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CHAPTER TWO:   SAINT PETE

 

THANK YOU FOR YOUR PATIENCE.  YOUR VISIT IS IMPORTANT TO US.

Red letters flashed across the screen.

‘Oh well, at least it’s different to what it said before,’ Autumn mused.

‘Let me try,’ Lord Mureth said.  He hopped onto the counter, and strutted up to the monitor.

ALL OF OUR OPERATIVES ARE BUSY AT THE MOMENT.  WE VALUE YOUR CUSTOM, AND THANK YOU FOR WAITING.

‘What operatives?’ he said, looking around nervously.

Lady Fatball joined him, and bounced back and forth in front of the screen.

WE ARE CURRENTLY EXPERIENCING A HIGH DEMAND FOR OUR SERVICES.  PLEASE BE PATIENT, YOU WILL BE DEALT WITH SHORTLY.

‘Well really,’ she snapped.  ‘This is most undignified.  The very least they can do is to tell us what we’re doing here.’

‘Oh, come here…’ Pretty Flufftail sighed, and jumped at the screen, hitting it hard with his forehead.

SECURITY ALERT!  CUSTOMER VIOLATION CODE #AV2-27

Flashed repeatedly on the screen.

‘There, that’s got their attention…’ the vole smiled.

Autumn sighed.  ‘I’m not sure if that’s the right thing to do.  We don’t want to annoy anybody, do we?’

‘Hey,’ he shot her a look. ‘I’m annoyed.  Chances are the rest of you are as well, or at least you should be; if you’ve got any sense.  Personally, I don’t fancy spending the rest of my life in this room. ‘

‘Fair point,’ Autumn agreed.  ‘What do you suggest we do?’

‘This,’ said Pretty Flufftail; he launched himself into a frenzied attack on the screen, his claws whirring and gouging away at the plastic coating.

ALERT! ALERT!  URGENT RESPONSE REQUIRED!  CUSTOMER VIOLATION CODE #AV2-1!  EMERGENCY!  APPREHEND ATTACKER!

Somewhere outside the door, they could hear an alarm going off.

‘Oh, crap…’ the vole said nervously.   ‘Don’t like the sound of that…’

Then they heard the footsteps.   Loud, enormous, thunderous footsteps, approaching the door.  They heard a key turn in a lock.

‘Quick,’ Autumn snapped at Pretty Flufftail.   ‘Get in here, and for goodness’ sake, shut up and stay quiet.’  She scooped him up, and placed him in one of the pockets of the trousers she wore under the lightweight dress; he didn’t struggle.  ‘It’s you they’re after…’ she started, but was interrupted by the door opening.

 

  A massive, jarring clash of metal upon metal tore through the stillness of the night.  It sounded disturbingly like a cage door being thrown open. 

There was a moment of utter silence, and then Vincent heard the zoo awaken. He heard the screaming of panicked monkeys, the roar of startled lions and whatever sound it is that meerkats make when they’re suddenly woken up and rather alarmed.

He was instantly as tense as the rest of his charges; and as all traces of the hangover vanished, his memory began to return.

  ‘Those bastards…’ he whispered quietly, not wanting to disturb the animals any further. 

It was all his sister Michelle’s fault.  It usually was, he reflected.  If only she’d not been such a bloody fool and got herself engaged… but she had, and that had been the beginning of Vincent’s current problems.  They, though of the same flesh and blood, were worlds apart in character.   He’d spent most of his youth backpacking across Asia and Africa, doing various forms of volunteer work and generally getting involved in all sorts of worthy causes; Orang-utan rescue in Borneo, hand rearing orphaned Lemur’s in Madagascar and so on.  Michelle, on the other hand, had developed a penchant for expensive jewellery, tasteless designer clothing and boys with fast cars.  Oh, and she’d also developed a taste for pregnancy as well, which had precipitated the events of the day.  Somehow, against all his better instincts, he’d been persuaded to attend Dwayne’s stag night.  Dwayne Russell was, of course, Michelle’s betrothed, and (allegedly) the father of her soon to be born child.

