Time quake, p.20
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       TIME QUAKE, p.20

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  ‘This is lovely,’ Alice sighed. She stretched her arms above her head and rubbed her neck, stiff from poring over piles of books in the reading room. She looked up at the light streaming through the red and white striped awning above them. The wine and the hum of conversations and hunger were all making her feel a little light-headed. Suddenly she was aware of Lord Luxon’s keen blue gaze cutting into her. She came to with a jerk and sat up straight.

  ‘Thank you for bringing me here. It’s been so long since I’ve been to the Boathouse,’ she said. ‘I’ve always loved eating in the park.’

  ‘I know. Your aunt told me . . .’

  Alice raised her glass. ‘Well, thank you, good sir.’

  Lord Luxon raised his own glass. ‘The pleasure is all mine, Alice . . .’

  Alice took another picture of her companion against a sunny Central Park.

  ‘I confess that something has been troubling me since our last meeting. It regards your advice about how best to sabotage the Revolutionary War . . .’

  A tiny frown appeared on Alice’s forehead. ‘Go on – what’s been troubling you?’

  Lord Luxon opened his mouth to speak but before he could get a word out a waiter appeared at their table.

  ‘What can I get for you folks today?’ he asked with a warm smile.

  ‘I’ll have the Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad,’ said Alice.

  ‘And for you, sir?’

  Lord Luxon glared at him, furious at the interruption.

  ‘Chef ’s specials today are Sesame Crusted Salmon Fillet served on a bed of shiitake fried rice, with poached scallion and a reduced ginger soy glaze, or sirloin steak gently braised with organic root vegetables from Vermont, black pepper sauce and—’

  ‘Sir, I have come here to eat. I desire neither a list of ingredients nor instructions on how to prepare the dish.’

  The smile withered on the waiter’s face. Alice’s shocked expression prompted Lord Luxon to soften his tone.

  ‘Be so good as to fetch me some meat and some bread – and some vegetables if you must – the precise combination is all the same to me.’

  The waiter started to ask if he could be a little more specific but Lord Luxon waved him away. ‘The name of the dish, the provenance of the ingredients and the method of preparation are, I assure you, all matters of utter indifference to me.’

  ‘Anything you say. Sir.’

  Alice smiled weakly at the disgruntled waiter who turned on his heels and walked away down the wooden deck.

  ‘Are you always this rude to waiters?’

  Lord Luxon sighed. ‘You disapprove. But, I am unrepentant. Servants should cultivate a soothing presence. It is vexing in the extreme to be lectured on what your palate might presently discover for itself.’

  ‘He’ll spit in your soup . . .’

  ‘Pish pash! Enough of waiters. You told me that if you had a mind to sabotage the Revolutionary War, your first choice would be to act on Christmas night, 1776, when Washington succeeded in crossing the Delaware River . . .’

  ‘You were listening! Absolutely. Things were looking pretty shaky for the Patriots. But Washington managed to win a surprise victory at Trenton, and that, alongside another victory at Princeton a few days later, totally revived the Patriot cause. It was a pivotal moment, a real turning point in the war. If Washington had not succeeded in crossing the Delaware that night, who knows if there would have been the will, the opportunity, or that precise mix of circumstances on another occasion which would have guaranteed America’s independence from Britain . . .’

  Lord Luxon had been listening, nodding his head vigorously. How this pretty historian should have liked to have seen what his own eyes had witnessed. ‘But, correct me if I am wrong, is it not true that if Washington had failed, other generals would have succeeded in crossing the river on that same night?’

  ‘You really have been looking into this, haven’t you? Yes, there were two other attempts – both downstream of Washington. Two of his commanders, General Ewing and Colonel Cadwalader, attempted to get men and guns across the Delaware but the ice floes and the terrible weather defeated them. It was only Washington who succeeded in the end.’

  ‘Yes!’ Lord Luxon’s face lit up in triumph and he sprang up from the table, just as their food arrived. The waiter hurriedly set it down and fled without a word. Alice watched Lord Luxon as, hands gripping the wooden railing at the edge of the deck, he stared out across the lake with burning eyes. She admired his profile set against a backdrop of greenery and the Manhattan skyline and took a picture.

