EPISODE SIX: THE SVANKMEYER COUNTDOWN
Michael paced anxiously up and down the floor. Unfortunately the dimensions of the room were not really sufficient to allow for pacing by someone boasting his length of limb. He could just about manage to fit in three strides either way with a shuffling sort of turn at each end. It didn’t take long for my initial amusement at this spectacle to turn to irritation.
“Will you stop doing that?” I eventually snapped.
Michael paused mid-stride to fix me with an offended glare. Nevertheless, he condescended to cease his movement and sunk down onto the wooden bench beside me.
“I can’t believe we’ve been arrested,” he murmured glumly, staring at the floor.
“Have we actually been arrested?” I responded uncertainly.
Michael looked at me as though he feared I had finally cracked. He nodded pointedly towards the small barred window of the cell which we currently occupied and asked, “What do you think?”
“It’s just, I don’t recall being charged with any particular crime,” I hastened to explain. “It may just be that we’re helping them with their enquiries.”
“Well I don’t know how they expect us to help while we’re stuck in here,” complained Michael, glancing round the stark grey walls in despair.
To be perfectly honest, the sequence of events that had brought us to our current predicament was a little hazy. I could remember quite clearly Svankmeyer’s fleet of flying machines filling the skies above Stafford Harcourt. It seemed as though the whole town had come to a halt in order to stand and stare. And for a moment or two after they departed I seem to recall there being a general kind of stunned silence. Then, perhaps not unreasonably, it felt like the whole place had erupted.
In many respects it had been quite unfortunate that we were still in Martin Croft’s neighbourhood when the event occurred. For even someone as chronically shy as Martin is likely to be recognised by at least one or two of his neighbours. And once Svankmeyer had broadcast his name across the city it was really only natural that those neighbours might feel entitled to ask Martin one or two questions. And as those questions were addressed loudly and urgently in the open air it didn’t take long for others to catch on. As word spread that here was someone who might be somehow involved with this incredible apparition in the sky the crowd began to grow.
What began with a bit of mild finger-wagging and general harangue-ing soon escalated into aggressively worded threats and all round pushing and shoving. Of course, Michael and I attempted to stick up for the beleaguered Martin but somehow our efforts to calm the situation only served to inflame the mob further. Our protestations of Martin’s innocence were quickly seized upon as evidence of a wider conspiracy and things began to turn very ugly indeed.
At this point I had been rather grateful for the sound of a siren which had heralded the appearance of a small van with an official looking stripe down its side. The vehicle had valiantly nosed its way into the centre of the crowd and from within emerged two men in uniform, blowing furiously on whistles. Incredibly, their ear-splitting intervention proved sufficient to quell the mob, who reluctantly backed away.
While the crowd stood at a short distance, observing us sullenly, the officers chose to direct a few questions of their own towards Martin, Michael and I. The outcome of this brief interrogation was a request to accompany them back to their headquarters in order to further clarify our position. To be perfectly honest, I can’t quite recall whether this wasn’t more of an order than a request but, however it was phrased, it seemed a preferable option to sticking around in the midst of the still simmering mob.
So all three of us squeezed into the back of the small van and were driven off. There were no windows to provide scenery for the journey but it felt like no time at all before the van stopped and we climbed out into the courtyard of a grey stone building. From here we were hastily ushered down a flight of steps into a stark room containing only a single table and several chairs.
The three of us were seated along one side of the table and then we found we were required to explain ourselves and our connection to Svankmeyer before a succession of rather bewildered officials who in turn occupied the seat opposite. In truth I fear this may have been where the real confusion began. For our story sounded admittedly ludicrous and I’m not sure we did anything in the telling of it to make it any more convincing. In fact, between Martin’s awkward stammering, Michael’s loquacious charm and my disjointed rambling I can’t honestly say that we gave a particularly good account of ourselves.
So it was perhaps not entirely unexpected when the session finally ended with Martin being hauled away for further questioning and Michael and I being bundled unceremoniously into our current accommodation.