Dwayne was, in all things, the complete antithesis of all that Vincent liked and stood for in the world.  A man who thought that speed limits were only a minimum guideline; that creating roadkill was fun, that women were merely something to be tolerated and used, and who concerned himself more with football, drink, drugs and general yobbish behaviour than with any of the actual problems the world faced... most of which were caused by people like Dwayne, Vincent mused.

  Not surprisingly, Dwayne’s stag-night had been a riotous affair; and Vincent was glad that he could hardly remember any of it.   He’d downed far more ale than he was used to in an effort to blot out the horror of the evening; and at least in that he’d been successful.  Unfortunately, it had also led to him passing out. 

This had left him somewhat vulnerable to Dwayne and his cohorts, who had decided that the perfect way to round off the pre-nuptials was to dump their unsuspecting victim in the middle of the zoo.  Just to add to the excitement, they’d also decided it would be even more fun to unpick the lock on one of the cage doors.

This was precisely the cage door that had made the sound that had woken Vincent; and the same cage door that he now gaped at in horror.

Or rather, he gaped in horror at the massive wolf that paced purposefully towards him.

 

 

A tall, thin man appeared at the doorway.  It was hard to guess his age, seeming to be somewhere between his early thirties and late sixties.  Nothing about him had any sort of character, save only his generally shabby appearance. The grey suit he wore seemed a little on the tight side; and his grey shoes were scuffed and well worn down.

‘Now then, now then,’ he said quietly, in a pleasant, offhand manner.  ‘What seems to be the trouble here?’  He walked towards the monitor and peered carefully at it.

YOU TOOK YOUR TIME.   DON’T YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW BUSY IT'S BEEN TODAY?

‘Yes, I know, I know,’ the man said, without any real concern in his voice.  ‘How do you think I’ve coped then?  I tell you, sometimes I think there should be two of me… at the very least.’

Autumn had expected overly muscled security guards, possibly even bearing firearms; not this relaxed, laconic man who seemed totally disinterested in them.  She glanced towards the open door, and tried to see what lay beyond it, but all that was visible was what appeared to be another room, or possibly a corrider.  She moved forward slowly, trying to get a better look.

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ he said.  ‘I’d completely forgotten about you.  Would you mind staying where you are for the moment?’  He closed the door.   ‘It’s organised chaos here at the moment, I tell you.  We’re just fighting fires, really.  I trust you’ve been given the customer welcome pack?’

Autumn, not quite knowing what to make of this, said what seemed the obvious thing: ‘No,’ and then added, ‘who are you?’

‘Oh, sorry,’ he mopped his brow, more in affectation than through any need.  ‘The day I’ve had.  The name’s Pete.’  He walked forward and grabbed Autumn’s right hand, and shook it enthusiastically.  ‘I’m your Primary Initial Point Of Contact.  PIPOC, for short.’  He turned to the screen again suddenly.  ‘So then, they’ve not been given the HIT.1’s yet?’

I’VE BEEN AT A MEETING.  ONLY JUST GOT BACK, AND THEY THROW ME IN AT THE DEEP END AS USUAL.  JEREMY’S NOT IN YET, YOU KNOW THE FLEXI HE WORKS… AND WHAT WITH TRISH OFF ON MATERNITY, I DON’T KNOW IF I’M COMING OR GOING.  I’VE ALREADY BENT MY TEAM LEADER’S EAR ABOUT THIS; HONESTLY, IF THIS GOES ON MUCH LONGER, I’LL BE BACK ON THE SICK AGAIN…

‘Sorry my dear, I only asked,’ Pete sighed.  ‘But I gather there was some problem a moment ago?’

PROBLEM?  OH NO, DON’T MIND ME.  I CAN COPE.  JUST ASK POOR RIKKI, WE ALL THOUGHT SHE COULD COPE.   LAST ANYONE SAW OF HER SHE’D LOST IT COMPLETELY,  RUNNING AROUND THE DESK STARK NAKED.  BUT NO, I’LL BE ALRIGHT.  YOU HAVE TO BLOODY BE, AROUND HERE, DON’T YOU?   I TELL YOU, IF THIS GOES ON MUCH LONGER…’

‘Yes yes, you’ve mentioned that already,’ Pete nodded.  ‘We all know how tough it is on the front line.  But come.  I belive there was a Code AV2-1 incident?’

