Time quake, p.7
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       TIME QUAKE, p.7

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  ‘I believe you have urgent business elsewhere, Mr O’ Donnell.’

  ‘Yes, Master Blueskin, indeed I do.’ The tall, turbaned figure sidled off as quickly as he could without breaking into a run.

  The Tar Man dragged Kate backwards into the fortune-teller’s tent. The woman, still shaken from her sighting of Kate, was sitting at a small table and drinking gin from a pewter mug. She looked up expectantly, composing her face into a pleasant smile for her latest customer. The smile withered on her face.

  ‘I’ll thank you to hold your tongue, madam,’ said the Tar Man, holding the struggling Kate in one hand and the point of his knife to the woman’s throat with the other. The woman looked from Kate to her attacker and back again and an expression of such abject terror came to her face that even the Tar Man was taken aback. She pointed a trembling finger towards them and then made a curious sign in the air that Kate could not decipher.

  ‘The Oracle!’ she breathed.

  The woman’s face had turned ash-grey and an instant later she fainted clean away, her head landing with a thump on the table. The Tar Man, who was accustomed to his victims using all manner of ruses to escape his clutches, instinctively questioned the authenticity of the woman’s fainting fit. He therefore pushed at the woman’s chair with the sole of one foot and continued to lever it over until the laws of gravity caused the woman to collapse out of it like a sack of potatoes onto the hard ground. Kate winced as she heard the woman’s head knock against a table leg.

  ‘Oracle?’ the Tar Man repeated. ‘What did the wench mean?’ It was a rhetorical question given that his hand was still clamped over Kate’s mouth. He kicked out at the woman’s back, without any particular relish, to confirm her unconscious state before diverting his attention back to the matter at hand.

  He leaned over, picked up the fortune-teller’s chair and pushed Kate into it. He stood looming over her. Kate managed to return the searchlight of his gaze for only a few seconds. She looked away but could still feel his eyes burning into her. The Tar Man’s presence was powerful, knowing, unpredictable . . . Joe Carrick, the vicious leader of the gang of footpads, had terrified her, too, in the same way that a mad dog would, but at least she had the measure of him. With the Tar Man she felt that she was floundering out of her depth. Gideon’s words came back to her. I suppose he is fearless because he has faced the worst a man can face and still survived. Most rogues’ hearts are not completely black but his heart is buried so deep I doubt it will ever see the light of day . . . Beware of him, children, he is always two steps ahead of you while appearing to be two steps behind . Surely he and Gideon couldn’t be brothers, could they?

  Why was the Tar Man just standing there, looking at her without saying anything? Kate stared fixedly at her lap, steeling herself for whatever was about to happen. She would be brave. Or at least she would try. A dog barked outside the tent and, for one blissful second, she convinced herself that it was Molly, and that her dad had travelled across time to rescue her. But it was not to be. She was alone, where none of her friends would think to look for her, with Lord Luxon’s wicked henchman, who did not care if she lived or died. Who could help her now?

  Finally the Tar Man broke his silence. ‘I have grown fond of your century, Mistress Dyer,’ he said in a half-whisper, too close to Kate’s face. ‘I had a secret that was the envy of every villain in London. A secret that you and I share, do we not? Each morning I arose to look out over a world where anything was possible. I am not a man inclined to fancy, but in truth, I often travel back, in my mind’s eye, to my home high above the Thames with all of that other London laid out before me for the taking; I ride in my airborne carriages and fly wherever my desire takes me over land and sea; and sometimes I like to recall the expression on young Tom’s face when first he witnessed me fading back into my own time—’

  Kate forgot her fear for a moment. ‘Tom! Tom who was with the Carrick Gang?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Tom is in the twenty-first century?’

  ‘Was. He died there.’

  ‘Oh no! Not Tom . . .’ Tears pricked at Kate’s eyes but she blinked them back. ‘But how?’

  ‘On account of a reckless girl of whom he was overly fond . . . He allowed sentiment to rule his actions.’

  The Tar Man paused for a moment, and the frown between his black eyebrows deepened. Kate risked snatching a glance up at him and she wondered what thought was going through his mind. He exhaled heavily and looked at her again.

