Episode 24: Round And Around The Ragged Rocks . . .
Red of hair, redder of face, and green of shirt, Seamus McLaughlin gazed as
levelly as his warping focus would allow at the sun-bleached Australian opposite
him. This other guy sat only barely propped up by his friends, belching softly
and wiping his mouth, as he — somewhat unsteadily — slammed the
upturned shot glass down on the table between them, causing the litter of
similarly drained glasses to jump. A good-natured discussion about nationalities
and their ability to hold their drink had sadly led to the two loudest and
coarsest spirits being imbibed in quantity by the two loudest and coarsest
spirits, whilst the others laid bets or gazed on impartially but with good-natured
The party of drivers, finding they had little to do until
the next Rally stage, had congregated in the popular tavern,
Der Wilkommen Fraulein, and rather rashly decided a party
was in order. The prospect of racing the next day seemed
to have been considered but, in the face of such a fine selection
of liquors, ignored.
Plus, there was the astonishing news of the impending royal
wedding between The Baroness and Lady Lavinia’s scapegrace
brother Gabriel — whom everyone agreed was a nice young
man but utterly barking for wanting to jump off the dock
with the ‘Baroness of Bones.’ There was much
speculation — which increased as the sobriety diminished — as
to the reason behind it. Some thought it political, others
believed it was a ‘dodge’ to assist him in the
race, Lavinia’s habit for marking her cards being well
known. As for Gabriel — well, he had left England under
a cloud, hadn’t he?
Seamus settled on the stool and stared blearily at Harry
Swigger of the Ballarat Bruisers while his fingers searched
for the most solid of the six dancing glances of Firedrake
schnapps in front of him. Finding the real one, he held it
up in a mocking toast to his opponent, then tipped (most
of) it into his slack mouth. A cheer went up from his supporters,
fists of banknotes flourished, and bets ramped up. The glass
was crashed down on the table top . . . shortly followed
by McLaughlin’s forehead. This time, Swigger’s
opponents cheered but before the money could be divvied up,
the Irishman’s hairy hands pressed the table top and
he levered himself upright again.
"Nivver!" he bawled. "Oi nivver wuz bate!
Oi nivver will be bate! Yorrrrr turn, Misser Swigger!"
Harry Swigger snatched at his glass with numbed fingers
and, more by habit than dexterity, secured the tumbler in
his grasp. "Mud in yer eye, sport!" He slurred,
tossed back the fiery brew, and tumbled over backwards into
a heap of his own chums, snoring before he hit the floor.
Much back-slapping, cheering, and catcalls ensured, and notes
changed hands with varying degrees of grumpiness and triumphalism.
Ms Dragana Wolfsteiner, an Austrian anthropologist by training and the hope
of her university, settled back in her booth and counted her winnings, but
her mind was on other things. She had entered the race originally purely
for sport, but as her post was at the Kunsthistorischmuesum in Vienna and
one of their most valuable artifacts had been destroyed by a person or persons
largely unidentified (although the rumors were flying about like crows on
cocaine) among the racers, she was doing a bit of unofficial sleuthing. A
good alcohol-fuelled get-together in Grand Fenwick’s kellers made for
an excellent gossip mart.
The same names or faces kept cropping up in the reports
she heard: a well-spoken aristocrat in evening dress partnered
with the notorious Ms Pitstop — her face was well-enough
known for there to be no doubt; the Chinese gangster Fan
Song and her yellow brood; plus one or two others who had
been seen in the vicinity. She consulted her notes: possibly
the English Count Backwards . . . was he the aristocrat or
could it have been the brother of Lady Lavinia? She tapped
the page with her pencil; she couldn’t be sure on this
" Howdy, Miss. Keeping a tab on your odds?" a Bostonian accent blared
Wolfsteiner flipped the book closed and smiled placidly at Charles ‘Chip’ Woodward
as he slid into the booth opposite her. He was joined by the immaculate and
prematurely graying Randolph Thompson-Vickers. They had apparently been doing ‘business.’
Wolfsteiner smiled and flipped her notebook shut. "Ja. I believe I have
a wery good chance in tomorrow’s stage. Better than Irelandt or Australia
anyvay," and she laughed heartily.
Chip adored the way this buxom blonde Austrian chewed through
her W’s and her go-get-‘em attitude. He liked
them with plenty of ‘sass.’ Just like that brunette
who floored him with the softball pitch all those years ago.
