By Ben Croshaw



"Bloody stupid colour for a whale, anyway."

- Captain Ahab


"Aharrr!" went Mad Jack.

"Aharrr!" agreed Loony Steve.

"Ahahaharr!" added Batshit Jeffrey enthusiastically.

"Aharr," I muttered.

Steve paused in mid-chug, put down his flagon of frothing grog, and gave me a quizzical look through his bushy black beard. The sudden tilting movement had shifted it over his eyes. "Somethin' getting ye down, boy?"

I sighed heavily, elbows leaning on the balustrade that ran alongside the top deck of our mighty vessel as it noisily carved a swathe through the tarmac far below. I had only been with the land pirates a week and I was already sick of it.

The recruitment ad in the newspaper had made it seem like such a glamorous job. And it was, for the first few days; sailing up and down the motorways of the country, swinging from ropes onto passing lorries and service stations with daggers between our teeth and draining them of their booty. But we hardly ever had a really good haul - the last two boardings had left our hold full of a shipment of rapidly thawing frozen beef and several boxes of TV listings magazines. Since the ship didn't have a TV, nor indeed any Yorkshire pudding, the other crewmen were discussing the possibility of finding a nice traffic island to bury it all under.

"Speak up, Jim lad," said Steve.

I turned to face my colleagues and gave them a long, hard look. They were career pirates - life on the open road was in their bones. Some of them even had genuine false limbs, while I had had to make do with coating my left leg in woodstain. I could tell they rather liked me, but I never felt easy in their presence. They insisted on calling me 'Jim lad', which I had gathered was sort of the pirate equivalent of John Doe.

"I'm just having doubts about this job," I confessed, adjusting my ruffled shirt.

The three land pirates gave each other knowing looks. "'Tis a rare cabin boy indeed 'oo can jump straight into land piratin' just like that," said Batshit Jeffrey as the others nodded and 'aharr'ed in agreement. "Takes a while for the tarmac to really get in a boy's blood."

"But we never seem to get anywhere," I protested. "Just sail up and down the motorway stealing cargo and burying it in traffic islands. Where's it all leading?"

"Everyone gets into piratin' for their own reasons," said Mad Jack, swallowing his mouthful of grog. "For some, 'tis the booty. For others, 'tis the wenches. For a small minority 'tis our stock options package and competitive dental plan. What brought ye to land piratin', lad?"

I turned and leant on the railing again. Below me a school of Minis bumped playfully against the ship's hull. "I joined for adventure," I said wistfully. "To see the world, battle resilient foes, far away from the hustle and bureaucracy of everyday life." I watched as the minis detached from the ship's bulk and sped away, honking merrily. "But all we do all day is sit around reading TV listing magazines and play Hungry Hungry Hippos."

"Arr. Sport of kings," said Loony Steve. "And don't forget drinking grog."

"GROG!" barked everyone in earshot simultaneously.

"You mean Carlsberg," I said flatly.

"CARLSBERG!" went the pirates again.

I rested both elbows on the rail and allowed my face to sink into the cradle they formed. "Plus the noise is doing my head in," I said, referring to the constant grinding noise as the ship ploughed through the road, leaving a wide trench in its wake. "And this eyepatch is starting to hurt."

"Aye, you need to sterilise the paddin'." He caught my dirty look. "And aye, if you want constant non-stop adventure then ye're in the wrong place, Jim lad. Land piratin's become a much more sedate trade. Ye get the occasional pitched battle with rival land pirates and articulated lorries but most land pirates think that that excitement is more than enough."

"Don't call me Jim lad, my name isn't Jim."

"Well, I'm not callin' ye by that bloody stupid name ye gave us."

"It's a nice name!" I protested.

"Ye be wantin' to join the army, or somethin'".

I didn't even dignify that remark with a reply.

"Ye don't wanna let Cap'n Scar hear ye, 'e don't like 'earing 'is men moanin'."

"'E'll make you walk the plank."

"Then ye'll have to jog along behind the ship until we stop next and ye can hop back on."

"As long as the Yamahas don't get ye first."

There was a shudder among the trio, the very name of the dread fleet striking fear into the hearts of even the toughest of grog-swilling land pirates.

A call came down from the crow's nest as I was about to continue airing my doubts, and a great cheer went up among the pirates that idled variously on the deck and rigging. The aforementioned Captain Scar emerged from his cabin, took his spyglass, and surveyed the horizon. A great grin stretched across his features, revealing his black teeth. He turned to address his crew. "Where's the lad?" he rumbled in the thickest pirate accent on board.

"Thar's ye cue, matey," said Batshit Jeffrey as I was shepherded over to Captain Scar's side.

He pressed a yellowed piece of paper into my palm and handed me a cutlass. "Why does it always have to be me who does this?" I complained.

"Ye're our most articulate man, wit' your fancy-pants posh accent, laddie," said Captain Scar. "Any more lip and I feed ye to the Yamahas. Now get going."


I dangled by one hand from one of the portholes along the side of the ship's hull so that my mouth could be level with a small grille built about three feet above the ground. My left arm waved the cutlass in a half-hearted menacing fashion as I spoke.

"Yeah, so that's fifty large big mac meals ... no, fifty. Fif-teee. Twenty-five with Coke, twenty-five with Fanta. Yes, twenty-five each. And ten large McChicken Sandwich meals, all with coke..."

There was a cry from the impatient crewmen above.

"Sorry, nine large with coke, one medium with coke," I added.

There was another cry.

"I haven't forgotten, I haven't forgotten!" I shouted upwards, then returned my attention to the grille thing. "And one veggie-burger meal. With strawberry milkshake."

There was a burst of static from the two-way radio, and a series of barely recognisable syllables came through. I swept my hair back behind my ear with the end of my cutlass, and called upwards again. "Kevin, the milkshake machine's down!"

Another cry.

"No, I don't think murdering them all will help," I ventured.


As always the hardest part of the operation was threatening the woman at the drive-thru window with the cutlass until she agreed to waive the cost, then transferring the huge quantity of little paper bags from the window to the deck above me one by one with the point of the sword. By the time I had clambered back on deck, the ship was moving again and most of the crew were sitting around stuffing their faces. One of them registered my presence and jabbed a ketchup-stained thumb towards the cabin door.

"Cap'n wants to see ye," he said in a slightly broken pirate accent.

I roughly snatched the little greasy paper bag one of the crewmen had been keeping on side for me, and gave the spokesman one of my looks. "What for?"

"Ye know, I didn't think to ask."

I sighed the deepest sigh that day, causing a school of nearby Minis to break away startled from the hull and drive off, and headed for the door.


Captain Scar was, as always, a fearsome sight. A great hulking brute of a man with not only a genuine big bushy black beard but also a genuine rusty iron hook for a hand. His eyepatch and pegleg were both false, but there's a fine line between being fearsome and being seriously mutilated. He always wore a black tunic with blood red lining, and a matching hat that even had a skull and crossbones badge on the front. That's how serious a land pirate Captain Scar was.

As I entered his office he was sitting at his desk, an MFI self-assembly affair apparently acquired many years ago from a van belonging to a chain of catalogue shops. It was no marvel of engineering - it wobbled alarmingly when leant on and a stuffed beaver replaced one of the legs - but no-one was going to point anything out to the man.

Captain Scar wasn't his real name, of course. His surname was originally Scarlet, but this had left him open to some quite creative mockery, and there were only so many crewmen he could execute for loudly humming certain theme tunes when they thought they were out of earshot, so he'd changed it to something appropriately fearsome and piratey. Unfortunately he had had to drag his hook across his face before the name could be lent any credibility, but it was a small price to pay to stop his crew walking around in a curious wobbly puppet-like manner when he wasn't looking.

As I entered he had exchanged his hook for the special one with the pencil nib on the end and was filling in a crossword puzzle in a TV listings magazine, his great big booted feet on the desk. He motioned towards a swivelly office chair, which the crew had also acquired from the catalogue shop van, and I sat upon it, whereupon the seat immediately descended to ground level.

"Arr, it does that," he said through a mouthful of burger and fries. "Use yon stick."

I picked up the length of driftwood nearby kept for this purpose and used it to fix the seat at about two feet above the floor, then sat upon it once again. The magnificent captain swallowed, and tapped his paper thoughtfully.

"'Rob's dome is badly lit'. Seven letters," he said.

"Boredom," I said promptly. His quizzical look spurred me to continue. "Another word for 'badly lit' is 'dull', and 'rob dome' is an anagram."

He 'aharr'ed shortly, and filled in the spaces. "Ye're a good boy, Jim lad. You've got it in yer to be a great addition to my crew. We 'aven't had a token posh boy pirate in a while."

I nodded shortly, and tried to give an appreciative smile. He laid the magazine aside, took his feet off the desk and clasped his hand around his hook. "And yet, Batshit Jeffery was just tellin' me that ye're not very 'appy with us."

That's it, I thought. As soon as the ship stops and I can hop back on board I'm soaking Jeffrey's bandana in white spirit again. "A bit," I muttered.

He sighed. "Look, Jim lad, I know I seem like this great big evil unapproachable pirate sometimes," said the huge hairy man with the black outfit and matching teeth. "But I was a cabin boy like ye once. And back then I sometimes doubted that land pirating was what I really wanted to do. That was until ... the incident..." He fingered the hook, staining his already well-stained fingertips with graphite, and for an instant a flash of red hatred went through his eyes. I thought it prudent to keep quiet.

There was an awkward pause, and our eyes met. "I just ... don't feel I'm getting what I want out of the position..." I said meekly.

"What is it ye want out of the job, Jim lad?" he said, snapping out of his trance.

"Adventure," I said sheepishly. "It's been kind of interesting, but it gets samey really fast. And my name isn't Jim."

"I know, but yer real name's bloody stupid, let's face it." I glared at him unappreciatively, but only briefly, considering the man. "An' I agree. I was well and truly bored stiff by the time of ... the Incident..." he tapped his hook against the desktop sadly. "When that great beast took my hand ... Ol' Ben 'imself, the killer of the A417..."

I watched awkwardly as he got up from his seat and went over to the porthole. He glared at the rough-hewn ditch the ship left in its wake, into which unwary motorists fell and were left honking indefinitely. "I knew I couldn't rest until I got my revenge on that monster," he said flatly. "So I clawed my way up the ranks until I was cap'n of me own ship, then devoted my life to tracking 'im down. And one day I'll choke that evil to death wit' me own 'ands."

I coughed politely, and he seemed to register my presence, taking his seat again. "But I see ye don't 'ave the same sort of motivation," he said.

I shook my head. He continued. "If adventurin' is what ye're after, then I don't think land piratin' is for you. Land piratin' is based on profit an' personal fulfilment. But there are other branches of piratin' you might want to consider, much more fast-paced. 'Ave you thought about sea piratin'? Sky piratin'? Computer piratin'?"

I interrupted. "Sky pirating?" He nodded. "What's that?"

"Oh, that's a real up-and-coming new branch of piratin', sky piratin'. I've got a cousin oo runs a ship operating round Europe. They'll be touchin' down in Sahthampton on Thursday. Wanna give it a try? I'll give you a glowin' reference."

This was certainly a fascinating development. "And that's more fast-paced? More adventurey?"

"My cousin told me ye 'aven't lived 'till ye've boarded a private business jet at forty thahsand feet."

I thought about it. "Alright," I said after one second. "I'll give it a go."

He was about to say something when there was a roar among the pirates outside. I exchanged slightly baffled looks with the great captain, then Loony Steve burst in, waving his cutlass and wearing an excited expression on his face. "Cap'n sir!" he yelled. "It's 'im! It's ol' Ben 'imself off the port bow!"

"Ye're sure? If this is a wind-up I'll 'ave ye're toes for tea -"

"P569 JHR!" reported Steve breathlessly.

Captain Scar gave me a look of delirious excitement, and leapt suddenly to his feet, causing his chair and the entire desk to collapse. A glint of joy was in his eye. "C'mon laddie!" he barked, and ran after Steve. I followed rapidly. This was something I didn't want to miss.

When we got back on deck, the pirates were all clustered around the portside rail, clamouring to get a glimpse of Old Ben. Captain Scar fought his way through the throng and I followed, eager to see the legendary beast. I elbowed Mad Jack aside and craned over the rail, shielding my eyes from the glare of the sun to try to make out the dark shape a few hundred yards ahead. It was smaller than our ship, and apparently painted blue, and soon recognition struck.

"That's Old Ben?" I asked incredulously.

"Aye, lad," said Captain Scar hungrily, standing by my side.

"But it's a camper van!"

"Thar's not any ol' camper van," said Mad Jack nervously. "Thar's Ol' Ben. Cap'n Scar's brother-in-law's camper van."

I shook my head and rubbed my temple, unnoticed in the bustle all around me.

"Right!" said the captain. "Jack, Steve, Kevin, Jim lad, man the portside cannons!"

The four of us fought our way out of the crowd and tramped down the stairs to the lower deck, where we flung open the cannon holes and pushed the nozzles of the ship's huge iron armaments into open air. From this position we could still hear the shouted commands of Captain Scar as well as the excited cries and 'aharr's from the rest of the crew. We heard the great captain order his men to lower the fore and aft sails in order to speed up and draw alongside Old Ben.

"Jack," I asked my cannon partner as we waited for the camper van to come into range. "How did Captain Scar lose his hand to Old Ben?"

"Arr, I think he was helping push it with his hand on the steerin' wheel and someone closed the window afore he could get it out," said Jack distractedly, eyes fixed on the road.

We drew level with the van, and from this angle we could see the driver double-take as the gigantic pirate ship hoved into his view. "Fire one, lads!" called Captain Scar maniacally.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Loony Steve yank the firing rope of the cannon next to mine, heard the massive bang, and saw a slightly scorched pile of TV listings magazines spread themselves across the road just behind Old Ben. Undeterred, Captain Scar called again. "Fire two!"

I pulled hard upon my rope and the cannon fired fifteen pounds of rancid British beef at the van, splatting wetly against the powder blue side and causing it to wobble alarmingly. A cheer went up among the pirates above us, and we heard the scrape of a cutlass leave its sheathe.

"Shall we reload, captain?" I shouted.

"Nay, Jim lad!" called Scar. "He's MINE!"

Immediately I saw the great musclebound black-clad figure leap atop the unsuspecting roof of Old Ben. It skidded left and right with great screeching noises that served only to make the assembled pirates cheer even louder for their captain, who was not to be thrown off his prey.

Captain Scar dug his feet into the roof rack and delved his existing hand into his waistcoat pocket, producing something that he held aloft for all to see. The cheering of the crew reached a crescendo as we saw what it was.

It was a banana.

The captain, encouraged by his crew, dangled himself upside-down from the rear of the van, and put his hook around the rear bumper. With a theatrical flourish he stuffed the banana right into the exhaust pipe, then launched himself from the vehicle back onto the ship, clinging by his fingers to the cannon hole at which I stood. Mad Jack and I helped pull the huge man into the ship, whereupon all five of us raced up to the top deck just in time to see Old Ben crash into a black unmarked security van just behind him and explode in a shower of twisted white-hot metal. The cheer was deafening.

Quite unexpectedly Captain Scar then gave me a bone-crunching hug and kissed me on both cheeks as the crew banged their cutlasses together in appreciation of a great stunt.

"Ol' Ben is dead!" cried the captain, throwing his arms wide and allowing me to collapse upon the deck. "Bosun, drop anchor! Roll out the grog! Tonight this crew parties like it's 1999!"

"Great," I muttered, unheard.


The next day, when we were all holding ice packs against our heads and the 'aharr's were becoming noticeably muted, the captain gave me his reference, written with a quill pen on a yellowing vellum scroll tied with a silken red ribbon, and gave me details on where and when the sky pirates' ship would be touching down exactly. Then he made me walk the plank for appearance's sake, but he was very good about it, and dropped a life belt on my head when I'd landed.

As the land pirates disappeared over the horizon and the 'aharr's were already fading, I found myself sitting in a small cafe in a nearby service station, sitting behind a sugary jam doughnut and a Coke, turning over the reference in my fingers.

Well, I thought. Kept a job for a whole week this time. That's got to be a record.

I'd start a new endeavour, like land pirating, or archaeology, or demon slaying, and then after a while it'd all get too samey and I'd get bored and get back on the road.

What my problem was, I decided, was that I was just too single-minded.

I was on a quest, you see. I'd been on it my whole life. It was because of this quest that I'd left home and become a nomadic adventurer wandering up and down the country. This quest that couldn't let me rest anywhere for five minutes at the thought that I was getting distracted. And what made this all the more insane was that I didn't even know the point of my quest.

I was searching for something. But I didn't know what it was.

Hence the subtitle.

All I knew was that I was searching for something that would make me finally feel my life was complete. Whether this something would be a person, or an object, or a job or a place to live I really didn't know. I just figured I'd know it when I found it.

I'd searched for it in the Sussex downs, the Scottish highlands, among the werewolves in the wildernesses of North London - and hadn't that been a mistake - and most recently as the cabin boy on a pirate ship on the A417.

Maybe sky pirating would be it, or at least give me the opportunity to find it. Sounded like the kind of affair that would lead to adventures taking me all over the world.

As I sucked morosely on the straw and tasted the sugary nectar, one eye rotated in the direction of the couple energetically copulating four tables away, the other eye still concerning itself with the interior of my eyepatch, I recited the details of my meeting with the sky pirates over in my head again. Ship touching down by Pier 14, round about 10 of the Thursday morning clock, ask for Captain Black.

I finished my doughnut as the people nearby screamed their orgasms, adjusted my eyepatch, and left, trying not to seem jealous.



"What fools these mortals be."

- Bill Gates


I was standing by the side of the motorway, thumb out pointing in whatever direction I assumed Southampton lay in (south, presumably), feeling an utter berk. I had hitch-hiked before and had usually been able to do it with dignity, but not while wearing a pirate outfit with one leg coated in woodstain.

There is an art to hitch-hiking, and I'm not talking about flashing your thighs as a vehicle approaches. The whole idea is to appear appealing to drivers. You have to look bright and cheerful, but not too much or they'd think you a lunatic, and yet also a little bit pathetic, but again not too much because no-one likes sharing a car with a miseryguts. You also have to be just scruffy enough to be endearing, but not scruffy enough to make a vehicle look untidy. Some peculiar element that your prospective taxi might be curious about can also help. A pirate outfit is a good example, but in the past I had also used, on various occasions, a giant inflatable banana, a hat shaped like a duck and a stuffed tiger carried under one arm.

It's also sometimes wise to be choosy with your ride. Hitch-hikers are easy prey for kidnappers, rapists and serial killers disguised as ice cream men. I had sworn to myself that I wouldn't fall for that again.

Anyway, I had been standing by the road for almost an hour before I could get a lift. Which is not to say that my methods don't work, there just wasn't any traffic. Well, there had been one - an ice cream van - and it had stopped, but I wasn't going to be fooled, so I pretended not to notice it.

When my ride eventually did arrive, I could hardly miss it. I could hear the noise of the engine from a mile away. My jaw dropped slack as it rounded the bend and trundled towards me.

It was an enormous General Sherman tank painted black with a skull and crossbones motif.

It rattled to a halt in front of me, the caterpillar tracks gouging huge grooves in the tarmac, and I gazed at it for several seconds before remembering to withdraw my thumb. I stepped cautiously towards it, and as I did so a hatch in the roof opened. I could faintly hear some kind of electronic buzz coming from within as the head and shoulders of (presumably) the driver emerged from the hatch: a rather short but heavily bearded pirate in a captain's hat wearing spectacles over his eyepatch.

"Where be ye headin'?" he asked rapidly. He seemed to be vibrating slightly.

"Er, Southampton," I said.

"Ah," he replied.

There was utter silence, during which we both stared at each other expectantly. Eventually, I felt it was up to me to continue the discourse.

"Can I have a lift?" I asked.

This question seemed to throw him. "Don't think so, matey. We're full to burstin' down here."

"Why did you stop, then?"

"Yer know, I can't remember." He called downwards into the tank. "Why did we stop?"

There was a round of muffled voices while an ongoing background noise which sounded an awful lot like fingers tapping upon computer keyboards stopped for a second. The penny dropped.

"Computer pirates," I realised aloud.

This was the modern age, after all. A small and rather right-wing branch of land pirates had some years ago decided to move with the times and create an organised faction of pirates who shunned leaping across moving tarmac on ropes with blades between their teeth in favour of hacking into computer systems and draining booty from the bank accounts of the great and good. It was certainly a lucrative trade, but being locked in a small confined space with fifteen other pirates and as many computer monitors tended to pale the skin and addle the brains a little. As such, more traditional pirates - like myself - tended to frown upon the practise. As Captain Scar had once said on the subject, if you can't master the art of holding the right end of a cutlass and jabbing the other into people, then you have no business calling yourself a pirate.

I frowned upon the computer pirate as a note was passed to him from his crew below. He adjusted his spectacles as he read, then realisation dawned in his eyes. "Do you 'appen to know the way to an 'ospital?" he asked. "My wife's about to give birth."

I found myself wincing, but I seized my opportunity. "There's a great hospital in Southampton, why don't I hop in and direct you?"

There was a very curious noise from down below. "Oh," said the captain after a second. "Seems 'er waters just broke." He called into the tank again. "Don't ye dare get any of that stuff on the network 'ub, woman, or ye'll taste the cat!" He turned to me. "Southampton, ye said?"

"Yes, but the traffic's awful this time of year, I'll have to come along and show you the short cut -"

At this juncture the head of a second computer pirate appeared next to the captain, a bandana patterned with Windows logos upon his head. "Captain, sir!" he said. "We've cracked the firewall at MI6, what do we do now?"

"Dammit, Leroy, me son's about to be born down there!" replied the captain. "Ye deal with this feller, and I'll go loop a worm into the main database fer the time bein'."

He disappeared into the tank, and I was left with the apparent Leroy. "I was just telling your captain that Southampton has a lovely hospital," I said.

Leroy's brow furrowed as he attempted to adjust to reality. "Does it 'ave a website?"

"Oh yes," I improvised. "If you'll just let me in I'll show you."

"Couldn't fit yer in, matey," said the pirate. "Shame, really, 'cos Southampton's where we're headin'. We're meetin' someone on Pier 14."

"That's exactly where I need to be!" I said.

"Well, maybe we'll see yer there, er … what did yer say yer name was?"

I briefly considered telling them my real name. Briefly. "Just call me Jim lad," I said. "Couldn't I ride on top of your tank or something?"

"We like to call it the Microsoft Engine, not a tank," he said. "It looks pretty but 'as a tendency to crash when we least expect it."

I had a feeling he had just told me what his people considered a very funny joke, although it was hard to tell. "Whatever, could I ride on it?"

He scratched his bandana. "Well, I dunno," he said with some difficulty, before immediately adopting the strategy all subordinates take when faced with awkward questions. "I'll go ask the cap'n."

When he was gone, I clasped my hands behind my back and rocked upon my heels. I whistled jauntily, desperately trying not to listen to the very strange noises emerging from the open hatch. Eventually the captain reappeared. His spectacles were skewiffed and he seemed very agitated. "Do yer know anythin' about midwifery?"

I seized my chance. "What I don't know about midwifery isn't worth knowing," I said. It was technically true. I can't think of any subject more boring than midwifery.

"Right," he said. "Sit on the top and we'll call ye if we need ye. What's yer name?"

"Jam lid," came the faint voice of Leroy.

"Jim lad," I corrected.

As the captain disappeared back inside the tank and mercifully slammed the hatch shut, I climbed up onto the roof of the vehicle and sat myself down upon the big rotary turret most tanks seem to have. There was a slight jolt as the Microsoft Engine started trundling along the motorway again, and I soon found myself wholeheartedly regretting putting myself in this situation.

I sat there for an ungainly amount of time, hugging my knees, watching the scenes of the motorway trundle by. The noise of the engine was quite rattling, but at least meant I didn't have to listen to whatever was going on inside. As time passed, I decided to take a look at the reference Captain Scar had given me.

"'Dear Cap'n Black,'" I read aloud, briefly wondering what sort of devotion to piracy one would need to actually write in a pirate accent. "'Pleafe employ Jim lad, or whatever 'e callf 'imfelf. 'E might 'ave a ftupid name and he might complain all the time but he'f good with a cannon an' fair to middlin' with a cutlafs, and 'e'f got the pofhest accent I've ever 'eard, and I know ye 'aven't 'ad a token pofh-boy pirate in a while. Love, Fcar.'"

Well, I thought, it's sort of positive. As far as I could tell.

I was just returning the scroll to my pocket when the hatch flew open and Leroy appeared. "Hey!" he shouted, as if to get my attention, apparently oblivious to the fact that I was two feet away and looking straight at him. "Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey. How're ye doing?"

"Did you come up here for a reason?" I prompted.

"No. That is, yes. Cap'n told me to ask yer … ask yer … fergotten it now."

"Something to do with the birth?" I asked cautiously.

"Oh yeah! Er, which bit's the baby?"

I wondered how to phrase this best for the benefit of the computer pirates. "It's generally small, pink and fleshy with arms and legs," I said. "It probably won't be any other colour, and probably won't be made from plastic."

He patted my foot gratefully. "That's exactly what we needed to know, matey." With that, he disappeared back inside again.

I hugged my legs and continued to admire the scenery, which is why I noticed that my tank suddenly wasn't the only heavily armoured vehicle on the road. A second tank of the same model was coming level with it, two lanes away. This one was painted red with a white Dixons logo along the side, and there was a man sitting on top in a pinstripe suit and bowler hat, clinging to a black briefcase and matching umbrella. That is, the man was clinging to the briefcase and umbrella, not his hat. Our eyes met, and I gave him a friendly nod, as between equals.

"M-Morning," he said, white-faced. He was clearly new to riding on tanks.

"Morning," I replied in what I hoped was a reassuring manner. "You're a businessman, aren't you?"

"I'm an accountant, actually," he said. "And you're a pirate?"

"Yep. A land pirate. Well, a sky pirate. Well, I'm a sort of intermediate stage of pirate, at the moment."

The conversation nosedived from there. Well, what could a land pirate on a computer pirate tank say to an accountant on a Dixons tank?

"Nice tank," I said eventually.

"It isn't mine," he replied. "Some Dixons employees are giving me a lift."

"It was computer pirates with me."

He nodded understandingly. "My name's Penfold, by the way," he said, proffering a hand. I held my hand out as far as it could go, and we both shook empty air. I told him my name.

"Strange name," he said. "Mind if I call you Jim lad?"

I was just about to reply, probably with an insult, when the hatch next to me flew open. The captain appeared in a small eruption of paper streamers, wide of eye and big of smile, clutching a bottle of some kind of energy drink in one hand and a football rattle in the other. He was wearing a conical party hat on top of his traditional big black captain's hat.

"It's a boy!" he cried. "We've cracked the MI6 archives and I've got a son! It all got really confusing when the umbilical cord got lost in all the network cables, but we worked it out! Ye were so helpful we're gonna name him after yer, matey! We're gonna name 'im Jam!"

He wouldn't have listened to me even if I had dignified him with a reply. He had seen the Dixons tank, and his happy mood transformed instantly into one of great seriousness. "Dixons!" he hissed, derisively speaking the name of his organisation's greatest foe. There were cries of horror from below, which ended abruptly when the captain slammed the hatch shut again.

"He's a little highly strung," I said to Penfold. "He's just become a father."

I suddenly found that I no longer had to crane my neck around to speak to him, as the turret on which I sat seemed to have rotated to face the other tank. Penfold was about to speak when the gigantic gun fired, rocking the tank below me. An explosion in a meadow beyond signalled a 'miss'. Penfold flattened himself against his own turret, clinging white-knuckled in fear as it began to rotate towards me.

A shell fired from the Dixons tank exploded far too close to the rear of my tank for comfort. I jumped forwards in reflex and found myself clinging to the gun barrel with all my arms and legs.

"Boy or girl?" asked Penfold nervously.

"Boy!" I called back.

"Tell him congratulations!"

I felt the barrel fire, and the Dixons tank skidded left and right for a few seconds before getting back into a comparatively straight line. When I could open my eyes again, Penfold was hanging from his tank's barrel by his hands. Looking back, I admire how he was able to hold onto his briefcase and umbrella with his feet.

"Where exactly are you from, by the way?" I shouted.

"I'm from the Superglue accounting firm!" he explained.



"I thought they only made glue…"

"That's a mistake a lot of people make!"

Another explosion right in front of the computer pirates' tank caused it to jolt violently, leaving me dangling upside-down by my legs. Seeing this, Penfold brought his legs up and let his hands go so we could continue talking face-to-face.

"Where are you heading?" he asked.

"Southampton!" I said, blood rushing to my head uncomfortably. "I've just got a job over there!"

"Me too!" he replied. "I have to meet a client over there to-"

That, I'm afraid, marked the end of our conversation. I had noticed I was having to crane my neck to look at Penfold again, as the pirate tank was accelerating and had moved in front of its enemy. Penfold's speech was cut off as a shell from the Dixons tank blew out the caterpillar tracks of the Microsoft Engine, which suddenly found it had lost acceleration rapidly. The Dixons tank ploughed into its rear, and both tanks went off the road.

Then a blue tank with 'POLICE' written over it appeared over the horizon, and everything sort of went downhill from there.


Penfold and I both agreed that it was a spectacular battle, once we had both been thrown off. We couldn’t agree who had won, of course, as we both felt somehow moved to be on the side of whoever had been giving us a ride. Both tanks were now useless piles of smoking metal, so we eventually decided that both tanks could be considered losers and dropped the matter.

After the police had realised we were innocent bystanders and had put their truncheons away, they had taken our statements and buggered off while we helped the paramedics with picking through the wreckage for survivors. The only one they were able to find was a single pirate who refused to go on the ambulance without his computer, and had demanded a second stretcher for it.

Both Penfold and I decided to abandon hitch-hiking for the time being, and the pair of us set off south along the side of the motorway.


"And that's basically why I'm on the road," I told Penfold, as night was falling and we were sitting around the campfire we had built in the middle of a roundabout. He had given me one of the sandwiches from his briefcase, and while I loathed egg and cress with a passion, I decided to allow hunger to trump personal taste.

He stared at me. "You're searching for something that you can't even identify?"


"But … how would you know it when you found it?"

I shrugged. "Just figured I would," I said.

"That's the most ridiculous life's ambition I ever heard."

I nodded. I got this a lot. "So what's your life's ambition?"

"Me?" he asked. "I dunno."

"Right, so shut up, then. You wouldn't give people tips on buying a car if you only owned a bicycle yourself, would you."

"I suppose not," he said jadedly. "Must you chew with your mouth open?"

"Yes," I said immediately. "I'm a pirate."

"I thought you were one of those posh boy pirates," he said. "The sort who agonizes about killing people and gets annoyed by the big rough salty pirates having bad manners."

"I'm a sort of mixture of pirate," I explained. "When I'm chewing with my mouth open, that's the big rough salty pirate." I pointed to the napkin in my lap. "That's the posh boy pirate."

There was a gurgle from the little bundle beside Penfold. He put down his dinner and took the newborn computer pirate into his arms, rocking it gently. "Good thing this little chap survived, this chapter would have been so tasteless otherwise," he said dreamily.

I shrugged. "What kind of future has an orphaned baby born to insane computer nerds got to look forward to?"

"I dunno, but I can't just leave him here... maybe we could leave him on a doorstep when we get to Southampton."

"Least we can do, I suppose," I considered. "His name's Jam, by the way."

"Jam," murmured Penfold. "What a nice name."

I took in the rather soppy expression on Penfold's face, and sighed. I had never been a great fan of small children. In fact I recalled a time when I had found myself trapped in a disused mine for four weeks with a coachload of primary school children. In the end I was so hungry and desperate I did something truly drastic, which I sometimes look back on and regret.

You'd be surprised how much junk they put in their packed lunches these days.


"Look at that crocodile! Can I pet him, mummy, can I, please?"

- J. Hook, West Midlands Safari Park


We eventually arrived in Southampton on Wednesday evening when the sun was just dropping below the horizon at the end of another tiresome trek across the sky. We had eventually managed to get a lift from a white van, in the back of which Penfold had gone while I took the front seat with the driver. Our small companion lay between us.

"Is that baby yours?" asked the driver at one point in a rather hollow voice.

"Nah, we rescued it from a crash," I said nonchalantly, and changed the subject quickly. "What do you do, by the way?"

He seemed quite startled by the question. "Me? Er..."

As the ellipsis extended to the third full-stop I felt I should elaborate. "Painter and decorator?" I hazarded.

The driver looked down at the enormous red stains covering his grey jumpsuit. "Er, yes, that's right. Just got back from a job."

"I thought so. You're still wearing your splash guard."

He fingered the hockey mask that covered his face, then returned his hand to the steering wheel. "Where can I drop you off?"

The nice man dropped us off in a suburban area of town not far from the coast. Penfold seemed rather pale and shaken after he emerged from the van's rear, but when I asked him about it he started to hyperventilate so I felt it best not to pursue the matter further. He obviously had a problem with paint fumes.

I placed the baby Jam into his hands and he seemed to calm down a bit. "This looks like a nice enough neighbourhood," I observed. "Find a nice doorstep to leave him on, then ring the bell and run. I'll be in that corner shop getting us something to eat." I pointed.


I eventually decided on some of those delicious individually wrapped chocolate muffins corner shops always seem to have and a couple of bottles of Lucozade. I was kept waiting outside the shop for a good half hour before Penfold reappeared. As I offered him his own meal I noticed he was still holding the baby. "What happened?" I asked, with a sense of dread.

"Well, I went around, but all the houses had signs in the windows saying 'no foundlings please', so I couldn't leave him there."

I hit him gently over the head with a bottle. "You're a complete wuss, aren't you," I said, and sighed. "So now what?"

He looked up from making little goo-goo sounds to the baby, and gave me a hopeful look. "Can we keep him?"

I hit him again. Harder. "Look, tomorrow morning I'm being picked up by my new pirate crew and you've got to meet your client. Neither of us are in any suitable position to look after a baby. Just leave him with the corner shop woman or something."

"I think you and your pirate friends should take him."

This time I dispensed with the bottle and just used my fist. "Are you completely simple? We're pirates! We don't even know where to buy rusks!"

"Look. Just hear me out. If Jam grows up to be an adventurous drifter or something and finds himself winning the heart of some upper-class girl who's been sheltered her whole life by an overbearing father, he'll have an interesting backstory he can use to woo her over with his manly charms."

If there was a convincing argument to go against that logic then I couldn't think of one. "No way," I said, regardless. "I know I speak for piratekind as a whole when I say we can't stand kids. You take him. Do what you like with him. I'm going to find a nice park bench to sleep on."

I left him standing there with a hurt expression on his face, the baby in his arms, as I stormed off into the night. I have to admit I felt the tiniest pang of guilt as I went out of his visual range. But it went away when I stood on a nail.


I woke up on Thursday morning absolutely exhausted, with my overall emotions wavering somewhere between nervous excitement and shame.

Penfold was an OK bloke. A little nervous, and perhaps the biggest wuss I'd ever met, but he didn't really deserve being left abandoned in the middle of Southampton holding the baby. Alright, so neither of them were my responsibility and at least one of them was probably old enough to look after himself, but I still felt that I'd been a little abrupt with him. I wondered briefly if I should try and find him before heading for Pier 14, but abandoned the idea, as finding him in a town as big as Southampton would be nigh impossible, and he was probably with his client by now. Whatever I did it seemed that Penfold and I had parted ways for good, on rather poor terms, too.

I felt kind of guilty about that. Then I felt good about feeling guilty about it, forgot the matter entirely and began making my way towards Pier 14 with a spring in my step.

So you can imagine how put out I was when I found the man himself leaning against a rail at the end of Pier 14, minus his umbrella and hat and still clutching a gurgling bundle in his pinstriped arms. He caught a glimpse of me as I approached, pulled off an expert double-take, and let his jaw go slack.

"What the hell are you doing here?" we both asked simultaneously.

"This is where my new crew are supposed to pick me up..." I said.

"Well, this is where my client said he'd meet me!" he replied.

I felt it was time to ask a pertinent question. "Who are your clients, exactly?"

"Sky pirates," he said, somewhat predictably. "They need me to go over some problems they've been having with their booty records."

I smacked my forehead. "So we've both been heading for the same place all along..."

Behind his eyes, the penny dropped. "You're joining the Sky Pirates?"

I nodded, and leaned against the rail next to him. "Guess we're stuck with each other," I said, in what I hoped was a friendly tone.

"Guess so," he said, shortly. He seemed a little gruff.

There was a long pause before I spoke again. "You're still holding the baby, I see."

"Some of us actually have a sense of morality," he sniffed, rocking the child gently.

I shuffled my feet. "Look, I'm sorry I shouted at you and hit you last night."

He answered with only a little 'hmph' sound, so I continued. "I was just a bit tired. But you have to realise that we pirates don't make good parents. He'll probably be an alcoholic by the time he's 6 and be gutting things with a cutlass by the time he turns 8."

Penfold sighed. "I don't think you can speak for pirates as a whole," he said weakly.

I answered his sigh with a defeated one of my own, and rolled my eyes heavenwards. It was there that they caught a glimpse of a shadowy shape silhouetted against the bright morning sky, descending towards us at a nice gradual pace. I poked Penfold in the ribs and pointed towards it, and his eyes took to rolling heavenwards too.

The Sky Pirates' ship in many ways resembled that of the Land Pirates, with some rather obvious differences, which I shall detail now. Where the ship of the Land Pirates had had a huge pair of cylindrical grinding thingies at the front of the keel, used to push their way through the tarmac as it went on its merry way, the Sky Pirates just had a huge rotating propeller at the rear and an amusing sticker reading "WE BRAKE FOR SEAGULLS". Also, where the Land Pirates' ship had merely had sails, the Sky Pirates' ship also had a series of large balloons, each about five yards across and apparently made from enormous quantities of sewn-together condoms, which the ship dangled precariously from.

Aside from that, it was pretty much identical to the Land Pirates ship. It even had a series of scurvy dogs standing along the side of the main deck waving their cutlasses going 'aharr'. Penfold and I watched, suitably impressed, as the ship descended gracefully until it was about ten feet above the ground, whereupon the engine cut out and it suddenly hit the pier with a splintering crunch. I leapt back out of reflex.

"Aharrr!" aharred one of the bigger pirates. "Ye wouldn't happen to 'ave seen an accountant and a scurvy grog-swillin' Land Pirate 'round here fixin' to join our crew?"

"We would be them," I called upwards.

"Which one's which?" shouted someone. The pirate crew laughed uproariously for several seconds before it all descended into 'aharr's again.

I sighed. "I'm the Land Pirate, alright?"

"Posh boy pirate, aye?" called the original shouter. "We don't like posh boy pirates round 'ere, laddie."

"You should really get with the times," I said. "You should always have minority representation in your workforce."

There was one of those awkward pauses.

"We don't like minority representation round 'ere, either," said my tormentor, sparking off a new wave of 'aharr's.

"Excuse me?" said Penfold, who up until this point had been silent, clutching his briefcase in a white-knuckled hand. "I can see you all have a lot of pirate banter to be getting on with, could you point me in the direction of your accounts?"

"Aye, ye're the accountant? We don't like accountants round 'ere, matey." Short pause. "Or their babbies."

"Is there anyone you like around here?" I asked.

"David Bowie," said another, as yet unheard of pirate, after a thoughtful pause. There was suddenly a lot of head-nodding and 'aye's amongst the crew. "We like David Bowie."

"And Patrick Stewart."

"And that nice man from the off-licence -"

"Alright, alright, get back to your drinking, everyone," said a new voice, female and bereft of pirate accent. The pirates suddenly shrank in awe of the woman who had fought her way to the front of the throng and was now gazing down upon us. She was quite attractive, as pirate queens have been known to be, with the usual black captain's hat, frizzy red hair and a blue and white stripy shirt.

"Sorry about them," she said, addressing me. "You're Captain Scar's lad?"

"Yes. Aye."

She gave Penfold a disarming smile. "And you're the man from the Superglue accounting firm?"

"Er, yes," he said, nervously as always.

The female captain turned slightly and shouted something we didn't quite hear to someone we didn't quite see, and a gangplank extended from the top deck to the floor in front of us. It seemed to be made from one of those big yellow rubber slides they have on aeroplanes, scrunched and tightened up to be climbable. I exchanged a quick glance with Penfold, then scrambled aboard with him bringing up the rear.

"Captain Rose Black," said the captain by way of introduction, shaking first my hand then Penfold's. "Some call me Black Rose, but only if they like having their noses cut off."

She laughed. I laughed, briefly. Penfold gave one of those polite little laughs you give when you don't really get the joke. But then, he wasn't a pirate like us. Captain Black turned to him. "The account books are in the bilges," she said. "Wretched Joseph will show you to them."

As Penfold was led below decks by an enormous hairy creature with two legs coated in woodstain, I felt moved to start a conversation with this undoubtedly delectable young lady who, upon closer inspection, seemed to be about the same age as me.

"I went to school with a Rose Black," I said nonchalantly. "She was about your height, with lots of big red hair like yours."

She gave me a quizzical look and asked me my real name. I told her, and she gave me a pleasant smile, and seemed about to say something.

"Right tomboy, she was," I continued, oblivious. "I went out with her for a couple of weeks, but then she nicked all my Red Dwarf videos and ran off with my best friend Mike."

"Yes, and incidentally -"

"In fact, if I ever see her again I'm going to put my hands around her neck and squeeze until she stops making noises, then squeeze some more until liquid comes out of her mouth. Even if she was, say, the captain of a pirate ship surrounded by toadying lackeys who would strike me dead as soon as I was finished. Because I would die with the knowledge that I had got my revenge for that terrible insult. I curse the name of Rosemary Witherspoon Black. Curse it, I say!" I spat colourfully over the deck.

Captain Black gave me a slightly startled look, then closed her mouth.

"Sorry," I said, "I just tend to run off at the mouth about these things. What were you saying?"

"Nothing!" she said rapidly. "Nothing at all!"

I shrugged, and looked over the side of the rail at the slightly cracked hull sitting upon the pier. "Why did you land like that?" I inquired.

"How would you have suggested we land?"

"Well, in the water, perhaps?"

"If this ship was watertight do you think we'd be flying it?" Something seemed to occur to her. "You haven't seen a team of computer pirates around, have you? They're supposed to meet us here and set us up with a database for the booty records."

I kept my big stupid gob shut.

"Can't wait all day," she said, frowning. "Oh well." She made a curious hand movement, and an unnamed pirate began winding up the anchor. The ship gave a sudden lurch, and within seconds had left the ground, leaving behind a few pieces of splintered wood. I watched with some awe as the town of Southampton unfolded below me, the Sky Pirates' ship gradually gaining more and more height.

"OK," she said suddenly. "Welcome to the exciting new world of sky pirating."

"Isn't there supposed to be some sort of interview process?"

"Not usually, no. We're a fairly new ship. We need all the men we can get."

"Don't you want to see my reference?"

"Thankfully -" she began.

"- that won't be necessary," said a new but familiar voice belonging to a large figure emerging from below decks. It was a grizzled voice hardened slightly through chain smoking and strained through a big bushy black beard, and the owner was an enormous man clad in a big black and red tunic.

"Captain Scar!" I said, as if it wasn't yet obvious enough.

"Arr, it's First Mate Scar now, laddie," he said, pointing proudly to the bandana that had replaced his big black captain's hat. "Ye arrived then, I see."

"What are you doing here?"

"Well, after I finished off Ol' Ben, I realised I didn't 'ave any reason to stay in land piratin', so I thought I'd get my ol' crew to drop me off 'ere so I could see what all the fuss was about wit' sky piratin'."

I was about to say something along the lines of how good it was to see him again, when something else occurred to me. "So the ship was going to Southampton but you let me hitch-hike my own way here anyway?"

He gave me a guilty look. "It sounds so negative when ye put it like that, Jim lad."

I returned his guilty look with an angry one of my own. "I'm going to my hammock to sulk," I said shortly, and headed below decks.

A little while later I came back on deck. "Which one's my hammock?"

"Second deck down, fifth one on the left, with the pink spots."


There was even a little chocolate mint on the pillow. I would have appreciated the gesture if it hadn't melted.


I couldn't sleep that night, so I headed up to the top deck and stood at the ship's prow, watching the clouds flutter past and listening to the cries of horny birds. Some other salty dogs had apparently had the same idea, all slumped against masts and each other, snoring fitfully.

So this was sky pirating. And I had to admit, there was one hell of a view. Not much but stars and clouds at this point, but there were certainly a lot of them, and it was all rather humbling.

Captain Black had mentioned that the ship wouldn't be touching down for another month, so I had better like this one. There was no easy way to drop out after a week this time, and I had plenty of time to find out if this was what I wanted.

Briefly the indeterminate Something I had devoted my life to finding flicked into my mind's eye. Since I still didn't actually know what it was it took the form this time of a gigantic wooden armadillo controlled by a series of levers in the head section, in which a mysterious cackling man with wild grey hair sat. It was flying towards the sky pirates' ship on a pair of gigantic wings made from several tarpaulins stitched together, and as it passed us I saw one of the eyes wink robotically.

I hurriedly dismissed the mental image before it became too surreal. The point was, I thought, would sky pirating help me find it?

My thought processes were interrupted by the clicking of sensible shoes upon a wooden deck behind me. Penfold had come on deck, the baby Jam in his arms, looking around him with an expression of some awe.

"How did they react to that?" I asked conversationally. He frowned until I cocked a head towards the bundle in his arms, and he reacted to it as if seeing it for the first time.

"Oh ... er, Captain Black said it should be alright to keep him here for the time being ... until they find someone else who could take him off their hands ..."

I nodded, then returned to gazing at the clouds. Penfold eyed me quizzically, then took to gazing in the same direction.

"What are we gazing at?" he asked.

"Destiny," I said, distantly. "Mine is out there somewhere. I just won't know it until I find it."

There was a long pause, but not particularly awkward this time.

"What does this scenery say to you, Penfold?" I said.

"It says ... that we're airborne..." he said, his voice indicating that he'd just realised something important.

"Well ... yes ..."

He looked over the side. "Airborne ... over sea ..."

"We're going to be doing some pirating over France, apparently."

"The ship's moved on!" he shouted suddenly, stirring the sleeping pirates. "I was only supposed to be here for one morning to sort the books out! I'm supposed to be back in the office tomorrow!"

As he unceremoniously dumped Jam into my arms and ran below decks, I felt a curious smile cross my features. The baby gurgled and offered me the slightly manic look only babies born to computer pirates can give.

"Prat," I muttered.


"Where does it all go, eh?"

- R. Van Winkle


"I reckon," said Ruthless Dave one morning in spring, "that the entire world is surrounded in a layer of astronaut piss."

Insane Simon and I exchanged the old 'someone's drunk' look.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and the three of us had taken the opportunity to cling from the rigging while waving our swords and go 'aharr'.

I had been with the Sky Pirates for just over ten years now, and I was still enjoying myself immensely.

It wasn't just the adventures, the travel or the looting. A lot of it was the grog. This crew had our own special recipe for the stuff, we didn't just bung Carlsberg in a pewter tankard until the foam dribbles down the side and quaff it over games of Scrabble and Happy Families. This was a heady mixture of home-brewed beer, spices and a few select industrial chemicals. This was manly grog, drunk over manly games like Blackjack and Cluedo. We also found it was good for cleaning the drains.

But I digress. I was happy as a Sky Pirate. Over the years I had been educated well in the arts of looting, swordplay and grog-drinking, and could command considerable respect as a grizzled salty sky sailor alongside any of my fellows. My career had eventually seen me rise to the dizzy heights of Second Mate. The original - Unpleasant John, a man who had once cut off an enemy's hand with his beard - had long since retired to the South Downs with a nice pension in booty and a carriage clock.

And here I was, ten years after it had all begun, a seasoned twenty-nine-year-old sky pirate with an entirely natural designer stubble, hanging with the comrades I felt so close to, talking complete bollocks on the rigging.

"Yeah," elaborated Ruthless Dave. "'Cos, satellites and space shuttles and things 'ave been goin' up into space fer years, and what do ye think 'appens to all the astronaut piss? They shove it out the airlock, mateys. And where do ye think it goes from there?"

"Stevenage," said Unholy Bill, who was slightly higher up. "My mum told me that astronaut piss once came down from the sky in a big block of ice and hit the off-licence."

"Was it alright?" I asked.

"Oh aye, lad. But the owner lost his dog and four bottles of Absolut were never seen again."

We considered this, and bowed our heads in remembrance of departed alcohol.

"JIM LAD!" shouted someone from on deck, interrupting our reverie. I looked to see that it was Penfold, his hands cupped around his mouth and his accounting briefcase still slung over his shoulder on a makeshift leather strap.

"AYE?" I shouted back.

"CAPTAIN WANTS TO SEE YOU," he responded.

"COMING!" I yelled in a pseudo sing-song fashion, before clamping my cutlass blade between my teeth and clambering down the rigging. Unlike Ruthless Dave I had so far been able to stave off scurvy and my teeth were still suitable for this purpose. I noticed him look at me with sorrow in his eyes so I made a sort of apologetic grunting sound, only the smallest speck of drool escaping from my mouth, and swung off the rigging onto the deck in front of the accountant.

Exactly why Penfold had decided to stay with us was still a matter for debate among the pirates. He was still nervous and jumpy and a definite fish out of water on board, but he didn't like to talk about it.

There were three popular theories abound as to his continuing employment with the Sky Pirates. The first theorised that Captain Black had persuaded him to stay on the promise of the Golden Calculator, the holy grail of the accounting world, which she was pretty certain they'd happened upon in a street market once but couldn't quite recall which.

The second theory went along the lines that after that first short voyage in the sky he had seen the emptiness in his current life and the sheer richness of the sky pirating lark, and had dumped his old gig there and then to become the world's first sky accountant.

The third theory, which I personally subscribe to, isn't as popular as the others among the crew but is backed up by solid evidence. Namely, Penfold's diary, which I had laboriously snuck a look in. After calling his office at Superglue from a public phone box in Calais two weeks after he was supposed to be back, they had politely but firmly told him that he needn't bother turning up at all any more.

So that was that.

"What's this about?" I asked him.

"I dunno."

I rolled my eyes and headed for the cabin like a schoolboy bound for the headmaster's office. Oblivious of my fate, I just hoped this wasn't going to concern the incident involving the Crow's Nest, Loathsome Nigel, a wooden cutlass and a spider in a matchbox.

As I entered the cabin it became clear that both Captain Black and First Mate Scar were present, looking slightly out of place in the nicely wallpapered and carpeted manager's office the captain had decorated her cabin to look like. The captain took up position on the seat we had stolen from a passenger jet some years back, while Scar was perched unsteadily on the window sill.

Neither of them had changed much in the last decade I had lived and worked with them. In fact, I had it on good faith that Scar was still wearing the exact same outfit he had on when he first joined the crew. He had once decided to acquire a parrot to wear on his shoulder, but he hadn't been prepared to shell out the price most pet stores demanded for a suitably colourful bird. Now a small garden thrush sat upon his great shoulder, trained to occasionally turn on a dictaphone onto which Scar had painstakingly recorded the phrase 'Pieces of eight!' several times in a high-pitched voice.

Rose had changed only slightly - from a beautiful pirate queen of 19 to a staggeringly beautiful pirate queen pushing thirty. She'd filled out and matured a little here and a little there, and had been persuaded to wear a fake hook by her first mate, but on the whole was still the same pirate captain I had pledged allegiance to all those years ago.

"Ah, Jim lad, take a seat," she said primly. I looked around for somewhere to sit, and found only an elephant-foot umbrella stand. I parked myself inelegantly upon it.

"Now then -" she began.

"If this is about Loathsome Nigel, I had no idea he had a heart condition -"

"No, this is not about Loathsome Nigel. How old are you now, Jim lad?"

"Twenty-nine years, four months, nine days," I said promptly. I knew this for sure, as I had recently counted all the tally marks chalked onto the wall near my hammock.

"We've been thinkin'," said First Mate Scar in his usual piratey growl. "That maybe we should stop callin' ye Jim lad."

My heart leapt. "You're going to start calling me by my real name?"

The slightly pained expressions on their faces told me this was not the case. I endeavoured to look disappointed.

"It's not that it isn't a nice name -" said Rose tenderly.

"So what is it then?" I asked.

A pause.

"Alright," said Scar, "It is that it isn't a nice name."

"Bloody stupid name," said Rose, nodding.

"Tweet," added the thrush.

I sighed with grudging acquiescence. "So what am I going to be called?"

"Well, laddie, ye're nearly thirty now ... we should really stop callin' ye 'lad', lad. Young Jam is nearly 11. Time we started callin' 'im 'lad', instead of 'boy'."

I nodded a little. "I see. I'm too old to be the ship's 'lad' anymore."

"Quite. We want to give you a proper pirate name," explained Rose.

My heart leapt again. This was the moment I had been waiting for for years. To finally shed the stigma of being called 'Jim lad' everywhere I went, or 'Jam lid' when the speaker was drunk, and become a true pirate with a true pirate name.

A true pirate name comes in either two forms. Firstly there's what is colloquially known as the 'Salty dog' name - one's first name preceded by an adjective that best describes the salty dog in question. The other kind of name is called a 'Dog the Salty' name, in which the pirate's first name is followed by a 'the' and a suitable word.

"We were thinking of a nice 'Salty Dog' name," said Rose. "I suggested either Thin Jim or Lanky Jim -"

"- and I thought maybe Posh Jim," said Scar, looking pleased with himself.

A grimace of disgust briefly flashed across my features. "None of those quite do it for me," I admitted.

They seemed quite exasperated, as if they'd been thinking about this for hours. "We've been thinking about this for hours," confirmed Rose. She jerked a thumb towards a nearby whiteboard, on which was written the following:

Clever Jim Virginal Jim

Well-scrubbed Jim Thin Jim

Pleasant Jim Fairly-good-at-swordfighting Jim (crossed out)

Posh Jim Tall Jim

Hazardous Jim Murky Jim

Scruffy Jim Jim and tonic (crossed out several times)

Lanky Jim Middle-class Jim

I winced as I read. "None of those really do it for me either."

Rose and Scar sighed in unison. "Perhaps you would like to come up with something?" said my captain.

I fingered my bandana thoughtfully. "How about Deadly Jim?"

"Jim, accordin' to Christian teachin's, lyin' is a sin," said Scar. "As such, if ye insisted everyone call ye that, ye would be damning this entire crew to Hell."

"Let's have a little brainstorming session, shall we?" suggested Rose.


Two and a half exasperating hours later, Scar and I left the Captain's office with rather pale complexions to find we had missed lunch. Scar set off below decks, muttering something that sounded a little like 'choosy git', and Penfold came up to me as I slumped down against the main mast.

"What'd she want, Jim lad?" he asked.

I gave him an extremely weary look. "It's Articulate Jim, now."

He winced. "Can I just keep calling you Jim lad?"

I shook my head and wiped the crust out of my eyes. "I'm too old to be the ship's lad anymore. Jam's going to be the ship's lad. I have to be called Articulate Jim."

"Was that really the best name you could come up with?"

"Yes," I said, dropping the subject down a very deep hole. "Where is Jam, anyway? I should pass on the good news."

"He's manning the crow's nest with Camp Gareth."

I thanked him and headed for the rigging, bade Ruthless Dave and Insane Simon the time of day - mentioning in passing my new name, which induced a fit of laughter that sent Simon tumbling into one of the open barrels of grog we kept on deck - and clambered up to the very peak of the vessel. As the fluttering Jolly Roger overhead hoved into view I heard the unmistakable voice of the boy Jam, and the equally unmistakable voice of Camp Gareth.

I pulled myself upwards with a strength known only to career pirates who do a lot of hanging around on the rigging waving cutlasses, and the occupants of the crow's nest became visible.

Camp Gareth was his usual self, clad today in a blend of silks and satins dyed in pink and purple. An enormous brimmed hat of similar colour with a feather in the band sat jauntily upon his head, and he bore the special glittery silver eyepatch he had rather foolishly tried to sew sequins on while wearing. Consequently he was one of the few pirates onboard with a genuine need for the thing. He was a strange one, that much was clear; what more can one say about a man who actually did read Cosmopolitan for the articles?

Now, a word on Jam.

The last time these memoirs had touched upon Jam he was but a newborn child, clad in swaddling clothes and cradled in Penfold's arms. Now he was ten years of age, and looked exactly as you'd expect a young man raised around pirates but with an accountant as a father figure to look. He wore traditional posh boy pirate cabin boy garb - a ruffled white shirt, slacks, knee socks and sensible shoes - as well as a plain white bandana and a plastic training hook.

His personality was in many ways similar to that of his adopted father. He had been taught to read and write with the only reading matter on board - the ship's log, selected personal diaries, and the papers in Penfold's briefcase - and as such was quite well-spoken, though his vocabulary lacked many words, his spelling needed some work and I often heard him slip a little 'aharr' or 'me hearties' into his sentences. He had a nervous manner but seemed quite comfortable around even the most grizzled of crew members, all of whom seemed to also be very fond of Jam. I suppose even evil vicious corsairs can be sensitive around small children, and things hadn't changed as the boy had grown up.

Right now, he was using the spyglass kept in the crow's nest for its most popular purpose, not playing with it idly as a normal child his age would, but concentrating purely on what he saw with grim determination.

"Well, look who it is, Jammy," said Camp Gareth as I appeared.

Jam immediately turned to face me, and I found myself staring down the lens of the spyglass. I smiled in what I hoped was a disarming fashion, and a few awkward seconds later, the spyglass went away.

Being brought up by pirates had left a mark, of course. Jam wore the mask of a cherubic child, but there was something else there, something in the eyes. A steely spark of ruthlessness that could surely allow him to win a staring competition with any other child you'd care to name. He was also the only ten year old boy I had ever known who occasionally needed to shave.

"Hiya, Uncle Jim lad!" he said brightly. He called everyone onboard with the prefix 'uncle'. No-one seemed to mind, except the captain. "Have you found it yet?"

"No, I haven't found it yet, Jam."

He also served as an unofficial ship's confidant. There was something about his bright and adhering nature that made one want to spill one's guts in his presence. This I found particularly useful, as I found that with just a few minutes alone with him, a packet of jelly babies and a notepad and pencil I had enough blackmail material to get anything I wanted. In his above statement he was of course referring to the eponymous Something I was still laboriously searching for, which in my recent private thoughts had taken on the appearance of a stick of celery inserted through the core of an apple sitting atop a Mexican Aztec pyramid. Every time we'd met since I'd mentioned this fixation of mine he had asked me if I'd found it, and after five years it certainly wasn't growing old, no sirree.

"Uncle Rose was telling me that she was planning on giving you a proper pirate name," he said, formal introductions over.

"That's right, Jam. Articulate Jim. You can just call me Uncle Jim now."

"Does that mean you're not the ship's 'lad' anymore?"

"Yes, Jam."

"Does that mean I'm the ship's 'lad', now, matey?"

"Yes, Jam."

That was another slightly unnerving thing about the boy. He picked up so much gossip on board ship that nothing you could tell him surprised him, but he always ended up telling you that he already knew in a way that made you think you had told him.

Sort of.

"About time too," said Camp Gareth, now wielding the spyglass with hips cocked. "I've felt really silly calling you 'lad' ever since I joined this crew."

Camp Gareth, for lovers of explanatory exposition, had been on this planet for four years less than I had and joined the crew just two years ago, but I'd have thought in all that time he'd have been able to decide on a sexuality and stick to it.

"Does dad know?" asked Jam.

"He's not your dad," I said automatically.

"Yeah, well ... my real parents are long gone ..."

"I was just saying, it's such a shame about your real parents," interrupted Gareth. "Jim was telling me just yesterday what fabulous pirates they were, scourges of the seven skies and all that."

"Arr, did they really die from being crushed under the enormous mountains of booty they had collected while fending off two enemy pirates each?" asked Jam, looking at me with those big innocent wide eyes of his. I coughed politely.

"I swear to you that I haven't not completely avoided to refrain from telling untruths about your parents," I assured him. This seemed to satisfy him, and he took the spyglass from Camp Gareth once again. Gareth gave me a look which said 'I deciphered that sentence properly', and I returned it with a look that said 'Keep your mouth shut or I'll tell everyone what you told Jam about the incident with the stirrup pump and Dave's copy of Battlefield Earth'. He nodded in understanding, and gave me a look that said 'Would you care for a game of Travel Scrabble?'. I gave him a look in the affirmative, and we both sat down on the floor of the crow's nest to play.

It was such a glorious day to be alive and airborne. Gareth and I played several games just for the sheer love of the sport, while Jam dutifully surveyed the horizon. A little after three in the afternoon Insane Simon appeared to hand around mugs of grog shandy, and we paused for a few minutes to savour the sun and the drink. It was testament perhaps to Penfold's upbringing that Jam wasn't a hard grog drinker like the rest of us, but we did allow him the occasional glass of the non-alcoholic version (dishwater with a slice of lemon).

