Time quake, p.25
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       TIME QUAKE, p.25

           Linda Buckley-Archer

  ‘So the streets aren’t teeming with them, then?’

  ‘No, Miss Stacey, and they never will be if we have anything to do with it. Now will you please tell us what he wanted to know.’

  Alice took a deep breath. ‘Lord Luxon wanted to know how to sabotage the Revolutionary War – so that Britain would emerge victorious and America would never win her independence.’

  Inspector Wheeler raised his bushy eyebrows. ‘You’re not serious! The man wants to win back America for Britain? He’s vain and foolish enough to have ambitions to overturn – all this?’ Inspector Wheeler gestured to Manhattan rising up all around them. ‘He’s mad!’ Inspector Wheeler observed Alice’s face, creased with foreboding. ‘Isn’t he?’

  ‘Does Lord Luxon have the means to travel back to 1776?’ asked Alice.

  ‘It’s a possibility – yes.’

  ‘Oh no . . .’

  The colour drained from Alice’s cheeks as the significance of Inspector Wheeler’s response sank in. Her three companions watched her in silence as she took some deep breaths to calm herself.

  ‘Let’s not lose our sense of perspective, eh, Miss Stacey?’ said Inspector Wheeler. ‘After all, how could one man change all of this? It defies belief, surely?’

  Alice looked at the policeman. ‘Do you know what he said the very first time I met him? He said that he would have ordered the British redcoats to trample our sainted General Washington into the dirt – and I thought he was joking! How was I to know he’d escaped from his own century? But Lord Luxon means to reclaim America for King George III. And the really terrifying thing is that – if he does what I suggested – I reckon he stands a pretty good chance of succeeding.’

  Alice’s speech wiped the smile off Inspector Wheeler’s face. He exchanged glances with Montfaron.

  ‘You see,’ continued Alice, ‘from the questions he’s been asking me, I believe that he plans to prevent Washington crossing the Delaware River on Christmas night 1776. It was a pivotal moment in the Revolutionary War. It is perfectly possible that a British victory at that point could have changed everything . . .’ Imitating Inspector Wheeler, she gestured to Manhattan rising up around them. ‘Would all of this still be here if Washington had failed? I don’t know the answer but I’d rather not find out.’

  Inspector Wheeler reflected for a moment. ‘Jumping to hasty conclusions isn’t going to help matters. We don’t yet know if the man we’re interested in and your friend are one and the same person. If he’s not, we’ll all feel very foolish . . .’

  ‘Or very relieved,’ said Alice.

  ‘Ay, well, that is why I’ve brought along young Tom here. He’s my witness. In 1763, Tom was Lord Luxon’s footman.’

  Alice looked in wonder at the scrawny, shy teenager. ‘And this gentleman?’

  ‘This, Miss Stacey, is the Marquis de Montfaron, formerly of Arras, who was in frequent attendance at the Court of Versailles on the eve of the French Revolution. He came to us from 1792. I’m no scholar, but even I have heard of many of his acquaintances – Rousseau, Diderot, Benjamin Franklin, Marie-Antoinette . . .’

  Alice’s eyes grew very round and shivers ran up and down her spine. She had no idea what to say. ‘Wow!’ was the only response that came to the young Princeton historian. ‘And I’m guessing I’m not allowed to write this up or talk to anyone about this encounter . . .’

  ‘No,’ said Inspector Wheeler bluntly. ‘But rest assured you wouldn’t do your career any good if you did.’

  Inspector Wheeler and Tom took up position close to the entrance of the roof terrace, on the lookout for Lord Luxon. Alice, meanwhile, begged for the opportunity to talk for as long as she could with the Marquis de Montfaron. She knew that in her career as a historian, no conversation in her life had or would come anywhere close to this one. She couldn’t even record it. Alice tried to clear her mind – she would soak up everything he said like a sponge. She would remember every precious word. The two of them stood in the mellow, evening light, silhouetted against the green of Central Park. Alice, her eyes alight, peered up at this tall progeny of the Enlightenment and question after question poured out of her, making her forget, at least for a few minutes, the trying circumstances of their meeting. And Montfaron, who had, all his life, put his faith in reason and knowledge in the hope that, one day, ignorance and evil would be erased from the earth, was more than happy to answer each one of them – and more. Soon Alice realised that, irrespective of which century he came from, she was in the presence of a remarkable man: one whose intellect was tempered with great heart, and whose bright, chestnut eyes displayed the depth of his curiosity about the universe as well as an unquenchable optimism. They were so wrapped up in their discussion, that neither noticed the cluster of redcoats gathering under a clump of trees below them, not a hundred yards from the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