Whatever happened to her, he wondered . . .
Had he chanced to glance through the bulls-eye panes of the window, he might
have seen that very person (had he but recognized her) drifting ghostlike
through the shadows of the street. Pitstop listened to the laughter from
the inn but did not stop. She was not going in. Other thoughts occupied her
mind for the time being. Thoughts of painful revenge against those who had
wronged her. The ‘waiting room’ of her imagination was filling
up with them. She wasn’t even going to enter the next stage in the
morning. She was far enough ahead in the points in any case. Let other people
have their moment of fun, she mused sourly as she passed a baker’s,
closed for the night. Moodily, she stalked down the street . . .
In the backroom of that very bakery, tensions were rising. "For the last
time, will ya hold the goddam LADDER STEADY!!!!" The Texan twang snapped
like a whip about Count Backwards' ears and he winced. Gosh, he could do with
some laudanum or one of Boris’ Special Havanas. He was ‘assisting’ Kitten
with her project (as unwillingly as possible without it becoming obvious),
holding the ladder as she, perched precariously above, attempted to do something
artistic with an industrial icing gun and decorate a massive wedding cake.
Kitten was beginning to realize that there was actually something of an art
to patisserie, and she still wasn’t quite sure of her German spelling
on the ‘Good Luck’ message. ‘Good Luck’ . . . Kitten
grinned. The irony was just too delicious. She sucked some spilt icing from
her fingers. Hmmm . . . rather nice icing as it happened . . .
Having his own ‘cake issues’ was Gabriel. The
Baroness would insist on little al fresco tea parties in
the gardens of the castle or light snacks in the day room
or picnics down by the river — and she would always
insist that Gabriel try the new confections she had caused
to be created for him because ‘she knew how much he
liked them.’ Her bright, almost childlike smile was
far more fetching than the sulky pout if he refused them,
but gradually the penny was beginning to drop down the deep
foggy well of his intellect. From occasional resorts to his
Turkish ovals, Gabriel had finally placed the strange musky
flavour he had detected in the icing. Fortunately, there
was normally a Pekinese or two scampering about the place,
all too willing to accept a tidbit when Buffy wasn’t
looking. It did make them more affectionate and dopey than
usual, but who notices that in a lapdog? Gabriel thought
of how she must see him — he scowled.
" Are you alright, my darling?" Buffy trilled, "Let me top up
your tea." She snapped her fingers at a lackey. "Here, my Gabriel,
sweets for my sweet: have more cake . . ."
The next morning’s Rally stage was a test of speed, skill, nerve, and
sobriety: 40 laps of winding switchbacks, tunnels, and precarious cliff-edge
roads around Grand Fenwick’s famous peak, Der Schplatterhoorn. Ten racers
lined up at the start in the main square. Lady Lavinia had been given a ‘bye’ on
the insistence of The Baroness; as she had given refuge to the Rally and allowed
it to race in Her Duchy, Her team got special favours. Or else. And since she
was marrying into one of the richest families in England by conjoining with
Gabriel, she didn’t want to put a fly in the ointment by risking her
sister-in-law-to-be on the mountain roads. The Race Committee, under the glowering
and knuckle-cracking regard of the Monocled Menace, had very wisely agreed.
Also absent was Count Backwards: He had ditched the stolen
flivver and was without a ride at present, but since it was
the entrant who was registered rather than the vehicle and
membership had its privileges, he felt he could find another
one. Somewhere. Perhaps he could tap Lucius DeVere for assistance?
Kitten had effectively been taken out of the Race on the
road to Klagenfurt, but the Claw had assured her he would
get her back in once the field thinned out. He needed her
in the Race.
No one knew where Pitstop was, except the Chinese contingent
lead by Fan Song. And if they thought they knew, they were
wrong . . .
Krysztof Kozhakhmetova revved his engine meaningfully as he glared across at ‘Chip’ Woodward
III. The bruises had healed — and both protagonists had given as good
as they got, but their last encounter still rankled. They had been placed at
opposite ends of the starting line to try to prevent a ‘coming together’ before
the first bend. The American capitalist seemed to be ignoring him — the
decadent exploiter of the workers seemed to be leering at the Austrian academic. "Good," muttered
Kozhakhmetova. "His mind is not on the Race. I will have him off the road
before the end . . ."