  ‘And so, in short, I am bent on returning to the century which is now also my own, and, I assure you, I shall balk at nothing until I succeed. Moreover, I desire you, Mistress Dyer, to help me in that resolve.’

  ‘How am I supposed to do that?’ Kate exclaimed. ‘I don’t know how to get back! If I did I’d be there already!’

  The Tar Man replied in a voice so low and silky Kate had to strain to hear. ‘But you forget that I have the means to return. The machine is in my possession. It could take both of us home.’

  Kate scrutinised the Tar Man. She did not trust him for a second.

  ‘So . . . what do you want me to do?’

  ‘Your father built the machine, did he not? With the handsome Dr Pirretti? You were no doubt privy to certain information. I want you to tell me the secret code.’

  ‘But I don’t know it!’

  The Tar Man put his hands on the arms of the chair and lowered his face towards hers so that she could see every pore of his weather-beaten skin.

  ‘You do know it,’ he growled. ‘Why else would you and your friends come after me like hounds after a fox? You want my machine! But as you can see, I am not about to let you have it! Don’t act the fool, Mistress Dyer! I’ll warrant you wish to return to the future even more badly than I! Would not your parents be overjoyed to see you once more? Tell me the code!’

  ‘I can’t! We were going to worry about finding the code once we’d got back the machine!’

  ‘You lie!’ he shouted, so loudly that Kate jumped involuntarily. ‘Tell me!’

  Then the Tar Man seemed to lose all self-restraint. Never had she seen him in such a passion. He drew his knife from his belt and pushed her roughly forward. Kate felt him untie the cord that bound her wrists. He took hold of her left arm, forcing her elbow open and laying out her hand flat on the table, splaying out all her fingers. He clenched the knife and the fearsome blade hovered an inch above her trembling knuckles.

  ‘You have five chances until I start on your writing hand!’

  Kate was so terrified she could not focus, she could not breathe, she could not speak.

  ‘Tell me the code!’ he bellowed.

  There was an unbearable pause whilst every sinew in the Tar Man’s arm tightened as he gripped the knife in his clenched fist. Kate’s tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. She felt the hysteria rise up inside her. The blood seemed to roar in her temples. The blade was pressing into her skin! She felt something trickle down her finger! He was going to do it! She hit out at him uselessly with her free hand. The monster was actually going to cut her fingers off one by one! Suddenly the words exploded from her throat.

  ‘I don’t know! I don’t know! I don’t know!’ she shrieked.

  The Tar Man stood back and observed Kate’s face dispassionately, like a doctor searching for symptoms. He was perfectly calm.

  ‘No,’ he said matter-of-factly. ‘It appears that you do not.’

  The Tar Man lowered his knife and paced up and down for a moment, deep in thought. The adrenaline still pumping through her veins, Kate did not know what to do with herself. She sat panting and trembling and was conscious of her face screwing up into weird shapes as she refused to give in to tears. She squinted at her finger, half-expecting to see it hanging on by a thread, but, in fact, her tormentor had not even drawn blood. He had not needed to. Her own fear had invented the nick in her skin . . . A surge of anger boiled up inside her. But if he’d been convinced that she did know the code, would he have cut he
r finger off, then? Yes, she thought, the Tar Man would not have hesitated for an instant.

  ‘No matter,’ said the Tar Man, still pacing. ‘’Tis a pity. But your father will not refuse me when the time is right . . . And now, Mistress Dyer, please be so kind as to remove your shoes.’

  ‘What?!’

  ‘I desire your trainers. You could not, in any case, call them dainty slippers. You would do well to choose more elegant attire.’

  While Kate merely sat bewildered and motionless, the Tar Man grabbed hold of her ankles and pulled at the heels of her trainers. They both dropped to the floor. For a brief moment he paused and looked quizzically at Kate’s flesh and then, holding out his hand, compared it to his own. He made no comment, however, and began to push the trainers into his jacket pockets. Kate closed her eyes. Was he going to cut her toes off now? She wished she could faint away like the gypsy woman, and escape into another world where he could not get at her. And when she opened her eyes again Kate found that, in a way, her wish had been granted.

