EPISODE SIX: THE SVANKMEYER COUNTDOWN
We followed Colonel Pendlebury as he strode in surprisingly sprightly fashion up the seemingly endless staircase of his tenement building.
“Are you sure this is quite wise?” Michael whispered as we headed up yet another flight.
“C’mon, exercise is good for you,” I retorted, doing my best to disguise my own breathlessness.
“I was more concerned with the fact that we are rapidly running short of hours on the Svankmeyer countdown,” said Michael. “You know what will happen when the deadline runs out.”
Michael glanced pointedly over his shoulder. Our two minders, in accordance with their instructions, were laboriously tramping up the stairs behind us.
“I agree with you in principle,” I replied. “But as we don’t appear to have a single viable clue as to Svankmeyer’s whereabouts I’d say the point was rather academic.”
Michael frowned but had nothing to offer in reply.
We’d reached the fourth floor when Pendlebury suddenly departed from the staircase and made his way down a short landing. He stopped outside a door marked 44C and, producing a key from the collection of trinkets dangling around his neck, let himself in.
“Would you care for some tea?” he called out airily as he waved us along a narrow hallway into a compact living room.
“That would be lovely, thank-you,” I replied.
With our minders hovering respectfully in the hallway, Pendlebury disappeared through a doorway leading into a small kitchen. Michael and I were left alone to inspect the living room. In many respects it was pretty much entirely what you would expect from the living quarters of a middle-aged bachelor. Functional yet comfortable. A few carefully chosen items of furniture nestled within a pretty bland colour scheme.
But then there was the foil.
Reams of tin foil had been wrapped around certain strategic areas of the room, chiefly the door and window frames and all electrical points. I was still staring in puzzled fashion at this decorating quirk when Pendlebury returned. He stood empty-handed in the centre of the room and smiled at us vacantly.
“Martin told us that you used to be a member of the Explorer’s Club,” I said after a moment, finally feeling compelled to puncture the silence.
“The Explorer’s Club!” exclaimed Pendlebury. “Ah yes, I was once a member of that august institution. A founder member, no less. It was really the cause of my coming to the landscape of the imagination.”
“What made you leave?” asked Michael.
“Ah now, well, did I leave or was I expelled?” asked Pendlebury in return.
I assumed this to be a rhetorical question but Pendlebury made no effort to follow it up with any other remark on the subject. He simply twirled his neck-chains distractedly for a few moments then announced brightly, “Perhaps you would care for some tea?”
Michael and I exchanged a puzzled glance. “Er, yes please, that would be very nice,” replied Michael uncertainly.
Pendlebury disappeared back through the door into the kitchen. Michael and I settled ourselves uncertainly onto the sofa. A few moments later Pendlebury strode back into the room, still resolutely tea-less.
“Now then, where was I?” Pendlebury asked of nobody in particular.
“You were telling us about the Explorer’s Club,” I said helpfully.
“Of course, the Explorer’s Club,” echoed Pendlebury as though chiding us for distracting him from his train of thought. He flicked through the pages of the notebook around his neck for a few seconds.
“Now, back in my day the Explorer’s Club was formed purely to enlighten and educate,” he commenced, appearing to address a crowd far greater than just Michael and I. “It’s aim was very simply to explore the furthest reaches of the landscape of the imagination and record what was found there. After all, it is astonishing how ignorant those of us from the real world can be about the depths and breadths of the imagination.”
Pendlebury paused, stared distractedly out of the window for a few seconds and then flicked through his notebook once more. “Unfortunately, such a purely altruistic vision was never likely to dominate for long. Soon there came along those were not happy merely to acquire knowledge for its own sake but who were determined to use their information for their own ends. They started to talk of secrets and codes. Information is power, that was the new motto.”
“Is that why you left?” asked Michael.
Pendlebury glared at him, apparently irked by the question. “What concern is it of theirs if I chose to go?” he demanded. “Any man should be free to come and go as he pleases. And any information I may take with me is mine to share with anyone I like. Let them play their silly games, they can’t take away what I know.”
“But they tried to, did they?” I asked gently. “Take away what you know, I mean.”
Pendlebury glanced around and then leaned in conspiratorially. “They say they have devices,” he told us in a heavy whisper, “for brain-washing and mind control. Can wipe a man of his memories in sixty seconds flat.” Pendlebury paused and again glanced around. “But I have a few tricks of my own,” he continued, tapping his nose knowingly.
I had a creeping sense that a few of Pendlebury’s more idiosyncratic character traits were beginning to make sense.
Pendlebury abruptly straightened up and fingered his mirrored epaulettes. “Oh yes,” he said confidently. “If one only knows the techniques one can remain entirely immune to their chicanery.” There was another vacant pause. “Would you perhaps care for some tea?”
“No, thank-you, we’re fine,” I replied wearily but Pendlebury had already disappeared through the door into the kitchen before I’d finished the sentence.
I turned to discover Michael regarding me with a distinct ‘I told you so’ expression on his face. “I’m glad to see we didn’t climb all those stairs for nothing,” he remarked with a heavy line in sarcasm.
“Alright, so he’s a little eccentric…” I began.
“He has wrapped his television aerial in Bacofoil,” pointed out Michael.
“This is the landscape of the imagination,” I protested weakly. “There might be perfectly valid reasons for wrapping your television aerial in Bacofoil here.”
I was saved from any further attempts at defending the indefensible by the return of Pendlebury. He strode back into the centre of the room, still conspicuously sans tea tray, and smiled vacantly at us. A sideways glance at Michael told me it was probably time to make a sharp exit. As Pendlebury turned to flicking through his notebook once more, I carefully considered the best way to offer our goodbyes.
