"Well you join us here at Aintree for the Grand National, sponsored this year by the Flora Socket Patent Electric Poultry Company. So why not try a delicious Flora Socket twelve volt chicken - the bird that cooks itself."
Whispering John Follicle twisted away from the microphone. At the back of the commentary box two men were unpacking another man from a wooden crate. John Follicle returned to the microphone.
"It seems that our guest expert, Hamilton Piles, is not yet ready for us, but as we still have a few minutes in hand before the race starts, there's time for me to fill you in on some of the history of this great event. The Grand National was originated in 1592 by Rudyard Svenson, a medieval cotton wool salesman from Oslo. The idea first occurred to him one April afternoon after he chased a tin of Spam up a conker tree with a sharpened stick. In the early days spectators would come here once a year, dressed in their finery, to gather around the empty track and talk about the weather and the price of milk. Of course it wasn't until much later, in 1643 in fact, that horses were finally introduced to the event, and many people feel that this development added an important element of competition to the proceedings."
Follicle was suddenly startled as a portly gentleman wearing plaid wellies and a crash helmet leapt out of the crate behind him. "Oh, and it seems that Hamilton Piles is now ready to join us," he said, once he'd got his breath back.
"I'm afraid not John," said the man from the box. "My name is Maurice Stain. Hamilton Piles couldn't make it today as he sprained a tomato whilst working in his greenhouse this morning."
John Follicle promptly closed the microphone. "What's going on here?" he hissed. "Where's Piles?"
"I told you, he couldn't make it," said Stain. "I'm a friend of his sister. I said I'd step in for him."
"I see," said Follicle. "You are an expert on horse racing, I take it?"
"Well, I'm very keen on snooker," said Stain.
"It's hardly the same, is it?" Follicle snapped.
"Oh, I don't know," Stain replied breezily. "I'm sure the same basic rules apply. Anyway, I'm game if you are."
Follicle shook his head woefully, then reluctantly he opened the mike. "Okay Maurice," he said politely. "Good to have you here. Well, according to the bookies, Mr. Nuts has emerged as the clear favourite this year, despite some rather poor performances earlier in the season. What's your verdict Maurice?"
"Ah well," said Stain. "Mr. Nuts is a good horse, there's no doubting that, and he's capable of turning on a fair bit of speed. Okay, so he's run a few bad races recently, but I think that if he keeps his head down, doesn't overstretch himself at the beginning, screws back off the cushion then goes for the pink, he should knock seven different shades of shite out of the opposition..."
It was one of the busiest Grand Nationals of the year. Some people said that it was the only Grand National of the year, and in many ways they may have been right.
Anyway, it was busy. People in odd hats strode about, pretending to be terribly knowledgeable of this sort of thing, while strange little men that smelt of horses snapped at their ankles.
"Where's mum?" Nigel asked.
"She's gone to get changed," his father said as they pushed their way through the crowds.
"I still don't see why I couldn't have been the jockey," Mary muttered to Longtower. Longtower sighed and mumbled something about margarine.
PC Gibbon nudged up against Daddy Bear and tugged his arm. "Can I have an ice cream please?" he asked politely. "Go on, please?"
"What?" Daddy Bear snapped. "No you bloody can't. The race is going to start soon."
"Oh please," Gibbon pleaded with a childlike whine, which just didn't seem right coming from a thirty-two-year-old police constable.
"Can I have one too?" asked Mary.
"Me too," said Bertie the Belgian Balloonist.
"I wouldn't mind one either," said Nigel.
Longtower held up his hand and suddenly froze. "You know," he said as he rolled his eyes around his head. "I think we probably just have time to purchase these frosty comestibles before the race begins."
"Very well," Daddy Bear submitted, and PC Gibbon happily took his arm and started to lead him towards the nearest ice cream van.
In the dressing room the horses were putting the final touches to their make-up prior to the big race. Nessie, being somewhat larger than the others, was a little shy at first, but had soon been befriended by an aging filly called Matilda.
"Just play it cool lovey," said Matilda as she plied her lips liberally with lipstick. "There's no point getting all flustered. Take it at your own pace and smile at all the cameras."
"Will that help me win the race?" asked Nessie.
"Darling, this is the Grand National - it's got nothing to do with winning." Matilda pouted into the mirror and brushed her eyelashes. "It's all about media exposure, getting yourself noticed. This is your ticket to the good life. Just look at Red Rum - TV adverts, a record deal and a best selling autobiography. That could be you lovey - up there with your name in lights, instead of down here in the horse shit."
