somebody nobody’s heard of with a weird name called Pest,’ said Bert, tapping tawny beer from the keg into tankards and passing them around. ‘He’s a big coward, all mouth and muscle. I don’t think he’ll dare come back, do we, Alf?’

‘Right,’ said Trevor, sounding much less stern. ‘let’s hope you’re right. And no more fights on our grounds. Understood?’

‘Yes, Master Trevor,’ said Bert. ‘What about his robot though?’

‘The robot is probably remote controlled. I’ll soon have that sorted out.’ Trevor ate his roast beef with gusto and with parting thanks, dashed off to his lab.

*

Three weeks later, Trevor summoned his security guards to the mansion. He found them waiting in silence, side-by-side, caps in hands, in the entrance hall. The profusion of medieval armour, family shields, banners, flags and massive portraits of his ancestors always seemed to humble them.

‘How is your neck, Alf?’ he asked, unbuttoning his white laboratory coat.

‘Fine, thanks.’

‘Good. Any sign of the motorcycle gang?’

‘Ain’t seen nothing yet,’ said Bert.

‘Good, good. Now then, follow me. There is something I want to show you.’

He led them through a maze of corridors and entered a large room with a high ceiling and panelled walls. As soon as they entered, Alf’s eyes were drawn to the object in the centre of the room. ‘Crusher!’

‘Yes,’ said Trevor, almost dancing with excitement, ‘Crusher, modified. Don’t be nervous, he’s friendly now. Go on. Take a closer look.’

Alf and Bert circled the seated robot. Crusher’s face had been repaired and his eyes followed Alf as he moved behind his back. When Crusher couldn’t turn his head further, he spun it around the other way and took up eye contact again.

‘As you can see,’ said Trevor, ‘his eyes show a fair resemblance to the genuine articles. His original eyes were glass marbles, but these new eyes are miniature cameras, so he uses them to see now. His pupils dilate and he blinks whenever he moves his eyes. It makes him look rather friendly, don’t you think? He’s self-maintaining, he’ll either plug himself into the mains when he needs recharging, or he’ll drink paraffin, oil, petrol or some other suitable fuel. Apart from that, I’ve added an abundance of microchips, rewritten his software, given him thick rubber soles so he doesn’t slide about everywhere and changed his mode of communication. From now on, Alf, wherever you go, he’ll follow.’

‘Can he speak?’ asked Bert.

‘No, not at this stage. I haven’t had time to work on him thoroughly. However, my new software will enable Crusher to act on his own accord. All he requires is an intentional thought from you, Alf, and he’ll follow through on his own initiative. Give it a try.’

‘What? How?’

‘I expect you’re accustomed to your modified third eye by now.’

‘Yeah, I use it all the time, especially when I’m patrolling at night. I can see in the dark without a torch. I’ve cornered a few snoopers like that.’

‘Good. You probably haven’t noticed, but I’ve extend your capability.’

‘Have you?’

‘Yes.’

‘How? I don’t remember you doing nothing to me.’

‘Well, try not to worry about it. It’s all rather complicated. I haven’t physically operated on you this time. For the sake of simplicity, call it a remotely activated latent potential. From now on, the circuitry enhancing your third eye is tuned into Crusher’s communication frequency. It might take practice, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll find it easy. Direct an instruction to Crusher using a clear, simple command. Tell him to stand.’

‘Right,’ said Alf. He cleared his throat and raised his voice. ‘Get out of the chair you hunk of scrap and go bash your head against the wall.’

‘No, no, not like that,’ said Trevor. ‘I don’t mean speak out loud. Direct a clear, telepathic thought at him, and to begin with, keep your instructions concise and plain. A simple “stand” is enough. Go ahead, try again.’

Alf closed his eyes and concentrated.

Immediately, Crusher stood.

Trevor patted Alf’s back. ‘Good. Now try to make him move around the room.’

Crusher strutted to the door, his rubber soles squeaking on the parquet, and turned to walk toward the windows. A spring in his step and a natural swing in his arms and hips had replaced his waddling gait. When he reached his chair again, he dropped to the floor and started doing press-ups.

‘How many did you tell him to do?’ asked Trevor.

‘Three hundred,’ said Alf, ‘the same as I do every morning before breakfast.’

‘Okay, try to make him stop half way through. Give him a cryptic command, see if he can think for himself.’

