A chase in time, p.4
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       A Chase in Time, p.4

           Sally Nicholls
 
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  Dora cast an agonised look at Alex.

  “But you can’t!” she said, before Alex could stop her.

  The man who looked like a butler opened the passenger door and got out of the car. The other man’s face still looked vaguely irritated, but the butler’s face had a sudden air of menace, which alarmed Alex. For the first time since they’d arrived, he was afraid.

  “And why not?” said the butler.

  “Um,” said Alex. “No reason. Of course you can go. The girls are just being silly – we’re playing a game. Come on, Ruby, let’s leave them alone.”

  The man in the straw hat looked relieved.

  “That’s right,” he said. “Very funny. Let me get in my car, will you?”

  “But we can’t!” said Dora. She stamped her foot. “We can’t let them go! They’ve got Uncle Atherton’s Cup!”

  There was an awful silence. Ruby and Alex glared at Dora. The man in the straw hat glanced at the man who looked like a butler, who shut the car door with a meaningful clunk and moved, slowly and deliberately, round to stand behind the children.

  “What did you just say?” he said.

  “Nothing!” said Alex. He grabbed Dora’s wrist. “She said you’ve got her uncle up! Yes! Up – er – upset! He gets very upset with people who don’t give to charity, doesn’t he, Dora? Why don’t we go away now and ask some other people for donations, rather than waste time with these people? I’m sure they’ve got other things they ought to be doing.”

  Ruby gave him an uncertain look.

  The man in the straw hat said, “Giles!”

  The man who looked like a butler, who was probably Giles, said, “Yes, sir,” rather meaningfully. He put his hand on Ruby’s shoulder. “What’s your game then?” he said. “Trying to delay us, are you? You haven’t called the police, have you, or anything like that?”

  “Yes, we have!” said Dora. “And we’ve told them exactly where you’re staying, and who you are, and that we were coming to stop you! So if you try and do anything to us, they’ll know it was you, and they’ll come after you!”

  The younger man glanced at Giles, who shook his head.

  “I doubt it, sir,” he said. “Can’t see the police letting some kids come after a pair of dangerous criminals on their own. I expect she sent someone to find her uncle, that’s all.”

  He put his hand in his trouser pocket and pulled out a piece of wood, wrapped in leather, about thirty centimetres long. He held it in one hand and began to tap it, slowly and threateningly against the other. It was, very clearly, a weapon.

  “Would you like me to take care of it, sir?” he said.

  CHAPTER SIX

  “Venomous snakes are nothing on this.”

  Alex had read quite a lot of books with fights in them. He’d even been to judo class – once – with his friend Oliver, but he’d found it hard to take it seriously. The white pyjamas everyone had to wear had just made him want to giggle.

  He was rather ashamed, therefore, of how quickly the fight with the two men was over. Giles had simply put his arms around Ruby, lifted her up, and carried her kicking and yelling into the coach house, where he shut the door and pulled the bolt across. Alex had run after him to unbolt the door, and the same thing had happened to him; he’d been lifted up and unceremoniously dumped inside beside Ruby. For a butler, Giles was pretty strong.

  Dora, meanwhile, had bolted in the direction of the big house, yelling at the top of her voice, “Help! Help! We’re being kidnapped!”

  Unfortunately, to get to the big house you had to go through a gate, which was locked, and while Dora was climbing over it, the man in the straw hat had managed to grab her and drag her backwards. Dora continued yelling, but this gave her rather less breath to fight with, and it wasn’t difficult even for the man in the straw hat – who wasn’t particularly athletic-looking – to overpower her. Ruby had nearly managed to escape when he opened the door to push Dora in, but both men were now outside, and they forced the door shut easily enough. Then the children heard a bolt being drawn across. Then what sounded like a padlock being attached. Then they heard voices – though not what was said – decreasing in volume as the men moved away. Then the sound of doors slamming, a sputter as an engine started and the sound of the car driving away.

  And then there was nothing.

  Dora spoke first.

  “Is everyone all right?” she said. “Those pigs didn’t hurt you, did they?”