‘Chip’ was indeed ogling Ms Wolfsteiner, revving
his engine to attract her attention. Was that a smile? Was
it? Yeah . . . she likes me. Oh yeah . . . Woodward smirked
and checked his instruments — and so missed Dragana
rolling her eyes and shaking her head.
Next to her, the Japanese entrant Hideo Takamori wore pristine white race overalls
with the rising sun across his back. The hood of his Toyota Race Special
was open, and he was making minute adjustments to his carburetor. Dragana
could see that the engine was pristine, gleaming like chrome. If he could
drive as well as he looked after his motor, he would be one to watch. Takamori
closed and restrapped his bonnet, caught her eye, bowed gravely, and took
his place in the driving seat.
The desperately seedy-looking Harry Swigger, representing
the Ballarat Bruisers, crawled his Fairlane Ford Super-T
up to the starting line beside the Russian — who stared
at him. Surely the Australian could not be allowed to race
in such a condition? Kozhakhmetova suddenly started to worry
more about not being run off the road than about any revenge
on his American rival.
The second wave of racers would be released five minutes
later: Father Scarletti; Mendigo Malo Hernandez; the redoubtable
(and drunk) Seamus McLaughlin, and Randolph Thompson-Vickers
in his Nifty-Fifty. The flag went down, and with an explosion
of fumes and gravel, the race stage had begun!
The whole bakery shook as several hundred horsepower thundered
past. Kitten, unaware that Count Backwards had shirked his
duties and was in fact standing with his hands in his pockets
watching the spectacle, was leaning rather too far to finish
the last curlicue of pink sugar.
" Just fix a good hold on that ladder, Backwards," she said, absorbed
in her work, "I kin juuurrssst reach this bit . . ."
" Eh? Sorry, I was just watching that Mercedes" came the reply, and
not from where she had expected it. In spite of herself, Kitten twisted to look.
" Why aren’t ya — oh — Woah, WOOAH!" and fell from
her perch. She didn’t fall far, and as she sank headfirst into the sponge,
she reflected that Well, it won’t be the first time in my life I’ve
emerged from a cake . . .
This is damn tricky . . . thought Chip, throwing his jalopy
around yet another hairpin while trying to keep the racing
line. He was locked in a third-place tussle with the Toyota.
Takamori was a damn-fine driver, the American conceded grudgingly.
It was not that he took risks so much as that he calculated
everything with superb judgment, and so they jockeyed for
third as they rocketed around the mountain. The road was
metaled but covered in loose rock from numerous falls and
barely wide enough to allow overtaking. Takamori swung in
front, and Chip was obliged to brake hard as they entered
another switchback. The Japanese driver was able to outbrake
him, but Chip, sportingly, never thought to ram him.
Mendigo Malo Hernandez had no such scruples. Unbeknownst to the rest of the
field, he was a ‘ringer’ from the Domingo estate — the
property through marriage and bequest of the Baroness. His orders were to
win this stage — at all costs. Buffy was covering her bases and investments.
He recalled his interview with the ice-cold blonde aristocrat. Although he
had been left to voice the requirements himself, rather than hear them from
her lips, he knew he was expected to ‘thin out’ the field in
this stage. In his sights was the Austrian professor.
Hmm . . . thought Hernandez, shame to scupper such a fine-looking woman, but
. . . He yanked back a lever below the dashboard.
In her rearview mirror, Dragana Wolfsteiner had been keeping
watch on her pursuer. Her eyes widened in surprise and concern
as she saw the bottom section of the Hispano Suiza’s
radiator grille flip down and two menacing steel rods shoot
forth. They seemed to extend harpoon-like four feet beyond
the bumper and were tipped with barbed points. Wolfsteiner
swore and wrenched the wheel around, swerving perilously
close to the road's edge as the Spaniard lunged forward,
intent on impaling her rear bumper. He missed and slipped
back a few yards. Wolfsteiner now had to concentrate not
only on the vertiginous road conditions but also on the psychotic
Spaniard behind her. She floored the accelerator. The road
was climbing, becoming steeper, and Wolfsteiner knew what
would come up around the next few curves. She had done her
homework on this stage: after a few more switchbacks, they
would suddenly come upon the twin hazards of the Höllenmund
and the Brücke von vielen Unfällen. The first was
a long, sweeping curve through a tunnel; the second a narrow
bridge over a deep cleft in the mountain side — the
photos in her folder had caused Dragana to swallow nervously.