  A Moving Target

  In which the Marquis de Montfaron tries to make

  Lord Luxon see reason and the Metropolitan

  Museum of Art witnesses a death

  As Alice listened to the Marquis de Montfaron speaking about the life that he had left, Central Park, the hum of distant traffic and the New York skyline all seemed to ebb away. Instead, Alice found herself in another century, on another continent – and she had no need of a time machine. Their all too brief conversation touched on the excesses of the Court of Versailles, Montfaron’s correspondence with the great minds of the Enlightenment and Benjamin Franklin’s odd taste in hats. When the Marquis mentioned that he happened to be travelling through Paris on 14th July, 1789, the same day that an angry mob stormed a prison called the Bastille, Alice’s excitement knew no bounds. The Marquis had witnessed the beginning of the French Revolution! She begged him to give her a flavour of that fateful day. The Marquis described the terrible clamour of the crowds, his own fear, and his wish that Rousseau or Diderot could have been there to help him understand what he saw, for he felt more at ease with the certainties of science than with the unpredictable nature of society. He was in the middle of describing the release of a handful of prisoners from the Bastille and how the people were intoxicated with the idea of liberty, when Inspector Wheeler grabbed hold of his arm.

  ‘He’s on his way, Miss Stacey,’ said Inspector Wheeler to Alice as he pulled the Marquis firmly away. ‘Tom has just confirmed that your Lord Luxon and his former employer are one and the same man. Proceed with caution: we’re counting on him to lead us to what we need to know.’

  Alice nodded. ‘I’m ready.’

  ‘We’ll be watching you closely,’ said Inspector Wheeler. ‘Signal if you need help . . .’

  Alice was back in the twenty-first century with a jolt. She watched the heads turn, as they always did, as Lord Luxon strolled slowly towards her with an effortless elegance acquired from a lifetime’s practice. She followed his blond head as he snaked through groups of people spread out on the terrace. They all seemed so happy: raising their glasses, laughing, enjoying their weekend. Alice’s rising panic caused her heart to thump in her chest. It occurred to her that if Lord Luxon had his way, this meeting on the roof garden of the Met could prove to be as pivotal a moment in the history of America as the storming of the Bastille had been a pivotal moment in the history of France. She had become a historian because she believed that it is only by understanding the past that we can understand the present. But how could she deal with a man who intended to change the past in order to create a present which was more to his liking? Oh, how she regretted helping Lord Luxon understand the significance of a tipping point. But it was too late for regrets. What she had to do now was to keep a clear head.

  Alice tried to compose her face into an agreeable expression. To stop her hands from trembling, she gripped the handrail of the viewing terrace, assumed as relaxed a posture as she could muster, and feigned taking in the superb view. As she turned to face him, a ray of sun blinded her so that, for an instant, Lord Luxon looked like th
e negative of a photograph, not human at all, and Alice went cold, as if a jagged fingernail had been drawn down her back.

  ‘Hi! How have you been?’ she asked.

  The breeze blew strands of gold hair across Lord Luxon’s forehead; he was wearing his shoulder-length locks loose today, and, as had become his habit in New York, he was dressed in shades of cream and ivory. A blood-red handkerchief had been artfully arranged in the chest pocket of his linen jacket. ‘Good evening, Alice,’ said the man who would snatch back America from its citizens. ‘A new T-shirt, I see.’

  ‘Oh . . . yes,’ said Alice, looking down at her T-shirt with its large, asymmetric spirals, white on black. ‘It’s one of Marcel Duchamp’s “Rotoreliefs”.’ She turned around. ‘Look, I’ve got one on my back, too.’

  ‘It makes you look like a moving target . . .’

  ‘Oh. That wasn’t actually my intention.’ Alice failed to disguise the tremble in her voice.

