Time quake, p.26
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       TIME QUAKE, p.26

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 
‘Let us through!’ barked Inspector Wheeler as the three of them pushed past frail shoulders in cardigans.

  When, at last, they emerged out of the elevator onto the first floor, Lord Luxon and Alice were nowhere to be seen. Inspector Wheeler could not disguise his exasperation. What he had envisaged as an initial meeting to identify a potential suspect had suddenly escalated – quite literally – into a race against time. The stakes were now so high it was dizzying. And he had blown it – there was no question of that. He contemplated ringing 911 for back-up. But then he conjectured that in the time it would take to get through to the right person, and to convince them that they should mobilise half the city’s police force, if necessary, to hunt down Lord Luxon, it would already be too late. And what could he tell them? The truth? No. It was not an option.

  ‘If he’s out of the building already, which I suspect he is,’ he said to Montfaron through gritted teeth, ‘then we’ve already lost him.’

  The three of them hurried towards the Great Hall, scanning the crowds for a glimpse of Lord Luxon’s blond hair or the target of Alice’s T-shirt. Pink-cheeked, and with sweat beading on his brow, Inspector Wheeler strode towards the main entrance like a bloodhound straining at the leash. He saw every plinth, every archway, every balustrade, every cluster of museum attendants, as a potential place of concealment in this desperate game of hide and seek. Finally they stood in the vast, galleried hall, the grand staircase on their left and the main entrance, leading to Fifth Avenue, on their right. Inspector Wheeler looked up at the balconies of the upper floor, at the lofty arches above, and at the rows of stone columns on all sides; he observed the people milling about around them and listened to footfall reverberating around the museum and to the muted babble of conversation. Had he left the building? Was Miss Stacey with him? Perhaps she was already dodging between the traffic, hailing a yellow cab in hot pursuit of Lord Luxon. He hoped so. She couldn’t do any worse than he had.

  ‘You and Tom stand guard here, I’m going to take a look in the street,’ the Inspector said to Montfaron as he walked outside past a gaggle of security guards.

  Tom and the Marquis de Montfaron circled the enquiry desk and then walked at a breathless pace through some of the nearby galleries, Tom often having to trot to keep up with the Marquis’s long legs. They were blind to the exquisite marble forms that graced the Greek sculpture court, to the armoured knights on horses and to the four-poster bed that Montfaron would have felt at home sleeping in. They returned after only a few minutes, somewhat disconsolately, to the Great Hall. It was then that Tom saw her. Tom put his hand on Montfaron’s arm and pointed up to the balcony. Alice was leaning over the broad balustrade on the left of the hall, somewhere above the Greek and Roman galleries, still searching the labyrinthine museum for any sign of Lord Luxon.

  ‘Wait here for Inspector Wheeler while I fetch Miss Stacey,’ Montfaron told Tom. ‘If he comes back, tell the Inspector where I have gone.’

  Tom watched Montfaron hurry towards the grand staircase and then looked to see if there was any sign of Inspector Wheeler. There was not. Tom stood self-consciously in one corner of the Grand Hall, a small and lonely figure, and he put his hand in his pocket, wishing that his mouse was here with him and not in a farmhouse in Derbyshire. But when he looked back up at Alice, he started with shock for he saw someone standing behind her, hands poised above her shoulders . . . Tom immediately bolted towards the stairs.

  Lord Luxon stood so close that she could feel his warm breath on the nape of her neck. Alice spun around and Lord Luxon gripped her shoulders. She stared into his blue eyes. He shook his head disapprovingly. Alice’s legs refused to move.

  ‘Now, Alice, you are going to atone for what you have done by escorting me through your guards at the door,’ he said.

  Alice tried not to show her confusion. Then all at once she understood. He must mean the security guards at the entrance! He thinks they are ours! Alice’s hopes rose a little. ‘I’ll help you if you tell me what you’re planning to do at Trenton . . .’

  ‘Surely I do not need to tell you! Your advice has been invaluable – it grieves me that I cannot repay my debt . . .’

  ‘You cannot seriously be tempted to sabotage the Revolutionary War . . . you’re an intelligent man – this is absurd . . .’