She hoped the bridge was currently in better repair than
shown. She’d know soon enough . . .
Both Takamori and Woodward were already rocketing through
the tunnel. The curve was constant, wide, and sweeping and
had the disconcerting effect of luring drivers to accelerate,
increasing both their speed and the centrifugal forces exerted
on their vehicle: Chip was fighting his Chevrolet to keep
from slamming into the wall — but he wasn’t the
only one. Takamori was ice-cold and steely-nerved, but he
was fighting all the way, and Chip was on his offside rear
wheel. He knew soon the tunnel would hurl them both out into
blinding daylight — and then onto the bridge — so
he lowered the tinted lenses over his goggles. Suddenly,
in place of the enclosing walls, they were out into dazzling
light and the clear air of high altitude. Takamori was prepared
and kept his wheels true to the road, and he thundered over
the heavy timbers of the 50-metre bridge.
Chip was not so lucky; as he emerged into bright daylight, he instinctively
threw one arm over his eyes, losing control of his car and spinning like
a top on ice. He wrenched the steering this way and that, but his rear wheel
slammed through the supports on one side of the bridge, scattering them like
ninepins into the chasm. With a supreme effort, he managed to wrestle one
rear tyre onto the bridge and correct his trajectory; then, sweating profusely
from strain and shock, he held to the road all the way to the other side,
leaving a gaping hole of five yards where the side of the bridge used to
be . . .
On the lower slopes, Father Scarletti was wheel to wheel
with Randolph Thompson-Vickers. The cleric cursed as only
a Catholic cardinal can — the Englishman was strict
C of E and could not be expected to yield his place to the
Mother Church. Scarletti tried a little judicious hubcap
shoving. The Nifty Fifty was temporarily dislodged, and Scarletti
floored the accelerator. Suddenly, a six-foot length of timber
rocketed down from on high to explode in oaken shrapnel in
front of his car. The priest stood on his brakes and skidded
to a jarring halt, avoiding the hazard but allowing Thompson-Vickers
to shoot past. The Englishman touched the rim of his tweed
driving cap in mock salute as his did so. Both McLaughlin
and Swigger also passed before Scarletti could pick up the
pace again. He was now last in the field and climbing into
the narrow stage. He ground his teeth and shook his fist
at the sky . . .
Dragana Wolfsteiner had made it to the tunnel. So far, she
had evaded her psychotic pursuer, but her success was making
the Spaniard more and more reckless, seemingly fixated on
taking her out of the race. Wolfsteiner accelerated into
the darkness and the wide curve, hotly pursued. Hernandez
turned his racing lamps on to full beam, attempting to dazzle
his quarry. Wolfsteiner wrenched her rearview mirror aside
and sped forward, faster than she should. She had read the
file on this stage. This curve was a killer, but she had
no choice. Insanely, Hernandez came after her, the harpoons
on his racer edging dangerously close to her bumper. Wolfsteiner
could not risk swerving on this curve, at this speed — her
only hope was to out-accelerate him and hold her nerve. She
knew her tyres were good . . . but were they good enough?
She had checked her milometer upon entering the tunnel; she
checked it again — another quarter mile and they’d
be out and at the bridge . . .
Hernandez gripped his wheel tightly. It was beginning to
vibrate alarmingly, but he nearly had her. He coaxed as much
power from his engine as he could: closer . . . closer .
Wolfsteiner felt the shock of sudden impact as she was rammed,
followed by the scream of torn metal as her rear bumper was
wrenched away. She was forced to swerve and narrowly avoided
being thrown into the tunnel wall, but she held to the road.
Her tyres had escaped shredding — this time. The bridge
was coming and she prepared herself.
Hernandez came on again — he could catch her on this
last curve, just here. He turned his wheel toward her; his
harpoons rubbed the sidewall of her nearside rear wheel.
They left the tunnel together, emerging into the daylight.
Wolfsteiner tore at her wheel to escape the pursuing lunatic
and turned her car onto his, robbing Hernandez of road space.
Cursing, he found himself forced toward the bridge balustrade
. . . which wasn’t there! Unable to brake in time,
his car shot comet-like into the empty air of the ravine.