  Kate sat down in a heap on the back of an open wagon to nurse her feet which were sore and bleeding after walking barefoot for so long. Newgate Lane – and her friends – were proving difficult to find. She glanced around her at this sterile world scattered with living statues. In spite of her mind telling her that it was the accelerated speed at which she was passing through time that accounted for this state of affairs, Kate still had the impression that some terrible sorceress has passed through the world, blasting all living creatures with her wand and turning them to stone. Next to her, just passing by, was a young lad, younger even than her brother Sam. She guessed that he was a link-boy, hired by the middle-aged couple who walked at his side to light their way through the dark streets. No doubt they were headed for the fair. The man was dour-faced, while the woman – his wife, Kate supposed – wore a shapeless grey dress, and her thin lips were parted, as if she were about to speak. The boy’s flaming torch lit up their lined faces and cast a glow on the inside of the wagon. Kate had thought her resting place was empty; now she could see that it was not. The driver of the wagon was nowhere to be seen but a small child, probably a girl, although it was difficult to be sure, lay curled on top of a bulging sack of grain in the corner of the wagon. Her hair tumbled over her face in soft, golden ringlets and she sucked her plump fingers. Kate reached out to stroke the child’s cheek but her flesh felt cool and hard, not like living flesh at all.

  Kate was not enjoying this practical lesson in relativity. Sighing heavily, she turned her attention to her feet. Why hadn’t she made more of an effort to retrieve her trainers from the Tar Man’s pockets? But objects were difficult to handle when she was moving so quickly. Everything seemed to resist her touch. Even sounds were now increasingly transformed into a low-pitched, ambient noise which her brain swiftly blanked out. It was on account of this that she was beginning to suspect that with each succeeding episode of fast-forwarding she was moving through the world at greater and greater speeds.

  She had not been conscious of treading on anything sharp but when she examined the sole of her left foot she saw that it was split near the heel and dirt was becoming engrained in the wound. Kate decided to ignore it. The cut was not going to kill her and there was no point trying to wash it as water behaved entirely differently when she was moving at this speed. She jumped down off the wagon, a little tired and disheartened, and stuck her face right in front of the dreary couple.

  ‘I’m looking for my friends – you wouldn’t happen to know where Newgate Lane is, would you? No? I had a feeling you might not be able to help me.’ Kate tugged at the woman’s bonnet and managed to adjust it to a more flattering angle. Then she brushed some dust off the man’s jacket. ‘New in town, are you? I’m sure you’ll both have a lovely time at Bartholomew’s Fair – but if I were you I should avoid the fortune-teller’s tent . . .’

  I bet I’m walking in the wrong direction, Kate said to herself as she turned into the yawning darkness of yet another nameless street. Unlike the forest of giant shop signs all over London, she now realised that road signs were very few and far between. She could understand why Hannah always gave directions in terms of the shops that she knew. So instead of telling her, for instance, that she would find a good chop house on the corner of Shoe Lane and Fleet Street, she would say ‘look for it between the Cheshire Cheese and the sign of the Leg of Mutton opposite the apothecary’. But Hannah was not here to help her and as she made her way through the dark, winding streets, Kate realised that she was fast losing her bearings. She was on the point of retracing her steps when she spotted, at some little distance, an athletic figure hurtling towards her. Her heart leaped. Frozen in time and yet evoking the very essence of speed, Gideon was running at full tilt. His hair had come loose from his ponytail and was flying behind him in blond ripples. He was looking over his shoulder at Peter who stood, some twenty paces behind, doubled up in pain, panting like a dog with sweat pouring off him. Her friend clearly could not keep up with Gideon.

  ‘Gideon!’ Kate exclaimed joyfully. ‘Peter!’

  She started to run towards them and, when she reached Gideon, she smiled up at him and gently touched his arm. As she suspected, nothing happened, so she continued running towards Peter. As she drew nearer, she saw that Peter’s face was scrunched up in pain and that his fingers were clasped to his side. She could not help laughing. ‘So much for me not being fit enough to keep up with Gideon!’