In fact, it wasn't until just before teatime and just as I was laying down 'MAINBRACE' which would have won me the game that Jam did a little double-take, lowered his spyglass, and began ringing the 'booty bell' enthusiastically.

"What is it?" I asked.

"It's another Sky Pirate ship!" he yelled excitedly down to the upturned faces below. Sure enough, a sleek wooden vessel similar to our own was anchored to a nearby cloud. It was currently a little too far away to see much in the way of detail, but I could tell that it was painted black with red streaks here and there. A lot of the crewmen down below were cheering and 'aharr'ing in anticipation as the bosun steered our ship towards the other.

The sky pirating community is a complex one indeed. There are many hundreds of ships at large all over the world, some on friendly terms, others mortal enemies. I wondered idly whether this new ship was on good or bad terms with us. If it was on bad terms then the ships would pull alongside each other and both crews would swarm all over each other's ships and there'd be a massive fight until one captain was killed or made to surrender, whereupon all the losing team's booty went to the winners. If we were on friendly terms with them then the procedure was exactly the same, but everyone was very good about it and tried not to leave mortal wounds if possible, and everyone was invited to a big grog-swilling party on the losing ship.

We hardly ever had the former variety of skirmish anymore. Captain Black seemed to find it very easy to make friends.

The captain herself was making her way across the top deck followed closely by her first mate. The pirate crew was silent as it parted to allow for her to reach the railing, whereupon she took a scroll from one pocket and a pair of reading glasses from another. She began to read from the paper, just as she had done every time this had happened for the last ten years of my employment.

"'Attention fellow pirates,'" she read. "'I am Captain Rosemary Black and this is my ship. I challenge thee to a duel. Whoever is defeated by either extermination or surrender shall hand over all their booty to the victor. If you do not consent to these conditions, say 'ARR' now.'"

There was a pause, and no sound came. From the point of view of Jam, Gareth and I, it gradually became clear as we neared the other ship that there was a peculiar lack of activity about it.

"Very well," said Rose. "'By the power invested in me as captain of this vessel, I hereby declare this pillaging -'"

"Captain, wait!" I shouted. "Something's not right."

All eyes turned to me, some quite balefully. No pirate liked being deprived of a pillage. "What do you mean?" shouted Rose.

"I don't see anyone on deck, in the crow's nest, at the helm, anywhere," I continued. Gareth nodded affirmatively.

"He's right," he said, pointing a limp wrist. "Looks deserted."

For a while no-one spoke as our ship drifted ever closer to the other. When it became clear to those down on deck that what we said was true, everyone fell silent. That was until a little voice somewhere among the crowd piped up.

"Well, that was easier than usual," it said.

"Arr, it's a good thing they weren't around, or I'd 'ave stuck three o'them at once wit' one swipe of me blade," said someone else. As more of those present got into the swing of things, a lot of the conversation turned to the subject of how lucky the non-existent crew were.

Rose, meanwhile, was frowning. I saw her beckon to me, so I clambered back over the side of the crow's nest and made my way back down to the deck, followed closely by Jam and Gareth. As the crowd of pirates around us continued with their muttered conversation, I found myself grouped tightly with the captain, the first mate and my two companions.

"I don't like the look of this," said Rose quietly.

"Arr, come on," said Scar. "The crew are prob'ly all below decks sleepin', or drinkin', or engaged in a vicious an' brutal fight to the death." His tone of voice indicated that he didn't quite believe that himself, and was in no small measure disappointed.

"Yeah," said Gareth suddenly. "Why assume the worst just because there's no-one around? More likely they've gone down to the surface in lifeboats to do some shopping."

"What if it's the legendary ghost ship of Merrick the Murky?" piped up Jam.

"Oh, come on, laddie," said Scar.

The legend to which Jam referred was one of the most notorious in the whole history of dubious sky pirating legends, traditionally told around flickering fires. Although not anymore as naked flames on a wooden ship loaded with this crew's speciality grog don't mix well. Or rather they did, and that was the problem.

Merrick the Murky was the pioneer for sky pirating. He led a secret double life - ruthless pirate by night, fishmonger to the aristocracy by day - who one day found himself in a certain tavern in France while one Jacques Montgolfier was shooting his mouth off drunkenly about balloons that could carry man into the heavens. Most people were ignoring the poor idiot, but Merrick was intrigued. As the young man continued obsessively on his favourite subject the pirate concentrated on every word, formulating a vision that became sky pirating. Oh sure, you won't find Merrick's name in any history book, but he was nonetheless the secret mastermind behind the hot air balloon project, disappearing back into the shadows of obscurity as soon as it was completed, taking with him the schematics and his dream of taking pirating to the sky.

But about the ghost ship - this was a few years later. Merrick and his crew had been flying around the sky endlessly and were fast running out of food. Booty was rare as, at this time period, there weren't any other flying machines at all. Just when the murky one was beginning to wonder if perhaps he'd been a bit of an old arse in pioneering the whole sky pirating thing, he saw a strange shadowy shape in front of him. To his surprise, it was another airship - black and sleek with red highlights, held aloft not by balloons but what appeared to be, upon closer inspection, an enormous flock of seagulls, each individual member tethered to the ship by a length of rope. There didn't seem to be anyone on the ship - no man or beast. The thing was deserted.

(Scholars of pirate history were mystified by the legend of the deserted ship until some bright spark found an entry in the diary of an eccentric German inventor from that period which read as follows: "I'd just worked out how many seagulls are required to lift a sailing boat when some bloody car came round the corner and scared all the buggers away! Blast, buggery, damnation, hellfire [continues for several pages]". So that was that.)

Curious, Merrick ordered his crew to pull alongside the vessel, then decided to board it on his own, to make sure it was safe. This he did, with the big plank of wood reserved for boarding that the crew hadn't had an opportunity to use yet. Merrick searched the deck, but found no-one. Still determined, he found a trapdoor leading below decks, and followed it.

No-one knows exactly what happened down there, nor what Merrick found, as at that point his crew exchanged glances, realised this was their opportunity to rid themselves of the madman who had ruined their lives for the last few years, hauled in the boarding plank and took off, singing happy songs. They then touched down in Newquay, sold the vessel for a not inconsiderable sum of money, then drunk themselves stupid until every last man died of liver failure.

Legend has it that Merrick still haunts the deserted ship, walking up and down the empty deck, constantly making up new and exciting swear words with which to describe his old crew.

"This can't possibly be Merrick's ghost ship, Jam," I said patiently. "That one's somewhere over Tierra Del Fuego."

"Aye," said Scar. "We all went there for a day out when ye were just two, Jam lad, remember, Jim?"

I smiled in wistful memory. "I remember I got a stick of rock from the gift shop," I said. "And the cafe did these lovely cream teas -"

"If we could get back to the matter at hand," said Rose loudly, "I think we should board the ship just to investigate. But not the whole crew. Just us. Me, the first and second mates," she nodded at Scar and me, "and Gareth, since he's here."

"Can I come, Uncle Rose?" asked Jam, tugging on her sleeve.

She thought about this. Of course it could be dangerous, but we'd never let that stop us bringing Jam with us on our endeavours. It was all educational, after all. "Alright," she sighed. "But your dad has to come. I don't want to be responsible for you."

Jam trotted off below decks to fetch Penfold, while something seemed to occur to Gareth, whose hands had strayed to his hips. "I don't see how we're going to stop the rest of the crew following us."

"Good point," I said.

"LADS!" bellowed First Mate Scar, cupping his hands around his mouth. "I THINK READY STEADY COOK IS ON!!"

I'd seen the trick done many times, but I always marvelled at how quickly a full pirate crew can vanish below decks. Just the captain and her assigned scout party remained in the sunshine, now with the addition of Penfold, being led by the hand by his small adopted son, looking as exasperated as parents always do in these situations.

Scar and I nodded to each other, picked up the boarding plank from its special position nearby and laid it perpendicular between the two vessels. The special clamps locked into place, and we were ready to board.


"The Bermuda what?"

- Unnamed sailor



We all jumped at Camp Gareth's exclamation, as it was the only sound we had heard so far on the mysterious ship, apart from the soft creak of wood and the cawing of birds. This was all becoming rather spooky, and I could tell the others felt it. Scar's thrush was tweeting nervously, and Jam was clinging tightly to Penfold's hand. Even Rose seemed wary. The only one who showed no sign of fear was Camp Gareth, but that's probably because he was an idiot.

"Well, this is not exactly a party ship, is it," he said authoritatively, standing with feet apart and hands on hips.

Scar, meanwhile, was investigating things at the steering wheel area. "The anchor's raised," he called to us.

"The ship must have been drifting 'til it got grounded on this cloud," thought Rose aloud. "The question is, for how long?"

"Yeah," I said, feeling I wasn't taking a big enough part in the proceedings. "And why'd the crew abandon it in such a -"

I put my foot on something that squished unpleasantly, and stopped abruptly. The others turned when I didn't finish my sentence, and caught me looking warily down at my foot.

"Be careful," advised Penfold. "Who knows what you just stepped in."

"Thank you, Penfold, I feel better now."

Slowly, and to the horror of the accountant, I raised my boot and looked at the underside with infinite slowness, the way you do when you can smell dog poo and you just know it's on one of your shoes, but you'd rather remain ignorant.

Thankfully, what was now squashed up against my sole was not dog poo, but some kind of curious yellow mush which oozed semi-transparent liquid. There was also what looked like a cocktail stick clinging to it.

"What is it?" asked Rose, as the scout party gathered round.

I sniffed cautiously, then wrinkled my nose. "Smells like rancid cheese." I sniffed again. "And pineapple."

Recognition materialised in Gareth's eyes. "It's one of those cocktail party nibbles," he explained to those among us who didn't go to many cocktail parties. "You know, they put a cube of cheese and a bit of pineapple on a stick and you eat them and stuff ..." he tailed off embarrassed.

"Something tells me that this crew weren't 'aving a cocktail party when they decided to jump ship," said Scar, speaking on behalf of our kind.

"Must have been here for quite a while to get to this state," I said astutely.

"Look," said Penfold, pointing. "There's another one."

Sure enough, another cocktail stick with yellow gunge attached was visible lying innocently on the deck not a few feet away.

"And another," said Jam, trying to be helpful, and pointing towards the base of the mast where another party snack lay.

Now we knew what we were looking for, we could see them everywhere. I counted twenty just casting a look around. Some of them were in small groups of three or four.

"Has anyone here seen The Birds?" I asked. Only Penfold and Gareth nodded. "'Cos that is what I'm reminded of at the moment."

"What are ye drivelling about, Jim?" asked Scar. I was beginning to miss being called 'lad', I discovered to my own surprise.

"Well, does anyone else feel that these snacks are ... watching us?"

There was one of my famous awkward pauses.

"Now that you come to mention it -" began Rose.

"- yeah..." finished Jam.

"- maybe," added Rose, then seemed to pull herself together. "This is silly. Let's split up and explore the ship."

"Split up?"

"Split up?"

"Split up?"

All the men were looking at her in disbelief. "What?" she asked.

"Haven't you ever watched those films where people split up?" said Gareth.

"No," she said firmly, and that was the end of the argument as far as she was concerned. "Scar and I will explore the top deck. Gareth, you check out the crow's nest. Jim, Penfold, Jam, look around below decks. There must be some clue as to what happened here somewhere."

I exchanged glances with Penfold, who then exchanged glances with Scar, who did the same with Gareth, who continued the cycle with Jam.

"Just do it," ordered Rose. "Look, we're pirates. Vicious, grog-swilling corsairs. If there's anything to be afraid of on this ship, it's us. Now get going."

"Vicious grog-swilling corsairs," I muttered when Penfold, Jam and I were descending the ladder that led into the bowels of the ship. "That only accounts for half the party."

Penfold nodded gloomily, and I could see that Jam was debating whether to ask who made up which half, but he wisely chose not to.

It was very dark below decks. All the oil lamps seemed to be out, and the generator for the electric ones had probably gone down months ago. The only light was a dim, second hand sort of light from the grimy portholes, just enough to see by. We were in a small section of hallway that divided various cabins, which seemed to have been at one point rather nicely decorated, with carpets and wallpaper and everything. Now, however, water vapour from clouds had seeped into the wood, the whole place was heavily swelled with damp, the wallpaper was grotty and slipping off, and the carpet was besmirched by more of the rotting cocktail party snacks. The three of us stepped gingerly around them.

"Jim la - er - Jim," said Penfold suddenly as I cast an inquisitive look around. "I've been meaning to talk to you about something."

I didn't even turn to face him. "Is this really a good time?"

"Well, I wanted to catch you alone ... I want this to be just between us three. You are my oldest friend on this ship."

I tried a nearby cabin door. Jammed with damp. I gave it a savage kick and I'm almost certain I felt it squelch underfoot, but it failed to open. Probably because the hinges opened outwards. "What is it, Penfold?" I said.

"Well ... I ... that is, me ... Jam and me ... Jam and I..."

"We've been thinking about leaving the crew," said Jam helpfully, adding "matey," as an afterthought.

This was quite astounding news to me. I was quite astounded. "Leave the ship? When you've just been made ship's 'lad'? Throw away a promising career? I'm quite astounded."

"Not both of us," said Penfold sheepishly. "Just me. Jam wants to stay. I'd like you to be his guardian."

My mouth opened and closed three or four times before I found words. "But ... why?"

"I've just had enough," said Penfold. "It's been ten years and I still haven't been able to settle in properly. It was a mistake from the start. I came into this world as an accountant, and I'll always be an accountant. I feel I've got to go back to my roots."

Our eyes met, but he turned them away hurriedly, embarrassed. I sighed deeply. "You're a wuss, Penfold. I've known you for ten years and you've always been a wuss."

"Perhaps it's all I can be," he said quietly. "I want to leave at the end of the month."

I felt a tugging on my shirt, and found myself receiving the full force of Jam's soulful look. "Please don't mention any of this to Uncle Rose or anyone else," he said. "Dad wants to tell them all in his own time."

"I promise not to tell anyone," I said, mentally inserting certain details into my internal blackmail database under Penfold's name.

"Thank you, Jim," said the man himself. "I'll write to you."

"Yeah, yeah. Let's not get too soppy, my vicious grog-swilling brain can't handle it. Let's get on with what we're supposed to be doing."

The next cabin door I tried was just as jammed as the last one. The one after it opened, but beyond it there was only an unused cabin, full of furniture covered in dust sheets. The next two doors were stuck, but the last one opened quite easily, and it was here that we found something interesting.

"It's a corpse," I said in wonder. Penfold instinctively stuck his hand in front of Jam's eyes.

"Let's go tell the others," he said anxiously. I could tell he wasn't very good around dead bodies, especially really old smelly rotting ones with flies swarming all over them. Just as well then that this was not one of those corpses, but was in fact quite fresh, with barely a week or so's decomposition. He - for he was undoubtedly male - was young, younger than me, and was dressed in the traditional cabin boy garb. He also had a small plastic badge on his waistcoat on which I could read the words 'IT'S MY 21st BIRTHDAY!!'.

"Tragic," I sighed.

"There's a note," said Jam, who had wrestled himself from his adoptive father's grip.

There was indeed a piece of paper apparently torn from a school exercise book, lying next to the dead boy's hand. I immediately picked it up and scanned the contents. A lot of it was rather boring sentimental rubbish about being trapped forever and never being able to see home or his fiancée again, but it did also have interesting details, such as -

"The entire crew has been transformed into cocktail party snacks," I said, having finished skimming through the bulk of the text.

Penfold's mouth was open. "Those things we found ... were the crew?"

"Would certainly make cannibalism easier," I said thoughtfully, then caught the funny look I was receiving, and pretended I hadn't said anything. "This lad was the only crew member who wasn't transformed, and he starved to death."

"He starved to death ... while surrounded by party snacks?"


Penfold seemed quite pleased by this news. "So he didn't want to eat his former crewmates?" he thought aloud. "At least he had some morals."

"Or lactose intolerance," I said, reading from the paper.

If this book ever gets converted into a sit com of some description, then producers please note that that joke would be excellent to precede a storm of canned laughter.

"Wait a second, get a load of this," I said, still skimming through the text. I read it aloud for the benefit of my companions.

"It's all because of this stupid treasure hunt that this happened. I wish the captain had never had that stupid dream about the Lost Golden City of El Dorado. I wish someone hadn't left a permanent marker in the bathroom the night he woke up with that dream still in his head. Confound this ship, this voyage, and that toilet seat."

"How very expositional," commented Penfold perceptively. Jam and I hushed him into silence.

"Lost Golden City of El Dorado?" said Jam. "What happened on this ship?"

We didn't know. We simply didn't know.


But as it turned out, Rose and Scar did. We found them in the captain's cabin poring over the captain's log. It was a magnificent cabin - a classic pirate's den with books and ornaments and little charts, and even one of those bleached skulls with a dribbly candle on top. This was a far cry from Rose's executive place.

"Hey, guys, Penfold just told me he's thinking of leaving -" I said.

"JIM!" hissed the accountant.

"- his dinner this evening because he thinks he's getting fat," I finished, giving Penfold a mischievous smile. He didn't seem impressed, but then he always was a prude.

Neither Rose nor Scar gave any sign of registering our presence anyway, so no harm was done by my little joke. I felt I should give slightly more evidence of our existence.

"Found something, have you?" I asked, somewhat fatuously.

Rose's hand motioned us to sit, so we did. Penfold on a trunk, Jam on the floor, and myself on an elephant's foot umbrella stand I found by the door. After a few awkward seconds, Rose finally tore her eyes away from the book. "This is the captain's log," she said, also somewhat fatuously, as the words 'captain's log' were on the front cover in big gold lettering. "Apparently this ship went on some sort of treasure quest for the -"

"- Lost Golden City of El Dorado -" I joined in for that bit.

"- and they ran into something that turned the entire crew into -"

"- cheese and pineapple cocktail party snacks," chorused all present.

"I found a note," said Jam proudly. I displayed it for all to see.

"What else do ye know?" asked Scar. He and his thrush had been unusually quiet so far.

"We know the captain had some kind of dream about the place, but not much else," I said.

Rose flipped back through the book. "That dream gets three pages," she said. "Apparently he had this extraordinarily vivid vision of the Lost City, as well as map references and minor directions paving a route to the place."

"Arr," said Scar, nodding. "Then 'is old school mistress came an' turned into a giant cabbage that bit 'is goolies off, then he was standin' in front of the whole school completely naked smilin' and wavin' -"

"Yes, anyway," interrupted Rose quickly, "It goes on to say that the captain wrote out all the instructions he dreamt on the first thing that came to hand, but we haven't been able to find what."

Penfold and I exchanged knowing glances. "Oh, I think we know," I said, allowing myself a smug tone of voice. "Where's the captain's toilet?"

"Through that door," said Rose, pointing, adding "Gareth's in there at the moment," when we moved towards it.

On cue, the door flew open to the sound of flushing and Gareth entered, doing up his white leather belt and making satisfied noises. "Ah, it must be great being captain," he said. "Soap dispenser, bidet, touch-sensitive flush - hey!"

Gareth's last outburst was caused by my good self pushing him out of the way of the door. With a few sharp movements I took the toilet seat - noting that it was still quite warm from Gareth's buttocks - and wrenched it from its hinges, much to the surprise of most present. With a triumphant smile, I dumped the porcelain rim onto the captain's desk, scattering papers.

"Jesus Christ, Jim," said Gareth, "were you savaged by a urinal as a child or something?"

"Look!" said Penfold helpfully.

"Well, I'll be," said Scar.

All over the whiteness of the captain's own toilet seat someone had scrawled countless complex diagrams, notations and small pieces of map. There were so many notes written in such a small hand that the porcelain could appear grey from a distance, except in two large roundish shapes on either side where there wasn't any writing at all.

"It's the directions to the Lost Golden City of El Dorado!" said Jam in wonder. Scar tousled his hair fondly.

"Arr, it seems to be that," said the big man. "But some of it's come off, look." He indicated the two bare patches.

"It must've rubbed off onto something -" I began, then stopped sharply. Everyone exchanged a single glance, then as one turned to look at Gareth, who was busy investigating a nearby bookshelf.

"I say, he's got an original Robert Louis Stevenson hereAAARGH!"

Scar and I seized the struggling figure in silk and slammed him face down against the desk, whereupon Rose, with a businesslike flick of the arms, yanked down his trousers and shorts. Immediately the camp one stopped struggling, becoming quite relaxed, as if expecting something enjoyable. Penfold's hand instantly covered Jam's eyes again.

"It's there," said Rose, peering intently at Gareth's shame. "All the missing notes."

"Ye're lucky we're a nice crew," hissed Scar in Gareth's ear, "or we'd flay off yer botty skin and pin it to the ship's wheel!"

"You're not going to rape me, then?" asked Gareth, slightly muffled.

"No Gareth, we are not going to rape you," I said wearily.

Rose swiftly yanked up Gareth's trousers again, and we allowed him to get back to his feet. The captain took a thoughtful stance, laying a finger across her lips, supporting an elbow with the other hand. Eventually she spoke. "We're going to quest for the Lost City," she said.

Scar seemed happy, and Gareth was distracted, but I saw Penfold frown. "We're going to follow directions some bloke had in his dream to find a place that may or may not exist?"

Rose nodded.

"Just like this crew did?"

Scar nodded.

"This crew that got transformed into party snacks?"

I nodded.

"We're going to emulate them?"

Everyone nodded.

"I see." A pause. "Why?"

"For the adventure!" said Scar. "'Oo cares if we don't find the Lost City? It'll be fun! Remember when we went looking fer the Lost Golden Parking Ticket of Roland McIntyre? We never found that, did we? But the adventure was fun!"

I could see that Penfold was not reassured. But then, on that particular adventure, he had gotten rather badly sunburnt and had had to stay in his cabin while everyone else went shopping in a Pakistani street market, where an old man had told us the Meaning of Life and made us swear not to tell anyone else.

Penfold hadn't really minded about that, but we also couldn't find a stall that sold sherbet lemons, and he had really wanted some.


We returned to our own ship right after Rose had made the decision that we would seek out the Lost Golden City, then disposed of the ghost ship in the traditional sky pirate manner. We laid all the party snacks we could find on a huge pyre right in the middle of the deck and set fire to it, upon which the balloons keeping the ship afloat burst and the vessel plummeted downwards rapidly. We saluted as it dropped below cloud level, and I heard Scar blow his nose noisily as his thrush patted him on the shoulder with a comforting wing.

This done, we joined the rest of the crew in the canteen below decks, where everyone had already become riotously drunk and had forgotten about the mysterious ship entirely, as well as most of their names. I came in last and loaded a plate with sea biscuits, mashed potato and gravy from the mixed buffet in the centre of the room before heading towards my usual seat.

As I crossed the captain's table, I saw that Gareth, Penfold and Jam were sitting around it with the captain and first mate - usually unheard of. Even me, the second mate, traditionally sat with the main body of the crew to seem like 'one of the boys', rolling around and sloshing grog everywhere while leading the crewmen in the dirty songs. As I peered quizzically at the display, the captain motioned me to sit with them too, which came as a rare relief.

As I placed my tray upon the tabletop I noticed that the toilet seat from the mysterious ship was lying in the middle of the assembly, the eyes of all concerned fixed upon it.

"We've been thinking about this whole quest idea," said Rose conspiratorially, barely audible over the rest of the crew, who were happily chanting a rather slurred version of the popular drinking shanty 'My Wife Was Killed By A Giant Squid And I Had To Do The Ironing (Clumsy Bitch)'.

"What about the quest?" I enquired. Penfold didn't seem any less resignedly gloomy, so I assumed she didn't intend to call the whole thing off.

"You saw what happened to that other crew, Jim," said Rose. "We don't want to put more people in danger than they need to be. We don't want to take the entire crew."

"You'd have a job keeping this crew away from any exploit that might end with vast quantities of gold," I said.

"Exactly, which is why I have no intention of letting anyone else in on the object of the quest."

There was silence. At least, there was silence over our table, which was probably the best we could hope for.

"Oh, I get you," I said knowingly. "All the more for us, eh?"

Rose scowled. "No, that's not it at all."

"Ah. Right," I said exaggeratedly, and winked. She didn't wink back.

"Who are we going to take on this little excursion, anyway?" asked Penfold, who was sitting with his arms folded.

"Just everyone who knows about the Lost City," said Rose. "Me, you, Scar, Jim, Jam and Gareth."

"Just the five of us?" said Scar, surprised.

"Six, Scar."

"Just the six of us?" said Scar, changing gear smoothly. "Shouldn't we take along more in case we get into a fight and need 'ooman shields?"

Rose propped up her forearm on the tabletop and held up her face with it.. "Scar, that is precisely why we are not taking more."

He frowned at me. "I thought Jim said we just wanted more gold to go round..."

There was a soft bonk as the captain's head slammed gently into the tabletop, and Scar thought it wise to keep quiet. After a few minutes of low moans, Rose finally looked again. "Right then," she said brightly. "We'll stop off in Southampton tomorrow. We all stay on the ship while the rest of the crew goes off to get pissed, as they undoubtedly will. When everyone else is off, we take off and go. Clear?"

"Clear," we recited.

"Don't breathe a word of this to anyone," she said warningly. "This toilet seat is known only to us six. Myself, Horatio Scarlet, Penfold Lexington, Jam Lexington, Camp Gareth and Articulate Jim, whose real name is far too stupid for everyday use. From now on we will use the notes on this toilet seat and Penfold's arse to seek out the legendary Lost Golden City of El Dorado. From this day forth, we six shall be known as ... The Fellowship of the Rim."

Dramatic pause.

"That is so gay," said Jam.


"Of course I'm not jealous. Do I look jealous?"

- Casanova's brother Ted


And so, the following day, it came to pass that our mighty ship did land with the trademark splintering crunch once again upon Pier 14 in the city of Southampton, and though the bulk of the crew knew not the exact purpose of our landing, they knew they were going to have the opportunity to get pissed, and that was good enough for them.

Right up until touchdown the Fellowship of the Rim prepared to abandon the crew in a not-preparing kind of way. Rose and Scar chatted idly while remaining within two yards of the ship's helm. Gareth stood on the side of the top deck, observing the pirates file down the gangplank and clipping his fingernails (that is, Gareth was clipping his fingernails, not the pirates). Penfold and Jam took up position by the ropes used to support the enormous sacks of dirty laundry we used as ballast, discussing issues of the day (that is, Penfold and Jam were, not the sacks). And as for me, I was below decks, making sure every last sea dog had departed for alcohol-soaked shores (that is, I was making sure, not the decks).

Most of the cabins were empty, except for one. There I found Slitthroat Rolf lying in his hammock reading an issue of BBC Gardener's World Magazine. He was an easy-going sort of pirate, who had years ago happily changed his name when he discovered that Cutthroat Rolf had been taken already.

"Hey, er, everyone's going for a drink," I said casually, pointing a thumb over my shoulder.

"Oh, I know, I thought I'd sit this one out, Jim. Got a bit of a headache -"

"I've got some aspirin!"

"- and I think I might be allergic to alcohol -"

"Well, now would be a good time to find out for certain."

"- and I really want to read this."

Nothing I could say seemed to sway him, and I got the impression that he was becoming suspicious, so eventually I was forced to pull the magazine away from him using the fishing rod I had been equipped with for exactly this purpose. So engrossed was he in the article that I was able to lead him all the way up to the top deck and over the side before he noticed he was moving at all. He looked up at me balefully from the pier he had landed painfully on, and I gave a shrug that attempted to convey apology mixed with undisguised mirth.

"I think that's the lot," I signed to the captain in semaphore. She nodded in return, and looked at Gareth expectantly. When he observed that the last man - Rolf - had limped into the nearby Fitchew and Firkin, he gave a thumbs up and the captain gave Penfold and Jam the signal.

With two deft axe chops - well, two and a bit of sawing to finish the job - the dynamic duo caused the ballast to come loose from the ship, and the vast air balloons pulled us dramatically into the sky. As the pleasant little pub below us failed to stir, and as we ascended ever higher, it became clear that The Fellowship of the Rim had succeeded in the first task of our quest. We felt dynamic and adventurous, and yet also guilty about abandoning our fellows. But as Rose kept insisting, it was all for the best.

(Incidentally, after the adventure was over and I had already compiled these memoirs I decided to see if I could find any of my old crewmates. Exploring and asking around in Southampton I eventually discovered that half the old crew were now running a successful soft toy business and the other half I found dead drunk on the floor of the Fitchew and Firkin, dressed exactly as I remember, but now all wearing long beards).

According to the toilet seat we were following, the first step in our adventure was to find an old sky pirate captain who had long since retired to a little shack somewhere in the Yorkshire Dales, to get some information on what El Dorado looked like and roughly where we could expect to find it. With a song in our hearts and the wind in our hair the six of us set a northward course.

The song in our hearts for the first part of our journey turned out to be some kind of funeral dirge, and the wind in our hair turned out to be behind us, blowing our hair over our faces and making our foreheads itch in that really annoying way it does. It only hit upon us the enormity of the task we had taken on at that point; running a ship with a full crew was sometimes hard work, and with only six people on board it was like trying to bail a sinking boat with a pitchfork.

I mentioned pretty much these sentiments to Penfold as he and I were attempting to lower the aft sail the day after our voyage began. I'm pretty sure he made some kind of reply, but his voice was muffled by the enormous sheet of canvas that descended on us with a soft flump.

Do you remember as a small child crawling around inside your parents' bed and finding yourself hopelessly lost in a neverending tunnel of linen? That's sort of like what being stuck under a fallen sail is like, only there's a great deal more swearing and it's not as pink, at least as long as Camp Gareth didn't have his way.

I fought and struggled my way through the fabric whiteness, one hand stroking my sheathed cutlass lovingly. I so wanted to draw it and hack my way out of my prison, but the ship was difficult enough to run as it was without a vital sail slashed to ribbons. I made do with imagining my blade slicing through the throat of the fat bloke who's always in the queue for the post office just before you and is always sending live animals to Abu Dhabi, and this was satisfactory until I bumped heavily into the struggling form of Penfold, whose state of entanglement had almost reached mummification level.

I helpfully pulled a few folds away from his face and he gave me a nervous smile. "I panicked," he said by way of explanation. "I tend to get claustrophobic under sheets. It stems from when I was crawling around in my parents' bed when I was very little and ran into an, erm, marital aid -"

"TMI," I said hastily, attempting to untangle my cohort while avoiding becoming similarly disadvantaged, which is harder than it sounds. Incidentally the acronym 'TMI' is a very cool and modern thing to say and if you don't know what it stands for then you're not the sort of person who is supposed to say it.

When I had finished untangling Penfold and we had finally found the way out, there wasn't much change in the amount of sunlight reaching us. This was because something was coming up behind our ship. Something very large. Every member of The Fellowship of the Rim looked up from their tasks, and five jaws dropped in unison. A sixth pair began grinding their teeth.

The thing coming up behind us was another sky pirate ship, so phenomenally huge that the smallest of the three balloons holding it up dwarfed the entirety of our vessel, and the Jolly Roger flapping merrily above the crow's nest could have comfortably been used as a bedsheet by an entire string quartet and their instruments. The ship itself was painted a deep blood red and the top deck was big enough to play a decent game of premiership football on. A crew of gargantuan proportions, probably enough to fill any three Broadway theatres you'd care to name, was assembled on deck, crowding along the sides and waving their cutlasses while going 'aharr'.

Instantly I recognised the ship as a Bastard Mk. IV, the biggest and most expensive ship in the sky pirating catalogue. Ten decks, three swimming pools, onboard elevators and satellite television, it embodied everything a pirate captain aspired to. Once I had acquired a copy of Popular Pirating Quarterly Rose had finished with, and discovered that the six-page feature on the Bastard Mk. IV was almost totally covered in saliva.

Thank the lord for glossy pages, that's all I can say!

I tore my gaze away from the enormous ship just long enough to take in the expressions of my companions' faces. Incredible envy and awe was the main theme. Even Penfold, to whom the name 'Bastard Mk. IV' just meant one of his old supervisors, was gazing with rapt attention. The only person who wasn't falling deeply and sickly in love with the ship was Captain Black; to say her face was like thunder would be severely overrating thunder. She noticed me looking at her and nodded her head towards the enormous vessel's figurehead. I took in the thing - which was indeed big enough to scare the willies out of Jack the Giant Killer - and tried to work out who it was supposed to resemble. When I did, the bottom of my stomach immediately collapsed.

"Erk," I said.

When Captain Rose Black had been just plain Rosemary Black, aged 16, she had gone to a very elite college for young pirates. It was so elite that the only way to get there was by taking a special train that only comes to a usually thought non-existent platform in King's Cross Station, but there I'm afraid the description must end for fear of litigation.

Anyway, Rose's father - Black Jack, as he was unoriginally named - had scrimped and saved and stolen for months to gather the funds to send her there, and as it turned out, it had been worth it. Rose was almost top of every class and was popular among other students for her large stolen collection of Red Dwarf videos, and was well on her way to becoming one of the finest pirate queens the world had ever seen. But there had been one thing troubling her. That thing was a she, and that she was Gertrude Van Helsing. A notch more beautiful than Rose, a notch smarter, a notch tougher, a notch more popular and several notches richer. She was the reason for the 'almost' in the phrase 'almost top of every class', above. The latest daughter of one of the richest and most notorious dynasties in Europe, Gertrude Van Helsing had been molly-coddled to oblivion and was given everything by her doting father. And she was always quick to remind Rose about all the more notches she had.

At their graduation ceremony, Gertrude had naturally come top of the class, with Rose coming a close second. The girl Van Helsing had delivered a lengthy speech, written of course by one of the nation's top speechwriters, which had ended with the words "Perhaps if Rose had just tried that extra bit as hard as me, she could have come an even closer second".

Apparently it took two months for the bruise on Rose's forehead to go down, but slightly longer for Gertrude's shattered nose to knit itself back together.

Rose had been aware that Gertrude Van Helsing had also joined the sky pirating business, in her opinion to wind up her old rival even more, and had been able to carefully avoid her for years. But there was no mistaking that figurehead; it was very well-carved, and the sculptor had obviously been paid an awful lot of money. Those perfectly formed cheekbones, the smile that made one want to ventilate its owner's forehead with a sniper rifle, that ever-so-slightly misshapen nose. This was the face of the woman your parents wanted you to marry. The face of the traffic warden who obviously loves her job putting a ticket on your car.

Somehow Rose was now standing by my side as the enormous ship drew up alongside its miniature contemporary, and descended until its deck was level with our own. The control system had to be something truly amazing to park so closely without colliding. They were so close we could see the toothy grins of every pirate on their deck.

Which was where I noticed the odd thing. Most of the pirates seemed to have very white, sparkly, straight teeth. In fact, forget 'most', they all did. They also all possessed immaculately styled blonde hair, a highly-developed musclebound body, and the face of a young Harrison Ford. They all wore well-laundered traditional posh-boy pirate garb which clung to their manly bodies in a way that I could tell was making Camp Gareth feel an urge to lock himself in the bathroom for an hour. But there was no sign of Gertrude, and for a moment Rose and I hoped that the ship was stolen or something.

But then we detected movement among the ranks of identical men - who were all still grinning broadly, staring with glazed eyes and occasionally going 'aharr' in a kind of robotic way - and the sea of faces parted like the Dead Sea on the day Moses felt his people needed a holiday to reveal -

- Rose made a funny little choking sound -

- an enormous blue and white throne, which seemed to have a lot of the chaise longue about it, with a large overhanging ornamental cover made to look like a clam shell. Upon it lounged Gertrude, clad in a white dress tailored to leave tantalising glimpses of thigh and waist and shoulder, which was really going overboard since the thing was made from such light material we could read the labels on her underwear. I noticed Penfold's hand slip discreetly over Jam's eyes.

As for the woman herself, well, she was of course staggeringly beautiful to the degree that made one's eyes hurt. She was about five foot nine in height with bounteous quantities of blonde flowing hair. Physically perfect in every detail but one - her nose. It had clearly once been, of course, perfect, but was now visibly slightly squashed. Rose's blows could be terrible ones, that I know well, and there's clearly only so much that the finest plastic surgeons money can buy can do.

"Well, look who it is," said Gertrude loudly. "Black Rose herself, scourge of the seven skies."

Rose clenched her fists.

"I must say, I am rather disappointed with the setup you have here," continued the woman in white. "I was expecting a much bigger ship, a Bastard Mk. II at least, and slightly more than six people for a crew. Still, I suppose this was the best someone of your background could manage."

Rose clenched those parts of her body that hadn't been clenched yet.

"What - do - you - want," she asked, showing superhuman self-restraint.

"Just bidding the time of day with an old friend," said Gertrude brightly. "Have you seen my ship? Daddy bought me it for my twenty-eighth birthday. He also arranged to have the finest sky pirate who ever lived cloned five thousand times for my crew. And look what you've got! A little rowboat, a clapped out old has-been, an accountant, a ragingly offensive stereotype of homosexuals, a little boy, and - oh."

I was hoping that she wouldn't recognise me with an eyepatch and being eleven years older than when we last met, but Gertrude Van Helsing never passed up an opportunity to induce torment.

"Hello, Richard," she said, the smarm and smugness in her voice toned down considerably.

"Hello, Gertrude," I muttered. Everyone was staring at me now, even Gertrude's blank-faced crew. I felt myself turning bright red.

"Richard?" I heard Jam whisper to Penfold. He replied with a shrug.

"You are the last person I ever expected to meet here, Richard," said Gertrude. "How on earth did you end up on some slip of a girl's poor excuse for a crew?"

I briefly laughed out loud. Like this: "Ha!". I could tell it annoyed her, and this cheered me up no end. "Slip of a girl? You're the same age as her! You sound just like your mother."

Her face became a scowl of fury for approximately one tenth of a second before she hurriedly constructed her mask of calm, cool demeanour again. "Don't ever compare me to my mother," she said levelly, with only a slight quiver in her voice to give away the urge she was clearly having to bite off my face.

Despite myself, a broad grin stretched itself across my features. "How's she doing, anyway? Still entertaining ten important businessmen a night?"

"SHUT UP!" she screeched, hopping off her seat and gripping the decorative rail that went along the side of her ship's top deck. Her clone minions were still wearing broad grins, but their eyebrows were universally creased in confusion. "You lot are nothing before me, you hear me? I'm better than all of you!"

The sudden disappearance of her smugness was making my companions more confident in her presence, too.

"You won't be talking like that after we've found the Lost City!" said Gareth suddenly.

Utter silence surrounded the congregation.

"What Lost City?" inquired Gertrude.

"The Lost Golden City of El Dorado," said Gareth proudly. "Ow," he added when four people kicked him in the shin simultaneously.

"Ah yes," said Gertrude, syrup once again oozing over her voice. "The dream of every penniless captain with minuscule crews around the world. And you really think you're going to find it?"

I could tell Rose was trying to think of some amazingly memorable line to come back with, but all that came out was "'Es."

There was silence as Gertrude did some thinking. As a result this silence took rather a long time. "What say we enter into a little wager?" she eventually said in her wheedling voice.

"What kind of wager?" asked Scar.

"A race," elaborated Gertrude. "For the Lost City. Whoever is there first waiting for the loser wins."

"And what will the stake be?" I asked.

"If you win, then you can have, oh, let's say, ten thousand doubloons."

"And if you win?"

"Then you all have to join my crew and do what I say for five years. And you, Richard, have to marry me. Like you were always supposed to."

I swallowed hard. The looks I was getting were becoming even more inquisitive and intense. "Captain?" I asked.

There was really no point in asking. I knew Rose would have done anything if it meant showing up Gertrude Van Helsing. "Okay, we'll accept those terms with just one minor alteration."


"If we win, we want your ship. And you have to introduce us all to your mother."

I'll say one thing for Rose, she never missed an opportunity, and could instantly pounce on a person's weak spots. Gertrude's face twisted like she was trying to eat a particularly large and sour gobstopper, then said just one word: "Deal."

After that, not one more word was exchanged between the two crews (although I noticed two of Gertrude's clones wave and smile at Rose, then blush hotly), and both ships took off in opposite directions. When the Bastard Mk. IV had faded to nothing more than a speck in the distance - which took rather a long time - the Fellowship of the Rim congregated on the main deck. I noticed I was once again feeling the force of many stares.

"Well, this puts a whole new spin on things, doesn't it," I said jovially, trying to ease the mood. "I hope you realise what we're risking here, captain -"

"How the hell do you know Gertrude Van Helsing?" asked the captain steadily.

"Hey, I've been around, I've done all sorts. I've met all kinds of people."

"The full story, Jim," said Scar humourlessly.

I gave a deep and heartfelt sigh that made the big man shudder, then went into the tale.

Shrewd readers will no doubt have already guessed that the Van Helsing clan is better known as a dynasty of demon slayers, the first born of every generation becoming the latest burly hero destined to rid the world of evil. The lattermost of these eccentric nobles was one Christopher Van Helsing, who also happened to be Gertrude's oldest brother.

Shrewder readers will also remember that I myself had spent a short amount of time working in the capacity of a demon slayer. I was eighteen years old, the job had lasted six days, and for four of those days I partnered Chris Van Helsing. He was arrogant, self-obsessed, vain to the point of narcissism and his accent seemed to change every hour, but I had to admit, he was a very good demon slayer. This didn't lessen the intensity with which I hated his guts, and most of the rest of him too. The two of us had been commissioned by the agency to hunt down a tribe of succubi causing trouble in Wolverhampton, and in the process he had sort of gotten himself captured and I had sort of saved his life.

He had previously shown me a picture of his incredibly gorgeous sister and I had expressed an interest in meeting her. He had expressed the fact that he thought this unrealistic, by going into a nearby room and laughing for three hours straight until someone knocked on the door and asked if he was alright. So I didn't think much more of it until I saved his life and he asked me if I still wanted to meet her.

So that weekend I found myself at Castle Van Helsing, which turned out to be a pleasant semi-detached suburban house in darkest Kidderminster. The father, Jeffrey Van Helsing, was a well-humoured and pleasant bloke with whom I got on rather well. We sat in the drawing room smoking long cigars and talking about old comic books until about 6pm, when Gertrude walked in, apparently temporarily back for the school holidays.

Even at that age she was still stunning, and as she walked into the room clad in a flowing green dress I felt immediately giddy. My stomach was full of buzzy little bees and my head was full of hoppy little bunnies. Her slightly moistened lips parted and she offered me a smile that burnt itself into my brain. Instantly the possibility hit me that she was the Something I was so laboriously searching for, and I could tell that she was feeling something similar. She might not have been on a lifelong quest like me, but I saw that she was falling deeply, relentlessly in love. Wordlessly she took me by the hand and led me up to her chambers. Excitement raged inside me, and I knew that, from that point on, I would always be happy.

That was until she opened her mouth.

Two minutes later I was sprinting through the streets of Kidderminster wearing just my boxers and slippers, carrying my clothes under one arm and a bagful of stolen jewellery under the other. Thirty seconds after she'd closed her bedroom door she'd already decided what position we'd do it in, when the wedding would be, where we'd live, how many children we'd have and the name of our dog. She had also decided that, since my real name was obviously far too silly for her husband, I would have to be named Richard.

I'll say one thing for her. She had a very forceful personality. It forced me out of her bedroom at something approaching the speed of sound.

"I never met her again after that," I said to my enraptured audience. "I quit demon hunting the same day to lessen the chances of running into her again."

"And what was all that about her mother?" asked Rose.

"Her dad told me," I said sheepishly. "Her mother works as a high-class dominatrix in a farm in Lancashire, I think. Gertrude doesn't like being reminded of that."

The captain shook her head in wonder. "I've never seen anyone get Gertrude Van Helsing so angry," she said. "She's always just so self-gratified."

"If we could get back to the matter at hand?" said Penfold nervously. "If we don't find the Lost City first then we'll all be licking boots clean for the next five years."

"Yeah. And I'll be forced to have constant sex with one of the most beautiful women in the sky pirating world for the rest of my life," I said angrily. Some of the others looked a little uneasy. "What the hell were you thinking, going along with this bet, captain?"

"It's about time someone put that woman in her place," replied Rose. "And there's no need to worry! We've got the notes on the toilet seat and Gareth's arse, that's more than what they've got."

"Quite," I said. "All Gertrude has is a place in one of the wealthiest and most notorious families in the world, and more connections than the London Underground."

"And do you really think that's going to be an advantage?"

"Rose," said Scar meekly. "If Gertrude said the word then 'er father would 'ave every sky pirate from 'ere to Tanganyika searchin' for the Lost City, and then it's only a matter o' time."

"Right!" said Rose, improvising hurriedly. "So it's important that we really knuckle down and get to work. Jam, crow's nest. Scar, man the helm and get us back on the northward course. Penfold, Jim, get that sail back up. Gareth, stand around looking pretty. Let's get to work, men!"

She marched purposefully off to her quarters. The rest of us exchanged worried glances, but immediately set about our tasks when the sound of a dainty head slamming repeatedly into a wall drifted over from the door of the captain's cabin.


"Look, I came up here for a bit of peace and quiet, can't you just leave me alone?"

- J. Christ, edited from the Sermon on the Mount


"Did I ever tell you what my ol' daddy said to me jus' before I set off to become a pirate, Jim?"

I put down my tankard and gazed at Scar through slightly wonky vision. We were in the lowest hold of the ship, both sitting on tightly sealed kegs of rum. After two days of travel across the skies of England we had found an ideal way to drain off the stress we tended to accumulate while doing the chores. The finer elements were all important to the all-over mood of relaxation - the board games, the conversation - but for the most part it was the drink.

Every evening just after dinner Scar and I would meet in the cargo holds and get ourselves completely rat-arsed. The fun part was that it felt like the first time every time; we usually became so blitzed we forgot the entire event.

"What did your old daddy shay to you, Shcar?"

"'E shaid ... 'always put out your pinky when drinking from a tankard.'"

I nodded. "My mum used to do that," I confided. "Then she lost both pinkies in a dreadful accident with a jigsaw."

"Ah, women do 'ave to be careful with power tools."

I frowned. "No, a jigshaw puzzle. Anyway, I'll tell you what my dad shaid to me jusht before I left to become an adventurer."

"What did 'e say to ye?"

"He shaid ... 'Son, I know I told you she was outstaying her welcome, but I didn't mean that as an invitation, so could you please tell us where you left Auntie Flo's body'."

Scar emptied his tankard down his welcoming gullet, then filled it again from the large urn we had set up nearby. "Anyway," he said. "I think it wash Colonel Mushtard in the conservatory wit' the broadaxe."

I blinked at the game board blearily. "There ishn't a broadaxe in thish game."

There was a blur of speed, a loud 'thunk', and I fell backwards off my keg. When I dragged myself back up to the board, I found an enormous axe pinning it to the table.

"Ish now," said Scar, beaming.

We looked each other in the eye for a few seconds, then fell about laughing. Well, you had to be there.

At that point Scar's thrush, who we kept by the door to watch for people approaching, started tweeting enthusiastically, so we both tipped the contents of our tankards over a pile of cannonballs – which began to dissolve with a sickly hissing sound – flung aside the Cluedo board and the axe, then unrolled a complex diagram on the short table just as Rose burst in.

"And furthermore, I think if we implemented this system we'd be able to bail twice as much cloud vapour from the bilges in half the time," I said intelligently.

"Arr, ye might 'ave somethin' there, Jim," said Scar, stroking his beard.

"Sorry to interrupt, chaps," said Rose, "but we need all hands on deck. I think we've found what we're looking for."

It was late evening now, so the sky was black and the stars were out when we emerged from below decks. The desk lamps arranged around the rigging were lit, and we could see Jam standing at the very front of the ship, peering through his spyglass at the night sky. Penfold stood next to him, ever ready to thrust a hand in front of the lens in case we encountered those annoying harpies again.

As the ship advanced, a spyglass became no longer necessary to see exactly what it was we were approaching. I stood next to Jam and gazed at it with one eyebrow firmly raised.

It was a house. A pleasant little log cabin affair, mounted here above cloud level on a huge wooden pole, easily ten feet across, which presumably went all the way down to the ground. Apart from its location the house seemed perfectly normal – two storeys, with a sun patio and a nice little ornamental pond at the front. Soon our ship was near enough to set off movement sensors and some porch lights illuminated the front of the building, allowing us to see other details, like the roses around the door and the little plaque reading 'DUNPLUNDERING'. The whole arrangement leaned occasionally with the wind, making great groaning creaking noises.

"Very homely," I said.

Meanwhile, Captain Black had picked up the megaphone she sometimes used to address fellow ships, and called into it as Scar dropped the anchor into the nearest cloud.

"Ahoy!" she said, as she was, after all, a pirate. "Anyone in?"

The house offered nothing but suspicious silence.

"We're looking for the Lost Golden City of El Dorado!" she continued, feeling a fool.

"Stop feeling me," said Gareth.

Eventually the front door of the house opened and an elderly gentleman emerged. He was very old, easily into his eighties, but still seemed quite physically fit. He was wearing a dark red silk dressing gown and cravat, and upon his head sat a traditional black pirate captain's hat.

"You're looking for the Lost City?" he shouted at us. "Do any of you need to use the toilet, by any chance?"

There was something very odd about the way he said it, as if he'd be eternally gratified if there was someone who wanted to use his toilet.

"No, I don't think any of us need to use the toilet," hazarded Rose.

"Oh," said the old man, disappointed.

We swapped quizzical looks, then I indicated to Rose that I would like to use the megaphone, and she handed it over.

"But we all had a really high-fibre dinner today so it's only a matter of time," I called.

The old pirate grinned. "You'd better all come in, then."


"What is your name?" asked Rose when we were all inside and had introduced ourselves.

"My name is Jugular Tim," said the old pirate.

"Why do they call ye that?" asked Scar, who had commandeered the big armchair opposite Jugular Tim's rocking chair.

"I'll show you," he said, and he did. Penfold's hand once again slipped in front of Jam's eyes.

"Ew," said I.

"Please stop that," said Gareth.

"Alright, alright," said Tim, and he did. "Sorry, I don't get many visitors. Shall I go and make us all some tea?"

"Yes please!" said Gareth brightly.

"I'll just go and brew it up, then. Oh, and if any of you feel like using the toilet, it's just up the stairs and on the right."

"Thank you," said Rose in a monotone.

"On the right. The white door. Can't miss it. I'll, er, I'll go and make your tea, then."

When the old man had disappeared into the kitchen and the sound of clinking crockery drifted over from within, we took the opportunity to take a good, long look around his living room. It was certainly very chintzy. Flowers adorned the settee on which Rose, Penfold and Gareth sat, as well as the armchair that housed Scar. Jam was sitting cross-legged in front of his adopted father while I had had to make do with an elephant's foot umbrella stand I had found by the door. There were little china ornaments on almost every available flat surface, mostly depicting cats in adorable costumes doing adorable things. A fire was lit in the hearth, and on the mantelpiece above it was a framed photograph of a small crowd of sky pirates gathered around a man who was undoubtedly Jugular Tim. Above that, mounted on the wall, was an enormous stuffed swordfish that looked like it had died of liver failure, and as my eyes were drawn in that direction, I also noticed an enormous hole in the ceiling around which someone had hung pine tree air fresheners.

"I'm not sure I like this," whispered Penfold. "How can this old weirdo help us?"

"According to the toilet seat he's the last remaining member of the crew that originally found the Lost City," said Rose.

"But he keeps trying to get us to go to the toilet-"

"He's just being polite! Old people are like that. Now shut up and leave the talking to me."

At that moment, Jugular Tim returned from his exodus to the kitchen, wheeling a little silver dessert trolley. On top of it there was a collection of fine china crockery decorated with little Jolly Roger emblems. There was a teapot with a black cosy, seven bone white cups and a glass jug containing some indeterminate orange liquid. Tim picked up the teapot in his gnarled hands. "There's tea and orange squash if anyone doesn't want tea," he said keenly. "Who wants what?"

"Look, if we could just get to the point-" said Rose.

"Tea, with milk and two sugars, please," said Gareth.

"I've got some digestive biscuits here, too," said Jugular Tim, proffering a decorated dinner plate.

Gareth wrinkled his nose. "Don't much like digestives."

"Rich Tea? Custard creams? Shortbread?" asked Tim eagerly, uncovering several more plates.

"Do you have any of those pink wafer things?" asked Gareth. A plate of same, stacked into a neat little pyramid, was placed under his nose.

"Now, anyone else for tea?"

"Look, we'd much like to talk about the Lost City if you don't mind-"

"Yes yes yes, but that can wait until we've all had a nice cup of tea, can't it?"

Rose waved her hands around in exasperation for a couple of seconds before returning them gracefully to her lap. "Fine. Milk and one sugar. Now if we can start-"

"What about your friends? Would they like a cup?"

We all immediately shook our heads. Actually I could have done with a nice cuppa, but I recognised the look on Rose's face.

"No? Biscuit, then? Chocolate bourbon?"

Rose's fingers were now drumming on the armrest of the settee.

"How about a nice slice of cake?" asked Tim, fondly pulling a tea towel from a hitherto unnoticed section of the trolley. "It's just I have such a lot of cake in the larder and I hardly get any visitors, you see. Now then, how about some Victoria sponge? Swiss roll? Battenburg?"

This time Penfold couldn't hold himself back. "Ooh, I like Battenburg."

Rose buried her face in her hands as two generous slices were passed to the accountant on a saucer.

"Now, you're sure you won't have a cup of tea with that?" asked Tim, pouring Penfold a cup anyway.

"Well, can't really have Battenburg without, can you?" said Penfold ingratiatingly, getting into the swing of things.

"Hey, can I have one of those scones?" asked Gareth, pointing. "Only I didn't know you had cakes when I asked for a biscuit-"

"Fine!" shouted Rose suddenly, a manic falsetto entering her voice. "Let's all have a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake! And maybe we could stay for dinner, and, oh, we could all do with a good night's sleep, and then we might as well stay here for the rest of our lives, how about that?"

"Well, someone got out of bed on the wrong side this morning, didn't they?" said Jugular Tim, smiling. "Now then, tea for everyone?"

Finally, when we had all been issued a beverage – mostly tea, but Jam had squash and Jugular Tim had found some rum in the larder for Scar – and had all taken cake or biscuit based on our own personal preferences, Jugular Tim finally seemed prepared to start talking about the Lost City, which was just as well, as I didn't think Rose's blood pressure was going to last much longer. She was gripping her cup with white-knuckled fingers, while a toasted teacake rested on her other hand in much the same way the safety catch of a gun rests upon the mechanism.

"So, you wanted to know about El Dorado?" asked Tim, munching on a piece of buttered malt loaf.

"Yes," said Rose curtly.

"Well, it's quite a story. Are you sure none of you would like to go to the toilet before I start-"


"Anyway, yes, the Lost City. Remember it well. I was serving on good old Captain 'Boinko' McTavish's crew. Just a cabin boy then, o'course, mere slip of a lad. I was in awe of McTavish. Such a great man, a credit to sky pirating. Rumour has it he was the one who boarded Glenn Miller's plane. Nearly seven foot tall he was, with very shiny blond hair. That's what I remember most about him. Blond hair and blond beard, and built like a brick shithouse. Oop, sorry, children present."

Jam hadn't been listening anyway, having been engrossed in the small bowl of jelly Tim had found in the pantry.

"Anyway, we were flying over the Atlantic at the time. I remember it was the Atlantic 'cos we'd just passed the marker buoy. We were heading for America to meet up with some friends, but we got thrown off course by a mysterious storm, got pushed south. I remember I was helping Large Willy pull down the main sail when the tip of the mast was struck by lightning. Electricity coursed through the whole ship, 'cos this was in the days when most airships were lined with iron to stop 'em being torn apart by air resistance, and excuse me Jim, I couldn't help noticing you've finished that slice of gateau, would you like-"

I shook my head vigorously. "No no no, had a big dinner. Quite full now." Rose nodded encouragingly.

"Well, if you ever feel like you need the toilet, it's up the stairs and-"

"The story, Tim?" prompted Scar helpfully.

"Oh yes. Anyway, the ship was struck by lightning, and we all conked out. Whole crew, to a man. Woke up a few days later, ship had been drifting randomly, and there was this enormous … thing off the starboard bow, something none of us had ever seen before."

"El Dorado?"

Tim seemed confused. "No, I think it was a hot air balloon in the shape of Margaret Thatcher. El Dorado was off the port bow. It was huge. It was like, an enormous island of rock had been pulled up out of the earth, and it was being held up by the biggest collection of balloons I had ever seen. And the island was covered in gold … so much gold in really elaborate shapes. As we drifted nearer and our hangovers wore off we could see it was a city, a huge city of gold. We could see all the little buildings and statues, all really finely carved. And what sticks in my mind most about the place was that, seen from above, all the buildings together formed letters. They spelt out a word."

Apparently exhausted, Jugular Tim leaned back in his chair, which creaked in displeasure. He sipped at his tea daintily, and the Fellowship looked at each other, wordlessly daring each other to ask the obvious question.

"What did they spell, Tim?" asked Penfold, much to everyone's relief.

"They spelt … 'PIG'."

I leaned back in my chair and put on a skeptical expression. Rose gave me an enquiring look, and I returned it by tapping my temple and mouthing 'loony'. She frowned.

"What happened next?" asked Jam, who had finished his jelly and was enjoying the tale.

"Well, what do you think happened next?" said Tim. "We turned right around and sailed north to America, and we were only a few days late."

"That's it?" said Rose, gobsmacked. "You didn't even land on El Dorado?"

"Of course not. There was only one airship park and none of us had any change for the Pay and Display machine. What would you have done?"

There was another of those pesky silences, the only sounds being the slurp of elderly lips drinking tea and the insistent ticking of a grandfather clock in the corner, hitherto unmentioned.

"Er, perhaps we should be thinkin' about going," said Scar finally. "Long journey ahead of us and that."

"Yes indeed, so even more important you should go to the toilet before you go," said Tim, smiling.

"Look, I've told you before, none of us need to go to the toilet," said Rose, putting her foot down.

I shifted uncomfortably.

"Not even you, Jim?" said Tim suddenly. "You ate the laxative cake, didn't you?"

The colour drained from my face. My buttocks tried desperately to push themselves together. A bead of sweat trickled down my face, and I gave Rose a desperate look.

"Up the stairs, on the right," said Tim in a sing-song voice.

I was out of that room faster than a hare being thrown off a cliff, and by the time the living room door swung closed I was already planted firmly upon the cool porcelain rim upstairs. Blessed relief washed over me, followed by a rather awful smell. I heard muffled conversation from downstairs, and decided I needed to get back in on the action. I completed my duties, washed my hands just as mother had always told me to, and flushed.

I suppose, on reflection, I should have expected something like this.

The cistern made a funny little gurgling sound, and suddenly the lid flew off like a rocket. Silly string poured out of it, getting all over my nice waistcoat and pirate trousers. Then the floor opened up beneath my feet, and I fell heavily into a concealed trough of what felt like syrup.

I yelled in surprise as the trough tilted and I slid backwards down a plastic children's slide, pillows bursting either side of me and showering me in white feathers, then was deposited down a very familiar-looking hole which, I could see, led back down to the living room. Feeling I had to retain some dignity in this situation, I caught the edge of the hole as I dropped, and found myself staring into the dark dusty space between floors.

Startled eyes looked back at me from the darkness. I gazed at them in wonder for a few seconds before the strength in my arms gave out and I crashed heavily onto the coffee table below, scattering figurines and cake. My shipmates were staring at me in horror, Rose with two hands over her mouth. Tim was doubled up in his rocking chair, laughing hysterically.

"Oh, priceless!" he was saying between guffaws. "The looks on their faces! I never get tired of that!" His laughter gradually faded, and he looked me up and down, wiping away a tear. "Aw, he pulled his trousers up," he said with mock disappointment. "It's always ten times funnier if they have their trousers down when they pull the flush." He pouted briefly, then fell into a fit of giggles.

Scar and Penfold helped up my sticky, feathered form, and attempted to dust me down. "Are ye alright, Jim?" asked Scar. "Nothin' broken?"

"Jus' a bit startled," I slurred.

"We'll be going now," said Rose to Tim, who was now rolling around on the floor. "Thanks for the tea."

"Oh, no problem," said the old pirate, oblivious to sarcasm, controlling himself and getting to his feet. "I'm sorry, I don't get many visitors, and it's not as much fun to go down the slide myself. Well, good luck finding the Lost City, anyway."

"Er, thanks," said Penfold, as he and Gareth and Scar and Rose and Jam made for the door.

"Who was that guy I saw between floors?" I asked, brain unscrambling rapidly.

A flicker of doubt crossed Tim's face, but it quickly became affable again. "There's no-one else in this house except me and you lot," he said. "You must have been a little concussed or something. Anyway, safe journey! Don't slam the door on your way out!"

He ushered us out as if, now that one of us had been through the toilet trap, we had served our purpose as visitors, and as the door slammed shut the Fellowship of the Rim found itself standing collectively on the front porch, feeling like a bunch of idiots.

"I think we should wipe this entire incident from our memories," said I as we climbed up the boarding slide to the ship in single file.