THE VOLE ATTACKED THE VDU.

Pete looked around, and saw nothing.  ‘What vole?’ he asked, then moved around the room in a blur, head bobbing up and down in a curiosly avian fashion, looking under chairs and in the dusty corners.

‘Oh dear…’ he whispered quitely.  Another one’s gone gaga.  It’s the stress, I tell you…’  He winked conspiratorally at Autumn, moving his right index finger in a circular motion around around his ear.

Autumn, keeping a firm hand over Pretty Flufftail’s mouth, walked towards him.  She was actually a good few inches taller than Pete; so was surprised to note that she still, nonetheless, had to look up to meet his gaze. 

‘I’ve not seen any vole,’ she smiled nervously.  ‘But my companions and I have been waiting here for some time, and would like to know exactly what we’re doing here, and where here actually is.’  She paused, but she had to ask it: the question had been gnawing at her since Pete had entered.  ‘Oh, and also, who are you talking to at the desk?’

‘What, you mean Vanessa?’ Pete asked, raising an eyebrow in surprise.  ‘Hasn’t she introduced herself yet?’

Suddenly the screen flashed again.

OH THAT’S RIGHT.  BLAME ME.  IT’S BLOODY HARD TO GO THROUGH ALL THESE MANDATORY PROCEDURES WHEN YOU’RE BEING ATTACKED.  HONESTLY, THE PRESSURE I’M UNDER…..

‘Vanessa?’ Autumn asked, looking around.  ‘I didn’t know there was anyone else here.’

‘There isn’t,’ croaked Lord Mureth.  ‘I could smell them if there were…’

Pete shook his head gently, in mock exasperation.  ‘Vanessa is your Customer Liason In Transit Supervisor, and I’m afraid she’s very over-worked.  I’m beginning to think we need more CLITS in this department…’

YES, GO ON, BLAME THE CLITS.  YOU ALWAYS DO.   YOU TRY BEING ON THE FRONT DESKS FOR A FEW HOURS AND SEE HOW YOU LIKE IT.

‘But where is she?’ twittered Lady Fatball. 

Pete sighed.  ‘Behind the desk, of course.’   He’d had to offer this explanation more times than he even cared to think about; every hour, of every day, of every year, of every century, of every aeon… oh, the monotony; he thought, those retched mortals don’t even know they’re born…

‘But there’s no-one behind the desk,’ Autumn said firmly, a glance of steel in her eyes.  ‘We’ve looked there already.’  Her hand tightend over Pretty Flufftail’s mouth; but she was getting worried that she might suffocate him, so she eased her grip a little, hoping that he would take the hint.  Which, to his credit, he did.

‘Oh, but there is,’ Pete sighed again; a sigh born of the fact that this was exactly the quadrillionth time he’d had to say this.  He had planned a celebration for this moment; perhaps an expensive cigar or something… but as is often the case with such milestones, the weight of the achievement passed him by: and instead he just felt a bit pissed off that he wasn’t doing something just the teensiest bit more exciting. 

He reached into his pocket, and handed Autumn what appeared to be a magnifing glass, although there were a few differences.  The lens was covered; in much the  same manner as a digital camera, Autumn thought; and there were also switches on the side.

‘Just press the green button on the handle for the moment,’ Pete said, his voice now subdued and more than a little depressed. 

Autumn did so.  Lord Mureth and Lady Fatball crowded nearer, trying to get a better look at what was happening.  They saw the cover of the lens divide into six segments, which then retracted into the casing.

‘Set the focus to ten thousand,’ Pete said absentmindedly, examining his fingernails.

Autumn found a dial on the side of the lens casing, and walked over to the desk.

She peered through the lens for a few seconds, scanning this way and that, until suddenly she froze, and gazed open mouthed, at something, for what seemed an age.