  Kate looked around her at the eerie scene and slowly moved her hand towards Peter. She braced herself for that moment of violent rupture when the living universe broke back into her vacuum-like world.

  ‘Do you know that you’re my guardian angel?’ she said to him. ‘I don’t understand why – but you’re the only one who can bring me back.’

  When the tips of her fingers were but a hair’s breadth from Peter’s arm, something made her draw her hand back. A thought burst inside her head like a bubble. I should have tied him up before I left! Kate pictured the Tar Man standing inside the fortune-teller’s tent looking in amazement at the empty chair where, an instant before, she had been sitting. In another instant he would be out of the tent and would disappear into the heaving mass of people at the fair. What an idiot I am! He’ll get away before Gideon can reach him! But then, without warning, another image crowded into her mind with such force that the rest of the world seemed to vanish.

  Kate saw Peter at the top of a tall building, a tower perhaps, or a church, she could not tell. He was silhouetted against storm clouds and buffeted by a powerful wind. Below him modern London – although not a London she totally recognised – stretched out towards a misty horizon. Something was badly wrong. Peter was crying out in anguish and hitting his fists against a stone balustrade. Stop it! Kate shouted at him. You’ll break your knuckles! But he could not hear her. The image faded slowly yet lurid echoes of the vision kept coming back at her. What had she seen? What could have made Peter so upset? She was left shaken and afraid. She stood for a while, not quite knowing what to do next. It was a waking dream, she told herself. It was nothing. But she instinctively knew that it wasn’t a dream. If memories conjure up the past, these half-formed, will-o’-the-wisp apparitions brought the future momentarily to life. The night they arrived in the Marquis de Montfaron’s chateau she had foreseen Peter being reunited with his mother at the farmhouse. That had come to pass. Would this, too? And was this a possible future, she wondered, or a definite one? Was the future as immoveable as the past, or were both now up for grabs?

  Her hand still hovered above Peter’s arm and she longed to grasp it and to return to the comfort of being with her friends. She stared at her friend’s face and forced herself to think of the consequences of giving in to the impulse. If she did not stop the Tar Man from getting away they might not get another chance to catch him. It was up to her. No one would blame her if she bottled out – except herself. Kate lowered her arm and turned resignedly back towards Bartholomew’s Fair.
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br />   As she walked along she found that her thoughts kept turning to what the Tar Man had said about Tom. She recalled his small, heart-shaped face and his troubled eyes as he stared down at her from the boughs of the great oak tree the day that the Carrick Gang had attacked them. Poor Tom. To have escaped the clutches of Joe Carrick only to be dragged off to a future century where his master had let him die – no doubt alone and with nobody to lay flowers on his grave. She wondered about the reckless girl of whom the Tar Man had spoken. Kate hoped that at least she had been a friend to Tom . . .

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  Anjali Does the Right Thing

  In which Anjali has cause to be grateful

  and a small domestic pet does its duty

  The staff nurse walked through the ground-floor annexe wearing a waterproof apron over her dark blue uniform. A towel was draped over one plump and freckled arm and she carried a stainless steel kidney dish containing a hypodermic syringe. Her plastic apron squeaked with every step. The nurse stopped to dim the lights and then closed the glass door firmly behind her. Then she walked briskly up the corridor, all shiny linoleum and harsh fluorescent lighting, and disappeared around the corner. She waited for a moment, her cheek resting on the wall, out of sight, listening hard. Presently she heard the click of the door opening and shutting again. The nurse hurried to her office where she threw down what she was carrying and tore off her apron.

  Now she retraced her steps, cautiously opened the door and crept noiselessly into the ward. She stood in the shadows, observing the slight figure leaning over the freshly made bed. The girl’s short black hair had a blue sheen to it. She had a small rucksack strapped to her back that was decorated with badges and metallic beads. The fingers that held the boy’s cool, unresponsive hands in hers were covered in silver rings. The nurse drew closer and reached out as if to tap the girl’s shoulder. She changed her mind and her hand dropped back to her side.

 
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