"Why? We learnt a few things," said Rose, directly in front of me. "We learnt what El Dorado looks like, and it's approximate location."

"Yeah, and we learnt not to continue eating cakes that taste funny," I said gloomily, hopping over the rail onto the deck. "Let's face it, that old guy was completely round the bend, we should take his account with a suitably vast pinch of salt."

"But he was in the dream! He was on the toilet seat, in the notes!"

"Ugh. I do not want the subject of toilets to be raised in my presence for at least a year." I spat out a syrup-flavoured feather, and turned to see the rest of the Fellowship of the Rim hauling in the gangplank. I saw Gareth whisper something to Jam, and they both looked over their shoulders at me, and started giggling. Penfold was definitely holding back a smirk. Scar wasn't even holding back.

"Ho yes, let's all laugh at the poor sap who fell for an old lunatic's juvenile practical joke," I said bitterly.

"Ye have to admit, it was pretty funny…" said Scar. I gave him a very feathery dirty look, and he utterly failed to repress a brief snigger. This was the catalyst for a fresh burst of laughter from the bastards. Even Rose had to cover her mouth.

"Stop it, the lot of you," she said in a quavery voice. "Leave him alone. Go and have a shower, Jim."

I nodded, and made for the hatch that led below decks, grumbling.

"By the way," she said suddenly, stopping me in my tracks. "Why did you ask him if there was someone else in the house?"

"Ah, forget it. Just thought I saw someone between floors. Some guy."

The others gathered round, suppressing their amusement for the time being. "What'd 'e look like?" asked Scar.

"I don't know!" I snapped. "I only saw for a second."

"I got the impression that Jugular Tim wasn't being entirely honest with us back there," said Penfold, arms folded. "This might be important."

"Do you remember anything at all about him, Jim?" asked Rose.

By now I was feeling rather peeved at being interrogated while coated in sugary goo and goose down. I heaved a very obvious and very pointed sigh. "I'm not even sure it was a 'him'," I muttered. "I saw a white shirt, but that's about it." I tailed off.

"Spy from Gertrude, maybe?" thought Scar aloud.

Rose made a very frustrated noise. "Don't say she got here before us!"

"I think she got here before us," said Jam helpfully.

"I told you not to say that." She kicked over one of the rum kegs we keep on deck and sat on it sulkily. "She's always one step ahead. I'll never live it down if she gets to that stupid Lost City before we do-"

"I don't think we should jump to conclusions," said Penfold, ever sober. "What were they doing between floors, anyway?"

"Probably one of Jugular Tim's victims," said Scar, nodding towards me.

"Didn't see any feathers," I said.

"Well, personally, I can think of a thousand perfectly innocent reasons why Jugular Tim would have a man concealed in his house which don't involve women like Gertrude Van Helsing," said Gareth.

"Or indeed, any women at all," muttered Scar.

Rose, meanwhile, seemed to be deep in thought, and I was about to assume the conversation was over and get on with the task of stripping myself of feathers when she leapt to her feet. "First thing tomorrow, we set off across the Atlantic."

Scar shook his head. "Sorry, cap'n, can't. 'Aven't got enough supplies to get across the pond. 'Aven't got enough booze," he spoke his last sentence in something approaching a horrified whisper. "I was 'oping we'd be able to do some boardin' and pillagin' before we set off-"

"Alright, the day after tomorrow," said Rose, flustered. "Tomorrow we get some money and we load up on supplies."

"You think we can get all the supplies we need in one day?"

"Excuse me," I said, planting my hands on my hips and attempting to seem cross. "Do you mind if I go and get my dignity back?"


"Winning the lottery is like slipping your hand into the bra of the most beautiful woman in the world, then getting it stuck and having to saw it off at the wrist."

- Anon


The sun rose the following morning upon the sleepy little village of Lower Shithole, West Yorkshire. The name of the village was not something the inhabitants liked to refer to, but when it became unavoidable, they were usually forced to admit that the name derived from a combination of the old Gaelic words 'Schee', meaning 'receptacle', and 'Tholle', which was a kind of savoury bread roll served with beef. The whole meaning 'place where one keeps bread rolls' referred to the trade in baked goods prevalent in the area at the time, but those times were long gone, and the village now had nothing but an embarrassing name and a thriving trade in decorative leather products.

All of this I read from a plaque I discovered on the wall of the tourist information centre after we had landed our ship in the street with the usual bone-jarring crash. Then Penfold and I had been despatched to the crowded field behind the town's tannery with two heavy suitcases to do our bit. "Well, this is a nice change of pace," said Penfold cheerfully as we took up position behind a table set up for our purposes.

I looked at him with supreme amounts of boredom and contempt. "I am really stumped as to how you think we can make the money we need selling home-made cakes at a village fete."

Penfold unloaded some plates onto the table, and began taking the cling film off the cakes we had spent all night baking. I was particularly proud of my little gingerbread men with hooks and eyepatches, and Penfold had iced the Victoria sponge he had made with a skull and crossbones motif, but Gareth's fairy cakes looked decidedly out of place under our 'GENUINE PIRATE CAKES' banner.

"I am determined to show you lot that it is possible to make money honestly and have a good time," he said.

I slumped down into the little wooden chair behind me, and picked some of the crust out of my eyes. "Are we having a good time?"

"Well, I certainly am," he replied from the corner of his mouth, accepting money from a harassed mother and giving her one of my gingerbread buccaneers.

"You are, aren't you?" I said, shaking my head. "You really do enjoy this sort of thing."

"If you mean, do I enjoy making money while keeping the original owner of the money happy, then yes, I suppose I do."

I coughed shortly. The cough sounded an awful lot like "Wuss."

Penfold coughed too. His cough sounded more like "Barbarian." All credit to him for managing to cough such a word, I suppose.

I sat and took a look around at the assembled masses of ladies in flowery hats and elderly people moving from stall to stall, making conversation. A very familiar-looking harassed young mother was leading a screaming child to the medical tent. The child was clutching her mouth. I wondered about this for a while as Penfold took the money and distributed the cakes, then the crowd parted and Scar and the captain approached our table. Scar was carrying a large brown sack over his shoulder, and they both seemed rather edgy.

"How's it going here?" asked Rose, taking occasional glances around the meadow.

"Oh, fine," I said. "We've made seven pounds and we've only been here two hours, I really think we'll be ready to go come the rise of the Antichrist."

"Stop it, Jim," said Penfold. "The gingerbread pirates are doing really well. And I'm confident someone will buy the Black Forest Gateau before lunchtime."

"Yeees…" I said, peering over Scar's shoulder. There seemed to be quite a crowd of screaming children gathered around the first aid tent now. "So I guess we've got next week's supply of teabags sorted."

"How are things at the antique fair?" asked Penfold, rapidly changing the subject.

"Well, I dunno, it always looks much easier on TV. We bought this painting of a duck's journey to Hell for eighty-five quid, then it got sold at the auction for eighty-five quid and a penny."

I smirked, but no-one seemed to be paying attention to me. "Eighty-five quid and a penny?" repeated Penfold enquiringly.

"Very eccentric auctioneer," explained Rose.

"Well, you made a profit, let's celebrate!" I said. "Let's buy a penny sweet and split it between the lot of us!"

"Shut up, Jim. Anyway, then we bought this Victorian stuffed sheep for a fiver."

"Sounds like a bargain," said Penfold.

"- but Scar wouldn't let me sell it."

"Be fair," said Scar, a little ashamed. "It was really nice. I named 'er Ethelberta." Rose covered her eyes.

"No profit at all, then?" asked Penfold gloomily.

"Not at the auction fair, no. But we robbed the post office on the way back."

"Nice little 'aul," said a beaming Scar, patting his clinking sack. "Should be plenty to keep us goin'." Penfold shook his head in despair. A pair of uniformed police officers jogged past, and Rose and Scar dived under the table.

"Well, if it isn't Black Rose."

Four pairs of eyes closed in despair as a very familiar girlish figure flanked by two equally familiar musclebound figures detached from the throng and approached our table. Today Gertrude was dressed in what probably amounted to casual gear for her – a plain green satin split-seam dress and pearl white high heels.

"Can't say I'm surprised to see you among all these common folk," she said in an oh-so-sweet tone of voice. "Ah, I see you're selling cakes. Given up on the Lost City? Can't say I blame you, if I was in a competition against me then I'd give up too."

I coughed politely, and she turned to make some suitable cutting jibe at me, until she realised who I was. "Oh. Richard, it's you."

"Hello, Gertrude."

"I almost didn't recognise you under all those feathers.'


"What happened?"

"Got tarred and feathered, as sometimes happens to us genuine sky pirates who aren't pampered by their daddies all the time, and occasional visitors to your mother's house."

All credit to her, she showed some surprising self-control as my cohorts sniggered. "I told you not to talk about my mother."

"So, how goes the search for the Lost City?" I asked, idly picking a feather off my arm.

Gertrude tried to assemble her dignity, and once again positioned her head so as to look down her nose at us. "Daddy has assigned the foremost cartographers in England to the problem. I can get on with normal business while they look for it."

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Rose nudge Scar, and whisper something urgently into his ear. He nodded, and offered her a thumbs-up. I wondered about this briefly, then at the ever-growing collection of crying children near the first-aid tent that somehow seemed indirectly proportional to the number of gingerbread pirates we had left.

"So what are you people doing here?" asked Gertrude, temporarily blotting me out of her little world. "Thinking of a career move?"

"We're here to make money so we can get enough supplies to cross the Atlantic," said Penfold proudly.

At this, the two clones standing on either side of Rose suddenly burst into two identical fits of laughter. Gertrude allowed them this for a few seconds, then waved her hand, and they both stopped instantly. "You really have no clue, do you?" she said, presumably rhetorically. "And how do you know El Dorado is going to be on the other side of the Atlantic? It could be anywhere! Come on, 742, 883," she said, addressing her bodyguards. "I think if we hang around here too long we might catch weirdo disease." The trio walked off, all three moving their hips in an effete fashion.

"That woman," muttered Rose, picking up a gingerbread pirate and taking a bite. "Funny, Jim, you're the only one who can seem to annoy her."

"Prob'ly why she wants to marry 'im," said Scar. "Cap'n!" he yelled suddenly, pulling the gingerbread treat away from his superior. "Watch it! You nearly ate that little metal hook!"

Rose swallowed, examined the remainder of the thing in her hand, then looked at me. "Jim, are these real metal hooks?"

"Well, yeah," I admitted. "Wouldn't really be pirates if they didn't have hooks."

"You don't think that's a little dangerous?"

I gave her one of my looks. "Look, anyone stupid enough to pop a little sharp metal hook in their mouth deserves everything they get, in my opinion. They'd have to be retarded or under ten years of age."

"Hey," said Penfold suddenly. "Look at all those children under ten years of age standing round the first aid tent!"

The four of us looked. Some of the people at the first aid tent were looking at us back. Some of them looked suspicious, the others just looked angry.

"Jim," said Rose calmly, "you're a long-standing and well-respected member of my crew, and you've always been very capable. For this reason, I will only keelhaul you once for every person who doesn't make it back to the ship alive, clear?"

"Hey! There they are!" shouted two post office workers who had just come onto the field with a small team of police officers.

And everything sort of went downhill from there.


I don't know what it is about these little villages in the middle of nowhere. They hardly seem to have any population at all when you drive through them, but suddenly when they require a rampaging mob there's thousands of the buggers. I can't blame them for being a little angry with us, of course, we having cleaned out their post office and ruined the dental work of an entire generation of villagers, but I do feel the flaming torches were a little over-zealous.

Still, we did all make it back to the ship alive – Jam and Gareth were already on board, they having been given watch duty – and on the whole it was jolly good fun. Once we'd taken off and escaped our pursuers, who had utterly failed to set fire to the damp planks that made up our hull, we were safe to stand over the rail and empty our waste paper baskets onto their heads.

"Well, guess you don't have to get keelhauled at all, Jim," said Rose, once we were back among our good friends the clouds.

"Yeah …" I said in a thoughtful tone of voice. "Do you think you could do it to me once anyway?"


"I can't think of any other way to get these damn feathers off."

"Fine. We'll get to that in a minute."


Penfold stroked his chin. "Well, at least we got the money."

"Not quite," muttered Scar. All eyes turned to him. "I sort of 'ad to leave it at the stall."

"Why?!" asked everyone incredulously.

"How do ye think we managed to get away so easily?"

"Oh, bloody hell," said Penfold. "So that was an entirely wasted journey?"

"Not quite entirely," said Rose. "We know that the bloke Jim saw at Jugular Tim's house wasn't working for Gertrude Van Helsing. She didn't know what Tim knew. She had no idea where the Lost City could be."

I tutted. "What does that prove? You're trying too hard to look on the bright side, captain. All we have is a toilet seat that may or may not contain directions to El Dorado, the word of a man who may or may not be as mad as Mad Madeline McMad from Madtown on Mad People Get In Free Day, and half a dozen uneaten fairy cakes."

"Which is still a lot more than that woman has!" snapped Rose. "Now, do you want to get keelhauled or what?"


"Right, shut up then. Scar, the ropes please?"

"I don't want to cast a shadow on proceedin's," said Scar, approaching with the keelhauling apparatus, "but we still need to conjure up some money from somewhere."

"I think," said Rose, tying the first ropes around my feathery ankles, "we're going to have to do that the old-fashioned way." Penfold sighed loudly.

"Can I ride on top of Uncle Jim when we keelhaul him, Uncle Rose?" asked Jam, tugging on the captain's sleeve.

"I don't think so, dear, you'll be sick."



It didn't take long to find a source of booty. Once you fly up to a certain height and at a certain time of day, you can't move for those swanky private business jets heading to the States and back. Of course, we're talking quite seriously high up here, so we all had to wear big thick winter coats, breathe shallowly and hold hankies under our noses.

Rose hand-picked a suitably expensive-looking conveyance, and the airship drew alongside it until we were close enough to see the pilot in the cockpit double-take as we hoved into view. Scar wheeled the cannon across the deck and tied it into place while Penfold, Gareth and myself were on cutlass-waving and going-aharr duty.

The first and only volley of cannon fire blew a hole in the side of the small plane, from which a briefcase spewing papers came flying out, followed by a bottle of champagne and a small man with a moustache. Scar and I threw the big hooks on chains at one of the wings before it could have time to fly off, and before long the entire Fellowship were making their way gingerly across to the entrance hatch, all diligently waving cutlasses and going 'aharr'. All in all, a textbook boarding.

Rose bade us be quiet, and knocked smartly on the exterior door of the plane. There was a moment's silence, then the sound of a chain being taken off, and the door opened with a short hiss to reveal a businessman holding a hankie to his nose.

"Yes?" he asked.

"Pirates," said Rose.


"Pirates," she repeated. "Come to pillage your plane."

The man looked over her shoulder at the rest of us. I applied myself to waving my cutlass and looking fierce.

"You'd better all come in, then," he said tentatively.


Ah, the interior of private planes. I had boarded many in my time, but the swank never ceased to amaze me. The reclining chairs, the readily available champagne, and I loved the way the passengers would always go very rapidly from being pompous and arrogant to getting on their knees and pleading for their lives like little children. This particular private plane contained only two men: the thin gentleman who had let us in, and a rather portly fellow with an American set to his features.

"Who's this, Julian?" demanded the latter, when we were all inside.

"Pirates," replied the thin man, apparently Julian.

"Arr," said Scar.

"Tell them we're not buying anything," said the fat man.

"I think they're here to, you know, take all our valuables and kill us, or something," said Julian with penetrating incisiveness.

"Is this true?" demanded Fatty.

The Fellowship looked at one another, then broke into a series of nods.

"Well, you should know that we're not going to stand for this kind of yes absolutely take anything you like," said Fatty, his method of conversation mutating somewhat when Rose's cutlass found itself between his second and third chin.

"Watch," demanded Rose.

"Watch what?"

"Watch!" she repeated, removing the timepiece from his wrist and examining it. "Evaluation, Scar."

This was Scar's strong point when it came to booty. He had been on so many raids and stolen so much stuff that he could tell you at a glance where something was made, by whom, how much you could expect to fence it for and how much grog you could buy with that. "Analog Mickey Mouse watch," he said, turning it over in his hands. "Cheap Taiwanese knock-off. Street value of about a fiver."

"Damn," said Rose and the fat man in unison.

"I've got a watch, too," said Julian helpfully. Scar had it off him in two seconds flat.

"Digi-tech quartz digital backlit sports watch," he said. "Mass-produced for catalogue shops. Maybe fifteen quid if we're lucky."

"There's an unbroken wine bottle," I said helpfully, retrieving it from the thick-carpeted floor.

"Chateau LeRoy 1969," he said, shaking his great hairy head. "Bad year. 1969 was the year the entire LeRoy family came down with dysentery."

"Hell," I said, annoyed. "This is turning into rather a waste of time."

"Wallets?" asked Rose wearily. The two men shook their heads. "Jewellery? Spare change?"

"I've got a quarter," said Fatty.

"Isn't it always the way," I sighed, relaxing into one of the reclining armchairs. "You can have ten years of good hauls from private planes, but the very day you actually really need the money it all goes tits-up."

"Briefcases?" asked Penfold, the weight of his own against his shoulder reminding him.

"Mine fell out when the plane depressurised," said Fatty meekly.

"Mine's over there," said Julian. Hungrily Rose grabbed the smart black case from the corner, and clicked it open smartly. I looked over her shoulder, and found that the thing was full of small, colourful polystyrene boxes.

"What are these?" she asked.

"Just some paperwork," said Julian, looking at his feet.

I saw Rose open one of the little boxes. It was full of rolled-up pieces of greasy paper. As she closed it, I noticed the logo on the lid. "You're with McDonald's?" I asked.

"We are directors of the McDonalds corporation," he said reluctantly, like a small child confessing to stealing the last Wagon Wheel.

"Got any share certificates?" asked Rose, going through the papers. "Postal orders? Cheques?"

"'Fraid not," he replied. "Just some invoices and some sponsorship contracts."

There was almost a lightbulb visible over Rose's head. "Sponsorship contracts?"

"'Es," mumbled Julian.



"In the mood for a holiday, Chris?"

- The Queen of Italy, 1492


So, the very next day, we were finally ready to begin our expedition. Our ship was loaded with enough supplies to keep ten people alive for three months, our sails had been daubed with gaudy corporate logos, and our sponsors had even arranged for a small hired crowd to line the cloud we were anchored to. As Scar hauled in the anchor and the first breeze of the day pushed us gently westwards the small assembly went wild, waving their little McDonalds banners like mad, until they realised the cloud was composed only of water vapour and they fell to their certain deaths.

Every member of the Fellowship of the Rim was dizzy with anticipation. Each of us were keen to go on the expedition for his or her own reason, but to their respective owners each reason was equally important.

For me, this trip would be a turning point in my search for the anonymous something I had devoted my life to tracking down, which for the moment I was imagining as a giraffe with its head stuck in the rear wheel of a Harley Davidson. This trip would take me to all sorts of interesting places all over the world, and if I still didn't find it, I would then have enough money and prestige to facilitate the continuing search further.

For Penfold, this was a sentimental journey. He was more adamant than ever to resign as ship's accountant at the end of the adventure, and saw this as his final goodbye to the life he had sometimes enjoyed – but mostly hated – for the last decade. Jam was feeling something similar – this would be his last chance to adventure with his adopted father, and he wanted to be able to remember him fondly.

For Rose, of course, this was a matter of pride. It wasn't just a case of getting one over Gertrude Van Helsing, Rose wouldn't be satisfied until her rival had been humiliated for life, her name ground into the dirt and her house and belongings burnt to the ground. But perhaps beating her in the race for the Lost City would satiate her for the time being.

For Scar, this would be one of the later achievements in a long and eventful pirating life. He was getting old now, he was always the first to admit that. He was becoming slow and unfit, and nowadays could only take eight or nine tankards before feeling ill. It wasn't going to be long before it was time for him to be retired and his position filled by younger blood (i.e. mine), but a success could ensure his going down in a blaze of glory.

For Gareth, this was a chance to gain lots of money to buy nice shoes with.

Laugh if you want, but I've never seen anyone take their shoes as seriously as Gareth. I once saw him put a fellow pirate in hospital for treading on his heel while boarding a passenger jet.


On the first day of our expedition, after the sails had been lowered and the balloons refilled, we suddenly found we had all run out of stuff to do. The wind was quite gentle but was pushing us suitably rapidly in the right direction, so there wasn't much we could do in terms of driving the ship. The bilges had been freshly drained, the anchor had been polished, and there wasn't another ship for hundreds of miles around.

You know how it is when you've got nothing to do. You wander really slowly around your domicile, looking at all the pictures, fiddling with occasional ornaments, opening cupboards and staring at the contents as if daring them to rot in front of your eyes. So Scar was standing at the helm holding the wheel as if it could suddenly fall off and explode at any moment, Gareth was wiping a rag very loosely back and forth across the polished gold buckles on his shoes, Jam was sitting against the main mast playing with an elastic band, Rose was wandering around asking everyone if they were keeping busy, and Penfold and my good self were enjoying one of those typical nothing-to-do conversations.

"Yep," I said, awkwardly holding a half-empty tankard. "Life's pretty good."

A long pause, then-

"Yes," said Penfold. "It is."

"The sun in the sky, a drink in my hand, and good company. What more could anyone need?"

Long pause.

"Absolutely nothing," said Penfold impassively.

"Keeping busy, chaps?" asked Rose, who had wandered up to us again.

"Yes, captain," we chanted.

"Good," she said, before wandering off to check on Jam's elasticky exploits.

We remained silent for a good thirty seconds this time, whereupon Penfold coughed shortly, then the silence continued for an additional forty seconds. It seemed like much longer. I finished my drink and, as we rough tough pirates have been known to do, threw the tankard over the side casually.

About four hundred metres down it landed on the head of a seagull, stunning it to unconsciousness. Its prone body would land upon the head of a motorcyclist who would then go on to veer into the back of a Ford Sedan and ultimately cause the biggest motorway pile-up of the decade. After a suitably vast mountain of vehicles had joined the fun the wreckage would spill over onto the adjacent railway tracks and cause an overall death toll of one hundred and fifty-seven (two hundred and twelve injured).

Meanwhile, back on the ship, Penfold shifted his weight from one foot to the other and I yawned.

"Oh, this is futile!" I said suddenly, startling the accountant. "We're trailblazing adventurers, there has to be something we can do besides stand here like lemons and wait until we reach El Dorado!"

"There isn't, Jim," said Penfold. "Just relax."

"I can't relax, I'm a pirate. I know, I'll start a fight with Scar."

"Please don't."

"Why not?"

He turned his head to face me. There was a very bored expression on his face. "Because every time you have a fight with Scar you get beaten up and start crying and then I have to make you lots of drinks before you'll stop."

"That does not happen every time."

"Yes it does."

"What about that one three years ago? Didn't happen then."

"Only because you pushed him down the trapdoor and ran away."

I couldn't think of an argument to counter that, so I rested my elbows upon the rail and stuck my chin in my hands. "I'm just so bored."

"Keeping busy, chaps?" said Rose, who had come over to us again.

"Yes, captain," said Penfold. I just grunted.

"Well, we should be there in about four more days."

"Thanks, captain," said Penfold, wearing one of his polite smiles.

"See you later then."


Penfold and I watched as she wandered over to Jam, supervised his attempts to flick elastic bands at an Action Man three yards away, then wandered over to Gareth to see if his shoes were nice and clean yet. I found my gaze was fixed upon her posterior.

"What do you think of Rose?" I asked, not particularly addressing anyone.

"She's nice," ventured Penfold.

"Nice," I repeated, and sighed. We watched her for another few minutes. "Do you think she'd go out with me?"

Penfold shrugged. "I dunno. How many times have you asked her now?"

"Twice. Once six months after we joined the crew when I was drunk, and once four years after that when I was drunk."

She and Gareth seemed to be having a stop-start conversation not unlike our own. "Although I wouldn't really say you were asking her out on those occasions," said Penfold. "As I recall, you were more sort of asking her if you could see her knickers."

I winced in memory, and nodded. My leg still ached sometimes on wet days.

Fact was, I had always lusted after Rose – indeed, as did most people who spent a lot of time in her presence. It had distracted me for a while in the early months, but after that you just get sort of used to it, like how you'd feel about the world's most beautiful wallpaper after living in a room with it for ten years. Every now and again this lust boiled over and would manifest itself, causing me to do odd things, like climb up and down the rigging several times for no apparent reason or lock myself in the bathroom for an hour. Once, when paralytic with drink, I actually sent her a letter inviting her to come to my room in the small hours wearing nothing but lacey underthings. I can't fault her sense of humour, as I woke up in the middle of the night with a splitting headache, remembering nothing, and found Gareth at the door wearing lacey underthings and a suggestive smile.

I remember being quite flattered that he thought of me that way, but I do have an image to think of, so I broke his nose and kicked him down the stairs.

"What I wouldn't give for just twenty minutes with her, a double bed and a programmable virus that eats clothing," I said wistfully.

"Actually," said Penfold, stroking his weak chin, "if you asked her now, I think you might have a chance."

I raised an eyebrow at this. "Elaborate."

"Well, she wants to get one over Gertrude Van Helsing all the time, right? And Gertrude's trying to force you to marry her. Think about it."

I thought about it, and raised another eyebrow. "Hey … you might have a point there, Penf," I said, before frowning and shaking my head. "But that wouldn't feel right. She wouldn't really love me. She probably wouldn't let me go to bed with her."

Penfold nodded. "Mm, probably. She'd just be using you."

"Yeah, the bitch. How dare she think she can just trifle with my affections?"

"Right. Don't ask her out. That'll teach her."

"Yeah." I smiled to myself at this small victory, but the joy was short-lived in the face of the unbreakable wall of tedium before me. I buried my face in my arms, and concerned myself with the clouds that drifted by below.

Which is why I was the first person on board to spot the derelict.

It was far below us, anchored to a little wisp of cirro-cumulus, and seemed to be a considerably elderly sky pirating model, the hull plated with rusting iron. From the angle I was at I could plainly see that there was no-one on the ship at all, and it looked like it hadn't been touched in years. Decades, even.

"Captain," I said, "I think we've found something." She came over to my side, dispensing with the elastic band Jam had given her to practise with, and followed my pointing finger with her gaze.

"Hmm," she hmmed. "Looks deserted. Must've been abandoned and crashed there or something."

"Worth looting?" I asked hopefully. She shook her head, and her hair fluttered pleasingly.

"Don't think so. Don't want to waste more time than we have t – hang on, what's that?"

She was referring to another wreckage that had suddenly become visible, previously hidden behind another small cloud. This one was slightly more modern, but nevertheless looked deserted and long untouched.

"Thar's the Angel of Nottingham," said Scar, who had appeared behind Penfold, with awe in his voice. "It's been missin' for decades!"

Gareth appeared at my shoulder behind me, a position with which I did not feel at all comfortable. He reached around me and pointed an immaculately manicured finger at another crashed ship, about half a mile off the port bow. "There's another one," he said. I edged sideways quickly.

"Three more in front of us, in the distance," said Penfold, shielding his eyes from the sun.

"'Ang on," said Scar, jerking upright as if realising something important. "Seven degrees west. That means we've waltzed right into the Cardiff Pentagon." Rose punched him lightly on the shoulder.

"Well, guess we're all dead then," said Gareth in what sounded like a jovial tone. I noticed Jam take Penfold's hand.

"Sorry," said Scar. "But I went over the charts twice. I couldn't find any way to get to the Atlantic skyway from Lower Shithole without goin' through the Cardiff Pentagon."

"You silly sod," said Rose, although her tone of voice sounded more like someone scolding a small puppy for soiling the carpet.

There was an eerie silence resounding throughout the entire area of sky. There wasn't even any distant cawing of birds. The only sound was the aforementioned propeller, whirring softly as it spun, bereft of the comfortingly regular wet crunches of unwary birdlife getting too close.

"Does anyone else smell cheese?" said Scar, whose proboscis was easily the finest among the group. There were now at least twenty wrecks visible on all sides, some famous names, some not so.

As we drifted through that gigantic airship graveyard, we felt a myriad of emotions. Fear was pretty popular, followed closely by anxiety, annoyance at Scar's incompetence and curiosity. Curiosity became the second most popular when we suddenly heard a voice calling us from far away. We couldn't make out any words beyond 'HEEEEEEEEYY!!' but it was definitely coming from one of the nearby wrecks, a slightly more modern one.

We looked, and we saw. We saw a man who seemed quite young but nevertheless had a very long and raggedy beard. He was dressed in torn but still recognisable traditional pirate gear, and was waving both arms frantically from the deck of a rather small wooden airship, the sort used for pleasure cruises.

Captain Black gave an order to take us towards him and lower the big thick knotted rope, and for a moment we looked at each other waiting for someone to volunteer, until Jam sighed, picked up one end of the big thick knotted rope tied to the mast and hurled it over the side.

When the strange man was finally brought aboard, he seemed quite agitated. When he had both feet on the deck and we had finished dusting him down he immediately ran for the helm and was clearly about to spin the wheel before Scar stopped him and yanked his struggling form away.

"No!" the man was shouting. "You have to turn around and go back! Now!"

"No-one's turning around," said Rose. "Who are you?"

The man opened his mouth to answer, then hesitated. "What do you call that stuff you get in bowls?"

There was a thoughtful pause. "Corn flakes?" tried Penfold.

"No … no … you put it in tea …"

"Sugar?" I said.

"Yes!" said the man, snapping his fingers. "Sugar. That's my name."

"Are you sure?" asked Gareth.

Sugar frowned. "Well, I remember being called it. I've forgotten lots of things, you see. I've been alone on that ship for ages." He looked around as if seeing his surroundings for the first time, then made a leap for the steering wheel again. Scar pinned him to the floor and sat on him.

"You're gonna get us all killed!" wailed Sugar, muffled by enormous pirate buttocks. "Your route will bring only death and loss!"

"What happened to you?" I asked.

Once again, Sugar became comparatively controlled. "Well … I remember I was cruising about the sky in my ship with a small crew and … some woman who I remember called me Sugar. Then we got as far as Cardiff, and …" he hit himself on the side of the head sharply. "No, sorry, it's gone. I just remember one other thing."


"A beard."


"And I do know that if you continue on the route you're on now, you're going to doom yourselves to oblivion and death," he said conversationally, before breaking into a struggling fit, then flopping back down.

"This beard," said Penfold, ever curious. "Could it have been your own beard?"

"I have a beard?" said Sugar, amazed. His eyeballs rotated downwards madly. "Well, what do you know. So I do." His brow furrowed, then he screamed in terror and passed out.

"Odd chap," said Penfold.

"Are we going to die, matey?" said Jam in that heart-breakingly innocent voice of his, which gave everyone in the vicinity the sudden urge to tousle his hair.

"No-one's going to die," said Rose in a no-nonsense tone. "We're six intelligent, physically fit people on a stable vessel."

"Well, she's gettin' on a bit these days," said Scar, patting a nearby barrel fondly.

"And we're not all physically fit," said Penfold shyly.

"And we're not all that intelligent," said Gareth, smiling.

"Alright, alright," said Rose, waving her hands. "If we all group together we probably make up around three or four physically fit and intelligent people in total, and we'll get through this if we just keep our heads, alright?"


Thunder rolled across the sky, and everyone ducked out of reflex. The wind picked up considerably, to such a degree that everyone who was wearing a hat immediately lost it. Even mine and Jam's bandanas started to slip in the onslaught of this weather. Sparks crackled in the air, and there were suddenly a lot more clouds in the sky than I remembered.

"What the bloody hell is going on?!" shouted Rose. At least, that's what I assumed she shouted. What with the wind and everything it sounded more like "hot tree muddy well is rowing song". But since that wouldn't make much sense outside particularly eccentric rural communities, I presumed it was the former.

The clouds in the sky seemed to be slowly forming a spiral, as lightning rebounded from cloud to cloud and the wind roared. An incredible bright light burst forth from the centre of the pattern, glowing with the intensity of the sun, and a sonic boom shook the ship violently, causing us all to duck again. I saw Scar, teeth clenched, try to look at the enormous glowing orb, and his mouth dropped open in a gasp of astonishment. I looked too, and joined him in the gaping fraternity.

The light seemed to have formed the shape of a face. There were two definite eyes, a definite nose, and a pair of definite lips. I also fancied I could see a layer of celestial shaving cream cover that definite chin, but dismissed the idea as too surreal.

We began to feel the wind decrease, the roar quieten. The sun-face seemed to be positioned directly over our ship, and was casting a bright spread of illumination over us. Eventually the lightning settled down and all was quiet, except for an ongoing low background rumble. The six of us gazed up at the heavenly countenance – Sugar was still lying unconscious on the deck - and somehow I perceived an expression on that enormous yellow face. It was a bored expression, with some light irritation, like the expression one wears when faced with a particularly resilient bluebottle. With a creak that sounded like the hinges on the doors of hell, those massive lips parted and spoke to us in a voice like doom on a particularly bad day.

"Well?" it said.

We looked at each other, terrified. No-one knew what to say.

"Well?" repeated the face.

Rose's hair had been attacking her face mercilessly during the wind display, so she bashed it back down to a respectable level and summoned up the courage to speak. "Well what?" she said nervously.

"You have summoned me," said the booming voice.

"Have we?"

"Ye-es," it said impatiently. "I am Roclutos of Cardiff, guardian of the skyways, and I can only be summoned by travelling into the Cardiff Pentagon and speaking the word 'alright' three times, or by speaking the word 'whoops' after tripping over your own shoelace, or by coughing in a nervous manner before speaking the word 'er'. One of these you have done, and I have answered your summon. So, I ask again. What do you want?"

"We, er, didn't really intend to summon you, really" said Rose, who had apparently been wordlessly appointed spokesperson.

Roclutos sighed an enormous celestial sigh. "You know, I had a feeling you didn't," he said. "No-one ever does, not anymore. They cough or trip or talk for too much and up I pop, then they're all 'sorry, I didn't intend to summon you'. Five hundred years ago I got summoned twice a day to give weather reports, now on average about once a month by losers who don't even intend to, usually while I'm in the toilet or shaving or in the middle of dinner. What do you make of that? That's just inconsiderate, that is."

"Please don't kill us," said Rose, somewhat pointlessly. Roclutos wasn't even listening.

"And that apartment they've set me up in, I don't know. Dingy would be too kind a word. 'Oh,' they say, 'oh, we figured since you were a god or whatever you'd like it all with marble and pillars and stuff.' You ever tried sleeping on a marble chaise longue? There are times when a god has to be a god, and there are times when a god likes to put his feet up and watch the telly. Where are you going?"

"I was just going to get a drink-" said Gareth innocently, half-way to the lifeboats.

"Stay where you are! So, am I thinking that you lot didn't actually have any reason to summon me?"

A telling pause, a few darting glances, then a chorus of 'no's.

"Right!" said Roclutos brusquely, and he melted away into the sky. For one hopeful instant we thought he had gone and would leave us forever, but then he materialised again, now in human form, and five yards away on the deck of our ship. Physically, he was rather squat, shorter even than Jam, and clad in a dark blue robe with yellow stars which, upon closer inspection, seemed to have been tailored from a duvet cover. The top of his head was bald as a cue ball, but his face wore an enormous white beard that was so long it met his ankles. His eyes and nose poked out above it like a rather more wrinkled impersonation of Mr. Chad. He was holding a staff carved from what looked like driftwood that was easily half again as tall as him.

"Ah, that's better," he said, in the same voice, only less booming and more weaselly. "Sorry, I have to get back into my true form after a while, that horrible face thing so takes it out of me."

"This is your true form?" said Rose, aghast.

Roclutos tried to gather what little dignity he had. "I do not point out all of your shortcomings, young lady," he said in a voice that was level but hinted at concealed fury. "Now then, since you – what is he doing here?"

He was pointing at an area of floor near our feet which was occupied by the mysterious Mr. Sugar, still lying unconscious and having blissfully slept through the above proceedings.

"We jus' picked 'im up from one of the other ships," said Scar.

"I've been looking for him for a while," said Roclutos. "Escaped my wrath, don't you know. I'd advise you all to step away from him."

"Why?" asked Rose, stepping away anyway.

Roclutos sighed the sigh of one who deals with intellectual inferiors a lot. "Because he and his crew failed the challenge, and I disposed of his crew, and now I have to dispose of him, alright?" Without waiting for a reply, the little god pointed his staff awkwardly at Sugar, who suddenly awoke and looked his tormentor in the eye.

"Oh," he said. "I remember you." Then he screamed again. It was cut short.

Looking back, I suppose it wasn't really very impressive, but we were nevertheless intimidated at the time. There wasn't any flash of light or incredible noise, there was just a sound rather like an empty cardboard box being dropped onto a wooden floor, and Sugar vanished.

In his stead all that remained was a very small, pitiable object, which we all craned forward to look at. It was a little wooden cocktail stick inserted into a chunk of pineapple and a cube of cheddar cheese. I don't recall any time a party snack has appeared more frightening.

"You … turned him into a finger food," said Penfold, ashen faced.

"'Fraid so," said Roclutos, shrugging.

"But … why?"

Roclutos didn't seem to understand the question. He stamped his foot in anger, which made us all jump. "Look, there are a hundred thousand gods and guardians of various faiths and not too many holy powers to go round, so when you get told 'your power is the ability to transmute mortals into cheese and pineapple cocktail party snacks', you don't ask stupid questions! You just accept it and get on with your life. Any arguments?"

Six heads shook vigorously.

"Good. Now then, you summoned me for no good reason, so you've pissed me off. Now you have to accept my challenge, and if you lose, you all get party snacked, clear so far?"

Six heads nodded vigorously.

"Right. I'll start. My first is in lettuce but never in ham, my second is in swineflesh but not in spam. My third is in crevice and also in hole, my fourth's not in haddock but is in sole. My fifth is in Leicester, my sixth is there too, my whole goes well with wine, rooty-do."

"What?" said Rose, summing up the thoughts of the rest of the crew pretty well.

Roclutos seemed embarrassed. "That was the best last line I could come up with," he said. "Come on then, guess it. Or die," he added in a stern tone of voice.

"Er …" said Gareth, stalling for time.

"Could we hear it again?" I asked.

Roclutos sighed so hard that Jam's bandana blew off, and once again launched into his rhyme in a forced sing-song fashion. "My first is in lettuce but never in ham, my second is in swineflesh but not in spam. My third is in crevice and also in hole, my fourth's not in haddock but is in sole. My fifth is in Leicester, my sixth is there too, my whole goes well with wine, rooty-do."

"Cheese," said Jam.

"How the hell did you get that?" said Roclutos.

"I just remembered I read the exact same poem in Pirate Puzzlers Junior."

He was treated to an appropriately thunderous look, and he darted behind his adopted father. Roclutos, his face a picture of torment, squeezed his staff until his knuckles went white and parted his lips to reveal his clenched teeth.

"Al-righty," he said in a voice like war drums. "Now you have to give me a riddle. If I get it right, then I ask you another one. If I get it wrong, then you can all go. With me?"

Six heads made another synchronised nodding movement.

"Go on, then."

Like schoolchildren brought before an authority figure and asked to explain ourselves, the Fellowship of the Rim began throwing each other urgent looks, silently praying to a god we had never believed in that someone else would do the talking. Eventually, when Roclutos' foot-tapping became unbearable and I became aware that, by some apparently random Brownian motion, I appeared to be at the front of our small grouping, I decided to take the initiative.

"W-what," I said nervously, "have I got … in my pocket?"

Roclutos gave me a strange look, and I found myself blinking rapidly. "Which pocket?" he asked slowly.

"Er, waistcoat inside left," I stammered.

"A very furry humbug, the cap from a biro and a folded-up candid polaroid of your captain in the shower."

I instinctively put a hand over my breast as Rose shot me a very nasty glance, and Roclutos clapped his hands together in triumph. "You'd be surprised how many people try that," he said genially. "Right then, my turn. Are you going to get this riddle wrong?"

"I dunno, try me," I said.

"No no no, that's the riddle. 'Are you going to get this riddle wrong?'"

"Sounds like a pretty gay riddle to me," I said, smart-alecness overtaking caution for a second.

"What is your answer, human?" asked Roclutos threateningly.

"Er-" began Penfold.

"Quiet!" barked the little god. "This gentleman gave me his riddle alone, now he has to answer mine alone. Are you going to get this riddle wrong?"

I shrugged. "No?"

Roclutos seemed taken aback. "Don't tell me you've heard this one as well." I shrugged again. "Oh well. Give me another one."

By now I was rather getting into the swing of things. I decided to come back with the most fiendishly taxing riddle I knew.

"When is a door not a door?" I asked.

Roclutos gave me an odd look. "What?"

"When is a door not a door?"

He scratched his bald head. "How can a door not be a door? A door is a door. That doesn't make sense."

I swallowed hard. "Give up?"

"Suppose…" he said warily.

"When it's ajar," I said, feeling slightly guilty.

Roclutos squinted as he thought about this, then a look of realisation crossed his features. It was quickly replaced by the thunderously angry look, a look we were fast becoming familiar with. "Right then," he said. "You win, I suppose. That means I'm now going to turn you all into party snacks."

Rose's little smile disappeared. "Wha?"

"I'm in a bad mood, so I'm changing the rules."

"Oh, honestly," I said. "This is like being at school with Stinky Watson again."

"We beat your challenge, you have to let us go, this isn't fair," said Jam from behind his adoptive father, only brave enough to poke his head around slightly to address the deity.

Roclutos stamped his foot again. Lightning flashed across the sky. "Alright, alright. You have to beat me in another challenge. A challenge of a different kind entirely."

I rolled my eyes at Rose, but she returned the look with a scowl which suggested that, if we ever got out of this alive, she would have some issues to address with myself and my polaroid camera.

"Very well," I said to Roclutos. "We accept this challenge, whatever it is."


A few minutes later, Roclutos was standing in the middle of a semi-circle the Fellowship formed around him. We were sitting on whatever came to hand; most of us on kegs, but Jam was on the floor and I was making do with the elephant's foot umbrella stand we sometimes kept spare cutlasses in. Roclutos was standing with his feet a shoulder width apart, and was making a very curious gesture with his hands. His right hand was held in front of him, flat and vertical, while his left was cupped and made rotating motions nearby. His face wore an expression of bright concentration.

"It's a film," muttered Penfold.


"You don't think you're being a little vindictive?"

- Prometheus


"The Sound of Music," said Gareth suddenly.

Roclutos looked dejected. "How did you get that?"

"You've done that one before."

Gareth was by now the only one participating. Everyone else was sitting in a variety of slumped postures in their seats, bored out of their minds and desperately trying to remind themselves that their very lives hung on the outcome of the game.

Roclutos frowned. "When did I do that one?"

"Between 'The Silence of the Lambs' and 'The Time Machine'," said Gareth encouragingly.

"Alrighty," said Roclutos. "Try this one." He held his hands together, then rotated them both ninety degrees in opposite directions. Then he drew an imaginary square in front of his face with his fingers.

"It's a book … and a TV programme," said Gareth. Roclutos held up two hands, one of which seemed to be making an obscene gesture. "Seven words," said Gareth happily.

I moved my chin from one hand to the other, and sighed through pursed lips to make that slightly amusing bored farting sound. We had been sitting here playing charades with the old god for hours, and the sun looked like it was thinking about setting. We were dropping all the hints we could that we had better things we could be doing, and Roclutos laboriously ignored every single one.

Meanwhile, the god balanced one horizontal index finger on top of a vertical one. "The," said Gareth automatically. Roclutos gave a reluctant thumbs-up, made the obscene gesture again, then began a series of very curious movements.

"Second word," said Gareth, speaking throughout the performance. "Second word rhymes with … money … lots of money … wealthy? Affluent? Rich? Rich! Ditch, stitch, hitch, bi – hitch? Right. Third word. Third word rhymes with … pedalling … bicycle … man on bicycle … cyclist? Motorbike … biker? More than one biker? Bikers? Bikers, rikers, hikers – hikers! The hitch-hikers. Fourth word. Walk around. Two people walking around. Person walking behind someone. Follow. Lead. Sounds like … thigh? Hip? Ribcage? Armpit? No? Also sounds like … big? Huge? Enormous? Holding out your arms? Gigantic?"

"WIDE!!" shrieked Penfold, who was clearly on edge. "It's 'The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To-'"

"No it wasn't!" said Roclutos suddenly. "It was …" he hesitated. "It was Black Beauty! You got it wrong, now I can turn you all into party snacks!"

"Oh, please do," I said, now not a million miles away from the threshold of insanity. It was warm and pink on the other side and was looking very attractive. "I'm not sure I have the will to live anymore."

"Right!" said Roclutos, gripping his staff. We all flinched. Then he paused, and lowered the end of his stave again. "Actually, maybe I will give you all just ONE more chance. If you can beat me in another challenge – stop groaning! – if you can beat me in one last challenge then I promise I honestly will let you go. Honest."

"What sort of challenge?" asked Rose. "Do we really want to know?"


A few minutes later I was sitting in the crow's nest with Penfold. I was curled up on the floor of the little barrel and he was peering over the edge, keeping one eye on the deck. The voice of Roclutos drifted up from below.

"Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred!" he was saying. "Coming, ready or not!"

"What's he doing?" I muttered out of the corner of my mouth.

"He's sort of wandering around the side of the ship, looking left and right," said Penfold. "He just walked straight past the barrel Jam's hiding in. Oh, and he's just gone below decks."

The accountant turned away from the action, and slumped down next to me. I subtly edged away from him slightly to escape the smell of the decaying sandwiches in his briefcase. We both simultaneously sighed long and exasperated sighs, then Penfold dug out one of the cheap novels he kept with him and began reading from where he had carefully marked his place.

"He's never going to let us go, is he," I said. It wasn't even a question.

"Nope," said Penfold.

"But he's also never going to turn us into party snacks, is he."

"Probably not."

"We're going to be stuck here the rest of our lives playing parlour games with that old weirdo."

"Look on the bright side," said Penfold, eyes still fixed on his book. "Maybe we can play Consequences next."

I smiled briefly. Consequences always cheered me up and he knew it. I yawned, stretched, and placed my hands behind my head, looking up at the sky which still contained a few wisps of the clouds Roclutos had put together for his dramatic entrance. Then I began reading Penfold's book over his shoulder. I usually try to avoid doing this as it really pisses me off when it's done to me, but sometimes when you're really bored you can't help yourself.

"What's going on, then?" I asked.

"I think Martina is about to let Brad roger her across the kitchen table."

I immediately took a livelier interest in the book. "Who's Martina?"

"A beautiful hotshot lawyer with a dull boyfriend."

I nodded intelligently. "And who's Brad?"

"A mysterious rugged but handsome rogue who enters her life and turns it upside down."

There was silence for a full minute as two pairs of eyes traced the words across the page. "Think they will end up rogering?" I eventually asked.

"I should think so," said Penfold thoughtfully. "There hasn't been any sex or nudity for three whole pages now. Whoops, there we go."

"Don't spoil it, I haven't read that far yet."


I read a particularly descriptive paragraph. "Hey, my mum had a kitchen table just like that."

"Did she," said Penfold in a please-stop-talking tone of voice.

"I couldn't imagine her and dad rogering each other across it," I continued, feigning misunderstanding. "She used to go ballistic if we put a cup down without a coaster."


"I couldn't imagine her and dad rogering each other at all, actually."


"Or rather, I can, but I'd rather not."

"No, I can see why."

"I'll just go and see what's going on down below, shall I?"

"You do that."

It seemed that Roclutos had managed to find Jam, who was now sitting along the side of the rail kicking his heels against the wooden supports as children do when they're left waiting. Roclutos was meanwhile off looking in all the grog barrels. I reported this intelligence back to Penfold, still enamoured in the antics of Martina and Brad – who I was told had now discovered the contents of the vegetable tray – and sat back down.

"I wonder if I'd like being married to Gertrude Van Helsing after a while," I pondered.

"Probably not, if she's anything like Martina with a stick of celery."

"Nah, guess not," I sighed. "Pity, 'cos if her personality didn't keep distracting me she'd be a right knockout."

Once again Penfold gave the impression of talking without actually knowing what he was saying. "Maybe you could chloroform her and sew her mouth up in the night."

I raised an eyebrow at this. It seemed a reasonable suggestion until I thought about it. "Nah. She'd probably start writing really nasty notes instead."

"You could cut her hands off too."

"But then she wouldn't be able to do the washing-up."

Penfold looked up at last. "What was that?"

"She wouldn't be able to do the washing-up?"

He shook his head. "Sorry, I thought you said something rude. Never mind."

I opened my mouth to speak.

Suddenly, there was a rather nasty cracking noise below us. I looked at Penfold. He looked at me. Then we both looked at the wooden boards beneath our feet, and saw an enormous splintery crack which went right across the floor. Penfold barely had time to mark his place in his novel before the floor collapsed in a shower of matchwood, and the two of us began to tumble deckwards at alarming speeds.

My hands flailed at the sail and the rigging for a few yards before I was able to grip one of the downward-hanging ropes which we tended to leave around to make it look like we knew what we were doing. With a cry of triumph I swung across the ship, wondering if I should pause in my flight to slip my belt dagger between my teeth, then let go at the zenith of my forward swing to flump gratefully into one of the lowered sails. I slid easily down the canvas and landed neatly with both feet on the wooden deck below.

Only then did I close my mouth.

Penfold, meanwhile, had had the foresight to keep his umbrella with him, which he opened at the top of his fall and used to drift gracefully down next to me.

Jam immediately broke into applause, as did Scar, who had apparently also been found. Roclutos was standing nearby with arms folded and a triumphant look on his face. "Right then," he said. "So it's just the woman and the freak in the sharp suit left." He scampered off below decks, his staff clacking merrily on the hard wooden deck.

"Where were you?" I asked Scar to fill the ungainly silence

"In my room," said the big man. "Lyin' on me bunk, readin' a magazine."

"That wasn't trying very hard, was it."

"No, and 'e didn't take the 'int, neither."

I nodded sadly, just as Roclutos bounded back on deck, wreathed in the happy smile of a child who has won a game of Pass the Parcel. A very exasperated-looking Rose was in tow. She was deposited with the rest of us losers.

"Right, you all wait just there while I get the other one," said the god excitedly, and made for the hatch again. He found his path blocked by Scar's massive form.

"We've been talking," said Rose. "And we've decided that we'd like you to turn us all into party snacks now."

Roclutos seemed disappointed, like a child who has won the game of Pass the Parcel only to find that the parcel contained an illustrated field guide to Welsh birds. "But I haven't found the other one yet –"

"He's strapped to the underside of the keel. Will you please get it over with now?"

The little god shifted uncomfortably, and coughed, stalling for time. "Erm … you're sure you wouldn't like a game of Consequences first?"

Rose ignored my sigh. "No, we're ready for oblivion now."

"Right then, right then," said Roclutos, then he coughed again. "I'll just … point my staff at you then … and … do … it." He shook his driftwood staff in a half-hearted threatening manner.

"D'ye mind if I 'ave a look at this staff o' yours?" said Scar, who had been staring at it during the previous discourse. "The carvin's really somethin'…" With considerable ease he plucked the stave from the little man's hand. Immediately, Roclutos turned on the big man and tried to grab his staff back. Scar held it out of reach.

"Give it baaack!" wailed the little god. "I can't do my magic without my staaaff!!!"

Scar grinned. "Can't you?" he asked with mock concern.

"No! I mean … yes … I mean … oh bollocks. Just give it back!" I'd never seen anyone jump up and down with fury before, and Roclutos was indeed doing so. Rose walked over and impatiently picked up the little man by the scruff of his neck.

"Let me go!"

"I can't believe you wasted our time like that, you little bastard," said the captain bitterly. "Now, let's see what suggestions my crew can come up with as to what to do with you."

"You're gonna be in sooo much trouble!" yelled the struggling deity.

"Let's just kill the little bugger," I said.

"Let's splice his mainbrace!" said Jam eagerly.

"Sit him down and force him to watch American sit-coms with the volume turned right up!"

Everyone looked at Penfold with deep disgust. Roclutos had stopped his fighting, and was looking at the accountant with terror in his eyes.

"Sorry," muttered Penfold.

"Ah, hell, let's just make 'im walk the plank," said Scar.

"We don't want to waste any more time," said Rose. Then she smartly dropped the tiny god onto her foot and kicked him hard over the side. He was still hurling abuse in our direction when he dropped out of earshot.

"Right then," said the captain, dusting her hands. "Full speed ahead, first mate."

"Aye aye, capt-"


Lightning struck from the sky once again and hit our main mast. The sail burst into flames, and we all dropped to the floor in surprise. The clouds, apparently seeing this new development, hurriedly made their way back into the enormous spiral they had formed before. The wind roared with even fiercer intensity than last time, and my bandana disappeared almost instantly, allowing the greasy mop upon my scalp to freely whip across my face.

With visibility reduced it took me a while to notice the enormous face in the sky again. It was different to Roclutos', a lot bigger, with a much harsher face and an expression of utter fury.

"I am Rotlucos!" bellowed the new face in a voice that caused all our portholes to shatter. "Brother of Roclutos!"

"Oh shit," said Rose in a small voice, which basically summed up the feelings of all present.

The wind was tossing our poor ship all over the sky now, missing some of the derelicts by inches. The deck sloped crazily in all directions and the five of us tumbled back and forth like the crew of the Starship Enterprise flying through an asteroid field on National Overacting Day. Rotlucos' loud roars of laughter were all we could hear over the thunder and the incredible rainstorms that beat us mercilessly. I took a moment to enjoy Rose's wet torso before a lurch hurled me into the rigging and her against the mast.

"I'm sorry I took photos of you in the shower, Rose!" I yelled over to her, wishing to repent before the end.

"I'm sorry I stole your Red Dwarf videos, Jim!" she yelled back.

"What was that?"


The balloons supporting our vessel were bobbing and wobbling all over, nudging each other like playful sheep, buffeted so hard that they bounced off the deck at times. As this began happening more often we saw Rotlucos concentrating all his wind breath upon them, and it suddenly became clear what he intended.

He was going to capsize the ship.

I immediately launched myself forwards to find some way to survive this incident, but my foot was still coiled in the rigging ropes and my chin slammed painfully against the deck. From that angle I could see Penfold clinging desperately to the side of the hatch that led below decks, with Jam wrapped around his leg, all four eyes screwed tightly shut. As for Scar and Rose, they both seemed to be trapped under one of the fallen sails. Gareth was nowhere to be seen. As I watched, I saw that one of Penfold's hands was slipping.

I gritted my teeth, wriggled my foot out of its ropey prison, dug my fingernails into the deck - rapidly becoming vertical – and began dragging myself towards the accountant and his son. What the hell, I thought. Since we're all going to die anyway I might as well brush up the old karma to impress the guys at the pearly gates.

I grabbed another of our downward-hanging ropes which had coiled firmly around the main mast, and began yanking myself upwards towards Penfold and Jam, digging my feet into cracks in the wood and having to repeatedly blow the hair out of my face irritably. It was a hard climb, but fortunately one of the balloons rotated right around the ship, the floor rotated one hundred and eighty degrees, and suddenly I was abseiling towards my friends. Another of the balloons went right around the ship, wrapping the vessel in thick rope. The rope began to tighten and the wood began to splinter, and the ship gave a sudden lurch as it prepared to break in two.

I reached a hand down towards Penfold, and with a burst of strength unfamiliar to him he yanked himself up and clamped his hand around my wrist. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Rose and Scar clambering over the rail overhead in order to get onto the side of the ship, which was now the horizontal part, and I realised we had to get there too.

Of course, here lay the problem. I was dangling from a rope tied to the main mast with one hand holding onto an eight-stone accountant and a boy. In order to climb back up the rope, I would require not only the strength of ten of me but also an extra arm.

"Penf!" I yelled against the gale. "Climb up me and up to the mast!"

"What?!" he shouted back.


"Oh, sorry! I thought you said-"

"I don't care what you thought I said!"

"What about Jam?!"

I had forgotten about Jam, who was still wrapped around his father's right leg like a five-foot barnacle in a ruffled shirt. He would have to climb up first, then Penfold, then me. I saw Penfold relay this intelligence to the boy, who nodded, and began to pull himself up. He bunched the fabric of Penfold's trousers in his hands and hoisted himself up so he could grab Penfold's belt.

Sadly, it turned out that Penfold wasn't wearing a belt that day.

Jam's hand faltered and fell away, leaving him clinging by one hand to the fabric of one of his father's trouser legs. The eminent tailors responsible for them had obviously not assumed this application for them would ever be used, and they tore sickeningly. For one horrible moment, Jam was succumbing to gravity, falling towards his almost certain death –

…until Rotlucos' hurricane blew him back towards the ship, and he crashed heavily into the railing far below that went along the side of the deck. His little body lay still, but I couldn't see any blood. He was just unconscious, precariously slumped over his support.

"Climb up now!" I shouted to Penfold. "I'll get him!"

The accountant nodded, and I helped him clamber over me. This was not the moment for him to attempt to discover the hero inside himself. This was not some cheap American popcorn flick. Penfold was not equipped to deal with the situation. When he was shimmying nervously up the rope towards the mast, I began to slip down towards the fallen youth. It wouldn't be too difficult, I decided. Just climb all the way down, sling the boy over my shoulder, and climb back up. It wasn't really that far and he wasn't really that heavy…

A loud and thunderously ominous crack boomed in my ear, and I saw that the ropes wrapped around the ship were tightening fast. A great and yawning gash had opened up right down the hull of our vessel, just below the mast. It wouldn't be long before the entire front section of the ship snapped off entirely.

I reached the bottom of the rope without event. Far above, Penfold was climbing up onto the side of the boat, and Jam was right below me. I reached down, and was able to get a hand around his nearest arm.

A loud creak distracted me, then the forward portion of the ship began to tremble, and lurch. My hand slipped away from Jam as he descended three yards, and out of my reach.

Exciting, isn't it?

I took a moment to wonder what I was going to do next, and the ship wobbled again. Maybe it was time to hang the whole sorry business and pretend the kid had fallen off and been killed. But no, I couldn't do that. There was a good chance Penfold was watching.

In the absence of a better plan, I decided to attempt to introduce a new entity into the situation.

"Oi!" I yelled. "Jam! Wake your silly arse up, you lazy git!"

It seemed to work. The boy stirred, and his eyes flickered. "It's Jake's turn to muck out Overweight Roger," he murmured.

I kept shouting creative insults until the boy woke up fully and recognised the gravity of the situation, at which point he sat up, clapped his hands onto his face and screamed loudly in a way that would seem to be strangely familiar to exponents of family cinema.

"Stop it!" I cried. "You'll make yourself hoarse!"

"I think that would be the very last of my problems, uncle Jim!" said Jam with spite in his voice.

"If that's your attitude then maybe I won't rescue you," I said curtly. Somehow, dangling by one hand from a rope tied to a rapidly disintegrating ship, my heart wasn't in it. "Can you reach my hand?"

A lot of kids his age would probably be too scared to even move in this situation, but this was Jam. He had had a proper pirate upbringing. Getting wobbly to his feet, he looked up with determination in his eyes, and reached up. His hand brushed against my palm.

Somehow, this time, I was expecting it. The crack splitting the ship in half widened even further. Splinters and snapped boards were falling down all around me, and the rail under Jam's feet lurched downwards suddenly, causing the boy to go into an alert crouch. Another loud creak echoed around us. Looking up, I saw what was happening – the front portion of the ship was in the process of falling off. The rest of the Fellowship and the mast to which I was tied were all on the rear half, the half still being held up by balloons. I saw Penfold, Rose and Scar peering over the top of the ship with panic in their eyes. I looked down and saw something similar in Jam's face.

The ship lurched again. There was a tense moment as it became clear that the front part of the ship was separating from the ship surprisingly rapidly.

A telling pause, then –

"JUMP!" shouted everyone.

Jam didn't need telling twice. He pushed himself upwards with all his might and clamped both hands around my right arm, just as the last few flimsy remaining planks that held the front section to the rear section snapped and an enormous wooden oblong dropped away rapidly. When it splashed into the sea below us, it was so far down that the expanding circle of white foam was barely a speck.

"Bleh," I said. "I'm not made for this sort of heroing bollocks."

"I don't think that line will be in the film they make of this, Uncle Jim."

I heaved the pair of us up the rope with strength that truly surprised me, and despite being swung left and right merrily by the strong winds that still roared around us we were able to get up to the top of the ship – which if you remember was also the side of the ship – without incident. I pushed Jam up onto the wooden boards and he flung his arms around Penfold, then I pulled myself up and Rose quite unexpectedly flung her arms around me. Then she grabbed me by the waistcoat with both hands and shook me back and forth like a mad thing.

"What the hell did you do that for, you stupid bastard!" she shouted in time with her frenzied shaking. "You could have been killed!"

That part of my brain unaffected by all the shaking around wondered why she was making such a big deal of it. Then the thought occurred to me that perhaps she was beginning to see my manly charms. Perhaps this stressful situation had made all those years of contempt boil down to the yearning love she had obviously felt for me from the moment we had met.