Lord Mureth, his long neck craning to try and see through the lens at the right angle, croaked in her ear.  ‘What is it?  I can’t see anything…’

Autumn stood back, and wiped her eyes with her left hand, then leant forward again, staring at the something on the desk. 

‘What the hell is it…’ she said quietly.

 

 

‘Shit…’ Vincent murmured to himself. 

He backed away slowly and carfefully, trying not to startle the animal.  He looked carefully to see if any of the other wolves had escaped, but they cowered in the darkness at the back of the cage, every bit as terrified of Snowy as he was.

The zoo’s new arctic habitat was still under construction; Vincent was still holding negotiations regarding the acquisition of two polar bears.  The ermine, wolverines and caribou herd had settled in well, but the tundra wolf pack was proving more of a headache.

The introduction of any new grouping of animals to a zoo was never easy; Vincent knew that all too well.  He’d been responsible a few years ago for the red panda debacle, when Rusty, the new male, had taken it upon himself to remove his status as an endangered species.  Consequently, he’d been inundated with complaints from frustrated mothers; tired of trying to explain to their children precisely what that red panda was doing on another red panda’s back. 

Rusty had been moved swiftly to another zoo; one where the breeding programme was more of a priority.

But Snowy was another matter entirely.  Vincent had argued about the wolf’s name, but the board of directors had wanted something that kids could relate to.  So the name had stuck; to a creature fit to stalk any child’s nightmare.  Even by wolf standards he was massive.  He’d appointed himself Alpha Male of the eight strong pack with seemingly little effort; and had then wasted no time in making life a misery for his keepers.  The precautions they had to take when feeding him were above and beyond that of any other animal in the zoo; even from afar, the lions looked on in fear. 

A growl rent the air asunder.  Snowy bared his teeth, and fixed his ice blue eyes on Vincent.

 

 

DO YOU MIND, flashed the screen to Autumn’s left.  I HAVE A NAME, YOU KNOW.  IF YOU CAN’T BE CIVIL, I’LL HAVE TO CALL THE PIPOC….OH BUGGER, I’VE ALREADY DONE THAT….

‘Sorry…’ Autumn mumbled, dumbfounded.  ‘You’re Vanessa, yes?’

IF YOU LIKE.    I PERSONALLY DON’T AGREE WITH THE POLICY MYSELF, BUT THE HIGH-UP’S HAVE INSISTED WE DEAL WITH CUSTOMERS ON FIRST NAME TERMS.  JUST ONE MORE WAY TO HUMILIATE US, I SUPPOSE….

‘What is it?  What do you see?’ Lord Mureth snapped impatiently.

‘Here,’ Autumn said, and held the lens so that the buzzard could look.  He sniffed it, shook his head, and then decided to try and take a bite out of it.  

‘Ow…’ he groaned.  ‘That’s bloody rock hard, and tastes of nothing.  What’s your blimmin game?’

Autumn sighed.  ‘You look through it.  Just like I did, not thirty seconds ago.  If you’d actually watched me, you might have noticed...’

‘Oh thanks,’ Lord Mureth replied, as sarcastically as a buzzard can.  ‘It’s just as well for us that you’re here.  I mean, when I’m offered something, I usually tend to eat it.  Gosh, how was I to know that…’

‘Shut up,’ she interrupted him.  He glared at her, that avian look in his eyes again.  Autumn was not surprised at this; he was a bird, after all.  ‘I’m sorry, but I tend to assume that people know what I mean when I ask them things… its always been a bit of a fault of mine.  But just look… what the hell is it?’

The buzzard cocked his head to one side, and stared hard with his left eye through the glass, getting used to focussing.   Meanwhile, Pete wandered up and down the room, ignoring them.  Having been through this so often, he really wished they’d put some entertainment in here for him.  He’d heard of the computer games people played; and wondered if he could manage to persude his boss to install one.

‘Looks like food,’ the buzzard croaked.   ‘But very small food, and not very tasty.  It hops about a lot.  Is it a flea? A tick?’

