EPISODE SIX: THE SVANKMEYER COUNTDOWN
I stood with my face pressed up against the grimy shop window, searching desperately for some sign of life within. It didn’t look hopeful. The early morning sunlight did not penetrate far through the broken slats of the window blind. All I could glimpse was a small corner of dusty floor and what may or may not have been the outlines of a shop counter. Certainly nothing to indicate that Walker’s Pets would be open for business any time soon.
A quick glance over my shoulder at the two burly men in uniform who had been detailed to shadow our every move convinced me this was no time to stand on ceremony. I hammered on the gloomy door for all that I was worth.
There was no response.
Having gazed upon my efforts with a lofty disdain, Michael indicated to me to step aside and gave the door a violent hammering of his own.
Still no response.
There was an exchange of worried expressions and several further nervous glances over the shoulder before we struck on the idea of a combined effort. On the count of three we hammered on the door together.
Finally, we scored a success.
After a tense pause we were rewarded with the sound of footsteps and unhappy muttering from within. A shadow passed across the window blind, there was a sound of bolts being scraped back and finally the door parted just a few inches and a head inserted itself into the slender gap. “What do you want?”
The face was that of a female in her late forties and clearly not at all happy at our persistent knocking. I momentarily contemplated feigning an interest in pet buying as a way of gaining admittance but quickly decided that, given the mayor’s deadline, the direct approach was the best option.
“Excuse us for the early hour but we need some information about one of your customers,” I said simply.
The face glared at us with a mixture of confusion and alarm and then abruptly withdrew itself. The intention was clearly to slam the door in our faces and it would have succeeded if it hadn’t been for Michael’s speedy reactions in thrusting his foot into the door frame. His face clouded over with pain as our adversary tried to force the door shut regardless but he resolutely stood his ground. “I’m afraid you’re not going to get rid of us that easily,” he said in a rather milder tone than I would have been inclined to use myself under the circumstances.
“This is an official investigation, sanctioned by the mayor,” I added and shifted aside to allow her a view of the guards, hovering granite-faced a few yards away.
The door was reluctantly pushed aside. “I suppose you’d better come in then.”
We followed her into the shop and I took great pleasure in allowing the door to swing shut on our minders, leaving them to peer anxiously through the broken blind of the window.
“I’m Edna Walker – what exactly can I do for you?” The woman took up a defiant stance by the shop counter where the light from a small lamp revealed a number of curlers still nestling in her wild mane of thick dark hair. The rest of the room receded into a gloom from which I was sure I could sense numerous pairs of eyes watching me. It was impossible to see far into the shadows but a thick musty smell and random scuttling noises told of creatures unknown lurking in every corner. It was not easy to maintain concentration when the very shop itself seemed to be alive but I endeavoured to get straight to the point.
“We need some information about one of your customers,” I told her. “A chap by the name of Svankmeyer.”
“Never heard of him,” replied Edna, just a touch too quickly.
“He bought rabbits from you,” said Michael. “Probably quite a lot of rabbits.”
Edna hesitated, eyeing us keenly. I tried to arrange my features into an expression that might convey an aura of trustworthy authority. This was rather harder than I might have anticipated due to the fact that I was rather distracted by a glimpse of something slithering in a glass tank in a shadowy corner.
Abruptly the mask of defiance fell from Edna’s face and she looked at us with something approaching fear. “I didn’t have anything to do with that business in the sky, you know,” she said quickly.
“No, that’s okay, we know you didn’t,” I hastened to reassure her.
“I’m just a regular shop-keeper,” Edna protested.
“We understand,” sympathised Michael.
“Just an ordinary seller of domestic pets,” Edna was not to be deflected. “Though for some that’s enough to mark you out. I tell them I don’t touch anything exotic or wild but they won’t have it.”
I offered Edna an understanding nod despite the fact that a rather alarming squawk that suddenly issued from the shadows inclined me to some sympathy with her accusers.
“I’m just trying to earn an honest, straightforward living,” Edna announced in a plea that I suspected was directed somewhere beyond Michael and I.
“We know you are,” I responded. “And we have no issue with you or your shop. But we know that Svankmeyer has bought pets from you and we just need to find out if you have an address for him.”