  “No,” said Ruby grimly. “I might have hurt them though.” Alex could hear both of them fumbling in the dark. Then, at the same time, Dora lit a match and Ruby found the torch on her phone, and suddenly they could see.

  “An electric torch!” said Dora, sounding impressed.

  At the same time Ruby said, “You carry matches in your pocket? You really are something out of Swallows and Amazons, aren’t you?”

  “What?” said Dora.

  Ruby said, “I meant out of an old-fashioned kids’ book. Kids in books always carry knives and handkerchiefs and bullseyes and stuff around with them. I never understood why.”

  Dora looked baffled.

  “Bullseyes are sweets,” she said, like Ruby was an idiot. “And you blow your nose on your handkerchief. Don’t you have handkerchiefs in the future?”

  “No,” said Ruby. “We have tissues. How often do you actually use matches though? I mean, seriously?”

  “How often do you use your torch?” said Dora, defensively. Ruby opened her mouth to explain about mobile phones, and also the ridiculous bedtimes her parents thought were sensible to impose on someone who was nearly a teenager.

  Alex, who had been exploring the coach house, interrupted. “There’s a window,” he said. “But I don’t think any of us could fit through it, even if we could break it. There’s an axe. Maybe we could break down the door?”

  Ruby and Dora stopped arguing and looked doubtfully at the coach house door, which was big and solid and probably very expensive and bothersome to replace even if they did manage to hack it down. Then they looked at Alex’s axe, which looked more the sort of thing designed to chop logs into kindling than to actually chop down trees.

  “I don’t think we can break down the door,” said Dora. “Mrs Pinkerton would be jolly upset with us.”

  “She’d be even more upset if she found our mouldering corpses in here,” said Ruby, crossly.

  “We wouldn’t actually moulder,” said Alex. “Henry knows where we are. He’ll find us eventually.”

  “Oh,” said Ruby. “Eventually. Great. When those men will be miles away. In Sweden, probably, spending their ill-gotten gains on … I dunno … saunas and stuff. While we’re stuck here.” She eyed Mrs Pinkerton’s car, which was parked in the middle of the coach house floor. “How difficult are 1912 cars to drive, do you think? I bet we could break down that door if we drove a car into it.”

  “We couldn’t,” said Dora looking shocked. “Motor cars are frightfully dear. We can’t drive one into a door.”

  “They aren’t as expensive as that Cup, I bet,” said Ruby mutinously, but since neither she nor Alex knew how to drive, the point was somewhat moot.

  “Maybe there are other people around,” Dora suggested. “We could shout?” Ruby looked rather put out that someone besides herself had come up with a good idea, and, after some argument about what to shout, they counted to three and all yelled, “HELP!”

  Then, because it was rather good fun, they did it again.

  “HELP! HELP!”

  “WE’RE IN THE COACH HOUSE!” Alex added, but it didn’t do any good. No one came.

  Ruby and Dora sat on a pile of logs. Ruby said she was trying to conserve her energy, which would be useful if they really did start to starve to death. Alex thought this was ridiculous but he didn’t say so. He took Ruby’s phone and carried on exploring the coach house, in case someone had helpfully left a key lying about or something. But no one had. In the end, he came and sat with the girls, and tried not to give in to despai
r.

  “What is the future like?” said Dora. “You never told us.”

  Neither Ruby nor Alex were quite sure how to answer this.

  “Well,” said Alex. “There’s computers. And mobile phones, and televisions, and – and vacuum cleaners, and electricity—”

  “We’ve got electricity!” said Dora. “We’ve got our own generator.”

  “Everyone has electricity in the future,” said Ruby. “Well, everyone in Britain. And most people have cars. And no one has servants – not unless you’re really, really posh – like the Queen, or something. Not live-in servants, anyway. Like, my friend Charlotte has a cleaner, but no one has cooks and parlourmaids and butlers.”

  “Do you have machines that cook for you?” said Dora interestedly.

  “Well –” said Alex, “we’ve got microwaves.”