Lady Fatball landed on the rim of the lens, and peered down as well.  ‘My goodness…’ she said, her voice trembling.  ‘It looks revolting.  I think I may be sick…’   And with that, she hopped down to the floor, covering her eyes with her wings.

Autumn thought she heard the merest hint of a sound come from her trousers.   It might have been something like ‘prissy drama queen,’ or it might just have been her imagination.  Whatever it was, she was forced to momentarily tighten her grip on Pretty Flufftail’s mouth.

She turned to see where Pete was, not noticing the string of expletives that flashed across the monitor.  He was sitting cross legged on one of the chairs, his eyes fixed on nothing, looking desperatly bored.

‘Well then, I’ve seen it,’ she snapped at him.  ‘Very funny.  I don’t know what kind of joke you think this is, but I’ve had more than enough of it.’

‘Precisly,’ Lord Mureth agreed, hopping forward to join her.  ‘If we can just be allowed to get on with our day, we’ll overlook this nonsense.’

Pete stood up reluctantly.  ‘Sorry, I was miles away.  I was just wondering, do you think some sort of games console would be good in here?  Just to keep people entertained while they’re waiting?  We’re having a water cooler installed next week, but I can’t help thinking that it needs that little bit more...’

Autumn was speechless for a moment, but eventually managed a brief ‘What the hell are you on about?’

‘I suppose that’s a no then?’ Pete replied.  ‘Oh well, I can but dream.  Oh yes, you were saying something about getting on with your day.  Did Vanessa give you the HIT.1’s?’

‘For starters…’ Autumn replied quickly, ‘we don’t know what an ‘eight chai tee one’ is.  We don’t know what Vanessa is, or if she even exists.  All we’ve seen is some kind of grub-like thing.  If that’s Vanessa, then I feel sorry for her.’

THE FEELING’S MUTUAL, the words appeared almost immedatly.  HOW WOULD YOU FEEL IF NONE OF YOUR CUSTOMERS BELIEVED YOU EXISTED?

‘I’m not a bloody customer!!!’  Autumn shouted at the screen, her face red with rage.  ‘Do I look as though I’m bloody well buying anything?  Stop calling us customers, and I might not stick this magnifiying glass through the monitor.’

I CAN SEE WE HAVE AN ANGER MANAGEMENT PROBLEM.   IF NECESSARY, I WILL BE FORCED TO RAISE THE ALERT LEVEL.  PUT THE GLASS DOWN.

‘Why the hell should I?’ Autumn screamed, and threw the glass at the screen.  It bounced off, narrowly missing the still trembling Lady Fatball as it hit the ground; she momentarily lowered her wings, her eyes bulging as she saw what had nearly hit her, and then dissolved in a fresh bout of sobbing.

‘Oh, somebody shut her up…’ said Lord Mureth.   He turned his gaze to Pete.  ‘Look, if you have plans for us, just get on with it, and carry them out.  I doubt they can be worse than being confined here.’

Pete stooped to pick up the magnifying glass.  ‘No harm done,’ he said quietly, his voice calm and consilitatory.  ‘No harm done.  It’s a common reaction.’  He paused, then raised his voice.  ‘Vanessa!   Dispense the HIT.1’s’

OF COURSE.  IT’S PART OF MY JOB.

A small panel slid back at the front of the desk, to reveal what Autumn thought looked rather like the rejected coin dispenser of a parking meter.

Suddenly, three small metal discs appeared with a chinking sound.

‘Good, good,’ Pete said quickly.  ‘And the HIF’s?  Have they been processed yet?’

DO I LOOK LIKE I’VE HAD A CHANCE TO?  I’LL GET THE UNION ONTO YOU.  YOU KNOW THE PRESSURE WE’RE UNDER HERE, AND DO YOU CARE?  DO YOU EVEN REALISE?  I MEAN, IT’S NOT AS THOUGH WE ACTUALLY HAVE THE LUXURY OF A LONG LIFE.   YOU’D THINK THAT SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE WOULD ACTUALLY GIVE A DAMN ABOUT US.  FILL THE BLOODY FORMS IN YOURSELF. 