‘Like what?’

‘How about telling him you’re thirsty?’

Alf closed his eyes again. Almost at once, Crusher climbed to his feet and scanned the room. Against one wall stood a table bearing jugs of water, bottles of beer, a pot of tea, thick slices of Sibyl’s Dundee cake, plates, mugs and glasses. Crusher made his way to the table, lifted a jug of water, filled a glass, spilling at least as much on the table, and carried the glass to Alf. Halfway across the room, it burst in Crusher’s grasp. He stopped, returned to the table, filled another glass, not spilling so much this time and carried it to Alf unscathed.

‘He learns,’ said Trevor. ‘Practise makes perfect. Now ask him to clear the mess he’s made.’

Crusher didn’t move.

‘Give him a moment,’ said Trevor. ‘He’s searching the Internet for a solution. If he can’t find an answer in his own databank, he’ll refer to the Internet. When I complete his audio faculties, he’ll answer anything you ask: weather, news, jam recipes, train times, you name it.’

Crusher searched the room. He opened doors until he found the broom cupboard, selected a brush and pan, swept up the broken glass, and threw them all into a bin beneath the table.

‘Well done,’ said Trevor, patting Alf’s shoulder. ‘He’s all yours. Bert has his Alsatians, and now you’ve got Crusher. Enjoy yourself.’

Alf and Bert stood in glassy eyed silence.

‘Alf don’t know what to say,’ mumbled Bert. ‘He never had a pet, did you, Alf?’

‘Well, there you are then,’ said Trevor. ‘Crusher can keep you company on your long jogs, and he’ll be a great companion and asset while you patrol the estate’s perimeters.’

‘Thanks, Master Trevor.’ Alf threw a punch at Trevor’s shoulder but stopped it just before it landed.

Trevor raised his hands. ‘All right you two, we’re about finished. Go outside and play with your new toy before you do some serious damage in here. There are other projects I’m busy with, and I’m sure you have plenty to do too.’

*

Bert drove his all-terrain vehicle with utmost care. Behind him, seven beehives wobbled in his mini trailer and he didn’t want to upset the insects. With his head turned to keep a close watch on the hives, he bounced, one slow step at a time, up onto the mansion’s expansive forecourt and stopped in front of the main entrance.

After stopping his motor, he lifted one beehive from the mini trailer and set it beside the door where Sibyl’s husband could find it. The funny little man had asked for a beehive for his ornamental flowerbeds, and Bert was pleased to oblige.

Bees buzzed everywhere, but they didn’t seem too agitated yet. Only a few tested their sting against Alf and Bert’s overalls, thick leather gloves, and motorcycle helmets. ‘That’s it,’ said Bert, straddling his saddle. ‘Let’s get the rest down to the stables.’

‘Right,’ said Alf. ‘When we’ve set them up, we’ll go and–’

In the distance, a horn tooted. Alf closed his eyes and turned towards the sound. ‘It’s Olive,’ he said, sounding disappointed. ‘She’s stopped outside the gatehouse boom barrier.’

Bert felt a pang of excitement. He unhooked the trailer, revved his engine, and flew off to meet her.

Before the dust had settled, Bert had the boom barrier open and stood beside Olive’s van, waving at her through the side window.

The window juddered open.

‘What are you doing here?’ asked Bert. ‘It’s been so long since I saw you last I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.’

Olive chewed her lip before answering. ‘Thanks, Bert, I really like you too. Can we go down to Sibyl’s kitchen?’ She drew a deep breath, reached across to the passenger seat and patted a soft parcel. ‘I have a present for you.’

‘For me?’ Bert looked down and fiddled with the straps on his helmet.

‘Yes, something I made especially for you.’

Bert’s eyes fluttered, then steadied as he met Olive’s gaze. ‘I’ve got a present for you too.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah, three.’ Bert glanced away and followed his finger as it rubbed along the edge of Olive’s window, finishing with a fidgety tap. ‘You go on down to the mansion,’ he said at last. ‘Trevor and Russell are with Sibyl. They’re the young masters, but don’t you worry about them. They’re two of the nicest snobs you could ever hope to meet. I’ll get me presents and see you in a minute.’

*

Olive felt annoyed but didn’t let it show; the two ‘young masters’ might present a problem to her plan. With nothing else for it, she found her way to the kitchen door. To her delight, it stood ajar. ‘Hello,’ she called, ‘it’s only me.’