“How long do you suppose they intend to keep us cooped up like this?” mused Michael in an effort to pass the time.
“Who knows?” I replied. “But I hope they remember to feed us. It feels like a bloody long time since dinner.”
“Shouldn’t we be allowed at least one phone call?”
“What for? We’ve got nobody to call.”
We lapsed back into a morose silence. Minutes and then hours seemed to tick by. Michael and I alleviated the boredom for a short while by debating the potential of tunnelling our way to freedom. However the cold concrete make-up of the floor and the lack of anything to utilise as tools soon rendered the impracticability of such a scheme clear. Eventually the sunlight squeezing in through the bars of the tiny window high up in the wall began to fade and we were left in darkness. Under such circumstances there really seemed no other option but to lay down and go to sleep.
I woke the next morning to the merest sliver of daylight poking through those same bars. However, it was more likely the anguished growls coming from my stomach, which had now been empty for a quite unthinkable number of hours, that had probably broken my slumber. I discovered Michael curled up in a corner of the cell using his rolled-up jacket for a pillow, having finally conceded that the narrow wooden bench was not designed for the comfortable accommodation of more than one person at a time.
I sat up on the bench and stretched my own aching limbs. After a moment or two of silence I became aware of the sound of two pairs of footsteps in the corridor outside. As they approached the door of our cell, I found myself inadvertently holding my breath, not quite sure whether I was anxious that they should stop or pass on by.
The footsteps came to an abrupt halt and there was the sound of a key turning in the lock. Slowly, the heavy iron door swung open and I found myself looking up into the stern faces of two burly men in uniform.
They stood still in the doorway for a few seconds. I cautiously stretched out a leg and gave Michael a discreet kick. He rolled over, about to deliver an indignant rebuke, but the words froze on his lips when he spotted our visitors glaring impassively down upon us.
“Up you get, both of you,” finally barked the slightly larger of the two officers. His colleague made a sharp gesture to reinforce the demand.
Michael and I exchanged a concerned glance.
“Where are we going?” I asked hesitantly.
“You’re going to the mayor’s office,” came the somewhat unexpected reply. “He wants a word with you two.”
We were marched up two flights of stairs and along a lengthy stretch of corridor before we found ourselves in front of a thick wooden door. In the brief pause whilst our guards knocked sharply on the door Michael stretched out his cramped limbs and I struggled to persuade my stomach to keep it down to a dull roar. But then, without waiting for a response from within, the guards opened the door and ushered us through.
The room beyond was a grandly proportioned office, whose wood panelled walls and thickly carpeted floor put me in mind of the kind of place from which a rich tycoon might direct his business empire. The tasteful, if rather uninspired, décor seemed designed to convey an aura of opulent calm. However, this proved to be somewhat at odds with the general air of frenzied activity that greeted us as we entered.
The focus of this activity appeared to be a stout man seated at a vast mahogany desk beneath a large portrait of himself. The portrait had obviously been painted with a rather flattering eye but the live version was a little more middle-aged, with a receding hairline and a slight paunch. Behind him and to either side temporary boards had been erected, upon which were pinned a quite bewildering array of maps and charts. And around him swirled a small army of smartly suited men and women who brandished files, jabbered into mobile phones and occasionally barked out statistics at uneven intervals.
“Officer Ehrlman from the South-West precinct reports 39% of the population are expressing outright disturbance at the recent occurrence sir.”
“We have the first reports of panic buying in the Eastern districts sir – sales of tinned soup and dried pasta are up by 55%.”
“Buses on the Cross City line are now running a full seven minutes behind schedule sir.”
Entirely unconcerned by this scene of frantic business, the slightly burlier of our two guards marched up to the desk and drew attention to himself by a sharp clicking of the heels. “The two prisoners you asked to see, Mr Mayor sir,” he announced boldly.
The mayor casually raised his right hand and the frenetic activity around him immediately ceased. All eyes turned to examine Michael and I as we stood rather self-consciously by the door.
After a moments studied contemplation the mayor gave a dismissive flick of his hand. “That’ll be all for now,” he told his dismayed underlings.
