Time quake, p.22
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       TIME QUAKE, p.22

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  She braced herself for the icy immersion but felt – nothing at all! When Kate looked down, she realised that she was sitting on the Thames. She shifted to one side and the water yielded a little but still she did not penetrate its surface. Now she threw a wary glance over in the direction of the Tar Man’s back; he had not moved, or at least as far as she could tell. She relaxed a little and, once her heart stopped fluttering in her chest, the novelty of her new-found skill brought a smile to her face. And so she bounced up and down, gently at first, and then with more confidence. It was as if she were sitting on a hard mattress. She patted the ripples of water with the flat of her hands and marvelled at their cool softness. There was nothing in her old world that she could compare it to and she delighted in the unique texture that soothed the palms of her hands.

  She looked over again at the Tar Man. He was as motionless as ever. What had happened when she touched him? It reminded her of an experiment the Marquis de Montfaron had described, in which he had passed an electric current into the thigh muscle of a dead frog. The resulting twitch had caused his assistant to run, screaming from the room. But what force had she transmitted into the Tar Man? Was she a conductor of some unknown force – did it merely flow through her? Or was she the source of it? She sighed. She suspected that even her father and Dr Pirretti wouldn’t know the answer to those questions. At least it was only the Tar Man’s eyeballs that had moved. How awful if she had brought the whole of him to life, a cross between Frankenstein’s monster and Man Friday to share her desert island. Except, of course, it wasn’t exclusively hers, not any more – Kate’s gaze swept the riverside anxiously, looking for any further sign of movement.

  Thankfully the unearthly wind had eased, the ferocious gusts having reduced to a gentle breeze. Slowly and cautiously she got to her feet, arms outstretched for balance. Kate walked on water. It was slippery, and she kept falling over, landing painlessly on the cushioned surface. As she pushed herself up once more she noticed, a little way away, the small blob of white just below the surface that she knew to be Peter’s face.

  ‘Peter!’ she exclaimed. It suddenly dawned on her that she could now reach him. Kate started to shuffle over the slippery ripples towards her friend but soon decided that it would be easier to crawl on all fours. A feeling of dread came over her. What if she were too late? But something flickered in the far reaches of her mind: Peter’s future. She could sense it. He was not dead. He had a long life in front of him. She crawled on.

  Covered by perhaps a finger’s width of water, Kate observed his face. Peter’s eyes were wide open and a stream of air bubbles that escaped from his mouth confirmed that he was alive. Kate let her forehead sink with relief onto the soothing surface of the river. She stretched out her hand towards him. All she had to do was touch him and it would be over. But just as she was about to touch the tip of his index finger, the only part of him that which not submerged, she stopped herself. The Thames was a fast-flowing river and she could not be sure that Peter was capable of swimming.

  Crawling back to the quayside as fast as she could, Kate jumped up to catch hold of a metal mooring ring and hauled herself up, pushing with her feet against the roughly hewn stones until she had heaved herself onto street level. She ran off into the darkness.

  Presently the river echoed to her footsteps once more and she appeared, out of breath and clutching a pile of soiled strips of petticoat that she had used to bind her sore feet, along with a shirt she had found drying in the Tar Man’s scullery. Kate dropped onto the spongy surface of the Thames, checked the Tar Man’s face for further signs of movement and, satisfied that he was not suddenly going to come to life like a zombie in a horror film, made herself comfortable on the water, crossing her legs and pulling out her skirts around her like a picnic blanket. More cheerful than she had felt in an age, she sorted through the pieces of cotton and struggled to tear the shirt into strips. Then she started to knot them together. The pieces of petticoat had already lost much of their pliability. This was doubtless, she deduced, on account of the law of temporal osmosis – oh, how she longed to tell her father about this – but she still managed to work the material without too much difficulty. The shirt was a different matter. However, once she had finished, Kate clambered back on board the boat and, being extremely careful not to touch him, tied one end of the rag rope around the Tar Man’s wrist, using a triple knot. Then she walked back over to Peter and sat down next to him. She formed a loop, large enough for her and for Peter, which she dropped over her head and under her arms. Then she looked around at the silent, dark, no-man’s land of a world and shouted, ‘Goodbye, Limbo Land!’