  Lord Luxon searched Alice’s face and she could not help turning away from his piercing stare. He reached into his pocket and drew out a postcard. ‘I was particularly happy to encounter this painting downstairs. See, I have purchased a memento of my visit.’

  Alice glanced at it and her grip tightened on the handrail.

  ‘Do you know it?’

  ‘“Washington Crossing the Delaware”. Of course. Every American child knows this painting.’

  ‘A stirring image – yet clearly painted by someone who had not witnessed the event . . . But then, our heroes owe as much to those who represent them as to the heroic acts themselves. Would you agree?’

  ‘You should have more faith in people. The world has produced some genuine heroes . . .’

  ‘You think me cynical?’

  ‘To put it mildly.’

  Lord Luxon laughed. Alice took some deep breaths and tried not to let her eyes wander towards Montfaron and Inspector Wheeler. She feared that she had given herself away for Lord Luxon directed his gaze more than once over to the incongruous pair who stood close to one of the large metallic sculptures that adorned the roof garden of the Met.

  ‘The view from here is sublime, although I am at a loss to understand why these objects have found a home here. Do you admire them, Alice?’

  ‘Yes, I like them – but, if it’s all the same to you, I’m not in the mood for a discussion on modern art.’

  Lord Luxon laughed. ‘Very well. If that topic of conversation holds no interest for Miss Stacey we shall move on to another. For example . . . I have lately been preoccupied with preparations for a short trip.’

  Alice felt her muscles tense. ‘Oh? Where are you headed?’

  Lord Luxon smiled benignly at her. ‘Trenton, New Jersey . . .’

  A police siren heading towards mid-town echoed over Central Park. Alice suddenly became intensely aware of the blood beating in her temples and for a moment she thought she was about to faint. Trenton! She found herself seeking out the reassuring figure of the Marquis de Montfaron and when he saw the fear in her eyes he immediately started towards her, motioning to Inspector Wheeler to let him go alone. No! she wanted to shout, I didn’t mean for you to . . . But it was too late. Lord Luxon had already spotted the Marquis.

  ‘Good evening, Miss Stacey,’ said the Marquis, kissing her hand.

  ‘May I present . . . Mr Montfaron,’ said Alice hesitantly and then, being at a loss to know what else to say, added: ‘He’s from France.’

  Lord Luxon inclined his head and eyed the tall man a little suspiciously. He seemed annoyed at the intrusion.

  ‘Can there be a finer prospect than this in all of America?’ said the Marquis de Montfaron to Lord Luxon with a sweeping bow. ‘Does not Central Park please you, sir? It is as if Nature herself has been imprisoned by artifice.’

  ‘It is a fine prospect, monsieur, although I prefer to see Manhattan from afar, rising up out of the ocean.’

  ‘Ah, yes,’ Montfaron replied. ‘It is always wise to put some distance between oneself and the object of one’s desire.’ Lord Luxon looked sharply at Montfaron who merely smiled back pleasantly. He continued: ‘A Manhattan sunset is a wonder to behold, is it not? Who would wish to change a single detail of it?’

  ‘Life is change, monsieur, change and movement – it is in the nature of things.’

  ‘Change is one thing,’ replied Montfaron. ‘Destruction is quite another . . . I suppose that you are aware of the phenomenon which recently took place in London?’

  ‘I heard tell of some curious occurrence . . .’

  ‘There were reports of ghosts and phantoms and a great roaring sound was heard all over the city as if the end of the world had come. Those with greater knowledge than I have called it a time quake. Nor was it the first. Rather these time quakes might be viewed as the first symptoms of a fatal disease. Who knows how long Time itself will be able to sustain the damage you are inflicting on it.’

  ‘I? Damage which I have been inflicting on the fabric of time?’ exclaimed Lord Luxon incredulously. He looked at the Frenchman. ‘Who the devil are you, sir?’

  ‘The same century witnessed our births and the same device transported us to the future,’ replied Montfaron. ‘I know of what I speak.’

  Alice was trying to take in what the Marquis had said. She put her hand to her mouth. ‘A time quake . . . ?’ she breathed. ‘And it was caused by Lord Luxon?’

  Lord Luxon made as if to leave but the Marquis grabbed hold of his arm.