  “And no one wears stupid bodices and petticoats and combinations,” said Ruby, warming to her subject. “Girls just wear sensible clothes like jeans and trainers. And we can vote.”

  “Honest Injun?” Dora looked delighted.

  Ruby said, “We don’t call people Injuns in the future either. Or Red Indians. It’s racist.”

  “It’s what?”

  “It’s a bad word,” Ruby explained. “You have to say Native American instead.”

  But Dora continued to look baffled. “Why?” she said. “What’s wrong with Red Indian?”

  Ruby didn’t answer. Alex could see that she didn’t know, but wasn’t about to say so. “They don’t like it,” she said instead, rather feebly.

  Dora looked sceptical. “Well, anyway,” she said. “What’s going to happen next in history? Are people from Mars going to land or something?”

  Alex hesitated. 1912. Both he and Ruby knew what came next in history. Alex wasn’t sure it was a good idea to tell people about the horrible things in their immediate future, but Ruby didn’t seem to care.

  “The First World War is next,” she announced. “It’s a big war, with the Germans and—” She stopped. Everyone called it the First World War, but in school people mostly just talked about Germany and England. “And the French,” she said hesitantly. “And – and – the Americans. I think. And lots of other people too,” she added hastily. “And everyone goes off and fights in trenches, and their feet fall off cos of trench foot, and there are rats and tanks and things. And war horses.”

  “Ruby!” Alex said. “You can’t tell people something like that’s going to happen to them!”

  But Dora didn’t seem that upset.

  “Tanks?” she said. “Tanks of what?”

  “Um…” said Alex, but Dora didn’t wait for an answer.

  “People don’t fight wars in trenches,” she went on. Her talking-to-idiots voice was back. “Except moats, maybe. They fight on battlefields. Or they besiege people.”

  “Not in this war they didn’t,” said Alex. “I mean, they’re going to not. They live in trenches. And then they climb over the top and get shot.”

  “Well, that’s stupid,” said Dora. “They should have just had a big battle and then the winner should be whoever’s left at the end. Why don’t they do that?”

  Ruby and Alex glanced at each other. They’d both studied the First World War in school. But nobody had been very clear on why the soldiers didn’t just have a big battle and decide who’d won based on who was left at the end.

  “And,” Dora went on triumphantly, “you can’t keep horses in trenches. You keep horses in fields. I think you must have got muddled,” she went on, kindly. “History is awfully muddling sometimes. All those kings and barons and Roman emperors and whatnot.”

  “Me?” said Ruby indignantly. “Muddled?”

  But Alex held up a hand. “Shut up!” he said.

  Ruby glared. “I don’t see why I—” she began.

  “There’s someone there!” said Alex. “Can’t you hear them?”

  They all listened as hard as they could. Alex was sure he could hear someone. Footsteps, crunching down the path. Voices.

  “Help!” he yelled. The others yelled too.

  “Help! We’re in here! Help!”

  The footsteps crunched closer to the coach house.

  “Hullo! Is that you, kids?”

  Every heart in the coach house simultaneously leapt. Every heart knew that voice.

  “Yes!” Dora called. “Yes, it’s us! Those beasts locked us in!”

  “Just a tick.” Atherton sounded cheerful. “Hang on – I say, this lock’s frightfully stiff, isn’t it? Ah!”

  The door pulled back. Light streamed into the coach house. There, standing in the doorway, were Atherton and Mary, with Henry bobbing excitedly between them.

  “Golly!” said Henry.

  “Another crisis!” said Mary cheerfully. “You lot are almost making me nostalgic for Peru. Venomous snakes are nothing on this.”

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  Adventures at high speed

  “We came as quickly as ever we could,” Henry was explaining. “Uncle Atherton has the most ripping motor car – it goes ever so fast!”

  “Jolly considerate robbers you’ve got here,” Atherton was saying. “Leaving the key in the lock like that. Somehow I don’t think we’re dealing with hardened criminals, do you, my love?”

  They were tramping through the grass to the road. Ruby and Dora had explained all about the Cup and the men and the dreadful fact of their escape. Atherton and Mary seemed far less astonished by all this than Alex had expected.