"Oh I don't know," said Nessie. "I'm not sure that I've got what it takes to make that sort of impact."
Matilda tucked her ears beneath a long ginger wig, then turned and ran a scornful gaze over Nessie. "You may be right," she said witheringly. "Look love, you've got to make an effort. It's no good being all frumpy and dowdy, you'll never get anywhere like that. Put on a bit of make-up. Show a bit of leg. Flap your tail about. Sell yourself, darling."
A race official poked his head around the door. "Five minutes to curtain," he called.
"Listen," Matilda said. "You're welcome to borrow my blusher, dear."
"I don't think so," Nessie said. "Thanks all the same, but I don't think it's really me."
"Suit yourself love," Matilda said briskly as she stood up. "As far as I'm concerned it just leaves the field wide open for the rest of us."
The other horses trotted out, lipstick glowing, straw hats bobbing, sequined swimsuits glistening. Nessie stayed in the dressing room, staring at her own reflection in the mirror. Slowly, softly, a single tear trailed down her cheek. She knew that she was wrong to feel sorry for herself, but sometimes it's all you can do. Nessie didn't hear as Mummy Bear came into the room, and she jumped slightly as she sat next to her.
"Problems?" Mummy Bear asked gently.
"No," said Nessie. "No, not at all."
"Then why are you skulking in here all on your own?"
Nessie shrugged her big, heavy shoulders and fetched most of the plaster off the ceiling. "Oh I can't win this race," she said. "The minute I go out on the track they'll all start laughing at me. Why should I subject myself to ridicule? It would be better if I just went back home."
"Why should you?" Mummy Bear said. "You and I are in the same boat, girl. We're laughed at, persecuted, just because we're different. Now, we can either lie down and let it happen, or we can do something about it. My husband has a plan which will save me from being eaten by a crocodile, and restore your sense of self-respect at the same time. Okay, so as plans go it's a complete turkey and it's doomed to failure, but I'm going to give it a go!"
"Well if you put it like that," Nessie sniffed.
"That's the spirit!" Mummy Bear stood up and slapped Nessie on the back. "You may be as ugly as sin," she said, "but I tell you this, we're going to damn well win this race!"
Nessie smiled. "You know," she said philosophically, "I think I've learned a valuable lesson today. I've learned about friendship, and about self-respect. I've learned that's it's important to love one another - but I've also learned that it's important to love yourself."
"All right," Mummy Bear said as she pulled a sickly face. "Don't overdo it."
* * *
Elsewhere, Longtower was pushing a choc-ice up a drainpipe. The others just ignored him.
"I wanted a Flake in mine," said Mary as he peered over the top of an enormous ice cream cone.
"Me too," said Bertie the Belgian Balloonist.
"And I wanted a raspberry ripple," said PC Gibbon. "This isn't a raspberry ripple."
Daddy Bear happily ignored them all and gazed lovingly at his Triple Mint Choc-Chip Sensation as it melted and dribbled down his arm. Then Nigel sharply nudged his elbow and the ice cream flew straight out of his hand, over their heads and landed on the hat of a woman some twenty metres downwind. It sat there for a while, unnoticed, then suddenly jumped down to the ground and ran off to buy a food processor - and everyone agreed that this was a strange thing for an ice cream to do.
"What did you do that for?" Daddy Bear asked his son in an understandably aggrieved manner.
"Look over there!" said Nigel. "Do you see her?"
"See who?" Daddy Bear said as he swiped his son's ice cream and vengefully dropped it on the floor.
"It's that girl," Nigel said. "The fat blond tart. You know, the one we found in our house?"
Daddy Bear quickly scanned the crowd in the direction that Nigel was pointing and zeroed in on a curly mop of blond hair. At that moment the girl suddenly glanced up, and for a few seconds she and Daddy Bear found themselves staring at each other. There was a mutual glimmer of recognition, then the blond girl started to back away.
Daddy Bear gritted his teeth and started to push his way through the crowd. "Quick!" he shouted. "After her!"
Two hundred yards from where Nigel's ice cream lay splattered in the mud, Inspector Crump's car crunched to a halt. Pinewood and the Inspector got out and surveyed the crowds.
"It shouldn't be too difficult to find them," said Crump. "Grizzly bears tend to stand out in any congregation."