  ‘You disappoint me,’ he said in a flat voice. ‘Does not the rewriting of history fuel your scholar’s ardour? I had hoped you possessed more imagination.’

  ‘Please – you mustn’t do this! How can you think of destroying a single second of history, let alone a couple of centuries?’

  ‘Is it not what all historians would desire to do – to lay out the past on the floor, see the patterns, move the pieces, rearrange it in a manner more pleasing to them?’

  ‘No! How can you even contemplate playing God like this? It’s . . . it’s obscene!’

  ‘It seems that you wish to study life, Alice, whilst I wish to live it.’

  ‘You tricked me into betraying my country!’

  Lord Luxon put a single finger to Alice’s lips. ‘The time is past for remorse. I am about to rescue America from itself. Soon I—’

  But then Lord Luxon let out a strangulated cry and Alice watched, bewildered, as he fell backwards. The Marquis de Montfaron’s elbow tightened around his neck. Crying out with the effort of it, Montfaron managed to heave Lord Luxon away from Alice and forced him backwards until he was pinned down across the wide stone balustrade. Montfaron pressed all his weight against Luxon’s chest.

  ‘Aaaagh! Call off your Frenchman, Alice! He is breaking my back!’

  Lord Luxon struck Montfaron’s back repeatedly with his one free hand and kicked furiously with his legs.

  ‘What can I do to help?’ cried Alice.

  Lord Luxon strained against Montfaron. ‘Do you have something to tie his wrists?’ panted the Marquis.

  ‘My belt!’ exclaimed Alice, already unbuckling it.

  People on the opposite balcony started to point and shout. One of the security guards downstairs began to run towards the stairs. Montfaron pushed hard against Lord Luxon’s shoulders. ‘If you behave well, monsieur,’ he panted, ‘you may be permitted to return to your own century. But know that you have failed in your quest.’

  Alice held out her belt for Montfaron. But the moment he relaxed his pressure Lord Luxon managed to bring up his knees and thrust the Marquis to one side so that he lost his balance and toppled forwards onto the balustrade. For once his height was against him: in one swift movement, Lord Luxon dived at his legs and swung them, too, over the balustrade. The Marquis de Montfaron dropped the twenty-five feet to the ground like a stone, without uttering a single sound. When his body crashed onto the marble floor, far below, there was a dull and sickening thud that resounded around the museum. Alice and Tom stared, dumbstruck, from the balcony. For the briefest of moments a profound silence descended on the cavernous space as if it were in the eye of a storm. Then, all at once, the museum was filled with screams and it seemed that everyone was running across the Great Hall.

  Along with dozens of others, Lord Luxon hurried down the stairs, asking everyone he encountered what could possibly have happened. What was the commotion about? With all attention elsewhere, Lord Luxon managed to walk calmly out of the main doors, unnoticed even by Inspector Wheeler who, on re-entering the museum, had been attracted by the screams. Once on the street Lord Luxon smoothed down his hair and walked smartly up Fifth Avenue and into Central Park where, a hundred yards away, he spied the red jackets of Sergeant Thomas and his men. When Lord Luxon reached them they formed a tight circle into which he stepped.

  ‘We leave immediately for Trenton,’ said Lord Luxon. ‘My historian has disturbed a hornet’s nest of those who would stop us.’

  Inspector Wheeler ran to the circle of onlookers. Some people had hands over their mouths, some were crying, others just stood, staring at the floor in shock. He heard a security guard call for the emergency services. As Inspector Wheeler edged forw
ards he was overcome by a terrible foreboding. He looked over someone’s shoulder to see who it was.

  The Marquis de Montfaron’s eyes stared blankly ahead and a trickle of blood dripped from the corner of his mouth onto the marble floor. His elegant fingers twitched for a moment and then lay still.

  Inspector Wheeler uttered a terrible cry. ‘Montfaron! . . . Oh no . . .’

  People stood to one side to let the Inspector through. He knelt down next to Montfaron’s lifeless body. The policeman reached down and closed his friend’s bright, chestnut eyes for the last time. Then he took off his jacket and placed it over his head and shoulders. How could this gentle soul, this man of reason, who believed in the ultimate goodness of man, be dead? What had happened? Inspector Wheeler buried his face in his hands. When he looked up he found that Tom and Alice were kneeling next to him. Tears flooded down Alice’s face.

