EPISODE SIX: THE SVANKMEYER COUNTDOWN
Barely an hour later and Michael and I were standing in front of the desk of the mayor once more, waiting patiently (and perhaps just a little nervously) whilst he scanned through the report of our adventures which had been hastily compiled by the two burly guards. His stern faced assistant maintained an icy pose behind him. The mayor came to the end of the document and put it down with a heavy sigh. He stood up slowly and stepped out from behind his desk.
He drew himself up to address us with the full majesty of his office. And then rather ruined the effect by breaking into a choking coughing fit. For even with a quick scrub down and a change of trousers an hour was not nearly enough time to allow the smells of the sewer to fully dissipate.
The mayor took a step back and recomposed himself. “Now then, what shall I do with you two?” he mused threateningly.
I groaned. “Oh, come on. We’ve done exactly what you asked of us,” I protested.
“Svankmeyer is in custody and Stafford Harcourt free from the menace of robotic rabbits,” pointed out Michael. “Personally I think some sort of medal or civic award wouldn’t be entirely out of order.”
“Oh yes? And what exactly is it that I should be rewarding you for?” countered the mayor sharply. “For all the claims for structural damage in Bun Street my officers are currently fielding? Or for the inconvenient matter of the large area of the sewage system that you have managed to put out of action?”
“Alright then, we’ll forget the medals,” I conceded. “But you have absolutely no right to hold us here any longer.”
The mayor sighed again and took a turn around his desk. He paused along the way to gaze thoughtfully at the numerous maps and charts that were still pinned up all around before turning back to us.
“Okay, you are free to go.” Michael and I both breathed a distinct sigh of relief. The mayor’s munificent gaze quickly turned to a frown. “You have 24 hours to get out of Stafford Harcourt,” he added sharply. “If, after that time, either of you is caught within twenty miles of the city precincts you’d better believe that I will have no hesitation in locking you up and throwing away the key.”
“So, not so much free to go as compelled to leave,” pointed out Michael mildly.
The mayor responded with a dismissive wave. “It’s the only offer you’re going to get from me so I would advise you to heed the warning.”
Michael and I exchanged a weary shrug and turned to leave. It was probably fair to say that there was quite a large portion of me that would be quite contented never to see Stafford Harcourt or any of its inhabitants again.
I can’t really explain what it was then that caused me to pause before I left the office. Almost without thinking I stopped and threw a casual remark over my shoulder at the mayor. “Tell me Mr Mayor,” I said. “Just what did the Explorer’s Club offer you for the right to go digging around in your city?”
The mayor, who had been in the process of calmly strolling back to his desk, halted instantly and whipped around. His face wore an expression of pure alarm for just a moment before he managed to compose his features back into their usual mask of control.
“Or perhaps it’s more a question of what they threatened you with,” I added, eager to prod a little further at what was obviously a raw nerve.
The mayor took a few seconds settling himself back into his seat before he looked up at me again. “I don’t see what concern it is of yours,” he eventually replied with a studied nonchalance. “Any negotiations I undertake as mayor of Stafford Harcourt are conducted in the best interests of the city.”
“I’m just a little surprised to find that an imaginative hardliner like yourself would choose to have any dealings at all with an organisation as – how shall I put it? – fanciful as the Explorer’s Club,” I remarked, choosing to imitate the mayor’s airy manner.
The mayor drummed his fingers up and down on the desk for a few moments. I had a feeling that he rather wanted to explain himself, to confide the pressures of office and the difficulty of his decision, but that he found the habits formed by a cautious nature difficult to overthrow.
Finally he stilled his fingers. “The thing is, a man in my position must sometimes take a pragmatic attitude towards policy,” he finally said. “Must weigh up the pros and cons of any given situation. If the Explorer’s Club come to me with a proposal I have to balance the reliability of their assurances against the potential consequences of saying no.”
“And I suppose the consequences of having the Explorer’s Club running amok in your city don’t really bear thinking about,” interjected Michael.
The mayor winced. It was quite easy to imagine a delegation of the Explorer’s Club standing before him in this very office, painting vivid pictures of the imaginative chaos they could unleash upon his city if he wasn’t willing to co-operate.
