Colonel Pendlebury darted through the narrow streets and alleys with Michael and I trailing in his wake. For a man of mature years he showed a surprising turn of speed. His sense of direction, unfortunately, appeared rather less sure. Our progress was interrupted by frequent pauses and hesitations, several abrupt changes of direction and, on more than one occasion, a complete 180 degree turn. I had just reached the conclusion that Colonel Pendlebury had no more idea of where he was headed than I did when we were halted by a sudden cry of exclamation.
“That’s the one!” he shouted gleefully. Without further explanation he darted down a short flight of steps to our right and disappeared into a basement café.
Michael and I followed, passing through a doorway into a long, low cellar dotted with tables. In one corner stood a highly polished bar adorned with an array of exotic-looking bottles. The only customers were a couple of young men hunched over a game of backgammon by the doorway and an elderly gentleman puffing disinterestedly on a hookah at the rear of the cellar. In the middle of one wall a television set was suspended from a bracket, its glitzy images of yet another Turkish game show ignored by all.
Colonel Pendlebury made a beeline for the table opposite the television set. It seemed to me to be far from the best seat in the house but I was glad of the chance to get off my weary feet. We had barely sat down before an enthusiastic waiter with shiny hair darted out from behind the bar. “Selam my friends,” he said cheerily, approaching our table. “May I get you something to drink?”
“Not now,” replied Colonel Pendlebury rather brusquely. “We’re waiting for someone.” The waiter retreated sullenly back to the bar.
“So Sturridge really is coming here to meet us?” Michael said to Colonel Pendlebury with a touch of surprise.
“In a manner of speaking,” replied Colonel Pendlebury airily.
“And just what manner of speaking would that be?” I asked suspiciously.
But Colonel Pendlebury had allowed his attention to be distracted by the game show on the television screen and ignored the question.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” Michael began again after a moments silence, “just exactly how did you manage to get in touch with Sturridge?” I could sense a hint of wounded pride in his enquiry. It did seem a touch galling, not to mention rather unlikely, that after all our travails it should be the absent-minded Colonel Pendlebury who located the missing Sturridge.
“Ah well, I have my methods,” replied Colonel Pendlebury elusively. As it soon became apparent that he had no intention of elucidating just exactly what those methods might be another lull then developed in the conversation.
Sensing an opportunity the waiter sallied forth from the bar for another attempt at taking our order. “We have some excellent Raki or perhaps one of our fine range of liqueurs might appeal,” he suggested amiably.
But Colonel Pendlebury was quick to shoo him away again. The waiter retreated back behind the bar and pointedly buried his head in a newspaper in order to demonstrate a fit of pique.
I stared after him rather forlornly. A strong drink might well have proved quite welcome just then. Recalling the circumstances in which my last conversation with CJ Sturridge had ended I couldn’t help regarding the prospect of a face to face meeting with a certain apprehension. Had something occurred, I wondered, to change his attitude since I had picked up the phone in the empty office building in Stafford Harcourt? Or was he likely to launch another withering volley of abuse the moment he turned up? I peered anxiously at Colonel Pendlebury for some sort of clue but he was once more absorbed in the events on the television screen.
The minutes ticked by.
The backgammon players by the door finished their game and left. The elderly gentleman with the hookah appeared to have fallen into a doze and was snoring gently. Michael took to listlessly drumming out a tune with his fingers on the table top and I absent- mindedly toyed with a serviette. Still there was no sign of Sturridge.
An air of somnolence had settled over the entire café by the time the television screen suddenly emitted a high pitched shriek, causing everyone to jump. As I gaped at it, somewhat bemused, the picture began to crackle and sway. Then the screen went blank for a few seconds. When the picture reappeared a few moments later we found we were no longer watching the glitzy game show. Instead, staring directly out of the screen at us was none other than CJ Sturridge.
I must confess that I gasped. Michael made an odd sort of gurgling sound that might technically count as a splutter. The waiter briefly poked his head out from behind his newspaper, gave a weary sigh that suggested such interruptions to the regularly scheduled programming were a common occurrence in his bar, and went back to his reading.
