EPISODE FIVE: IN FREUD WE TRUST
It was swiftly determined that the obvious place to begin our Svankmeyer hunt was at the basement flat he and Martin occupied on the west side of town. Their rooms were located at the foot of a vaguely shabby tenement building in the midst of a Dickensian warren of lanes and alleys.
Even as we approached the building though Martin wasn’t holding out much hope of this being a simple job. “I’m afraid Svankmeyer doesn’t always spend a lot of time at home at the moment,” he told us apologetically.
“Well if he’s not in let’s hope he’s left a note,” I muttered in reply.
At this moment a tall, willowy girl came down the steps from the building above. She smiled in a friendly manner, called out a cheery, “Hi Martin” and paused expectantly, clearly hoping for a few words of chit-chat.
Martin’s response was to blush violently and launch into a protracted coughing fit. Eventually he managed to struggle out a hurried, “Hi Sally” followed by an uncomfortable pause and then an even more hurried, “Bye Sally” before darting down the steps into the basement. I decided it wasn’t entirely impossible to sympathise with Svankmeyer on some points.
Once inside I discovered that the larger part of the flat consisted of a wide, open-plan area which served as both living quarters and workshop. Since his move into the landscape of the imagination Martin had continued his trade with some minor but telling alterations in his working practices. Perhaps wisely he had abandoned the creation of puppets or anything with even a vaguely human form and had taken up a more general carpentry business, carving pieces of furniture and distinctly abstract decorative items. The place was dotted with tools and specimens of his craftsmanship.
Martin stood in the centre of the flat and called out a tentative, “Hello?”
I couldn’t help observing a distinct expression of relief when there was no reply. He turned to us. “Svankmeyer’s not home,” he explained helpfully.
“So where does he normally hang out when he’s not here?” I asked.
Martin shrugged apologetically. “To be honest, I don’t really like to ask,” he confessed.
“You must have some idea,” insisted Michael. “Are there any cafés or bars he likes to go to? Does he have friends he likes to see?”
Martin shook his head. “Svankmeyer doesn’t really approve of the concept of friends.”
“Acquaintances then? Colleagues? Associates?” Michael tried. “Does he have a job of some description?”
“Not as such,” replied Martin. “He spends most of his time thinking over plans and schemes.” He caught sight of my exasperated expression. “He’s quite a clever chap really and he can be very practical. He likes to design things. That flying machine for instance – that was all his own work.”
“So where does he keep his flying machine?” I glanced around the cluttered, untidy flat. “He obviously doesn’t park it here overnight.”
Martin could only shrug apologetically once again.
“Let’s hope he’s left some clues behind,” suggested Michael. “Which is his room?”
Martin pointed to a door on the left of the living area. It was painted black and bore a large sign proclaiming, ‘Svankmeyer’s Lair: Keep Out’. It struck me as resembling the door of a teenager’s bedroom.
“He usually keeps it locked though,” Martin added. “He can be a bit secretive.”
I tried the handle and the door was indeed locked. “Well I think it’s about time Svankmeyer learned to open up,” I suggested. “You don’t happen to have any expertise in picking locks, do you?”
Martin looked shocked. “Oh, I couldn’t do that,” he protested. “Svankmeyer really wouldn’t be very happy with me if he knew I’d broken into his room.”
Michael though was looking over a workbench with a certain gleam in his eye. “Never mind,” he replied. “I think we have the tools here to get the job done ourselves.” He blew a dense layer of sawdust off a range of rather destructive looking hammers.
“I’m not sure this is such a good idea,” murmured Martin unhappily.
“Do you want to spend the rest of your life being pushed around by a puppet of your own making?” I demanded. “Or do you want to learn how to stand up for yourself?”
Martin squeaked uncertainly in reply. I left him to hop nervously from one leg to the other whilst I assisted Michael in selecting what appeared to be the most appropriate tools for the job.
Turning to the door, I wedged a chisel into what I judged to be the most strategic place along the hinges. Michael took up a sizeable mallet and, after a couple of practice swings, took careful aim and brought it down upon the chisel with a single decisive blow. The hinges splintered apart like matchsticks and Svankmeyer’s lair suddenly lay open for inspection.
As lairs go it wasn’t exactly premier class. We stepped into a small windowless room containing just a chair, a desk and a narrow bed. However, the walls all around were plastered with an array of plans and diagrams depicting all kinds of strange machines, gadgets and contraptions. The place looked like the central research and development office of the ACME corporation from the Road Runner cartoons. In the centre of one wall the sketches gave way to a small circle of portraits arranged in an almost shrine-like fashion. Amongst the faces I recognised pictures of Ming the Merciless, Mussolini and several James Bond villains. It wasn’t difficult to see where Svankmeyer was looking for inspiration.
Michael was eyeing the pictures with a bemused expression. “I think we can see where Svankmeyer got his style,” he mused.