“So what assurances did they give you?” I asked, my curiosity by now well and truly piqued.
“They promised me that they would be gone within two weeks, that they would keep themselves to themselves and that they would ensure they were barely noticed,” replied the mayor. Now the subject was out in the open he seemed to find some relief in getting the details off his chest. “They promised they would leave the fabric of the city untouched.”
“They stole a whole building!” exclaimed Michael. “I hardly call that leaving the fabric of the city untouched.”
The mayor shrugged defiantly. “What’s a building between friends? We’ve got hundreds of blocks like it all over town. Why should I worry myself to death just because one of them vanishes overnight?”
“What about the people who lived there?” I protested. “Shouldn’t you worry over them? Or their friends and neighbours who might be just a little bit curious as to where they went?”
“Oh but they’re not,” replied the mayor. “Nobody even notices it’s gone. Go take a walk down that street anytime you like. There’s folk strolling up and down entirely oblivious. If they don’t care, then why should I?” The mayor eased back into his chair with a wry smile on his face. “You’ve got to hand it to those Explorer guys, they sure are a clever bunch. I wouldn’t mind a little of that hoodoo magic myself, it would certainly make my job a whole lot easier.”
And that, for the mayor, was obviously that. Conditioned by years of anti-imaginative thinking, all that mattered to him was that his city continued to run smoothly and efficiently. “Well, their hoodoo obviously hasn’t worked on you,” noted Michael. “You seem perfectly aware of what has happened.”
“I guess being at the heart of the deal puts you a little bit beyond their everyday tricks,” remarked the mayor casually. “Though they did invite me over just after they moved into their offices for a courtesy drink.” He paused and allowed himself a satisfied smile. “I was very careful to pour the whole glass into a plant pot when they weren’t looking just in case.”
“If you can remember so clearly you must have a theory about why they wanted that particular building so badly,” I said with a pointed stare.
The mayor shrugged again with an air of exaggerated unconcern. “Beats me. It’s just a regular housing block. What do I know of how folks like that get their kicks?”
“Oh come on, this is Stafford Harcourt,” I persisted. “You’ve got every inch of this city recorded, catalogued and registered. You must have been at least curious enough to take a peek into your records.”
The mayor began to drum his fingers on the desk once again. After a few seconds he eased back his chair and walked across to a cabinet at the side of the room. Taking a key from his pocket, he unlocked a drawer and pulled out a file from within. He stopped and looked thoughtfully at the file for a moment before shutting the drawer and locking it again. Then he carried the file back to his desk.
“Whatever it is they’re interested in, I don’t want to know,” he told us. “They’ve gone and my city can get back to normal and that’s all that matters to me.” He gazed hesitantly at the file for a moment then held it out to me. “So, here you go. That’s everything we ever recorded about the block that disappeared – building regulations, floor plans, tenant lists. It’s yours, go knock yourself out.
I took the file and stowed it away into my backpack without examining it. “Thank-you,” I said simply.
“Now go. Get out of here. Before I change my mind about locking the pair of you up.”
I couldn’t help smiling. We were both turning to leave for a second time when Michael suddenly looked up in concern. “You will release Martin Croft now, won’t you?” he asked the mayor urgently. “And Svankmeyer. What will you do with him?”
The mayor threw up his hands in despair. “I know what I’d like to do with him,” he muttered unhappily. “I’d like to boot him to the far end of the landscape if only I could be sure that he’d stay there.”
“Maybe you should think of keeping him around,” I suggested mildly.
The mayor looked at me as though I had suggested bottling our current sewage stink and using it as air freshener.
“I’m guessing he won’t be the last oddball to sneak through your system of checks and balances,” I explained. “And if this little episode has taught you anything then surely it’s taught you that you need a little imagination on your side. Svankmeyer’s a very smart chap, he could prove a very useful ally if only you could convince him to work with you instead of against you.”
“Yeah, and just how would you go about convincing a freak like that to work for you?” demanded the mayor. “Have you tried talking to the guy? I don’t think there’s a man alive who could ever convince him to see anyone’s point but his own.”
