What's Brown And Sticky? A Stick.

Within an hour Sage was striding down London's Regent Street. Dredly squeaked along beside him. As they walked, their looks turned a number of heads. It was hardly surprising. Sage was a tall, striking looking fellow with a strong jaw and a magnetic personality... As he liked to describe himself in Internet chat rooms... In reality he was, well... Below average. Sort of a C+ of a man, maybe stretching up to a B- on a good day. He towered a full five feet three inches above small scuttling animals. His hair was short, but remarkably unkempt and so dark it was almost black. His beard would get a 'C' on anyone else but a B+ on him because it covered up some of his face. You couldn’t call him ugly, but his mother-in-law told jokes about him. However, when it came to strength, he got an A. He was as strong as an ox. The irony being that somewhere there was an unfortunate ox that was as strong as a Jedec Sage — a worrying state of affairs and one that had vexed both Sage and Dredly on many occasions. His shape was more or less square, because of his massive musculature - somewhat like the body-builder Franco Colombu. Sage always looked like he’d just woken up from a three day hash binge, which was odd since he hadn’t taken any drugs for years.

Meanwhile, Dredly looked like an undertaker on acid, dressed head to foot in black, his tailcoat waving behind him and his blonde hair sticking out of his tall, stovepipe hat as if it was stuffed with straw. He was five feet ten and was of fairly heavy build, but not fat. His green eyes had a keen glint - remarkable since he had been an insomniac since the age of three. Between then and his current age of twenty eight, his sleep had totalled less than fifty hours. He was the opposite of Sage, who had hardly been conscious for fifty hours that year.

As the two friends walked through the crowds of slow-moving tourists, the policeman standing at the junction with Oxford Street clocked Sage and Dredly, and decided to follow the weirdos at a distance. He walked with an awkward, flap-footed gait, as if each step was a strain. Within seconds of his departure, a streetseller seeped up from nowhere and started crying his illegal wares, his thick London accent wringing the grace from the foreign names he was yelling.
"Come on ladies! You've got yer Channel, you've got yer Ralph Low-ren, you've got yer Giii-org-ii-o Arm-aaani. Three bottles for twenty pahnd! This is all genuine. Guaranteed no imitations - I know, 'cos I nicked 'em meself!"

Dredly shocks the shoe-shine man in one of the funny books at Dredly.com
The policeman heard the sounds peripherally, but was more interested in the men in the crowd. They, in their turn were interested only in the thought of the old shoe-shine man. If anyone could help them it would be him - after all he had been dealing with shoes for decades. When they caught sight of him, he was taking a break, puffing on a roll up held between fingers stained with polish and tobacco. Around the low shoe-shine seat were spread the tools of his trade - brushes, buffers, polish, wax, all set in a gleaming brass rack.
"Any chance of a shine?" Dredly asked.
The old man looked up at him with bright blue eyes, which looked out of place amidst the crags of age on his face.
"Yer - hop up."
Dredly complied, but even as the old man bent down to set about his task, he recoiled with a gasp.
"What?" Dredly asked, shocked. "My feet don't smell that bad, surely..."
"Where?" The old man could hardly croak out the word.
"Where what?" Asked Sage, leaning towards the old codger.
"Where did you get those shoes?"
Dredly could see naked fear in the man's eyes. Like a naked Oprah Winfrey, the sight of naked fear was disturbing.
"Just an ordinary shoe shop..."
"No. This is the work of Caracciolo..." The old man's voice wavered as he spoke the name, "...Cesare Caracciolo, the infamous bootmaker of Florence."
Dredly was unnerved by the insertion of the word 'infamous' into the sentence, but somehow he couldn't stop himself from repeating it.
"Yer. Used to be the Mafia's cobbler-in-chief, before he went freelance in the late 'Eighties. You've heard of concrete shoes?"
Sage and Dredly both nodded.
"Caracciolo invented them. He's the most loathsome leatherworker who ever lived. The Mafia used him for special jobs. Remember when President Gerald Ford slipped down the aircraft staircase? Caracciolo's shoes were the reason. Ford had been a man of grace - some would even say elegance - before Caracciolo got to him. Dunno what the Mafia had against him, but it didn't take long before the shoes had ruined his reputation. Then there was that Chris Waddle penalty in the World Cup semi-final against Germany. It was incredible - a player of his calibre and he sent the ball high and wide. Word in the shoe shops was that Caracciolo had put a million on Germany to win. It was his boot that robbed England of a World Cup Final place. The list is endless - Mary Decker's fall in Los Angeles, Neil Kinnock tripping on that beach - you name it, Caracciolo's probably behind it. Everyone thought he was dead, but these are his work and they're new. God! I hoped I'd never see a pair, but now... Seeing 'em up close... I've got to admire the savage beauty of his craftwork." 