"Don't ever do that again!" she yelled. Right into my face. "I need you to victimise Gertrude Van Helsing with!" Which just goes to show that, even in the face of death, women can still disappoint.

"Well, now you've blown all hope of getting me into bed," I said, still woozy from the shaking.

"I don't mean to interrup' this discussion," said Scar, halting the movement of Rose's fist, "but if we don't get movin' then we're all gonna die 'orrible deaths."

We could see what he was referring to. Rotlucos was still blowing his infernal winds with the clear intention of shifting one of the balloons around what remained of the ship. This would undoubtedly leave the vessel completely upside-down, rather than just on its side as it was at the moment. Wordlessly Rose, Scar, Jam, Penfold and I began scrabbling our way along the hull just as gravity began shifting ninety degrees again.

It's truly a magnificent sight, an airship capsizing, and you need all sorts of wacky weather conditions to achieve it, so it's quite rare. You need to be able to appreciate it when it happens, 'cos you probably won't see it again. Which was a shame, as we were all too busy climbing up onto what used to be the underside of the ship to take a moment to appreciate the aesthetics.

"Oh, hello, everyone," said Camp Gareth, who was strapped here to what was now the floor. "I was wondering when someone was going to fetch me."

Rose untied him, and all six members of the Fellowship of the Rim gathered in the dead centre of the ship's upturned keel. This way we would maximise our chances of survival, you see. That is, if it wasn't for the angry god making the weather all around us go completely batshit.

Lightning struck the wooden boards just a few yards away from our little huddle, and the pitch-soaked wood was quickly alight. A great wall of fire began to slowly expand towards us, so we were forced to move towards the now-motionless propeller at the back of the ship. Now, of course, the weight was imbalanced, and the ship slanted alarmingly. We moved back towards the fire a little, and the floor returned to something approaching a horizontal surface.

"Leave us alone!" shouted Jam to the skies. A deep, unpleasantly godlike laugh boomed around us.

Lightning once again struck. This time it was far too close for comfort.

Jam jumped back reflexively, and landed on a slope. It was too late to stop him, and he began to slide backwards in a route that would send him right off the ship like a raisin falling off a lampshade.

"Jam!!" shouted Penfold, and dived after him, which just went to show that even he could be courageous if he tried. Unfortunately now he was sliding off the ship too. I reached out an arm to grab the accountant's leg, but the ship slanted again and Scar had to grab me to stop me going the same way. Both accountant and adopted son of accountant disappeared off the edge, and out of sight.

"Oh … no …" said Rose, hands over mouth.

"Jesus Christ!" I said angrily. "I mean, what is the point of me going through all those heroics and stuff to save someone if they're just going to let themselves get killed as soon as I'm finished? I'm looking out for number one from now on. At least I can trust myself not to be such a careless twit."

Looking back, I think Rotlucos was deliberately waiting for someone to say something like that. Lightning struck one more time, this time directly in the centre of our little grouping. All four of us had to leap away in opposite directions.

For a few seconds I couldn't see, my arms covering my eyes. I briefly felt myself sailing gracefully through the air, then bounced painfully off a sharp wooden surface before returning to graceful sailing. At this point I found it prudent to uncover my eyes.

The tattered, burning ship, which I've just remembered doesn't have a name, was falling away from me at incredible speed, and a big, wide blue expanse of ocean was coming to meet me from the other direction. I was tossed and buffeted by fluffy white vapour for the first few hundred yards or so, then I fell below cloud level and the true beauty of the planet Earth and her mighty oceans became apparent to me. The flat deep blue expanded outwards in all directions, somehow making me feel calm and serene despite the fact that I was hurtling towards it at a hundred miles per hour.

You know those pictures environmentalists always use where the Earth is shown as having horrible brown seas and black land masses covered in symbolic fish bones and little barrels with radioactive symbols on? Well, they're all rubbish. The sea looked pretty blue to me.

Then I was just a few metres above it, and it still looked pretty blue to me.

Then I landed, with an almighty crashing splash.

It didn't get any less blue.


"Those shells don't look very comfortable, miss."

- Edited from the original script of the Little Mermaid


I suppose, at that point in our adventure, we had a lot of things to be thankful for.

For instance, I was thankful that I had survived the fifty thousand foot drop into the sea with just minor bruising. A lesser pirate would surely not have been so fortunate.

I was also thankful that I had landed so close to the floating wreckage of our ship's front portion, and that I had not only found one of the lifeboats intact but also a selection of sealed crates from the cargo hold, also undamaged.

And I was sort of thankful that Jam and Penfold had also survived and that we had been able to find each other. I say 'sort of' because it meant there weren't as many supplies to go round, but at least I had some extra hands to help me load up the lifeboat.

So, there we were. The three of us sitting in the little rowing boat in the middle of the Atlantic, wrapped in bubble wrap from the three or four crates we had been able to take with us. At the time of these events it was the middle of the afternoon, and the weather seemed quite agreeable, at least for the Atlantic.

Penfold handed a piece of paper that had been folded several times to me. I dutifully unfolded it, and read from the text therein.

"Okay," I said. "So, Jerry Springer meets Priscilla Presley in the Fenchurch Street Station lost property office. He said 'My tummy feels all wobbly', she said 'Only on alternate Sundays', and the consequence was … they got married and lived happily ever after." I paused. "Was that your ending, Penfold?"

"How on earth did you guess?"

I sighed. "Your contributions are always so bloody boring," I said. "This is Consequences, you're supposed to come up with amusing things."

The accountant shrugged. "I'm not very good at amusing things."

"You mean you have a crap sense of humour."

This seemed to irk him. "Not true! I know a good joke!"

I exchanged skeptical glances with Jam, but said "Go on then."

"Okay, this is a really funny joke my old boss at Superglue told me once. Right. This man goes up to an accountant and says, 'I want to do some stock market trading, what advice can you give me?' and the accountant says 'First you have to fill out form 9721FF/D'. So the man goes away and he comes back carrying a steering wheel from a Nissan Micra, and the accountant says 'I said you had to fill out form 9721FF/D, not form 9712FF/E!'"

Immediately Penfold collapsed into fits of giggles, wobbling the lifeboat slightly. Eventually he caught our funny looks and composed himself. "Sorry," he said. "You probably have to be an accountant to get that one."

"Well, I'm certainly eating my words," I said gloomily.

"I'm thirsty, dad," whinged Jam for the fourth time.

Penfold took the lid off the saucepan that sat on the little gas camping stove we had set up in the middle of the boat. Inside, water bubbled merrily, but this did not interest us. What did interest us were the few small drops of condensed steam on the lid of the saucepan, which Penfold allowed to dribble somewhat pathetically into a little plastic cup. "Nearly filled half the cup, now," he said encouragingly.

"Why do we have to drink condensed seawater?" moaned Jam.

"Do you want to die of thirst?"

"No, I want to drink the three bottles of fresh water we found in the ship."

Penfold made an annoyed noise. "Look, we have to ration things responsibly. Those bottles could only last us a few months, we need alternatives worked out! Isn't that right, Jim?"


"We should leave the fresh water for a while?"

"Oh yeah, right," I said. "Sorry, I was distracted by that woman over there."

"What woman?" asked Penfold, suddenly interested.

"That really attractive one with the long red hair treading water over there and waving at us."

Jam looked. "Oh yeah," he said.

"Just ignore her," said the accountant, looking away and folding his arms stubbornly. "She's a hallucination. You get them when you've been on your own for too long with no food or drink."

"Somehow I doubt that she's a hallucination," I said, not looking away from her. "We've only been in this boat for an hour, after all."

"Hi!" said the woman, who had now swum up to our boat. "How y'all doing?" There was something very odd about the way she spoke.

She really was a most attractive young thing. I upped my charm by a couple of notches. "We're all quite alright, thank you," I said with an ingratiating smile, then my gaze began to move down her body. "Those clam shells can't be very comfortable."

"What's up with your friend?" she asked, speaking of Penfold, who had screwed his eyes shut, plugged his ears and was making 'la la la' noises.

"You'll have to excuse him," I said. "He's had a bit of a rough day."

The girl smiled, and I smiled back. You know, it's just occurred to me that most if not all of the women who have appeared in these memoirs so far have been really attractive, which means that if anyone reading this book mistakes it for a work of fiction they might accuse the author of being sexist.

So it's a good job this isn't a work of fiction, then!

I hit Penfold gently on the top of his head. "Looky, Penfold, it's a real mermaid woman come to say hello."

He gave me a meaningful look and leaned forward to speak in what he probably imagined was a hushed tone. "OK, even if she isn't a hallucination, we shouldn't trust her anyway. Mermaids tempt sailors to their misfortune, everyone knows that."

"Ah know this might be an odd thing to say at this juncture," said the mermaid, "but would any of you gennelmen be innerested in a life insurance policy?"

All three of us men in the boat gave the young lady a very strange look as she suddenly produced a brown leather briefcase not dissimilar to the black one Penfold was still carrying on a shoulder strap. She balanced it against the side of our boat, clicked it open smartly, and produced a glossy leaflet, which she handed to Jam.

"For the basic package it's just fifty-nine ninety-five per month," said the mermaid brightly. "That'll pay off up to ten thousand to yo' next of kin in the event of death by fire, murder, domestic accident or industrial machinery."

I took the leaflet off Jam. "What about death by drowning or dehydration?" I asked.

"Er, ah'm afraid we don't cover those criteria."

Penfold, accountant by trade, suddenly joined the conversation. "You don't sell insurance by drowning or dehydration in the middle of the ocean? Do you get any customers at all?"

"Well, no, but then we don't have to pay anything out either, so it all works out alright in the end."

"Why don't you just charge more for the insurance than you pay out?"

By the look on the mermaid's face, this had never occurred to her, and she had never found herself discussing the matter with someone like Penfold before. "So … we'd actually make a profit?"

All three of us nodded.

"That's quite an innerestin' idea," said the mermaid thoughtfully. "How would y'all like to come down to the office so's we can discuss this matter further?"


"Down there," said the mermaid patiently, indicating down.

"Under the sea?" asked Jam.

"Well, naturally."

"But we can't breathe underwater," I said.

The mermaid looked at me like I'd said we can't dress ourselves without assistance. "Sure ya can," she said, baffled. "Why couldn't you?"

"Well … we need oxygen, for a start."

"Water's full of oxygen," she said. "That's all water is, hydrogen and oxygen. The reason why ya think ya can't breathe underwater is 'cos you've believed all those government propaganda films."

This time we looked at her like she'd said she couldn't dress herself without assistance. And considering that all she was wearing was a pair of clam shells and a vacant smile, that would be particularly surprising.

"I think we'll just be on our way," said Penfold cautiously, picking up one of the oars.

The mermaid tutted. "Look, I'll show ya," she said, before grabbing Jam and pulling him underwater with her so quickly we couldn't stop it. Penfold and I both leaned over the side in panic, trying to see what the madwoman was doing with the boy. Eventually the bubbles stopped, and nothing happened for a full minute. We leant back, and after a second's thought, I removed my bandana and held it to my chest.

Oh yes, I lost my bandana in the last chapter. Well, I had found it again floating in the sea just before these events.

"He's … gone," said Penfold, in shock.

"It was how he would have wanted to go," I said reassuringly.


"Okay, so maybe it wasn't how he would have wanted to go. I was trying to be reassuring. Sue me."

Penfold was about to say something when Jam's head broke surface, and rather than being blue, swollen and dead, it was quite normal, cheerful and very much alive.

"Hey, she's right!" he said, somewhat wetly. "You try!"

I don't quite recall what happened next. All I know is that the next thing I remember is splashing around underwater. I have a suspicion that that mermaid pushed on the underside of the rowboat and capsized it, but I can't confirm this without getting a few witness reports together.

I remember being clamped in uncomfortably cold water on all sides, losing my sense of direction in the confusion, and as such quite forgot in which direction the surface lay. I also remember a female voice whispering in my ear. "Breathe in," it said.

I didn't argue. Firstly because I was drowning, and secondly because, well, it was the sort of voice manly men like myself just don't argue with, subconsciously in the hope of bedding the owner of said voice.

I breathed, and of course my lungs and throat suddenly filled with suffocating wet liquid coldness which quite literally took my breath away. I tried to push myself up but mermaid hands were pushing me down. Through the plankton-filled water I could see Penfold struggling, clutching at his throat, and Jam floating nearby watching us with a concerned look on his face.

"Breathe out," said the voice.

I did so, and to my considerable astonishment, discovered I wasn't suffocating anymore. Of course, I wouldn't recommend trying to breathe underwater to any of you readers, of course. You obviously need the encouragement of a passing mermaid and the right kind of attitude. And let's not forget that I have a tendency to exaggerate.

"See?" said the mermaid, hands on scaly hips.

I couldn't think of much to say, so I just floated there and looked incensed. "You could have just explained it to us verbally," I said.

"But you wouldn't have believed me, would you?"

"No, I wouldn't. And frankly I could have lived the rest of my life perfectly happily without knowing that I could breathe underwater if held there and forced to."

"What-ever. Anyway, you guys wanna come down with me to the office or what?"

Penfold and I looked at each other, and we both shrugged simultaneously. "Okay, why not."


There wasn't just a life insurance office at the bottom of the sea. There was a whole undersea city. The ocean floor was coated in ultra-modern office buildings of brushed concrete and shiny glass, surrounded by smaller buildings which made up the suburbs. It was very much like that bit in Waterworld where Kevin Costner visits the bottom of the sea and sees all the ruined office buildings, except without the whole ruined aspect. I appreciate this simile won't mean much to the ninety-nine percent of the population who didn't see Waterworld and caused Kevin Costner's career to die a horrible tortuous death.

You remorseless bastards.

Anyway, that's what this place looked like. I didn't know it at the time but I was visiting the capital city of a great undersea empire which, thanks in part to the baffling process of parallel evolution, was named Rotherham. You may have been there. It has a lot of tourism business nowadays since the government came clean about the whole breathing underwater thing, which to be honest kind of ruins the place, but you can still sample the sublime cuttlefish and urchin pie. All of which distracts from the fact that you heartless cinemagoers destroyed Kevin Costner.

I mean, sure, it was a bad film, but would it have really killed you to take a few hours out of just one day to watch it? This was the man who gave us Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, you know. Doesn't that mean anything to you?

Anyway, I'll get back to the story now, like you deserve it.

The mermaid – who had introduced herself as Rachilde – led us down through the murky depths of the mid-Atlantic to the vast undersea metropolis that was Rotherham, pristine and untarnished in these days before the tourists came. When you were down among the city streets and the people you'd be forgiven for believing yourself to be in New York, as long as you had a reputation for not being very observant. There were no cars, everyone had a fishtail, and let's not forget that we were at the very bottom of one of the deepest seas in the world.

We were expecting, I don't know, the merpeople to be universally glamorous and underdressed, but as it turned out, Rachilde's outfit was considered rather bohemian. Most people wore what we consider conventional dress, the mer-businessmen wearing pinstripe suits with trousers that only had one, very wide leg, their mer-wives wearing blouses and skirts. A few other people were dressed like Rachilde, but only a very few, and not many of those were as attractive as her. I still have nightmares about the twenty stone man in the clamshell bikini.

Rachilde led us through the mazelike highways and byways of the place, and as we neared our destination it became clear which building we were heading for. It was the only structure that would seem out of place in New York, at least while New York has not been taken over by a horde of giant ants. It looked, indeed, like an enormous ant's nest, and was easily the biggest building we had seen so far. It was huge and green and domed and it seemed unpleasantly organic. Honeycomb-patterned stained glass windows were placed all around it in a regular pattern, and a flagpole sticking out of the roof bore an unfamiliar banner. It was plain blue with a picture of a disembodied handlebar moustache.

The main entrance was an enormous ellipsoid affair about ten feet above the ground on the north face of the dome, in which two massive doors stood, apparently made out of solid silver with countless little spirally golden decorations. Two heavily built mermen stood guard outside carrying shiny tridents, naked save for little posing pouches, which were tied awkwardly around their scaly lower torsos. Their tanned slab-like chests made me think fleetingly of Camp Gareth, and I wondered how the rest of the Fellowship were doing, if they were still alive.

Er, I thought of Camp Gareth because the tanned slab-like chests were the sort of things he liked, not because he had one or anything. These things matter.

They were exactly the sort of gruff entrance guards who always stop the heroes in fantasy stories and say things like 'Halt!' or 'Friend or foe?', so I was rather disappointed when they nodded at Rachilde and let us through without a word. For such heavy-looking doors they swung open quite easily.

We were swimming down a perfectly cylindrical corridor towards another pair of enormous doors when something occurred to me.

"Say," I said. "Isn't the water pressure at this level supposed to be making our heads explode or something?"

Rachilde didn't even look at me. Just tutted, and said "D'you believe everything your government tells you?"

I looked at Penfold, and he shrugged. It's surprisingly difficult to shrug while swimming, but he managed it somehow.

The doors at the other end of the corridor opened themselves as we approached, and a warm current pushed us gently through. I'm not sure what I was expecting beyond them, but the word 'arena' never really entered my mind, if only because my mind was occupied with idle ponderings on the subject of the mermaid mating process. We found ourselves in an enormous room, almost half a mile across, lined with row upon row of sloping stone ledges which were apparently seating, as there were about fifty-odd mermaids and mermen sitting comfortably here and there.

The floor was soft and sandy, and in the very centre of the enormous ring was a circular podium on which an enormous ornate throne decorated with seashells stood. In it sat a merman who had 'king of the sea' written all over him. Well, not exactly all over him. Just in serifed black lettering down the lapels of his ermine robe and around the brim of his crown.

As Rachilde led us towards the king and the huge doors behind us boomed shut as loudly as doors can boom at the bottom of the ocean, we became aware that more merpeople were entering the room through a hundred minor doorways and filling up the audience seating quite rapidly.

"Did she mention any of this to us?" I whispered in Penfold's ear.

"This doesn't look like any office I know," he replied, in a voice which he probably thought was quiet but seemed to reverberate around the arena quite easily.

"How dare you!" said the king through a massive silver moustache. "This is the great Office of Rotherham! The centre of the Great Undersea Empire! I will not hear such sacrilege in the Office. Off with their heads."

A pair of axe-wielding guards appeared from behind the throne. Jam disappeared behind Penfold.

"Wait!" said Rachilde. "These surface-dwellers have an amazing idea to revolutionalise our lives!"

The king shuddered, as most monarchs of his kind do when they hear the R-word. But he waved anyway, and the two axe-wielders sidled back behind the throne, muttering in disappointment.

Rachilde gave Penfold, Jam and myself an expectant look, as did the king and the massive merpeople audience around us. Suddenly I had a flashback to my childhood, to the Christmas play I took part in at the age of seven at St. Winifred's Primary School for Problem Children. I had had but a small role. I was seventh in a row of fourteen, and I had had to hold up the letter 'H' of 'MERRY CHRISTMAS' for the big finale. My hands were greasy as I had been smearing petrol all over the big curtains in the assembly hall, and I dropped my H. The audience was only made up of about fifty parents but at the age of seven it wasn't a far cry from the thousands of merpeople staring with interested facial expressions at me.

Of course, this time none of them were laughing and there were no nuns around to punch me in the stomach afterwards, but somehow it felt as bad.

"Go on," said Rachilde encouragingly, with appropriate hand gestures. "Tell 'em the idea ya told me."

"What idea?" asked Penfold in a very small voice.

"The one about sellin' life insurance that covers drownin' an' dehydration to people in the middle of the sea, an' chargin' more for it than what we pay out!"

"Oh right," said Penfold, voice breaking a little. "We, er, think that, er, you could sell life insurance that covers drowning and dehydration to people in the middle of the sea, and charge more for it than, er, what you pay out."

"Why should we do that?!" bellowed the king. "I don't like your tie. Off with their heads."

The guards appeared again. Their axes were no less big.

Rachilde waved her arms in exasperation. "No, look, if we did what the surface-dweller said, we could actually make a profit!"

The king wore a very bored look, waved again, and the guards disappeared again. They were beginning to look a little put out. "You don't get it, do you, Rachilde?" said the monarch. "In all the many years that we, the people of Rotherham, have been selling insurance to the surface-dwellers-"

"Weeks, your highness," said Rachilde flatly.

"Whatever, in the many weeks we have been selling insurance, we have neither received nor given out any money. Was it not decreed by the great monarch who decided this would be so-"

"By you, your highness," said Rachilde.

"Yes, by me. I decided this would be so after being converted by the insightful religious texts written by the great leader-"

"By you again, your highness."

"Yes, by me again. Did I not decree that to sell insurance was to be blessed, but to actually make a profit would be a sin unlike no other?"

Rachilde was speaking in the bored tone of voice people use when repeating something they have said many, many times to the same person. "With respect, your highness, you only made that up to excuse the fact that we weren't making any money."

"Erm, look," I said, and all eyes turned to me again. "I can see you all have a lot you want to talk about, so do you think we could just be on our way now?"

The king of the sea shrugged, and waved to the guards at the opposite end of the Office to open the massive doors. "Yes, go on, you're starting to bore me."

"Thankyew," said Penfold, bowing.

"We don't mean to be rude," I said. "It's just we're supposed to be looking for the Lost Golden City of El Dorado-"

If you go into a Star Wars convention, draw the attention of a massive crowd, and begin talking about how Kirk was superior to Picard, you'll get a pretty good idea of the reaction we received when I spoke that last sentence. A horrified hush came over the congregation, Rachilde gave us a look a loving wife would give her husband as he was led to the guillotine, and the King's face turned beetroot red.

"Isn't that just typical!!" he shouted, his head heating up the water around it to near boiling point. "Doesn't that take the absolute bloody biscuit!!"

The three of us non-merpeople leaned back as the tidal wave of ranting flowed over us. There really was no stopping the monarch now.

"Four years we've had that advertisement in the Sunday Sport!!" he bellowed. "Four bloody years! And how many times has there been a ten-page pictorial feature in National Geographic on the splendour of the magnificent lost city of Rotherham?! Never, that's how many!! We were both lost and a city when El Dorado was just an easily overlooked village!! They don't make major motion pictures about a heroic explorer's journey to find the Lost City of Rotherham, do they!! We had a massive bloody civil war four years ago that decimated the population and turned a large portion of the sea blood red for a month, no-one even sent one submarine! I bet the camera crews are bashing El Dorado's door down for every single minor bloody civic bloody upset! I hate you surface dwellers so bloody much. Take them to the holding cells so they can think about what they've done and sacrifice them to me in the morning. Bloody tourists."

The guards made a third and final appearance, and this time chose not to wait for the king to change his mind. They had us in chains and manacles before I could get to the third letter in "now just you see here". As we were dragged away to the playful boos of the enormous crowd, I saw Rachilde trying to get the king to breathe into a paper bag before black hoods were pulled over our faces.


It was a few hours later. Penfold, Jam and myself were sitting around in one of the dingy little cells deep in the heart of the undersea building. Or at least, I assumed so. The guards hadn't taken off our black hoods or manacles so we couldn't know for sure.

"Well, this is another fine mess you've gotten us into," I said, trying to sound cross.

"Me?!" said Penfold, genuinely cross. "You were the one who dropped El Dorado into the conversation!"

"Well, how was I supposed to know he'd react like that? Anyway, you were the one who gave that mermaid the profit idea and got us into this mess in the first place."

"Look, if we're going to shift the blame back that far we may as well blame all this on our mothers for giving birth to us both."

I grimaced under my hood. "No need for that," I said. "Let's just blame that Roclutos and his family for putting us in a position to offend the merpeople."

"Works for me."

"Are we going to die, dad?" asked Jam, who had been unusually quiet so far. I could tell he was putting on the innocent child act just to ingratiate himself, so I paid him no heed.

"No, Jam, we are not going to die," said Penfold. "We've been through too much for it to end like this. I'm sure we'll come up with something."

I sighed and gazed wistfully at the black material before my eyes. "I wonder how Rose and-"

"Don't you dare," said Penfold.

"Don't I dare what?"

"Don't you dare say 'I wonder how Rose and the others are doing'."

"Why not?"

"Because then the chapter will end and the action will cut to them for a while and we'll be stuck in here for even longer."

"Not necessarily, it could just be incidental foreshadowing."

"I doubt it."

"I wonder how Rose and the others are doing."


"I wonder how Rose and the others are doing."

- Me


"See, Penf? The action's still with us."

"So it is. I'm sorry I doubted you."

"That's OK, nobody's perfect."

"I am curious as to how Rose and the others are doing, though."

"You idiot."


"Anyone fancy a choc-ice?"

- Camp Gareth


"Anyone fancy a choc-ice?" said Camp Gareth, and giggled.

The reasons why Gareth thought this comment was funny number three. Firstly, because he and Rose and Scar were almost freezing to death. Secondly, because they had no food whatsoever, and thirdly because small things please small minds. The three of them were huddled together around a miniscule fire on top of all that remained of our ship – a misshapen lump of splintered wood held up by a single balloon. They had no navigation aids, no means of controlling the ship, no idea where they were, and were no small amount depressed with this unfortunate state of affairs.

Incidentally I know all this because Rose told me some time later, when we were reunited. I took her word for it, but she might have made it all up for all I know. For the sake of completeness and because frankly I can't be arsed to get any more statements from Scar or Gareth or anyone else, we'll assume this is what happened.

"Shut yer foetid gob, you pansy," growled Scar. "This is no time for jokes."

"Ooh, I could not disagree more," said Gareth, surprised. "Times of strife and tribulation are the best times to face the world with a smile on your face and a song in your heart."

"If you don't drop the cheery attitude and shut up," said Rose levelly, "then you won't have a face to smile with or a heart to contain songs. The only reason we haven't thrown you off the ship is because we need the directions on your arse."

Gareth wisely chose to shut up.

They were in a right old state, these three at this time. Scar and Gareth were mostly okay, if a little pale, as the former had a lot of fat and muscle reserves to fall back on in his great hulking form, and the latter's positive attitude had deluded his easily fooled body into thinking that all was well. Scar had been a little broken up when he had discovered his thrush had flown away, but he hadn't let it get to him.

Rose, however, was a different story altogether. Ever since the destruction of our vessel and the loss of three men – well, two and a half at most – she had sat unmoving in front of the fire, swathed in blankets, green of face and wide of eye. Her hair was greasy and matted. Great dark shadows hung under her eyes like the darkness under the bed that every child fears. She was still a very beautiful woman, of course, but would receive no invitations to fancy parties in her current state. All she talked about was her imagined fate of myself and my cohorts, finding El Dorado, violent death upon Gertrude Van Helsing and just regular death upon Gareth.

"Our luck will change, I know it," she muttered into the fire. "We'll find Jim and Penfold and get to the Lost City and win the race and then Gertrude Van Helsing won't be so bloody smart." She spoke the name 'Gertrude Van Helsing' in much the same way most people say 'Azathoth, Prince of Lies' or 'Margaret Thatcher'.

Scar had long since learned to give up telling Rose that all was probably lost and they should probably find a nice monastery to live in for the rest of their lives. Gareth, however, had not.

"You don't think you're being a bit unrealistic, cap'n?" he asked. "Jim and Jammy and Penny are probably all drowned, we've got as much chance of finding El Dorado now as we have of finding a needle in a car crash involving two lorryloads of hay, and-" He stopped abruptly, because Rose's hand had suddenly clamped around his windpipe.

"That – is – it," she said slowly. "We only need your arse. Scar, hand me your sword."

"N-now look, captain," quavered Gareth. "You've already lost most of your crew and killing me would – what the hell was that?"

Rose frowned. "What?"

"Over there, I just saw a little black shape behind that cloud."

Scar made a show of looking around. "Don't see anything. E's just stallin' for time."

Rose held the sword aloft over Gareth's sweating face, then –

"There! I saw it again!" said the camp one.

"I saw it too," said Scar. "Looked like a little bloke all dressed in black. Jumped from one cloud to another."

Rose suddenly became terribly fearful. She cast frightened looks at all the surrounding clouds. "No … not them …" she said, just as another little black figure sommersaulted briefly into her vision before disappearing into another cloud. Then another appeared, poking its head over a ridge of white fluff to peer at the pirates curiously. It was swiftly joined by two of its fellows.

"Sky ninjas!" said Scar, reaching for his sword, then remembering Rose was holding it. At once the three of them leapt to their feet and stood in a tight grouping facing outward, hands and weapons ready to fight.

Ninjas and pirates have had a long and colourful history together. To say that diplomatic relations between the two were delicate would be like saying that Charlie Manson was a bit of an eccentric with a slightly unorthodox taste in forehead decorations. Both sides persecuted each other in their respective habitat – ninjas were ostracised and cast out from the Caribbean, and any pirate who dared wander into the most isolated mountain ranges of Japan had better have a death wish or a doctor's note.

It wasn't a matter of hate. Quite the opposite. Both parties adore fighting, and nothing pleases a volatile pirate crew more than running into a cadre of ninja warriors, who are equally overjoyed at the possibility of a good solid battle. It was just one of the classic pairings – Catholics and Protestants, mods and rockers, pirates and ninjas, fundamentalists and the rest of the world.

Although it might seem obvious that the two groups might get on each others' nerves now and then, one being a bunch of loot-obsessed savages with drinking problems and the other being a load of pretentious silent masters of the martial arts, there is a genuine reason for the tension. It's a little known fact that pirating and ninjaing were founded simultaneously, respectively by Norbert Micklewight and his elder brother Lance.

Way way back in the first century AD, Norbert and Lance lived together on a small vineyard somewhere in central-eastern Europe. Their father toiled for his family and earned just enough for them to keep their heads above water. Their mother had long since run off with the man who delivered the grape-stomping equipment.

Norbert and Lance were about as far distanced as brothers can get without being of different species entirely. Norbert was foolish and rowdy and had some similarly inclined friends with whom he would go out and get pissed most nights. Lance was quiet and bookish, he wore dark clothes and spent most of his time either reading or practising gymnastics and martial arts. For a while he didn't have many friends, until he met fellow gymnastics and martial arts enthusiasts through a connections agency.

One day, Norbert was bored, as his friends were busy being in the local jail, so he decided to see if he could torment his elder brother. He knocked on the door to Lance's treehouse and asked if he could come in.

"No," said Lance shortly.

"But I wanna!" whined Norbert.

"I don't care. My friends and I have formed our own special club based around gymnastics and martial arts, and you're not a member, so go away."

"I want to join your club!"

"Tough, you can't."

"Why not?"

"Because I said so."

"I'll tell dad!"

"He won't care," said Lance, accurately. Their father at this time was lying dead at the bottom of the grape-stomping vat, having sampled the product a bit too much and taken one wrong step too many, but they didn't know this yet.

"Well, fine!" replied Norbert. "I didn't want to join your stupid club anyway. I'm gonna start up my own club, and it's going to be much better than yours! It's gonna be all about getting pissed and having fights!"

"Fine. Just get lost."

And so it came to pass that Norbert and his friends – when they were released – started up their own club to spite Lance. Their club was called the Pie Rats, because as well as drinking and fighting they would eat pies as well (and that's why the pie is the little-known symbol of our trade, traditionally eaten on certain holidays and at post-plundering parties). Lance's club meanwhile was called the Nine Jars, because they had nine glass jars, each containing a different activity on a piece of paper, and every time the club met they would choose a jar randomly to decide what they would do that day.

So, the Pie Rats and the Nine Jars existed in parallel. Then Lance noticed that the farm's production seemed to have halted and he hadn't seen his father in a while, so eventually the sticky end of their patriarch became known. Norbert and Lance realised they needed a new source of income, and both independently decided to make use of the skills they had acquired from their respective clubs.

Norbert and his gang began spending nights first getting utterly pissed, then bursting into some rich local's house and pinching all the jewellery they could find, all while chanting their secret codeword, 'ARR', which stood for 'Aha! Righteous Riches!' (later words such as 'YARR' and 'AHARR' are simply phonetic mutations). Lance, meanwhile, put up in the local paper an advertisement offering the services of himself and his cohorts as contract killers. 'Any jobs done quickly, cleanly and by a bunch of teenagers in black pyjamas' was their tagline.

The tension between Norbert and Lance came to a head when Norbert's gang quite by accident targeted a mansion owned by a rich noble Lance had been assigned to assassinate. A lot of complicated things happened, the Pie Rats got no booty and the Nine Jars lost their prey. So instead they took out their frustrations on each other.

A few months later, when their wounds had all healed up, Norbert and Lance sold the family vineyards, split up the proceeds, and went their separate ways. Norbert used the money to buy a ship with which he intended to sail to the land of opportunity, but on the way out of port they ran into another ship and couldn't resist boarding it, killing the crew and taking all their gold. "Hey!" said Norbert, gathering the Pie Rats around him. "Why bother going straight to the land of opportunity? Let's just sail around and nick stuff from other boats!"

Lance, meanwhile bought himself a disused temple with which to educate further disciples into the way of the Nine Jars. He chose a building high in the mountains of Japan, partly because the air was nice and clean, but mostly to ensure he would never run into his brother again.

So that's how the parallel trades of pirating and ninjaing began, and there has been deep resentment between the two ever since. Most recently, for example, when an extremist cadre of ninjas took their business to the sky and became the Sky Ninjas, key representatives of the Sky Pirating community took this as blatantly stealing their idea.

The ninjas answered the pirates with a statement reading "Ninja code tells us that the wise warrior troubles not those who could whip their buttock cheeks from here to Tanganyika while pissed on rice wine, with two hands behind their backs and one leg sawn off."

The pirates responded by indicating that the ninjas could shove their ninja code up their wise warrior backsides, and if they came to the Fitchew and Firkin on Pirates Get In Free Night they'd meet several people who would be happy to do this for them.

The ninjas then advised the pirates to 'come and have a go if you think you're hard enough', so the sky pirates turned up outside their temple and took turns pissing through the letterbox.

So you can see why they've never really gotten on. And for sky pirates like Rose, Scar and Gareth, waltzing right into sky ninja territory while badly low on resources and weakened by hunger and dehydration would be rather like entering an alligator wrestling contest after downing fourteen bottles of vodka.

As more and more black-clad faces appeared on all sides, it gradually became clear that none of them seemed inclined to burst out screaming and start high-kicking people's jawbones into their frontal lobes. They seemed whimsically curious, like a circle of playful kittens watching a newborn baby mouse sniffing at the air wondering what was causing that enduring smell of moist meaty chunks in jelly. This did not make Rose or her two remaining crewmen drop their guard.

"Look," said Rose to the assembled mass, putting on her wide-eyed innocent schoolgirl act which had won us so many battles. "We don't want a fight today. We're lost, we're cold, we're hungry, we didn't mean to come here anyway, just point us in the right direction and leave us alone. Please."

"I don't think they're moved," hissed Gareth out of the corner of his mouth.

"Ninjas wouldn't be moved if ye pushed their grandmothers down the stairs," muttered Scar gloomily.

There seemed to be a small discussion going on among the tightest grouping of ninjas, directly ahead of what remained of the ship. The tallest and most musclebound of the ninjas, obviously a leader judging by his red pyjama belt, was listening to a mumbled suggestion from the lesser ninja standing right next to him. After a few seconds of this, the leader ninja nodded briefly, and gestured strangely towards the trio of pirates, whereupon another ninja flung something which landed at Rose's feet. The pirates flinched, but it didn't seem to do anything. It was a small metal sphere with a timer mechanism and a small hole in the top.

The words 'timer mechanism' finally registered in Rose's addled brain, but it was too late. There was a click, and in an instant she and her two comrades were engulfed in thick grey smoke. They couldn't see their hands in front of their faces, which was a pity, as otherwise they could have seen the other ninjas creeping up behind them with blackjacks. Rose heard a sharp thump, followed by the sound of an effete body hitting the floor. Then she heard another sharp thump and the floor shook as an enormous body collapsed. Finally she heard one final sharp thump, and night came early.


When she awoke, she kept her eyes tightly shut, not wishing to see what new methods of torment fate had introduced, but she couldn't stop her other four senses. She was lying on something soft and springy, not unlike a mattress, so naturally presumed she was in one of the ninjas' more exotic torture devices. The sound of slightly muted classical music reached her ears, and the unmistakable smell of soap and perfume reached her nostrils. She was at a bit of a loss to explain those, but reasoned it was probably some variant on Chinese water torture.

Reasoning she'd be able to maintain some dignity with her eyes open, she let her eyelids flick upwards.

She was of course expecting the horde of sadistic black-clad ninja warriors standing all around her with sharpened katanas and explosive shurikens, so was naturally rather surprised to find that there wasn't one. Instead, she found herself staring at a white painted ceiling with a hanging chandelier. She let her gaze drift down a little, and saw tasteful stripy wallpaper.

She sat up rapidly, and a duvet with a rather chintzy pattern fell away from her. She jerked her head left and right spasmodically, taking in her new surroundings. What she saw was a large and rather pleasantly furnished room with three single beds amongst other fixtures and fittings – the kind of room that homeowners call 'the guest room' which is swept and cleaned regularly despite the fact that people only stay in there two or three nights a year. There was a bookcase where old leatherbound books and tatty paperback novels, usually found in airports, rubbed shoulders. A large wardrobe dominated the north wall, the sort of highly ornate storage device that is kept in a child's bedroom and induces more childhood nightmares than the Honey Monster and Michael Jackson combined. But as always it was the smaller details that were most noticeable – for instance, Rose noted that the plant in the corner by the door was undoubtedly plastic, and that there was an immaculate white doily carefully positioned on each of the bedside tables. Scar was also fast asleep in one of the other beds, which wasn't a small detail, and as such should probably have been mentioned earlier.

As for doors, there were two – a sturdy-looking one to the left, and a slightly ajar one to the right. It was from the latter that the perfumey smell was wafting.

For a moment, Rose considered the possibility that they had been rescued from the ninjas by a pleasant middle-aged English couple, until a few more details became apparent. Firstly, when she tried the left-hand door it clicked in an undoubtedly locked fashion. Secondly, there were precisely none of those distant cousins to doors, windows. Thirdly -


Thirdly, something that sounded like it was in pain had just emitted an ear-splitting scream. Precisely what it was, Rose couldn't tell – she just knew that it was coming from the slightly open door with the perfumey smell.

Rose reached for her cutlass and was not in the least surprised to find that it wasn't there. Instead, she picked up a nearby table lamp, hefted it in both hands, held it up in a threatening manner and crept over to the door.

Incidentally, they say that a slow zoom into a closed door is one of the scariest things you can have in a film. So if any scriptwriters are reading this while trying to convert it into a screenplay, now would be a good time to have one of those scary shots. You could also add tension by having the ungodly scream occur again when Rose was just inches from the door, because that was precisely what happened.

"AAAAAAAAAOOOOOOOOOOoooooooo!!!" went the scream. This all supported Rose's water torture theory and, on the basis that she strongly disapproved of water torture, she kicked open the door.

The scream occurred again, but this time it was more of an "Eeeeeeeeeeek!!!" and it was quite obviously coming from the vocal chords of Camp Gareth. He was sitting surrounded by pleasant-smelling pink bubbles in a wide marble bathtub which was in turn surrounded by countless bottles and jars of shampoos and hygiene products. A plastic fish-shaped novelty radio was adhered to one of the walls, out of which came slightly muffled music. As Rose entered the room and Gareth made his girlish cry, he crossed his arms over his chest in an effort to cover himself.

"Don't come in!" he said. "I'm nudie!"

Rose relaxed. "What are you doing?" she asked.

"I am taking a bath," said Gareth haughtily. "I woke up and I came in here and there was this lovely big bath, so I'm making use of it, alrighty?"

"What was that horrible screaming I heard?"

Gareth seemed offended. "I was singing along," he said in a hurt voice, indicating the radio, which seemed to be playing 'Oklahoma'.

"I thought you were undergoing water torture or something," she replied, feeling foolish.

"Well, I suppose I am," he said, waving a foam-covered arm at the display of bottles around him. "Look at this! Not a single herbal shampoo! These ninjas are savages."

Rose sighed and shut the door, distancing herself from the camp one in an effort to avoid catching weirdo disease. Scar, she noticed, was still asleep, so she put the lamp down gently on the floor and kicked him tenderly in the foot.

"Whuzzat?" was his response. Then he took a few looks around the room, and sat bolt upright. "Where the 'ell are we?"

"Search me," said Rose. If I had been there, you can be sure I would have responded to that with something clever and witty like 'don't mind if I do!' before making a leap for her and receiving a kick to the groin. But since I, of course, was not there, at this point still rotting in a cell at the bottom of the ocean with a bag on my head, I naturally could not do this.

"'Ave we been captured by the ninjas?" asked Scar uncertainly. You can understand his confusion, I'm sure. This confusion went away when they heard a muffled click coming from the locked door, which then opened. Beyond it they could see a corridor with those thin paper walls and a Japanese wall hanging, but not very well, because a burly ninja was standing in the doorway. His pyjamas bore a white belt, so he was probably quite a low-ranking ninja, although he was built like a brick shithouse that had been built by builders who had found they had ordered a surplus of bricks but used them all anyway. In hands that looked like they could tear in half the telephone directory of any city you'd care to name he held an enormous tray stacked high with fresh fruit, crusty bread, cooked meat and several clay bowls of noodles. This he placed wordlessly on a nearby chest of drawers as the pirates watched, confused, before making his way back towards the door, without saying a word.

It is well known that ninjas are extremely quiet people, only speaking when it becomes absolutely necessary. There are several theories as to why this is so. Some lazy, ignorant people think it's because they've all taken a vow of silence. This is not true. In fact no religions or monasteries on earth utilise the vow of silence – they only pretend to so they don't have to talk to outsiders or tourists, something I discovered when I spent a few days as a monk in one of the many Buddhist temples of the East Midlands.

The second theory as to why ninjas don't speak is favoured by academics and experts on ninjas, who say that a popular ninja sport is a form of Indian wrestling where each combatant must stare at a glass until it breaks. Since this can often take several weeks, most ninjas prefer to simply emit a loud, high-pitched scream at the tops of their voices in order to make the glass shatter. Ninjas therefore must preserve their voices at all times when not taking part in this sport. Many students of ninjas back up this theory by producing reports of ninja temples emitting a cacophony of loud screams late at night which often does serious damage to the price of houses in the area, but that could just mean ninjas like to keep very obnoxious tropical birds.

The third theory, the one most pirates agree with, is that they're a bunch of pretentious twats.

"Hey!" said Rose as the big ninja was about to leave. "Wait a minute!"

The burly man stopped, but he didn't turn around. Nevertheless the back of his head gave off an air of patient expectance.

"Why are you keeping us here?" asked Rose.

The ninja sighed, as if he was about to do something he really would rather not. "It is dishonourable to fight an enemy who is weak and starving," he mumbled, probably ruining his chances of winning tonight's glass breaking competition. "Sensei orders you be fed and allowed to sleep, then you will fight us tomorrow morning."

"Fair enough," said Scar agreeably. Rose looked at him angrily, and was about to say something to the ninja when he suddenly left, slamming the door behind him. There was a nasty little pause as the echoes faded away.

"'Fair enough'?!" said Rose, finally. "They're going to rip us to shreds tomorrow morning!"

"Come on, cap'n," said Scar. "Did ye really think fer a moment they'd let us go or somethin'? They're ninjas, we're pirates. Ninjas an' pirates fight. That's the way it's always been, that's the way it's always goin' to be."

"Scar, we are three lone pirates and they are a whole horde of ninja warriors," said Rose, the voice of reason. "I know as well as you do that it's the duty of pirates to fight ninjas, but there is no possible way we can survive this! We've got to think of an escape plan!"

At this point the bathroom door swung open and Gareth emerged, a towel tied around his waist and a fetching shower cap upon his head. He slapped his buttocks half-heartedly and made satisfied noised. "Ahhh, I needed that," he said. "So, what are we doing now? Ooh! Eats!" Ignoring his comrades completely, the camp one grabbed a banana and two peaches from the tray and began peeling the former in a very slow, deliberate manner, as Scar restrained both his own urge to kick his cohort in a sensitive area and Rose's. Eventually the captain relaxed, flopped down onto a paisley floor cushion and moaned a moan she had probably been holding in for hours, before casting a thoughtful look around and saying "There's something odd going on here."

"Cap'n?" said Scar, sitting upon his bed.

"I mean, how the hell could we drift straight into ninja airspace?" she continued. "The ship was decimated in the Cardiff Pentagon, that's hundreds of miles from any designated ninja territory."

"Maybe they fancied a holiday?" suggested Gareth. The others ignored him.

"Hm," rumbled Scar. "We prob'ly just ran into a team of 'em goin' out lookin' for trouble."

"Suppose so," said Rose. "I still think it seems pretty unlikely, though."

There was silence amongst the trio as Rose paced, Scar sat and Gareth stuffed his face. Finally, Rose spoke. "I wonder if Jim and the others survived."

"Nope," said Gareth cheerfully, mouth full.

"Some'ow I think ye're wrong," said Scar thoughtfully, leaning against a wall with great arms folded. "I've known Jim a long time, 'e's a tough lad. If there's any way 'e could've survived then 'e almost certainly 'as. Maybe they're all still alive."

"Probably all at the bottom of the ocean by now," said Gareth, in a rare moment of precision.

"No, they're alive," said Rose serenely, hugging her knees. "I can feel it."

"I wonder 'ow they're doin'," wondered Scar.

All eyes turned to him accusingly. "You did NOT just say that."


"Oh, I see, cake's not good enough for you, is it?"

- Marie Antoinette


Far above our heads the sun popped cheekily over the horizon and bathed the planet Earth in its warming rays, although we couldn't know this, as we were still sitting in a prison cell at the bottom of the sea.

Well, in all honesty, we could have known about it, as the people of the magnificent undersea city of Rotherham liked to mark the day by turning on the luminescent pilot fish affixed to the lamp posts. The accumulated light could have passed very easily for daylight, and spread easily into all the nooks and crannies of the city, even our little cell. All somewhat academic, however, as I still had a black bag on my head.

We had been sentenced to death by the terminally eccentric king of the sea, and believe me would have greatly enjoyed a nice guest room with actual beds and a big meal thrown in. The merpeople hadn't even fed us. Fair enough, I suppose, they were planning to kill us, it would seem rather like working at cross purposes. It would be like teaching someone how to do up their shoelaces then inviting them to stick their feet in a lawnmower.

Oblivious to the predicament of Rose, Scar and Gareth, which on reflection seemed to be running oddly parallel to our own, Penfold and Jam and myself had whiled away the hours playing various parlour games. 'I Spy' hadn't gone down very well, as we had quickly run out of words to describe the interior of a black bag – printable words, at least – so now we were making do with Twenty Questions.

"Are you used in cookery?" asked Jam.

"Yes," I replied.

"Are you used at some point in the preparation of vichyssoise?" asked Penfold innocently.

I think he's worked it out, I thought to myself. Out loud, I said "Yes."

"Are you a potato peeler?"

"Yes," I said grudgingly. "Your go."

You'd have thought that thinking up a random object from the millions known to us would have been quite easy, but when called upon to do it, it never is, is it? It took thirty seconds of umming and ahing before Penfold finally gave a triumphant grunt and said "Got one."

"Are you animal?"


"Are you vegetable?" asked Jam.


"Are you a swede?" I asked resignedly.

There was a very long pause. "Nope," said Penfold.

"You're not allowed to change it."

"I didn't change it!"

"Fine. Are you a turnip?"

There was another long pause. "I'm bored of this game," said the accountant.

"When are we going to be executed again?" asked Jam, in much the same way many suburban children of his age speak the phrase "Are we nearly there yet?"

"Hey, psst."

"Half past what?"

"No, I meant 'psst', as in attention-grabbing noise."

I looked left and right, somewhat unproductively. The previous voice sounded too old to be Jam and too butch to be Penfold, plus had a slight Scottish twang, plus seemed to be coming from outside the cell. From this I deduced that a new speaker had been introduced to this farcical little scene.

"Who's that?" I asked, deciding to go with the traditional response.

"I can't tell you my name, but I want to help you get out of this mess," said the mystery voice.

"Then you're OK with me, stranger. Doubtless you have your own reasons for doing so and probably have a secret hidden agenda that will not be revealed for several chapters, but as long as you can transform our situation from 'about to be executed' to 'not about to be executed' then you are a most welcome addition to our little fraternity."

"You talk too much."

"Sorry. I'm a little nervous."

I had time to concentrate on the voice now, and I had deduced several more things. I calculated that the speaker was outside the window, possibly clinging to the bars. Judging by the reverberations in his voice I concluded he was physically in his thirties, was clean shaven, and was quite heavily built. Judging also by the sound of subtle scrabbling against the exterior wall I realised he was wearing hob-nail boots of the sort much favoured by the pirate elite.

Some cynics might say I am somehow misrepresenting my own deductive ability in this matter. To them I say yah boo sucks and other colourful words.

"Are you God?" asked Jam.

"He's a little nervous too," I explained.

"Listen, this is important," said the voice. "Tomorrow morning you will be brought out into the town square and you, Jim, will probably be brought forward for execution first. They will lay your head down on the block. When you hear me shout 'hey, isn't that Karl Marx?' you thrust out your fist to the left, understand?"

"Er, sort of…"

"When you hear me shout 'no, it's Leo Tolstoy', thrust out your fist to the right, and when I shout 'never mind, it was just a cat', bring your head forward sharply. Got all that?"

"Yeah, yeah … er, how did you know my name?"

The strange man was about to answer when the sound of sirens drifted up from the street. I heard the fabric of the man's collar shift, and deduced that he was looking around fervently. "I must go," he said heroically, and he did.

For a while, none of us had anything to say, then Penfold broke the silence.

"Anyone want to play Charades?"


It was another lovely day in the Rotherham town centre, although I couldn't know that. A couple of guards had picked us up from the cell and frogmarched us out of the government building, through a small maze of city streets and to what I could tell through my other four senses was a wide open area containing a rather large and boisterous crowd, but at no point had anyone thought it prudent to remove the black bag from my head.

I felt myself being shoved by hairy mermen hands, so I moved in the direction they apparently wanted me to go. Cobbled stones underfoot became a wooden stage, and I was positioned carefully between two unidentified people. Judging by the footfalls I was hearing, Penfold and Jam were right behind me.

A bugler blew his fanfare, right next to my ear, which wasn't very nice, before I heard the rustling of parchment and the voice of a young man read out a prepared speech.

"People of Rotherham," he said. "By the grace of the great god Boris three heretics have been brought before us. In accordance with the sacred law of King Eddie the First…"

"That's me," said the king to my left, nudging me in the ribs.

"… these three two-legs have committed three dire sins in the eyes of our great ruler. First, questioning the established method of selling insurance. Second, wearing an offensive tie. Third, mentioning the Lost Golden City of El Dorado to King Eddie's face, as it gets right up his nose and no mistake. The sentence is execution by beheading, which will be carried out today, right now, in front of you lucky people. Does the accused have anything to say before his death?"

The silence indicated that I was expected to say something. I did try to think of something really memorable, but my bottle went and I heard myself say "But two of us weren't even wearing a tie…"

The king gave an impatient noise. "Doesn't matter. Guilt by association."

"I didn't like his tie either. In fact, I said to him. Don't wear that tie, I said, you might get executed by over-zealous monarchs."

"So did I," said Jam, leaping on the bandwagon.

"Oh, thanks a lot," said Penfold, hurt.

A loud wooden crash made us all jump. It was probably the king bashing his sceptre into the floor. "Shut up!" he yelled. "Get on with it."

"Er, the accused will kneel," said the bugler.

Hairy hands upon my shoulders forced me to do so, and my head was forced onto a previously unnoticed block in front of me. A rhythmic scraping noise baffled me for a second until I realised that it sounded uncannily like a sharpening stone going back and forth along an axe blade. The same hairy hands as before pushed my face into the wooden block and drew a dotted line along the back of my neck in what felt like permanent marker.

Well, I thought to myself. So much for Mystery Voice. I hadn't heard any instructions and my hands were tied together tightly with what was probably seaweed. I heard a swishing sound as the axe blade was raised high –


There was an explosion at the other side of the town square, and several merpeople screamed. I heard the sound of falling debris and collapsing structures. The axe did not fall at that moment - everyone on the stage who could see was doubtless distracted. Seizing my opportunity, I began struggling against the seaweed that bound my wrists, but to no avail.

Another swishing noise suddenly became apparent. This one sounded like a knife blade slicing through water and closing in fast. I kept my head down and felt it part the hair at the back of my head before passing right between my hands and embedding itself in the wall behind me with a vibratory thunk. The seaweed was shredded – I was able to move my hands.

"He's able to move his hands!" shouted the king, who was obviously not as distracted as I had hoped.

"Hey, isn't that Karl Marx?" said a very familiar voice, coming from, I guessed, the back of the assembled crowd. Automatically I punched the air to my left, air which seemed to contain a soft group of fleshy dangly things which I had apparently wrongly assumed mermen didn't have. I heard an axe blade tinkle to the ground and therefore supposed that I had done something painful to the executioner. I heard him double up wheezing and, thanks to many years of training in fighting dirty, I automatically brought my fist up, feeling it connect sharply with his face. A heavy body slumped onto wooden planks and he was out for the count.

"JIM! LEO TOLSTOY!" called Mystery Voice urgently, and I sent a fist flying to the right. It struck the stomach of the bugler who was apparently trying to take me by surprise.

"I never did like War and Peace," I said to the groaning fellow, before booting him casually on the area of fishtail where the kneecap should be and knocking him to the floor.

There was uproar all around me. Guards were coming up on all sides, and the king was ranting away about how much money he'd give the first man to decapitate me, but most of the townspeople seemed more interested in investigating the explosion. Two more Leo Tolstoys and another Karl Marx took out a handful of my attackers before Mystery Voice made a comment concerning his cat and I obediently thrust my head forward to feel something bony and nose-shaped yield with a rather unpleasant wet crunching sound. That was when I heard another knife whistling towards me, and froze in my slightly bowed position.

Light exploded in front of me as the bag on my head – which I had quite forgotten to take off in all the kerfuffle - was whisked off and the knife buried itself up to the hilt in the eye socket of another guard who was coming up behind me. Unused to daylight I blinked rapidly to dispel the nasty green blodge in front of my eyes, and eventually the scene before me swam into focus.

Chaos would be a good word, and yet also very lazy, as it doesn't serve to describe the sheer multitude of things going on. The exploded building, which shouldn't really be allowed to burn at the bottom of the ocean, was nevertheless having a damn good try. The crowd of merpeople in front of us was even more enormous than my ears and nose had thought. Everyone at the back was pushing forwards trying to get away from the not-quite-burning building. Everyone at the front was pushing backwards in response to the rude bastards pushing forwards. And everyone in between was trying to remember what horrible things they must have done to result in all this bad karma.

The stage I was now standing at the forefront of was about six feet high, and was occupied only by myself, the king, Penfold and Jam both still bagged and standing ramrod stiff in fear, and a large circle of unconscious or groaning mer-soldiers. The king was still ranting and jumping up and down and smashing his sceptre into the stage and being generally obnoxious. The whole effect was not unlike being on stage during a particularly rowdy rock festival after all the big names had done their pieces and gone home.

I checked the near vicinity with several rapid sweeping glances, but could not see the source of the mystery voice. It could have been any of about thirty possibilities I saw in the first few rows of onlookers alone, so I decided to hang solving the mystery of the mystery voice for a while in favour of self-preservation, as more guards and some of the civilians had decided to take the king up on his offer and were mounting the steps onto the stage. I pulled the hoods off Jam and Penfold in one fluid movement, pushed them forward to the front of the stage and kicked them both off into the heaving crowd before leaping in myself. As I had hoped most of the crowd were too concerned with shoving each other or investigating the exploded building to worry about three escaping prisoners and we were soon lost in the mass of bodies, blending in as well as a pirate, an accountant and a smaller pirate can in a crowd of people with fish tails instead of legs.


A troop of Rotherham law enforcers marched – swam, rather – down a backstreet alleyway a few minutes' jog away from the town square. They weren't the rather pathetic guards from a few moments ago who had been easily laid out by a blindfolded pirate under shouted instruction. These were the elite men. They wore gold-plated armour, plumed helmets, and depressingly solid metal crotch guards. And this was just one of several platoons scouring the city for the fugitives. I know all this because I overheard them talking, hiding as I was with my cohorts in a dumpster a few yards away.

Astute readers may wonder why the very cream of the Rotherham army were having their time wasted looking for people who did nothing worse than wear an offensive tie or mention rival lost cities. I somehow got the impression that escaped fugitives were the most exciting thing that had happened to Rotherham in a while, and exactly what the fugitives had done didn't enter into it. From this one might deduce that Rotherham enjoyed a low crime rate, although I did hear later that looters who broke into the government building while all the guards were out looking for us lacked restraint completely.

As the troop trooped away from us in perfect formation, I pushed the lid of the dumpster open slightly and hooked my nose over the edge like some hybrid of Oscar the Grouch and Mr. Chad. Satisfied that no-one around was in the mood for a rummage around in the rubbish, I ducked back inside and allowed the lid to clang back into place.

"Well, here we are," I said, fatuously. I made myself comfortable among the old crisp packets and banana skins while Jam played with an elastic band he had found and Penfold endeavoured to seat himself in a position as far away from rotting food as possible. Neither seemed to be in the mood for light conversation, so I felt moved to make another, less inane comment.

"I wonder who that bloke who rescued us was," I said, feigning thoughtfulness.

"I wouldn't call it much of a rescue," said Penfold haughtily. "We had to do most of the actual leg work ourselves. If you hadn't had a bag on your head and your hands tied we could have gotten away without his help."

Somehow I felt moved to defend our mysterious benefactor. "Yes Penfold, but you have to remember that I did have a bag on my head and my hands tied. And besides, I think that explosion was something to do with him."

"Well then, I don't think we should associate with known terrorists," he replied primly, folding his arms.

I sighed. This was not a battle I felt I could win. Penfold was the kind of person who wouldn't buy from a Big Issue seller if they were smoking. Of course, I'm no-one to talk, as I don't buy from Big Issue sellers at all. In fact sometimes I like to sit in front of them and eat a packed lunch really slowly and deliberately. But I digress.

"I'm hungry, dad…" whined Jam, echoing us all. We hadn't had a meal since being in the rowboat yesterday morning, and that had only been a bag of smokey bacon crisps and some stuffed olives to go between us.

"Hey, I think there's some chewing gum over here if you want that," I said. Jam wrinkled his nose.

"We shouldn't be hanging about here anyway," I continued. "We have to find a way back on dry land. See if we can work out where Rose and the others are."

Penfold gave me a fearful look. "You're not going to wonder what they're doing, are y-"

"No, Penfold, I'm not."


"Even so, I am curious as to what they're-"

My monologue was thankfully interrupted by a sharp knock on the side of the dumpster, and a muffled voice saying something indistinct. The three of us froze, terrified eyes exchanging glances in the gloom for a second, before the lid flew up and daylight dazzled us. I shielded my eyes from the glare with a hand and tried to make out the silhouette before us.

"He made me do it!" said Penfold automatically. "I'm innocent! Don't kill me!"

"What are y'all doing in there?" asked a bemused, and familiar, female voice.

"Rachilde?" I asked, for it was she.

"There's troops looking all over for ya," she said, climbing into the dumpster with us and slamming the lid shut again. "What the hell did y'all do, anyway?"

"Weren't you at the execution?"

She shook her head. Her clam shells moved pleasingly. "Not my kind of thing," she said. "Besides, I felt kind of guilty for gettin' y'all into this mess."

"Oh, don't feel you have to trouble yourself on our account," said Penfold gloomily.

"It's no problem," said Rachilde, oblivious to sarcasm. "I just have to get y'all outta here fast as possible."

"Easier said than done," I said thoughtfully. "What do you have in mind?"

"Well, ah thought ah could help y'all get into the palace, then y'all could knock out some guards-"

I joined her for the finish. "- steal their uniforms and stroll out."


"Brilliant," I said, deadpan.

"You thought so?" said Rachilde, smiling, still oblivious to sarcasm.

I decided to get to the point. "First, we'd need to find two normal sized guards and one midget guard, secondly, we don't have fish tails, and thirdly, why the hell would we want to go back in the palace in the first place?"

"There's a secret tunnel under the palace that leads to a network of underground caverns which connects to some place in South America," she explained. "If y'all just tried to swim or row there you'd all be eaten by one of the many gigantic killer fish that live in these waters."

I gave her my skeptical look. "Don't tell me, we've never heard of gigantic killer fish living here because of government propaganda."

She answered with a smile.

"And about the fish tail and the midget problems?" asked Penfold.

She waved her hands dismissively. "We can deal with that when we get to it."

We weren't thrilled.


And so it came to pass that the figure of a mermaid made her way towards the government building, which looked no less like an anthill. She was with some difficulty dragging a dumpster behind her on a piece of rope. A dumpster to which she would occasionally hiss brief updates on the situation to.