  ‘You certainly take your re-enactments seriously!’ said Alice. ‘Though I don’t know how you do your research if you can’t abide reading.’

  ‘Reading hurts my eyes,’ said Lord Luxon, returning to the table.

  ‘I don’t believe you! Go on, who are your favourite authors? You can tell so much about a person from what they like to read . . . Let me guess. Do you like thrillers? John Le Carré perhaps?’

  ‘I beg your pardon?’

  ‘Clearly not. Then perhaps I can see you appreciating Jane Austen . . .’

  Lord Luxon’s utterly blank expression caused the feeling of dread she had experienced in the taxi to flood over her again. Suddenly Alice recalled his joke about refusing to admit to being more than two hundred and seventy years old. When was Jane Austen writing? The 1790s and early 1800s? For a moment she grappled madly with dates and arithmetic, leaving her salad untouched.

  ‘Or how about Charles Dickens? The boy who asked for more – Oliver Smith.’

  Alice waited for a reaction. None came. Oliver Twist – when was that written? 1840s?

  Lord Luxon shook his head, his mouth full.

  ‘Fielding, then, Henry Fielding – I’m sure you like him.’

  ‘Ah, yes, I shall make an exception in the case of Fielding. I am particularly fond of Fielding. Tom Jones is vastly entertaining . . .’

  Lord Luxon calmly returned Alice’s questioning gaze.

  Alice looked away and stared fixedly at the view of the park. This man, whose favourite author was writing in the first half of the eighteenth century – at a time when a British monarch still ruled over his American colonies – had not even heard of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens! And this same man had repeatedly asked her for advice on how to sabotage the Revolutionary War . . .

  ‘Yes,’ she managed to say. ‘I admire Tom Jones, too.’

  Lord Luxon started to look bored with the direction their conversation was taking. ‘I have told you, Alice, that reading holds little appeal for me. I should rather hunt or play cards or fight – or even dine with an historian . . .’

  ‘All right, you’ve convinced me,’ said Alice, finally. ‘You don’t like reading. Either that, or Austen and Dickens are just too darned contemporary for your tastes . . .’

  Lord Luxon scrutinised his companion’s face for he sensed a change in her mood. Alice looked into his blue eyes and reasoned: So he’s not a big reader – and what he does read is from his favourite period in history. That’s still no reason to think two and two make five . . .

  Anxious to clear her head, Alice thanked Lord Luxon for her unfinished lunch but told him that she still had work to do. She remembered, however, to pass on Mrs Stacey’s invitation to a small party she was throwing at the weekend. Perhaps they could meet up beforehand so that they could go together? Lord Luxon took Alice’s hand and kissed it. He would look forward keenly, he said, to their next liaison.

  Alice sat for a long time on a park bench in the company of office workers taking their lunch break. Her rendezvous with Lord Luxon had unsettled her, and a deep sense of foreboding refused to go away. How could she admit her unsubstantiated suspicions to anyone, particularly to her colleagues at Princeton? What could she say? I think I’ve just had lunch with a time traveller who has designs on the United States of America? She would be a laughing stock. Alice tried to think about something else, and when an office worker left his copy of the New York Post,
she picked it up and idly flicked through the pages. She spotted a small article on page three that made her heart skip a beat. It was entitled: Is Time Travel Possible? When she had finished reading the article she reached into her bag and took out her mobile phone.

  The children clustered around the small, skinny teenager who kept his expressive eyes lowered to the floor and who was so attached to his white mouse. The Dyer family plied their unexpected visitors with food and drink and tried not to ask too many questions all at once. However, the excitement at being introduced to this boy from the eighteenth century was quickly tempered by the realisation that Anjali and Tom were also the sidekicks of the villain who had abducted Kate and Peter. Not only that, but they were also associates of the man who had single-handedly thwarted all the scientists’ attempts to undo the harm time travel had inflicted on the universe.

  Dr Dyer and Dr Pirretti tried to explain to Anjali and Tom what had happened.

  ‘This is doing my head in,’ Anjali exclaimed as Sam and Megan put in their own words what the grown-ups had been saying about dark energy and parallel worlds and the time quake.