A limousine pulled up beside them and a horse got out, surrounded by minders. Pinewood glanced briefly at it from the corner of his eye, then did a double take.
"It's Marmaduke!" he cried delightedly. He rushed over to his long lost horse, but one of the minders held him back.
"Sorry, Mr. Marmaduke isn't signing autographs today," the minder explained in a voice that could crush house bricks.
"But he's my horse," Pinewood objected.
The minder slowly shook his head. "Mr. Marmaduke has just come back from an extensive publicity tour of the Benelux countries and he'd rather just be left alone to relax and enjoy the race."
"You don't understand, this is police business." Pinewood took a meat paste sandwich from his breast pocket, opened it up and held it out for the minder to read.
"Well that puts a different complexion on the situation entirely," the minder agreed. "This sandwich gives you complete authorization." He stood aside and let Pinewood pass.
Marmaduke just turned his head away. "I'm not talking to you," he said haughtily.
"Marmaduke, this is terrible," Pinewood said with feeling. "I never thought fame would change you so much. Is this all the thanks I get for looking after you through those hungry years?"
"This is the thanks you get for leaving me on a rooftop in the middle of nowhere," Marmaduke sulked.
Pinewood looked apologetic. "Yes, sorry about that," he said. "But for the moment we shall have to put our differences aside. There is important police work to be done."
"Sorry," Marmaduke said, "I'm not interested. I've got a new career now."
"Have you no sense of duty?" asked Pinewood, with genuine horror. "What happened to honour? What happened to your sense of responsibility?"
"Nuts to it," said the horse. "I know which side my bread's buttered."
Pinewood heard Inspector Crump calling to him. "Sergeant, I've seen them!" he shouted. "Quick, after them!"
"You hear that?" Pinewood said. "We've no time to argue."
"Listen Batman, I've retired from all this crime fighting lark," the horse replied. "Can't you get that into your thick skull?"
Pinewood fumed. This was the last straw! "Right, you're coming, like it or not," he said and he pulled a gun on him. At the sight of it, Marmaduke bolted.
"Quick, after him!" yelled Pinewood to no one in particular, and he set off in pursuit.
Whispering John Follicle took a quick bite from a peanut butter sandwich, which squealed in agony. He put it down and returned to the mike. "Well," he began, swallowing hard. "The big moment is almost upon us as this year's competitors wait anxiously at the starting gate. This, you may already know, is one of the toughest steeplechase courses in the world. There are some very tricky jumps, aren't there Maurice?"
"What?" Maurice Stain said in surprise as he sat cross-legged on the floor, stripping down the gearbox from his Ford Cortina.
"I said there are some very tricky jumps Maurice," Follicle repeated through clenched teeth.
"Oh, have we started?" Maurice Stain got up, wiped his oily hands under his armpits, then came over to the mike. He leaned forward, putting his elbow in Follicle's sandwich, which howled uncontrollably.
"Yes John," he began. "Everyone's heard of The Chair and, oh, that other one. But it's the least known jumps that are going to cause the most problems. Smedley's Lump, for example, is a particularly nasty one. It looks just like an ordinary jump at first, but on the other side is a six foot pit full of sharp spikes. Another one to look out for is Hooley's Brook, a water jump with a difference. It's about six feet wide, and instead of water it's filled with concentrated sulphuric acid."
"Ooh nasty!" said Whispering John Follicle.
"It certainly is, John," said Maurice Stain. "But it's by no means the worse. That honour is saved for a jump that is simply known as The Reckoning, which is about halfway around the course. Basically, it's just a man hiding behind the hedge with a loaded shotgun. That one manages to catch quite a lot of riders out, I can tell you."
"Well I can see we're almost ready now," Follicle said. "In a break with tradition, a semi-automatic machine gun is being used to start the race this year, in place of the normal starting pistol. So, the horses are under starter's orders... He fires! ...And, yes, he manages to shoot about half a dozen competitors before the police get chance to disarm him. Well there's something we don't see every year.
"Meanwhile the surviving horses have got off to a flying start. It's Beggar's Banquet who takes the lead, a lovely horse there, and she's setting a cracking pace. In second place is Mr. Nuts, followed closely by Matilda and The Loch Ness Monster. The Loch Ness Monster is something of a newcomer to the circuit, of course."
"Extremely long neck as well," Stain observed.
"Extremely long, Maurice," said Whispering John Follicle. "And unless I'm very much mistaken she's being ridden by a grizzly bear. Something of a first for the National, as far as I'm aware."