Michael and I exchanged a glance. “Well, I don’t know that we can make any promises,” Michael said with a slowly spreading smile. “But I think we can suggest someone who would be at least willing to give it a try.”
I was seated in the waiting room outside Freud’s office with the mayor’s file on my lap, trying to decide whether or not I should open it. There were other occupants of the room engaged in their own reading matter. Michael, seated alongside me, had buried his nose into his treasured collection of maps and timetables and, across the room, Carol the receptionist was engrossed in a brand new glossy magazine. Yet, despite a burning curiosity, I couldn’t quite bring myself to delve into the material I had before me.
Partly this was due to a nagging doubt as to whether this was a matter in which I should be involving myself at all. Intriguing as the mystery of the missing building and the Explorer’s Club undoubtedly was, I had to question whether it was really my place to be investigating it. Our one connection to the Explorer’s Club, Sturridge, had quite unequivocally severed his links with us. And, more to the point, if Freud came up with the goods then the landscape of the imagination itself should cease to be my concern as I found my way back to reality. I did have a boyfriend and a two thousand word critical evaluation to concern myself with, after all.
And partly my reluctance to start reading was due to the highly distracting noises that were currently issuing from Freud’s office, rendering study of any kind a tricky matter.
It had been our misfortune to arrive back at 54B Berners Street at just the same moment as Svankmeyer and Martin had shown up. I was intending to use the 24 hours granted us for taking our leave of Stafford Harcourt to complete the consultation with Freud which had been so rudely interrupted the previous afternoon. I still had faith in my idea for a shortcut home and was determined to get to the bottom of whatever character flaw was holding me back. Unfortunately, the mayor had taken our recommendation regarding Svankmeyer to heart. He had immediately sent both him and Martin round to Berners Street under the protection of the two burly guards who had so recently watched over our affairs.
And when it came to a choice it seemed diminutive sociopaths held more appeal for Freud than my personal quirks. In an ironic twist on the events of the previous day I had been brushed aside in order to allow Freud to get the measure of his two new clients.
By the sounds of it the consultation was not progressing all that smoothly. Voices had been raised, lowered and then raised again in rapid succession and our wait was punctuated at regular intervals by the sounds of some book or ornament being hurled across the room. Throughout the two burly guards stood impassively outside the office door. Michael and Carol appeared to have mastered the art of ignoring the disturbances but I was finding the whole thing just a bit distracting.
The tinkle of yet another objet d’art smashing into a thousand pieces was just dying away when the door to the office unexpectedly opened and Martin and Svankmeyer were led out into the waiting room by an ever so slightly flushed looking Freud. Martin appeared red-faced and exhausted whilst Svankmeyer bore the expression of a sulky child denied a treat.
Freud fixed his eyes with a mildly pleading gaze upon Carol. “I think we’re going to take a short break now,” he said in an authoritative tone. “Perhaps you would be so kind as to fetch some refreshments.”
Carol sighed and, reluctantly putting aside her magazine, disappeared through a connecting door. Svankmeyer, catching the impassive expressions of the two guards, threw himself grumpily into a chair in the corner of the room. Martin sunk into his favoured brown armchair on the opposite side of the room.
Freud mopped his forehead with his handkerchief for a few seconds before his gaze fell upon me. “Perhaps Miss Everingham, now would be a good time to complete your consult,” he suggested.
I happily stored the file away into my backpack once again and followed Freud back through into his office. Freud settled himself into his chair by the window and I perched, a little awkwardly, on the edge of the couch.
“Okay, well, er, where was I?” I began, suddenly feeling an odd flush of self-consciousness. “Did I get round to explaining how we set a mother superior on fire, or not?”
Freud responded with a wry smile. “Actually, I don’t really think I need to hear any more,” he said simply.
“What? You’ve figured out what’s wrong with me?” I responded in surprise.
“Nothing is wrong with you,” replied Freud. “You are as sane as the next person.”
I couldn’t help beaming gently. Not that I had ever imagined there was anything seriously wrong with me but to get a clean bill of mental health from such a respected authority as Freud was no mean thing.