  ‘But it should be Vega you’re telling this to,’ said Anjali. ‘I can’t do nothing. And you got to see it from his point of view. I’m sorry about your daughter and her friend, but Vega was only doing his job – he’s a thief. It’s what thieves do. When you see an opportunity you get straight in there or it’s gone. You can’t hang about. How was he supposed to know how much trouble you could cause with an anti-gravity machine? If you don’t mind me saying, it doesn’t seem right you scientists going about inventing stuff that’s so dangerous even you can’t control it . . .’

  Inspector Wheeler opened his mouth to speak but changed his mind. The girl had a point.

  Tom pulled on Anjali’s arm and whispered something into her ear. She pulled away.

  ‘Tom thinks I should keep my big mouth shut. But I think we’ve got a right to tell it how it is. The plain truth is that Tom wouldn’t be in the mess he’s in if it weren’t for you people. You got to get him back home. I can’t. Vega’s scarpered back off to the good old days and by the look of it he’s not coming back. That’s why I’ve brought him here. You gotta help him.’

  ‘Believe me, Anjali, we’ll do our best,’ said Dr Dyer. ‘We’re building another anti-gravity machine and – if we succeed – I undertake to return the Marquis and Tom – to their own century. And then—’

  ‘There you go!’ said Anjali, taking hold of Tom’s shoulders. ‘I told you they’d help you!’

  ‘And then,’ continued Dr Dyer, ‘we’ll search for Kate and Peter and bring them home—’

  ‘And,’ interrupted Sam, ‘get the other two anti-gravity machines and destroy them so no one else can go back in time and change anything . . .’

  ‘And then everyone will live happily ever after?’ Anjali looked at Dr Dyer. A smile flickered on her face. ‘I hope you’ve got a plan B, mate . . .’

  ‘Well, what do you suggest we do?’ exclaimed Mrs Dyer.

  Anjali looked contrite. ‘Sorry – I didn’t mean—’

  ‘No, I’m sorry,’ said Mrs Dyer quickly. ‘Don’t think we don’t realise we’re clutching at straws . . .’

  ‘I hate to tell you, but there’s something else you ought to know about,’ said Anjali. ‘You say that whenever anyone goes back in time, a parallel world pops up – ’cos you reckon you can’t destroy what’s already happened. Am I right?’

  ‘We don’t know but, yes, we’re working on that assumption,’ said Dr Dyer.

  ‘And that’s why you want to destroy the machines – to stop any more parallel worlds or universes or whatever popping up because you think they caused the time quake?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘And you’re worried what time quakes could be doing to us?’

  ‘What are you getting at, Anjali?’

  ‘Well, I can see your logic in destroying the machines, but I just thought you ought to know that Vega can travel through time without the machine . . .’

  Dr Pirretti and Dr Dyer looked at each other in alarm.

  ‘He can do what? . . . You must be talking about blurring, Anjali. That happened to Kate and Peter, too. It seems that if you find yourself transported to a different time there’s a tendency to rematerialise in your own time until you settle into it. A strange phenomenon . . .’

  ‘No,’ said Anjali. ‘He could do that, too. But Vega used objects to go back in time. He lifted something from the Museum of London, didn’t he, Tom? What was it? I forget . . .’

  ‘A helmet,’ said Tom shyly. ‘And some coins . . .’

  ‘That’s right! A Roman helmet and some old coins.’

  ‘And he took Tom with him once. He offered to take me with him but after I’d seen the state of Tom when he got back I said no, thank you very much, I’m not going to risk getting stuck in the past where they’d probably burn me as a witch or something – they brought back some good stuff, though.’

  Dr Dyer stared at her speechless.

  ‘I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is . . . Vega doesn’t need the machine.’

  ‘Let me get this straight, Anjali,’ said Inspector Wheeler. ‘When you said that the Tar Man – Vega – uses objects, what did you mean?’

  ‘Vega couldn’t always do it . . . he had to kind of . . . tune in, if you know what I mean. He said that the simpler the object the easier it was . . .’