  Kate sat poised to touch the tip of Peter’s finger with hers, knowing that all hell would break loose the moment she did so. For a moment she clung to the peace and silence of this static world.

  ‘Dr Pirretti, I don’t know if you can hear me—’

  ‘Kate!’ Dr Pirretti’s urgent voice came straight back at her.

  Kate gasped at the clarity of it. She could have been wearing headphones.

  ‘Dr Pirretti! How are you doing this?’

  ‘That’s not important. The important thing is that you can hear me.’

  ‘I’m with Peter again – I’d lost him for a while. Can you tell everyone we’re okay?’

  ‘Yes, of course, but listen to me, Kate, listen while you can. I need to tell you the code for the duplicate anti-gravity machine. It’s a six-digit code and it’s the same as your birthdate . . . Did you hear me?’

  Kate’s face broke into a grin. ‘I heard you!’

  One hand clutching the loop around her chest, Kate’s finger hovered over Peter’s. She looked down at the pale moon of his face, and at the life escaping from his lungs, trapped under this layer of water. She wondered if he were still conscious. Her finger was now so close to his it was pulsing in anticipation and felt almost hot. It was like balancing on the edge of a diving board, confronted with the heart-stopping leap into the void. She wanted to do it, she had to do it, but now it came to it her nerve failed her. ‘Now!’ she ordered. But she faltered again. What if she got swept away? What if she couldn’t save him? ‘Do it!’ she shouted, channelling all her fear into her cry. ‘Now!’

  Two fingers touched, two worlds united, two bodies thrashed around in swirling currents. Spitting out the foul water, her head burst through the surface of the water like a rebirth. Coughing and spluttering she passed the loop over Peter’s shoulders. Kate Dyer was back in the real world.

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

  Time Quake

  In which many centuries collide, two brothers

  make a pact and Kate tells Peter her secret

  Peter shook the hair from his face and coughed up the water that was making him choke. He felt himself being dragged through the strong current. What was happening to him? Out of the darkness he saw the Tar Man in his boat looming towards him. The water was choppy and the boat bobbed up and down. The Tar Man appeared to be leaning backwards, legs set wide apart for balance, and he was digging his heels into the floor of the boat. He was pulling on something, too. In fact, it occurred to Peter that the Tar Man looked exactly as if he were taking part in a tug o’ war contest. Peter glanced down at the taut rag rope in front of him and felt it cut into his back as he surged through the water. The Tar Man, he realised all at once, was hauling him in like a big fish! But why, having tossed him into the river in the first place, had he now decided to rescue him?

  Within the space of half a second Peter noticed several things. Firstly – and inexplicably – he became aware of Kate right next to him, clutching at the rope and gasping for air. Then he grasped what the Tar Man was trying to do – he was struggling to free his hand from the rope that was tied so tightly around his wrist. Next he spotted Gideon, shirt clinging to his chest, clambering back into the boat from which he had been pushed by the Tar Man’s oar only a moment before Peter himself had been tossed overboard.

  A thought flashed through Peter’s
mind as he was propelled through the water. If the Tar Man was trying to untie the rope, surely that implied that he didn’t want to pull them in. On the other hand, if the Tar Man did not resist the pull of the rope, then he, too, would be dragged into the Thames by the same tidal current that was sweeping Kate and Peter towards London Bridge. But who had worked out that little scenario? And, for that matter, who had tied the rope? Gideon was in the water so it couldn’t have been him. And, come to that, how had Kate managed to fall into the river, unnoticed, at exactly the same spot? What on earth was going on?

  Now they were less than a man’s length from the boat. Then Peter saw Gideon stagger over to the Tar Man and grab hold of the twisted cotton rope. Together the two of them hauled Peter and Kate over the side, grasping at their elbows and knees and at their sodden clothes. For a few seconds all four of them sat panting at the bottom of the boat. Kate, alone, did not seem bewildered.

