The Rumble Rally

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 interest.

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 point.
" Howdy, Miss. Keeping a tab on your odds?" a Bostonian accent blared above her.
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 next curve.

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 the dust.

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 . . .

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