  ‘Was this Lord Luxon’s doing?’ asked Inspector Wheeler.

  Alice nodded.

  ‘Where is he?’

  Both Alice and Tom shook their heads.

  ‘This is all my fault . . .’ said Alice.

  Inspector Wheeler put his hand over hers. ‘You were a pawn in his game. How were you to know? If anyone’s to blame it’s me. I underestimated him . . .’

  Sirens in the street announced the arrival of the police and an ambulance.

  ‘Who can stop Lord Luxon now?’ asked Tom.

  Inspector Wheeler could only shake his head in despair as he wept for the loss of his extraordinary friend.

  Inspector Wheeler telephoned the Dyer farmhouse with the tragic news. Still numb with shock after hearing of the Marquis de Montfaron’s death, Dr Pirretti and Dr Dyer went straight back to work on the anti-gravity machine.

  ‘But how can you concentrate at a time like this?’ asked Mrs Dyer.

  ‘Easy – it’s the only way to stop me thinking about the consequences of failing . . .’ her husband replied.

  Meanwhile, Tom left a message on Anjali’s answering machine in Canary Wharf. An hour later a text came through from her:

  C U @ Heathrow. Sorry about your news. Was in Harrods yesterday. Saw cute mouse cage. Let’s U & me go buy it. Ax

  CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

  The Tipping Point

  In which George Washington prepares to cross

  the Delaware on Christmas night and

  encounters an unexpected enemy

  Sergeant Thomas did not relish the role of spy. He relished even less the role of assassin. Nevertheless, he wore the uniform of the enemy and joined in the fighting talk of the men and the ribald insults aimed at King George and the British army, although he tugged repeatedly at the collar of his jacket as if his lies would choke him. In order to avoid arousing suspicion, Sergeant Thomas and one of his lads, Corporal Starling, who was almost as reliable a marksman as he was himself, had separated. They now found themselves at opposite ends of the columns of men. The corporal was under instructions to target Colonel Henry Knox, whose powerful voice Sergeant Thomas had heard rising above the coming storm. The plan was a simple one: Washington and Knox were to be shot simultaneously when the boat transporting the General was a third of the way across the river – near enough for Sergeant Thomas to get a good shot, yet deep enough into the icy waters to prevent an easy escape should the first shot not find its mark.

  Sergeant Thomas’s stolen uniform was as ripped and muddy as those of his battle-soiled comrades. Many of the men who surrounded him were poorly shod, including the determinedly cheerful blacksmith on his left, who was forever stopping to fasten the rags he had tied around his swollen and bleeding feet. Sergeant Thomas, however, was not prepared to do without shoes, for he knew what conditions lay ahead. This settled weather would not last for long.

  It had been around four o’ clock in the afternoon that General Washington, two thousand four hundred men and a couple of hundred horse set off from New Town. Now, as they marched along snowy roads towards the Delaware River and McKonkey’s Ferry, the setting sun tinged the wintry landscape red and for a while the rim of the horizon glowed as if it were on fire. The American Patriots had fear in their hearts, as well they might, embarking on a secret mission and facing an army that was larger, better equipped and better disciplined than their own. Yet Sergeant Thomas envied them more than a little, for they did not trudge through this snow because they had been forced to, nor because, like him, they were career soldiers or mercenaries. Rather, they were here because they had chosen to be here. They were here to fight for their rights and their freedoms and a cause they believed in. Sergeant Thomas did not understand the politics of it all, nor did he seek to, for in his experience of life there were always several sides to any argument. But he recognised that they fought with a purpose and with a passion that had not been laid on them by their superiors. They had seen defeat after defeat; the superior British forces had chased them across New Jersey; they had seen their numbers drastically depleted. The Patriot cause was on the brink of failure. Nevertheless, this night each one of them was prepared to follow their general whose watchword was Victory or Death!