Vanessa!’  Pete snapped, steel and fire contained in a voice that echoed around the room.  Autumn was stunned by the change in his character, and Lady Fatball renewed her sobbing with increased vigour.

There came no response from the screen. 

‘Vanessa?’ Pete said again, his voice quieter now, but no less furious.  He walked towards the desk, and pressed his hand to an area that seemed now to be a switch of some sort; though neither Autumn or her companions had noticed it before.  A section of the desk folded and opened with a strained creak; and Pete walked behind the counter.

Another one gone,’ he sighed, his voice now returning to normal.  ‘We just CANNOT get the staff, I tell you…’  He rummaged under the counter, and produced three pieces of blank paper.

‘I’m sorry that I can’t give you the proper forms,’ he said, genuine apology in his voice.  ‘But Vanessa’s logged off the system, and I don’t know her password.  I don’t know where she’s gone.  I do keep asking for a supervisor password; and though I’ve always had the right to one in principle, in practice our systems people have just never gotten round to it.  As I said, we’re just fighting fires really…’

He handed Autumn the papers.  ‘If you would like to just sign and print your name on one copy, and be so good as to sign for your companions, we can proceed.’

‘And what would I be signing for?’ she asked, now more convinced than ever that this had to be a dream.  ‘Some indiciation might at least be useful…’

Pete smiled understandingly.  ‘It’s just to say that you have been dealt with curteously, and that you agree to your release from this holding area.’

Autumn looked at Lord Mureth, then at the blue tit, who was still shaking.  ‘Lady Fatball?’ she said tenderly, then bent down to stroke her head.   Come back to us.  We need you to be strong.  Tell me, what do you think I should do?  Should I sign these forms?’

She’d thought momentarily of asking any one of about two dozen questions that kept leaping into her mind; but every sentence that came from Pete’s mouth seemed to inspire at least another dozen more, so she gave up on the idea for the moment.  Consoling the blue tit seemed the easiest option…which is of course something we all should consider when facing difficult problems in this life, but seldom do.

Lady Fatball looked up at Autumn, her eyes swollen and reddened with tears.  ‘Just sign it,’ she said huskily.  ‘Just get us out of this terrible place.  I don’t care what the consequences may be; for we surely are in hell here.’

‘No,’ Pete said, his voice reverberating about the room again.  ‘That’s quite wrong.’  He bent down and handed Autumn the papers, and his voice softened once more.  ‘Would you sign please?  I’m sure you’re eager to be moving on, and I am very pressed for time.  I really would apprecaite your compliance in this matter.’

Autumn glanced across at Lord Mureth, meeting him at eye level.  She still wasn’t sure about this.

‘If she signs…’ the buzzard said, thinking as he spoke, ‘what will happen to us?  He was surprised that no-one had asked that already; but then he favoured a direct approach.

Pete smiled, and replied without a moment’s hesitation.  ‘You will be released from this holding area, of course.’  He gestured at Autumn to sign once again.

‘And let us suppose,’ the buzzard continued, undaunted, ‘that she refuses to sign.  I ask this purely on a hypothetical basis, of course…’

Pete shrugged.  ‘Then you will be dealt with accordingly.  The outcome will be no different; but this makes the process so much easier.  As things stand, she has no legal right to sign for you or the Blue tit anyway; but we always ask any humans that accompany your kind to do the signing.  It’s the opposable thumbs, you see.  Until evolution catches up and your lot can wield a biro, I fear things will remain so for some time to come…’

Patronising twat,’ said Autumn’s pocket.  

‘What was that?’ Pete snapped, his head moving in the strange, birdlike motion that Autumn had noticed before. 

‘Nothing,’ she replied.  ‘I was just talking to myself.’

‘Do NOT,’  Pete snapped, striding towards her.  She sensed an almost unbridled power underneath that ill-fitting suit; akin to a nuclear power plant being housed in an old bingo hall; something shining and mighty, barely veiled by a cheap and tawdry disguise. 