  Without warning Gideon leaped up, made his hand into a fist, and thumped the Tar Man hard enough on the jaw that he lost his balance and fell backwards, cracking his head on the edge of the wooden boat. Like a farmer getting ready to shear a sheep, Gideon turned the Tar Man over in one swift movement, knelt on his back, extracted his knife from its scabbard and threw it into the black water. Peter heard the splash as it hit the river.

  ‘Sit on his legs!’ Gideon cried to Peter and Kate. ‘This time he shall not escape us!’

  Peter and Kate did as they were told and shuffled along the bottom of the boat in their wet clothes, manoeuvring themselves onto the Tar Man’s white-stockinged calves.

  ‘Sir Richard is in an agony of pain,’ said Gideon between teeth clenched with the strain of pinning the Tar Man down. ‘’Tis not the first time I have seen you use that heartless trick and I know you have the secret to mend what you have broken. As you value your life, you will come back with me and attend to his arm.’

  The Tar Man’s face was pressed into the bottom of the boat but he managed to raise his face sufficiently to produce an indulgent laugh.

  ‘Ha! A single evening’s combat with me has taught you to raise your game. I admit I did not even feel you tie the rope around my hand. Just think what a week in my company would achieve. Why, Joe Carrick could use an extra footpad – I fancy you could make a tolerably good one—’

  Peter flashed Kate a look of surprise as Gideon smashed the Tar Man’s head against the boat’s floor. ‘I did not tie the rope around your hand. Agree to attend Sir Richard and I’ll agree not to throw you to the fishes, which is less than you deserve!’

  ‘I am not minded to tend your good Sir Richard. I fancy he can afford the services of a doctor, and I do not like to steal business from that honourable profession . . .’

  Gideon ground his knee into the Tar Man’s back causing him to expel his breath in a barely controlled cry. ‘And I am not minded to let you go before you do . . . It is your stock in trade. I’ll warrant the doctor who attends Sir Richard has never performed such a procedure in his life, whereas barely a month goes by without you putting some cove’s arm back in its socket – leastways, once he’s agreed to squeak on his fellows or has handed over the pickings. Sir Richard has shown me too much kindness for me to stand by while a doctor ruins his arm. No, you must do it. I ask you in the name of our dead mother who would be ashamed—’

  The Tar Man interrupted him with a growl and began to push the flat of his hands against the bottom of the boat, raising up his own mass, as well as that of Gideon and the children, off the damp wooden planks. Gideon bore frantically down on him but the Tar Man had slipped out from under the dead weight of three bodies and was already scrambling to his feet. Gideon followed suit and the two men stood, grappling with each other, causing the boat to list violently to one side and then the other. Peter and Kate exchanged desperate glances, pressing their bodies into the sides of the boat to avoid being trampled.

  ‘Stop! Both of you!’ screamed Kate in a sudden, shrill cry that echoed over the river. ‘There’s something you should both know!’

  Her tone was so urgent and convincing that the two brothers paused, still grasping each other’s biceps. The Tar Man turned his head and looked hard at Kate and, whatever it was that he saw in her eyes, he appeared all at once unnerved. She watched him put a hand to his cheek.

  ‘I know the secret code,’ she said.

  Peter turned to her. ‘How?’

  Kate glared at him. ‘I just know. Okay?’

  Peter nodded, furious with himself for opening his mouth.

  ‘You know the secret code that will allow me to return to the future?’ asked the Tar Man.

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Is this the truth?’

  ‘Do not judge her by your own standards. Mistress Kate is not a liar!’ exclaimed Gideon.

  ‘It’s not a lie,’ said Kate gently. ‘I swear. I know the secret code.’

  A shadow of a smile appeared on the Tar Man’s lips. ‘And so, Mistress Dyer, you have come to bargain with me?’

  Kate nodded. Peter looked at her in astonishment. His friend was full of surprises.

  ‘Let me guess the nature of your bargain. You will furnish me with the code if I will take you home?’

  ‘Yes,’ said Kate.