Sage looked down at the footwear of evil.
"I wouldn't like to be in your shoes." He said, looking into Dredly's worried face.
"So, what exactly is wrong with them?" The old man asked.
"Well, they've got tighter since I bought them..." Dredly couldn't finish the sentence, as the man interjected,
"Tighter! Christ, we've got to get them off you. It's classic Caracciolo!"
And with that, the old man bent his back to the task of untying the laces, but try as he might, he could get nowhere - they were knotted fast.
"How many times have I warned you about doing them up as double knots?" Sage complained as he tried to undo the left shoe.
"It's not his fault, the laces..." The old man's head suddenly jerked up and a pained gasp escaped his cracked lips. His left hand slapped against the side of his neck as if he'd been stung, and his body stiffened before he fell headlong to the ground. Sage and Dredly were momentarily caught in stasis. The venerable shoe shiner was sprawled on the pavement. Then Dredly saw it...
"He's been shot with a poison dart!" Dredly cried.
He and Sage both immediately looked around, and to their relief they could see a policeman.
"Officer! Come quick!" Sage shouted, but the policeman turned and started moving clumsily through the crowds of shoppers.
"Officer!" Sage shouted again. "Why won't he... Hang on... That's no policeman... Stop that gnome!" Sage screamed, leaping up to give chase.

The gnome on stilts makes a run for it in one of the humor books at Dredly.com
Dredly could hardly believe his eyes. As the policeman had run, he had thrown off his helmet to reveal a bright red floppy hat. A moment later and the jacket had been flung aside. There, stomping its way through the crowds was a gnome on stilts, its feet strapped into them just above the waistband of the regulation police trousers. And in one of the tiny hands was the blowpipe that had delivered death with such cruel efficiency.
Sage barged his way into the crowd, pushing people this way and that in his desperate bid to catch the gnome.
"That gnome! Stop that gnome... Oh just get out the way you cretinous bastards!" Sage bellowed, as yet another tourist stopped right in front of him for no readily apparent reason. Why did tourists always do that? Did they stand in the streets and look skywards at home? Sage tried not to think about the answers and re-doubled his efforts to catch the gnome. Sage was gaining. The gnome looked round, it's ruddy cheeks twisted into a visage of pure hate. It should have taken them all out when it'd had the chance, but its orders had been clear and it knew better than to disobey them. Now it was in a fix. The beardy bloke had almost caught up with it. Then it saw its salvation.

Sage had chased the gnome two hundred yards down Regent's Street in the direction of Piccadilly Circus, wondering whether Hamley's toyshop had any new video games downstairs as he swept past. He could hear the rumble of a bus approaching from behind him. It went by and suddenly Sage realised he had only one shot at taking the gnome down. In a second it would hop onto the open back of the bus. Sage flung himself forward, catching the legs of the stilts in a perfect rugby tackle. But the sheer force of the impact broke open the bindings holding the gnome's feet. The horrible creature was thrown forward, bounced once off its rotund behind and landed cleanly on the rear running board of the bus. Sage looked up from where he had landed on the pavement and saw the gnome being carried away. It waved sarcastically at the prostrate figure on the flagstones and then turned to the conductor to ask for a half fare to Trafalgar Square.

"I... Everything's going dark..." The old man coughed as Dredly cradled him in his arms.
"I'm not going to make it, but I can still help you..."
Dredly bent his head down to listen. The old man coughed loudly and wetly into Dredly's ear, then spoke.
"There's only one man who can break in those shoes for you... The Shoe Whisperer... He can break the will of even the most insolent shoes..."
"But where will I find this 'Shoe Whisperer'?"
"He was last heard of in America... New York... He's the only one who can help you... I... You... He... They..."
The old man was declining fast. Then with his last breath,
"Et tu, Brute..." He went limp.
"Famous last words!" Dredly shook his head in sadness at the old man's passing.
Sage returned, and the attack stilts in his hand said it all.
"I'm sorry..." Sage began.
"It's all right. I get the feeling that won't be the last we see of it."
"Is he..." Sage indicated the shoe shiner.
Sage bent down and looked at the wound in the man's neck. A brown, sticky residue marked the flesh.
"Chocolate?" Sage looked to Dredly for affirmation.
"Yes, chocolate so concentrated, with such a high fat content, that if injected into the bloodstream the victim suffers an immediate coronary."
"I thought so at first, but smell it..."
Sage did as he was asked and as he sniffed the heavy chocolate scent, he could detect the merest hint of...
"Zurich!" Sage exclaimed.
Dredly looked at his friend grimly.

"When someone starts hiring Swiss killer gnomes, you can be sure of one thing - he's playing to win."



Will Sage and Dredly catch the killer gnome? Find out in next week's enthralling chapter...


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