‘To what do we owe the pleasure this time?’ she heard Sibyl say. ‘Come in, don’t be shy.’

Two young men sat at the table. One smiled at her like an idiot, the other scribbled in a notebook. He glanced up and nodded, then returned to his notes.

‘These two young men are Masters Trevor and Russell Cloud,’ said Sibyl. ‘They own this place. They’re our employers, and they’re two of the sweetest gentlemen you’ll ever meet.’

Olive was careful not to snigger. Soon they’d be two of the most pissed-off gentleman she’d ever met.

Bert burst through the door, followed by Alf and the two Alsatians. Bert sat beside her and placed three small packages on the table, each wrapped in thick brown paper and stuck with lashings of cellulose tape. ‘Open mine first,’ he said, sliding his gifts in front of Olive. ‘It was Sibyl what suggested I should get these for you.’

Olive smiled to herself, thinking she had won Sibyl’s confidence after all. She waited until the others were ready before opening her presents. Sibyl sat next to Trevor and Russell on the opposite side of the table. Alf stood by the door with his arms folded, pretending not to watch. When Olive struggled with the tape, Sibyl fetched a knife.

‘Sibyl said to get you some sweets,’ said Bert, sitting on the edge of his seat, ‘or face ointment, or something that smells nice, didn’t you, Sibyl?’

‘I said ladies like chocolates, face cream or perfume.’

‘Yeah, that’s what I said. I couldn’t decide which, so I got you all three.’

Olive finally removed the wrapping from the first package and held up a small, brown paper bag, twisted at the corners to keep it closed.

‘They’re cough drops,’ said Bert. ‘Sibyl makes them, don’t you Sibyl. They’re fantastic, soothes sore throats and opens the nose, even Alf’s. She fills them with honey, good and sweet, and thanks to you, it won’t be long before we got our own. But you have to let them melt on the tongue, don’t you Sibyl, or they don’t work. Go on, open another present.’

Olive mumbled a thank you. The last two parcels were small and hard. One of them was a pot, the other a glass bottle. Hoping for the best, she attacked the package containing the bottle.

‘Deodorant,’ she said, holding her prize for all to see.

‘Yeah, roll-on with lavender scent. It’s easy, you swipe it under your smelly armpits. Stops you sweating too, don’t it, Alf?’

‘How should I know?’ said Alf, paying close attention now. ‘You won’t catch me using nothing like that.’

Russell started to laugh. Trevor and Sibyl dug him with their elbows.

‘They’re very nice presents,’ said Olive, trying to sound convincing.

‘I can’t wait to see what’s in the last package,’ said Russell. ‘Go on, Olive, don’t keep us waiting.’

Olive guessed the last package contained a jar of cream. Third time lucky, she thought, and ripped the paper off. Her posture slackened. ‘Petroleum Jelly?’

‘Yeah,’ grinned Bert, ‘it’s really greasy. The label says it stops nappy rash so it must be good for faces. Smear some on your face and it’ll get rid of all your wrinkles in a flash. Alf smears it all over himself when he has a fight, don’t you, Alf? Makes him slippery as hell, and it’s good on gate hinges too, stops them squeaking.’

This time, no amount of elbow jabbing could stop Russell from laughing. He excused himself and darted from the kitchen.

Olive laid her hand on Bert’s arm and made sure she had eye contact. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I can’t remember the last time someone gave me presents. I’m so thrilled. I’ll keep them on my shelf and think of you every time I see them.’ The fib rolled easily off her tongue. She’d drop the lozenges in her van where she always kept something to suck on. Roll-on never went to waste, she used gallons of the stuff, and her gate squeaked something awful.

Russell strolled back into the kitchen, hands full of jumbo-sized ice creams. ‘Here,’ he said, handing them out, ‘it’s a warm day.’

Olive watched Bert rip the paper from his ice cream and gulp it down in five huge bites. As he licked his fingers, she lifted her parcel onto the table and pushed it in front of him.

He poked it with a finger. ‘Is it a blanket?’ he said.

‘Open it and see,’ said Olive, unwrapping her ice cream.

Bert tore the paper off and slung it on the floor. His eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped, and he stood so fast his chair almost toppled over. ‘Overalls,’ he said, shaking out the garment, ‘ringed in black and yellow stripes.’