Wolfsteiner was suddenly aware that her antagonist had disappeared
from her mirrors and glimpsed his car hurtling towards the
opposite slope a hundred feet below. It disappeared with
a horrendous noise into a thick group of pines, dislodging
rock and timber. A cloud of dust and smoke arose from the
site, and a few pebbles and larger loose rocks began to roll
down the slope.
Seamus knew he wasn’t racing at his best. He could
hold his drink and had been raised on the family's poteen,
but whatever they drank in these parts was not doing him
any good at all. He was steering more or less straight — in
fact, the racers behind him found it impossible to pass because
he was fishtailing so much — but his head was pounding,
the sun was too bright, and it affected his vision. Even
as he glanced up, it seemed the mountain side was moving,
up near those pines beneath the bridge. A few stones bounced
across the road and pinged off his bonnet and windscreen.
Seamus shook his head to clear it and concentrated on the
Behind him, Harry Swigger and Krysztof Kozhakhmetova were
jockeying for position, more intent on each other and what
was before them than on what was above. They slid around
the increasingly scree-littered roads. Neither could hold
off the other for long. One would advance, then the other:
an even match of speed and skill. The Russian gritted his
teeth: a strange new element was impinging on his senses — a
growing noise that was not mechanical. It was not his engine,
tuned to perfection in the glorious Soviet factories of downtown
Gorky, nor was it the Fairlane of the Australian. An odd,
grinding, tumbling, roaring suggestive of a mountain wave
of stone and — LENIN’S BEARD!!!!! Suddenly the
Fairlane on his left seemed to be lifted and thrown across
his bonnet, taking his racer with it. Something massively
heavy and inexorable slammed into the rear of his car, accelerating
him down the slope, following the tumbling Fairlane, smashing
through the scrubby growth on the slopes below as the avalanche
bore them both along.
One hundred tons of rock and earth, together with the two cars, hurtled down
the mountainside. The Russian, initially by luck and thereafter by judgment,
managed to steer his car at least, but Swigger was not so lucky as his car
was rolled among the boulders and earth. The tumult bore them over and through
every obstacle, finally smashing through the wooden walls of a barn before
they finally came to rest on the road below.
Takamori was first on the scene. He had spotted the avalanche
and raced to catch it. He pulled up across the road to halt
the following traffic, then sprinted into the billowing clouds
of dust and the two wrecked cars, half-buried within.
Kozhakhmetova came to. He was on his back, and the cab of
his car was gone, as though peeled by a giant with a tin
opener. He was suddenly, shockingly aware of a pain in both
legs; looking down, he saw a timber beam across his knees.
His legs did not appear to be broken but he could not move
. . . and then he smelt the petrol and knew the danger he
was in. He began to shove desperately, trying to lift the
spar, but his position and injuries had left him too weak
and he was unable to do it. Then he heard running feet: he
thought he saw Wolfsteiner, the Catholic priest, and Thompson-Vickers
sprint past. The Russian tried to call out but choked on
Then a shadow fell across him. "Do not move," said
a calm but authoritative voice. Placing a reassuring hand
carefully on the trapped man’s shoulder, Takamori studied
the situation carefully.
" I must try to move this," he said. He found a bar to use as a lever,
but one end of the beam was trapped under tons of rock and the other similarly
immovable. The smell of petrol was growing stronger. Takamori spoke to Kozhakhmetova: "I
cannot move it. Be still, trust me." The Russian watched nonplussed as the
Japanese placed both hands together on the beam by his knees. Takamori bowed
his head. He seemed to be communing with some higher plane, and then, with a
great shout of "KII-YI!" he brought the edge of his palm down on the
beam. Unbelievably, astonishingly, the wood split in two and fell away. Before
Kozhakhmetova had time to put his thoughts into words, Takamori had lifted him
under his arms and dragged him to safety.
Someone else lifted him under his left shoulder; he could see it was the American,
Woodward, lending support. Together, the two drivers helped their rival away
from the wreck, just as it began to burn . . .
From the top floor of his hunting lodge hideout, the Hooded Claw watched all
these events with mild interest. He pondered that at least some of the field
would be thinned, but it was only of passing import, since none of his principals
were involved in this stage. He ground his teeth in envious frustration — he
could just imagine Pitstop being engulfed by that avalanche, her broken body
turned over and over, slowly turned to pulp by the entombing rock. Such a
shame, he sighed.
Ah well, he mused with sinister glee. They will be less likely to expect the
. . . surprise . . . they have in store for them. What a wedding it will be
. . .