"Hail, Rachilde," said one of the two guards outside the main door. They were obviously in the mood for conversation this time, and had dispensed with the posing pouch look in favour of more gold-plated armour.

"Hey, Benny," she said in response. "Just takin' this here dumpster to the king."

Benny scratched his head and another of his precious few remaining brain cells escaped into the ether. "Why … does the king want a dumpster?" he asked, speaking like he was forcing all his words through a tea strainer.

"He was complainin' that his waste paper basket was too small," she said nonchalantly.

"Well, okay," said Benny, giving the order for the gates to be opened. "Hang on a second!" yelled Benny suddenly as Rachilde began dragging the dumpster inside.

Rachilde froze. "Yes?" she asked innocently, not looking round.

"How's that going to fit into the king's chamber?" he said suspiciously.


"It isn't, is it!" said Benny triumphantly.

"I guess not…"

"So I'll have to come with you and knock a few walls through so it'll fit!"

Rachilde and the dumpster exchanged glances. "'k," said Rachilde.

I then decided enough was quite enough, and for the sake of the walls in the king's chamber I shoved upwards on the lid as Benny began helping Rachilde to push it along. The lid connected with his chin and he went down, as did Benny's partner after Rachilde had pushed her elbow into his face in a rather un-ladylike way. In a similarly un-ladylike way she then stripped the poor fellows simultaneously of their armour and their dignity before shoving the heavy gold-plated suits into the dumpster.

"Ow," said Penfold, rubbing where a gauntlet had met his cranium intimately.



And so it came to pass that there were suddenly three merpeople swimming through the corridors of the Rotherham government building dragging a large metal dumpster. One was a beautiful mermaid dressed only in a pair of shells. The other two were clad in light armour with helmets pulled down carefully over their faces, moving rather awkwardly, as they seemed to have stuffed both legs into trousers built for mermen and jammed old rubber flippers on their feet. All three of them had much of the forced nonchalance about their gait.

"Have you found me a disguise yet, dad?" asked Jam in a slightly echoey voice.

"Shh," shushed everyone else.

"I think we can safely say that looking for a midget-sized armoured guard would be futile," I said after our third lap around the main corridor. "Let's just continue thinking up ingenious ways to explain why we're carting a dumpster around."

"Fine," said Rachilde sulkily, disappointed that her plan had been overruled.

"Agreed," agreed Penfold.

"Where's this secret entrance to the catacombs, then?" I asked our female companion.

"Ah – that's the thing," she said guiltily. "It's in the floor of the Office."

"That arena place?" asked the voice of Jam from within the dumpster.

"Brilliant," I sighed. "Right back into the frying pan. Come on then, let's have some suggestions. Why should anyone want to bring a dumpster into the main Office?"

"Maybe we could arrange a football match," said Penfold, "then all the spectators can throw toilet paper all over the floor and we'll say we need the dumpster to – you're shaking your head, Jim."

I was indeed. "Oh, let's just do this traditionally. We'll take Jam out and pretend we're taking him to the cells or something."

"And this is Rachilde," said a new voice. "She's one of our top agents."

The new voice belonged to another merman guard, and Penfold and I automatically pulled our helmets even further down our faces. This newcomer was a fresh-faced young soldier with a friendly smile on a friendly face leading a merboy by the hand. The child was about Jam's age, gazing all around with wonder and awe. Then he saw Rachilde, and gazed at her ample chest with wonder and awe.

"Oh, er, hey, Keith," said Rachilde. "Who's this?"

"This is Roger," said the apparent Keith in a voice used mainly by school counsellors who try to be understanding to the maladjusted teenage arsonists referred to them, patting his small companion's hand. "He's very sick, and the doctors are trying their best, but he might not make it … and he always wanted to be a palace guard … so the Last Wish Foundation arranged for him to become an honorary one for the day, and I'm showing him around. That's a most spectacular dumpster, by the way."

"Just taking it for a walk," said Rachilde automatically.

"Honorary guard, eh?" I asked, disguising my voice as best I could and looking the boy up and down. "I see you went the whole hog and got him a special child-sized guard's uniform specially made." I flashed Penfold a brief smile. He shook his head urgently.

"Well, we won't keep y'all," said Rachilde. "Have a nice day, Roger."

"'ankoo," said Roger in a small voice. We moved aside to allow the pair to move past us, and I hefted my spear to bring it down on Keith's head, but Penfold held my arm.

"Penfold, kindly let go."

The accountant had a very wary look on his face. "Jim, no. Please. It's a little dying boy."

"Everyone's dying, Penfold, some faster than others. I'll just knock him out for an hour or so, he won't feel a thing, then he'll wake up none the worse and there's less chance we'll be decapitated on the morrow."

"I don't care! You can't knock out a terminally ill child on his big day and steal his clothes!"

Jam tugged Penfold's sleeve. He had apparently escaped from the dumpster when we weren't looking. "Dad," he said, eyes twinkling, "if you have a problem with Uncle Jim doing it, can I do it instead?"

Penfold covered his eyes as I handed over my spear. "Go get 'em, champ," I said.

"I don't want to see this," said the accountant. "I'm going to skip to the next chapter before he does it."

I shrugged. "Please yourself."

"I wonder how Rose and the others are doing."


"Wise ninja approaches not the angry bees when his bollocks are covered in marmalade."

- The Way Of Lance Micklewight (second edition, volume 4)


Rose and the others were not doing terribly well at all. They hadn't been able to get much sleep as they had been constantly woken by loud, drawn-out screams throughout the night, so their eyes were baggy and their hair dishevelled – even Gareth's usually immaculate style was affected, a couple of errant strands poking cheekily out from under his wide-brimmed feather hat. But on the whole they were rested and well fed, and were certainly not the trio of weakened vagrants they were the day before.

They were led by the same heavily built ninja who had brought them the food the previous night into a large, perfectly square courtyard, surrounded by huge amounts of ninjas, not jostling for a good view like most crowds of spectators, but sitting or standing silently and still. The leader with the red pyjama cord was sitting on a wooden throne at the far end of a large square straw mat, which was apparently where fights took place, and two more burly ninjas stood on either side of him.

Rose, Scar and Gareth kept close to each other as they were pushed roughly into the square. The leader waved a gloved hand, and a steel chain-link fence rose up from out of the ground, surrounding the fighting area and trapping our three heroes. This didn't seem to bother them. In fact, they had been wearing fixed expressions of grim determination since the scene began. Were they then resigned to their fate? Determined to face almost certain doom without showing any signs of fear?

As we will soon learn, through the medium of a highly dubious plot element, no.

The head ninja, or sensei, or Generalissimo or whatever ninja leaders are called stood dramatically, and the two burly ninjas flanking him immediately burst into action, spraying Pledge onto his vacated seat and brushing it gingerly with little white feathery brushes. They worked busily for a few seconds before the head ninja snapped his thin fingers and the pair immediately stood once again to attention.

"The pirates will fight our champions," said the head ninja, using up his entire daily word quota and apparently referring to his two lackeys. He didn't say what would happen to the pirates if they won or lost, but one feels that both would involve blades jammed up uncomfortable places.

The lackeys squeezed through the chain fence, succeeding after a few false starts. Then they were alone in the arena with the pirates, whose facial expressions still hadn't changed, their bearings noble and defiant. In time honoured ninja tradition, the champions then ripped the sleeves off their black pyjama tops revealing obscenely huge, rippled muscles which they proceeded to flex and pose with. This seemed to be mainly for their own benefit, as none of the assembled ninjas in the audience batted an eyelid and the pirates were still standing silently and unmoving. Oddly stiff, really.

Slightly disappointed, the big tough ninjas held out their arms as if hugging an invisible Giant Redwood and crept, half-crouched, towards their prey, who still didn't seem to be registering their presence. They crept until they were just a few yards away, whereupon they stopped, and froze.

The wind whistled overhead, but no sound was being made in the courtyard. The younger ninjas in the audience ceased to chew their popcorn. The collection of caged tropical birds kept for some reason in a corner stopped their obnoxious screeching for once. All was silent as the well-built ninja duo stood stock still in front of the similarly immobile pirates.

This tableau continued for a full minute.

Then, suddenly, it went on for another full minute.

It would probably have gone into the third minute as well, had not one of the aforementioned younger ninjas decided to close his jaws. The soft crunch as a popcorn kernel was shattered between his teeth was deafening. It was more than enough to set off the fighters.

With a bloodcurdling yell – or rather, not with a bloodcurdling yell, as ninjas don't make noise when they're fighting, I just included the bloodcurdling yell to spice the scene up slightly and make it slightly more attractive to film producers – the slightly taller ninja (who will be known as BN1, or Burly Ninja 1, from now on) launched himself at the motionless face of Rose Black, twisting in the air so that he would meet her chin foot-first.

The foot connected.

It connected with one of the supports of the chain link fence. BN1 fell awkwardly against it, spraining his ankle slightly, and landed in a supremely well-muscled heap on the floor. Rose was now standing a couple of yards away from her previous position, having apparently dodged at the last minute. Traditionally the crowd is supposed to get to their feet and cheer wildly at this point, abandoning allegiance to the home team to show appreciation for a very well-executed fighting manoeuvre, a state of affairs which most emphatically failed to transpire among the ninjas, sulky gits that they are. Although Rose fancied their expressionless and emotionless faces seemed to reflect a little shock and alarm. That's how she told it to me, anyway.

Meanwhile, BN2 made his first move. Once again minus the bloodcurdling yell he hopped daintily towards Scar and served up a punch like a freight train to the big pirate's chin, but the chin in question was suddenly not in the fist's flight path. Scar was now behind his attacker, having zipped there apparently faster than the human eye. With a scream of rage – well, more a sort of low grunt – BN2 delivered a bulky elbow into the stomach of his tormentor, but no stomach did the elbow find.

Scar was now over by Rose, leaving Gareth exposed, so the BNs lunged at the slight but immaculately dressed figure from both sides. In accordance with the rules of unrealistic fight scenes, they hit only each other. Gareth had now joined his cohorts a few yards away.

The head ninja stroked his masked chin thoughtfully.

Since BN2 was now slightly dazed, BN1 took the initiative and abandoned all restraint. He leapt right at the group of pirates and went into an elaborate and deadly combo of moves – a complicated sequence of adrenaline-fuelled kicks and punches, each one followed smoothly by another. The fighter was a blur of whirling fists and feet, but not a single blow landed. The pirates zipped back and forth, nimbly dodging every blow, and yet also didn't seem to be moving at all. That is, they would move at superfast speeds from one point to another but the motion didn't seem to have anything to do with their limbs, which remained stiff and unbent.

BN1 was becoming understandably ticked off, and he concentrated every ounce of his ninja skill on Rose. A rainstorm of punches fell upon her, and she was still dodging each one, but it was becoming more difficult – a few rock-like fists skimmed her by millimetres, and when BN2 came up behind her, she was taken by surprise. Finally BN2's hand went into the small of her back.

It came right out the other side and hammered with eye-watering force into BN1's genitalia. Now, it would be reasonable to assume that there would then be a gaping hole in Rose's stomach out of which snapped bones and organs poked and blood flowed merrily, but this was not the case. When BN2 withdrew his fist of fire she was still absolutely unharmed, and the hand had passed through her as easily as through fog.

It was at this point that the pirates conceded that the game was well and truly up, and all three of them faded into thin air.

Now, you may be wondering how our three heroes managed to pull this off. I know I certainly was when Rose told me her story. She went on to explain it fully with an explanation I found highly doubtful at best, but not wishing to seem biased, I will let her tell us how it went in her own words.

"Well, it was like this. The ninjas made one mistake. As well as feeding us and giving us beds to sleep on they had also provided us with reading material – but the only reading material in the whole temple were the Ninja Handbooks. I started reading them 'cos we couldn't get to sleep, what with all the screeching, and I found something about a ninja technique which involved projecting an image or illusion of yourself, capable of performing simple independent moves, to confuse and defeat your enemy. Working through the night all three of us were able to master the technique, and when they came to take us to the arena, we all hid in the bathroom while our illusionary clones went in our place."

It was at this point that I expressed my opinion on this story's truthfulness. I could swallow Rose and Scar mastering an ancient and advanced ninja technique in a few hours, but Gareth?

"It's surprisingly easy," she said in response to this. "It's like flying a kite. Once we mastered it it was very straightforward."

I then challenged her to show me this trick of hers, but she mumbled something about it becoming more difficult outside the ninja temple. I then made known another opinion on this story's truthfulness, and she told me to go and boil my head, then locked herself in the bathroom for an hour.

Personally I reckon they used wooden puppets to take their places. That would of course depend on the ninjas being a little dense, but let's face it, if ninjas were clever they wouldn't keep forgetting to change out of their pyjamas when they get up in the morning.

As for the real location of the pirates? They were up on the first floor in a tiny, uninhabited kitchen with a small window overlooking the courtyard, which explains how they knew everything that was going on down there. As the trio of shades ceased their deception and vanished, Rose moved away from the window.

"Well, that tears it," she said. "They'll be all over the place looking for us in a few minutes."

"What's going on?" said Gareth, craning over Scar's shoulder. "Let me see!"

True to Rose's word, the courtyard was emptying rapidly. There was no hustle and bustle – the ninjas marched smartly back indoors in single file, not visibly particularly excited about the prospect of three pirates loose in their temple, but with an overall air of steel determination that denoted a very serious threat to Rose and her minute posse. I'll say one thing for ninjas, they will always get the job done. They do it with far too much razzle-dazzle, of course, especially when they use gymnastics and those star-shaped thingies to polish off a single bloke when a just as satisfactory job can be done with a slightly blunt cutlass even if the operator is fresh from a royal piss-up, but they do eventually get the job done.

"Let's get out of here," said the captain, going over to the door and peering through the crack. "If we stay right where we are they'll find us eventually. If we keep on the move maybe we can stay a step ahead."

"What happened? What's going on? Where are they going?" asked Gareth, peering out the window at the emptying courtyard. "I'm not following any of this."

"C'mon, yer," growled Scar, taking Gareth's hand and frogmarching him out the door like a mother leading a delinquent child to the headmaster to get him to explain why he came home with four bunsen burners. In the corridor beyond, Rose was standing frozen. It wasn't a particularly nice corridor, just formed of those boring, white, very thin walls ninjas seem to like with a few doors on each side, squeaky wooden floors underfoot and the occasional highly artistic wall hanging. These weren't what had made Rose freeze, of course. What had made Rose freeze was the ninja further up the corridor, looking at the pirates thoughtfully.

He seemed quite young, and his grey pyjama cord probably meant he was of quite low rank, or a trainee or something. His skinny build and the broom he was holding gave further clues. The pirates tensed, expecting the youth to snap the head off his implement and leap towards them, a blur of flailing wood and limbs, but instead he just dropped his broom of death and scampered away from the buccaneers, rounding a corner and disappearing from sight.

Scar scoffed. "Our cabin boys go down fightin'," he said boastfully.

"Jam would always run below decks and hide under his bed whenever we got boarded," pointed out Gareth.

"Arr, but that was only until 'e turned seven," said Scar.

"And so did Jim for a while-"

"'E 'ad food poisonin'."

"Come on!" said Rose, who had been tugging on the bigger pirate's arm throughout all of the above discourse. "He's probably gone to fetch his superiors, we've got to keep moving!"

Scar didn't need telling twice. The three of them slipped into the nearest door. They listened at it for a couple of seconds to make sure no-one was coming in to see what all the fuss was about, then locked it, bolted it and turned away to face the room they now found themselves in.

"Oh, hello again," said the occupant of the room brightly. "Small world, isn't it?"

This room was quite large, decorated in the usual style, with a large, wide space in the floor that simply screamed 'training room'. A couple of decorative weapons hanging on the walls yielded further clues. It was one of those ninja training rooms where the walls and floor are built subtly at funny angles, which legend would have you believe is used to confuse enemies but which I personally think is more to do with outside contractors.

And sitting in the centre of the wooden floor upon a red and white checked gingham picnic blanket was an elderly gentleman in a pirate captain's hat and dressing gown.

"Jugular Tim?!" said Rose, partly surprised, partly relieved at meeting a friendly face.

"I'm flattered you remember me," he said genially. "You're just in time for tea."

He produced a bone china teapot and an array of cups from a wicker picnic basket at his side, which he lay in front of him. He was already pouring when Gareth kneeled down next to him.

"Milk and two sugars, wasn't it, young Gareth?" said Tim, passing over a cup.

"Please," replied the camp one gratefully. Rose and Scar were still standing rigid and open-mouthed when the sugar and milk had been added and Gareth was already taking his first sips.

"Anything for you two?" asked Tim.

"What the hell are you doing here?" demanded Rose.

Tim smiled at Gareth. "She hasn't got any less hot-headed, has she?" he said.

"Not our Rose," said Gareth. "Are those pink wafer biscuits I see?"

"They certainly are," replied Tim, removing clingfilm from the plate and passing it over.

Rose heard ninja feet running past outside the door, and she found herself automatically sitting down in front of the elderly pirate and accepting a cup and saucer. Scar, meanwhile, flattened his massive bulk against the only door to prevent ninja invasion.

"Now then, would you like a piece of cake to go with that?" Tim asked Rose.

"Not just now," she replied. "Tim, what -"

"I have some marble cake if you're interested," he said, like the biblical serpent waving his tasty fruit in front of Eve's nose.

I suppose learning that complicated ninja technique had taught Rose some discipline, as she showed remarkable self-control as she attempted to grill the old pirate. "Tim," she said calmly, "if you will just answer one question, I promise I will gladly have some marble cake with you."

"Well, fire away!" he replied.

"What are you doing here?"

"Having tea," he replied, somewhat predictably. "Now, eat your cake."

"I mean, how did you get here?"

Tim proferred the plate. "Just one question. You promised."

Resignedly, Rose grabbed the cake and stuffed it down her throat as fast as she could. Some nasty wheezing noises and a quick Heimlich Maneouvre from her first mate later, she spoke again. "How did you get here?"

"The ninjas brought me here," replied Tim, spreading butter on half a toasted teacake. "Turned up almost right after you left, in fact. I think they might have been following you."

Rose took the teacake and ate it, carefully this time. "What did they do to you?" she asked.

There was a thump upon the door, and someone tried the handle. Scar kept his body against it. Oblivious, Tim answered Rose's question as he took more plates out of his picnic basket. "Well, after I insisted they let me bring a picnic, they took me into this room and started interrogating me. Then after a while they got frustrated and left. Can't think why. I think they've forgotten about me, now."

Scar leaned experimentally away from the door, but nothing happened, so he stepped over to the picnic blanket and knelt down with his comrades. He took an Eccles cake, finished it in two bites, and spoke. "Tim, do ye remember what the ninjas wanted to know from yer?"

"'Course," replied Tim, mouth full of ginger biscuit. "They wanted to know where you were heading."

"Why?" asked Rose. "Why us?"

Tim held up a plate of cup cakes and didn't answer until Rose had taken and finished one. "They were hired, I think," he said. "Something about stopping you, or slowing you down, from what I gather."

From a distance Rose's face would appear to be quite expressionless, but anyone in close range looking closely would have noticed a tiny red dot of hatred in the centre of both her pupils. "Gertrude," she growled.

"But … ninjas never take contracts from pirates," said Scar.

"Gertrude's dad isn't a pirate," said Rose, not looking at him. "And he's the one with all the money."

Another thump upon the door shook the walls. "We 'ave to get out of here," said Scar.

"They're all waiting outside the door!" said Rose.

"You could always use the other door," said Tim. All eyes turned to him as he continued amiably. "There's a door over there, but it's hard to tell, 'cos it looks exactly the same as the rest of the wall. It's locked, by the way," he added as his three dinner guests stepped over to it.

Scar was already trying to fumble a lockpick into the keyhole with his big sausagey fingers, but he was never very good at the delicate operations. In fact, I hope he doesn't get round to reading this if he ever starts reading any books longer than ten pages, but he really was the kind of person Desperate Dan would describe as 'a big galoot', whatever that is.

Big galoots have their strengths, however, as was illustrated a few seconds later when he pushed the door to see if he had succeeded in unlocking it. He hadn't, but the lock broke instantly, so that was that. The three pirates filed through the doorway, which was incidentally marked 'Advanced Training Room', just as the other door behind them burst open.

Rose had about one second to take in the interior of the advanced training room before she collapsed. Not because the floor and walls were angled subtly this time. This time there was nothing subtle about the angles at all. The polished wooden floor was at a sixty degree downward slope and as one the pirates stumbled, fell, slid across the room and piled up against the wall, which creaked ominously. The first ninja arrived at the door just in time to see all this, and while his face didn't change and he made no sound, he was probably terribly amused. He executed a perfect two-footed jump towards the pirates, perhaps with the intention to announce his appreciation of the humour and how he would now let them go without any further fights. The world would never know this, however, as Scar stuck out a decorative sword he had discreetly nicked and the ninja impaled himself on it with a nasty little wet crunching sound.

Seeing this, an incredulous hush fell upon the small horde of ninjas that had now crowded around the doorway, not that you would notice if they were being any more silent than normal. The pirates pulled themselves into some sort of upright arrangement, their backs to the wall, as the ninja horde stared in shocked silence. Scar just held the impaled ninja at arm's length, feeling like a puppy sitting next to a puddle of piss.

"Excuse me," said an elderly voice behind the crowd. "You're standing in my malt loaf."

With a yell of fury – truthfully, this time – another ninja dived towards Scar, waving a paper-thin yard-long jade sword which looked like such good workmanship it was almost a shame that he didn't have a chance to use it, as Scar caught him deftly on the tip of his sword, adding to the growing ninja kebab. The rest of the ninjas just stood and watched. Gareth offered a cheerful smile and a wave, and a younger ninja waved back for a few seconds before a superior slapped his hand down angrily.

The two parties stared at each other for a long time, even after Scar had to drop his arm in response to the increased weight of his sword. In the ultra-efficient minds of the ninjas, a hundred possibilities to attack were being considered simultaneously, the results estimated, each one abandoned as quickly as it was raised. Meanwhile, the minds of the pirates were occupied with, variously, an escape plan, grog, and earrings. This tableau continued for a while until there was movement at the rear of the ninja horde, and they parted like the legs of a wannabe starlet before an eminent record producer. The head ninja, the one with the red pyjama cord, made his way to the front of the throng, and offered the pirates a sneering but nonetheless blank look.

He didn't hesitate. He trotted down the slope up to his enemies with no apparent loss of balance, stepped in front of Scar – who was holding his sword out warily, ready to strike – and made a small but fast hand movement. There was a sharp thump, and Scar's sword landed several feet away, impaled ninjas and all.

Rose stabbed with a bejeweled dagger she had taken. The head ninja caught it by the blade, plucked it out of her grasp, and threw it casually over his shoulder. It was all terribly impressive, I'm sure. Since I wasn't there I couldn't say how the technique worked, but I bet I wouldn't have fallen for it.

Last, and by all means least, Gareth held up his fists in a vaguely threatening manner. The head ninja offered him only a disdainful glance. At that angle neither Rose nor Scar could see the ninja's face properly, but Gareth immediately dropped and broke down in floods of noisy tears. His job done, the head ninja nodded companionably to the pirates and casually walked back up the slope and into the training room again.

"Kill them," he said, and left abruptly. The sound of several dozen bladed weapons leaving their sheathes mingled freely with the anguished sobs of Camp Gareth, who was cuddling Scar's leg desperately. Rose adopted the traditional fighter's pose, and Scar made two enormous fists ready to pound the skulls of ninja scum.

Thankfully, fisticuffs turned out to be unnecessary, as when the ninja horde swarmed into the advanced training room, they quickly found that they no longer had pirates to lynch. They had gone.

Now, to accept that this was a repeat of the intangible copy routine which our heroes used to escape earlier would not only be relying too hard on the willing suspension of disbelief but would also sorely misjudge Rose's skill at forethought. Don't get me wrong, as a pirate captain she was a decent strategist, of course, but she wasn't Machiavelli. No, ancient and apparently easily learnt ninja skills played no part in their escape on this occasion. What did? Why, a combination of Scar's huge form, being backed into a wall, and said wall being made of paper and wood, that's what.

The wall disintegrated easily at this treatment and Scar fell backwards hilariously through the gap, Gareth still clinging to his leg and Rose following him closely, not being one to go against popular trends. A cool morning breeze struck them as they fell through the hole, indicating that they were now outdoors, and they would probably have been quite pleased by this development if they had time to stop and think about things. As it happened, they landed on another steep slope, this one solid rock and rough-hewn, and tumbled head over heels down it until they reached an edge, which Scar and Rose grabbed just in time. Gareth just kept his eyes screwed shut and concentrated on clinging to Scar.

The ninja temple, they could now see, was a large and decorative structure built upon an enormous chunk of rock that had been apparently cut out of the ground, supported by a combination of the traditional balloons and huge flocks of large birds. It swayed minutely in the gentle winds, not anchored to any cloud, and it was to one of this giant rock's edges that the pirates now found themselves clinging for dear life.

Rose gritted her teeth and hugged the rock in front of her. Of course, vertigo wasn't a problem for long-term career sky pirates, but that still didn't offer immunity to extremely high falls like this one.

"Now what?" asked Scar, dangling leisurely from fingers buried in the rock up to the knuckle.

"Maybe we can-" began Rose, and stopped. The face of a ninja appeared above them, peering down at them, enjoying the plight of the pirates. Two more swiftly joined it, then a fourth. This fourth one should be emphasised, as it was carrying a long pole with a shiny axe blade on the end. When the blade swung down and buried itself in the rock inches from Rose's left hand, the intention became clear.

"Climb down!" yelled Rose, rapidly doing so. Scar pulled the sausagey digits of his right hand out of the rock wall and dug them in about a foot lower down. Gareth squealed as the enormous man began the descent, then again when the axe struck the wall a few feet away before returning to his ceaseless whimpering.

With each time the axe shuddered into the wall, it was a little bit closer to Rose. She flinched with each mighty thunk, and when the axe blade went into the gap between her left index and middle fingers, she panicked. She snatched her hand away, a manoeuvre which quickly proved unwise when the axe went immediately for her other hand. She withdrew that one as well, and hung in the air for a second before the laws of physics, so engrossed in the exciting scene, remembered that now she wasn't attached to the wall by any limbs and she began to fall. Fortunately she was able to grab Scar's currently unoccupied leg as she descended, and as she locked her arms around his tree trunk-like knee, Gareth gave her a nod as between equals.

Scar, meanwhile, had climbed down sufficiently far to be out of reach of the ninja and his accursed halberd, and also to be positioned under a slight overhang that now prevented both ninjas and pirates from seeing each other. He remained where he was, clinging to the rock like an enormous hairy barnacle, getting his breath back.

"What now?" he rasped.

"Guess we wait for them to go, and climb back up," hazarded Rose, ignoring the very deliberate sigh Gareth then emitted.

"They won't go," said Scar sagely. "Ninjas never know when to give up."

As if to illustrate his words, from the top of the giant rock the pirates heard the unmistakable sound of shurikens being hurled. Craning their necks around they were just in time to see three little white star shapes fly off into the distance.

"What the hell?" said Rose.

The three shurikens slowed and, after spending a couple of seconds hovering as if debating what to do next, then turned tail and began rocketing back towards the temple.

More specifically, towards Scar and his two passengers.

"Aaah!" said Rose.

"Eeeeeek!" said Gareth.

"Aarrgh!" said Scar, pirate to the core.

The first shuriken hit the wall a few yards above and to the left of them, before exploding harmlessly. The second projectile landed several feet directly above them, showering them in dust and pebbles. The third shuriken buried itself hilariously in the ninja next to the one who had thrown it, but the pirates had little opportunity to enjoy this as Scar had lost his grip after the second explosion and was now falling through the air, screaming cohorts still clinging to his legs.

They fell for a few yards before landing on a conveniently located sewage outlet pipe that stuck out of the side of the rock and which presumably led back into the temple. After that, it was simplicity itself to clamber into the mouth of the pipe and crawl inwards for a short distance before collapsing in exhaustion in a shallow stream of slurry.

"Bleh," said Camp Gareth, keeping a bare minimum of his immaculate clothing in the filth. "Ninja poo."

Rose lay back against the curved wall of the pipe, panting heavily. "Gertrude Van Helsing," she said, between breaths, "Gertrude Van Bloody Helsing."

Scar looked down the pipe with a heavy heart. "Wonder what'll 'appen to Jugular Tim," he said.

"They'll let him go when they realise he's no use," said Rose, still panting. "They won't try to kill him, he's far too old and senile to be any challenge."

"Aye, ye're prob'ly right," said Scar.

Rose seemed to be getting her breath back. "I really could use a rest," she said.

"Good idea, cap'n," said Scar. "Shall I do the honours?"

"Please do."

Scar cleared his throat noisily, and put on his best dramatic voice. "I wonder … how Jim an' the others … are doin'?"

"Very classy, Scar."

"You thought so?"


"You just can't get the staff these days."

- Czar Nicholas II


"Somewhere in this palace there are fugitives," said the king, marching up and down in front of a wide row of his elite guards, "and you are going to find them."

He was speaking quite softly and levelly, but the echoes around the great arena – or Office as some people apparently preferred to call it – carried his voice up to an irate roar.

"Earlier today two of the elite guards stationed outside the main door were knocked unconscious and their armour stolen," he said, continuing his steady pace. "From this I deduce that you will not have a difficult job to apprehend the culprits. After all, how hard can it be to capture fugitives stupid enough to knock out guards, strip them, and leave them lying right in front of the main entrance where anyone can find them?"

I resisted an urge to slap my forehead, partly because I would have hurt my hand on the lowered visor, and partly because the king was staring directly at me.

Penfold, Jam and I were standing on the end of the row of guards, having been hurriedly shepherded into the arena when the call had gone out for the elite guards to line up. Our armour didn't fit very well, and our fishtail disguises were a little unconvincing to say the very least, but no-one seemed to notice. I think because, in terms of tools in boxes, they were very far from being the sharpest.

"They are enemies of Rotherham," said the king. "They are causing civil discontent. There are rumblings of subversion. Even my wife has been behaving strangely recently."

I tried to imagine being married to the figure in front of me. Suddenly I had a fairly shrewd explanation for why his wife would be out of sorts.

"I want those two-legs caught!" he continued. "Whoever brings them to me gets fifty thousand gold pieces!"

It was tempting, but turning oneself in is a little counter-productive. I kept my mouth carefully shut.

"What are you waiting for?" said the king, and folded his arms.

"A dismissal, your highness," said the guard nearest him helpfully.

"Dismissed!!" shrieked the small monarch, and the guards began obediently filing out of the wide stadium, my colleagues and I bringing up the rear.

"Wait," said the king when all but us three had departed. We froze, and chose not to turn around. We heard soft water-swishy noises as he moved towards us. My hands clenched around my spear, ready to strike.

"How's the little chap's big day going?" asked the king in a suddenly wheedling, syrupy voice. He seemed to be addressing Penfold.

"Oh," said he. "Er, very well, your highness. In fact I was just about to show him around the secret passage under the Office."

The king raised an eyebrow at this. "Are you sure you should be showing the lad top secret places like that?"

"Well, he is going to be dead in a few months, your highness," I said cheerfully. Penfold attempted to convey his opinion on this tasteless remark through the medium of the dirty look, but the king didn't see this, stroking his beard thoughtfully.

"I still don't know…" he said. "Seems rather…" he stopped when he glanced at Jam, who had put on his best puppydog eyes and was allowing his lip to tremble moderately. The king was caught completely off guard, and after a few seconds of this torment, Jam turned to his adopted father.

"Can't I see the secwet passageway?" said the boy in a quiet voice that quavered just enough to be heartbreaking but not so much that it sounded like gargling. Feigning a quavery voice is a very difficult trick to master, and I suddenly felt incredible respect and pride for my adopted nephew. I had never gotten the hang of it, but then I started training when I was twenty-two.

It got the desired effect. The king's face crinkled into that of a jolly, kindly patriarch, and he made to tousle Jam's hair before remembering the helmet. "Oh, why the hell not?" he said jovially. "Save it to last, though. Special treat. I don't think you've taken him round the ornamental gardens yet, have you?"


"I didn't think so. Now, run along!"

We gratefully turned around and began heading towards the exit, when he called us back again.

"I thought there was only one of you showing him around first?" he asked, not suspicious, just curious.

"Oh," I said, ad-libbing with lightning speed. "I didn't have anything to do, so I thought I'd tag along, you know." I regretted saying them as soon as the words left my mouth. You never, ever, say to your boss that you don't have anything to do, it's a highway to filing, or tidying, or envelope licking.

"Oh, well, in that case, you come with me. I have some chores around my chambers that need doing. You two can go."

Penfold gave me a hold-on-we'll-think-of-something look, before leaving the arena with Jam. The king didn't speak until the door had slammed behind them. I swallowed, and my fingers clenched around my spear again. I was in the process of thinking about knocking the old coot out with the shaft, but then I noticed that there were merpeople, and potential mer-witnesses, filling up the audience seating again, perhaps for the afternoon's event. The king saw this too, and beckoned me to follow him. This I did, following him out the exit opposite the one Penfold had taken. As you can imagine, I was feeling pretty darn despondent about this turn of events, especially when the king ushered me into his quarters and introduced me to the mountain of sheets that were cluttering up the floor of his laundry room.

"I need someone to help me fold these sheets," he said, in a sort of loud, staccato tone of voice. "Just these ones here. Just fold them. Nothing too complicated." He picked up the first sheet, untangled it from the pile, and bade me pick it up by two corners while he took the opposite two. This was familiar ground to a pirate like me, having lived with hammocks and sails for so long. I hoped I could get through this quickly and catch up with Penfold, Jam and Rachilde without rousing suspicion, but to my eternal displeasure, the king wanted to make conversation.

"So, I don't remember seeing you around here lately," he said. "You a new recruit?"

"Work experience," I concocted, adding a pubescent squeak to my voice as he and I made the first fold. "Just started today."

"Oh really? Are you at school?"


The king nodded. "What is it, Rotherham and District Grammar?"

"Er, that's right," I said, sweating as the king and I moved towards each other to make the next fold. He took the sheet, folded it twice on his own, and stacked it on the depressingly small stack near the washing machine. I found myself wondering what it washed clothes with at the bottom of the ocean. Possibly air bubbles.

"Ah. Good school, that," said the monarch, nodding happily, picking up a small bath towel. "Do feel free to take your helmet off, by the way," he added.

I shook my head so hard that I almost complied. "No no no no no, can't, sorry. I have to wear it with the visor down so as not to subject others to my hideous facial deformity."

"Oh come on, everyone's had acne at some time in their life."

With a deft flick of the wrist, the king sent the towel towards me with such speed that I didn't have time to duck. It connected with my helmet and sent it spinning away into a corner. I tried to cover my face with my hands, but the king flicked his towel again and it wrapped itself around my wrists, binding them, pulling them away from my face.

"I thought so," said the king evilly, suddenly not as comical as he was before. "You're the slightly more rugged one, aren't you. Tim, is it?"

"Jim," I corrected, before launching myself feet-first at my aquatic captor. He moved aside rapidly, and I flew into the pile, scattering sheets. There was something big and hard in the middle of that pile. Something with which I connected quite painfully. The king laughed, a great, booming, moustache-muffled laugh, and began pulling away the sheets to reveal what I was awkwardly sprawled against. It was black, made of metal, and had 'torture device' written all over it. Figuratively, this time.

"Say hello to the Toe-Stubber," said the king with a grin.

Five minutes later I was chained up in the thing. I dangled by my hands, which were manacled to an overhead bar. My flippers and socks had been removed, my ankles were attached to the lower section with leather straps, and the tips of my toes were just touching a narrow conveyor belt below me. On the other end of the belt a small, low, wooden coffee table was mounted.

"I'll never talk, king!" I said defiantly.

"We will see, Mr. Jim. We will see." He steepled his fingers under his regal snout.

"You can't scare me with coffee tables, you maniac!"

"Not immobile ones, no," he said, and moved over to the great wheel which obviously controlled the conveyor belt. As soon as he put his hands on it, I realised what the purpose of the device was.

"No … you can't!" I said.

The king pushed the wheel a couple of inches back and forth playfully. The conveyor belt moved slightly with his pushing, causing the coffee table to twitch. "I can, Mr. Jim," he said.

"This is cruel and unusual punishment!"

"I know, now shut up," he said, losing patience. He gave the wheel a mighty spin, and the coffee table came towards me at an alarming pace, one of the legs thudding squarely into my left pinky toe.

I bit my tongue to stop my yell of pain.

"Hurts, doesn't it," said the king, a speck of drool on his lips, pulling the coffee table back to its previous position.

"Maybe," I said through clenched teeth, sweat pouring down my face. The king frowned, and gave the wheel another big push. This time the impact was lighter, but still hurt like billy-o. I kept my tongue between my teeth. I couldn't show that he was breaking me.

"Now then, let's have a nice, friendly, civilised chat, and maybe I won't have to do that anymore," said the king, sitting upon the washing machine, allowing his short legs to knock against the glass.

"Do you expect me to talk?" I hissed.

"No, Mr. Jim, I expect you to – oh. Sorry, yes, I do expect you to talk."

"Fine," I muttered. "Weather been nice lately?"


"Had your holidays yet this year?"

The king flustered. "No, no, you imbecile, I want to talk about something specific!"

I nodded in understanding. "Right. What do you want to talk about?"

All at once there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, a rap rap rapping on the chamber door. The king gave me a put-upon look, and threw a sheet over me and the Toe-Stubber. Blind now to the goings on, I cocked my keen pirate hearing. I heard the king open the door, then the slurred voice of a slightly inebriated palace guard. While he was distracted, I took the opportunity to start working my ankles out of the leather restraints that held them in place. They had clearly not been tied on as firmly as they could have been.

"We found the other two two-legs," said the guard's voice.

I heard the embarrassed shuffling of two pairs of rubber flippers. Jam and Penfold.

"Right," said the king. "Leave them with me."

"Your highness?"

"I said leave them with me! And ensure I'm not disturbed for a few hours!"

"Your highness."

I heard the door close.

"Are we going to die now, Dad?" That was Jam.

"Of course not," said Penfold quietly. "Jim'll fix it."

"Ah yes," said the king. I rolled my eyes upwards. I knew what was coming. "On that note-"

The sheet was flung off the Toe-Stubber again, and I gazed into Penfold's amazed eyes. I gave him a self-conscious smile and the best shrug I could manage in my current position.

"Jim!" said Penfold. I saw Jam pout mightily. "What's he been doing to you?"

"He never got a word out of me, Penf."

Meanwhile, the king had pulled a vicious-looking underwater equivalent of a colt .357 from the depths of his robe. "Stay exactly where you are," he said. "Don't try anything funny or your pal gets more of the same."

"More of what?" asked Jam. I tried to slap my forehead, but found this difficult with the whole manacles thing going on. The king gave the wheel another massive push and the coffee table thudded into my toe once again. There was now a very unpleasant looking bruise spreading throughout the top-left portion of my poor little foot. A single tear ran down my left cheek, but I was pretty certain nobody noticed.

Of course, in accordance with Sod's law, Penfold felt now was a good time to try and reawaken the dormant hero inside himself. Well, not so much dormant as 'comatosed'. Well, not so much comatosed as 'ravaged by disease and injury, kept alive only through a complex system of life support mechanisms and in a permanent vegetative state'. The point is, he held his chin up high and gave the king a defiant look. "You won't get anything out of me, you psychopath," he said, defiantly. I rolled my eyes.

"Do you really want me to turn this wheel again?" asked the king. "Because I will."

"You don't have the guts," said Penfold, eyes narrow.

"Er, Penfold?" I said. "He has already done it three times, I think he does have the guts."

"Oh yes," said Penfold foolishly. "Sorry. I've embarrassed myself now."

"Oh, for crying out loud," muttered the king, turning the wheel again in much the same way a teacher would bang the blackboard to silence a noisy classroom. This time I emitted a little dog-like whimper as the table struck home once again. "You two shut up!" shouted the king, waving his pistol and Penfold and Jam. "Now you, talk!"

"Let's not start that again," I said.

"TELL ME WHAT I NEED TO KNOW!!" squawked the monarch, jumping up and down in fury.

"Alright!" I said. "The moustache looks ridiculous, lose it. And that robe makes you look fat. And jumping up and down like that just looks stupid. And that colour your face is turning really doesn't go with your collar. Have you-" I stopped with a little squeak of pain as the coffee table hit me again.

"Don't mess me about, two-leg!" said the king in a truly menacing voice.

"You said to tell you what you needed to know, not what you wanted to know."


"WHAT DO YOU WANT TO KNOW?!" I shouted back.

"HAVEN'T I TOLD YOU YET?!" he screamed, confused.

"NO!!!!" I shrieked.

"FINE!!" he yelled. "TELL ME THE WAY-" he suddenly broke into a raucous coughing fit, then kept the noise level of his voice restrained from then on. "Tell me the way to El Dorado."

My brow furrowed in confusion. "Why do you want to know the way to El Dorado? I thought you hated the place."

"I do!" he replied. "Which is why, when I find out precisely where it is, I am going to destroy it."

"Destroy it?!" said everyone, incredulously.

"Yes! Moo-hoo-ha-ha-ha-ha-haa!" The evil laughter wasn't up to much. It was like someone reading the words 'moo-hoo-ha-ha-ha-ha-haa' from an autocue.

"But … why?" asked Jam.

"I'll tell you why," said the king, staring insanely. "Because when El Dorado is destroyed and no-one can discover it ever again, Rotherham will be the new Lost City everyone will want to discover! Think of it – row upon row of explorers and tourists, loaded down with plenty of money to spend! We'll be able to stop selling that bloody insurance! Rotherham will be rich and influential, and above all, my wife will love me once again!"

"Henpecked," muttered Penfold. I don't think the king heard him.

"Do you mind if I ask?" I asked. "Why are you torturing me personally, don't you have people you hire specially for this sort of thing?"

The king waved his gun dismissively. Penfold ducked warily. "Oh, most of my people have this misguided sense of compassion," he said disapprovingly. "Slaughtering another Lost City and all the people within would be suicide in the ballot box, let me tell you. I'm keeping this whole plan to myself and the elite guard I will eventually use to end El Dorado's monopoly over the Lost City industry once and for all."

"That's insane!" said Penfold.

"That's business," said the king. "Now, can we get back to the interrogation? I can't help noticing that the last four questions raised in this conversation were directed at me, the interrogator, which is surely arse-backwards. You. El Dorado. Where." His hand hovered over the wheel again.

"I don't know," I confessed. "We had directions on a toilet seat and someone's arse but they're with the rest of our crew."

"And where are they?"

I figured another 'I don't know' would result in further toe torment, so I hastily invented something. "They said they were going down the newsagent to pick up this month's magazines but we haven't heard from them since," I said.

The king gave a sort of frowny-pouty look. "Which newsagent?"

"WH Smith," I said. "In Hinckley."

The king twirled his moustache thoughtfully. "Hmm," he hmmed. "I think I can understand why you haven't heard from them since."

"Why's that?" I asked, relaxing slightly.

"Because there ISN'T a branch of WH Smith in Hinckley!" said the king triumphantly, pointing the muzzle of his pistol in my face. "Now tell me the truth! Where is the rest of your crew?"

I gave in. "I don't know!"

The coffee table went for me again, but this time I was expecting it. Having now subtly removed my right foot from the restraint, I kicked out and caught the monarch under the chin with my bare toes. He dropped to his knees, coughing raucously, trying to re-open his blocked larynx, while Jam seized the opportunity to release me from my chains. After a little prompting from me Penfold also seized his opportunity, picking up the dropped pistol and pointing it at the king.

I slipped my flippers and socks back on quickly as the king noticed his situation, and tried to get to his feet. Jam thumped him cheekily on the side of the head, and he began to fall over onto his side with infinite slowness, since we were still underwater and everything.

"GUARDS!!" shrieked the flailing king.

"Out," I commanded, in unison with my companions. We pulled our helmets back on and flippered it out of the door as fast as we could manage, to face a small crowd of elite guards holding massive spears.

My roguish brain worked fast, and I heard myself speak. "The three two-legs are holding the King!" I said, injecting delirious concern into my voice. "Get them!" As an excuse it wouldn't hold together for very long, but it gave us the chance we needed. As the guards pushed past us into the king's apartments, the three of us faux guards swam rapidly down the curving corridor away from the scene.

Rachilde met us outside the main entrance to the Office. She seemed as flustered as we were.

"Where have y'all been?" she asked, panting. "Ah've been looking all over for y'all!"

"As will the rest of the palace staff in a few minutes," I said breathlessly. "We have to find those catacombs and get out of here. Now."

"This way!" she exclaimed, leading us into the Office just as we heard someone shout 'Hey, you!' behind us. We slammed the doors shut as we went through them, and swam hurriedly into the centre of the enormous arena while perplexed merpeople lining the stands watched in surprise and perverse fascination.

As we neared the very centre of the arena, it became clear why there were so many spectators present. The entire king's army, from the squires to the generals, were parading around the sandy arena, showing off their enormous underwater guns and unparalleled skill in close-formation marching. This all halted abruptly when our presence was noted.

So there we were, myself, Penfold, Jam and Rachilde, in the centre of the Rotherham government building, surrounded by a sea of helmeted warriors, all of whom were carrying guns and were under special orders to capture and/or kill our little squad.

An awkward social situation indeed.

The king forged a channel in the ranks, pushing his way to the front (or rather, having two elite guards in front of him push soldiers aside in his wake). When our situation became visible, he smiled in that altogether not-very-nice way of his.

"This is your last chance, two-legs," he said. "Tell me where El Dorado is and perhaps I'll order your deaths to be quick and painless."

"Where's the entrance to the caverns?" I hissed to Rachilde out of the corner of my mouth.

"Right below us," she said, tapping one of her fins against the floor. The sand made a hollow wooden sound. "Think we could make it through?"

I shook my head. "They'll shoot us as soon as we move."


The voice didn't seem to belong to anyone taking part in the drama, and in fact seemed to be coming from above us. I looked up, and saw a dark silhouette over the open skylight in the ceiling a few hundred feet above our heads. The voice I knew – it had been instrumental in getting me out of having my head chopped off – but the figure was far too blurred by distance to see.

"CATCH!" cried the owner of Mystery Voice, and a small, round shape dropped into the arena, landing with a cloud of sand and rolling between my feet. I only had one second to look at it before it began emitting a dense cloud of grey fog that quickly enveloped us and a fair-sized chunk of the arena.

Coughing the foul-tasting gunk out of my lungs, I tried to look around but the substance invaded my eyes, stinging them and forcing me to screw them shut. I heard the king shouting indecipherable orders, guns firing on all sides, bullets whizzing past, and then the sound of hinges creaking loudly. A slender hand grabbed my wrist, and pulled me towards the floor of the arena. But I never hit the floor; I fell backwards down a deep, dark hole, and rubbed the mist out of my eyes just in time to see a wooden trapdoor above my head slam closed.

Rachilde shoved a heavy steel bolt into place just as the people above us began thumping and banging on the trapdoor. There were a few feet of heavy oak between us and them and the bolt was as thick as a German sausage, so they probably wouldn't be able to make much progress.

"This is an ol' secret passage from way back when Rotherham had a trade route goin' with Mexico City," explained Rachilde. "Leads straight to the South American jungles."

"Sounds ideal," said Penfold graciously.

"Sure, then all we have to do is fight our way out of the jungle, find a way to get airborne again and find a mythical Lost City that no-one has been able to find for decades," I pointed out.

"Don't be ungrateful, Jim," said Penfold. "Thank you for helping us, Rachilde."

"Think nothin' of it, y'all. I got y'all into this mess, now we're even."

"But won't the king execute you for aiding us or something?"

Rachilde smiled. "By tomorrow afternoon ah doubt he'll be able to remember you boys at all," she said. "I'll just wait for the heat to blow over down here."

"So he probably won't try to destroy El Dorado?" I asked.

"Just one o' his li'l fancies. Anyway, y'all should be going."

We thanked the mermaid, and all three of us received pecks on the cheek, which placed Penfold into a trance. But it was an accident and she was terribly apologetic about it, and after several minutes, Jam and myself dragged the blushing accountant by his arms deep into the rocky passageway, our way lit by luminescent gems protruding from the walls at regular intervals.


He snapped out of it after a couple of miles, and the three of us swam in triangular formation through the passageway. It seemed to be sloping downwards gradually, and the water was definitely warming up. We stripped off our armour, flippers and foolish one-leg trousers, and I gratefully slipped my bandana back over my erratic hair. All this seawater was probably doing it no end of damage; it had taken weeks to cultivate a satisfactory layer of grease and colony of lice.

"Do you think she'd go out with me?" asked Penfold suddenly after hours of swimming in silence.

"Who?" I asked.


"Oh, shut up about Rachilde. It's her fault we got waylaid this far."

Penfold seemed hurt. "But if she hadn't we'd probably have been eaten by those giant killer fish she told us about."

I sighed, which is surprisingly difficult underwater. "Penfold, I don't believe in giant killer fish." Far above us, swimming happily around in the Atlantic, a giant killer fish suddenly dropped dead.

"Anyway," I continued, "you were the one saying she would probably lead us to our doom at the start of all this, I seem to recall."

"I didn't know her very well then. I think she's really nice."

I turned to Jam. "How'd you feel about having a mermaid for a stepmum, Jam lad?"

"She doesn't look like the type who can commit to a long-term relationship, uncle Jim."

I nodded uncertainly. "Quite, quite."

We swam for a bit further, making little conversation ("long passage, isn't it?" "yes."), and after a while the cavern stopped leading downwards slightly and curved upwards until it became vertical. Pushed by our natural buoyancy and a cheeky volcanic updraft, it became a lot easier.

When we broke surface we weren't exactly prepared for it. It was kind of like the first desperate moments of flailing around when Rachilde first held us underwater. We pulled ourselves out of the water, lolled around like dying fish, spat up the fluid from our lungs and sucked air in and out with big hoarse bubbly breaths.

The rocky passageway continued upwards, less steeply, but still rather steeply for continuing on foot and our limbs were tired as all hell. On the whole, the ongoing journey was not one we relished.

"I wonder how Uncle Rose and the others are doing," said Jam, gasping.

"Good call," I mumbled into the floor.


"Fighting ninjas on airships is like fighting wolverines on motorbikes. And don't ask me what that's supposed to mean."

- Captain 'Boinko' McTavish


The airship dock is pretty much the central hub of the ninja temple, which explains why it is usually located in almost the dead centre of the place. This is the place where new students of Lance Micklewight arrive for their lengthy training, and where graduates take off to meet their destiny in the skies. This is where the tourists arrive first to be greeted by whichever ninja had drawn the short straw that week and was standing by wearing the peaked cap with 'Official Tour Guide' written across the front. This was where the weekly shipments of sushi and rice wine was dropped off, usually greeted by an enormous crowd of ninjas of all ranks. You've probably never tried to deprive a ninja of his or her sushi and rice wine, as you're clearly still alive and capable of reading this book.

At the moment, however, the airship dock was quite vacant, but for a handful of ninjas cleaning and scraping the small, sleek airships that were parked here. At least, that was all Rose could see from below the sewer grating in the centre of the floor.

"I see two ninjas over there scrubbing that airship," she muttered, "and two more having a fight to the death over there."

"Arr, we can overpower 'em," said Scar, a few feet further down the sewage pipe the three pirates had crawled through.

"We're unarmed, Scar," reminded Rose.

"Well, so are they."

"Those two have got brooms."


"This is an absolutely rotten state of affairs," said Camp Gareth, sitting miserably in the two inches of effluent that ran along the bottom of the pipe. "I feel like that bloke from the Shawshank Redemption."

"But you're not in an all-male prison," said Rose absent-mindedly.

"I know," sighed Gareth unhappily.

"Ye're just a shameless stereotype, aren't yer, Gareth."

"I put that on my CV-"

"Quiet!" hissed Rose, as a ninja standing by an airship looked sharply in their direction, then shrugged and went back to his scrubbing. "We'll sneak out when those two ninjas over there have finished fighting to the death."

It took a surprisingly long time. The ninjas leapt about all over the place, using all sorts of things as makeshift weapons; tools, bits of wood, other ninjas, whatever came to hand. There can only be one victor, however, and eventually one ninja was left unconscious and bleeding on the floor. After tentatively checking his partner's breathing and pulse rate, the winning ninja got to his feet, put down the garden gnome he had been fighting with, and trotted off for lunch. Rose made a little hand signal, and her two remaining crewmen ended their long, expletive-filled conversation about films based upon the writings of Stephen King.

Rose pushed open the hinged grating, wincing with every squeak of rusty hinge, and, satisfied that no masters of the oriental martial arts were flying towards her wielding long wooden sticks, slipped gratefully out of the sewage inlet pipe and into the hangar. She was followed firstly by Gareth, kicking drops of unpleasant liquid from his soaked turn-ups, and secondly by Scar, who, thanks to the recent enforced crash dieting, just barely fit through the circular hole.

A trio of foul-smelling pirate-shaped figures crept over to one of the currently unmanned airships, stepped gingerly over the moaning body of the losing ninja, and clambered up the boarding ladder. The ninja vessel was smaller than a typical pirate one, sleek and painted silver-grey. A long hydrogen balloon which, when fully inflated, probably resembled a great big cigar, but which currently looked more like a great big dog turd, was connected to the centre of the deck by strong steel cables. There was nothing on the metal grille deck but a steering wheel, the usual coil of rope and a complex-looking computer console mounted nearby.

"Very nice," said Gareth.

"Flashy," sneered Scar.

Rose, meanwhile, had walked up to the computer console. Her face, lit from all sides by various illuminated displays and buttons, fell. "None of these buttons are labelled," she complained. "I wouldn't know where to start."

Scar and Gareth peered over her shoulders. Then Gareth reached behind the console, and produced a leather-bound book the size of your average Yellow Pages.

"What's that?" asked Scar.

"Instruction manual," explained the camp one, turning to the first page. "'Congratulations on your purchase of the Ultra-Commando 4000 Airship-'" he read aloud.

"How do we start the bloody thing?" asked Rose impatiently.

Gareth turned over to the next page. "Oh," he said. "Can you read Japanese, captain?"

Rose hit herself sharply upon the side of the head, and seemed to calm down a bit. "No," she said flatly. "Scar?"

"I 'ave a GCSE in Japanese, actually, cap'n," said the big pirate proudly.

"Right. You read the manual."

Scar took the huge book eagerly and flipped through the thin pages. His expression of concentration slipped quickly into a pained wince. "Cap'n," he said sheepishly, "I dunno if ye realise this, but 'avin' a GCSE in Japanese an' actually bein' able to read it fluently are two very differen' things."

Rose slapped her forehead, and dragged her hand down her face. "Can you read any of it?"

Scar turned back to the first page of instructions and placed the point of his hook on the first line. His lips moved silently as he delved into the dusty, poorly-maintained archive of his education. "I think," he said slowly, "that this might be the symbol for 'balloon', here, cap'n."

"Absolutely amazing, Scar," sighed Rose, striding over to the helm. "I'm just going to start pressing these buttons randomly now, do let me know if you have any more searing insights."

"Right you are, cap'n."

Rose tapped her chin, hovered a hand over the buttons, trying to decide on one to press. Logic would dictate, she thought to herself, that the start button would be suitably large, within reaching distance of the steering wheel, noticeable, and probably red. This narrowed down the playing field to two identical, circular buttons and a big red square one between those two. Another brief chin-tap and a round of eeny-meeny-miny-mo, and she depressed the latter.

Klaxons wailed on all sides, and the entire hangar was bathed in red light. A rather expressionless voice with a Japanese accent said "Warning. Self-destruct sequence has been initiated. Self destruct sequence has been ini-"

The noise ended abruptly when Rose mashed the square button again, cancelling the self destruct sequence. I suppose ninja engineering has something to be said for it. They're smart enough to not build the 'start self destruct sequence' button and the 'cancel self destruct sequence' button in two completely separate parts of the ship. This might sound like a straightforward enough feature, but you'd be surprised how many vessels don't include it.

None of this matters, however. What matters is that the sudden noise and light show had alerted the ninjas once again to the presence of the pirates. It was a matter of seconds before the ninja horde began to file into the hangar.

Thinking quickly, Scar ran over to the boarding ladder and hauled it up and onto the deck, preventing the ninjas from getting aboard. Seeing this, the small army of oriental warriors arranged themselves into four or five neat rows in front of the ship, awaiting further instructions.

"We've got to get this ship moving right now," said Scar through clenched teeth. Rose didn't need telling twice; dynamically and with an immediate decisive manner, she began hovering her hand over the console uncertainly again.

"Right no-ow," repeated Gareth in a sing-song voice.

Rose stabbed a finger into one of the other two buttons she had singled out. There was a whine of hydraulics and a little trapdoor opened in the deck, out of which emerged a small damp sponge on the end of a stick. It wiped itself once or twice across the steering wheel, then withdrew back into the deck. Rose whistled. "Now that's class," she commented.

"Cap'n…" said Scar edgily, nodding a head to the ninja horde below that was watching them with only slight interest.

"Alright," said Rose, pushing the third button. Immediately there was a loud hiss, and the dog-turd balloon overhead expanded to take on the proper cigar shape. The ship was clearly trying to take off, but stopped.

"Ballast," said Scar, and began flipping through the manual with more urgency. As he did so, the head ninja arrived and took up position at the rear of the little crowd. He held a hand aloft, and all ninja eyes were drawn to it.

Rose stabbed a button randomly. A styrofoam cup dropped into a small receptacle in the console and was promptly filled with piping hot coffee.

"Do you want that?" asked Gareth hopefully. "Only I skipped breakfast."

The head ninja's hand made a curious movement, and the first row of ninjas approached the airship's hull to begin ramming what looked like short decorated halberds into it. The ship rocked left and right with their blows.

"Ballast!" said Scar triumphantly, pointing at the text. "I think this symbol 'ere means 'ballast'."

"Which button, which button?" asked Rose urgently.

Scar reached over and pressed a green rectangular button with the point of his hook while Gareth peered expectantly over the side. The big stone blocks tied to the hull and weighing the ship down remained resolutely still, but did receive a spray of wax and a quick buff from another hydraulic sponge.

"No luck," said Gareth. "This is exciting, isn't it?"

"Heart-stopping," muttered Rose anxiously, moving over to the side and glaring at the ballast, as if this might make it comply out of shame.

Scar, meanwhile, started pressing the buttons rapidly and randomly. Lights turned on and off, hydraulics moved back and forth, several portions of the hull received a quick polish, and Rose and Gareth found they had to leap aside as two trapdoors along the side of the deck swung open and a pair of vicious-looking electronic laser cannons rose up to eye level.

"Result!" said Rose, shouldering one of the huge weapons and folding a finger around the trigger. An experimental blast knocked a hole in the far wall, and made the entire ninja horde duck into alert crouches in perfect synchronicity.

"Gareth, man that gun," ordered Rose, waving towards the deathbringer in question and lining up for another shot.

"Must I?" whined the camp one. "What if the trigger's all greasy?" Rose didn't deign to reply, so Gareth took up the gun, muttering.

Another blast from Rose pierced the right ear of a passing member of the ninja's cleaning staff. The ninja horde started concentrating on looking for something to hide behind, most of them seeming to settle for each other. At the same time, the two huge weights along the side suddenly came loose and clattered to the floor, crushing a few unwary beetles who had turned up to watch the show. The ballast was gone, and the airship began to slowly rise.

"Found the right button, cap'n," said Scar unnecessarily. "Funny 'ow it's always the last one you try, isn't it?"

Rose didn't respond, but incinerated one of the human shields. Gareth fired a single shot uneasily, and immediately roasted a small pigeon who happened to be passing over the temple. Its well-done corpse landed on the beetle that was kneeling by the crushed remains of its family and weeping bitter, insectile tears.

The ninja leader barked an order that the pirates couldn't quite hear to a lackey they couldn't quite see, and a black figure broke away from the pack and scampered towards a large metal lever mounted to the floor nearby. Rose took careful aim, but missed, and was only able to blast the little git to oblivion after he'd pulled the lever. Darkness began to fall, which was odd, as it was only two in the afternoon.

With a whine of machinery and a grinding of gears, the enormous steel doors that made up the ceiling were gradually closing.

"More power! Go faster!" yelled Rose. The airship was barely at ceiling level.

"Right you are, cap'n," said Scar, turning authoritatively back to the control panel. "Now then, I remember it was one o' these ones…"

"Little more haste, please, Scar," said Gareth in an unusually high-pitched voice, as the two enormous doors became ever closer, like two joyful lovers running towards each other in slow motion in that curious way they do in films.

Scar hammered a couple of buttons. Another cup of coffee arrived and a computerised voice asked him if he would like any assistance in using the built-in word processor.

"I'm goin' ta need a bit more notice if you want me to do complicated stuff like going faster, cap'n," said Scar, finally.

"Too late!" yelled Rose. "The doors are nearly shut!"