  ‘Agreed,’ replied the Tar Man.

  Kate turned to Gideon and Peter. ‘That was easy! Do you agree?’

  ‘Well . . . I . . . Yes!’ said Peter.

  Gideon slowly released the Tar Man’s arms and frowned. ‘I do not trust him. I agree to the terms if first he sets right Sir Richard’s arm.’

  The Tar Man looked up to heaven. ‘Agreed. I shall, however, keep possession of the machine on our arrival in the future.’

  Kate looked at the others.

  ‘I just want to get home,’ she said.

  ‘Me too,’ said Peter.

  Gideon nodded.

  ‘In which case,’ said the Tar Man to Gideon, ‘you had better return the key which you took from my mantelpiece . . .’

  Gideon put his hand to his side as if to take the key from his pocket but his face fell. ‘My jacket was too heavy in the water. Your key is at the bottom of the Thames.’

  Peter turned to Kate and whispered in her ear: ‘Did you tie the rope around the Tar Man’s hand?’

  Kate smiled at him innocently and shrugged her shoulders.

  They all agreed to meet at Sir Richard’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields at noon to discuss how they were to proceed. Grudgingly, the Tar Man returned to his house with Gideon, Peter and Kate. The driver was waiting at the door and, looking warily at the Tar Man, informed the party that a gentleman at St Paul’s coffee-house had recommended his own doctor whom he had delivered here but a moment ago. In the hall they passed the old gentleman and Parson Ledbury, both of them sound asleep on each other’s shoulders, the bottle of brandy still clasped in the Parson’s hand.

  ‘I am pleased to see your friends have made themselves comfortable in my house during my absence,’ commented the Tar Man.

  Gideon opened his mouth to comment on his brother’s notion of hospitality but thought the better of it. Peter looked over at Toby, still unconscious on his owner’s legs.

  A doctor, thin and stooped, and wearing a dusty black jacket, was at Sir Richard’s side. He was instructing Hannah to hold a bowl to catch the blood from the incision he had just made in his patient’s good arm. The Tar Man pulled the doctor to his feet and practically kicked him down the stairs, throwing a couple of gold coins after him to quell his complaints.

  ‘Get him to his feet,’ barked the Tar Man. ‘That way I can get sufficient purchase for the twist.’

  The Tar Man opened a cupboard in the corner of the room and brought out a bottle of brandy. Then he stooped over a basket of kindling by the fire and picked out a stout twig. He gave both to Hannah.

  ‘Let him have a swig of bingo then give him the gag to bite on. I can’t abide screaming.’

  So, wooden gag in mouth, brandy dripping down his chin, the trem
bling Sir Richard was heaved to his feet in the arms of his friends. The Tar Man grabbed hold of his arm, raised it to shoulder height, and started to manipulate it, getting a feeling for the precise position when he should turn and push. Satisfied at last, and ignoring the muffled cries of Sir Richard and the streams of cold sweat that ran down his face, the Tar Man took a deep breath and, with an explosive cry and a deft twist, forced the arm back into the shoulder socket. The resounding click announced that the arm was finally back in place. Sir Richard slumped to the floor. No one spoke for a long moment and the only sounds to be heard were the hiss of the fire and Sir Richard’s laboured breathing. The Tar Man went to his table, covered with jumbled artefacts, and stained with the Parson’s blood, and came back with an earthenware jar plugged with a cork, which he gave to Kate.

  ‘This will revive him. I shall take a turn to London Bridge. On my return I expect my house to be clear of all visitors.’ The Tar Man turned to Gideon. ‘I have done as you asked.’

  ‘I hope you do not expect my thanks.’

  ‘No, but I expect you to keep your side of the bargain.’

  ‘Do you doubt me?’

  The Tar Man made no reply but disappeared into the dark stairwell, leaving Sir Richard in the tender care of his friends. They heard a door shut downstairs. Peter walked over to the circular window and watched the Tar Man stroll down the street towards the river. Kate joined him at the window, holding the jar. Another peal of thunder rumbled over the city although the sky was still clear.

 
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