"Well there was that bear who romped home on Charley's Aunt in 1973," said Stain.
"Yes, but Charley doesn't like us talking about that," said Follicle. "Well as the horses approach the first fence it's over to you Maurice."
"Thanks a lot," said Stain. "Okay then, so in the lead is a horse, followed by another horse. But coming up on the outside is a horse with an extremely long neck, followed by another horse, with more horses close behind. Well here's the first jump and it's up... and over... and the mantraps seem to have taken one or two of the horses by surprise. Several of them are limping a bit but the field is still going strong as they approach the minefield. My word! A blond-haired young girl has just run out onto the track. Well, good gracious, I'm not sure what to make of this at all. A blond-haired young girl has just careered out onto the track and... no wait! There are others in pursuit. Yes, she's being chased by two grizzly bears, a Belgian balloonist, a police constable, a drunken philosopher and a double glazing salesman with a girl's name..."
* * *
"Come back here you poisonous little cow!" Daddy Bear shouted as pounded along the racecourse in pursuit of Goldilocks. "Come here and let me put my hands around your throat!"
Nigel was hot on his heels. He twisted to glance briefly over his shoulder and watched as Inspector Crump ducked under the barrier.
"Dad!" he screamed. "Dad, look!"
"What is it?" Daddy Bear called without looking back.
"The police are after us," Nigel shouted. "They're right behind us."
"First things first, Nigel," Daddy Bear yelled. "Let's get this little bitch first, we'll worry about the police later."
"Well this is really quite extraordinary," Maurice Stain said. "But what an exciting race it's turning out to be. Over to you John."
"Much appreciated Maurice," Follicle thanked him. "So as we come up on the second jump it's Beggar's Banquet in the lead. Hot on her fetlocks is Matilda. The Loch Ness Monster and Mr. Nuts are now jostling for third place, but following close behind are a fat blond tart, two bears, a philosopher, a police constable, a double glazing salesman and a Belgian balloonist. Finally, bringing up the rear but gaining fast is a Detective Inspector, a police horse, a Canadian Mountie and a man who does farmyard impressions. Over to you Maurice."
"Many thanks," said Stain. "And it's back to you John."
"Lovely," said Follicle. "Well, a quite remarkable thing has just happened: Beggar's Banquet has refused the next jump. She's veered off the track, over the rail and is taking a short cut straight for the winning post, and the rest of the field are following her! Well, this is causing quite a rumpus, and the question everybody's asking here is: is this cheating - Maurice?"
"Thank you, John," said Stain. "As I'm sure you're aware, this is a completely unprecedented situation. Nevertheless, I've just had word from race officials who say that due to an oversight there isn't actually anything in the rule book which prohibits this tactic. Back to you John."
"Thanks Maurice," said Follicle. "Tension is mounting now as they approach the finish line. Beggar's Banquet is clearly beginning to tire, and Matilda is racing up to snatch the lead. But The Loch Ness Monster seems to be putting on a bit of a spurt and is offering a serious challenge! It's a two horse race now, not much in it at all. With the winning post almost upon them it's going to be a photo finish and... Oh! Matilda stops to smile at the camera and The Loch Ness Monster wins by a neck! Over to you Maurice."
"Back to you John."
"Well there you have it," Whispering John Follicle said as he reached out for his sandwich before it had chance to run away. "What a thrilling race it's been. And the final placings are: The Loch Ness Monster first, Matilda Second, and a drunken philosopher in third place."
"I came third!" Longtower shouted excitedly as he jumped up and down on the spot. "I came third! I came third! Do I get a prize?"
"Right, you're all nicked," said Detective Inspector Crump once he'd got his breath back. "Sergeant Pinewood! I want everyone's name and address, even the horses'."
PC Gibbon made his way through the general confusion towards Inspector Crump. Crump's eyes narrowed.
"Gibbon, you traitor!" the Inspector snarled. "You turncoat! You quisling!"
"Somehow I get the impression that you're not at all happy with me," Gibbon said.
"You're the last person I expected to go over to the opposition," Crump said angrily. "You'll hang for this constable. Or you'll be shot. Either way, rest assured that whatever fate does befall you, it will be extremely nasty."
"But I believe the Bears are innocent sir," said Gibbon. "In fact, they've very nice people. I've spent some time with them now, and not once have they tried to bite my head off."