With a palpable air of reluctance, the squadron of advisors filed out, muttering their unused statistics to one another as they went. Our two guards followed them out, shutting the door firmly behind them. The mayor was left with just one assistant, a grim-faced young woman with sleek black hair who resolutely hovered a single pace behind him at all times.
The mayor came out from behind his desk to inspect us at closer quarters. He wore a stern, impassive expression that suggested he was a man who was used to getting his own way.
“So,” he finally said in a contemplative tone. “You two are familiar with this Svankmeyer who has taken it upon himself to threaten my city.”
“I wouldn’t say familiar exactly,” replied Michael defensively.
“We’ve only actually met him the once,” I added for clarification.
The mayor simply shook his head sadly. “Now what should I do with the two of you?” he mused.
“Let us go obviously – seeing that we haven’t done anything wrong,” I retorted spiritedly. A sense of outrage at the fact that we still hadn’t been offered any breakfast was making me feel rather combative.
“And an apology for the discomfort of last nights accommodation wouldn’t go amiss either,” added Michael, clearly rather piqued himself.
The mayor smiled a rather sinister smile. “Haven’t done anything wrong?” he echoed with an exaggerated incredulity. “How about disturbing the peace, almost starting a riot in the streets, for starters?”
“That wasn’t our fault,” protested Michael. “We were just trying to calm things down.”
“And that’s before I consider the question of your complicity in the threats of this man Svankmeyer,” continued the mayor, unconcerned.
“I’ve told you, we scarcely know the bloke,” I complained.
The mayor simply shook his head again and tutted. “No, no, no, my friends. There is a conspiracy afoot against the good citizens of Stafford Harcourt and you two are up to your necks in it.”
I did my best to return his stern gaze with all the indignation that an unreasonable accusation and an empty stomach could muster.
“Do I take it from all this blame shifting that your attempts to apprehend Svankmeyer himself haven’t been too successful?” suggested Michael slyly.
The mayor sighed. “I’m afraid Mr Svankmeyer is proving to be frustratingly elusive,” he said, glancing sadly at the confused display of maps and charts behind his desk. “Despite the dedication of our very best resources. I’m afraid our civic apparatus is just not cut out for handling such an emergency.”
Given our recent treatment I did not feel inclined to offer any sympathy. “But this is the landscape of the imagination,” I felt obliged to point out. “Surely unhinged megalomaniacs must be an occupational hazard.”
“Not in Stafford Harcourt,” retorted the mayor sharply. “We don’t countenance that sort of behaviour here. It’s all very well for you travellers and explorers to marvel at the infinite variety of the imagination but some of us have to live here.”
I was sure I noticed a kind of guilty twitch in the mayor’s expression when he mentioned explorers but he immediately turned away and began pacing back and forth, his assistant trailing behind him.
“So, what? You just stick up a sign saying no unhinged megalomaniacs allowed, do you?” I said, unable to resist an urge to prod him a little further.
“People were sick and tired of having their daily existence disrupted by extraordinary events,” replied the mayor. “A plague of vampires here, an irate dragon there… So they elected me to get this town running along straight efficient lines. Imagination must have its limits.”
“And just how do you go about limiting the imagination?” asked Michael curiously.
“Oh, it wasn’t easy in the early days, I can tell you,” confessed the mayor with a nostalgic sigh. “But the thing is, people of a like mind always tend to huddle together. Once we managed to set up the idea that Stafford Harcourt was a place for the quiet life, a home for the tame, the tedious – let’s face it, for the downright dull – then the population shifted of its own accord.”
“So all the interesting people likely to cause any trouble just upped and left?” I said, raising the eyebrow just a touch.
“That’s about the size of it,” admitted the mayor with an air of satisfaction. “And we’re very careful to reinforce the stereotype with a pretty rigid bureaucracy. We are constantly collating information on every aspect of city life. Of course, nearly all of it is pretty meaningless but it convinces the people that they are living in a safe, controlled environment. A place where only the dull can bear to stick around. The perfect self-perpetuating system.” The mayor couldn’t resist rounding off his speech with an especially smug smile.