Sturridge was seated amidst a bewildering array of technological equipment, a confused jumble of dials, monitors and mechanisms of varying age and sophistication. He fiddled attentively with a couple of switches, then leaned forward and anxiously rapped his fingers on the screen in front of him. “Hello? Can you hear me?” he called out to nobody in particular.
Colonel Pendlebury slapped his hand down triumphantly on the table. “By Jove sir, I knew you’d make it!” he exclaimed. “Receiving you loud and clear.”
Sturridge’s eyes gradually came into focus on our table, which was when I realised that the television acted as a two-way screen – he could see us as clearly as we could see him. He shifted upright with a business-like expression on his lean, trim face. “I’ve found a good signal but we can’t talk for long,” he began sharply. “You never know who might be listening.”
Colonel Pendlebury sprang to attention in his seat. “Right-ho,” he replied briskly. “I’ve assembled the troops and we await your instruction.”
Sturridge turned slightly to fix his gaze upon me. I felt a faint flush rising up through my cheeks.
“Hello Natasha,” he said simply.
“Hello,” I replied rather flatly.
“You’re looking well,” he added tentatively.
“Am I?” I retorted. “Well enough, I suppose, for a second rate student who’s only out to pinch your ideas.” Right up to the moment the words left my mouth it had been my intention to play the whole scene with a certain detached cool. Unfortunately my wounded pride rather got the better of me.
Sturridge’s face fell into a sheepish frown. “Ah, right, yes,” he stuttered. “Look, I’m sorry about those things that I said but you have to appreciate I was only trying to warn you off.”
“Warn me off?” I repeated uncertainly.
“Of course. I suppose I do have to take some responsibility for dragging you into a landscape that’s hardly the safest place at the best of times,” confessed Sturridge. “And, well, it was rapidly becoming obvious that following me was going to be an especially dangerous pursuit. So I had to do something to try and make you turn back.”
“Oh you did, did you?”
“But as it was perfectly clear that you weren’t much deterred by a little spot of danger here and there I thought I had better try a different tactic,” continued Sturridge. “It occurred to me that perhaps the best way of getting you to leave me alone was just to act like a complete jerk.”
“Oh,” I said, a light slowly dawning.
“Naturally, I should have known that someone as perceptive as you would see through such a scheme in about five minutes flat.”
“I suppose really I’m quite glad that you weren’t discouraged. I guess you weren’t fooled for a moment, were you?”
“Well…” I began uncertainly. I looked up to find that Sturridge was gazing at me with n expectant expression that suddenly made me feel it would be rather cruel to disappoint him. “I suppose I may have had an inkling,” I modestly replied.
There was a distinct snort from the opposite side of the table. Following the sound, Sturridge’s eyes came to rest with an eager curiosity upon Michael. I felt obliged to effect an introduction. “Oh yeah, you haven’t met, have you? Michael, this is CJ Sturridge. CJ Sturridge, Michael Redgrave.”
“This is indeed an honour,” proclaimed Sturridge. “I’m sure Natasha has told you many times how much we both enjoyed your performance in The Lady Vanishes.”
“Not as often as you’d think,” Michael pointedly replied.
“And how well I remember catching Dead of Night on a late night double bill at the Phoenix in East Finchley,” Sturridge continued. “Now that really was a remarkable performance.” Michael responded with a coy smile. “And of course there’s The Browning Version. And The Dambusters is such a classic…”
“I thought you said you didn’t have long,” I interrupted, fearing that this was beginning to look like it might take some time.
“Yes, sorry, quite right,” said Sturridge. “Anyway, once my little ruse had failed I thought it best to get in touch with Colonel Pendlebury and arrange this meeting.”
“Ah, so it was you who got in touch with Colonel Pendlebury, not vice versa.” Michael threw an accusatory glance at Colonel Pendlebury on hearing this news but the Colonel had developed a sudden interest in a patch of floor and failed to react.
“Well, yes, I thought that if you were determined to stick around then it would make sense for us to join forces,” said Sturridge. “The truth is, I need your help.”