And indeed they were. Now, if the doors had closed fully slightly earlier then all would have been well. Rose could have used the laser cannons to take a few more pot-shots at the ninjas and demand that someone pull the lever again before she got REALLY nasty. Unfortunately, the doors closed fully just after the balloon, but not the ship, had made it through.

So let me illustrate the situation we have here. The airship containing three very harassed pirates inside an airship hangar with the main ceiling doors closed. The airship was inside the hangar. The balloon was outside the doors. The crack between the doors was just big enough to accommodate the ropes that tethered the balloon to the ship. So the balloon was still pulling the ship upwards, only now there was a pair of big metal doors between the two.

So anyone on the deck of the airship was going to be very shortly crushed against the ceiling.

It's much clearer when you lay it all out, isn't it?

The figurehead of the airship was already scraping against the hard metal above. Scar was feeling the need to bow slightly as he perused the instruction manual for a solution. Rose was just concentrating on blowing away ninjas, occasionally pulling back behind cover when shurikens were hurled in her direction. Like good pirates they were keeping their head in this time of crisis, alert to every possibility, performing their tasks efficiently and quickly until a solution presented itself. Gareth, meanwhile, was running up and down the deck shouting and waving his arms.

"Do something do something do something!" was his chief contribution to the conversation, sometimes peppered with "AAAAAAAAH!" or gibbered comments about how the feather in his hat was being bent against the roof. I don't like to say Gareth was a bad pirate, he just subscribed to an alternative branch of the trade. A branch that was occupied by only one person and was growing on an entirely different tree altogether.

Eventually he seemed to compose himself slightly, in that he stopped actually running about and instead grabbed Rose by the shoulders and shook her back and forth like a mad thing. "Do something, captain!" he wailed. "I'm too beautiful to die!"

Rose wrestled free from his grip, and socked him squarely in the jaw. The blow was only supposed to knock him out and stop him from embarrassing himself, but one should never underestimate Gareth's thick skull. He staggered back, clutching his face, gave Rose an incredulous look, tripped over a coil of rope and fell over the rail.

"Man overboard!" yelled Rose.

"That's stretchin' the term a little-" said Scar, who was now bent double. The figurehead had already broken off.

Rose wasn't listening. She ran over to the side and watched as the brilliantly dressed figure of Gareth fell away from the ship and towards the waiting crowd of angry ninjas. A closer look revealed that Gareth had somehow managed to get his foot caught in the rope; a length was trailing from his ankle to the rapidly diminishing coil on the deck. Spotting this, Rose leapt, almost concussed herself on the increasingly low ceiling, grabbed the rope with both hands and dug her heels into the deck. Gareth's descent stopped abruptly, a mere two feet from the floor.

But as anyone who's ever leapt off a bridge with elastic around their ankles will tell you, that is rarely the end of the ordeal. Gareth would no doubt bounce back up at any second, screaming and waving his limbs around like an octopus at an all-night rave, before dropping back down to ninja-death level. Not relishing this prospect, Gareth clamped both arms around the closest thing to hand, which turned out to be – brace yourself – a big metal lever mounted to the floor. It moved into the opposite position with a rattle of gears before Gareth's sweaty hands slipped free and he flew upwards several yards, just as three shurikens and a throwing knife whistled through the air where he had been scant seconds ago.

The enormous hangar doors were now beginning to open, and the airship rattled against them until the gap was big enough to accommodate it, whereupon the whole vessel popped out into the wide blue yonder like a champagne cork. The ninjas pulled the lever back into the other position but it was too late; Gareth, flailing on the end of his rope, slipped through the gap with feet to spare.

"We made it!" said Scar. "Good on yer, Gareth lad!"

"EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEK!" went Gareth, but I think he meant to say something along the lines of "Oh, it was nothing, really."

"Eat that, wise ninja tossers!" shouted Scar enthusiastically. "Up the buccaneers!"

Rose was meanwhile hauling on the rope to bring Gareth back up on deck. "Scar, kindly take stock," she said. "We're stuck on an airship we have no idea how to control and are gradually rising into the upper atmosphere where we will suffocate and die."

Scar proffered the manual. "Oh, I found the English translation at the back," he said. "Sorry. Should prob'ly 'ave looked for that earlier."

Rose slapped her forehead, releasing the rope and letting Gareth fall back down again with a yelp. Sighing, she took it up again and resumed hauling. "Right then," she said. "Soon as we get Gareth up and his trousers down we set sail for El Dorado. In the meantime, go west."

Scar took up the ship's wheel, spun it briskly, and began whistling a certain Pet Shop Boys hit. Truly it was a good day to be alive; the sun was out, the clouds were far below and jolly pirates were en route to their booty. The sky was full of promise, chirping birds, and ninja airships.


"Bandits at three o'clock!" yelled Scar, offering an opportunity for the usual joke which was thankfully not taken. Rose cast a look around the sky; three Sky Ninja airships had taken off from the temple, now dwindling in the distance, and were closing in on the pirates with some ease. Rose dropped Gareth's rope again, ran back to her laser cannon and took careful aim.

"Faster, first mate!" yelled the captain. Scar flipped through a few pages in the manual, then tentatively pressed a few new buttons. There was a whirr as a pair of booster engines emerged from the rear of the ship and burst into life with a crackling roar. The vessel shot forwards like a very fast thing on a greasy slope, causing Scar to go flying off his feet, but the ninjas were still gaining on them.

"Of all the airships in that hangar!" Rose was yelling. "We had to take the one with the dodgy acceleration!"

"Calm down, cap'n," said Scar, getting wobbly to his feet. "Think of yer blood pressure."

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!" added Gareth, being pulled along behind like a small dog leashed to a motorbike.

By now the first of the ninja airships had drawn alongside them, close enough for Rose to see the small platoon of ninjas sitting on the deck, watching them with mild interest. A ninja who seemed to be in charge made a small hand movement and the entire company stood and wordlessly appointed two representatives, who stepped forward and took up the two laser cannons. Rose ducked as a laser shot whistled overhead, then fired wildly from floor level. Her shot zipped straight through the enemy ship's balloon, which began to hiss like a snake that had eaten a kettle.

As the first ship flew away stupidly, farting like a nervous dog, the other two ships kept their distance, falling behind but keeping pace. Scar tossed them a V-sign and a beardy grin, and a laser shot singed the top of his headscarf. Rose tried to train her laser cannon, but found that it refused to rotate around that far.

"Turn around!" yelled Rose, lustful for the blood of ninjas.

"What?" asked Scar.

"WHAAAAAAT?!" wailed Gareth miserably.

"Turn us around now, first mate, that's an order!"

Scar muttered something about there being a special word for pirates who pull rank, and bitterly spun the wheel. With a lurching creak and a fresh bout of whimpering from Gareth, the shanghaied ninja airship banked and began to turn in a wide, sweeping arc. The enemy ships sped past them, momentarily slipping back into Rose's line of fire, and a series of volleys in their direction utterly failed to hit the target.

"Around again," said Rose hungrily. Scar made another muttered comment along the lines of how he felt certain captains should make their bloody minds up, and gave the wheel another vicious shove. Once again the pirates' ship tilted and curved around, now coming up behind the two enemy ships, both of which began to bank in opposite directions to right this situation. Laser fire filled the sky, burning smoking holes only in the surrounding clouds. Rose sent a fresh series of shots in the direction of the enemy ships, far too cumbersome to dodge in time.

One of the ships received a hit to the rear boosters, and slowed down considerably as a result. Just as a few ninjas onboard began to attempt to get out and push, Rose mercilessly punctured their balloon as they swept past, sending a second ship bouncing around the sky emitting immature wind-breaking noises.

"And then there was one," said Rose, happier than she'd been in a long time. "Keep us occupied for Gertrude Van Helsing, eh? Suck laser! This is for Jim!"

Scar and Gareth exchanged worried glances. As Gareth was many feet below and dangling from his ankle, this proved difficult. "Cap'n," said Scar, "maybe ye should let someone else do the shootin' fer a little while-"

"You just keep us on course, Scar," said Rose, eyes not leaving her gun's sights. The enemy ship was about a hundred yards off the port bow, curving around them to get behind them, and directly in the line of fire. "Hello, boys," wheedled Rose as she gently squeezed the trigger.

The nasty little 'click' that resulted Rose would later attribute to skidding off the track and watching your car disintegrate around you after being in pole position during the last lap of the Grand Prix. When the little computerised voice politely informed her that she was out of ammunition and should recharge the plasma cell, it was like lying in the wreckage of the aforementioned metaphorical vehicle while an immaculately dressed waiter walked up and kicked her in the kidneys.

"Shit," she said, which was one way of putting it, I suppose.

Scar jumped away from the helm out of reflex when a hook on the end of a chain embedded itself in the deck nearby; the ninjas were trying to board. As a long-term pirate Scar was used to being boarded, and he knew the drill - he yanked out the hook and threw it back, just as another two arrived. It was when they started arriving four at a time that they started to faze the big man. It wasn't long before he had to back away from the platoon of arriving hooks in order to avoid being caught on one like a big hairy fish.

The first ninja leapt onto the deck when the ships were just a few yards apart. Another misjudged his leap and met one of the rear engines intimately and painfully, but the next didn't make the same mistake. Rose tried to bring her gun around to point at them, but it refused to rotate around far enough. She and her first mate found themselves being forced onto the front half of the deck as more and more armed ninjas pushed their way onboard. Eventually the deck was almost completely hidden beneath a sea of black-clad figures, and the two pirates were surrounded by drawn swords.

"Bugger," said Scar.

"WHAT'S GOING OOOON?!" came the voice of Gareth.

"Now what?" hissed Rose.


She didn't wait for a reply, as an idea had just occurred to her. "I demand to see the contract that has been taken out against us!" she cried to the ninja masses.

The prime weakness of the ninjas is, of course, their sense of honour and duty. They firmly believe that it is the victim's inalienable right to see the contract before execution, should they choose to. There was some jostling in the crowd and the head ninja appeared at the forefront, handing Rose a rolled-up scroll. She opened it with sweaty palms, and spent several minutes scanning it while the ninjas shifted from foot to foot in boredom or looked at imaginary watches.

"I thought so," said Rose after a while. "This contract just says you have to slow us down, not kill us. Gertrude wouldn't want us dead, she wouldn't have anyone to gloat to."

The head ninja coughed politely. "We know not 'Gertrude'," he said in a quiet but nonetheless booming voice. "Our contract is with a man named Jeffrey Van Helsing."

It took a few seconds to explain the rather one-sided take-and-take relationship between Gertrude and her father, but it didn't seem to matter much to the ninjas. The head ninja put the scroll back in his belt, and ordered that the men with swords continue with what they were doing.

"B-but the contract said just to slow us down!" protested Rose.

"Nothing can slow someone down quite like death," pointed out the ninja.

The swords closed in. Just before they came into contact with anything, however, Rose played her winning hand. "Gertrude Van Helsing is a sky pirate!" she said rapidly.

There was total silence.

"Are you sure?" enquired the head ninja.

Two pirate heads nodded rapidly. "We're racing 'er," added Scar.

"Oh," muttered the ninja. "Bum."

"But our contract was with-" began a nearby subordinate.

The head ninja shook his masked head. "We do not take contracts from pirates, nor close relations of same. If this got out we could lose our licence."

"Then let's kill these pirates so they can't talk," said the same nearby subordinate, readying his sword for the terminal swing.

The head ninja clouted him stiffly across the skull, and the sword fell from his hand. "Are you simple?" barked the leader. "If we kill these pirates, then we have fulfilled a contract with a pirate. Fulfilling a pirate's contract is a far worse crime than merely accepting one. Sheathe your swords, men. We're leaving."

There was some uncomfortable grumbling among the ranks, and the blades withdrew.

Ninjas, it seems, are also terribly efficient at retreating as well as fighting. After letting Rose and the others keep the stolen airship in return for not telling Ninja High Command about all this, the embarrassed horde were back on their own airship in less than a minute. By the time Rose had hauled Gareth back on deck, they were nothing but a dwindling speck on the horizon.

"Where to now, cap'n?" asked Scar, taking up position at the helm again.

Gareth had now fainted from all the excitement, so Rose hauled him over her shoulder, carried him across the ship, and flung him over the ship's wheel. Then she pulled his trousers down in a single movement, and pointed. "Follow," she said simply.

Scar eyed Gareth's buttocks distastefully, then returned to the instruction manual.

Rose went over to the railing, placed both hands upon it, and sucked in a great big lungful of healthy, fresh air. "I wonder how Jim and the others are doing," she said, predictably.


"You presume correct, mush. And you are?"

- Dr. Livingston


If you have a friend who returns from a holiday to the jungles of South America and tells you what a wonderful time they had, punch them in the face immediately. They are liars. The jungles of South America are an absolutely rotten place. They're full of spiders and big nasty animals. And lots and lots and lots of vegetation.

My trusty cutlass was doing a machete's job pretty decently as I slashed the foliage out of my path, but there were still a few errant branches swinging around and whipping me across the face. I would push these aside and move on, allowing them to spring back just in time for Penfold. It was only fair. Of the three of us he was looking the most ridiculous, still dressed in his torn pinstripe trousers, collared shirt and tie, with his briefcase hanging from a strap. He was a definite accountant out of water.

As for Jam, he was taking it all in his stride as children do, ceaselessly complaining about being thirsty and tired. Personally I think they should both have been very grateful that I was there for them.

We had climbed all the way up the rocky passageway to find that it opened up deep in the jungles of Brazil. After spending a restless night around the cave exit, our hands kept ever close to our weapons for fear of the big spiders, we were now carving a trail through the godforsaken place, praying to the spirit of Norbert Micklewight that we would find a way back into the sky.

"I'm thirsty," whined Jam for the thirteenth time that hour. "Can I have another drink?"

We had filled whatever we had had to hand with water from a small natural spring we had found, but it was fast running out in the heat. "No," said Penfold sternly between gasping breaths. "We mustn't waste our resources."

"It wouldn't be wasting, dad," insisted Jam. "I'll just swill it round my mouth for a bit and spit it back in the bottle."

"I think not."

I gave a bush in front of me a particularly vicious hack to reveal a small circular clearing in the heavy foliage. "Let's rest for a while," I said through the small waterfall of sweat running down my physog. "We've been at this for hours."

We sat awkwardly in the long grass, panting, each taking a single mouthful from Penfold's Tupperware lunchbox he had emptied of decaying sandwiches and filled with water. We made no conversation, just sat, rested, and kept our minds to the possibility of biting insects infiltrating our trousers. That was until Jam suddenly started, and pointed into the leaves behind me. "What was that?" he said.

I looked where he had indicated, and frowned. "I dunno, a rubber tree?"

"No, I saw something. A man."

I stood up, and peered over and through the bushes. "I can't see anything-" I stopped as a grey-blue streak flitted into the corner of my eye. My head jerked towards it, and I was just in time to see a foot in a well-polished black brogue disappear into the undergrowth.

"Hey!" I shouted after it. "Who're you?"

There was no sound save for the general ambience of the jungle.

"Jim…" said Penfold in a rather weak voice. I paid him no heed and pushed a few plants aside to get a better view. Seeing nothing, I leaned back, and sighed.

"Bloody jungle," I said, and sat back down. The fact that Penfold and Jam were both lying spreadeagled and unconscious didn't register for a while. When it did, I ran up to Penfold to check his pulse, and found a feathered mechanical pencil protruding from his neck.

"Bugger me!" I commented, then repeated myself when I felt a sharp prang in my shoulder. I turned just in time to see a blowpipe disappear behind a large palm leaf. A rather pleasant, prickly numb sensation was spreading throughout my torso.

"Hmm," I slurred, before succumbing to unconsciousness.


My mind was foggy and my vision not dissimilar, but I awoke to the sensation of being gently rocked. I was hanging upside-down like a sloth, wrists and ankles bound to a narrow tree trunk. It was being carried through a seemingly well-trodden path through the jungle, held by a pair of indistinct, blurry figures in blue. To my left Penfold was dangling from a similar arrangement, tongue lolling, obviously still under the effects of the drug. Jam was being carried along to my right, similarly incapacitated.

As my vision cleared and my headache subsided, I was able to identify our captors more clearly, and when I did, I was understandably surprised. They were all wearing slightly tatty pinstripe suits, stripy ties, and sensible shoes. Their hair was oiled flat against their heads, and a few of them wore black plastic-rimmed spectacles.

"Hey!" I yelled. "What's going on? Who are you people?"

They ignored me totally, trudging solemnly on through the undergrowth.

"Don't just brush me off!" I continued. "I demand to see the pirate consulate! Hey! Listen! You all smell of wet dog! Oi!" I was shut up by a clout to the skull which, though light, had an underlying message that worse was to come if I didn't keep my mouth shut. The clouter made an indistinct comment to me in some language I didn't understand, and a few of his fellows sniggered.

"Hey!" I whispered across to my conked-out compatriot. "Penfold! Wake up!"

"Murmur," was his contribution.

"Wake up! We're in trouble!"

"Don't hurt me, Dr. Eichmann, you can have your sherbet back," mumbled the accountant.


"Wha – what? Jim?" He twisted his neck around, taking in our predicament. "What's going on?"

"I think we've been captured by natives," I said.

"What tipped you off?"

"It doesn't matter. I think they're going to kill us or eat us or something."

"And you felt you should wake me up for that?"

"No, no … listen, what do you make of them?"

Penfold took in the curious apparel of the natives, apparently for the first time, and a thin gasp escaped his lips. He craned around to look at the ones bringing up the rear. "Incredible," he whispered. "I heard rumours … but I never imagined they could be true in my wildest dreams!"

That seemed about right. The wildest dream Penfold had ever had had involved an application form for a checking account that had been filled in by someone with illegible handwriting. He had of course woken up screaming.

"You know who they are, Penfold?" I asked.

He leaned towards me slightly and spoke in a hushed tone, a very mystical expression on his face. "When the office is closed and the last of the paperwork is done, the accountants will gather around the water cooler and exchange tales of great accounting myths and legends, such as the Golden Calculator, the Holy Grail of the accounting world, and the legendary adventures of Big John Neasden, the greatest accountant who ever lived."

"And?" I prompted.

"The legend attached to the Golden Calculator states that its last known location was in the hands of a tribe of renegade accountants who worship and maintain it. Some say they used to be natives now possessed by the Calculator. Others say that they are corpses raised from the ground by the awesome powers of the Calculator to do its bidding. Still others believe that they are simply staff from the Hodder Lebowski Premium Accountancy Firm who went missing during a company team building exercise in the jungles of Peru."

I took another look at our captors. "Right now I'm only prepared to disregard the first possibility," I said.

"Legend also states that everyone who has gone in search of the Calculator and its worshippers have disappeared, never to be seen again."

I looked at him closely. "I never thought it was possible to say something like that and still make it sound dull, but somehow you managed it, Penf. Well done."

"Why do you have to be so flippant all the time?"

"Just keeping in character."


Suddenly, the group stopped in front of a seemingly impassable wall of bunched-together trees and rock. The head of the party, the tallest of the accountants in the neatest suit, stepped up to the barrier and depressed a seemingly ordinary piece of stone in a businesslike fashion. With a squeal of winches and a clunk of counterweights, the blockage rose six feet in the air to reveal –

Well, what would you expect to see? A wide clearing containing a rather squat Aztec step pyramid surrounded by enough vegetation to hide it from prying eyes. About the base of the large structure a number of small huts roofed with grass formed a cluster, like attendees at a boring staff party standing around awkwardly, wondering if anyone will come up and talk to them.

The head of the party held his arms wide, and spoke a few words in his curious language again. Now I could hear it more clearly, it sounded like there were numbers integrated into his words. This was confirmed when the rest of the accountants in unison said "Twelve," in voices quietened by awe.

"He said, 'welcome to the Lost City of Arithmia'," whispered Penfold in my ear.

"It's always Lost Cities with us, isn't it," I said gloomily. "Just one Lost City after the other. We'll turn into Lost Cities if we're not careful." I paused. "You understand their language?"

"Oh yes," said Penfold, glad to be useful. "It's the secret accountant language we were taught on company team-building exercises."

"I always wondered what went on in those."


Arithmia wasn't really much of a city, to be blunt. A bunch of straw dwellings, a restaurant, a nightclub that shared the same building as the restaurant, and, of course, the temple, which more than made up for the rest of the place. The trees were so tall and so close together around the city that it served to disguise the whole place from anyone who might be looking down from a helicopter. A leafy green ceiling enclosed the clearing, leaving the lighting so poor that torches were kept permanently lit in what passed for the streets. What people we saw were mostly men in the usual suits and ties, but there were a few severe-looking women in trouser suits and steely-eyed children in something not unlike school uniform.

Not that we got to see much of it. We were finally cut from the poles and frogmarched up the seemingly endless stone steps to the very top of the pyramid, where a comparatively small rock structure stood before a large sun patio laid out in square paving slabs. The architecture was not the chief thing on our minds, however, and I hoped silently that the long-dried red splatter stains all over the floor were caused by clumsy people trying to eat jam sandwiches. With the points of spears prodding our behinds, we filed into the small building.

A very fat businessman lay within, sat upon a stone throne carved with ornate numbers. From the neck down he seemed normal, dressed in a rather strained pinstripe suit, but he also had on a crown of palm leaves and a huge papier mache mask depicting the face of an elderly gentleman wearing bifocals. He barked an order, and Penfold assured us that he had ordered us to kneel. We did so, not being keen on having spears jammed up alongside our kidneys.

"[So,]" intoned the high priest, Penfold whispering translations subtly into my ear. "[Who are these normals?]"

"[We found them in the jungle,]" said one of the accountants. "[What would you have us do with them, O great one?]"

The huge masked man walked up to the first in our little trio, who happened to be Jam. "[A child,]" said the priest. "[A true accountant must be trained from birth, but in some circumstances we can bend those rules.]" He switched faultlessly to English and addressed Jam. "Boy," he said. "What is seventeen times thirty-four?"

There was a very long pause. Jam looked from Penfold to myself desperately.

"Coughfivehundredandseventyeightcough," coughed Penfold.

"Four hundred and seventy-three," said Jam promptly.

The high priest didn't even dignify him with a reply. Merely turned up his nose and took a step forward, to be directly in front of me.

"And you are?" he asked.

"William Shatner," I said, thinking quickly.

"[Are you an accountant?]" he said.

"Very well, thank you," I bluffed, smiling. Penfold silently placed a hand over his eyes. Once again the high priest gave no response, just moved on to Penfold.


"[I am Penfold Lexington, formerly of the Superglue tribe.]"

"[Superglue Northampton?]" asked the priest suspiciously.

"[Superglue Chiswick,]" replied Penfold, side-stepping the trap. "[Would you mind if we continued in English for the benefit of my friend and my adopted son?]"

"As you wish," said the high priest, dropping the square brackets from his speech. "Why formerly of Superglue?"

"I left to take an in-house job with an, erm, private business," said Penfold shamefully. I was momentarily shocked at his feeling embarrassed about working for a pirate crew, then continued praying to get out of this alive.

"Ah," said the high priest, curling his lip into a sneer. "A mercenary. Mercenary accountants are the worst kind."

"If you say so, O Great One," fawned Penfold shamelessly. The sneery lip curled back down again.

"Very well," said the priest. "You will undergo the Three Tests of Accountancy, and if you pass them, you may take your place among us in Arithmia."

"And if I fail?"

"We will sacrifice you all to the Golden Calculator," replied the big man, as if it needed to be said.


A quick phone call that established that Penfold was who he said he was followed, and suddenly the tribe was a lot more civil toward us. True, they continued to treat Jam and myself like cattle and had assured us a second time that we would all perish if Penfold failed in his tasks, but apart from that, they did put us in a very plush guest hut which had satellite TV and everything. Finding it difficult to sleep, there not being any beds, Jam had settled down to watch 'World's Sexiest Serial Killers', I was sitting at the small table playing Solitaire with some stuffed olives I had found, and Penfold was sitting by the window gazing out wistfully.

Eventually, after coming to a halt with two olives left, I gave up on the Solitaire, leaned back, folded my arms and tried to initiate a conversation.

"Well, this is a pickle, isn't it," I said.

"Mm," said Jam. Penfold didn't say anything, or even look away.

"Any idea what these tasks they have for you will be?" I asked him directly.

He still didn't look away, but this time he at least said something. "They just said three increasingly difficult tasks that would prove my skill as an accountant and my loyalty to the Golden Calculator," he said. "Then I have to join their little community."

"Yes, well, about that," I said uncomfortably. "Guess you're gonna have to really wow them, Penf, so they'll be agreeable to just letting us bugger off."

Penfold sighed. It was a very communicative sigh.

"Jim," he said, finally turning around, saying the word as if it was somehow painful. "If I pass these three tasks, I'm going to stay. You and Jam can go without me."

It took a few seconds for it to sink in, but when it did, Jam finally turned away from the TV and stared open-mouthed at his adoptive father. I was already doing so.

"Why?" asked the boy.

Penfold shrugged. "I've already decided to leave Rose's crew and leave you with Jim. I said I'd wait for the end of the adventure, but I think that, for us, the adventure's already over. Even if Rose and the others are still alive I don't see how we're ever going to meet up with them again."

"But why do you want to live here?" I asked. "With these savages?"

Penfold looked at me. There was deep sadness in his eyes. "Jim … when I was working at Superglue, I always had this feeling that that was exactly where I belonged. When I joined the pirates that feeling went away. But as soon as I came to this city … as soon as I was surrounded by these other accountants … I felt it again, stronger than ever before. I hadn't felt it in ten years, I hardly recognised it, but eventually it all came flooding back. And besides, this is the resting place of the Golden Calculator! The artefact that all accountants pledge their allegiance to! This is just … where I belong, Jim. This is my spiritual home."

For a while, none of us had anything to say, then Jam piped up.

"That was a really lame speech, Dad."

I nodded. "He's got a point there, Penf, you were laying it on pretty thick."

Penfold sighed once more. I'd never seen him look so downcast before. This was one of my oldest friends alongside whom I had been through thick and thin. Parting with us was genuinely painful to him, and all we could do was criticise. I decided to do the only decent thing. Spend the rest of the night criticising him and being generally obnoxious so he wouldn't feel so bad about leaving me.

I silently congratulated myself at this sound strategy, farted mightily, and began artfully picking my nose. Penfold tutted and returned his gaze to the window.

What can I say? The guy just doesn't deserve me.


A few hours later morning broke like the wind of an obnoxious hippo, and the three of us were picked up from the guest hut and escorted back up the hundreds of stone steps to the top of the pyramid. This time, as we went through, we noticed that the village was completely deserted. At first I thought it was because it was too early in the morning and everyone was still indoors serving each other breakfast, but it transpired that they were all waiting at the top of the pyramid for us.

They were crowded around a vast canvas sheet that lay upon the ground, marked with a four-foot-high post on each corner. Three thick ropes led from each post to the next, creating a roped-off enclosure in the centre of which the enormous high priest was standing, holding a small microphone.

A burly native dumped a bucket of wet sponges into my arms without giving me a second glance, and Penfold was shepherded into his corner of the ring. Jam and I took up position at the ropes nearby. At this closer range we could now see that a pair of huge nets were suspended from a tree trunk supported horizontally overhead.

"[In the red corner,]" intoned the priest to his microphone, which didn't seem to be plugged in. "[Formerly of Superglue Chiswick, the mercenary accountant Penfold Lexington, our challenger for today. In the blue corner, our reigning champion, Roger Lautrec.]"

Stepping into the ring at the opposite corner was the biggest man we had ever seen in all our travels. If you took someone like Scar and multiplied him by the bloke who played 'Jaws' in those two Bond films, you'd have a half-decent impression of what this guy was like. He didn't look like anyone could have birthed him. He looked like he owed his construction to the fact that a building company had ordered too much material for a box girder bridge they were making and had a lot of time to kill afterwards. He was also dressed in a grey pinstripe suit that looked like it was made by tent manufacturers.

A dollop of saliva plunged down Penfold's pencil neck with a very audible 'plunk'. He walked nervously up to the high priest who was beckoning them both, and gingerly shook hands with his opponent. It was like watching a gigantic crab swallow a barnacle. He returned to his corner very shakily, and almost collapsed onto his stool.

"Jesus Christ, Penf," I said, mashing a sponge against his brow. "We haven't even started yet and I already have to do this."

"He's … huge …" was all he could say.

The high priest called for order. The crowd suddenly stopped cheering, and the huge accountant stopped flexing his muscles and returned to his corner. The high priest coughed experimentally into his microphone, and gave a curious hand signal. The two nets hanging overhead were sliced open, and two enormous piles of leaves dropped in front of the two competitors with a brace of thumps.

Something resembling realisation dawned across Penfold's moistened face, and he suddenly became visibly more relaxed. "Oh, I see," he said. "It's just Accountancy Deathmatch. I used to play this all the time with the lads."

"What?" asked Jam and I.

"[Competitors, take your places!]" intoned the high priest. Penfold kneeled in front of his pile, and then his opponent followed suit, shaking the floor as his football-sized knees struck the canvas.

"[On your marks,]" began the priest, unoriginally. "[Get set -]"

I presume he followed up with the word 'go', but I couldn't hear it over the starter's pistol he fired simultaneously. Instantly Penfold began tossing leaves one by one to his left, his lips moving almost imperceptibly. The gigantic accountant simply snatched up an enormous handful of leaves, stared into his palm for about ten seconds, then threw them aside. Finally, I twigged on.

"They're counting leaves," I said. Over the roar of the crowd, Jam was the only person around me who heard.

Penfold's hands were a blur, his nimble fingers artfully turning leaf over leaf and flicking them aside. The big man was much slower, but his approach was no less valid. Both piles were decreasing at a similar rate. It all started out interesting, and the roar of the crowd added something to the moment, but after a while I was shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other and Jam was yawning frequently.

"This is bo-ring, Uncle Jim," whined the lad in a sing-song voice.

I stifled a yawn of my own. "Accountants can just make anything dull, kiddo," I murmured. "I try to keep reminding myself that we could all be dead by tomorrow, but if anything that just makes me feel relieved."

We watched the display for a little longer, then one of the leaves Penfold had counted was flicked quite accidentally to us. I caught it reflexively, and turned it over in my fingers. "Actually, Jam," I said, "we might as well make sure things come out in our favour." I kneeled down and whispered my scheme into his shell-like, and he nodded, took the leaf and toddled around the side of the canvas. None of the audience paid him any heed, transfixed as they were by the deathmatch, so I alone saw him slip the leaf subtly into the big accountant's rapidly diminishing pile. Then he toddled back over to me and took my hand. "Done," he said.

I patted him on the bandana. "Good lad."

Both piles were now barely a shovelful, disappearing at a rate of knots. Penfold was definitely becoming uncomfortable; sweat was pouring down his face and mingling with the starch in his collar. His lips were parted, his teeth clenched. Finally, his opponent leapt to his feet and shouted "Two thousand, seven hundred and sixty-nine!" nanoseconds before Penfold stood and yelled "Two thousand, seven hundred and sixty-eight!"

There was a horrified hush about the crowd. The high priest beckoned one of his lackeys forward, who whispered something into his ear. Finally, he took up the microphone again.

"[The correct amount, counted by independent adjudicators three hours beforehand, can now be revealed as two thousand, seven hundred and sixty-eight.]" There was a cry of disappointment, and the big accountant hung his massive head. Penfold seemed quite startled. "[For miscounting, Roger Lautrec is disqualified and he and all his descendants are banished from the village for three score years and ten. The winner is Penfold Lexington.]" He raised Penfold's trembling arm, and there was a half-hearted round of applause, as the enormous Mr. Lautrec was led off in tears by spear-wielding guards.

"I think we can safely call that a result," I said.


It was a little while later. Quite a long while later, actually. It was nearing darkfall as Jam and I sat on the steps of the great pyramid, bored stiff. The less committed accountants in the village had retired to their huts, but a few stragglers were hanging around, watching Penfold with awe as he calculated Pi to the 10,000th decimal place on the biggest whiteboard I had ever seen. It was truly one of the dullest spectator sports I had encountered in my time.

I looked down at the large collection of leaves I had stored in the front of my pirate shirt (sometimes known as the Indiana Jones shirt), then at the smaller multitude Jam was carrying, then at the miserable-looking accountant who was still sweeping up the leaves from the morning's festivities with a rather rough-looking broom.

"I'm bored," said Jam.

"I'm the chairman of the bored," I said, wondering if he was old enough to understand my witticism, then wondering if that was a rather patronising thought to have.

A two-minute pause, then –

"Can we put these leaves down now?" asked Jam.

I looked at the sweeper-upper, who was very nearly finished. "Why not," I sighed. "PENF!" I shouted.

Penfold jumped at the noise, but masterfully turned the squiggly line he had created into a 4. "Yes?" he called, not turning away.

"What's accountant for 'I think you missed a spot'?"

"72-doc.num sin 317-924 tan 004-lot," he replied, stressing each syllable, one hand still busily marking up the numbers.

"Fankyew," I said, before Jam and I walked up to just behind the sweeper and dropped our respective loads. "[I htink you pissed s apot]," I said, before the two of us went back to our seats with big smirks. After sitting for another few minutes, the smirks faded to faint wistful smiles, before going back to bored frowns. As entertainment it wasn't much, but right now we were just about bored enough to find it amusing.

"So, you gonna miss your old dad?" I asked the boy, seeking conversation.

"Nah," said Jam, him being at that age to have a rudimentary understanding of what it is to be macho.

"You wouldn't rather stay with him?"

The lad shrugged. "I'd much rather be a pirate, Uncle Jim."

The words 'role model' fluttered briefly into my imagination. "Like me?" I asked, testing the water.

"No, a better pirate."


"Someone who doesn't pretend to have food poisoning when the captain asks him to lead a boarding party."

"Yes, alright-"

"Someone who doesn't cry when he gets cut in a swordfight until his opponent apologises and buys him a lolly-"

"Jam, shut up."

He shut up, and so did I. We sat and watched in silence, the only sound being the soft squeaking of marker against whiteboard as Penfold filled the whiteness with number after number. This went on for a little while, before I sighed loudly and obviously and got to my feet. "I am going for a walk," I announced. "Someone come fetch me when the results are in."

Penfold formed his unoccupied hand into a thumbs-up, and Jam waved me off in a jolly manner. With hands dug deep into my pockets and shoulders hunched up almost around my ears, I descended the stone steps to village level without event, and planted my sore feet gratefully on the damp grass.

There were very few people around at this time of night – no-one at all, to be precise – which came as a relief. As much as I liked Penfold, being surrounded by accountants just made my palms itch.

I wandered aimlessly around the deserted village, peering disinterestedly into the windows and seeing only closed curtains. Eventually, feet hurting and growing sleepy, I stopped on a street corner, yawned, stretched, and found myself staring directly at the high priest's living hut. I knew this for sure, as it was (a) much larger and more elaborate than any of the other huts, and (b) had the words 'high priest's living hut' picked out above the door in grass and small stones. I wondered briefly why it wasn't in the accountant's language, then shrugged, and approached the door, trying the handle.

The way I saw it, the high priest had waylaid us and threatened us with death, which I reckoned meant he owed us. The feel of my eyepatch, unmentioned for many chapters, reminded me of my career. I was a pirate, dammit. I had passed the Thieving part of my entrance exam many years ago but I was sorely out of practise.

Picking the lock was beyond me, but since I knew there was no-one in there anyway (the high priest still watching Penfold's performance at the temple) I looked over both shoulders, then forced the door. The shoddy bamboo lock snapped on the first shove, and I was able to slip silently into the house.

I immediately began looking for where the fat priest would hoard his valuables. The dining table yielded only a bowl of wooden fruit, and the Welsh dresser contained only little pots of pot pourri. Finally, I broke the lock on a small wooden chest at the foot of his paisley-patterned waterbed and found a small, leather-bound book held closed with an elastic band. It had the word 'DIARY' picked out in raised gold letters on the front.

I crouched down by the trunk, and flicked through the pages. Most of the entries were immaculately written in the bizarre accountant gobbledegook language, but a few obviously hurried, scribbly passages were English. I briefly wondered why.

"'Monday'," I read aloud. "'Am finding myself becoming increasingly attracted to Richard from next door…'"

I skipped to the next page hurriedly. It was the last entry in the book.

"'Found some new blood in the jungles today, name of Penfold Lexington. Seemed a bit gitty. Pair of normals with him, couldn't tell their ACC721/D forms from their 721/Es. Will test Lexington tomorrow with the Three Trials. First Deathmatch, then Pi, then the following morning-' uh-oh."

I read the passage again. Then again. Then I checked the date in case any other accountants called Penfold Lexington had perchance stumbled across the village. Then I turned to the front of the book just in case I was reading some other high priest's diary. There was no mistaking what I was reading.

"This is bad," I said, needlessly.

There was a brief cough behind me, a cough inlaid with no end of subdued menace. The kind of cough a prison warden would use to get the attention of an inmate with soil pouring out of his trouser legs. Slowly, resignedly, I turned around.

"Hi," I croaked.


"I don't know what you're so scared of, they're only natives."

- Captain Cook


For the second time in this novel the sun was rising as a prelude to my hideous execution. It peered over the treetops, then, satisfied that no-one objected to its presence, began its daily crawl across the sky. As infinitely boring a life of such regularity must be, I suddenly found myself very eager to swap places with the thing.

Unnaturally strong vines and roots tethered my wrists and ankles to an enormous boulder which had probably caused more than a few hernias among whatever poor saps had hauled it to the top of the temple. The natives who had brought me here had even taken away my shirt and waistcoat, leaving my torso naked to the omnipresent threat of the lobster look. Their operation had been so swift and so surprising that I hadn't even had an opportunity to wonder how Rose and the others were doing.

What was confusing me most of all, however, was the red velvet curtain with gilded ropes surrounding me on all sides. Somehow I didn't think they were going to put on some cabaret for me before my death. I had a nasty suspicion that I was going to be the main attraction in today's dinner theatre.

I struggled fruitlessly with my bonds for about ten-odd minutes, after which time I began hearing noises coming from outside my crimson prison. The noise of a large crowd getting itself comfortable nearby, and the clip-clop of heavily laden brogues moving towards me. They stopped a couple of yards away, and I heard the crowd break into applause at the same time as I heard the sound of considerably less heavily laden and considerably more raggedy sensible shoes stepping into the limelight.

"[Penfold Lexington,]" said the unmistakable voice of the high priest, still speaking in that nonsensical accountant language. "[You have completed the first two trials. Now only one more trial remains. Complete this, and you will have proven your worthiness to the Golden Calculator as a citizen of Arithmia. Nervous?]"

"[Er, a little, yes.]"

"[Alright. Now, are you going to be accepting the third challenge,]" At this point I heard the sound of a medium-sized wooden object being placed on the floor. "[Or … would you rather take what's in the box?]"

"[Take the challenge!]" cried some of the audience. "[Open the box!]" cried the rest.

"[Er…]" stalled Penfold.

"[Come on now, Penfold, what's your decision?]"

"[Take the challenge!]"

"[Open the box!]"

"[I think I'll take the challenge,]" said Penfold nervously. There was a tremendous cheer.

"[Penfold Lexington, you've decided to take the challenge!]" said the high priest. "[What was in the box, Harry?]"

The next voice I hadn't heard before, but I guessed it was one of the priest's lackeys. "[Well, your holiness, this week's mystery prize was…]" There was a squeak of hinges and another little cheer. "[An overcoat made out of enraged scorpions!]"

"[Good choice, Penfold!]" said the high priest. "[Now, for your final challenge, you must prove your unwavering loyalty to the Golden Calculator with one final act of devotion. You want to know what that is?]"

There was no sound, so I supposed Penfold was nodding. Suddenly the curtains around me dropped, revealing the audience lined up on bamboo seating and a very startled Penfold standing next to the high priest.

"[Your task is to sacrifice your best friend and adopted son to the Golden Calculator!]" said the high priest with much jollity. There was a brief fanfare and an exaggerated 'oooh' from the audience. I craned my neck around and saw that Jam was a few feet away to my right, in a similarly rock-related situation to myself.

A ceremonial jade knife was pressed into Penfold's hand, and he was ushered up to me. He looked at the weapon, then to my don't-you-even-think-about-it countenance, and gave the high priest a hopeless look.

"Can't I just make a pledge?" he asked, in English.

"No, you have to make a sacrifice to show that you're cutting yourself off from the frivolity of your previous life," replied the priest, also in English, perhaps so the other accountants wouldn't understand their exchange.

"Well, why don't I just burn all my worldly possessions or something? Seems a bit barbaric, you know, murdering them both."

"If you want to live in Arithmia, you have to do things our way," said the priest, giving the impression that he was speaking through clenched teeth. I couldn't know for sure, as he was still wearing his big mask. "You want to be with your fellow accountants, don't you? To serve the Golden Calculator?"

"Yes," said Penfold. The determination and lack of hesitation in his voice were very worrying. He took a step towards me, brandishing the knife. He looked into my eyes, and gave me a discomforted look, like someone suddenly pressed with the necessity to walk into a pub owned by a burly man whose daughter they have been knowing intimately.

"Jim…" he said, an apologetic wheedle in his voice.

"Penfold, if you come any closer and cut out my heart then I won't be your friend anymore."

He turned the knife over and over in his hands. "I really want to live here, Jim…"

"I'll never speak to you again!" I tried. "And you know I promised I'd let you use my Playstation for the last week of July? Well, you can forget that!"

"Your Playstation was on the ship, Jim," said Penfold weakly.

"[Kill him!]" chanted the crowd.

"You keep out of this!" I shouted. "Look at Jam, Penfold."

Sensing his cue, Jam immediately put on his best innocent child face. Huge brown eyes, quivery lower lip; a true professional job.

"Look at your son, Penfold," I said gently. "You raised that boy from birth. You were there for all of his birthdays. His first steps. His first words. What were his first words, Penfold?"

A sentimental little smile crossed Penfold's face. "'Long Division'."

"That was because of you, Penfold," I said. "That was because of the upbringing you gave him. And you're not going to kill him, and you're not going to kill me, and do you know why? Because Penfold Kenneth Doncaster Lexington is a good man. A good man, a good father, and a damn good friend."

"I wuv you, dad," said Jam, right on cue.

Penfold sighed, and came forward with the knife. I screwed up my eyes as he sliced the vines that tethered me to the rock. "For God's sake, Jim," he said. "I was never going to go through with it, there was no need to lay it on so thick."

"Yes, well, I suppose that makes us even," I replied, getting to my feet and rubbing my wrists. I found my shirt and waistcoat at the foot of the rock, and slipped them both on, making sure I didn't breathe as the crusty armpit patches passed my nose. Penfold, meanwhile, cut Jam away from his rock, and the boy immediately flung his arms around the accountant.

And of course, the natives were so impressed by this show of decent family values and humanitarianism that they let us all go.

Ha ha.

Seriously, they were looking mightily upset. They had formed a little crowd around us, and seemed to have conjured up an awful lot of spears and letter spikes from nowhere.

"[You refuse to complete the third trial, you are insolent in the eyes of the Golden Calculator!]" said the high priest in that silly language of his.

"I take it that wasn't an endorsement of universal love and an invitation to take as much riches as we can carry," I said, with grim resignation.

"Not exactly," said Penfold.

"[Kill the heretics!]" chanted the crowd.

The accountants, now suddenly very sinister, were closing in on us fast. I groped for my cutlass, and of course it wasn't there.

"Well, Penf, it was nice of you not to kill us, but I guess it didn't matter after all, so, sorry about getting you killed and all that."

"That's OK, Jim," sighed Penfold. "I could never have killed either of you anyway."

The crowd really were getting very close.

"I really do consider you my best friend, you know," I said. "I wasn't just saying that to stop you killing me."

"I know, Jim."

"And I really do wuv you, Dad," said Jam, clinging to his leg.

"In fact, I'd even go as far to say that … I love you as well, Penfold."

He began looking even more worried. "Er…"

"Like the brother I never had."

"Oh," he said, relieved.

"I guess I've just never been man enough to say it outright," I said, eyes beginning to water. "I've always been such a scumbag to you just to keep up my hard-boiled macho image. I've never had the courage just to say that … you're my best friend, and I respect you like an equal, and love you like a brother."

Our touching scene was taking so long that the crowd were having to move towards us at a snail's pace. "Hurry up!" called someone from the back of the throng.

Penfold, meanwhile, was openly in tears now. "And I've always been too much of a stick in the mud just to say that … that I love you too, Jim, even if you are a right git sometimes."

I put out my hand. He shook it, clasping both hands on it, then we abandoned the tattered remnants of our manliness and embraced like weepy little schoolgirls. Jam hesitated for a second, then joined the huddle. Finally we separated, wiped little bits of dribbly snot from our noses, and I unsheathed my boot knife. "You and me, Penfold," I said.

Penfold took a viciously sharp requisitions form out of his briefcase. "You and me, Jim," he said.

"You and me against the world!" we said together.

"And me," said Jam, a little hurt.

Then we screamed the scream of hate, and ran towards our foe, waving our weapons high. It was exactly the kind of moment some pretentious director would freeze-frame on at the end of a film. However, as you've no doubt guessed since I wouldn't be able to write all of these memoirs in the three seconds before my gory death, this was not to be the end of our tale. For just as we were about to clash with the accountant tribe and fight tooth and nail a fight we knew we could never ever win, an immense shadow suddenly cast itself over us. The natives stopped dead, staring upwards, mouth agape. Our scream of hate faded away to a murmur of mild dislike, and we took in the newcomer also.

It was an airship. And not only that, a pirate airship. As we stared up at it, there was movement along the side and a long rope ladder descended towards us, striking Penfold upon the bonce with the lowest rung. Before the natives could raise an objection, the renegade accountant began to climb. I pushed Jam up next, then took hold of the ladder myself. Satisfied that we were hanging on, the airship lurched upwards and forwards, pulling us away from the grasp of our captors and up into the sky.

"Uncle Rose?" called Jam upwards. "Is that you?"

"It had better be," I muttered. Something rather important had just occurred to me.

I couldn't tell from ground level because of perspective, but now I was climbing up towards it, I suddenly became aware of the immense size of the airship rescuing us. I suppose there was always the chance Rose and co. had found another, much larger airship since we had parted ways, but frankly I severely doubted that. My logical processes were engaging in a fierce battle with Occam's Razor as I hauled myself up the ladder, a battle which was quickly lost as brawny hands pulled me onto the deck and I saw just who they belonged to.

Our benefactors were a trio of sky pirates, that was certain by the look of their posh boy pirate outfits. It should be noted that their outfits were identical, as were their faces and hairdos. They were all wearing fixed grins.

"Ah," I said, by way of a greeting. "Don't suppose you lads would happen to be identical triplets who just happen to resemble the greatest sky pirate of all time and not, say, clones of same crewing this vessel at the whim of a spoilt pirate princess?"

"No," said a female voice right behind me. I didn't turn around.

"Ah," I said. "Don't suppose you're some other spoilt pirate princess captaining a shipful of clones that I know of?"

"Stop clutching at straws, Jim," mumbled Penfold.

"I am not clutching at straws," I said sulkily. "I am being optimistic."

"Jim…" he replied. That was all he needed to say, I suppose.

I sighed and turned around slowly, staring at the floor. A pair of white high-heeled shoes encrusted with diamonds came into view, along with the bottom portion of a sequin-laden dress.

"Look up, Richard, and stop being so silly," said a voice obviously used to command. I gradually did so, pausing briefly on a cleavage like a black hole, before meeting the gaze of Gertrude Van Helsing herself.

"Imagine our surprise," she said in a tone of voice that made me want to bite something. "There we were, cruising through the skyways of South America, when suddenly we spot my fiancé and his degenerate friends in a rather unfortunate situation. And, of course, being the kind-hearted soul that I am, I immediately ordered a ladder to be sent down. Now, what do you say?"

Jam had never been to school, of course, but some things are just ingrained into the racial memory of all school-age children. "Thank you Miss Van Helsing," he mumbled. Gertrude nodded approvingly.

I briefly eyed the rail alongside the deck. Two steps, a quick vault, about five hundred feet of thin air and contact with the ground, then I would be out of her hands. Maybe I'd die instantly, and if I didn't, the natives would be happy to finish the job. I reluctantly abandoned the scheme. Suicide, although painless, was rarely anything but counter-productive.

"I am not your fiancé," I said.

Her smile faded. "You might as well be," she said, hopping onto the huge clamshell throne which three of her clones had materialised with. "Have you read this month's Gazette?" She snapped her slender fingers, and one of the grinning clones produced a copy of the Buccaneers and Booty Gazette, the chief rival to Pirating Monthly. Not my magazine of choice, a little glossy for my tastes, but it at least had the facts. And on the page I was being shown, the facts were very clear. It was the 'Missing Pirates' list.

'Captain Rose Black has been missing for several weeks,' it said. 'The wreckage of her ship was found drifting on the outskirts of ninja airspace, and most of her crew were found abandoned in a tavern in Southampton. There are reports of some of the more high-ranking members of her crew also missing, although a concise list cannot be produced until the rest have sobered up.'

"Seems the little arrangement daddy had with the ninjas has paid off," she commented. "I would rather they'd have left her alive so she could see me win, but I suppose this will have to do."

"You -" I said, launching myself. Two clones prevented my movement.

"Maybe I should set them straight on a few details," said Gertrude, referring to the magazine and flicking her luxurious hair back. "Daddy is a friend of the editor, you know. Perhaps I'll get them to put a little something under 'upcoming marriages', too."

I heard Jam whisper to Penfold behind me. "You can sacrifice me now if you want, Dad," he said. I decided to attempt defiance.

"Dream on, flatnose," I said, injecting spite into my voice. "Takes more than a bunch of gits in black pyjamas to stop Rose Black. I bet she's already there. I bet she's been there long enough to get the 'Welcome To El Dorado' banners printed."

Her face was thunderous. "You're grasping at nothing," she hissed. "A friend of Daddy's in the UN was able to get us a satellite photo. We know exactly where El Dorado is and we're heading there right now. Face it. Rose is dead, the race is won, and you're going to marry me. You can't change any of that with words."

"About the marriage," I said, preparing to lay my trump card. "Will your mother be attending?"

For all her threats, her cajolery, and her personality like a sockful of sand, I had never perceived Gertrude as an actual physical threat. I honestly didn't think she had it in her to actually hurt someone, least of all me. So I suppose it came as a surprise when she gave the clone nearest to me a meaningful glance, and the ever-grinning zombie actually hit me. A fist like a hydraulic rock-smashing machine slammed into my face, sending me sprawling across the deck.

I felt puffiness under my eyepatch, and blood trickling from a gash in my cheek. Penfold rushed to my side, pulling me into a sitting position and checking my eyes. I could tell he was only doing it because he'd seen it done on TV.

Through ears fuzzed with mild concussion I heard Penfold say "There was no call for that!" in a mildly horrified tone of voice.

"I warned him not to talk about my mother," said Gertrude sweetly. "Now, why don't you chaps run along? There's no way to escape from this ship with my clones watching your every move, and I really want you all to see me cross the finish line first. 297? Show them to the guest quarters, there's a love."

"Typical arch villain," I murmured as we followed the clone below decks, Penfold and Jam helping to keep me upright. "Give the heroes luxurious living quarters and leave them unsupervised."

I had to admit, the Bastard Mk. IV truly was a classy vessel. Even the mazelike corridors we were being led through, usually the most sparsely decorated parts of any pirate ship, bore a Regency-themed décor with shagpile carpets and picture rails. And when we were shown into the guest quarters, three decks down and just down the hall from the secondary movie theatre, it rivalled even those bedrooms really posh hotels leave vacant just in case royalty turn up. En-suite bathroom with jacuzzi, priceless Turner landscapes adorning the walls, one ultra-soft double bed the size of a toasted sandwich of the Gods, and two ultra-soft single beds each the size of half a toasted sandwich of the Gods. It didn't take us long to start arguing over who got which.

"I should take the double, I tend to roll around a lot in my sleep," I argued.

"You sleep in a hammock, you liar," said Penfold. "You haven't rolled in your sleep since you were twenty-two!"

"I pick things up quickly!"

"Stop it! Stop shouting!" cried Jam, eyes glistening and hands over ears. "Look at yourselves! Just half an hour ago you were hugging and calling each other the best friends you ever had, now you're right back to silly squabbling!"

I shuffled my feet, feeling guilty. "Yeah," I said. "You're right. I'm sorry, Penfold."

My accountant patted my shoulder and put on an ashamed smile. "I'm sorry too, Jim."

"Right," said Jam, satisfied. "Now, I'll take the double bed so you don't argue anymore."

I pushed Jam lightly backwards as he made to lay his bandana on the pillow. "Not so fast, laddie."

Penfold sat down on one of the single beds and sighed the special sigh he always sighed when he had given up. "Oh, just let him have it, Jim. We need to talk about this situation."

Jam subtly dropped his bandana on the pillow, which decided the matter. Jam's hair was even more magnetic to lice than mine, and I did not relish placing my scalp on anything that might be contaminated. I sat down heavily on the other single bed, and sighed.

"Well, I for one could get used to this sort of living," I said. "Shame about having to marry Gertrude as well."

"We can't stay here," said Penfold. "Look what she did to you, Jim. The woman's as mad as a snake."

I fingered the bruising on the side of my face, and winced. "I'm not arguing with that," I said, "but I really don't think we should discount what she was saying. Rose and the others may well be dead, or they may be at El Dorado already. We don't have any way of knowing."

"We won't get any answers sitting around enjoying Gertrude's hospitality," said Penfold perceptively.

I lay back on my pillow and put my hands behind my head. The bed really was incredibly soft. I yawned appreciatively. "A ship this size can't move very fast," I said, thinking aloud. "And it's bound to have lifeboats somewhere … if we could steal one we could get to El Dorado much quicker, maybe even with days to spare."

"Gertrude said escape from this ship is impossible," forwarded Jam.

"She's bound to say that, laddie," I replied. "Her crew aren't the smartest drones in the world. An opportunity's bound to come up eventually."

"Right," said Penfold. "Here's what I propose; we stick together at all times, hang around the lifeboat stations, and as soon as no-one's looking, we steal one and head straight for El Dorado."

"Agreed," I said, shifting on the mattress. I really was very tired. I could feel the world start to fade away as I drifted into sleepy land. The last thing I heard was a brief exchange between Jam and Penfold.

"Dad?" said Jam.

"Mm?" said Penfold.

"We don't actually know the way to El Dorado, do we, Dad."

"Er … no."


I was woken from an enjoyable dream involving Sigourney Weaver and a butter churner by a booming knock at the door. I lay in the darkness, groggy and tired, feeling the ship move around me, wondering if I had dreamt the sound. Then it happened again. Three sharp, loud knocks against the door. Penfold's soft high-pitched snoring stopped with a snort, and I saw his head rise from the pillow in the twilight. A third knock roused Jam.

"Who could that be?" asked Penfold sleepily. "Go see who it is, Jim."

I really didn't relish moving from the bed, and said so.

"You're nearest the door."

"Only in physical terms."

There was another loud knock. It sounded pretty urgent. "Just answer it, Jim," said Penfold.

Grumbling, I hauled myself out from between the sheets, dragged my feet over to the door, and opened it. The visitor paused in the act of knocking for a fifth time, and lowered his large fist. It was one of Gertrude's clones, and he seemed very abashed.

"What does she want now?" I asked, with sleepy despair.

The clone didn't reply. He looked left and right along the corridor he was standing in, then gently pushed me backwards and infiltrated the room. He shut the door behind him quietly, and flicked on the light, causing a chorus of groans from my two roommates.

"Turn it off," moaned Penfold into his pillow.

"Sorry," said the clone, in a deep, educated tone of voice with a hint of Scottish accent, then addressed me directly. "I need to talk to you."

I stared up at the huge man, and frowned. "What's this about?"

He didn't reply, just walked up to the small bar and decanted some rum into a glass. After he had drained it into his gullet and started filling it again, I felt moved to speak again. "What does a clone want from us?"

He put the glass down heavily with a sharp knock, and I jumped. When he turned to me there was hatred in his eyes. "I am not a clone," he said firmly.

I didn't argue. There was definitely something different about this one. He didn't wear a fixed grin for a start, and his eyes were unglazed. His movements, although stiff, were a far cry from the robotic waddles of the clones.

"You look just like them," said Penfold, who was now sitting on the edge of his bed, watching the stranger. "Who are you?"

"Wait a second," I said, holding up a hand. I had managed to determine why the man's appearance and voice seemed familiar to me - I had encountered both on separate occasions. "You're the bloke I saw between floors in Jugular Tim's house. And you're the one who saved us from the merpeople."

"Oh yes," said Penfold, realising.

"Who are you?" I repeated. "And why do you look so much like Gertrude's clones?"

He gave me a strange look. "Oh, come on, Jim, you're not that stupid," he said, taking another swig. "I look exactly like the clones because I'm the man they were cloned from."

I gave Penfold an excited look. He returned it with a confused one. "You're the greatest sky pirate who ever lived?" he asked.

The man gave him a pained look. "I never said that," he said. "I never really understood that. All I did was complete one little quest and suddenly I'm being hailed as the greatest sky pirate who ever lived. People just went a little mad, I suppose."

"What quest?" I asked.

"The quest for the Lost Golden City of El Dorado," he said modestly. "My crew were the first to discover it, and only by accident, anyway."

The penny dropped with a particularly earth-shattering thud. "Then you're -" I began.

"Captain 'Boinko' McTavish, at your service."

There was a shocked silence. I stared at Boinko. Boinko stared at me. Penfold stared from one to the other, confused. Finally the quiet was broken by Jam, who still hadn't woken up properly.

"I wonder how Uncle Rose and the others are doing," he mumbled.

"Oh, for pete's sake -"


"Thunderbolt and lightning, very very frightening."

- Freddy Mercury


While Penfold, Jam and myself were being held captive by my sinister fiancée and being briefed by the greatest sky pirate who ever lived, Rose, Scar and Gareth were having things comparatively easy. Once they were out of ninja territory the trip to El Dorado was, so far, pretty much uneventful. And what with the speed of the ninja airship they were making good time. Even with all the delays they still had a very high chance of beating Gertrude Van Helsing to the finish. Unfortunately, one of the reasons why the ship was so fast was causing discontent.

Ninja airships are traditionally sleek, streamlined and built for getting someone from point A to point B with much speed and efficiency. In contrast, pirate airships are usually rather ungainly things with cargo space to hold enough food and grog to keep a crew fed and completely hammered for the majority of the voyage. While they did eventually get you from point A to point B, you were usually so inebriated by the time you got there that you had completely forgotten what you wanted to go to point B for in the first place.

Ironically, the very thing that kept the stolen ninja airship light was weighing heavily down upon its intrepid crew. There was no cargo space and no food.

So, a few short days after their spectacular escape from the ninja temple, Rose, Scar and Gareth found themselves sitting on the hard metal floor of the top deck around a small portable gas stove, over which a collection of lice from Scar's beard was cooking in a metal spoon.

"How much longer?" asked Gareth for the umpteenth time, holding his growling tum.

"Not too long," said Scar in what he hoped was a reassuring tone. "Cookin' lice is a very exact science. Overdo 'em and ye lose vital nutrients. Underdo 'em and ye gain nutrients ye'd rather not 'ave."

Gareth turned a very strange colour. "On second thoughts, maybe I'll stick with chewing boot leather."

Rose spat out the well-chewed lump she had torn from her own boot and tested her teeth for looseness. "I promise, as soon as we get to El Dorado, I'll treat you both to a meal at the best all-you-can-eat place we can find."

"All you can eat?" said Gareth distastefully. "How gauche."

"Pass yer hip flask, cap'n," said Scar hungrily. Rose dutifully did so. Closing his eyes in preparation for the forthcoming pleasure, Scar tipped the flask up over his mouth and waited for sweet alcoholic nectar to moisturise his tastebuds. A solitary drop splashed miserably onto his eager tongue, but no more was forthcoming. His eyelids snapped open, and he stared wildly into the empty heart of the ex-bringer of joy.

"We're … out … of … drink," he said steadily. Rose and Gareth exchanged frightened looks.

Allow me to offer a little explanation here. Scar had spent a lifetime on pirate ships where grog and other beverages flowed like saliva from the mouth of a hungry dog in front of a pie shop. His liver had had an ultimatum - get used to it, or pack in. Fortunately for him it had chosen the former, but now if he went without alcohol for too long his highly evolved metabolism started to collapse, and he would often take drastic measures. When called upon Scar had a MacGyver-like ability to construct a still from virtually any resources, and had on more than one occasion resorted to concocting a brew fermented from human bone marrow.

So you can see how Rose and Gareth would be a little ill at ease on board a ship containing a Scar and a notable lack of intoxicating fluid.

"I think I'll just … go check the rudder," said Gareth, slowly backing towards the side of the vessel. When he judged himself close enough, he grabbed the rail and was about to leap off when Rose grabbed him and held his skinny arms to his sides.

"Get off!" he shouted.

Rose looked briefly back at Scar, who was staring at the burning lice with an expression of deep concern on his face. "Shut up!" she hissed to Gareth. "We've got to think of a logical way out of this."