‘It’s a bee-keeper’s suit,’ said Olive. ‘I dyed the stripes myself. You can wear it when you’re working with your bees, and also when the horseflies are bothering you down at the stables. They’ll think you’re a giant wasp and won’t come near you, and even if they do, they can’t bite through that material. Take a look at the hat.’

The broad-rimmed hat was still white. Its veil unfolded as Bert lifted it. Two huge wasps eyes were embroidered on the back.

‘The horseflies can’t sneak up from behind when you’re wearing that,’ said Olive. ‘You’ve got eyes in the back of your head now. I hope the suit fits. It was the largest size they had.’ Beneath the table, Olive crossed her fingers; she’d made a bet with Pest. He didn’t believe anybody could be dumb enough to wear it.

Before Olive knew what was happening, Bert had wrapped his whopping great arms around her neck and lifted her out of her seat. He kissed her forehead with his huge wet lips, sucking her skin away from her skull. After a breath-crushing hug that seemed to go on forever, he dropped her to her feet. To her surprise, she saw a tear in the dimwit’s eye.

He bent down and picked up his suit. ‘Thanks, Olive, it’s the best present I ever had, ain’t it, Alf? I’ll put it on right away. Don’t you lot go nowhere until I get back.’

In the lull, Sibyl collected the empty ice cream wrappers, smiling and chuckling to herself like a mother hen. As she took Alf’s, he slouched to the table and sat at one of the short ends.

Olive gazed around the table. She was surrounded by a bunch of feeble oddballs and she couldn’t wait for the fun to start.

Bert strutted back into the kitchen, drawing attention away from her, his bee suit stretched around his body so tight it threatened to burst at every seam.

Russell looked up and grinned. ‘Hey, Bert, you look great–’

A detonation up by the gatehouse drowned out his voice. Alf closed his eyes and turned his head in that direction. ‘It’s Pest,’ he said. ‘He’s blown the boom barrier to smithereens and now he’s on his way here.’

‘Ah,’ said Trevor, wringing his fingers, ‘This might prove interesting. Come on, we can observe from the balcony.’

Sibyl grabbed Olive’s arm and propelled her along behind Trevor and Russell. ‘You better stay with us,’ she said, ‘where you’re safe.’

Olive glanced over her shoulder and smiled to herself. Things had gone better than she expected. The kitchen door gaped wide open.

‘Not you two,’ said Trevor, calling to Alf and Bert over his shoulder. ‘You two invited this rabble, so now you can dispel them.’

In full flight, led by Trevor, Olive and her group crossed the main entrance hall and ran up a flight of broad, curving stairs. They dashed across a narrow gallery and burst out onto a stone balcony above the main entrance. Here, Olive had a clear view of the forecourt, far stretching lawns and distant woods. As the roar of motorcycles grew loud, she held her breath and thought her pounding heart would explode with excitement.

The motorcyclists thundered into view. Behind Pest rode his gang. Their numbers must have neared fifty, and they didn’t stop until they reached the large lawn in front of the mansion and formed a spacious semi-circle with Pest in the centre.

Pest led a selected group of motorcyclists bouncing up the broad stairs onto the stone forecourt, sawn-off shotguns blasting at their hips, shattering stone statues and urns. They finished by sending several volleys into the mansion’s heavy front door.

Alf and Bert, flanked by the two Alsatians, wrenched the front doors open. Up on the balcony, Olive giggled and hid her face behind her hands. She heard Pest laugh and stole a peek between her fingers.

‘I thought you’d hear me knocking,’ said Pest. He scratched his bristly chin and grinned at Bert in his stripped suit. ‘Well, well, if I’d known it was fancy dress, I’d have come as a stick of dynamite. All you need is a cape and to wear your pants on the outside, and you’d be the next super hero: “B Man”.’ Giving his gang plenty of time to enjoy the spectacle, he raised his left hand and they fell silent.

Flanked by the Alsatians, Alf and Bert stepped forward. They stopped when ten sawn-off shotguns swung to face them. ‘What do you want?’ said Bert. ‘And mind your mouth. The lady who made this outfit is up on the balcony. Me and her have got a thing going, ain’t we, Alf.’

Pest leaned against his motorcycle saddle, crossed his legs and folded his arms. ‘Are you up there, Olive?’ He called.