“There was certainly a touch of the Gert Frobe’s in that accent,” I conceded.
Martin was examining the designs with a worried eye. “Gosh, he really has been busy, hasn’t he?” he muttered aloud to nobody in particular.
“Just what does he intend to do with all these gadgets?” I asked with an air of concern.
Martin reverted to his customary shrug. “He keeps talking lately about putting together a really big plan, something that will make the whole town sit up and take notice of us…” his voice trailed off as he continued to glance round with a worried eye.
“Right then, I think we definitely need to find out where he’s been keeping his flying machine,” I said determinedly. “There must be a clue here somewhere. A petrol receipt, garaging details, a bill for valeting…”
I gazed around the densely covered walls, desperately searching for something to point us in the right direction. But there was so much paper pinned all around that it was hard to know where to start.
“Oh, it’s hopeless,” murmured Martin despairingly after a few minutes.
I was just on the verge of giving up myself when I was distracted by a cry from Michael. He grabbed a scrap of paper from the walls and turned to us with a triumphant gleam. “I don’t know about the machine but we might be able to find out something about its contents.”
Michael held out the paper for our inspection. It turned out to be a small printed flyer advertising, ‘Walker’s Pets. For the full range of pets and pet supplies. Open Monday-Saturday.’
“Seriously Redgrave?” I said dubiously. “That’s your best clue?”
“He had to have got all those rabbits from somewhere,” Michael insisted. “And housed them and fed them. Who knows what the pet shop may be able to tell us.”
Martin was also eyeing the flyer with interest. “Actually, it’s not just the rabbits,” he said. “Svankmeyer recently released a horde of hamsters on a customer of mine as retribution when he thought he’d underpaid me for some pieces. I’m not sure he’s entirely got to grips with the idea of a natural predator yet.”
“There you are,” said Michael confidently. “He’s probably a regular customer. The pet shop may even have a different address for him.”
I looked at Michael’s and Martin’s hopeful expressions and sighed. “Alright then Redgrave,” I conceded. “Let’s go and see a man about a rabbit.”
The address listed on the flyer for Walker’s Pets turned out to be all the way across the other side of town so we set out from the flat with the anticipation of a lengthy trek ahead of us. However, we can’t have been more than five minutes out from our start point when there occurred an unexpected pause in our journey.
At this point we were still winding our way amongst the tightly-packed tenements of Martin’s neighbourhood. There was a monotonous uniformity about the buildings here, a rather Soviet-esque regularity of design upon which it seemed the occupants were constantly striving, and failing, to impose some form of individuality. The occasional flag flying defiantly from a window, the odd scrawl of graffiti, the sparsely dotted lines of washing did nothing to dispel the air of resigned conformity which permeated the place.
Which was what made the missing tenement block so striking.
It was in the middle of one of the rows that we passed. Quite unexpectedly a narrow section of building appeared to have simply vanished. A short flight of steps led up from the pavement to… well, nothing. Just a blank space about the size and shape of every one of the dozen or so other tenement blocks that lined this particular street. At first sight it appeared as though someone had been engaged in a very precise, very targeted act of demolition. But there was no rubble left, no fallen masonry or smashed bricks to tell of the buildings demise. Just a strange grey mist which hung stubbornly within the tenement shaped gap.
I came to a stop alongside the flight of steps, my curiosity undoubtedly aroused by this strange anomaly. Michael came to a halt beside me, also peering at the empty space with a furrowed brow. But Martin continued to stride purposefully forward, not even giving the sight a second glance. I felt obliged to bring him to a halt with a short, sharp cry.
He stopped and turned around.
“What happened here?” I asked, nodding at the location of the missing block.
Martin gave a small start as he looked at the empty space, as though noticing it for the first time. “Oh, that,” he said, staring for a moment at the grey mist. “The building has disappeared,” he then added, as if this explained everything.
“I can see that,” I retorted sniffily. “What I meant was, why has it disappeared?”
Martin offered up his trademark shrug. “I really couldn’t say.”
“When did it disappear?” asked Michael.
Martin looked thoughtful for a moment. “I guess it must have been overnight,” he replied airily. “I’m fairly sure it was there yesterday.”
“Is it common practice for buildings in Stafford Harcourt to disappear overnight?” pursued Michael.
“Not really,” replied Martin. “At least, not that I’m aware of.”
“It happened this morning with the Explorer’s Club,” I remarked pointedly. “That disappeared pretty much in front of us.”
“Though, to be fair, they did at least leave the building behind,” noted Michael.
Martin gave a half-hearted shrug and turned his attention back to the direction in which we had been travelling. I wasn’t sure what I found more puzzling; that large tenement blocks in Stafford Harcourt should apparently disappear overnight or that nearby residents like Martin should be so apparently unconcerned about this. And it wasn’t just Martin. Not one of the numerous other pedestrians who trotted past gave a second glance to the empty space.