Gareth relaxed. "Okay," he said. "Logic I can do. Logically, how much drink do we have on this vessel?"


"Okay. Now, logically, do we really want to be on a ship containing Scar and no drink?"

"Not really."

"Right," said Gareth, before making to vault over the side again. Rose grabbed him by his collar as he was going over, hauled him back on deck and pinned him face-down.

"Stop it!" she barked. "Scar wouldn't kill us just to ferment our bodily tissues. We're his friends."

"That's what Hideous John thought," mumbled Gareth miserably. "How much of him did they find in the end?"

"Look, it'll be alright! We just have to keep our heads!"

"Unfortunate choice of words -"

He stopped when he realised Scar was standing a few feet away, looking at them sadly. There was grief in those big, round eyes.

"I'm just going to go below decks for a while," he said in a voice that seemed to come from a long way off, before his lumbering form disappeared down the main hatch.

"We're do-omed," sang Gareth.

"We are not doomed," said Rose. "We can't be far from El Dorado now, they'll have an off-licence there or something -"

Gareth seemed determined to be the doomsayer. "He's going to make drink out of us," he whimpered.

"Maybe he'll only cut off our legs or something and leave the rest."

"Oh, well, I feel much better now."

"Look, you could at least try to look on the bright side!" said Rose angrily. "What happened to that idiotic optimism?"

Gareth didn't say anything. It occurred to Rose that if even Gareth, usually kept separate from the world by a few feet of metaphorical pink cotton wool, was worried, then the situation was considerably more dire than she thought.

"I'm just going to pop down and talk to Scar for a while," said Rose distantly, making her way over to the hatch.

"Don't leave me!" said Gareth, sitting stiffly on the hard metal floor, watching her descend the steps. He looked around for a few seconds at the empty deck, then followed rapidly.


Rose laboriously screwed the last of the enormous bolts into place, fixing the huge metal clamp to the wall. It was the last of four clamps she had fitted, and contained one of Scar's wrists. The other three served to restrain his other limbs.

"If there were any other way, Scar," said Rose remorsefully, "you know I'd take it."

"That's okay, cap'n," said Scar quietly, looking at the floor. "I'd probably do the same fer yer."

Rose pursed her lips. "Thanks, I suppose," she said carefully.

Gareth, now fully aware of the fact that the potential threat was clamped immovably to a wall in the lower deck, was suddenly feeling a lot brighter. He followed Rose back to the top deck, leaned against the railing, took a small silver file from his inside pocket with a practised flourish and began to see to his fingernails.

"Storm's coming," said Rose, watching the skies ahead.

Gareth looked. "So there is," he said, pretending he could tell from the seemingly serene cloud formations in their path. "Think that'll be a problem?"

Captain Black shook her head. "Not if we don't lose any time," she said, foreshadowingly. "If we continue on this course at this speed we'll probably be through before it hits."

"Righto, captain."

The pair stood in silence for several minutes, admiring the view, wondering in one part if they would win the race to El Dorado, and in the other part wondering if wearing diamond-patterned socks with purple silk trousers had been a bad idea.

Rose, it has to be said, was a lot more fretful than she had been at the end of the last chapter. Like a hostess of a dinner party an hour before her guests arrive the worst case scenario kept flitting into her mind's eye. Would they ever reach El Dorado? Would Gertrude be there first? Are Penfold and Jam and myself floating bloated and dead in the mid-Atlantic? Did El Dorado even exist?

As it turned out, she would be worrying unduly on every single one of those counts, but I don't want to spoil the rest of the story for you.

After a few minutes passed, even more worst case scenarios were being considered within her effete skull. Would she arrive at El Dorado to find Gertrude there already married to myself? Would I have been transformed into a flesh-eating zombie hungry for the blood of the living? Would El Dorado be obliterated in a fiery nuclear inferno following a miscalculation at the Pentagon?

There was a heavy clink of steel chains from below decks.

Would Scar be able to get out of his restraints?

"Will Scar be able to get out of his restraints?" asked Gareth timidly, his hand pausing in mid-file.

"Of course not," said Rose, without much conviction. "They're made of reinforced steel."

There was a splintering cracking sound, such as might be made by a manacle being yanked part of the way out of a wall.

"What about that wall he's clamped to?" asked Gareth. "What's that made of?"

Rose swallowed. "Wood."

"Ah." Gareth glanced briefly around at the ship. The metal railings, the metal partitions, the metal floor and the ropes tethering the balloons which were wrapped in metal. "This would be the only wooden wall in the ship?"

"Well, how would I have fixed the bolts into a metal wall?" said Rose defensively.

There was another faint sound, such as might be made by a manacle being pulled all of the way out of a wall.

"Gareth," said Rose, eyes fixed on the hatchway, "would you be so kind as to fetch the little chair in front of the pilot's console?"

He was just about to obey when a noise distracted them. It was neither the clink of chains nor the splinter of wood, and it wasn't even coming from below decks. It was coming from over the side, and sounded for all the world like someone furiously pedalling a bicycle.

A spinning helicopter blade ascended into view, inches from the side of the airship, followed by the rider. He was a thin young man in a red and white striped blazer and a straw boater, sitting on a heavily modified bicycle and pedalling furiously. It was quite clear that his constant leg movement was the only thing keeping him and the wicker basket tied to the rear of the vehicle afloat. As he saw our heroes, he tried to tip his hat but almost lost control of his bike doing so, ending up clutching the handlebars tightly, white of knuckle and green of face.

"Morning!" he said with forced gaiety. "Lovely day for a flight, eh what?"

"Eh?" said Gareth.

"What?" said Rose.

"Exactly. Saw your ship. Thought I'd pop my head up and say hello, one flier to another, as it were."

"We're a little busy at the moment," said Rose through clenched teeth as the sound of another manacle being pulled out of a wall reached their ears.

"Oh, so am I," said the strange man. "I've got fifteen bottles of rum here to sell before I can go home. But that doesn't mean I can't stop and say hello to a few people. I don't suppose you'd be interested in buying some rum?"

"No, we would not be interested in buying - what?"

"Premium quality rum. None of that rubbish you get in barrels. This is the classy stuff."

Rose and Gareth exchanged slow glances. "How much?" inquired Gareth.

"To you, ninety quid a bottle. And that's only 'cos I like your suit."

Gareth patted his pockets pathetically. "Look, we're a bit short right now, but we really are very desperate for rum, so if we could possibly have some on credit…"

Rose tutted, drew her sword, and wobbled it in a vaguely threatening manner. "Credit, shmedit," she said. "We're pirates, and we don't pay for anything."

"Perhaps you haven't noticed, but if I die then this rum goes down with me," said the salesman. "Maybe if you be a little bit more civil I could let you have some on credit. Maybe."

"Alright, alright, I'm sorry, we're a little bit stressed at the moment. Can we please have some rum on credit?" she winced as another splintering crunch shook the floor.

The salesman patted his chin for a horrendously long time. "Mmm…" he pondered. "Alright. As long as you stop your ship and play a few games of canasta with me."

"Deal!" said Gareth.

"But if we stop for too long we'll get caught in the storm!" protested Rose.

"Oh, well, if you don't want this rum -"

"Alright, okay!" said Rose hurriedly as the fourth manacle was wrenched out of its socket.

"Don't worry, captain," said Gareth as he helped the strange man onto the ship. "I'm sure we'll get through it in time if we just have a few games."


It was a few hours later. The curious salesman had departed on his merry way, but his presence had been replaced with lashing wind and rain. Scar, with a happy belly full of rum and rapidly rusting chains dangling from his arms, manned the wheel with a strong and defiant manner. Rose was running back and forth across the deck, partly making sure nothing was being overtly damaged by the storm, partly out of blind panic. Gareth, meanwhile was curled up in the foetal position in the corner, his eyes firmly shut and his thumb firmly in his mouth.

Despite the efforts of two thirds of the crew, the ship was not making a lot of progress. With every step forward the wind blew them alternately six steps backward and six steps forward. The rain was rattling against the balloon, sounding for all the world like someone had dropped the world's largest jar of marbles on a school playground, and the occasional burst of thunder and lightning was blanking out large wodges of the conversation. Perhaps that should be considered a blessing.

" !" shouted Rose as a bolt of lightning streaked through the air mere yards from the ship. "That was ing close!"

"It's this wind!" bellowed Scar. "I've never ythin' like it!!"

" ," whimpered Gareth, although his contribution probably wasn't important anyway.

The engines on the ninja airship were putting up a fierce battle against the weather. Even they, some of the most sophisticated propulsion systems the airship world had ever seen, were proving about as effective against the awful wind as a sharpened stick would be against the Bolivian Navy.

" Dorado!" was Rose's next statement, and whether she was expressing a continued interest in the Lost City or damning it to eternal hellfire the world will never know, for at that moment a bolt of lightning arced across the sky and planted itself firmly into the metal deck of the stolen vessel. White-hot electricity spread across the floor, sending everyone in contact with it into vibratory spasms. The ship's wheel was the first to melt, descending into a puddle at Scar's wobbling feet. Finally, after the electricity had passed and every hair on everyone's body was standing on end, all three pirates collapsed into heaps. Well, two pirates collapsed into heaps. The third was already in a suitable collapsed and heap-like position.


It was a little while later.

Well, in all honesty, it was quite a long while later, if you consider about twelve hours to be a long time. If you were thinking of a while being about a week long then twelve hours would be a little while to you, but if you considered a while to last twenty minutes, then obviously you would consider twelve hours to be quite a long while. Besides, it was more like eleven hours and thirty minutes.

Rose was the first to wake from her lightning-induced coma, lying face-down on the metal grille floor and finding a rather painful criss-cross pattern pressed into her physog. She cast a few unfocused looks around, saw nothing, and wondered if she had gone blind. Fortunately it turned out that she was just covered by the ship's torn and deflated balloon. This didn't register in her mind for a few seconds, but when it did, she then found herself wondering how the airship was keeping afloat.

This particular conundrum was answered when she wrestled out from under the fallen material, and glanced over the side of the ship. Two magnificent silver wings spread out on either side, the ship gliding comfortably over an updraft of warm air. So that answered that. But it was what she saw far below her that sparked the most interest.

Scar she found slumped at the base of the half-melted control console, great big blisters on his hands where the steering column had been. He awoke after a few nudges with one of those funny snorting noises burly men make when disturbed from slumber.

"Cap'n!" he said, shaking the sleep from his massive form. "I thought we were all dead!"

"No, Scar, it takes more than a storm to finish us off, apparently."

"Damn right."

"Come over here and look at something."

Rose took the slightly perplexed Scar by the big meaty hand and led him to the side of the ship, pointing downwards. "See?" she said.

"Oh, wow…" he replied.

"I know!"

"The wings must've bin an automatic system fer when the balloon bursts! Very impressive engineerin'."

"Not the wings, Scar, below them. Down there."

Scar looked. "Is that what I think it is?"

"What do you think it is?"

"It looks like a big rock wit' the word 'PIG' written on it in gold letters."

"It's El Dorado, you twit," said Rose, without malice, but with a kind of exhausted joy. "Just like Jugular Tim described it! We made it, first mate. We're here."

"Now all we 'ave to do is figure out 'ow to make this ship get down there."

A scowl crossed Rose's face. "You're not helping."

Scar chose not to further the conversation, but stepped gingerly over to the control console to try to figure something out. Meanwhile, a person-shaped lump was running around under the deflated balloon in a way that the term 'blind panic' was simply invented for.

"I've gone blind! I've gone bliiiind!" shouted the voice of Gareth. "I can't see - ow!" he ceased his foolish prattling when Rose successfully delivered a clout to where she judged his head to be.

"That wasn't called for," he said sulkily, peeking out from under the balloon and wrapping it around himself like a big inflatable Grim Reaper cloak.

"Gareth, we -" began Rose.

She was interrupted by a loud hydraulic whirring and the ship wobbling slightly. Looking around, she saw no apparent change, until she leant over the side and was just in time to see the wings disappear into the ship. She looked over at Scar, whose finger was depressing one of the half-melted buttons on the control console. Scar looked back guiltily.

"E-," he said, before gravity took hold.

Unprepared to overlook their case, the laws of physics yanked the ship downwards like it was connected to the ground with an overstretched length of elastic. Rose clung to the floor as her feet left it, Scar kept both hands on the wheel, and Gareth clung to Rose.

"My tummy huuuuuuurts!" wailed the camp one, barely audible over the rushing wind as the ship fell countless yards towards something horribly solid. The only thought to enter Rose's mind went along the lines that, after everything they had been through to get to El Dorado, crash-landing on it and getting horribly killed would be a stupid way for it to end. Sure, maybe she would technically still win the bet, but being unable to gloat afterwards would surely defeat the point.

As the crew tensed themselves for the coming of the Reaper, they felt instead a heavy jolt which flung them all back against the deck. Only Scar had seen what was happening just in time; the ship had of course landed first on one of the gigantic balloons that supported El Dorado, before bouncing off it, falling another ten yards or so and bouncing off a second. After that it was a comparatively conservative fifty or so yards to the floor below, at which point the ship hit the rocky floor with a crunch of timber and a whine of bending metal. It bounced once, skidded, bounced again off a golden kerb and ploughing into one of the many golden buildings that made up the city before finally coming to rest, somewhere in the top curve of the letter 'G' in 'PIG'.

There was one of those brittle silences that always follow such a dramatic entrance, punctuated by the occasional clang of metal debris coming to rest.

Aching all over, Rose climbed out of the mangled wreckage, slid over the side, and dropped onto the golden pavement. She rolled onto her back, felt her body for bruising, and emitted a deep, loud groan. To her immense relief Scar was the next to appear, emerging from what remained of the helm and sitting down heavily next to her. To her supreme indifference Gareth also appeared more or less unharmed.

For several minutes, none of them had anything to say. They just sat, or lay, and looked all around at the curious Aztec style of architecture, every building constructed entirely from gold, glittering like a stream of urine in the sun. The lamp-posts were solid gold. The post box they could see on the street corner was solid gold. A young man in a solid gold tunic rode past on a solid gold bicycle, giving the crash site nothing more than a cursory glance. The streets weren't just paved in gold. They WERE gold.

Finally, Rose parted her lips and a word passed through them. The word sounded a little like "Bluh," but other parties would later attest to it being more along the lines of "Blergh," or "Gluhg". Whatever it was, it should be emphasised as it was the only sound any of them made until they were approached.

They were approached by a young woman, who didn't look like she was out of her teens. She held a solid gold clipboard in two arms, and stood awkwardly in a highly artistic and revealing dress also carved from solid gold. A pair of gold-framed spectacles rested upon her proboscis.

"Am I addressing Captain Rosemary Black?" she asked, consulting her clipboard.

Rose just stared. "You know who I am?"

"We've been expecting your arrival for a little while now," said the strange woman, ticking something on her clipboard with a solid gold pen.

Rose was suddenly at her feet and holding the woman by her shoulders. "Tell me she isn't here yet," she pleaded, somewhat manically. "Tell me Gertrude Van bloody Helsing didn't bloody get here first!"

The woman politely detached herself from our captain. "There haven't been any other visitors for a long time," she said. "Certainly not anyone called Gertrude Van Bloody Helsing."

Rose turned to her companions, who were now both standing, albeit wobbly, and mouthed the word 'yes!' while sticking two thumbs up. The two men looked relieved.

"I'm supposed to escort you all to the palace," said the woman huffily, interrupting their silent reverie and tucking her clipboard under her arm. "If you'd all like to follow me?"

They didn't argue, but fell into step behind the mysterious woman as they made their way through the golden streets, offering innocent looks to anyone who noticed their crashed ship. On the way to the palace, they only found confirmation of what they already knew; every single non-living thing in El Dorado was carved from pure gold. They saw a golden statue of some indistinct figure from which golden water played (probably more to do with the pollution index), a golden park where golden grass utterly failed to sway in the breeze, a golden post office with a queue of young people in golden costumes. Everyone, including the unnamed woman they were following, moved in a curious jerky, stiff manner, like they were a bunch of highly expensive and collectible wind-up tin soldiers.

"It's all gold…" said Scar breathlessly at one point.

"Oh, sure, that's everyone's first reaction," said the woman with the clipboard bitterly, not turning around. "It's all very well to look at how pretty it is and go ooh and ah but have you ever tried sleeping in a solid gold bed? Plus it's rotten as loft insulation. And we can hardly move in these stupid gold clothes. Trying to use the roads is a nightmare."

As if to illustrate her point a solid gold car came sputtering down the street. The driver was not visible, as it was impossible to see through the solid gold windscreen, and when it tried to turn a corner the solid gold tyres lost their grip on the solid gold road and sent the car skidding into a solid gold fence.

"It's a nightmare," repeated the woman. The pirates offered each other baffled glances; witnessing this tirade was a lot like finding out that Father Christmas existed and enjoyed gunning down family pets. Undaunted, the complaints continued. "Nice place to visit, I suppose, but you wouldn't want to live here."

"Why do you still live here if it's so terrible?" asked Rose timidly.

"I couldn't possibly LEAVE," said the woman, in a tone of voice that suggested Rose was asking the most asinine question in the world. "I'd be in REAL trouble if I ever left."

Rose decided not to argue any further, as she and the others had all been struck dumb by the sight of what was apparently the king's palace. It was easily the biggest building in the city, marking the centre point of the 'I' in 'PIG', and was tall enough for its highest turret to be almost touching the lowest of the support balloons. There was Aztec architecture in there, and some pseudo-Medieval, and a touch of Gothic to round it all out. A huge golden staircase led up to golden entrance doors three times as high as a man, and it was up these steps that our heroes were guided. All in all it was a palace that had no place outside of a Disney film.

A building like the palace of El Dorado one would expect to be a bustling hive of activity, but this was not the case. It was completely silent, almost ghostly, and the only human presence our heroes saw on the way up was a young man in a solid gold chef's outfit sitting on one of the lower steps and weeping into his hands. In retrospect, I suppose we all should have wondered about that.

Rose and her two crewmen followed the bespectacled woman through untold mile of corridor that wouldn't be out of place in King Midas' holiday home before arriving at a golden door that looked exactly the same as the other hundred golden doors they had passed on the way there. As for palace staff, they had encountered only two on their way. Both were sort of dawdling down the hallways in the usual I've-got-nothing-to-do-and-I-don't-care way, and neither seemed to be enjoying themselves at all.

The pirates, at their guide's insistence, entered the room and found themselves in rather luxurious guest quarters. Six solid gold beds formed a ring around a golden table with a golden vase of golden flowers. Every strand of the carpet was solid gold, which rather defeated the purpose of having a carpet. There was a huge window which would no doubt overlook all of El Dorado, if the pane wasn't made of gold.

"The King will be here shortly," said the clipboard woman from the doorway. "Please make yourselves comfortable." She promptly left, closing the door behind her.

There was a moment's silence, broken, as silences often are, by Gareth.

"Finally!" he said, jogging up to a randomly selected bed and falling onto it gratefully. There was a thud of flesh against solid metal, mingled with a horrible clicking noise from around the area of his spine. "Erg," he commented.

"They take the 'ole Golden City thing seriously, don't they," said Scar, tapping the window pane with a hairy finger.

Rose, meanwhile, stood completely still, staring into space, hands at her sides. After she didn't respond to Scar's comment the big man saw her curious behaviour, walked up to her side, and waved his hook in front of her face. She blinked once, and her eyes met those of her first mate.

"We did it," she said softly. "It's only just getting through to me, Scar. We beat Gertrude Van Helsing and now her ship is ours."

"Yep," said Scar. "And we could never 'ave done it without yer courageous leadership, cap'n."

Gareth was still lying in pain on his golden bed. "There'd better be soft beds on Gertrude's ship," he said through clenched teeth.

"I just wish Jim had been here to see this," said Rose quietly. "Do you think he could still be alive?"

"Not this again," murmured Gareth.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Ever since we lost Jim and the others you've done nothing but talk about him," continued the camp one, oddly bitterly. "Why don't you just admit you fancy the pants off the poor dead bugger and then we can all get over it."

Rose was momentarily speechless. "I'm momentarily speechless!" she said. "You seriously think I … him?"

"Denial. First stage of true love." Gareth winked at Scar knowingly. Scar didn't wink back.

"He's … he was an uncouth, unclean, violent fool," replied Rose in a level tone of voice.

"Traits which are, of course, nothing but positive in a pirate."

There was a knock at the door, and the sound of muffled voices from without. Rose went over to it, her head still turned towards Gareth with fury in her eyes.

"Read my lips, Gareth. I. Did. Not. Fancy. Jim."

She opened the door.


"The course of true love never runs smooth."

- Everyone


Back in the guest quarters on Gertrude's ship, Penfold and Jam and myself were all sitting on the ends of our beds, staring at the greatest sky pirate who ever lived as he stood in the centre of the room and knocking back several glasses of scotch.

"So," I said patiently as he finished the bottle. "You were the captain of the ship that first discovered El Dorado. Assuming for the moment that Jugular Tim wasn't being honest with us when he said the ship didn't land there, what happened?"

"Oh, we landed there, alright," said Boinko McTavish, searching the minibar for more nectar. "Me and Tim and a few others went down to explore. The King of El Dorado met us, and took us to the palace, and made us an offer. Tim and the others wouldn't accept it, so I put my first mate in charge and sent the ship off. I stayed, and I accepted the offer."

"What was the offer?"

"Not telling," said Boinko childishly. "Now isn't the time. When we get to the Lost City all will become clear."

I sighed. "So why were you at Jugular Tim's house?"

Boinko shrugged. "I was feeling nostalgic. I did some digging, and found that Tim was the only member of my original crew who was still alive, so I went over to his house for some tea and cake and a chat. Then you lot arrived, and I didn't want to be discovered, so Tim told me to hide between floors under his rather childish trap. From there I was able to watch you unobserved, until … well, you know."

I winced in memory, absent-mindedly rubbing the small bruise I still carried at the base of my spine. "Carry on."

"Well, after that, I knew what I had to do. I followed you in my own ship, subtly, making sure I wasn't seen. When your ship was destroyed in that storm, I had to choose between following Rose's party or following yours, and I chose you. I ensured that you got out of Rotherham safely - I have been there before during my adventuring days - I manipulated the Van Helsing girl so she would rescue you from the accountants. I had to hope that Rose and the others would survive whatever ordeals they went through."

"Why?" asked Penfold. "Why rescue us?"

Boinko took a deep pull from a bottle of some strangely-coloured liquid he had found before he answered. "Because I have to make sure you reach El Dorado. All of you."

"Why?!" repeated Penfold, with Jam on backing vocals. Boinko looked at them sadly, then at me. There was a curious look in his eye.

"I've been on my own for too many years," he said, while imaginary violins played in the background. "I've been living mainly in El Dorado, and life can get so depressing and meaningless there - you'll understand more when you see the place for yourself. For all that time I've really only wanted one thing. Someone to hold. Someone to love, and who would love me in return."

Almost subconsciously I crossed my legs. "Look, I'm very flattered," I said. "But I'm afraid I don't swing that way. There's a chap called Gareth you might want to talk to -"

"Not you, you fool!" said Boinko. "Your captain! Rose!"


"I fell for her the moment I saw her in Tim's house," he said dreamily, staring at his hands. "I knew I had to get her to El Dorado, and make her mine forever."

"You're sounding a bit desperate, Boinko, stop it."


"But why did you follow me and Penf if you're in love with Rose?"

Boinko gave me another of his how-stupid-are-you looks. "Jim, I thought you were smarter than this," he said. "She's in love with you."

This was along the lines of hearing that the man who put the News at Ten halfway through a film was just misunderstood. My eyes became as wide as Danish pastries, and my jaw dropped low enough to comfortably allow the docking of low-flying aircraft. "Me?!" I said.

"Him?!" said Penfold incredulously.

"From what I saw, she's been in love with you for years, in denial," continued Boinko. "She's been waiting for you to show some reciprocation."

"But I have!"

"No, you've made drunken propositions," offered Penfold. "But this still doesn't explain why Mr. McTavish was helping us and not her."

"Because if I confess my love to her and you're not around, Jim, then she probably wouldn't be interested," said Boinko. "But if you're around then she'd respond to me, to make you jealous."

"That's a rather roundabout way of thinking you have there," I said. "But surely she wouldn't really love you."

Boinko shrugged. "Hell, as long as she pretends what difference does it make to me? One night with her and I'm a happy man."

I had to admire his philosophy. "Well, I think that pretty much clears up all the loose ends, at least until we get to El Dorado and you can tell us the rest of the story," I said. "Now what?"

"Now, you just relax on this ship while I find the lifeboats and formulate a plan," said Boinko. "Don't do anything suspicious. I've got to get you three to El Dorado before Gertrude. She would just spoil everything."

"So, basically, we do nothing and enjoy all the added extras on this ship while you do all the hard work."

"Basically, yes."

I turned to Penfold. "Well, I don't know about you, but that's certainly a plan I could get behind."


Boinko's plan was complex and a little vague, but I'm glad to say that we did our part with resolve and doggedness. I mean, come on, we'd been pursued first by merpeople then by rogue accountants, I really felt we deserved to shift down a gear.

Gertrude had assigned six or seven of her Boinko clones to wear naught but very small swimming trunks and constantly use the pool on the top deck for her own bizarre gratification, but they tended not to turn up until seven in the morning, so half past six of the clock saw Penfold, Jam and myself making use of the sunbeds around the still, quiet, chlorine-laced waters. Penfold was engrossed in a novel he had found in the ship's library, Jam was reading over his shoulder, and I was simply laying back and enjoying the early morning South American sun. It was tough work, but then we were tough men.

"I've said it before but I'll say it again," I said to the morning sky. "I certainly would not mind living on this ship if it weren't for Gertrude Van Helsing."

"Yes," said Penfold curtly, eyes not moving from the text of his book.

There was a long silence, broken only by Penfold's sporadic page turning. I glanced briefly across at the accountant and his adopted son, and saw two pairs of eyes scanning the novel with fierce intensity.

"What does that word mean, dad?" said Jam eventually, pointing.

"It means 'to fondle in an erotic manner'," reported Penfold.

I decided not to ask. I went back to concentrating on the gentle rays of the morning sun beating down upon me, until they were blocked by a large musclebound figure appearing to my right. I looked at it quizzically over a pair of imaginary shades.

Boinko McTavish, effortlessly disguised as one of his own clones, leaned upon the railing and spoke to me out of the corner of his mouth.

"Lifeboat pod B on deck 8," he muttered. "One small seven-man airship. Only one clone guarding it. That's how we're getting off this thing."

"Oh, right, sure," I said, nodding. "Hear that, Penfold? Boinko's got the escape plan worked out."

"Jolly good," muttered the accountant, reading a paragraph that was making his eyebrows climb to the top of his skull.

"I have to find a way to sabotage this ship so Gertrude won't catch up with us too quickly," continued the greatest sky pirate who ever lived. "If all goes to plan, we leave tonight under cover of darkness."


"Is there something wrong with tonight?"

"It's just … they're showing Spider-man in the ship cinema tonight," I said. "Can't we make it tomorrow morning or something?"

Boinko sighed. "Don't let the luxury blind you to the true situation," he whispered irritably. "You three are prisoners, and the longer you stay here the more complicated the situation becomes. We have to get you to El Dorado as soon as possible."

"Boinko," I said in a very tired voice. "Boinko, Boinko, Boinko. Look at it this way. If Rose is already at El Dorado then great, we've already won, Gertrude is no threat. If we get there before Gertrude then it will only deprive us of seeing the look on her face when she realises she's too late. If, however, Rose isn't already there but we get to El Dorado before Gertrude, Gertrude wins anyway, because the bet was with Rose. Whatever happens hinges ultimately on whether Rose is at El Dorado yet, and there's bugger all we can do about that. So let's leave worrying for another day and enjoy everything this ship has to offer, kay?"

Boinko was doing a very good job of controlling his temper. "We can still sabotage Gertrude's ship," he protested. "Ensure Rose's victory."

"Absolutely," I agreed. "So it won't make any difference if we leave today or leave tomorrow, or leave on Friday or whenever. Stop being such an old fuss pot."

I thought I was pretty good at dirty looks, but the one he gave me could've gone through fifty boil washes and still wet the trousers of any primary school child you'd care to name. Then he stormed off, big boots clumping on the wooden deck, and disappeared into the ever-present hubbub of clones going about their business. I noticed six or seven of them were wearing naught but very small swimming trunks, so I nudged Penfold and pointed them out. He nodded in understanding, marked his place in his book, and we trudged off along the deck to avoid witnessing the ever-cringeworthy spectacle of six or seven Boinko clones messing around with various inflatable pool toys.

"What do you wanna do now, then?" I asked when we were a safe distance away.

"I dunno, what do you want to do now?" replied Penfold.

I glanced around, seeking inspiration, and sighed through pursed lips. "I dunno," I said. "What do you wanna do?"

"Jam, what do you want to do?" asked Penfold.

"I dunno, what do you wanna do?" replied the lad.

I sighed and rested my hands against the railing, staring into the morning sky. We were above cloud level, and a wilderness of wet white cotton stretched away in all directions below. Penfold took up position to my right, and adopted a similar pose.

"Clouds are pretty this morning," I said, bored.

"Jim," said Penfold suddenly, as if something had occurred to him. "How old should Boinko be around about now?"

"Oh, well," I said, applying some thought to the matter. "If Jugular Tim was just a cabin boy when Boinko discovered El Dorado, I suppose he'd be … round about … a hundred years old by now?"

Penfold nodded, and glanced briefly at where he imagined Boinko had disappeared to. "He wears it well," he said.

"Probably down to a good diet," I said sagaciously.

"What did you say?!" shouted Penfold. "I can't hear you over the noise!"

Sure enough, one of the several layers of background noise seemed to be amplifying, blotting out all others. It sounded vaguely like a trio of helicopters flying in single-file formation, if the noise was first passed through about fifteen loudhailers before reaching our ears.

" ?!" yelled Penfold, covering his shell-likes.

" ," I commented. " !"

" ," replied my companion.

" !" shouted Jam, pointing.

Far below us, a circular portion of the mashed-potato mess of cloud was swirling and spiralling, as if the hand of some gigantic deity had applied the holy electric whisk to it. The area swelled pregnantly, then gave birth to a gigantic spinning helicopter blade. It was quickly followed by two more either side of it, and to our universal surprise what can only be described as a gigantic grey submarine emerged from the cloud layer and swiftly gained altitude, trailing whisps of fluffy water vapour as it went. Two identical but smaller vehicles burst from the foaming white seas, catching up with their peer effortlessly.

Penfold, Jam and myself watched, mouths agape, as the three helicopter-submarine hybrids rose artistically, their spinning blades missing the hull of the Bastard Mk. IV by inches, before accelerating and overtaking the ungainly vessel with considerable ease. Gertrude Van Helsing had now emerged from her cabin, startled by the noise, and was peering into the distance just in time to see the three ships disappear into the perspective.

"Damn sky hogs," she muttered as the noise level died down. "I'm going to call daddy and make sure they never pull a stunt like that again. Get back to work, everyone."

With that, the army of clones returned silently to their assigned tasks without a single murmur, while I and my comrades stood frozen at the railing, mouths open and inviting to passing insects.

"This is bad," I said. "Very bad."

The reason why I said this was not because I was shocked at the gall of the submarines, cutting us off like that. It was because, as they had passed close to the vessel, I had seen the flag flying from the small pole that extended above the whirling blades of the largest ship. It was a flag I had seen before, in one other place. It bore an image of a disembodied handlebar moustache on a plain blue background.

The same flag I had seen on the government building in the undersea city of Rotherham.

"Shit," I said distantly. "Shitty shit shit arse shit! The merpeople! That loony king's actually gonna destroy El Dorado!"

"What the hell were those ships?" asked Boinko McTavish, who had just materialised at our side. "Noisy sods."

"Boinko!" I said urgently. "It's the merpeople! We've got to stop them before they destroy all the gold in El Dorado!"

"And before they kill the innocent people who live there, Jim," said Penfold pointedly.

"Yeah, that as well," I conceded. "We've got to get off this ship now and catch up with them!"

Boinko raised a blonde eyebrow. "One tiny escape ship against the entire Rotherham navy? They'd hack us to pieces before they even realised we were there."

"Well, let's just overtake them, then," said Penfold. "Get to El Dorado first and warn everyone."

Boinko thought about this for a second, then nodded. "Alright," he said. "As soon as I've sabotaged this ship we'll -"

"Oh, bollocks to sabotaging the ship!" I interrupted, surprised at my own passion. "This ship couldn't overtake a milk float on dope! Let's get out of here now!"

"But I wanted to see Spider-man…" began Jam, before Penfold grabbed him by the arm and the four of us made for the main elevator. Boinko slipped effortlessly into his clone disguise - a vacant look and fixed grin - and we trundled our way down to deck 8.


By all accounts, Boinko McTavish was a man of action, a fearsome, swashbuckling hero. Deadly with a sword and terror of the ladies and all that. Fighting off hordes of enemy with a cutlass in each hand while escaping from some bad guy's stronghold was very comfortable territory for him. Which is why, I suppose, he was terribly disappointed when we made it to Lifeboat Pod B without resistance and found the only guard to be fast asleep.

"Oh, bloody hell," he said, seeing his clone in a slumped sitting position, snoring loudly. "Don't I even get to fight off hordes of guards with a cutlass in each hand?"

I tried the entrance hatch of the lifeboat. In many ways it resembled a fluorescent green diving bell with jet engines attached to the rear and a couple of cigar-shaped balloons holding it up, and looked like it could perform a fairly impressive turn of speed. The circular hatch clunked open easily with a turn of the locking wheel.

"Come on, lads," I said, gesturing to the interior. Penfold and Jam slipped inside, but Boinko just stood and stared at the sleeping guard. "Boinko, come on!" I repeated, now inside the small vessel myself.

With a sigh, the great captain turned and stomped over to our method of escape, digging his hands into his pockets huffily. He took one last look around to see if his loud footsteps had alerted any of the enemy to our plans, then coughed loudly. The sleeping guard made no effort to rouse himself, so Boinko slammed the door shut in a last-ditch effort and applied himself sulkily to the pilot's chair.

The interior of the lifeboat was comfortable enough. Six reclining passenger seats, complete with sick bags and in-flight magazines, and a seventh in front of the pilot's console. A wide windscreen above the latter was currently displaying a short sloping runway leading to a closed iris door. As Boinko flexed his fingers over the controls and the three of us strapped ourselves in, Penfold took it upon himself to ask a question which I suppose should have been asked earlier.

"Can you fly this thing?"

"Certainly," said Boinko uncertainly. "I've flown nearly every make of ship there's ever been. This looks to me like a variant of the Hindenberg electronic control system."

"Well, that makes me feel secure," I said, drumming my fingers on one of my armrests. So lost in thought was I that it took me a while to notice I had been drumming for a full five minutes. "Well?" I asked.

"Hold on, hold on," said Boinko irritably. "I don't want to risk trying anything until I'm sure I know what I'm doing."

"We could be here a while," I muttered through the corner of my mouth nearest to Penfold.

"What does 'fellatio' mean, dad?" asked Jam, who was leafing through the magazine.

"Alright, alright," interrupted Boinko, thankfully. "I think I've figured this out. Logically, this should be the launch lever here." He pulled a small red lever down into its lower position, and sure enough there was a hum of electric motors as the chocks holding the escape ship in place withdrew themselves. With a slight squeak the escape pod slid down the short runway with considerable ease, before slamming heavily against the closed iris door and forcing our seatbelts to make themselves useful.

"We're doomed," I said matter-of-factly, adjusting my bandana.

"Shut it," offered Boinko, before laboriously turning a small wheel mounted in the wall nearby. The iris door opened with a sensuous glide of metal, and the boat continued its descent through a narrow, darkened tube. Finally a circle of daylight became visible in the windscreen, gradually expanding until we popped from the hull of the Bastard Mk. IV like a root vegetable from a spudgun. With a certain artful grace the pod arced away from its mother vessel before beginning to plummet groundwards like a particularly heavy stone.

"Ballast, Boinko, ballast!" I pointed out, whereupon Captain McTavish brought his fist down on a suitably large button. The ship lurched, slowed, climbed a little, then levelled out. The ballast in question, in the form of two large octagonal lead weights, would eventually come to rest in a small farm in Roswell, New Mexico, and cause the tiresome debacle associated with that area to enjoy a brief comeback.

"So far, so good," said Boinko, but his tone of voice seemed to say "If you have any sarcastic comments to make, kindly stick them up where your digestive system would find them most unwelcome."


If Gertrude Van Helsing had chanced to look up from her phone call and glance out of her cabin window at more or less that point, she would probably have been quite alarmed to see one of the ship's lifeboats apparently trying to mate with the hull of the Bastard Mk. IV. Even if she didn't look, I dare say the scraping noise may have led to her pausing for thought.

"Boinko," I said innocently, "what the hell are you trying to do?"

"It's called the Edmund Harrison Stealth Manoeuvre," he explained as the hull of the escape pod collided with the ship once again with a loud metallic boom. "Basically, we hang around the underside of the mothership until we're sure no-one's looking for us, then get out of here."

"Aha," I said, like a doctor of psychology addressing a patient who is standing on one leg and declaring themselves to be the lead singer of Everything But The Girl. Boinko fell silent as he concentrated on controlling the ship in the same way a handler controls a wild man-eating gorilla on the end of a piece of string, so I offered Penfold and Jam a look of deranged terror and they both offered me one back. It was while I was then offering the back of the seat in front of me a look of deranged terror that I noticed a small control panel mounted into it, with the words 'Pilot Control Override' written above it in stencilled letters.

And that explains why, after bumping against the hull a few more times, Gertrude would have noticed the same lifeboat's engines suddenly burst into life and send the pod screaming away into the distance like a cheetah mounted to the front of an air-to-air missile.

"What the hell?!" shouted Boinko as the flesh of his face was stretched backwards.

"Sorry, captain," I said through a similarly rippling physog. "But me and the lads are expressing a lack of faith in the current leadership of this operation."

I couldn't quite hear Boinko's next comment under the sound of the engines, and I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies.


I won't bore you with a full account of our journey to El Dorado. At top speed it lasted around eleven or twelve hours, mainly because we had to hunt around a bit to find the city itself; Boinko explained that it tends to wander off when there's high wind about. We overtook the Rotherham vessels with ease in the first hour of flight, and whether they saw us or not doesn't really matter. On the whole it was certainly one of the more comfortable air journeys I've taken, and I give it three stars. It would have had four had the in-flight movie not been Star Trek V.

There was a bit of a hairy moment as we neared the city when an electrical storm just sprung out of nowhere and tossed the ship around like a marble in a female wrestler's cleavage, but Boinko just turned on the external tannoy system and uttered two words - "It's me" - and the storm disappeared without trace, just like that.

Then, finally, we were passing over the golden city itself. Like Rose before us we realised how accurate Jugular Tim's description of it had been, and we pressed our noses up against the portholes to view the magnificent golden architecture as we went by. The crashed airship mating with the demolished building was a bit of an eyesore, but I suppose you can't have everything.

Boinko, after some trial-and-error work with the controls, took us towards the magnificent golden palace in the centre, ignoring our gaping mouths, struck dumb as we were by the spectacular structure of the building. The lifeboat rose up higher and higher until it became level with a hangar door built high into one of the largest towers. We hovered patiently outside until someone on the inside noticed our presence, and the doors opened with a hydraulic whirr. The escape pod infiltrated the hangar, scraping against the side of the entrance for only a second, whereupon Boinko cut out the engines and allowed the small vessel to drop the six feet to the floor and land with a shuddering crash. For the seventh time that voyage, I had to re-adjust my bandana.

Boinko stepped over to the exit hatch while the rest of us undid our seatbelts to reveal identically-shaped dents in our clothing. As he opened the heavy circular door, someone on the outside helpfully pulled it out of the way from their end. It was a young man wearing a solid gold uniform and a very despondent look on his face.

"Oh, it's you," he said, addressing Boinko. "We thought you might have gone forever this time." His tone was flat and emotionless, not indicating whether he would be pleased or sad if it turned out Boinko had gone for good.

"Hello, Alfonse," said Boinko, now out of the vessel and holding the door open as I emerged, my two companions trailing closely behind. "This is the Articulate Jim party. I trust the Rose Black party are already here?"

"I think so," droned Alfonse. "Kate said something about it in passing. She put them in the guest quarters, I think."

"How have things been going since I left?"

"Oh, the usual," said Alfonse drearily. "Richard and Penelope and the Haggerty twins threw themselves off the edge."

Boinko nodded. "We've had worse weeks. Would you be so kind as to show these gentlemen to the guest quarters?"

Alfonse shrugged. "Whatever."

As we fell into step behind our guide, Boinko called after us. "I have to go to my room and prepare a few things," he said. "I'll call for you in the morning."

I only half-heard his parting shot, however, as a few things were only just getting through to me. We had arrived at El Dorado, for one. We had completed our quest and were no doubt now rich beyond our wildest dreams, as one tended to be after quests. Everything that had taken place and which I have documented here had all been leading up to this, our final destination. Secondly, we knew that Rose was already here, before Gertrude. As such I and the rest of the crew had won the Bastard Mk. IV and now had the option to live the rest of our lives in lazy affluence. A prospect which would have been quite tempting, were it not for my ongoing life's mission to find the unidentified Something, currently taking the form in my mind's eye of a large letter 'Z' carved from solid emerald with a white van parked on top.

"Rather quiet, isn't it?" said Penfold with his usual penetrating incisiveness. Indeed, our footsteps echoed readily around the deserted corridors of the golden palace, with no sign of life but the enigmatic figure of Alfonse.

"I suppose everyone's in their rooms," I hazarded. "Maybe it's lunchtime."

"Maybe they've all gone to bed!" said Jam. "We don't know what time it is, it could be midnight for all we know."

"The sun's still out, laddie."

"Isn't South America that place where the sun doesn't ever set?"

"No, you're thinking of the Far East," informed Penfold.

"But if you head east from the Far East you'll get to South America, right?"

"Shut up, Jam."

We came to an awkward and juddering halt as Alfonse suddenly stopped in front of one of the enormous ornate doors we had been endlessly passing. He looked at us, and for the first time I properly saw the terrible bags under his eyes. This, I realised, was a man who had hang-glided over Hell on a Monday morning. He jerked his thumb towards the door, and shuffled away without a word.

"Something fishy's going on here," I said to my companions as I rapped my knuckles against the door.

"I know what you mean," said Penfold, glancing fervently around. "This place gives me the creeps. It's too quiet."

The door opened.


"What do you mean, you 'lost' it? How the hell can anyone 'lose' a city?"

- Representative of El Dorado Tourism


The first thing that surprised me when the door opened was that the rest of the Fellowship, Rose, Scar and Camp Gareth, were all alive and more or less unharmed from whatever ordeals they had been through.

The second thing was Rose herself, as without a word she suddenly flung her arms around me and squeezed all the air out of my lungs.

The third thing, although this one obviously wasn't as surprising as the other two things, was the odd knowing look that Gareth offered to Scar at that point.

It was a most touching and heartfelt reunion, and after Rose noticed Gareth's facial expression, she gave both Penfold and Jam graceless little hugs too. Then when we were all in the room and in a proper little grouping, there was a mass outbreak of back-slapping and dodgy stilted conversation on the subject of how amazing it was that we were all in satisfactory physical conditions. It took a little while, but eventually the hubbub settled down and we were able to make our coherent sentences be heard.

"So, what happened to you three?" asked Rose, when we had each claimed a bed and were all sitting on the edge of same.

"Now, that's a complicated tale of danger, mystery and heroism," I said, before launching into the full story. Our encounters with the merpeople, the undersea caverns, the jungles of South America, the accountant tribe and our recent escape from Gertrude Van Helsing with the help of the legendary Captain McTavish. The ulterior Rose-related motives of Boinko's I carefully omitted from the tale, and luckily my companions were too preoccupied to enquire about the gaping plot holes that were left behind.

"Boinko McTavish?" asked Scar when I had finished. "Boinko McTavish 'imself? 'E's 'ere?! In the flesh? And 'e's still alive?"

"If he isn't, someone's playing a very well-organised trick on us," said Penfold.

"Then he went off to his room to do something and we were brought here," I said, concluding the tale.

"Well," said Rose. "That has to be one of the most absurd stories I've ever heard."

A brief high-pitched snort emerged from the nostrils of Camp Gareth. "Listen to yourself, captain," he said as all eyes turned to him. "You're the captain of a sky-going pirate crew composed of six people in the Lost Golden City of El Dorado, which you arrived at by following directions on a toilet seat, and now you're talking about someone else's backstory being absurd." There was a brief pause, in which laughter was conspicuous in its absence, and Gareth formed his lips into a pout. "Well, I think it's funny."

"What about you guys?" I asked to lighten the uncomfortable mood that followed. "How did your side of the story go?"

"Painfully," said Rose, before telling us the whole story from start to finish. By the time she was done, the sun had set and two members of the party had retired to bed. Jam lay discreetly snoring with his shoes as a pillow, and Gareth was conked out two beds along. His snoring had nothing discreet about it whatsoever.

"We made it, guys," said Rose as a climax to her tale. "We made it to El Dorado, we won the bet, and we're all alive. Everything's going to be alright."

I flinched, and looked around for the plot element that is invariably introduced whenever those words are uttered. Nothing was apparent, so I allowed myself to relax a little.

"I dunno," said Penfold. "What do you make of this place?"

"It's magnificent," said Scar hungrily, the endless gold glinting in his eyes.

"It's very … solemn," hazarded Rose.

"And virtually deserted," I continued. "But no doubt this will all get explained when Boinko tells us the full story tomorrow. For now, let's just forget about exposition and get some sleep, alright?"

This seemed like an attractive proposition to my companions, and soon the reunited Fellowship of the Rim were all asleep upon their solid gold beds, exhaustion trumping discomfort. Each member found themselves dreaming about what their new-found wealth could bring them now our quest was at an end.

Scar merely saw himself sitting in a small room surrounded by piles and piles of golden nuggets and furniture, rubbing his hand and his hook together while cackling gleefully. Rose saw herself as the queen of the Sky Pirating world, standing proud on the bridge of the Bastard Mk. IV as her immense, loyal crew swarmed over Gertrude Van Helsing's home and razed it to the ground.

Jam pictured a life-sized replica of Captain Cook's Endeavour made entirely of chocolate. Solid, not one of those cop-out hollow ones. The rational side of his subconscious also supplied a lavatory and a small barrel of indigestion tablets nearby.

Gareth's dream largely involved shoes. Terribly nice ones.

Penfold had his inner eye fixed firmly upon a fountain pen he had once seen in the window of a very eminent stationery shop, cast in pure platinum with a single diamond set into the cap. The presentation box was made from dark, varnished mahogany, Penfold's initials inscribed on the lid in gold leaf, the interior lined with velvet the colour of burgundy. It was of no surprise to him to find the following morning a damp patch on his pillow where his mouth had been.

And as for me? All I saw was the Something, temporarily in the shape of a fifty-foot wide raisin in a car park in front of a multiplex cinema. I sat and stared at it for a while, before a nagging thought rose into my subconscious, manifesting itself in my dream as a small, angry-looking man with a handlebar moustache. It was shouting something, something that I knew was important, but which I couldn't quite make out. Then it produced a large placard, but the writing on it was blurry and illegible. Losing patience, he began to strike me upon the head with his sign. Consequently I awoke with a start.


Eventually, morning broke, as mornings have a tendency to do. The six of us awoke one by one, each individually complaining about back pains and neck cramps, and testing joints with sickening clicking noises.

"I'm not sure this place is all it's cracked up to be," said Rose, feeling herself for tender spots. Scar clapped his hands over his ears so as not to hear the blasphemy, and almost brained himself with his hook.

There was a knock at the door, and it opened slightly. "Everyone decent?" asked the voice of Boinko McTavish.

"Ye-es," chorused the Fellowship.

The greatest sky pirate of all time entered the room, and Scar's eyes suddenly wore the familiar shine of the infinitely starstruck. Boinko was carrying a solid gold tray on which a bottle of wine and a generous pile of chocolate bars stood. He laid it down carefully on the centre table, and went back to the door. "I managed to nick all this from Gertrude's ship before we left," he explained. "Have breakfast, then I'll meet you outside. I have some things to show you."

"There's no food in El Dorado, then?" asked Rose, idly picking through the pile of garishly wrapped goodies.

"Well, there is," said Boinko, "but it's not very palatable if you can't digest gold."

After he left, the Fellowship ate in silence, teeth mutely screaming for mercy under the assault of chocolate and sweet wine. I suppose we were all still humbled by the whole being in El Dorado and winning the race thing, but I know I was being quiet because I was trying to remember the gist of the important nagging thought that had been trying to make its presence felt last night.

Finally, we filed out of the door to find Boinko waiting, and all seven of us followed the great man silently through the hallways of the Palace of El Dorado. Rose, Scar and myself walked abreast just behind our guide, Penfold and his adopted son directly behind us, and Camp Gareth bringing up the rear. I will resist the urge to make some double entendre out of that.

"Where are we going?" asked Rose pertinently after the first five minutes of trudging through very samey corridor and down the occasional flight of stairs.

"You'll see," was all Boinko had to say on the matter, and for the remainder of the journey no conversation took place. The only sound was the scuffle and squeak of our shoes against the golden floor.

After heading down another two staircases it became clear that our destination was deep in the bosom of the Palace basements. As we walked, the corridors gradually became dark and dingy. No less gold, but now the gold bore a layer of dust and cobwebs, noticeably duller than the spick and span walkways above us. The light levels faded gradually as we progressed, and six pairs of eyes flung troubled glances at each other in the gloom. Eventually it became so dim that Boinko bade us halt while he took an apparently long-unused torch from the wall and lit it with a golden Zippo lighter. This he held aloft as we continued, and the flickering light turned every shadow into a potential danger.

It was all dead mysterious.

Soon the golden brickwork and the golden tiles on the floor and ceiling ended, and we stepped onto the first non-golden surface we had encountered since arriving at El Dorado. The corridor became a cavern carved out of the solid rock the golden city was mounted on, and soon the walls became rough-hewn and the floor became uneven. The man-made cavern opened out effortlessly into a natural one.

There were passages leading in all directions, but we kept behind Boinko who walked with the confidence of one who has explored his environment many times and knows exactly where he's going. Finally, he led us down some uneven stone steps and a blast of cold wind hit us in the face.

We were now at the very bottom of the gigantic lump of rock that housed El Dorado, where a huge, round, golden disc, surrounded by stalactites like upturned mountains, hung from the underside by four decorative pillars. Over the side of the stone steps we saw blue sky, and white cloud, and green land far below. Of course, as sky pirates we had long ago quashed what sense of vertigo we possessed, but walking down narrow steps over a drop of that magnitude brought some nasty memories flooding back. We swallowed hard, in unison, and stepped one by one onto the huge golden circle. Boinko approached what looked like a cylindrical altar in the centre, and stopped. He moved around the thing so it was between him and us.

He placed his hands upon the altar, bowed his head, and paused dramatically, before looking up and addressing us.

"I suppose now I should tell you the whole story," he said. "About El Dorado, and what I'm doing here, and what I brought you here for."

"Please do," said Gareth, enjoying the show.

"Many thousands of years ago," continued Boinko, "El Dorado was a city like any other. Ruled over by the wise King Pig I, who had founded the city and built it in his image. That was until King Midas came here one day on holiday, became drunk in one of the taverns, and urinated into the town's water supply. Soon everything that touched the water, the pipes and fountains, was turned to gold, and everything touching those, too. Midas left hurriedly to avoid explaining himself. Eventually whatever sorcery was transforming everything to gold died out, but not before the entire city and everyone in it had been changed. King Pig returned from a business trip to find his beloved city as you see it now."

"Er, Boinko," I interrupted diplomatically. "When you said you were going to tell us the whole story, we were kind of hoping you'd skip to the parts that are relevant to us."

He looked hurt. "I need to establish the background," he protested. "Story doesn't work otherwise."

"Just summarise it for us, then."

Boinko folded his arms huffily. "Alright, El Dorado became a major international tourist resort, King Pig became sick of it, he carved his city out of the Earth and attached a load of balloons to it. A few years later he realised that, since he was the only one there, his city would be deserted after he died, and he didn't fancy that, so he quested for the legendary Fountain of Youth, found it, and it made him immortal. Then he got lonely and when adventurers started questing for the Lost City he offered them immortality too to keep him company, and some of them took it, and some of them didn't. Eventually El Dorado had a population again, but everyone started getting depressed and began throwing themselves off the edge of the city, so he had to keep getting more adventurers to live here.

"Then I and my crew discovered the Lost City, and by then King Pig was about ready to throw himself off the edge himself. I quite fancied the idea of immortality, so he offered me both eternal life and the city, to rule as I saw fit. So I took him up on his offer, and then he threw himself over the side. I hung onto my airship, though, so I could come and go as I pleased, but my base of operations was El Dorado. What self-respecting pirate would want to leave when he's surrounded by tonnes and tonnes of pure gold?"

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Scar nod appreciatively. Boinko, meanwhile, was laboriously pushing at the altar, until the top portion shifted. I realised it was a lid, and that the altar was hollow. When the lid had been pushed sufficiently out of the way to leave a gap big enough to allow, say, a largish melon, Boinko delved his arm inside and withdrew from its resting place a transparent 2-litre plastic bottle. It was half-full of still water, and there was a very dog-eared R Whites lemonade label hanging off.

"This is the bottle King Pig used to carry some of the water back from the Fountain of Youth to El Dorado," said Boinko, holding the bottle like a wine enthusiast would hold a rare vintage. "Just a little sip of this will leave you unageing and unkillable for the rest of time. Half of the bottle has gone already, so I have to choose who I offer this to wisely."

He pulled the altar lid closed, and placed the bottle reverently on top.

"Rose," said Boinko softly. Captain Black tore her eyes away from the plastic container and met the gaze of our host. I suddenly became incredibly embarrassed for both of them.

"Captain McTavish?" said Rose, mesmerised by his eyes.

"I've ruled this city since the early twentieth century," he said, with great pathos. "All that time I've been alone, without knowing love, without knowing the touch of a woman." With great passion he seized her hands and held them in his, neither breaking their gaze. "I have loved you from the moment I set eyes on you," he confessed. "I am offering the ultimate gift. Drink of the water from the Fountain of Youth, and sit beside me as Queen of El Dorado for the rest of time."

Rose was clearly caught off guard. "What?"

"Please don't make me repeat myself, I've been rehearsing that speech for days," said Boinko. "Just give me your answer."

Most of the Fellowship seemed too awestruck to do anything but stare. Except Gareth, who seemed greatly entertained. He caught me looking at him, and he stuck out his tongue and placed his finger on it in the time-honoured 'doesn't this make you want to vomit' gesture.

"Well," said Rose, briefly flicking her gaze back at me. "It's a very kind offer, Captain McTavish…"

"Boinko," insisted Boinko.

"Boinko … but … what about the rest of my crew?"

"If you accept, then your crew can all decide for themselves if they want to leave or also take a drink and stay in El Dorado. But if you refuse, all of you must leave. Give me your answer, Rose Black. Will you stand by me and love me for the rest of time?"

There was one of those very tense pauses.

"Y … er … n. N-no," said Rose. "No, I don't want to stay here. I don't want to live forever. Maybe if it was anywhere else, but this city is just too depressing."

"Is that your final answer?" said Boinko, hope draining from his voice.

Rose nodded sadly.

I suppose we should really have noticed the gun in his belt before he drew it. Musket pistols tend to be very unwieldy weapons, but with certain pirates they're just part of the uniform, and you don't really notice until they come into play, like now. All six members of the Fellowship of the Rim literally jumped a foot in the air as the barrel of the weapon aimed itself squarely at Rose Black's pretty face.

"Then I'm afraid I'm going to have to force you," said Boinko with maniacal calmness.

"Isn't this bloody typical," I said. "Every single time we find a Lost City we end up pissing off the establishment. I don't even know why we bother."

"Shut up!" squawked Boinko, the tip of the gun quivering. Roughly he pushed the bottle of youth-giving water towards Rose. "Drink, now. Or I kill your entire crew while you watch."

"'E's bluffin', cap'n!" said Scar. "It's a decorative weapon, prob'ly ain't loaded!"

A thunderclap echoed around the little gathering as Boinko pointed the gun upwards and fired. Far above us, some pellets met the rocky ceiling and sent a few bits of shrapnel fluttering gracefully down to the floor. Then we waited patiently for a minute while Boinko reloaded his gun with the flint, powder and shot, before he pointed it at us again. "Drink," he repeated.

Rose picked up the bottle gingerly, and unscrewed the cap. Boinko stared derangedly as she brought the neck up to be level with her mouth, then stopped.

"Drink," said Boinko, spittle forming at the corner of his mouth.

"I … I can't," said Rose.

"Well, then," said Boinko, pointing his gun at the rest of the Fellowship one by one. "Dip dip dip, my little ship …"

"No, wait," said Rose desperately, staring at the bottle. Boinko ignored her, still counting us off.

"Sails on the ocean…" he sang.

"Wait!" said Rose.

"You … are … it," he said finally.

The gun was pointing at me. Something approaching a little smile appeared on Boinko's mouth as my eyelids widened considerably. He slowly began to squeeze the trigger.

Rose placed her lips upon the neck of the bottle.

The trigger continued its brief journey backwards. I screwed my eyes shut.


I kept my eyes shut. On the whole, it had been a very painless death. I hadn't felt a thing as the pellets blew a fist-sized hole in my skull and my brain landed on the floor fifteen yards behind me. I just heard the bang, and then felt a sensation not unlike standing on a shaking floor.

When I heard Boinko shout "What the hell's going on?" I felt the back of my head tentatively. It was pristine and unbroken, and now I came to think about, I didn't feel very dead at all. I opened one eye, then the other, just in time for the second bang.


It wasn't really a gunshot. It sounded more like an explosion far above us, muffled by distance and solid rock. The ground shook violently, and everyone on the huge golden disc tottered.

"El Dorado's being bombed!" said Penfold, as he clung to his briefcase and Jam clung to him like a barnacle.

I snapped my fingers. "Right!" I said, elated. "That's what I was trying to remember. The merpeople are coming here to destroy El Dorado! Stupid thing to forget, really."

"Oh, yeah," said Boinko thoughtfully, tapping his temple with his gun.

"Well, it's been really nice having this chat," said Gareth, as the Fellowship backed towards the exit as one. "But we really should be going, Mr. McTavish. See you around."

"Don't move a muscle!" spat Boinko, pointing his gun.

Gareth turned to run.

Boinko fired, just as another explosion was heard, and a tremor offset his aim. A series of pellets sped with alarming accuracy to the bottle that Rose was still clutching. It exploded, showering plastic and water. Rose was splashed on the side of the head, and where the fluid hit, some barely noticeable wrinkles became even less so, and her hair became slightly deeper in colour. None, however, went into her mouth, and she dropped the fragment of bottle she was holding.

There was a very, very uncomfortable silence.

"N-No," said Boinko, white as correctional fluid. He dropped to his knees before the puddle of water and plastic shards, Rose and the rest of us backing away from him slowly, and tried fruitlessly to gather the spreading water into his hands. When this proved futile, he wept openly, the pain-racked sobs of a man destroyed. We hesitated, and he looked at us through tear-filled eyes. For a moment, the greatest sky pirate who ever lived was the most pathetic creature any of us had ever seen. Then he pointed his pistol again, and pulled the trigger. It clicked emptily, and he burst into further tears.

The Fellowship exchanged glances as Boinko, still on his knees, fumbled with his ammunition. On unspoken mutual consensus we made a dash for the steps.

Gareth reached them first, and was already at the top by the time Penfold began his ascent, Jam right behind him. Scar, Rose and myself were still on the golden disc, several yards from the first step. I risked a look over my shoulder, and saw that Boinko was now on his feet, trying to load the gun and run towards us at the same time. By now the dull thudding explosions and the rumbling were a constant background noise, and rocks were beginning to fall from the ceiling. Scar, despite his size, was remarkably fast, and was on the steps a few yards before Rose and I. Slightly in front of my captain, I placed a foot on the bottom step just as a particularly loud explosion rocked the entire floating city.

A lot of things happened very hurriedly. A huge chunk of rock fell from above and landed on the golden plate, on the opposite side of it to where the steps began. The two pillars supporting that half instantly snapped cleanly, leaving two on our side to support the whole weight, something the builders had clearly not had in mind. The golden surface slanted alarmingly, and Boinko stumbled, dropping his gun and scattering gunpowder and pellets everywhere. The weapon slid away down the disc and disappeared over the side. I was now on the steps, Rose just inches away.