Olive shook herself free from Sibyl and leaned over the stone banister. ‘Here I am, babe.’

‘Come on down and join the “A Man”.’

From the corner of her eyes, Olive detected the puzzled look on Trevor, Russell and Sibyl’s faces. Little did they know, that while the diversion outside occupied everyone’s attention, a group of Pest’s gang had entered the mansion by the kitchen door and were stripping it of valuables. Glad to drop her act, she ran through the mansion, emerged from the front door and linked arms with Pest.

‘This is my boyfriend,’ she said. ‘Most people call him “Pest”. It’s short for Peter Edward Salinger-Thorvaldsen, a right fancy name–’

‘Not now, baby.’ Pest pushed her away, hardly bothering to give her a glance. ‘Wait for me over there until I settle my debt with these two wimps.’ As she turned to leave, he smacked her backside with a resounding whack. She giggled and waggled away, limping. As she passed the front door, she patted the Alsatians on their heads, blew Alf and Bert a goodbye kiss and settled to follow the rest of the show propped against a wall.

*

Bert felt naked in his skintight bee suit and couldn’t decide whether to fold his arms across his chest or let his hands cover his crotch. In the end, he let them dangle at his side. Numb with self-consciousness, he barely registered what was happening around him. ‘I’m here because I want a rematch,’ he heard Pest saying, ‘right here and now.’

‘Okay,’ mumbled Bert, ‘but let’s agree on the rules first.’

‘No rules,’ snapped Pest, ‘and no bets, a fight to the death.’

‘I seem to remember you lost your star plaything,’ said Alf, unperturbed. ‘You ain’t planning to do the job yourself, are you?’

‘I’ve brought a new champ with me,’ said Pest, pointing into a dense mass of riders on the lawn. ‘Meet Slayer.’

Right on cue, a head rose above all others and a figure strode forward. Its arms and legs were built of girders; each joint a bulbous knot of steel. Tempered iron encased its chest, glistening and rainbow-hued. An ugly metal tube made up its head, pointed like a bombshell, with deep-set sensors instead of eyes and ears.

Slayer stopped in front of Alf, his gleaming chest level with the top of Alf’s head, his metal hands brandishing the mandatory two-inch iron rod. With a slight hydraulic whine deep within his chest, Slayer tied a knot in the rod and drew it taut.

‘Tell you what I’ll do,’ said Pest. ‘Since I’m in a good mood today, I’ll let the both of you take on Slayer.’ He jumped forward, face contorted in anger. ‘Now get on with it.’

A cannon exploded on the stone balcony. The cannon’s metal ball hit a nearby tree and snapped it in two. With everyone’s attention focused on him, Trevor lifted a megaphone to his mouth and spoke. ‘Listen carefully,’ he said. ‘Leave now and there will be no reprisals. If you haven’t departed within two minutes, you’ll be walking home, carrying your injured.’

‘Was that your best shot?’ laughed Pest. ‘An old fashioned cannon that can’t even shoot straight. If it’s war you want, take this–’ He snapped his fingers and pointed to the balcony. Half of his riders raised their shotguns. ‘Shoot!’ he screamed.

A volley of gunshot splashed into the balcony, sending pellets and chips of stone ricocheting in all directions. In the next breath he shouted, ‘Slayer, do your stuff.’

Slayer made a grab for Alf. Bert saw him dodge and move away to one side, making Slayer choose whom to attack first.

A commotion on the lawn beyond the gang’s circle made everyone turn their heads. A motorcycle flew through the air, followed by another, crashing back to earth with a sickening shriek of bent metal. A gap opened in the circle and Crusher dashed through.

‘Crusher!’ said Pest, hopping to his feet.

‘Yeah,’ said Alf. ‘He’s on our side now.’

Pest breathed out and relaxed. ‘Go ahead then, if you think that puny little toy will help. The three of you against Slayer.’

Reprogrammed with all the best moves of Mohamed Ali, Bruce Lee, and Kurt Angle, and thought-manipulated by Alf, Crusher whirled into action. He was smaller, lighter and the weaker of the two robots, but he used Slayer’s clumsy weight against him, catching him off balance and hurling him through the air in bungling cartwheels and somersaults. Crusher was everywhere at once, his feet and fists pounded sideways into Slayer’s joints, concentrating on hammering them out of line little by little.