Edna sighed as though relieved to have finally got her complaints off her chest and turned to look behind the counter. Her curlered head bobbed beneath the desk for a few moments and came back up with a pile of receipts which she spent a few moments sorting out.
“Here we are,” she finally announced. “I remember now. Bought a few hamsters off me first of all before he moved onto rabbits.”
“But do you have an address?” asked Michael urgently.
“Mostly he collected his goods from the shop but we did do a couple of deliveries,” replied Edna. “Bun Street, that’s the address.”
Michael hurriedly smoothed out the map of the city which we’d been foresighted enough to obtain from the mayor’s office before we left. He squinted through the gloom at it for a few seconds before issuing an exclamation. “There it is! Runs parallel to the street on which Martin lives.”
“That’s got to be it,” I pronounced excitedly. “What number was it?” I asked Edna.
Edna sadly shook her head. “Sorry. Bun Street – that’s all I got.”
I glanced fearfully at Michael. “Bun Street wouldn’t happen to be quite short, would it?” I asked hopefully.
Michael offered up the map for my examination. Short was certainly not a word you would use to describe Bun Street. It started not far from the edge of town and appeared to snake halfway across the city.
“Are you sure you don’t have any idea which part of Bun Street you delivered to?” I asked Edna desperately.
She thought for a moment. “I suppose I could always ask Tim, my son,” she said. “He’s the one who usually does the deliveries.”
“If you wouldn’t mind,” said Michael. “We would be extremely grateful.”
Edna nodded and shuffled off through a door lying in the darker reaches of the shop. For a few minutes we were left nervously alone with only the occasional rustle in the shadows for company.
Fortunately it wasn’t long before Edna returned, propelling before her a skinny, gangly young lad of about sixteen. “This is my son, Tim,” she announced with a surfeit of maternal pride.
I looked at him in some surprise. As a delivery boy for a pet shop I had expected some strapping youth capable of wrestling any kind of beast into submission. Tim rather looked as though he might struggle to master a guinea pig if it chose to get a bit uppity.
“Do you remember taking some rabbits to a customer by the name of Svankmeyer?” I nonetheless asked him.
“Oh yes,” replied Tim with a sniff. “Funny looking fella, isn’t he?”
“That’s the one,” responded Michael. “Can you remember which house number you delivered to?”
“He was never in a house as I remember,” replied Tim. “He always used to meet me in the street.”
I threw a puzzled glance at Michael, unable to figure the significance of this remark. “Can you remember whereabouts on the street you used to meet him?” I asked Tim.
Tim sniffed thoughtfully. “Dunno,” he shrugged. “It might come back to me if I was to head down Bun Street.”
Edna instantly slung a protective arm around Tim’s shoulders. “Oh, I don’t know whether you should be going out just now,” she said hastily. “Not with all this trouble in the sky.”
“Don’t worry Mrs Walker, we’ll take good care of Tim,” insisted Michael.
“And it would be very helpful if he could show us where he met Svankmeyer,” I added.
Edna hesitated, glancing rather fearfully in the direction of our two guards whose faces were still pressed up against the shop window. She glanced worriedly from the guards to Tim to ourselves. “Well, if you can assure me that nothing odd will occur to my boy,” she said slowly.
My attempt at a look of calm savoir faire was somewhat disrupted by an unexpected screech from the darkest corner of the shop. When I had dragged myself back down from the shop ceiling, I managed to offer up my most reassuring smile. “No problem Mrs Walker. Tim will be as safe as houses with us.”
Tim decided that only an accurate recreation of his original trip to Bun Street would serve to jog his memory and so Michael and I had to wait around out the front of Walker’s Pets whilst he retrieved the bicycle on which he customarily made his deliveries. It turned out to be a rickety old-fashioned model with a large wicker basket attached to the front in which resided a rather mangy looking ginger cat. Whether the cat was destined for delivery somewhere or simply a companion Tim didn’t bother to say but the animal imperviously peered over the top of the basket whilst Tim wobbled off down the street. Michael and I trailed at a short distance, admiring the skilful way in which Tim appeared to have mastered a technique of mounting and dismounting whilst still in motion by way of compensation for the fact that the bicycle was far too big for him.
Proceeding in this fashion to Bun Street may have taken a little longer than I would have liked but did at least afford the possibility to call in at a café along the way and acquire a long-delayed breakfast to be eaten on the run. I was still wolfing down the last of my bacon sandwich when Tim came to a sudden halt by the edge of a tenement building at the lower end of Bun Street.