“Our help with what exactly?” I asked.
“Your help to stop the Explorer’s Club of course,” replied Sturridge. “We have to find a way of cracking their plans for reaching the original idea at the heart of the landscape.”
“What? Are you worried that they’re going to be beat you to it?” I retorted. “So this is just about you thinking somebody’s out to pinch your idea, after all.”
“No, it’s not like that,” insisted Sturridge. “It’s not about who gets there first, it’s about what you intend to do when, or if, you ever get there. Listen, I’m the one who came to the Explorer’s Club in the first place because I thought they saw the landscape in the same way I did – as a place of discovery, a place to find some kind of meaning. And maybe it was like that once. But things have changed. The people in charge now…”
“Hounds and rotters!” interjected Colonel Pendlebury enthusiastically. We all turned, expecting something more, but it seemed this was all he had to add for the time being.
“These people don’t just want to discover any more, they want to seize and control,” Sturridge went on. “And if they ever find their way to seizing the original idea at the heart of the landscape, well… Let’s just say I’m afraid I may have inadvertently set them on a path that will have devastating consequences for everybody.”
I began twisting a serviette once again whilst I considered what Sturridge was saying. I felt an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu. For a moment it was as though I were back in the bar of the Watershed in Bristol where this whole adventure had started, adrift once again in a sea of outlandish ideas.
“You’ve got your doubting face on again young Natasha,” remarked Sturridge with a wry smile.
“Can you blame me?” I replied.
Sturridge sighed. “Look, I perfectly understand if you want to have nothing more to do with this, if you want to just turn around and make your way back to reality. After all, I guess that if it hadn’t been for me you would never have left that life to come to the landscape in the first place. You probably have things you want to get back to…”
“No, it’s not that exactly,” I interrupted hurriedly. Although Sturridge’s words had just served to remind me that I had a family, a boyfriend and a 2000 word critical evaluation waiting for me in the real world.
“It’s just that I’m convinced that I have to stop the Explorer’s Club from getting anywhere near that original idea,” Sturridge continued earnestly. “And I’m not sure I can do it on my own. I need your help.”
I continued to tear at the serviette for a moment or two more before I turned to Michael. “Well, what do you think?” I asked.
Michael considered the question carefully for a moment. “Well, we came to the landscape to find Sturridge so I guess in one sense our mission is now accomplished,” he finally said. Glancing up at the screen I could sense Sturridge itching to reply but he kept quiet for the moment. “On the other hand,” Michael continued, “I can’t help but think there’s something more to our presence here than just that.”
“You think those ‘powers that be’ that sent us here would expect us to help stop the Explorer’s Club?” I asked.
Michael lapsed into an embarrassed shrug. “As you’re always so quick to point out I wasn’t entirely well briefed on that score,” he confessed. “But it doesn’t sound beyond the realms of possibility.” He paused and then shrugged again. “I guess it’s really your call.”
I gazed thoughtfully at the shredded remains of the serviette for a minute. Finally, I turned to the television screen. “Alright then, what exactly do you want us to do?” I asked.
Sturridge smiled. “Firstly, I want you to get me an inter-dimensional travel drive,” he said.
Three puzzled faces gazed back at him from our table. “What exactly is an inter-dimensional travel drive?” Michael was the first to ask.
“You must have heard of inter-dimensional travel surely?” replied Sturridge with a hint of exasperation. “It’s a way of moving from one spot in the landscape to another in the blink of an eye. After all, if you’re going to make your way to the very heart of the landscape of the imagination you can’t expect to just hitch there – you’re going to need something pretty special to get you across all that time and space. And the Explorer’s Club seem to believe they have found the answer in inter-dimensional travel. If you have the right piece of kit and the right coordinates you can move anyone, or anything, anywhere.”
“Anything?” said Michael. “Like perhaps a whole building, say?”
“Did you know they stole a whole apartment block from Stafford Harcourt?” I threw in. “Just lifted it straight off the street apparently.”
“Yes, I know,” replied Sturridge. “They have it under guard not far from here.”