  ‘When Blueskin held the helmet,’ said Tom, ‘he could not do it. But the coins worked like charms. It was when using a coin that he took me with him.’

  ‘And he was always complaining how unreliable it was,’ said Anjali. ‘Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. He wanted to get his hands on your machine.’

  ‘What time in history did he take you to, Tom?’ asked Inspector Wheeler.

  ‘I do not know, sir. I saw soldiers wearing helmets like the one Blueskin had stolen from the museum. They spoke a language I did not understand . . . Everyone looked at us. Blueskin took pleasure in such journeys but I was afraid. He did not offer to take me again.’

  ‘But how did that work?’ asked Dr Pirretti. ‘Did you have to hold on to him, or what?’

  ‘Yes. Blueskin kept his arm around my shoulder.’

  The two scientists and Mrs Dyer looked so crestfallen Anjali felt she had to say something. ‘I’m sorry – but no point crying over spilt milk, though, eh?’

  While the Dyer children, encouraged by their father, started a game of rounders, explaining the rules as they went along to Montfaron – who proved to be an exceptional bowler – Inspector Wheeler sat next to Anjali. He could not help but admire the Tar Man’s judgement in choosing this streetwise girl as his guide in a new century. He knew that she was not about to grass on the Tar Man to a Scotland Yard detective but he was burning to know some of the villain’s secrets. Inspector Wheeler therefore persisted in throwing enough oblique questions her way so that even though Anjali managed to field most of them, she still let enough slip about Vega to satisfy his curiosity. To Anjali’s relief, Inspector Wheeler finally changed places in order to have a word with Dr Pirretti.

  ‘You’ve got to hand it to him,’ Anjali overheard Inspector Wheeler say to Dr Pirretti. ‘The Tar Man’s no fool. Who could have predicted that an eighteenth-century villain could have achieved so much?’

  Dr Pirretti leaned over to whisper something in Inspector Wheeler’s ear. ‘You’re not going to arrest her?’

  Inspector Wheeler thought for a moment. ‘No. But in her line of work it’s only a matter of time.’

  ‘Being this close to a policeman is bringing me out in hives,’ said Anjali to Tom. She shooed away a cloud of midges. ‘And I’m not sure how much more fresh air I can stand neither . . . Look, Tom, no point in prolonging the agony – I’m gonna head back to London now.’

  Anjali ignored Tom’s forlorn expression and took out her mobile.

  ‘They’ll get you back! Don’t get cold feet about it now – it’s w
hat you wanted. And if they foul up . . . Well, I’ll come and get you. Okay?’

  Tom nodded miserably.

  ‘Meet me up at the Dyers’ farm in ten minutes,’ Anjali told the chauffeur.

  She got up and said an abrupt goodbye to one and all, refusing all offers to accompany her back to the farm.

  Before she went, Inspector Wheeler asked her for a contact number. Anjali wrote down the number of her local Chinese takeaway. She would not let Tom walk with her because she hated goodbyes. But he followed at her heels halfway up the field anyway.

  ‘I’m not going to see you again, am I?’ asked Tom.

  ‘’Course you are,’ said Anjali.

  ‘What are you going to do?’

  ‘The usual. I can live off what Vega’s left behind for years . . . decades . . .’

  ‘You could be a nurse like the lady who looked after me at the hospital.’

  Anjali looked at him incredulously.

  ‘Don’t stay a thief, Anjali – please . . .’

  ‘Don’t you worry about me – it’s yourself you should be worried about!’

  Tom looked at the floor.

  ‘You got the mobile I gave you?’

  Tom put his hand in the pocket of his jeans to check. He nodded.

  Anjali punched his shoulder.

  ‘See you then, Tom.’

  She carried on up the field while Tom stared after her, tears rolling down his cheeks. He thought she was not going to look back. But at the last moment, just before she vanished from view, Anjali turned around, her dark hair gleaming in the sunshine, and she blew him a kiss.

  ‘Farewell, Mistress Anjali,’ called Tom.

  By the time Tom had summoned up the courage to rejoin Mistress Kate’s family, two photographs were being passed around. The Marquis de Montfaron looked at them and shook his head. ‘Non.’ He passed them to Megan.

 

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