Large but lumbering, Slayer was soon reduced to scrap. He regained his feet one last time, dragging one useless leg behind him, both arms bent at unnatural angles. Crusher lifted a fallen stone statue above his head and heaved it at Slayer, striking him square in his chest and sending him clanging back down to the paved forecourt. With his body twisted and crumpled, Slayer failed to get up. Sparks fizzed from his joints, his arms spun like two propellers, his head vibrated, and his torso and legs juddered and rattled. Then, with a loud fwadoom and a belch of smoke from his neck and shoulder joints, he lay still.

Growling in unison, Alf, Bert, and the Alsatians turned to face Pest. Ten gang members rushed forward and knelt in front of their leader, sawn-off shotguns at the ready. Bert snatched his beekeeper’s hat off, dropped it on a nearby statue’s head and spat into his hands.

At that moment, a string of seven robots rushed from the mansion’s front door, each a copy of Crusher but wearing different, brightly coloured clothes. Six of them carried Pest’s thieves across their shoulders, feet and hands scraping along the ground. After dumping their groaning load in a pile, the robots lined up, side by side, facing the armed gang.

‘You’ve seen what Crusher can do,’ called Trevor through his megaphone. ‘What chance do you have against seven more such robots? You’ve already had your last warning. My patience is exhausted.’ A dull grey football rose and floated around Trevor’s head.

Pest snatched a shotgun from a gang member and fired both barrels into the nearest robot. The robot’s green clothes tore from his body in shreds, but his structure remained unharmed. It stepped forward, removed the shotgun from Pest’s grasp, bent the stubby barrels and handed it back with a nod. The other six robots disarmed the rest of Pest’s selected gang members, then advanced on the lawn.

Bert glanced at Olive. She slumped against the wall, hands covering her ears, shaking her head in disbelief. Then he glanced at Pest and felt his muscles quiver, charged with adrenalin.

Alf and he sparred every day, and Alf always compared his fighting technique to that of a lumbering elephant or a grizzly bear. These scum had the nerve to laugh at him, did they? Call him Beeman, did they? He’d show them Beeman. He stepped forward, bowling gang members aside like plastic goblins, Alsatians snarling at his heels.

Pest swung his fists at Bert like a man gone berserk. Bert anticipated every punch and patted them aside. Frustration drove Pest to a screaming, roaring, madman. It didn’t help. Bert advanced, pressing Pest back until he bumped against the mini trailer.

The moment Pest stumbled, Bert turned aside, lifted a beehive, and smashed it over Pest’s head. The bottom collapsed and Pest’s head disappeared inside. Almost at once, his knees buckled, he slid down the trailer, and ended up sitting with his back resting against a wheel. Honey oozed down his shoulders and outraged bees buzzed around him in a thick cloud.

Olive tore herself away from the wall and stopped in front of Pest. She ignored the Alsatians and the humming bees and tried to lift the hive. ‘Get it off him,’ she screamed. ‘Get it off him.’ A bee stung her neck and she yelped. Bert slipped his arm around her waist, lifted her away to a safe distance and disappeared inside the mansion.

*

Crusher stepped forward, impervious to the bee stings, and lifted the hive from Pest’s shoulders. Honey, wax, and a thick layer of angry soldier bees plastered Pest’s face. They crawled in his ears, eyes and mouth, choking him, muffling his screams, until he toppled sideways, unconscious.

Pest’s gang members were paralysed with fear, but Olive jumped forward again. She found a bee-smoker in the trailer and began blowing the bees around Pest’s head. Then Sibyl was by her side, an old-fashioned insect sprayer in her hands, the type with a barrel and plunger. She wore thick rubber kitchen gloves and had Bert’s veiled hat pressed on her head.

When her dispenser was pumped empty, mostly into Pest’s face, she dug into his mouth with her fingers and scooped out dead bees. Then she bent behind him, wrapped her arms around his lower ribs, lifted him to his feet and jerked the air from his lungs. Dead bees burst from his mouth and nose. He inhaled with a whoop, then retched, coughed and panted. Sibyl let him drop.

‘Well don’t just stand there,’ she screamed to his gang. ‘His throat is swollen from bee stings. Get him to the hospital before he chokes to death. Even if the stings don’t kill him, my pesticide probably will.’