I had just succeeding in formulating what I considered to be the correct phrasing when Pendlebury abruptly dropped his notebook and looked at us with an excited gleam in his eye.
“Dimensions!” he exclaimed suddenly. “That was what it was all about – dimensions. It started as a way of getting from one part of the landscape to the other. After all, this is quite a vast landscape. Inter-dimensional travel, that was what was needed. A way of passing from spot to spot in the blink of an eye. You mayn’t be able to do such a thing in the real world but, this being the landscape of the imagination, it requires only that somebody be able to imagine the idea of inter-dimensional travel and it can be done.”
I found a spark of interest reigniting somewhere deep within. “And was it done?” I asked, thinking of the letters fading on the front of the Explorer’s Club office.
“It certainly was,” replied Pendlebury with a gleam of excitement. “We were quite sure we’d find something of the sort out in the sci-fi heartlands and, sure enough, an expedition came across just the thing we were looking for. And, better than that, the technology turned out to be exportable so it could be used anywhere in the landscape. Pretty soon the explorers were whizzing about here, there and pretty much everywhere.”
“Very impressive,” murmured Michael, clearly not entirely convinced this was particularly relevant.
“But then some bright spark suggested there might be another dimension to the landscape altogether,” continued Pendlebury. Now he’d found his topic he seemed to have no difficulty accessing the memories. “All this stuff” – he gestured vaguely out of the window – “is just the surface. This is what you get when the imagination expresses itself… The characters and the stories that are dreamed up. But what if there was a way to get at the stuff that hadn’t yet been processed, those half-formed sparks of ideas that are buried deep within the human mind? That, they figured, is where the real secrets lie.”
There was something of an echo of those moments sitting in the Watershed bar listening to Sturridge outline his theory of the landscape. When Pendlebury was in full flow he seemed to share that same breathless excitement at the limitless possibility of an idea.
“So, is there another dimension?” I found myself asking almost in a whisper.
“Who can say?” replied Pendlebury. “But they think there is and they’re out to get there first. By any means necessary. They’ve been helping themselves to clues – bits of the landscape they think will allow them to make the leap.”
“Is that what happened to the missing building?” asked Michael uncertainly. I could well understand his doubtful tone. It was hard to figure just what the intrepid Explorer’s Club could want in the imaginatively restrained town of Stafford Harcourt.
“The missing building?” echoed Pendlebury. The vacant expression had descended like a mist once more.
“There’s a whole tenement block suddenly vanished from one of the streets near here,” I explained impatiently. “And none of the residents seem to have even noticed.”
“The scoundrels!” exclaimed Pendlebury. “There they go with their brain-washing and their mind control again. I’m only glad I took the time to study the antidotes.” He fiddled once again with the mirrors on his shoulders, reflecting the light one way, then another.
“Martin told us that you’d told him that you came to Stafford Harcourt to protect something,” I said slowly. “Was it something in that building?”
“Protecting something,” murmured Pendlebury thoughtfully. He began pulling at some of the post it notes affixed to his suit. “I did have something here, I’m sure of it.” Suddenly he stopped and looked up at us. “Would you care for some tea perhaps?”
I nodded wearily as Pendlebury made for the kitchen door, aware that it would be quite futile to attempt to stop him.
Once he had gone I stood up and began to pace about the room, trying to tie together the many hanging threads of Pendlebury’s story.
“Do you believe any of it?” Michael finally asked after a prolonged and thoughtful silence. “Hidden dimensions and stolen buildings?”
At a loss for any direct answer I fell back on my standard response; “Well, this is the landscape of the imagination… Though if that is what Sturridge has got himself mixed up in then it could explain why he was so keen to stop us from searching for him.” I couldn’t quite figure whether I preferred the scheming devious model of Sturridge that this conjured up to the insensitive arsehole that had been my last impression.
Michael sighed. “Still I suppose we’ll have plenty of time to mull it over once the mayor has us locked up. Along with wondering just where Svankmeyer can have hidden himself in a city as obsessively mapped and categorised as Stafford Harcourt.”
We fell back into thoughtful silence and I allowed my gaze to drift out of the window. Down in the street below Tim was still leaning on his bike, fussing over his mangy feline companion, but there were few other signs of life. It seemed that nearly all Stafford Harcourt had retreated indoors in light of the recent alarming developments in the sky. And, to be honest, who could blame them?
But then my eye fell on a manhole cover in the middle of the road in front of Tim. Or, more accurately, it fell on a symbol that appeared to have been chalked on the manhole cover and now glinted up in the sunlight. For a second I couldn’t quite place where I had seen such a symbol before but slowly the cogs of my brain ground into gear and suddenly it came to me in a flash. There had been a list of these marks pinned up alongside a map in Svankmeyer’s lair.
The cogs creaked on a little further and I turned to Michael with a gleam of excitement. “What if Svankmeyer hasn’t been found because he’s not hiding in the city but under it?” I suggested, beckoning him across.
Michael came over and peered down with a puzzled expression.
“The mark on the manhole cover – I’ve seen it before in Svankmeyer’s lair,” I told him. “Perhaps when he met Tim here it wasn’t because he came from one of the apartments around about but up from beneath the road.”
“You think he’s hiding out in the sewers?” said Michael.
“It’s a possibility.”
Michael continued to stare out of the window for a moment or two. “Well, I suppose it has to be worth checking out,” he finally said with just a hint of enthusiasm.
Just as we turned and headed for the hallway, the kitchen door swung open and Colonel Pendlebury emerged carrying a fine china tea service on a large silver tray.
I could only offer an apologetic wave as we hurried past. “Sorry Colonel, we haven’t got time for tea right now. We’ve got a midget megalomaniac to catch.”