Despite the fact he was the shorter of the two, he bent down to her level, and looked her straight in the eyes.  ‘This is purely your choice.  I have no power to make you sign, but trust me… it is well if you do so.   You are strong, I see it in you; and you will continue to be.  Remember that.  But DO NOT hinder me in my work; for then thou shalt know of my wrath.   SIGN.’

Autumn could barely wrench her eyes away from his gaze.  Twin spirals of eternity, two glistening wheels of ice and majesty, bore into her mind.

She shuddered, and with an immense effort, put pen to paper.

‘There,’ she said in a low voice.  ‘Let us out of here.’

Pete stood, and straightaway was back to his former laconic self.  ‘Jolly good.  First, you’ll need these.’  He picked up the three metal discs from the dispenser, and handed one to Autumn.

‘I’ll look after the other two,’ he said, looking at the birds.  ‘Now then, follow me..’

He waved his hand across the door, and it opened with a soft hiss. 

 

 

‘Good Snowy,’ Vincent said feebly, trying to sound as calm as possbile.  He didn’t know what else to say; he considered following his opening gambit with ‘do you want some food?’ but thought that might have been taken as too much of an open invitation.

The wolf moved closer, crouching low, his face now but inches from Vincent’s.  The growl had grown increasingly louder, drowning out the cacophony made by the rest of the zoo’s inmates.  Vincent could smell the rancid meat on Snowy’s breath; could see the moon, reflected in those cold, wide eyes.  He could also see the wolf’s tail out straight; and could count every tooth in its mouth.  He knew that it was going to spring on him at any moment.

Without time to think, he rolled awkwardly down the gentle slope, and got to his feet on the path.  He felt the pursuit behind him, and swerved to the right; he could see the entrance of the zoo some way off in the distance.  He ran now as fast as he had ever done; but it was of no use.

He felt a sudden, crushing pressure at his back, as the weight of the wolf bore him to the ground.  He managed to twist his body as he fell, so that he could better see his assailant.

Vincent hit the path with sickening force, and felt something break in his spine.  The wolf howled, and then, maw still open wide, tore down at the his throat.

 At the same moment, Vincent thrust upwards with both hands, and grabbed Snowy’s neck.  The pain of doing so shot through his back and he screamed in agony; but all the same, he held on to the wolf’s neck and squeezed. 

As yet, he felt no pain at his own throat, though this was surely only a matter of time.  The chances of having your jugular vein ripped out and not feeling anything are, after all, pretty remote.

 

 

Autumn, for a moment, felt a great reluctance to cross over the threshold.  The way beyond the door was still dim, and offered no great difference to the room they were in, save that it was much darker.  Here she felt now some degree of security; but she was scared of what might lay beyond. Still, she told herself; it was only a dream – so she walked through, with Lady Fatball hopping close behind her, and Lord Mureth bringing up the rear.  He had as many doubts as Autumn did; and he also felt that he was aware of something that Autumn had not noticed. 

Whenever Pete had risen his voice, whenever he had focussed his attention on Autumn, he saw the bulges form in the back of his jacket.  Either, Lord Mureth thought, there was something else alive in there with him, or Pete had some very peculiar muscles.

‘What do we do with these coins?’ Autumn asked, gazing at the small metal disc she had been given.  She could see a relief picture of a cloud on one side, and an old man on the other. 

‘You will find out in due course of time, child,’ Pete said casually, ‘but I can tell you that you will need them in order to pay for your release from here.’  He paused, then shrugged.  ‘Of course, most people don’t find that a sufficient answer, but I regret that I can give no other one than that.’

Autumn made no comment, and observed the corridor that they were now being led down.  It was, if anything, less cared for than the room they had just left.  Dim, dirty flourescent lights were placed every twenty feet or so, but they gave scant illumination.  They were aware of other doors leading off the corridor, and wondered what might be happening behind them.  Lord Mureth had stopped to listen at one; but Pete had suddenly turned, and in the blink of an eye had been at his side, and had whispered something in his ear.  Autumn was shocked to see the buzzard suddenly turn pale, and then obediantly trot on behind them again.

Then they could see the end of the passageway; or rather, the junction where it joined another, running at right angles to it.   