His gang sprung into action. A motorcycle with sidecar started, chugged close and stopped.

Pest groaned and opened his eyes. Olive clasped her hand to her mouth and leaned back. The whites of Pest’s eyes glowed with a venomous yellow hue. ‘Hey,’ she said to Sibyl, ‘what have you sprayed at him?’

Sibyl pumped her dispenser one last time into Pest’s face, making him blink. ‘Let’s say it’s a little reminder never to come back.’

‘How long will the yellow eyes last?’

Sibyl had already marched away. Four gang members lifted Pest into the sidecar. The remaining serviceable motorcycles roared into life, filling the air with blue exhaust and the stench of burning tyres. Within minutes, with two and sometimes three gang members huddled on each motorcycle, they were gone.

Bert emerged from the mansion and shuffled with bowed head towards the still kneeling Olive. He now wore his usual jeans and T-shirt. Two plastic carrier bags dangled from his hands. ‘Olive, I…’

She leapt to her feet, lips pressed so tight there only remained a white slit.

Bert stepped back, arms spread wide. ‘My friends warned me you were no good. I didn’t believe them, but I do now.’ He offered the bags, one containing the bee suit, the other containing her presents. ‘Here, best take your things and leave.’

Without taken her eyes from Bert’s, Olive reached into her presents bag, found the bag of lozenges and flipped a handful into her mouth. She sneered, displaying several cough drops clasped between her teeth. Her jaw muscles tensed and the lozenges exploded. She stood tall, thrust out her chest and crunched. Then her expression changed as if she realised she chewed on something putrid.

Alf and Sibyl crept up beside Bert, staring at Olive as if they expected her to turn into a toad.

‘What are you gaping at?’ said Olive, starting to gag.

‘Crikey,’ said Alf, wrinkling his flattened nose, ‘nasty.’

‘What?’

‘Works better than I expected,’ said Sibyl, fanning the air. ‘A mite heavy on the sulphur, perhaps.’

Olive dove into her handbag and dragged out a powder compact. She flipped the lid open and stared at her reflection in the mirror. Her lips, tongue and teeth had turned jet black. Without another word, she clasped her hand to her mouth and ran.

‘I couldn’t help it,’ said Alf. ‘Me and Sibyl swapped her lozenges for those things.’

‘She’ll be all right,’ said Sibyl, ‘but to get rid of it she’ll have to scrub her mouth with soap when she gets home.’

Bert shuffled his feet and studied his fingernails. ‘It’ll be a long time before she gets home,’ he muttered.

The other two stared at him, eyebrows raised.

‘I checked her van and found they’d fiddled with the petrol gauge. It shows empty all the time. I reckon this whole thing was planned right from the start. Anyway, I siphoned most of her petrol out. She’ll conk out long before she gets home.’

‘That sounds more like me old mate,’ said Alf, and punched him on the shoulder.

A horsefly landed on the same exposed spot. Without hurry, Bert picked it off and squished it between finger and thumb. ‘Pest,’ he said, and flicked it away.

 

THE END

 

 

Author’s note: I hope you enjoyed this short story, if so, do me a favour by spreading the word on your Blog, Twitter or Facebook site. Why not let me and others know what you think by posting a review at your favourite online bookshop; even a review of few words is helpful. Thank you. James

Have you read the other free short stories in this series?

Outgrowth of the Brain

White Noise

Litter Thugs

The Professor’s Conundrum

Gypsy Spell

The Bell Tower Suite

Psycho Psyche

Yoikes

Doomsday Diary

Liquorice Shoelace

 

Want to know more about Alf, Bert, Professor Maurice Masterson and others? They’re all characters from the ‘Cloud Brothers’ series. Book one is a good place to start:

Gathering Clouds

 

Trevor tinkers with his flying-saucer, and Russell tinkers with his martial-arts, which is bad news for the aliens tinkering with our planet.

 

Why not try a preview of Gathering Clouds before deciding to buy?

 

 

Visit me online and discover my other books:

Website

[+ Goodreads+]

[+ Shakespir+]

 

 

 

ISBN-978-82-93174-63-9

Pest

This novel is a work of fiction.

 


Pest

  • ISBN: 9788293174639
  • Author: James Field
  • Published: 2017-02-22 16:35:09
  • Words: 11916
Pest Pest