One of the two intact pillars that remained was wrenched out of the rock by the weight of the gold disc, which very suddenly rotated to become almost vertical. Rose, not yet on the slightly firmer stone stairway, let out a single, brief yell of horror, and began to fall, but I was able to grab her arms just in time. Simultaneously, Boinko was able to dive forwards and grab Rose's dangling feet. The sudden increase of weight came as a surprise, and I probably would have toppled right off the stairs if Scar hadn't grabbed me by the legs. I found myself lying upon the bottom two steps on my front, Scar holding me steady, Rose holding my arms, Boinko holding her feet. When all were holding on tight, the last of the pillars supporting the golden circle realised it was probably the best dramatic time for it to break, and it did so.

"Jim…" said Scar, teeth clenched. "I'm not sure 'ow much … longer … I can hold yer…"

"Rose!" I called downwards. "I'm not sure how much longer Scar can hold us!"

"Boinko!" shouted Rose. "We've decided if you let go now we'll forgive you for trying to kill us!"

Boinko said nothing. He just looked up at us, his eyes still red with tears, then shifted his gaze to his magnificent city as it seemed to be gradually disintegrating.

Since Scar was busy taking the strain above, and Rose was looking the wrong way, I was the only one to see the smile appear on Boinko's face when he let go of Rose's boots. He fell almost acrobatically, tumbling over and over, before disappearing into the cloud layer with an explosion of white fluff and vanishing from view. The sudden loss of weight almost made Scar fall over backwards, and from there it was a simple enough task to get all three of us back onto the stairs and into relative safety. When this task was completed, Rose peered over the edge, as if trying to see what had happened to Boinko. I touched her shoulder to convey some sense of urgency, and when she turned, I was very surprised to see tears in her eyes.

"Why … why did he just let go? Just like that?" she said.

"You did ask him to," I pointed out.

"I never expected him to actually do it!" She looked back at the long drop. "He sacrificed himself to save us. All he wanted was some company, and even though we didn't give him that, he still gave his life for us."

"Yes, well, if you remember that he's immortal it's not that noble a gesture," I said patiently.

"Oh, yeah," said Rose stupidly.

"Most that fall would give him is a headache -"

"I get it, Jim."

There was another boom, and a noticeable crack spread across the bottom step. "These stairs aren't gonna last," said Scar, injecting a much-needed moment of levity into the proceedings.

Without a word, the three of us scrambled up, pausing and clinging to the staircase whenever a tremor passed through it. The bottom few steps were already collapsing by the time we reached the summit, and when we were racing through the catacombs, you'd be forgiven for thinking there had never been stairs there at all.

We met up with Gareth, Penfold and Jam on the way, and the six of us spent a tense half-hour trying to find the way back up without a guide. Penfold suggested using the principle of keeping one hand on the right-hand wall, but he was quickly overruled, as this would take too long and he was being a smartarse. For a while our strategy was to pause at every junction and argue the merits of all possible turnings until one of us grew impatient and stormed off in one direction, forcing the rest to follow to avoid undue separation. Finally, it was decided to take every passage that led upwards, and before long we were back in the golden sub-basements of the Palace of El Dorado, where everything was much better signposted.

By the time we finally emerged from the front entrance of the palace, the worst of the devastation was over. What remained of the huge rock that supported the city, after all the debris that had rained down earlier, was too firm to be broken up any further. The city itself was becoming systematically obliterated by the three huge flying submarines that represented the Rotherham fleet.

At regular intervals, one of the ships would swoop low over the city, brushing the tops of the support balloons, and drop several bombs, which reduced golden houses to piles of terribly expensive rubble where they hit. The immortal inhabitants of the city didn't seem in the least perturbed, however. As we watched from the relative safety of the main palace doorway, a lone El Dorado cyclist was subjected to a direct hit. When the dust cleared, he emerged from the crater, bent the mangled wreckage of his bike back into something vaguely rideable, and rattled off down the road.

"It's the merpeople, alright," I said, shielding my eyes from the sun as another airborne submarine swept across the sky.

"Now what do we do?" said Rose petulantly. "What if they start bursting those balloons? Without El Dorado we can't say we beat Gertrude Van Helsing!"

"And we'll all die," said Penfold.

"And we'll all die," repeated Rose, nodding slowly.

"Didn't Rachilde say the king would change his mind about destroying El Dorado?" said Jam, with typical childlike naivete.

"The king was the only person in Rotherham who wanted to do this," I said thoughtfully. "If we could get on board, convince the others to turn against him, we could stop all this."

"'We'?" said Gareth, raising an eyebrow. "Don't you mean 'you'?"

I picked my words carefully. "I was just thinking aloud," I said. "I wasn't volunteering or anything."

"You've dealt with them before. You can breathe underwater. You're the best equipped to deal with this," said Rose.

"Aie, anyone can breathe underwater, and bee, the last time we met they pursued me, tortured me and tried to execute me," I said. "All this is somewhat academic, however, since we don't actually have any means to get up in the air."

"What about the lifeboat we came here on?" asked Penfold.

"Nah, we landed quite roughly, I shouldn't think it'll work anymore," I said.

"No we didn't," he replied. "It's perfectly operational."

"Yes, but Boinko was the only one who could pilot it," I said, giving Penfold a very meaningful look.

"You were able to control it after you made that comment about his piloting and he sat sulking for an hour."

"Oh yes, now I remember," I said, wondering if it was possible to mentally project the words 'SHUT THE HELL UP' in front of Penfold's eyes in huge, flaming letters. "But we don't remember the way to the palace hangar, do we?"

"I think I might be able to - UGH"

"Oh dear, it seems Penfold has hurt himself," I said, putting my arm in a friendly manner around the wheezing figure. "I suppose as his best friend it is my solemn duty to stay with him and nurse him back to health."

Rose gave me one of those looks of hers that I hate.


"Now, remember," said Rose, poking her head through the lifeboat's entrance hatch. "Attach the pod to the hull of the merpeople flagship with the docking clamps, then find a way in."

"Yeah, yeah," I said spitefully, strapping myself into the pilot seat.

"See if you can track down that Rachilde woman you told us about," she continued. "She'll probably have a better idea of what to do than us."

Penfold's ears visibly pricked up. "Rachilde?" he said. "Er, captain, maybe I should go too. Extra pair of hands would be useful."

"I don't know, Penfold, this could be a dangerous mission," I heard Rose say.

"So I wouldn't want my best friend to face it alone," he said in what he hoped was a heroic tone of voice. "I feel very strongly about our cause."

A moment's thought, then Rose spoke. "Okay," she said. "But Jam stays here."

"Of course."

"What?" said Jam, as Penfold climbed into the lifeboat. "Why can't I come?"

"It's too dangerous," said Rose and Penfold together.

The boy's lower lip began to quiver. "But I've been on worse adventures…"

Penfold got down on one knee and placed his hand on his adopted son's shoulder. "Jam," he said. "There are times when grown-ups have to go and do grown-up things. When you're with us by accident we can deal with it. But given the choice, we really don't need, er, the liability."

"The liability?" wailed Jam.

"I think what your dad's trying to say," I said quickly as Penfold opened his mouth again, "is that, much as we'd like to have you alongside us on this terribly important and dangerous mission, we really don't want to put anyone in any more danger than they need to be in."

"But I like being in danger," he said.

"Jam, you are in a defenceless city being bombed by three huge warships, hiding in a building that has 'target' written all over it."

"Oh yeah."

"Run along now."

"Okay, Uncle Jim."

Penfold patted him uncertainly on the head, and the boy went off to hold Scar's hand. The accountant stood and looked at Rose meaningfully. "Look after him," he said.

"Of course," she replied.

Penfold took the passenger seat nearest to mine, and I pulled the lever that filled the half-deflated balloons overhead. Instantly the lifeboat lurched three inches off the ground, and Rose helpfully slammed shut the circular door.

"Well, I'm crap at goodbye speeches," I said, "so let's just get this over with."

I pushed a nice big red button and the manoeuvring thrusters sparked into life. Within seconds the lifeboat was through the huge hangar doors and streaking across El Dorado, slipping easily around the forest of cables that connected the city to the balloons.

When the ship was a good hundred yards clear of the city, I brought the lifeboat around in a wide arc until the largest of the three merpeople vessels was visible in the viewscreen. A nudge of a lever near my left hand, and we were heading towards it.

"Do you think they'll see us?" asked Penfold insightfully.

I shook my head uncertainly. "Too small," I said simply. "Besides, if I know the king, he'll be too busy jumping up and down in glee to notice little old us."

"I wish I had your confidence, Jim."

"I wish I had your briefcase, Penfold."


I coughed. "Er, because it's a nice briefcase. I was trying to say something witty and it sort of backfired. Forget it."

"Just fly, Jim."


"Stealth is for girls."

- Norbert Micklewight


If anyone had happened to have been above El Dorado watching the bombing run at that time, possibly in one of those invisible stealth bombers the American government pretend they don't have, they would no doubt have noticed some unusual things going on with the merpeople flagship. They would have noticed a tiny lime green vessel, merely a speck compared to the huge bulk of the submarine, attach itself to the hull. They would then have noticed an unlikely pair of gentlemen emerge from the green speck and crawl very wobbly along the top of the ship, clearly trying their damnedest not to look down.

After watching this for a few minutes, our hypothetical spectator would then have noticed the two men arrive at a circular hatch that led inside the ship, and open it. If they had keen eyes they would also have noticed at this point that the interior of the submarine was, of course, full of water. The two men would be seen to argue inaudibly for a few minutes before playing two brief rounds of Paper Scissors Stone. Then, if the observer was knowledgeable of body language, they would have known that the man in the bandana was disappointed, before he knelt next to the hatchway and dunked his head inside. After a few seconds he would be seen to withdraw his head, say something to his companion, and disappear into the water, the other following closely.

As before, there was a moment of disorientation as we converted our lungs from air-breathing to water-breathing, sucking down the fluid and coughing up the last specks of oxygen. And if there had been any guards around who hadn't noticed our arrival, they would almost certainly have heard our elaborate choking fits. Fortunate, then, that there didn't seem to be anyone around, but that couldn't last.

I took in our surroundings. The thing even looked exactly like a submarine on the interior as well, and I realised that it must have been a sunken human sub taken by the merpeople and converted into a skygoing craft. The corridors were very narrow and the ceilings were very low; if a guard did come by, we would never be able to conceal ourselves. We had to get moving.

"Let's get moving," I said.

"Where to?" asked Penfold prudently.

That question rather threw me. "I dunno," I said. "I guess we just look around until we find something, or Rachilde."

"So, which way?"

There were only three conceivable ways to go. One was back up through the ceiling hatch. I briefly considered taking that one, getting into the lifeboat, and flying to somewhere sunny and hot with more beaches than tourists. I shook my head. I hadn't had an opportunity to fill my pockets with El Dorado gold yet.

So, that left following the corridor north towards the bow or south towards the stern. Or it might have been the other way around. We had both rather lost our bearings in our semi-drowning struggle. I pointed southwards. "Let's go this way."

"Why not this way?" asked Penfold, jabbing a thumb northwards.

I looked at him like a data entry clerk would look at a wheelbarrow full of paperwork that has suddenly been brought into his office at the end of a long day. "Does it really matter?"

"What if Rachilde was just around the corner that way?"

I pinched my eyes. "Okay, let's go that way."

Penfold seemed satisfied until he frowned at the other passageway. "But… Rachilde could be just around the corner that way, too…"

"Penfold, you -"

But Penfold would have to wait to know what I thought of him at that particular moment, because the matter was decided by the appearance of a merman. He was dressed in the usual gold-adorned armour, wore a short grey beard, and clung to a very vicious-looking trident. He seemed a little distracted as he came in, and didn't notice us until he bumped right into me.

He looked at me.

I looked at him.

"Hi," said Penfold, nervously.

I made my move. Not giving him time to react, I yanked his gilded helmet down over his eyes and smashed his head against a convenient wall. He staggered back, pulled his helmet back up, and gave me a hurt look.

"What was that for?" he asked.

"Er … sorry, that was supposed to knock you out," I said sheepishly.

He sighed. "Look, pushing the helmet down isn't going to help. You've got to knock it off me."

I hesitated, then swung my fist upwards. It caught on his helm and sent it spinning across the floor. "Right," he said. "Now, hold the back of my neck, like that, good, and just drive the top of my head into the wall. Like this. You have to sort of let the weight of my body do the work. That's it, good!"

He collapsed against the wall, unconscious, tongue lolling for added effect.

"Right then," I said. "Which way did we decide we were going?"

"I think you were about to insult me," said Penfold helpfully.

"You're a useless prat, let's go this way," I replied.


The King of the merpeople was exactly as I remembered. Two foot shorter than me and dressed in absurd regal finery. And he always knew when he had you in a sore spot. His moustache bristled under a big, toothy grin.

"Of course, to leave unconscious bodies where we can easily find them and alert us immediately to your presence just one time, that can be put down to simple absent-mindedness brought on by tension," he was saying. "To do it a second time, well, I'm wondering if there's some psychological response going on."

The look I gave him was on maximum dirtiness. "Can I just say at this point that this is the most unoriginal prison cell I've ever been in?" I said, holding onto the bars. "I mean, look at this. The entrance is a series of iron bars. I suppose next you're going to leave us with a single narcoleptic guard who keeps the keys hanging loosely on his belt."

"Shut it," said the king. "You are in no position to run off at the mouth."

He didn't know me that well. Nervousness gives me verbal diarrhoea. "This is an old German U-boat, isn't it?" I said. "You really have to rely on these old rustbuckets to get around? Ack."

I 'ack'ed because he had rapped his sceptre against the knuckles of my hand, which were clenched around one of the bars. "You should learn to control that mouth of yours," he said. "It might just get you killed. Our bombing runs are well under way. El Dorado is being destroyed as we speak, and there is nothing you can do about it."

"Listen," I said, attempting reason. "What makes you think everyone will come to your city after El Dorado is destroyed? Ruins left after a famous battle are very good tourist spots. You might even double their intake."

I noticed his moustache twitch. I'd found a way in. Unfortunately I just had to keep my big old stupid gob open.

"What you'd have to do is grind up all the gold and stone to dust and bury it all somewhere," I said. "Or, I dunno, burst all the balloons holding it up."

He looked surprised. "You know, we never thought of that," he said, in wonder. "We brought along all these cool missiles that fire spinning blades everywhere, and we never thought of bursting all the balloons. Thanks, I'll do that."

"Oh, I was just thinking aloud, you wouldn't be able to burst all the balloons," I said with desperate nonchalance. "They've got those new, reinforced, er, cast iron skins."

"I'm not listening," said the king. "Soon El Dorado will be nothing but 27-carat rubble, and Rotherham will finally be the number one Lost City."

"What on earth would you want to be number one Lost City for, anyway?" I asked, trying another track. "Have you ever met an American tourist? Plus you won't be able to sleep for explorers knocking on your doors. Have you applied any thought to this at all?"

The king leaned casually against the wall opposite me. "Mr. Jim … or can I call you Articulate? Let me tell you a story. At the beginning of my reign, I built a theme park on the outskirts of my city. It had this huge slide that went up so high I could see it from my bedroom window in the palace. Children came from all over Rotherham to go on that slide. I would get out my binoculars and watch their happy smiley faces for hours, going up to the top of the slide and coming down again with squeals of joy. Watching them … made me feel complete, I suppose."

"This story's getting rather creepy, king," I pointed out.

"Silence!" he squawked, smashing his sceptre against the metal floor. A wooden splinter ricocheted off the bar next to my ear and disappeared into the cell. I heard Penfold yelp. "After a while, the slide began to lose its appeal," continued the midget monarch. "Every boy and girl in Rotherham had been on it fifty times. The children I could watch from my window dwindled away to barely one a day. Then, none at all. The takings in the theme park were dwindling. The city funds as a whole were dwindling. Without tourism, we were making meagre profits. We had to start sending agents up to the surface to sell insurance to you tossy two-legs just to make ends meet."

He took a step towards me. "Mr. Jim, I would gladly have my people sell insurance for the rest of all our lives if it was just to make ends meet," he said conspiratorially. "But I would destroy a hundred Lost Cities just to see those smiling children on my slide again."

I watched him go, his sceptre making echoey clicks against the floor as he left. When he had rounded a corner, and was out of visual range, I turned to Penfold, who was sitting miserably on the only bed rubbing his ear.

"He's mad," I said.

"Hmph," said the accountant.

"We've got to -" I began.

"Got to what?" he asked.

"Do you hear something?"

He cocked a swollen ear. "Singing?"

"Singing," I repeated, looking around. Finally my gaze fell upon the bed. "Off," I said simply, gesturing. He obediently got to his feet and helped me pull the bunk away from the wall to reveal a narrow vent just above the floor. As we did so, the singing amplified. It was definitely a woman's voice, singing some kind of generic lament in an appalling accent.

I got down on my knees, placed my head against the cold metal floor and addressed the vent. "Rachilde?" I called.

The singing stopped. I called again. "Rachilde, down here!"

Something, presumably also a bed, was pulled away from the vent on the other side, and we saw through the grille a very familiar-looking fish-tail, then a pair of very familiar-looking clam-shells, followed by a very familiar face.

"Rachilde," I said, relieved.

"Jim?" she said, confused. She saw Penfold's sensible shoes. "Penfold? What the hell are y'all doin' here?"

I gave her the short version of the story. To her credit, her eyes only glazed over twice while I was telling it.

"What about you?" I asked when I was finished. "What happened?"

"Well, ah waited a while, but when ah got back to Rotherham the King was arming his fleet for war," she replied. "Ah guess y'all really pissed him off, this time."

"But how did you get here?"

"The King said, if ah liked two-legs so much, he'd bring me up on his flagship so ah could watch him destroy El Dorado," she said. "But he locked me in this cell and it doesn't have no windows, so that doesn't make sense."

"He's mad," I said matter-of-factly.

"Yup," she agreed.

"Hi, Rachilde," said Penfold sheepishly, looking at his feet and blushing.

"Hi, Penfold," said Rachilde.

"We have to get out of here," I said, for want of an interruption.

"These cells are absolutely inescapable," said Rachilde.

"That's precisely the wrong kind of attitude," I muttered, getting to my feet and going over to the bars. They were quite close together, but I could still get an arm through. If I pushed my head as far through them as it could go I could look to the right and just about see the entrance to Rachilde's cell. This didn't help much, so I turned my attention to the corridor. It was empty, but for the single guard who paced up and down in front of the cells, whistling and letting the keys hanging off his belt jingle.

"Hey," I said, when he was passing me. He paused in mid-whistle, and turned to face me. "Could you step over here a second?"

The guard hesitated, then took a step towards me. He was quite a young merman, with medium-length black hair poking out from under his helm. I feigned an interest in it. "I was just looking at your hair," I said. "I think you might have a dandruff problem, there."

The guard's mouth became a very thin line. "You're trying to escape, aren't you."

"No," I said, automatically.

He glanced left and right along the corridor, and leaned closer. "Listen," he whispered. "Me and the lads have been talking, and we're a bit worried about the King."

"Oh yes?" I asked. I wondered why it was necessary for me to know this.

"He's been doing very strange things," he continued. "He keeps looking out of the window of his bedroom in the palace and muttering about children and slides."


"So … we think it might be in his best interest if you defeated him and put a stop to his plans before he gets too worked up," he said. "We're not sure we want the death of all those people in El Dorado on our consciences."

I didn't tell him that most of the population were immortal and wanted to die anyway. Instead, I played my new trump card. "Oh, yes, I can see why," I said sympathetically. "All those innocent people at the El Dorado School for Blind Orphans and Puppies. Personally I would never be able to live with myself."

He winced.

"We have to get out of here first," said Penfold, who materialised at my side.

"Well, let's say that I was fooled by your dandruff ploy and took my helmet off," said the guard, removing his helmet. "And that, before I could react, you grabbed me and bashed me into unconsciousness against the bars." He bowed his head, and I obediently grabbed him by the back of the neck and pulled his head against the bars. There was a metallic clang, and he crumpled to the floor.

"Now what?" asked Penfold.

"Let's say, then," muttered the guard with his eyes closed, "that you put your hand through the bars and took the keys hanging off my belt, let yourself out of the cell, and scarpered."

I crouched and reached for the keyring. It fell off his belt and landed behind his prone body, so he picked it up and patiently passed it over. I fumbled with the keys, rapidly trying each one in the lock.

"It's the silver one with the number 27," said the guard helpfully.

I found it and in seconds was out of the cell. Then I let Rachilde out. Now we could see her properly, she, too, looked exactly as we remembered, albeit slightly malnourished.

"Thanks," she said.

"Hi, Rachilde," said Penfold, absent-mindedly drawing on the floor with the tip of his shoe.

"Hi, Penfold," said Rachilde.

"Where do we go now?" I asked.

She pointed up the corridor. "Up this way, to the bridge," she said. "We can't have long."

Almost in a response to her words, we suddenly became aware of a sound. Or rather, we became aware of a sound that had been going on for hours suddenly stopping. It didn't take us long to realise what it was; the muffled explosions and rumbles which denoted the constant bombing of El Dorado had ceased.

"He stopped bombing?" asked Penfold, confused.

"He's getting ready to use his spinny-blade missiles," I realised. "Let's move."


If you can imagine the three of us racing through the mazelike pathways of the submarine, desperately fighting off guards while heroic action music plays, intercut with occasional scenes of the King looking evil and about to press his launch button, then that's precisely what didn't happen.

That is, we did race through the mazelike pathways of the submarine, but Rachilde did know exactly where she was going, so we just followed her. What little guards we did pass helpfully stood aside to let us through, sometimes asking to shake our hands as we went by. And when we finally reached the doorway to the bridge, there was quite a crowd of guards waiting there, who broke into applause and cheers as we approached. One, younger guard proudly presented Rachilde with a huge bunch of flowers, while two others presented Penfold and myself with boxes of chocolates. I glanced inside the card attached to mine, and found a handwritten message reading 'Good luck against the King! Signed all in the Elite Guard.' Under this was about fifteen signatures.

"What's the status?" asked Rachilde, all business. The guards seemed to be quite in awe of her.

"The King made all the bridge crew leave," said one of the guards, who wore an air of seniority. "He sealed himself in. The door's locked with security clearance A1."

"Is that bad?" I asked.

"Only two people have security clearance A1," the head guard told me. "The King himself, and the King's wife."

"And where the hell is the King's wife?"

The guards offered me a universal confused look, like I had asked what colour green is. Then, as one, they looked at Rachilde, who in turn looked at us.

"You?" I said, echoed by Penfold.

"Ah assumed y'all knew," she said.

"You're married to the King?" asked Penfold incredulously.

"Is it really that hard to believe?"

I called up a mental image of the stumpy, elderly, moustachioed monarch, holding his sceptre and jumping up and down in fury. Then I placed it alongside a mental image of Rachilde. All was going well until I tried to imagine them as a married couple, whereupon my mind shut itself down in self-defence, and it was only after repeatedly thinking about soft furry animals that it could be persuaded to come back online.

"Oh, that's just fantastic," I heard Penfold say. "That's just bloody brilliant, isn't it."

"What's the matter?" asked Rachilde.

Penfold was clearly about to say something which all three of us knew he would later regret, so he stopped himself just in time. "It's just … I had a bet going with Jim that you would want to go out with him," he said.

I was just about to immediately make my opinion on the quality of this hurried fib known when I was interrupted by a noise. I can't really explain what it sounded like, except through the medium of onomatopoeia. It sounded kind of like a "BAM - SWOOSH", or possibly a "KERPANG - FWOOOOM". I ran to the nearest porthole, and was immediately crushed against it as everyone present had the same idea. I saw El Dorado, and the devastation truly was magnificent. The palace, in which my cohorts were hiding, seemed more or less intact; several turrets and other accoutrements were missing or demolished, but it was probably still, for the moment, safe cover.

I watched as an indistinct torpedo-shaped object appeared from beneath the submarine and streaked towards the forest of balloons. When it was just a few yards away, it exploded with a POP, sending tiny, jagged shards of metal flying in all directions. Several balloons burst instantly, a few withstood several hits, but it seemed that enough remained. El Dorado was, however, visibly descending, at a rate of something like ten feet per minute. It wouldn't survive another hit.

"He's firing," said someone, needlessly.

I struggled free of the throng and returned to the entrance to the bridge, where Rachilde was still waiting. "Can you get us through? Now?" I asked.

"Sure," she said, quickly tapping an access code into the electronic panel beside the door. The light overhead turned from red to green.

"Thanks," I said. "Penfold, c'mon."

"Wait," said the senior guard as Penfold came to my side. "He's probably too deranged now for you to talk him out of anything. Obviously we'd prefer if you could dissuade him and leave him alive, but if there's no other option…"

He didn't have to speak the rest of the sentence. He pressed one of those underwater guns into my hand, and I understood completely.

"Roger," I said, saluting with the weapon. The entire elite guard returned the salute snappily, which resulted in several less wary members being elbowed in the head.

"Good luck, sir," said someone.

I sighed, and the three of us entered the bridge.

On the whole, it was pretty much exactly as you'd expect a bridge to look. The entire north wall was devoted to a curving windscreen, in the centre of which El Dorado was visible, still moving groundwards at a gentle pace. There was a pair of small consoles just in front of the glass, each with a joystick. The captain's chair was immediately behind this, but stood empty; the king himself was at one of the pilot consoles, a huddled, silhouetted figure, concentrating on getting El Dorado in his sights again. He didn't seem to notice our presence, and I wondered if it wouldn't be a good idea to just creep up to him, stick the barrel of my gun into his ear and pull the trigger. I had to abandon this plan rapidly, however, when Rachilde spoilt everything.

"Your highness?" she said.

The king jerked out of his reverie, hopped out of his chair, and turned to face us. After a moment's thought, he grabbed his sceptre and held it like a child clings to their security blanket. "You're too late," he said, smugly. "All I have to do is press this button, launch another missile and El Dorado is finished."

I cocked the gun, deliberately loudly, and pointed it squarely at his forehead. "So all we have to do is stop you pressing the button," I pointed out.

Rachilde took a step forward. The king raised his sceptre menacingly. "Your highness," she said, "Ah don't think you've really thought about what you're doin'. Why don't we go back to Rotherham and talk about it. Ah'll bake y'all an anemone cake."

The king's eyes lit up, but almost immediately lit down again. "That isn't going to work on me this time, Rachilde," he said. "El Dorado's going down. Now."

I un-cocked and cocked the gun again, just to remind him that I had one. "Try it, shrimpy."

As many respectable psychiatrists will tell you, when faced with a lunatic with the power to destroy a city, and who intends to, you have to talk them down with gentle persuasion. You have to be nice to them. You have to placate them with promises of cake, or a nice comfy cell with a view. I was not big on psychiatry. So I was rather surprised when the king suddenly reached out a hand, pressed a button on his console, and withdrew it rapidly.

"You git!" I said in astonishment, as, far below us, we felt the torpedo leave its bay. "You total, total, git!"

Rachilde didn't hesitate. She launched herself upon the tiny king and pinned him to the floor. "Jim!" she cried, wrestling with the small figure. "The other joystick!"

I glanced at the torpedo speeding towards El Dorado, then at the other console just six feet away. "What about it?"

"The torpedo - it's a guided missile!" she said, before the king freed one of his arms and elbowed her into unconsciousness. She slumped over, just as I stepped over to the console and put a hand on the joystick. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the king pick up his sceptre and point the end squarely at me.

"Jim!" cried Penfold, as he realised. "His sceptre! It's a -"

A shot rang out. A spark of pain just below my right knee sent me collapsing over the console, shoving the joystick and sending the torpedo curving upwards. It passed El Dorado harmlessly, but I was more concerned with falling over and watching blood that belonged inside my leg suddenly not be in my leg anymore.

"No!" cried the king, as we heard the torpedo explode harmlessly, far above us. Its shards rained down upon El Dorado, but they were moving slowly and bounced harmlessly off the remaining balloons. "You git!"

Penfold was by now at my side. I must have been rather pale at that point, staring goggle-eyed at my pumping wound. The accountant swiftly removed his tie and wrapped it around my knee.

"What are you doing?" I asked politely.

"I'm trying to stop the bleeding!" said Penfold.

"Well, don't!" I said. "If this thing needs amputating, I could finally get one of those genuine wooden legs I've always fancied!"

"Jim, you're becoming delirious." He pulled the tourniquet tight, and a fresh burst of pain brought me temporarily back to reality. Through wonky vision I saw the king load another slug into his sceptre/rifle.

"I hate two-legs," he was muttering, over and over again, like some kind of mantra. "I hate two-legs. I hate two-legs. I HATE TWO-LEGS!"

By now he was pointing the barrel of the sceptre at me again. This time, since I was more at his level, there would be no possibility of the bullet hitting a limb. It was aimed squarely at my face.

"Bollocks," I muttered.

A second shot rang out.

There was a long, long silence.

The king dropped his sceptre, and looked down at the hole in his chest. A thin trickle of blood ran down the front of his robes.

"Bollocks," he echoed, before comically toppling over backwards.

I looked in amazement at Penfold. He was holding a smoking gun, insofar as a gun can smoke underwater. He seemed as surprised as I was, staring at the end of the barrel in disbelief.

"Jesus Christ, Penf," I slurred.

"They-they gave me a gun, too," he stammered. "I-I just didn't think."

I nodded slowly, and looked briefly at the wound in my leg. "Eyebrow," I commented.

"Eyebrow?" asked Penfold, frowning.

"Eyebrow foxglove," I continued, before fainting.


I awoke to find myself outdoors, in daylight, and with hairy lips clamped over mine. Out of reflex I pushed Scar away, sat bolt upright and coughed a few pints of water out of my lungs.

"He's alright," said a relieved Penfold, who was kneeling nearby. "You couldn't cough the water up while you were unconscious." He stood up, and turned to face someone obviously some distance away. "He's alright!" he shouted.

I felt Rose's arms around me. "I thought I'd lost you," she said softly, helping me to my feet.

Now I was in a position to take in my surroundings I realised I was on the deck of a small sailing barge straight out of Disneyland - made entirely of solid gold and decorated with enough cherubs to fill a schoolbus of Paradise. Even the balloons overhead were either made of or covered in gold leaf. Penfold was here, as was Rose, Jam, Scar and Gareth, who were all clustered around me.

"What happened?" I croaked.

"We found this ship in one of the 'angars," said Scar, patting the balustrade. "After the bombin' stopped, we thought we should come an' collect yer."

"Penfold told us everything," said Rose. I noticed a bandage over my wounded leg, and Jam clinging to Penfold with something approaching hero worship.

The merpeople flagship was just a few yards off the starboard bow. I saw Rachilde wave at me from the entrance hatch, before disappearing back inside. The Fellowship of the Rim watched and waved as the three huge vessels ascended slightly, curved around in a wide arc and headed back the way they came, presumably back to the sea.

"I think the Lost City of Rotherham will be in good hands," said Penfold.

"El Dorado?" was all I could say.

"It's fine," said Rose. "We'll need to put up a few new balloons, but overall it's perfectly alright."

"Except all the buildings are destroyed," said Gareth helpfully.

"Except for that," sighed Rose.

"No, El Dorado," I said, pointing. "Look!"

The barge we were on was quite some distance away from the Lost City, and since everyone had been so concerned about me, no-one had noticed what I was noticing now. El Dorado seemed to be in the shadow of one of the biggest ships we had ever seen.

"Gertrude," hissed Scar.

"But … we got to El Dorado first, didn't we?" said Gareth. "Haven't we already won?"

"We can't prove that," I told him urgently, panic rising in my voice, as the barge began to move. "The bet was, 'whoever is on El Dorado first waiting for the other wins'. If she gets onto El Dorado before we can get back there now, she's won."

Gareth frowned. "After everything that's happened? Doesn't seem fair."

Rose hadn't lost any time. As soon as she had seen Gertrude's ship, she had dashed right over to the helm without a word and was applying the gas. Sweat was pouring down her face. Her lips were parted, her teeth clenched. Our new ship could obviously move a lot faster than Gertrude's, but the Bastard Mk. IV was a lot closer to El Dorado than us. It was already touching down in one of the larger blast craters by the time we were two hundred yards away from the city.

The rest of us could only cling on for dear life as Rose pushed the tiny barge to top speed, hanging onto the wheel and jumping up and down as if putting spurs to a horse. Gertrude's gangplank was already extended.

One hundred yards to go.

A female figure, clad in a flowing white dress and flanked by grinning Boinko McTavish clones, was making her way down the plank.

Fifty yards.

Gertrude was just three feet away from El Dorado.

Ten yards.

As the barge now sped over the Lost City, Rose dashed up to the side and, before any of us could stop her, flung herself off.

Gertrude's foot was three inches from El Dorado's surface.

Rose was six feet from the ground.

The foot touched the floor. Two nanoseconds later, Rose hit the floor hard, rolled, stumbled, and came to rest heavily against an overturned golden postbox.

A woman in a slightly tattered solid gold dress, holding a solid gold clipboard, approached a very stunned and speechless Rose and adjusted her golden spectacles.

"You lose," she said, simply.

If you were to take the word 'no', add about a dozen 'O's to the end and as many exclamation marks, shout the word as loud as you can into a microphone and amplify the recording until people three streets away are wondering why you're feeling so negative, you'll have a pretty good idea of Rose's reply.


"If anyone would like to confess to chronic masturbation, let him speak now or forever hold his piece."

- Crap Joke


It had been a very hectic day, and I was finally being allowed to get some rest. Gertrude had assigned each member of the Fellowship separate quarters, and had even provided me with a walking stick while I couldn't put weight on my leg. We had been fed well, allowed access to all the facilities on board the Bastard Mk IV - except of course for the shuttle bays, which were heavily guarded - and on the whole she had been an absolutely delightful host.

I hate her.

She had spoken to us so politely, treated us with the utmost respect, and hadn't even taken the opportunity to gloat. She had given us no reason to hate her ever since we had come on board, and for that reason I hated her even more.

And in the morning, I was going to have to marry her. First thing tomorrow, at seven a.m., she had said. That was smart of her. She knew I'd have no energy to run for my life before breakfast.

Rose was not taking it very well at all. She had had to be physically restrained by three clones while Gertrude had addressed us all on the top deck. Then Gertrude announced she would like Rose to be the maid of honour, and five minutes later, when they had got our captain back under control, they had had to inject her with a very powerful sedative.

As for the rest of the crew, I've never seen them look so defeated. They were powerless against the clone army. In accordance with the terms of the bet, of course, now the Fellowship had to work for Gertrude. Their spirits were broken, and she knew it. Hell, so was mine. As I lay there on the obscenely comfortable bed in the guest quarters, staring at the ceiling, I was genuinely wondering if being married to Gertrude would be so bad.

My optimistic side and my rational side were wrestling each other furiously in a mental no-holds-barred cage match when there came a knock on the expensive Regency-esque door.

It was, of course, Gertrude. She had actually made a conscious effort to appear demure. She was wearing a very prim burgundy dress with a neckline that ended just below her chin, and a skirt like an enormous blancmange.

"Hello, Richard," she said, sweetly. She let herself in, making sure I noticed the two grinning guards outside the door, and sat herself down upon the bed. "I just wanted to see you again before the wedding."

"Why don't you drop the act, Gertrude?" I said, anger welling inside me, but keeping my tone of voice level.

"Whatever could you mean?" she asked, unconvincingly.

"This kind, understanding act. We both know you're just doing this to make me and the others believe life won't be so bad on this ship, then to change back to normal as soon as the wedding's over. It's a very clever piece of psychological torture that I heartily applaud, but it's not going to work. We all know what you're like. So let's talk straight."

Her smile didn't change. "Okay," she said. "You want straight talk, let's talk straight."

I watched, standing near the door, as she leant back, draping herself languidly across the bed. A very satisfied sigh that made my hands twitch passed her lips. "Everything is going so perfectly," she said happily. "Rose is crushed, her silly little crew are broken, and now you are mine. All mine to play with as I see fit." She giggled. "You should see your face, Richard."

"Why are you so obsessed with me?" I asked.

She pouted when I didn't seem to be getting cross, but answered me anyway. "I'm not really," she said. "I admit I had a bit of a schoolgirl crush on you when we first met, but that went away fast."

I stared in disbelief. "So … why?" I asked, attempting to make a gesture that encompassed the ship, the upcoming marriage and the whole sorry situation. It wasn't easy.

Gertrude rolled onto her front, and idly played with the cord for the bedside lamp. "Principle of the thing, Richard," she said. "I always get what I want. For a brief time I wanted you, but couldn't have you. Now I've made up for that. And don't think the meagre amount of affection I held for you is going to get in the way at all of making the rest of your life a living, breathing hell on earth."

"You're insane," I said, matter-of-factly.

"My therapist said that, once," she replied, sitting up again. "They never found all of him. Richard."

She knew the name was getting to me. As soon as I had grabbed her and pulled her face within biting distance, one of her clones was already in the room, a threatening look on his blank features. "My name," I growled, "is Articulate Jim. And I will not sit still for you, or anyone."

She smiled. "You're whoever I say you are, Richard," she said sweetly. "Maybe I'll call you Pinky Nopants instead. Would you like that, Pinky Nopants?"

She broke free of my grasp, and scampered to the door, giggling. "Whatever you might say, you can't resist me," she said. "One too many acts of insurrection, and you know full well my clones would tear you to shreds. See you in the morning. Pinky Nopants."

The door slammed shut behind her just before the bedside lamp shattered against it.


When I was finished breaking ornaments and banging my head against a wall, I began to apply some serious thought to my plight. I had access to the deck, I could always throw myself off, but I had decided to demote self-destruction to plan B. I had to get out of here, but in a way which helped the rest of the Fellowship escape and made Gertrude less of a threat. Frankly, I couldn't think of any solution that didn't involve having ready access to a wide selection of heavy artillery. I was just wondering how much it would hurt to hang myself on the doorknob when there came another knock.

"Go away," I said. "I'm meditating."

The door opened regardless, and Penfold sidled in apologetically, followed closely by Jam.

"Hello, Jim," said the accountant apprehensively.

"Penfold," I said by way of greeting. "You'll be my best man, right?"

"Er, yes, of course," he said. "I just wanted to come and say goodbye."

I wondered at what point in the conversation he was planning to get to the gist of it, and said so.

"I spoke to Miss Van Helsing," he said shamefacedly. "I said I intended to leave Rose's crew, and she seemed agreeable to letting me go, as soon as the wedding's over. She was quite insistent about that. So I guess this is the last time we'll be able to talk, properly."

I nodded, wondering why Gertrude would be so amenable. Then I realised; this was part of my torture. Anything she could do to me would be softened by the presence of a friendly face to agonise to afterwards, she knew that. My optimistic side, fresh from its battle with my rational side, gave my pessimistic side a punch in the throat and told it to stop flattering itself.

"Jam's coming too," he continued, putting his arm around his adopted son's shoulders.

Two down, I thought. "I thought you wanted to stay on as a pirate," I said to Jam.

"I don't want to be a pirate on this ship," explained the boy. "And I've realised, while we were on that big adventure, that maybe my dad isn't as boring as I thought."

I nodded. "Where will you go?"

"Who knows," they said together.

"Wherever the wind takes us," said Penfold, putting on his best 'romantic' face.

I stood up suddenly, making him flinch, and put out a hand. "I guess this is fare-thee-well, then," I said.

Penfold shook my hand. "I'll miss you, Jim," he said. "I'm sure life on this ship won't be so bad. Miss Van Helsing was really nice to us. Maybe she's changed."

I carefully didn't allow my facial expression to alter, and looked down at Jam. "Look after him, laddie," I said.

"I will, Uncle Jim."

"We'd better go," said Penfold, grief in his eyes. "Wish I could stay longer, but David Attenborough's on in a minute."

I nodded, and the two of them left. I waited until the footsteps had faded away along the corridor, and wiped the moisture out of my tear ducts. Then I sat down on the bed and brooded. I brooded until I could brood no more, then I did a little extra brooding on the side.

Someone knocked on the door again.

"Do you mind?" I said. "I'm brooding!"

Quite unexpectedly, my third visitor that night was Camp Gareth, in a fabulous crushed velvet suit of orange and yellow with a white cravat. He seemed to be in rather high spirits. I recognised it as the unbreakable layer of fluffy pink material he always wrapped himself in whenever he was in the most dreadful of situations. I found myself envying him quite unreasonably for this.

"Settling in, are we, Jimbo?" he said brightly, perching himself on the end of the writing desk. "Ready for the big day?"

"Gareth, I am contemplating spending the rest of my life in constant torment," I said dryly. "I'm sure you would not feel too offended if I invited you to piss off."

He frowned, and got down to business. "I'm here on liaison from the captain and Scar," he explained. "She's still strapped to her bed, and Scar's having to bring her food and drink and things, so it had to be me. Rose said to tell you … er … what was it … 'God help you', I think it was."

I made sure he could see me clenching my fists. "Is that all?" I said.

He gave me a sympathetic look, and leaned closer. I leaned back. "Look," he said. "I know to you I'm just some silly, marvellously dressed comic relief stereotype, but I do have a few tricks up my sleeve."

"Go on."

"It's like this. I snuck into the chapel a few hours ago when no-one was watching and wired up a few explosives around the place. All I have to do is press a button during the ceremony and the whole place goes up to kingdom come."

"Oh, brilliant, Gareth," I said ungratefully. "Blow me and everyone else to smithereens. Is that really the best you can do?"

"It would solve all our problems," he pointed out.

"Thanks, but let's put that plan on the back burner," I suggested.

"Okay. Let's think up some code word in case you change your mind. Just say it during the ceremony and I'll do the rest. How about 'I do'?"

"Just go away, Gareth!" I said angrily.

He shrugged, and took a few steps towards the door.

"Gareth?" I said.

"Yes?" he said, not turning around.

"Where did you learn to wire up explosives?"

"Cosmopolitan," he said simply, and left.

I sat staring at the door for an hour, after that. Silently I challenged someone to come knock one more time. After an hour of silence had passed, I contemplated giving up and doing something else. However, knowledgeable as I was of the traditional joke in these matters, I kept staring for a further hour until finally convincing myself that no-one else was going to come visit. Then I waited another hour, just in case.

Having finished staring at the door, I took to staring at the writing desk instead. There was an old-fashioned typewriter sitting innocently on top, like a small child watching his parents squabble. Thoughtfully I sat down in front of it, and checked the drawers. As I expected, there was a thick stack of blank paper close to hand. I took the topmost sheet and fed it into the typewriter.

My mother had often said to me, "Do you know what I found underneath your mattress, you dirty little sod?". But sometimes she could say really insightful things, too. Like "when you're in trouble, sometimes the best solutions can be found by just putting the problem to paper."

And that's how I've come to be sitting here in a luxury cabin in the middle of the night, furiously typing up my life story with this rusty old machine. It took me a while to decide to start telling the story right from the very beginning, with my time on the Land Pirate ship with Scar. I figured if I told how everyone concerned with the story came into my life, I'd be able to assess them all and work out a solution through them.

Having sat here for hours and hours, forgoing sleep, endlessly typing, I can't say a single answer to my troubles has come to mind. Not one. So what a bloody great waste of time this was. I've been rapidly reminded why I never really got on with my mum - hold on, I'll type some more in a bit. Someone's knocking at my door again.


It was an elderly gentleman who was not immediately familiar to me. I seemed to be familiar to him, though; he had brought out a big smile and a hand to shake as soon as I opened the door. He seemed like a jolly old man, tall and skinny, with wiry silver hair sprouting from his scalp. He was wearing a very formal tuxedo which was very obviously not a rental. This guy had class.

"Ah, good evening," he said, letting himself in.

"Morning," I corrected sleepily. "Do I know you?"

"Oh, sorry, of course. Van Helsing's the name. Jeffrey Van Helsing. Gertrude's dad."

Recollection occurred. "Mr. Van Helsing," I slurred. "It's been a while."

"I understand you're calling yourself Jim, now," he said, sitting himself down and making himself comfortable. "Good a name as any. I only just arrived for the wedding, wanted to say hello, and welcome to the family, et cetera."

"Mr. Van Helsing -"

"Jeff, please."

"Jeff, can I ask you a question?"

"By all means, dear boy."

"Do you know how much of a psycho Gertrude is?"

His smiling, jolly features quickly dissolved into a deep, dark expression of grim sorrow. "With more clarity than anyone else in the world," he said.

"Why do you keep letting her have her own way?" I asked. I was trying to become angry, but somehow I couldn't find it in me. "Can't you see what it's done to her?"

Jeffrey sighed. He suddenly looked very old and very sad. "Jim … when Gertrude was six years old, she was the most wonderful daughter a family could hope for. Kind. Meek. Generous. She had a good word to say about everyone. She never asked for anything, except one Christmas, when she asked for only one thing; a little puppy to call her own. So, what more could a loving father do? I went to the pet shop, and purchased the fluffiest, sweetest little dog you ever saw.

"On Christmas morning, she bonded with him instantly. From then on, she was never seen without that dog. She would knit it little coats and booties, incorporate it into all her little games. She had a lot of love in her, Jim, and she gave every ounce of it to this dog."

I shifted in my seat, wondering why everyone I met had to endlessly vomit exposition at me. "So what happened?" I asked politely.

"One morning, I had a row with her mother. I was perfectly alright with her working as a dominatrix, it was just when she brought her work home with her that I objected. I had to get to the office, so I got into my car in a dreadful mood and backed out of the driveway without checking my blind spots."

At this point, an even darker shadow came over his face. "I felt the car bump something, and a little yelp that was cut short, and then … and then Gertrude came out of the house to go to school. She saw me, in my car, with her dog underneath the wheels.

"She didn't say anything, she just stared at me, and the dog, for a long time, before looking away and walking off to school. It must have made something flip, inside her. From that moment on, she gradually became more and more intolerable. She held me responsible for her wretched animal's death. I gave her everything she demanded, just so I could see her smile again, if only for a few seconds. When she started becoming so much like the Gertrude you know, I could see what was happening to her, and I tried to stop. I tried to put my foot down and stop giving her everything. But whenever I refused, she'd put that act on again. She'd temporarily go back to the sweet little girl I used to know, and I usually get so elated that she may have come back to normal that I cave in to everything."

I tapped my chin thoughtfully. "This dog … it wasn't named 'Richard', by any chance?"

He thought about this. "I don't believe so, why?"

"Sorry," I said. "I was working on a theory."

"Jim," he said with utter seriousness. "Don't misunderstand me. I know Gertrude is a monster, and that I helped create her. I can't imagine anything worse than being married to the girl, and I feel I should do something for you. That's why I brought you these."

He casually handed me a small bottle of pills. "Got them from an old associate in the intelligence agencies," he explained. "Just slip one under your tongue and your problems are over. No-one would blame you."

"Cyanide," I said flatly. "Is suicide really the best idea anyone can come up with?"

He stood up, and so did I. "I'm sorry, Jim, I was trying to help," he said. "If you have any other escape plan, and if I could be useful, don't hesitate to ask."

I sighed and waved a hand at the typewriter. "I've spent the whole night trying to think up an alternative," I said, "and -"

I stopped.

I gave the typewriter a meaningful glance. Then I sat down in front of it, pulled the last sheet of my manuscript out, and fed in a clean page. "Actually," I said as I began to type, "there is something you could do."

"Anything," he said, looking over my shoulder.

"Are there any clones on this ship who know how to read?" I asked, tapping away.

"A few," he said after a moment's thought. "I gather she likes to have them read stories to her."

I finished the letter, folded it, and handed it to the old gent. "Pass this on to one of those before the wedding," I said. "And make sure they understand it."

He read the letter briefly, and a little smile played across his lips. "You really think this will work?" he asked.

"If those really are clones of Boinko McTavish," I said, "then the chances are good."

"Alright," he said. He was still smiling when he left.

Then I came back to the typewriter and stuck this last bit onto the end of my story.


If you're reading the original manuscript of this, and I suppose you must be as I can't think why anyone in their right mind would want to publish it, then you'll have no doubt noticed that from this point on it's written in Tipp-Ex on the backs of old glossy magazine pages. I'm afraid nothing else came to hand. I suppose I should tell you the events of what has been the latest in a long series of very hectic days.

The chapel was on the second deck down, a magnificent hall that any clergyman would have happily damned themselves to say Mass in. Just for today it was heavily bedecked with garlands of flowers stretching all the way around the perimeter, from which a few expensive fibreglass cherubs with little cupid-bows dangled. Fairy lights placed here and there blinked on and off tackily, and the cables powering these mingled subtly with the wires leading from various key points in the chapel to a small, detonator mechanism hidden below one of the rear pews. Despite myself, I was very impressed with the discreet job Gareth had done.

I saw all of this as I limped solemnly up the aisle, walking stick clacking on the expensively tiled floor, to the altar, where a Boinko clone decked up as a priest stood holding a bible. Behind him was a magnificent stained-glass window depicting Gertrude looking virginal and Goddess-like. As I neared it, I noticed that the artist had very cleverly made her look cross-eyed in a way that could only be noticed if you looked hard enough.

While in your mind's eye I'm standing in front of the smiling temporary clergyman waiting for the blushing bride to turn up, let's dwell on my appearance. My beloved but now rather foxed pirate trousers, shirt and weskit were getting a temporary but well-earned break in favour of a sequin-covered blue wedding suit I had found hanging on my door an hour ago, although my new-found cosmopolitan dress sense did not extend to removing my headscarf and eyepatch. Gertrude had obviously not felt the same suit-providing courtesy should be applied to the best man; standing to my immediate left, Penfold was still wearing the same grubby pinstripe suit he had worn while fleeing from Rotherham guards and trekking through South American jungles.

Behind me, Gertrude's side of the pews was occupied, in the first few rows, by a number of very severe-looking upper-class men and women in formal dress, many of whom often caught my gaze and gave me looks of bemusement, disapproval or, more commonly, sympathy. Among them I spotted my old acquaintance Chris Van Helsing, a barrel-chested muscle man squeezed uncomfortably into his Sunday best who gave me a little wave. The rest was full of clones, all sitting bolt upright and staring straight ahead with the usual fixed grins. My side of the church contained only Gareth, who kept waving a hand-held remote control, trying to get my attention.

We didn't have to wait long for Gertrude. She appeared at the back of the chapel, and all was silent as she began her slow walk towards me, arm-in-arm with her long-suffering father. Her dress, if it could honestly be called that, was composed of white silk only over the really offensive areas of the body, while the rest was made of a thin, transparent gauzy material which could only be seen in a good light. After a few seconds of this, someone delicately nudged the clone acting as organist, and a rather strangled rendition of Handel's Wedding March insinuated itself into the ears of everyone present.

As she came closer, the procession behind her came into view as well. Jam was there, looking thoroughly fed up in a page boy outfit and holding Gertrude's train. Rose was just behind, and she was in one hell of a state. Bound in a strait jacket, strapped to an upright trolley and with a hockey mask over her face, all she could do was stare with wild, hating eyes at the proceedings. Scar was pushing her along, apologising into her ear every time his huge clumsy feet kicked the back of her conveyance.

Eventually the two Van Helsings came level with me. Both oblivious of each other, Gertrude's father winked and Gertrude smiled grimly at me beneath her veil. Scar offered me a sort of shamefaced shrug, and Rose just stared at me like a small child watching a close family member disappear under the wheels of a double decker bus. When I was sure my sinister fiancée was not looking, I passed a copy of Jeffrey Van Helsing's sly wink onto my captain, and I saw her brow furrow in confusion.

"We are gathered here today," intoned the pseudo-priest in Boinko McTavish's deep Scottish tone, blinking constantly to read the speech tattooed onto the backs of his eyelids, "to witness the bringing together in holy matrimony of Gertrude Van Helsing and Pinky Nopants. Be there any man who has any reason why these two people should not be wed, let him speak now or forever hold his peace."

The clone had obviously been instructed not to notice the forest of upward-pointing hands that appeared at this point, as he launched immediately into the next part of the ceremony. There was a lot of disappointed grumbling among the pews as the hands gradually came down again. Gertrude nudged me sharply in the ribs, and me and Penfold reluctantly put our hands down, too.

I'm sure you're all familiar with the whole 'have and to hold' business, so I will not repeat the priest's droning here. I switched off at this point, and with customary pre-wedding jitters, began to wonder if everything would turn out as well as I had so confidently imagined they would. If not, there was always Gareth's arrangement. Even if that failed, I still had the reassuring weight of the pill bottle in my back pocket, so at least I'd be well out of it. I was nervous as hell, though.

"I do," said Gertrude suddenly, and it surprised me how far the ceremony had progressed while I had been switched off. The priest-clone turned to me, and repeated the question he had just asked Gertrude, with certain pronouns switched around and with a different name at the start. As he finished and I was expected to fill the silence that followed, I realised that the measure I had arranged didn't seem to be bearing fruit.

"I d- I mean, yes," I said with a heavy heart. Gareth made a disappointed noise. I felt my hand stray to my back pocket.

"Then, by the power invested in me," said the clone, "I now pronounce you man and w-"


Women screamed and monocles popped from eyes as the huge stained glass window shattered. Two Boinko clones swung in on downward-hanging ropes, leaping off and landing on the altar simultaneously. At the same moment, a veritable horde of Boinkos entered from the rear of the chapel, and marched confidently up the aisle towards the open-mouthed Gertrude. Trapdoors opened in the ceiling and four more Boinkos abseiled down, while the ones in the pews drew their swords and held them to the throats of the assembled gentry.

"What the hell?!" shrieked Gertrude.

"Gertrude Van Helsing," intoned the clone closest to her, grinning with all his might. "We, the Liberated Committee of Clone Slaves are now declaring mutiny against you."

"Get back to work!" she yelled.

The clones didn't seem to be in a hurry to comply. There was the delightful noise of a large number of cutlasses simultaneously leaving their sheathes. Gertrude found herself in the centre of a rather uncomfortably tight circle of blades. For the moment, her mouth flapped open and closed soundlessly like a dog's chewing a particularly resilient biscuit.

"We no longer do your bidding," chanted the clone. "We, the poor huddled masses have thrown off our chains and are rising up against your tyrannical regime."

I couldn't help myself grinning from ear to ear as I mouthed along with the speech I had given them, which is why, when Gertrude looked at me with incandescent fury, she realised instantly that I was behind this sudden development.

"You…" she began, fuming nicely. "You … you … do you really think this is going to work?!"

I made a point of looking around at the countless clones with their swords unsheathed. They were the only reason why Gertrude had any power over any of us; physically I could probably break her in two myself. Now every single one of them had turned against her. I tried to convey all of this in a look and a pleasant smile.

"Actually, Gertrude," I said, "I do."

A brief pause.

"Oh shit," I said. "Gareth, NO -"



In which everything gets resolved in time for the ending


Fortunately, it turned out that whoever Gareth had bought his explosives from had taken advantage of his trusting nature and fobbed him off with incendiary devices. So, rather than the entire church being engulfed in an expanding ball of flame which reduced everyone to blackened smears on the walls and floor, a fire started burning in about four separate places, leaving plenty of time for everyone to escape.

I stood upon the top deck, with my back against one of the rails, a little smile on my face. Some distance away I could see Scar, Chris Van Helsing and some of the clones bring unconscious and smoke-blackened men and women in charred formal clothing up on deck to lie in the open air and cough to their hearts' content. I had torn off my hateful blue suit and left it in the burning chapel, having had the forethought to wear my comfortable pirate gear underneath. The clones had done an admirable job of putting the blaze out, but I was pretty certain they hadn't extended much effort to rescuing abandoned clothing.

Rose, now free of her restraints, was visible on the opposite side of the deck, giving Gareth a not particularly stern talking to. When she was apparently finished, the camp one went and sat against one of the masts, sulking and playing with one of his singed turn-ups. I saw Rose cast a very satisfied look around, and our eyes met suddenly. I gave her a little wave, and she walked across the deck to me. She, too, was finding it difficult to keep a smile off her face.

"I expect you're feeling pretty pleased with yourself," she said, leaning against the rail next to me.

"Actually, I am," I replied.

"Gertrude had to be put in the strait-jacket," she reported. "Went ballistic. Her dad took her to the shuttle bays. Said he was going to take her home and get her looked at."

I nodded. "Somehow, I don't think we've seen the last of the Van Helsings," I said.

"And in the meantime," continued Rose, "there just happens to be this ship and crew around that no-one seems to be captaining. I think it would be my duty as a pirate, don't you?"

"I suppose," I said, without enthusiasm. I was rather tired.

We stood in silence for several minutes, watching the representatives of the upper classes struggle to calm themselves down and make polite conversation. Finally, I felt moved to speak. "Penfold's gone down to the shuttle bays already," I said. "Jam, too. They didn't want to hang around."

"They're still leaving, then?"

I nodded. "Penfold … just isn't a piratey sort of person. And after everything they've been through lately, Jam isn't ready to separate from him yet."

"I'll be sorry to see them go," she sighed.

There was another long pause. Well, there wasn't much to say.

"Alright," said Rose finally, turning to me. "I've got to know. How did you make a bunch of obedient brainless clones turn against Gertrude?"

"I just had a thought," I explained. "They're all clones of Boinko McTavish, right? And Boinko McTavish was obsessed with you, right?"

Rose noticed for the first time the small throng of clones standing several yards away, staring at her with rapturous attention. "Yees…" she said suspiciously.

"So, I got Gertrude's dad to take them a note saying I'd set them up on a date with you if they instigated mutiny," I said as casually as I could.

"What?!" said Rose, caught by surprise. "All of them?"

"Just dinner and a movie," I added hastily. "All together or one at a time, whatever suits you."

She seemed about to protest, or bring about some act of violence upon me, then thought better of it, deflating slightly. "Oh well," she said. "Small price to pay, I suppose. And you thought of that all by yourself?"

"It just came to me after I wrote down my story," I said. "Going over all our encounters with Boinko and the clones, it just occurred to me. And it wasn't the only thing."

"Oh yes?"

"I realised something else," I said. "When it was all laid out in front of me, all the facts, it came like a flash. It was so obvious."

"What was?" she was very interested, now.

"The Something," I said, relishing the words. "The thing I've been searching for all my life. I know what it is, now."

I had known Rose for over a decade, so she knew all about this quest of mine, and how much it meant to me. There was awe in her eyes as I turned to face her, and held her by the shoulders.

"What is it?" she asked dreamily.

I didn't reply. I took a step towards her, so the points of our shoes were touching. I reached a hand up, stroked her flawless face, and tilted her chin upwards. She made no effort to resist, placing her hands on either side of my torso, and gazing at me, mesmerised. As I brought my face gradually closer to hers, her eyelids gently slid closed and her lips parted.

And then I nutted her.



I arrived in the main lifeboat hangar at full limping speed. I had run all the way, pausing only to grab the manuscript from my quarters, and now my leg was aching and bleeding again. Frankly, I didn't care. Just as I had hoped, Penfold hadn't disembarked from the Bastard Mk. IV yet, needing to spend some time sitting in one of the little lifeboats going through the instruction manual. Once I had found the lifeboat he and Jam were in, I politely claimed the pilot's seat and explained the situation.

"You did what?"

"I nutted her."

"You nutted her."

"Right on the nose. And I distinctly felt it break."

Penfold stared at me, trying to find the right thing to say. Finally, the most appropriate question arose. "Why?"

"Because I realised!" I said, leaning back in the pilot's chair and feeling very satisfied. "I realised what I was searching for all these years."

"You … were searching for the opportunity to nut your captain?"

"No, I was searching for revenge," I said. "Simple revenge. Revenge for the theft of something that was very dear to me."

Realisation dawned in Penfold's eyes. I had confided a lot of things in him in our time together. "Your collection of Red Dwarf videos?"

"In one," I said happily.

The accountant shook his head. "How on earth can you justify spending your whole life seeking revenge for the theft of Red Dwarf videos?"

I thought about this. "They were the remastered versions," I pointed out.

Penfold shook his head again. "Jim, you … a word is yet to be defined, Jim. A word is yet to be defined."

"I feel fulfilled for the first time in my life," I said, sinking deeper into the seat.

"Well, you've succeeded in your life's mission, what are you going to do now?" he asked flippantly.

I frowned. "Dunno," I confessed. "Figured I'd just tag along with you guys. Keep on adventuring. I have no intention of staying on this ship long enough for Rose to make a counter-attack."

"But what's the point of adventuring without something to adventure for?"

I shrugged. "Maybe I wasn't really looking for revenge at all," I considered. "Maybe it was the quest that mattered most, not the outcome."

"I should hope so," said Penfold.

"Can we go now?" whined Jam, looking up from the in-flight magazine.

"Yeah, let's get going," I said, pulling on my seat belt. "Any minute now Rose is going to wake up and storm in with five hundred Boinkos, tie me upside-down to the mast and hit me with sticks until I'm just one, big, full-body bruise. Strap yourself in, Penf."

Penfold obediently took his seat, and after some brief fiddling with the controls, the lifeboat shot out of the hangar and into the big blue sky. I wasted no time in applying the gas, accelerating away from the enormous ship as fast as the little engines could allow. After all, there was still a chance she'd come after us, and I needed to get a head start and lose myself good and proper in the cloud layer.

"Revenge for the loss of Red Dwarf videos," I heard Penfold mutter. "I have never known anyone like you in my life, Jim."

"Articulate Jim," I corrected.

And off we went.