Propping up his bike against the edge of the pavement he glanced around himself thoughtfully for a few moments before announcing, “This is it. This is where I saw him.”
I glanced around rather uncertainly myself. It was difficult to get a bearing in the warren of lanes that criss-crossed this part of town but I figured we couldn’t have been more than a few hundred yards from Martin’s basement flat. However, there didn’t appear to be a great deal to distinguish this bland, functional stretch of road from any other we had passed along the way. “Are you sure it was here?” I asked Tim.
“Positive,” replied Tim decisively. “I remember the scuff on that wall there.” He pointed across the road to where a vehicle had obviously had a brush with a corner of the building and left a scraping of paint upon the wall. It was undoubtedly the only feature in a truly featureless environment.
Michael looked up at the tall apartment blocks that leaned over us from every angle. “Oh hell, it could take us weeks to check all these apartments,” he complained in dismay.
“Never mind that,” I retorted. “There’s nowhere here to park a bicycle, let alone a fleet of flying machines.”
As Tim sniffed and began tickling the ears of his feline travelling companion and Michael peered hopelessly into random ground-floor windows I slumped rather helplessly onto the kerb. It seemed our only lead to Svankmeyer had hit a dead end and I found it rather difficult to concentrate on thinking up an alternative plan with the hulking presence of our ever watchful minders just a few feet away.
I was still struggling to stir my brain into some form of productive action when the door of the tenement block opposite swung open. From within emerged a tall, slender man whose dress could only be described as distinctive and whose manner was best summed up as agitated. The basis of his clothing appeared to be a beige safari suit but it was adorned with such a profusion of badges, patches and post-it notes that most of the material was hidden from view. A belt made up of small mirrors was slung around his waist and a couple of mirrored epaulettes glinted on his shoulders. An assortment of items hung on chains around his neck including a notebook, a pen and a whistle. His age was difficult to ascertain at first glance but I was inclined to put him in the fifty-plus range due to the small tufts of grey hair which could be seen poking from beneath the leather flying helmet and goggles that topped his head.
Paying no attention at all to either Tim or our guards he made a beeline direct for Michael and I, waving and shouting as though entirely unaware that his appearance alone was quite sufficient to attract our attention. “It’s you, yes you!” he cried out excitedly. “It is you, isn’t it?”
“Is it?” I found myself responding uncertainly. After all, the effect of his bizarre approach was such as to render me not entirely confident that I was in fact me.
The stranger quickly flicked through the pages of the notebook hanging around his neck. “No, it is you,” he confirmed decisively. “I saw you, both of you. You were talking to Martin Croft in the street.”
“Oh yes, that was us,” I confessed.
“Do you know where he is? I need to speak to him rather urgently.”
“Martin’s been, er… unavoidably detained,” explained Michael. “Is there anything we can help you with?”
The stranger glanced a full 360 degrees around with a distinctly conspiratorial air, though his eyes passed over the imperturbable figures of our two guards without appearing to take any notice. When he came back round to us he looked pointedly upwards. “There have been strange things in the skies,” he said in a stage whisper. “It didn’t look like them but you never can tell.”
“It didn’t look like who?” asked Michael, vaguely bewildered.
The stranger leaned a little closer and dropped his voice even lower. “Explorers,” he murmured.
An almost forgotten connection suddenly lit up in the back of my head. “Colonel Pendlebury?” I asked hesitantly.
The stranger jumped smartly to attention. “At your service,” he replied proudly. Then, almost as abruptly, his forehead wrinkled in concern. “How do you know my name?”
“Martin told us,” I hastened to explain. “We were hoping to speak to you. He said you might know a bit about the Explorer’s Club.”
Colonel Pendlebury anxiously fingered his belt of mirrors. “What do you know of the Explorer’s Club?” he asked us warily.
“Not a great deal,” admitted Michael.
“Someone we know seems to have got mixed up with them and we just wanted to find out a bit about what they might be up to,” I said.
Colonel Pendlebury flicked through his notebook again and did another 360 degree take of the area. He glared keenly at us for a moment. “I can tell you all about the Explorer’s Club,” he finally announced. “But you’d better come inside. You never know who may be listening out here.”