Freud leaned over to his desk and fished a fresh cigar out of a box. “I mean, you are obviously often highly irrational, stubborn to the point of wilfulness and prone to the overuse of sarcasm as a defensive reflex,” he continued blithely. “And it seems to me that you clearly have some major issues in your relationships with those closest to you and a deep-seated resentment of authority figures in general…” He paused whilst he unwrapped his cigar. “But, all things considered, you have no more neuroses than the average person.”
This seemed slightly less encouraging but I chose to accept it as a compliment anyway. “So, then, how do I get home?” I asked.
Freud leaned back in his chair as he set about lighting his cigar. “Like so many people Miss Everingham, you are asking the wrong question,” he declared. “You should not be asking – how do I get home? – but – how do I complete my journey?”
I stared at Freud, somewhat puzzled. “Alright then, how do I complete my journey?”
“In my personal opinion,” replied Freud confidently, “you cannot think of leaving this landscape until you have done what you came here to do. You must find your friend.”
My first instinct was to fire back that Sturridge was no friend of mine but I rapidly thought better of it. Instead I merely said, “Sturridge doesn’t want to be found.”
Freud airily flicked away the ash from his cigar. “That is immaterial.”
“And maybe I no longer want to find him either,” I retorted.
“If that was the case you wouldn’t be quite so conflicted about whether to look into that file from the mayor you have in your bag,” replied Freud without a flicker of emotion. “Why not just chuck it straight onto the fire?”
“How do you know about the file…?” I began but Freud waved my questions away.
“Your instincts have brought you this far Natasha, you should trust them to take you the rest of the way,” he continued. “There is a puzzle out there that will gnaw away at you if you leave it unexamined. So go out and solve it.”
I stared with a frown at the patterns on the carpet. This was not quite the advice I had expected. Freud took another puff of his cigar and smiled. “You asked for my professional opinion Miss Everingham, now there you have it. Find your friend and you will find your way home.”
I hesitated for a moment and then offered Freud my hand. He shook it warmly. “Thank-you,” I said, getting up to leave.
“I wish you luck in your endeavours,” Freud added kindly.
I could only offer a friendly wave in reply as I exited into the waiting room. As I walked over to where Michael was sitting I found myself accosted by Martin who jumped up nervously from his seat.
“I really must thank-you both for everything you’ve done for me,” he said after a great deal of throat-clearing. “And for Svankmeyer. I know he’s really grateful too.”
Svankmeyer responded with a haughty harrumph.
“You’re very welcome,” replied Michael, getting up to give Martin an encouraging pat on the back.
“Anytime,” I added.
Martin blushed a violent crimson and hastily shuttled back to his oversized armchair.
Michael turned to me. “So, what did Freud have to say? Is there any hope for you?”
I replied with a shrug and a half smile. “Freud thinks I shouldn’t think about going home until I’ve found Sturridge,” I told him.
“And what do you think?” Michael asked after a moments pause.
“I think…” I hesitated for a moment. The truth was I really wasn’t sure what to think. “I think we ought to get out of Stafford Harcourt before the mayor has us hauled back to that lousy prison cell.”
Michael raised a casual eyebrow. “And?”
“And, then we can formulate a more long-term plan once we get out of here,” I prevaricated.
“Okay,” responded Michael simply. He gathered up his maps and timetables and, with a farewell wave to Martin and Svankmeyer, we headed out of the waiting room door.
“Might I ask,” said Michael casually as we strode down the stairs, “are we formulating a plan to find Sturridge or a plan to get home?”
“A plan that managed to cover both would be quite handy,” I mused.
Michael lightly tapped his map case. “I’m not sure I can go that far but I did have one or two ideas while you were getting your mental M.O.T from Freud.”
“Oh yeah?” I remarked, affecting a casual air but not entirely without interest.
“I think that if we want to find Sturridge we’re probably going to have to figure out this inter-dimensional travelling lark that the Explorer’s Club are using. I don’t think we can hope to catch up with them by conventional methods.”
“Do you suppose they have inter-dimensional motorway services?” I asked. “Cos it sounds like hungry work to me.”
“You never know,” replied Michael.
At this point we found ourselves at the front door of Freud’s building. There was just a moments hesitation before we stepped out together onto Berners Street and headed off in an uncertain direction.