‘Ah good, here we are,’ Pete said, his voice now relaxed and distracted once more.  ‘Let’s see now.  One human, two avians…. Autumn, wasn’t it?’ he said, half-heartedly looking at her.  ‘Would you be so kind as to follow the corridor down to your left, and proceed through door number one?’

Autumn did not move.  ‘I might,’ she said sternly.  ‘But what about my friends?’

Pete smiled, and laughed softly.  ‘Oh Autumn, they are NOT your friends.  It is not genetically possible.  We know.  They cannot go with you for the moment; though I assure you, you may well meet again one day, should your destinies take you to further realms.  So then; door number one, if you don’t mind.’

Autumn had felt Pretty Flufftail’s fur bristle, and had sensed his eagerness to speak; but he’d managed to restrain himself, and so she knew she had to as well.

‘But…’ she struggled, trying to hold back her true feelings, ‘we’ve been through so much together.  Why do we have to split up?  Why are you doing this?  And where will my friends go?’

Pete shimmered for a nanosecond, then suddenly appeared before her face.   ‘Lady, I say again: no friends of yours are they.  They go where they are destined; as do you.  It is the law. You cannot countermand it; so it is well if you do as I say NOW.   There are other proscuters of potential fates here than I; and my service is the best you can wish for.  Take heed and go, before I call upon them.  DOOR NUMBER ONE.’

Still Autumn did not move, but this time through fear.  She was rooted to the spot for a moment, and was about to turn and obey Pete, when she heard a croak behind their host.

‘We’ll make it easy for you then,’ Lord Mureth said, his wings spread and his eyes ablaze.  ‘We’ll go with her.’

‘Yes…’ said Lady Fatball timidly, and with considerably less conviction.

‘THAT,’ Pete replied, ‘is expressly forbidden.  I will lead you to Door Number Seven in a moment; in the meantime, be silent.’

‘No,’ Lady Fatball snapped, her anger now re-awakened.  ‘Who are you to tell us what to do?  I have seen no evidence of your authority, and yet you have the bare faced nerve to order us around like your mere servants?  Shame on you I say, shame!  Now you just get out of our way, and let us go with her; and we’ll forget all about this incident.’

‘I see,’ said Pete.  ‘Another code EP1.’  He took a small black plastic device from his pocket, and pressed a red button on it; followed by a few darker buttons that Autumn could not see properly.  Before any of them could even understand what he had done,  door number Seven opened.  A rush of cooler air filled the passageway; and suddenly two shapes appeared.  They were about five feet tall, Autumn noted; and moved very, very quickly. 

But the strangest thing about them was the fact that they were nothing but shadows.  Shadows that grabbed hold of Lord Mureth and Lady Fatball; in a violent frenzy of feathers, beaks and claws; slashing and flailing in vain.

In fact, that wasn’t the strangest thing about them.  The really strange thing was the fact that whilst they were indeed shadows, they were white shadows. White shadows with wings.

Noooooo!!!!!!’ Autumn screamed, as her companions were torn away from her; and as Pete pushed her towards and through Door Number One.

 

Lord Rashnu glared at the bank of monitors, his withering gaze causing the coating on the screens to bubble and distort.  

He watched as Peter ineffectually shepherded the customers; the fool obviously hadn’t the slightest idea what he was doing.  Something had to be done.  And only he, Lord Rashnu, was fit for the job.  Things had come to a head; this clash of tradition and modernisation had gone far enough.  He had to be stopped. 

Rashnu stepped back and smashed the entire bank of monitors with one swing of his hand, and smiled as shattered plastic and metal shards rained down at his feet.

If only he could usurp Peter... it would be a step.  The first of many steps. 

‘Rashnu... daaaaaaaaaaaaarling...’ a voice called coyly from somewhere beneath the floor.

He turned his head slowly.  One day... yes, one day... he would be worthy of her.

‘Loverrrrrrrrrrrrrr...’ the voice called again.

He left the room, and descended into the bowels of heaven.

 

Some minutes later, the tremors began.

‘IDIOT!’ the voice screamed.  ‘Do I have to wait FOREVER?’