"They said that Vlad the Impaler was nice to his mother," was Inspector Crump's bitter reply. "You've been mesmerised by these people, Gibbon. They're dangerous. They're vicious. The sooner they get eaten by a crocodile, the better."
The Inspector whipped out his handcuffs and strode determinedly towards Mummy Bear as she was being helped down from the saddle. Suddenly the doors of a nearby horsebox burst open. Crump took a pace backwards in surprise as an incredibly old man leapt out wearing a long red robe and a wig. He spun around, then pointed a loaded gavel at them and said that his name was...
"Justice Frog! Guardian of law and order, dab hand with a Black and Decker strimmer and generally hip and groovy guy, even if I do say so myself." He gestured to a tall brunette girl who stood at his side. "And this is my friend Sharon," he said. "A remarkable woman, whose many talents include the extraordinary ability to crack open coconuts with her thighs. I just thought I'd mention that. Right, so what's going down, man?"
"I'm about to make an arrest," Inspector Crump said, accompanying his words with an assortment of scowls and grimaces.
Justice Frog reached out and laid a restraining hand on the Inspector's arm. "Chill out dude," he said. "There's been a change of plan. The Loch Ness monster has won the Grand National, which means two things. Firstly, I've won a heap of cash from Dave 'All Bets Taken, No Questions Asked' McFelon. Secondly, the Bears can go free."
"Hurrah!" shouted Nigel.
Inspector Crump's face fell. He rubbed a hand over his tired eyes. "Oh come on, is this really fair?" he asked. "I've come all this way, I've followed up every clue, I've chased these people up and down the country and now that I've caught them you're telling me that I can't arrest them. What kind of justice is that?"
It was time for Nigel to step forward dramatically. "If you must arrest someone," he announced, "then arrest her!" He pointed at Goldilocks. "She's the one responsible for the murders." Pinewood and Gibbon sprang into action. They grabbed Goldilocks and dragged her before the judge.
"Here we go then. Court in session!" bellowed Justice Frog gleefully. He banged his gavel twice against the side of the horsebox. "We have heard all the evidence," he said gravely. "Or at least, let's assume that we have. I have no option but to find you guilty of first degree murder."
"That's ridiculous!" said Goldilocks.
"All right then, second degree murder," said Justice Frog.
"She is innocent!" proclaimed a tall, dark stranger with a long nose as he stepped into the fray.
"And who might you be, tall dark stranger with a long nose?" Justice Frog demanded.
"My name is B.B. Woolfe," the stranger said. "And I am this young girl's uncle. I can personally vouch for her honesty."
The assembled crowd drew a sharp intake of breath.
"I assure you that Goldilocks is a sweet and innocent child who has hardly ever killed anyone," said Woolfe. "And even if she did kill those two policemen in cold blood, I'm sure it was only an accident."
"They're both in this together!" said Nigel. "They want to build a sheep refuge on the site of our house. The little fat girl was sent to burn it down, but the two policemen disturbed her, so she killed them."
"Okay, so that puts you both in the frame," said Justice Frog. "Any advance on third degree murder anyone?"
"Just hold it right there!" said another voice. Justice Frog sighed audibly. Duncan and Clive, the two policemen from Chapter One, suddenly jumped out of a nearby picnic hamper. "It's all right, we're not dead at all," said Duncan and Clive together. "We're specially trained stunt policemen."
"Is anybody following any of this?" asked the judge.
"Well I'm glad that's all sorted out then," said Woolfe as he rubbed his hands together. "Right, well if nobody's got any further questions, we'll be off. Come along Goldy, my dear." He started to go, but Justice Frog stopped him.
"Hang on, bum face," the judge said. "You're not getting away with it that easily. You are hereby charged with the heinous crime of providing this story with a fucking stupid plot. How do you plead?"
"Not guilty!" Goldilocks and her uncle cried together.
"Guilty!" cried Justice Frog on his own. "I sentence you both to be trampled to death by a herd of wildebeest. Sentence to be carried out forthwith. Take them away constable."
Mummy and Daddy Bear watched in stunned silence as the felons were taken away. At last their nightmare was over. Somehow they had to put all this behind them and try to carry on with their lives. They glanced at each other and both of them knew that whatever happened now, things could never be quite the same again.
Justice Frog slipped his gavel back into his pocket. He smiled and took two paces towards Daddy Bear. "Congratulations," he said as he shook his paw firmly. "We must do lunch sometime."
Then he kissed Mummy Bear, patted Nessie on the nose, and swaggered off to collect his winnings.