“You don’t suppose there could be a connection, do you?” I asked Michael, seeing as he appeared to be the only other person with any interest at all in this phenomenon. “Between this and the Explorer’s Club?”
“Don’t tell me you guys are interested in the Explorer’s Club,” interrupted Martin with a wry smile. “You should talk to Colonel Pendlebury.”
“Who’s Colonel Pendlebury?” Michael and I instantly asked in unison.
“Oh, he’s a neighbour of mine. A slightly odd chap. But he’s very interested in the Explorer’s Club. In fact, he claims he used to be a member himself.” Martin paused and looked thoughtfully for a moment at the space of the missing tenement block. “Oddly enough, he once told me he had come to Stafford Harcourt because there was something here that the Explorer’s Club would want to get their hands on. Something he was determined to protect.”
“Well, if that something was the middle of this row of tenements then I’m afraid he didn’t do a very good job of protecting it,” mused Michael.
“Did he tell you anything about what it was that he wanted to protect?” I asked.
Martin shuffled uncomfortably. “I suppose he may have done,” he confessed awkwardly. “But, to be perfectly honest, Colonel Pendlebury does have a habit of rambling on a bit. I’m afraid I do tend to switch off rather when he gets onto the Explorer’s Club.”
“I think I’d quite like to have a word with this Colonel Pendlebury,” I announced.
Michael turned and looked at me closely. “Are you absolutely sure you want to get into this Everingham?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not quite in our brief, is it? I mean, we were only interested in the Explorer’s Club because that’s where we thought we would find Sturridge. And, well, I thought you were no longer interested in Sturridge since you have conclusively decided that he is an arse.”
“Sturridge is an arse,” I insisted firmly. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t be just a wee bit interested in what he’s got himself involved in. Aren’t you just a little bit curious?”
“Actually, I’m very curious,” replied Michael. “But I’m not the one with a life to get back to.”
“And get back to it I will,” I protested. “I’m not suggesting we embark on a full scale investigation necessarily. I just thought it wouldn’t do any harm to do a little light digging whilst we map out our route home. What do you say?”
Michael smiled. “I say, that’s fine with me.”
We were interrupted by a protracted bout of coughing from alongside us.
“Is something wrong Martin?” I asked.
Martin blushed furiously. “No, of course not,” he hastily replied. “Well, just… I don’t like to intrude or anything but I thought perhaps I ought to mention that you have promised to help me get Svankmeyer to Dr Freud.”
Michael laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry Martin, we’re still focussed on your problem,” he told him.
“There’s plenty of time for us to have a chat with Colonel Pendlebury and still sort out your Svankmeyer issues,” I added reassuringly. “I’m sure once we’ve located him we’ll sort Svankmeyer out, no problem.”
I might have realised from past experience that such a confident pronouncement upon the future was always likely to result in fate turning around and issuing a retaliatory kick in the shins. Unfortunately I had no idea just how swiftly and sharply fate was likely to strike.
I estimate that it can’t have been much more than a minute and a half after my assured statement that we heard the first throb of engines in the distance. As the sound grew louder it drew people to their windows and caused pedestrians all around to pause and look up. It was probably no more than a minute or two more before the droning sound was so intense that all traffic came to an abrupt halt and all eyes were watching the skies with a mixture of surprise and alarm.
In all there were only about four minutes in total between my casual announcement and the sight of several large-scale versions of Svankmeyer’s extraordinary flying machine sweeping across the city. The people of Stafford Harcourt gasped and clutched one another anxiously as the ground shuddered and windows rattled with the force of the vehicles.
As the machines continued to swirl ominously overhead there was a loud crackle and suddenly a familiar voice filled the air.
“Citizens of Stafford Harcourt, I am Svankmeyer! Remember my name! For too long you have failed to appreciate my genius. Now, in the name of myself and my colleague, Martin Croft, you will be made to pay!”
While every other pair of eyes in the town remained fixed on the sky, I sneaked a look across at Martin. He was blushing such a violent shade of red he might have been mistaken for a traffic light and was flexing his knees as though hopeful he might melt away into the ground at any moment.
The voice above was not finished. “The price of your disrespect shall be compensation to the tune of $5 million and a written pledge of obedience from every citizen from the mayor down. Failure to comply with my demands will result in my army of terror being unleashed upon the city. You have twenty-four hours to make your amends!” The voice paused for a moment and a maniacal cackle of laughter rolled across the rooftops of the town. “I am Svankmeyer and I will be obeyed!”
And with another deafening roar of the engines the machines swirled threateningly over the centre of town for a moment longer before disappearing off into the distance. There followed a moment of stunned silence before voices of fear, despair and concern broke out in every corner.
Michael and I gazed, open-mouthed, at one another for a second and then turned to Martin who could only shake his head wearily.
“Okay,” I finally said slowly. “I take back what I said about Svankmeyer. This might just take a little longer than I anticipated.”
To be continued…
Coming soon… Episode Six