It struts, it crows, it clanks like crashing saucepan lids, and really annoys the neighbours.
Clang, rattle, clang at four in the morning - nothing seems to stop it. This contraption flies in from nowhere with nothing more on its tin mind than to wake the neighbourhood. At least its closest relative, the Clangers' Soup Dragon, had soup to offer.
One enterprising young man attempted to track the clockwork cockerel back to where it had originated from with his drone, but that ceased transmitting and was never seen again apart from a few washers and one rotor blade. The last picture it sent back was of huge, luminous, glass eyes closing in fast. Then, with one metallic squawk, that was that.
It was a well-to-do neighbourhood - no houses under a million pounds - and where private security patrolled the exclusive gated estate at its centre, which the bird had sense enough not to visit.
Gabrielle resented the avenues lined with cherry trees and neatly manicured grass verges. It seemed pointless pounding the beat in an area with so many security cameras. Her partner, PC Gore, was more sanguine. Gabrielle sometimes wondered if it was possible for the older woman to ever be annoyed, especially when they had to waste most of their time fielding complaints about the wretched mechanical cockerel. While Sarah Gore could only see the funny side, Gabrielle wanted promotion from the beat and would have preferred to shoot the nuisance out of the sky. A local retired major had a rifle and could have shot it down from his balcony, but he could switch off his hearing aid at night and, like Sarah, found it amusing.
The latest complaint came from Mr Marston, owner of a spacious lawn dotted with exquisitely trimmed topiary. The metal cockerel had landed on the head of the ten foot giraffe, permanently bending its neck into a strangely contorted shape. Needless to say, when it went on to pluck the peacock centrepiece, he was incandescent. The bland expression Sarah assumed to stop herself laughing did not help.
When Gabrielle and the much put-upon Mrs Marston at last managed to placate him with the promise of a stakeout to catch the creature, the constables were able to return to their beat.
‘Are you crackers?’ said Sarah. ‘There's no way they would agree to a night stakeout for something like this.’
‘We could do it.’
‘You are bonkers, aren't you.’
‘Our overtime would be a fraction of a patrol car.’
‘I like my sleep.’
‘I know, Roy told me how loudly you snore.’
‘And what happens if we see the damn thing? It can fly.’
‘We follow it.’
‘We'll have my moped.’
Sarah recalled what had happened the last time she rode pillion on that and groaned.
At 3:30 in the morning, 36 hours later, two half-asleep constables listened for the aerial clatter that heralded the arrival of the cockerel from Hell.
And they waited, and waited.
5 o'clock and still no metal bird.
‘It knows we’re here. I should have never let you talk me into this Gabby. I’m beginning to crave cigarettes again.’
‘But they swore blind it always turned up at 4 o'clock sharp like clockwork.’
‘My youngest son’s Mickey Mouse watch keeps better time, and I’ve lost count of how many times that’s been to the bottom of the deep end. The only thing on it that now moves is its ears.’
‘I’m surprised a woman trained as a lifeguard lets a four-year-old get out of his depth.’
‘Harry’s got gills – it’s genetic.’
There was a distant patter of metal paws.
Both women thought they were hearing things through lack of sleep and ignored it.
‘Let's go home,’ insisted Sarah.
Gabrielle raised her hand.
The patter had turned into an audible clatter. Something sinister was loping up the road towards them, the rising sun's rays reflected from its polished casing.
‘Don't like the look of that, Gabby! Let's go!’
‘No chance.’ Gabrielle pulled out her baton and snapped it open.
‘You may want promotion, I prefer to keep my kneecaps.’
‘It looks like a large cat.’
‘A large cat with steel teeth.’
As it got closer, the two PCs used the moped as a barrier.
The large, metal cat clanked to a stop before them and sat up on his haunches.
‘Good morning ladies,’ it announced.
‘You are recording this as well, aren't you?’ hectored Sarah.
‘Of course I am.’
The cat continued, ‘I expect you would like an explanation?’
‘Well... Yeah,’ Sarah managed to utter. ‘I suppose this is better than being pecked to death by a steel chicken.’
‘Please be assured that I have no intention of attacking you. I have no intention of attacking anyone.’
‘If you hit it in just the right spot, Gabby, you could knock out its batteries,’ Sarah whispered.
‘And then how would we find out where it comes from?’ Gabrielle replaced the baton in her belt.
‘I can tell you where it comes from - a mad engineer with a Meccano set!’
Without warning the cat's voice changed. It became male, and elderly. ‘Follow me and all will be explained.’
‘I've heard that before,’ moaned Sarah.
‘I can't understand why you became a copper,’ Gabrielle scolded.
‘Because I know how to handle hooligans - I raised four of them. This isn’t police work – it’s civil engineering.’
The voice of the elderly man went on regardless. ‘I need someone to witness the result of my life’s work. So few appreciate how I have turned my Čapek dream into reality.’
‘Čapek? Who’s Čapek? A Polish window cleaner?’ demanded Sarah.