  “What did they look like?” Atherton asked. “Can you remember?”

  “Um…” Ruby hesitated. “Brown hair? Youngish?”

  “There were two of them,” said Alex. “One was posh—”

  “Posh?”

  “He talked like you. You know, all la-di-da. The other one looked like a butler.”

  “He wasn’t a butler,” said Dora. “He was a valet.” Ruby and Alex looked at her blankly. “You know. Like a maid, but if you’re a man. They press your suits and clean your shoes and do your housework. Father used to have one, before we moved here.”

  “You mean like Jeeves?” said Ruby.

  “Who?”

  “Anyway,” said Alex. “The servant was called Giles. And the posh one had a grey suit and a straw hat and a green car with one of those roofs that go down when it’s sunny. And he didn’t have brown hair – he was ginger. He was about your age. Giles was older.”

  “Huh,” said Atherton. “I rather think you kids had better come with me.”

  They’d come out of the garden and on to the road, where another old-fashioned car was parked. This one was much fancier than the green car, however. It was bigger, for one thing, and lower, and shinier, and sort of sleeker. It looked rather as if, had it been made a hundred years later, it would have been a sports car.

  “That’s Uncle Atherton’s motor car,” Henry said. “It’s A1! It goes ever so fast. I bet it goes faster than whatever car those rotten burglars had.”

  “But,” said Ruby, “how can you chase them? You don’t know which way they went!”

  Mary looked at her somewhat in surprise.

  “We’ll ask,” she said. “It’s not like people won’t have noticed a motor car. They make a frightful racket.”

  “And,” said Atherton, “I rather think I know where they were going.” As he spoke, he was putting on a new layer of very interesting-looking clothes: leather gloves; a long, thin, brown coat; and a pair of goggles that made him look like Mr Toad. “Hop in, would you, my angel? Dora, your mother was asking what I’d done with you. Can you and Henry nip back and tell her I haven’t sold you into slavery?”

  Atherton lifted the car’s bonnet and began fiddling with the engine. Alex couldn’t see exactly what he was doing, but it looked a lot more complicated than turning an ignition key. “And on the way,” he continued, “could you pop into the police station and tell Inspector Heggarty that I think I know who took the Newberry Cup and we’re in hot pursuit, and if he wanted
to follow, I’d be much obliged? Tell him we’re taking the London road. You two –” this was directed at Alex and Ruby – “I’m still not entirely sure who you are, but if you haven’t got to step through a looking glass in the next half an hour, could you jump in the bus and point out these men to us if we spot them?”

  “Bus?” said Alex.

  “He means the motor car,” said Henry. “Oh, lucky, lucky you! You have to go ever so fast when you’re chasing a robber, don’t you, Uncle Atherton?”

  “You do,” said Atherton. “And you kids might help a fellow catch a robber by getting in the damn motor car.”

  He threw something at Alex, who caught it. It was a pair of Mr Toad goggles. Alex and Ruby looked at each other and scrambled into the back seat. Atherton, meanwhile, had inserted a handle in the front of the car and was winding it furiously.

  The car sputtered to itself, and then started, with a delicious ku-ku-ku-ku-wrrrrhhhoooum.

  Alex had never been in a vintage car before. He had never even been in an open-topped car before. It was quite different to modern driving. For one thing, there were no seat belts – not even for Mary and Atherton. For another, even though they weren’t actually going that fast, it felt faster because you got the wind rushing through your hair, and of course you jolted around the back of the car every time Atherton took a corner a bit too fast, which he did a lot. Alex wondered if driving tests had been invented in 1912. Judging by Atherton’s driving, he thought it unlikely.

  Then, too, the roads were quite unlike modern roads. Tarmac had evidently not been invented yet – the car threw up an enormous cloud of dust, which made Alex very grateful for the goggles. Nor, apparently, had anyone figured out that roads that were generally flat and not full of holes might be a good idea. The long car bumped and jumped and rattled over every pothole. Ruby looked rather green, but Atherton showed no signs of slowing down.

 
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