“Until someone decides to build a fleet of flying machines and terrorise the skies I suppose,” added Michael quietly.
The mayor’s face instantly darkened. “Ah yes, I rather fear the future of Stafford Harcourt hangs in the balance,” he said coldly. “The confidence of the people in their mundane existence must be maintained. Now I need to somehow act to convince the population that my bureaucracy is capable of more than just the collection of inane facts and figures.”
“But, it’s not… is it?”
The mayor glanced once more with a longing gaze at his charts and maps. “It would appear not,” he reluctantly sighed. Then he abruptly whipped back around and glared at Michael and I. “So, now with all the regular cards dealt I suppose I must turn to my jokers in the pack.”
I couldn’t help feeling a chill run down my spine at the icy way in which the mayor looked us up and down.
“In order to make best use of my last hand I have to weigh up the likely options,” the mayor said with another exaggerated sigh. “Judy, what are the figures again?”
The stern-faced young woman instantly sprung forward. “From information in the archives and available data collated from other cities it would appear there is a 47.5% chance of the blackmailer’s scheme falling apart without any intervention from ourselves,” she rattled off.
“Oh well, here’s hoping,” said Michael optimistically.
“Ah, but if it is merely the attacker’s incompetence which reprieves the city then I fear that will do little to restore public confidence,” replied the mayor. “And if we lose public confidence who knows what other acts of imagination might not break out in the city.”
There was a pause and then the mayor smiled his sinister smile once again. “Of course, I guess it wouldn’t take much to convince the people that it was the judicious arrest of Svankmeyer’s indispensable accomplices that caused his scheme to fail,” he added. “In which case, all I have to do is lock you two up and throw away the key.”
“You can’t do that!” I exclaimed, uncomfortably aware that my protest sounded rather feeble.
“On the other hand, that does leave me with a 57.5% chance that Svankmeyer’s scheme will succeed,” conceded the mayor. “So, given that it appears my available forces lack the necessary imagination to track him down…”
“75% chance of suspect remaining at large and that’s increasing every hour,” interjected the mayor’s assistant.
“…I have to consider whether a couple of outsiders with a vague link to the troublemaker might have more chance of success.”
“Well, we’d certainly be willing to give it a go,” offered Michael brightly, clearly not taken with the ‘locking up and throwing away the key’ option. “Wouldn’t we Everingham?”
“Absolutely,” I hastily concurred. “We’d do our very best.”
The mayor narrowed his eyes. “Or perhaps you think if I set you free you can just scarper out of town and leave Stafford Harcourt to its fate,” he said darkly.
We instantly shook our heads. “Oh no, we wouldn’t do a thing like that,” I protested weakly.
The mayor turned away and began pacing once more. “The trouble is, you two are an unknown quantity and I don’t like unknown quantities,” he muttered unhappily to himself.
We stood, scarcely daring to breathe, as he continued to stride distractedly back and forth.
Abruptly the mayor stopped and turned to face us. “You’ve got seven hours,” he announced sharply. “I’ll have the boys keep a close watch on you all the way. If, after seven hours, you haven’t got hold of this Svankmeyer then I shall be making a very public arrest and hoping for the best.”
I wasn’t sure it was really the fairest offer I’d ever received but I found myself mumbling a heartfelt thanks nonetheless. The alternative I didn’t like to contemplate.
“What about Martin Croft?” I thought to ask after a moment. “What have you done with him?”
“He’s in a very secure place,” replied the mayor. “And that’s where he’s staying for the time being. His name was broadcast all across the city by his pal Svankmeyer. If I let him go there’ll be riots on the streets.”
“87.2% chance of civil disturbance within the hour,” added his assistant.
The mayor gave us one final sinister smile. “No, it’s down to you two. You’d better find a way to stop this Svankmeyer pretty darn quickly or nobody is going to be seeing anything of either of you for a very long time.”