‘Please follow my scout and all will be revealed.’
‘This fellow keeps repeating himself,’ Sarah groaned.
Gabrielle had the suspicion it was because the voice was pre-recorded and the cat would only understand a direct order. ‘Take us to your leader.’
‘Take us to your - Oh for goodness sake!’ At that point Sarah knew she should turn on her heels and leave, but would have felt guilty at deserting the younger woman with more enthusiasm than sense. There was the foreboding that this was all going to end up as overtime for forensics.
Wishing that she had taken that job of lifeguard at the local baths instead, Sarah perched on the pillion of Gabrielle's moped to follow the mechanical cat. Fortunately it was too early in the morning for anyone else to witness the bizarre sight.
Several miles of pot-holed lanes later, they came to a factory-sized barn.
A hive of industry reverberated from inside its wooden walls.
‘Must be an early morning shift,’ Gabrielle concluded.
The two PCs followed their escort into a busy interior filled with welding sparks and sound of buzz saws. A million metal components were being assembled on a production line of robot workers.
‘You think whoever runs this has got a licence, Gabby?’
‘We'll have to ask the owner of the cat's voice.’ Gabrielle turned to their mechanical companion waiting patiently for them to take in their surroundings. ‘Where is your boss?’
The cat gave a metallic mew. ‘Follow me.’
‘I think we should call for backup, Gabby,’ warned Sarah.
‘This place is very, very wrong. Where are the humans running things?’
The cat led the constables up a flight of stairs to a balcony room overlooking the chaotic activity.
They took in the scene below. It was punctuated by sudden firecracker-like explosions which would have incinerated mortal flesh and, by the damaged casings of the factory floor operatives, they hadn’t escaped either. This was Dante’s Inferno for machines.
There was also something huge being constructed at the far end.
‘What the hell are they making down there?’ said Sarah.
‘Looks like the body of some monstrous machine.’
‘Those blades being attached to it seem pretty businesslike - and that’s got to be some sort of weapon in its stern. Damn thing probably flies as well. That tin cockerel must have been scouting out the area ready for invasion.’ Sarah tried to make it sound like a joke, but she made the mistake of listening to what she had just said. At least the properties of the pompous rich it had been annoying would be first to go. ‘Suppose we’ll have to ask the bloke who runs it all.’
But Gabrielle was too occupied, quietly calling for backup, to hear.
In a room overlooking the factory floor a high-backed chair was facing a window, the top of its occupant’s head just visible.
‘Hey there,’ Sarah called. ‘Spare a moment for the local fuzz?’
The occupier of the chair didn't move.
‘Oh Gord, he must be deaf.’ Sarah walked round the cluttered desk to face the inventor. ‘We just want to know what's going on-’ she stopped dead. ‘Gabby?’
‘Say you didn't have time for a full English breakfast before you came out?’ Sarah swung the chair round.
Sitting in it was a decomposing body.
‘Looks as though we'll have to take a statement from his cat instead.’
But the cat was no longer the purring, tin pussy that had been so cooperative. A blazing-eyed, metal monster was now glowering murderously at the two constables.
The women automatically pulled out their batons as the production line below fell silent and the robotic workers looked up. The buzz saws started to whirr again and there was the clatter of other lethal implements.
‘It's just as well we opted to take those classes in gymnastics,’ Gabrielle declared confidently.
Sarah wasn’t so sure. When she dived from the springboard, she preferred to land in water. ‘You mean… we go through the window?’
‘Come on, it’s not that high. There's a ledge outside, shouldn't be too difficult to drop down.’
Gabrielle pushed out the rotten window frame with her baton.
The cat was not happy about this.
Extended claws scratched the bare floorboards as it malevolently slunk towards them.
Gabrielle pushed Sarah onto the rickety ledge outside as the clatter of assorted robots reached the upper floor. Only fear of being sliced and diced persuaded her to drop into the nettles below. Despite the stings, bruises and barrage of sharp implements landing about them, the PCs managed to scramble away.
The reaction of the mechanical menagerie inside to their escape was fury.
Unable to calculate how to deal with this situation, the machines redirected their rage on their surroundings.
Gabrielle and Sarah watched from a safe distance as the factory was demolished from the inside out. A huge cloud of dust and sparks rose through its roof before the barn exploded and burst into flames.
The building was well alight by the time the sound of sirens was heard.
‘Think we'll be blamed for this, Gabby?’
‘Oh shut up!’
‘Look on the bright side. They can't demote you.’
If it hadn't been for the evidence of their body cameras, the women wouldn't have been believed, which was just as well because the barn was reduced to a smouldering heap of molten metal and charcoal. When the fire service could eventually approach they found a charred skeleton amongst the tangle of metal components.
The infernal device being constructed inside baffled the best minds but, as it was obviously a dangerous mechanism of some sort, Gabrielle got her promotion.
Sarah handed in her resignation and became a lifeguard.