“Under guard? Why, what do they want with it?” asked Michael.
“I’m afraid I haven’t quite worked that one out yet,” confessed Sturridge. He frowned. “There are a few things that don’t quite add up at the moment. But if I could get hold of an inter-dimensional travel drive of my own then I could keep track of their comings and goings.”
“So where do we get hold of one?” I asked. “I don’t suppose it’s as simple as just googling the nearest inter-dimensional travel device shop by any chance?”
“I’m afraid not,” replied Sturridge with a rueful smile. “The Explorer’s Club discovered this technology out in the sci-fi heartlands and they were very careful to secure for themselves exclusive rights. Not only all the equipment but every design and patent belongs to them now.”
“So what are you expecting us to do?” said Michael with a puzzled frown. “Steal it from them?”
“Sounds like fun! We’ll sneak one out from right under the blighters’ noses!” exclaimed Colonel Pendlebury with an unexpected burst of enthusiasm.
“Impossible,” returned Sturridge. “I’ve tried my best but the security here is watertight and I don’t want to push it any further. At the moment they still think I’m more or less part of their gang and I’d rather not disabuse them of that notion until it’s absolutely necessary. They can be utterly ruthless when it comes to dealing with people who get in their way.”
Both Michael and I instinctively turned and looked at Colonel Pendlebury who fiddled momentarily with his helmet flaps and muttered, “Quite. Takes a pretty smart chap to get away from their clutches without so much as a scratch.”
“So just how are we supposed to get this technology that we can’t buy and we can’t steal?” I asked Sturridge.
“There may be one chance,” said Sturridge. “I’ve been doing a bit of research on the quiet and I’ve managed to dig up the name of the man who originally invented the whole process of inter-dimensional travel. He’s a chap by the name of Clarence Milton Hayward.”
“Clarence Milton Hayward?” I repeated uncertainly, finding it a rather unlikely sounding name for the inventor of a cutting-edge technological process.
“That’s him,” confirmed Sturridge. “And what’s more I believe he still lives in a small town by the name of Romulus that sits on the very edge of the sci-fi heartlands. I need you to track him down and somehow persuade him to make us an inter-dimensional travel drive. Bribe him, threaten him, blackmail him – I don’t care what you do but we must have a drive of our own.”
“You can rely on us,” barked Colonel Pendlebury.
“And what will you be doing whilst we’re off trailing after this Clarence Milton Hayward?” I asked.
“I’ve got one or two leads back here to chase up,” explained Sturridge. “I need to check out…”
He was interrupted mid-sentence by a strident beeping noise that suddenly burst forth from one of the machines behind him. He whipped round anxiously and began fiddling with dials.
“What’s that?” asked Michael.
“Somebody has locked onto my broadcast signal,” replied Sturridge worriedly. The persistent beeps began to rise in both pitch and frequency. “I must go.”
“How do we get back in touch with you if we find this Clarence bloke?” I asked urgently.
“You don’t,” replied Sturridge brusquely, frantically flicking switches as the beeps continued to escalate alarmingly. “I’ll find you when the time is right.” He paused and turned to us with an uncertain smile. “Good luck. And stay safe.”
Sturridge reached forward to switch off his transmission but at the last moment he hesitated and looked up with an anxious expression. “Oh, one last thing. If you should manage to get hold of an inter-dimensional travel drive, no matter what the circumstances, don’t ever…”
The screen abruptly went black.
“Don’t ever what?” I demanded anxiously.
But it seemed there was no longer anyone there to answer me. When the screen flickered back into life a couple of seconds later it was the cheery voice of the Turkish game show host which greeted us. Sturridge, it appeared, had gone.
Colonel Pendlebury excitedly clapped his hands together. “I say, this will be an adventure,” he exclaimed. “How about a drink to celebrate?” He glanced around the café with a puzzled expression before his eyes fell on the waiter, seated at the bar and still tucked behind his newspaper. “Honestly, you’d think someone might have offered to take our order by now,” complained Colonel Pendlebury loudly. “The service in this place is a joke.”
To be continued…