  ‘Who would not wish to travel to different centuries if he could? But you must know that with each use of the device more parallel worlds are formed and the closer we all move to oblivion.’

  ‘What device?’ asked Alice.

  Lord Luxon shook Montfaron’s hand off his arm. ‘You talk in riddles, sir!’

  Montfaron pressed on: ‘Existence cannot be undone. To go back in time is to change time. Yet the universe will duplicate itself rather than permit a single second of existence to be destroyed. You, sir, have unwittingly created parallel worlds whose number defies belief—’

  ‘Parallel worlds!’ exclaimed Alice. ‘What are you talking about?’

  Lord Luxon drew out his handkerchief and waved it at Montfaron as if he were shooing away a fly.

  ‘Madam, this is not to be borne . . . I no longer care to listen to the ravings of this . . . Frenchman.’

  ‘But you must listen,’ said Montfaron. ‘For all depends on it! Understand that you are like a fox running through the forest with a burning torch tied to your tail. Soon everything will be burning, soon everything will be destroyed . . .’

  ‘Your affection for metaphor, sir, is tedious.’

  Montfaron paused for a moment and tried a different tack. ‘I beg of you, Lord Luxon, to see beyond this vainglorious ambition of winning back America . . .’

  Lord Luxon glared accusingly at Alice.

  ‘I am a man of reason as, I hope, are you,’ said Montfaron. ‘A man born into privilege as, I believe, were you. I ask you, as one gentleman to another, to surrender the anti-gravity machine – while you still have the opportunity to do so . . .’

  ‘Do not dare to threaten me, monsieur!’

  It was at that moment that Lord Luxon noticed a movement out of the corner of his eye and he turned to see Inspector Wheeler signalling to the Marquis de Montfaron. He looked back at Alice.

  ‘Oh, Alice,’ he said. ‘You disappoint me.’

  There was only one exit. Lord Luxon sprang forward through the crowds, heading for the elevators. As he drew level with Inspector Wheeler he shoved a large and bulky man at the policeman. They collided heavily and both men were floored.

  Momentarily taken aback, Alice now tore after Lord Luxon herself, keeping his blond mane in her sights and pushing through the good-humoured crowds, calling out apologies as she did so. But Lord Luxon’s head abruptly disappeared from view, and when she drew closer she saw that Tom – whom the Carrick brothers had at least taught how to disappear into a crowd – had put out his leg to
trip his former employer. This time it was Lord Luxon’s turn to find himself sprawled out on the floor. In a flash of recognition Lord Luxon snarled some unheard threat in Tom’s direction. Alice saw the look of fear on the boy’s face.

  Montfaron was tall enough to have seen what happened, too. ‘Bravo, Tom!’ he called over the heads of the crowd.

  Lord Luxon lay only feet away from one of the elevators whose doors were slowly closing. Alice put on a spurt, praying that Lord Luxon would not have time to get in. She lost sight of him for an instant and by the time she had reached the elevator the doors were barely a finger’s width apart. The gap was just wide enough for her eyes to meet those of Lord Luxon. He stared at her in cold fury and mouthed something at her which she did not understand. The doors clanged shut.

  Alice banged the flat of her hand repeatedly on the elevator button and searched the faces in the crowd for her companions. Tom had vanished once more but she glimpsed Montfaron helping Inspector Wheeler to his feet. He was holding his head and seemed dazed or winded or both. They’ll just have to follow when they can, she thought desperately. I mustn’t lose him. She pushed the button again and put her ear to the doors of the second elevator. Please, please, she thought, hurry up . . . A second later she heard the cranking of cables and a few seconds after that it arrived. The doors opened agonisingly slowly . . . Alice hurtled in and begged the lift attendant to wait for no one else. If he loved his country he should go immediately. She looked so desperate the attendant gave her the benefit of the doubt. ‘Yes, ma’am!’ he said. ‘Going down!’

  Had a large party of elderly art lovers from Oslo not chosen that precise moment to rise from their tables and leave the roof terrace en bloc, Alice would have had assistance sooner. As it was, the Norwegian seniors spilled out over the deck and clustered in a dense mass in front of the elevators. Tom, Montfaron and Inspector Wheeler were caught up in the cheerful morass of white-haired tourists likes seagulls in an oil slick.

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