  All around him, men kept up their morale by reciting Thomas Paine’s words. How ironic it was, thought Sergeant Thomas, that it was an Englishman who incited the colonists to rise up against his own monarch, against his own country. But now that he had seen with his own eyes how powerful a nation America would become on the world’s stage, he could understand why Lord Luxon wished to tip the scales in Britain’s favour. The stakes were of the highest order.

  The foot soldiers who surrounded him had committed Paine’s stirring lines to memory, and repeated them so often in the darkening gloom that they rang ceaselessly in Sergeant Thomas’s ears like a refrain:

  These are the times that try men’s souls . . . Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph . . .

  Sergeant Thomas distrusted peddlers of words. Before every battle, every campaign, the officers would practise their rhetoric on the men. Like the Pied Piper, those with mastery over words could inflame passions and incite violence and make men follow them, irrespective of the truth of what they said. Give me the plain honest talk of an inarticulate man, he thought, over any number of Thomas Paines. Words are deadlier than any weapon.

  As dusk fell, Sergeant Thomas caught sight of George Washington riding ahead of them on his chestnut horse, an erect figure in a billowing cape, his resplendent uniform contrasting starkly with the tattered rags that covered his men. The General brought his mount to a halt and turned around to look at the columns of soldiers marching towards the Delaware. There was resolve and determination on the face of the colonial rebel. It suddenly seemed to Sergeant Thomas that Washington’s stare hovered over him, as if he had pierced his disguise, and he turned away, unsettled. When the time comes I shall look the General square in the face, Sergeant Thomas told himself. He shall not doubt who has fired the shot. But I shall not look on him now, not until I have to.

  The column came to a halt, as happened very frequently, though he could rarely see the cause of it. The men fell to talking quietly between themselves. Thick clouds had gathered overhead and it was beginning to spit with rain. The blacksmith turned to look at Sergeant Thomas with what little light remained of Christmas Day.

  ‘Will you sign up to fight beyond the New Year, as General Washington would have us do?’

  ‘I am committed to following General Washington until he draws his final breath,’ Sergeant Thomas replied.

  ‘Then let us hope your service will be a long one! As for me, I am torn. My wife and children have already endured more than a man can ask of them. Without my labours to provide for them, how can they eat? How can they tolerate this bitter cold?’

  The large-framed man patted his chest pocket, pulled out a folded letter and immediately pushed back the precious document to protect it from the rain.

  ‘My wife begs me to return. Our youn
gest is sick. Yet how can I refuse General Washington’s call? Do you have a family? Must you also choose between your loved ones and your country?’

  Sergeant Thomas had fought on two continents for more years than he cared to remember and, to him, all soldiers from any country were alike, pawns in their masters’ game. If he encountered this blacksmith on the battlefield he would skewer him with his bayonet without hesitation. It was the way things were.

  He patted the man’s back. ‘I am truly sorry to hear about your child. No. I have no family. My life is my own to lose . . .’

  ‘A man should have children,’ said the other. ‘I have eight. Five boys and three girls. When I first came to Virginia, twenty years ago and more, I vowed I should give my family a better life than my parents had been able to give me. It has not always been easy but I’ve reaped the rewards of my labours. This country has been good to us. I fear what will happen if we lose this war.’

  The blacksmith put Sergeant Thomas in mind of the Irishman, Michael, in his air-conditioned SoHo bar, who was forever showing him photos of his family and urging him to settle in America where if you worked hard anything was possible. Two and half centuries later it would be a different world but in that way, at least, things had not changed.

  ‘Why do you smile?’

  ‘’Tis nothing,’ replied Sergeant Thomas. ‘A memory, that is all . . .’

  Sergeant Thomas fell silent and the blacksmith did not interrupt his thoughts. Presently the columns of men started to move off again and Sergeant Thomas looked up at the sky and the mass of ominous black clouds moving towards them from the north-east.

  By eleven o’clock the wind was whipping into a hurricane and driving sleet stung the cheeks of Lord Luxon and William. The two men were disguised as farmers, with scarves tied around their heads to prevent their hats blowing away. It was an attire that appealed little to Lord Luxon. But even he was too preoccupied to think much about appearances that night. The wind roared through the branches overhead, and blew so hard they struggled at times to keep upright.

 
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