The truck bounced along the dusty road with Michael and I perched on the back surrounded by crates of fruit and vegetables. It had seemed only right to grant Colonel Pendlebury the one available seat beside the driver. It was now almost four days since we had left Constantinople and it seemed the further we progressed towards our destination the more limited our transport options became. For this, what we hoped would be the last stage of our journey, we had been reduced to hitching a lift with Frank, who drove his battered delivery truck between the more remote towns of the region.
The landscape was also growing progressively more desolate with every passing mile. The rough, pot-hole strewn road along which we currently bounced weaved its way through a succession of bleak, craggy mountains punctuated by stretches of arid desert. Having very quickly exhausted our I-spy repertoire, Michael and I were now reduced to passing the time by instigating a juggling contest with a few spare tomatoes. I was just beginning to develop quite a knack for it when we were interrupted by a cry from the driver’s cab.
“Here we are!” called out Frank suddenly, bringing my skilful display of the juggling art to a crashing halt. “Welcome to Romulus!”
Wiping the juice of several splattered tomatoes from my jeans, I turned around eagerly to inspect our surroundings. The truck was just pulling up in the centre of a wide, sandy high street lined with a jumble of rickety wooden buildings. Somewhat disconcertingly it appeared that this was not only the main street of the town of Romulus, but quite possibly the only street. There seemed to be nothing beyond but a few scattered outbuildings on one side and a bleak, forbidding mountain looming up on the other.
“Are you quite sure this is the right place?” asked Michael as he and I scrambled uncertainly down from the back of the truck and Colonel Pendlebury disembarked from the passenger seat.
“Oh yes,” replied Frank confidently. By way of proof he pointed out the sign overhanging a low, dark building just behind us which read, ‘Romulus General Stores’.
“But I thought we were supposed to be in the sci-fi heartlands,” I protested. There was very little that looked current, let alone futuristic, about this forlorn settlement. In fact, a quick glance around suggested that Frank’s rusting pick-up quite possibly constituted the most advanced form of technology here.
Frank scratched thoughtfully at his stubble. “Well, this is the very edge of the heartlands,” he conceded. “Things do get a bit confused.” And then, with a cheery wave and a crunch of his gears, he roared off, leaving us choking in a cloud of dust.
When the dust finally settled I gazed hopelessly up and down the empty street. It really seemed to lack only a forlorn piece of tumbleweed drifting sorrowfully across the road for the picture of desolation to be complete. But gradually my ears latched on to what appeared to be the distant tinkle of a piano and the sound of voices. A glance at my companions confirmed that they heard it too and together we began to walk slowly down the street in search of the source of the noise.
We came to a halt in front of a low, wide building boasting a long veranda that stood in the shadow of the mountain. A few cracked wooden steps led up to a pair of swing doors, above which hung a sign that read, ‘Saloon Bar’. I couldn’t help but notice with some consternation that the two O’s of Saloon appeared to be a popular site for target practice, peppered as they were with bullet holes of varying calibre. As such, I was inclined to approach the place with a certain amount of caution but whilst I peered guardedly over the saloon doors Colonel Pendlebury sailed cheerfully through without pause. There seemed little option but for Michael and myself to follow him directly in.
The interior of the saloon bar was bright and noisy. Variously be-hatted patrons supped whisky at tables scattered across a sawdust-strewn floor and in one corner a player-less Pianola decanted a jaunty tune. I noticed with a degree of bemusement that in another corner a group of young men were gathered around a 1980s style Space Invaders machine. Frank had clearly not been wrong when he suggested that things were apt to get a bit confused around here. I was relieved at least to note that strangers didn’t appear much of a concern to the regular clientele for we merited no more than a cursory glance or two as we followed Colonel Pendlebury over to the bar.
A grizzled bartender put down the glass he was lazily polishing and stepped forward to greet us. His thick neck and low brow gave a rather fearsome aspect to his appearance but his welcoming smile seemed genuine enough. “Hey there folks,” he said, wiping his hands down on his grubby apron. “What can I get you?”
A swift glance along the bar ascertained that the choice appeared to consist of whisky, whisky or whisky.
“Three whiskies please,” said Michael.
“New in town, ain’t you?” remarked the bartender as he poured out three glasses. “So what brings you folks to Romulus? As if I couldn’t guess.”
“We’re hoping to find someone we’ve been told lives here,” I replied.
It seemed the bartender couldn’t have guessed after all as he received this answer with an expression of surprise. “Really? Who might that be?” he asked.
“Chap by the name of…” began Colonel Pendlebury before he drifted off into a haphazard inspection of the post-it notes adorning his suit for a clue.
“Clarence Milton Hayward,” supplied Michael. “You wouldn’t happen to know him by any chance?”
“Clarence?” responded the bartender. “Why, sure I know Clarence. That’s him right over there.”
We followed the bartender’s outstretched arm to a table in the centre of the room around which four men were gathered, playing poker. The player on the far side of the table – a heavily built man sporting an eye-patch and a wide brimmed hat – was just in the process of weighing up a raise from his opponent – a smooth-faced young dandy in an embroidered waistcoat and cravat. The two players on either side – a bald, fidgety chap in rimless spectacles and a cheroot-toting hipster – appeared to have already thrown in their hands. It didn’t seem to me that any of them much looked like they might invent cutting-edge quantum travel devices in their spare time.
Colonel Pendlebury, however, was not to be slowed down by such concerns. With a confident cry of, “Bingo!” he instantly sallied forth in the direction of the poker table. Michael and I, as ever, were left to scurry after him. Before any of us managed to reach the table though the course of the poker game took an unexpected turn.
After careful consideration, the eye patch-wearer finally pushed his heap of coins into the centre of the table in order to see his opponent’s hand. In response the dandy laid down a pair of aces with a triumphant flourish. The unexpected appearance of this winning hand clearly did not sit well with the eye patch-wearer. He sat and glowered silently as the dandy began to scoop up the substantial pot from the centre of the table. And when the dandy threw him back a consolatory coin with the words, “Better luck next time Jake”, he exploded.
Springing up from his chair with a feverish roar, Jake overturned the heavy wooden table as though he were flipping a card. As the other two players backed hastily away, Jake made a wild lunge for the dandy with a ferocious growl of, “Why you cheating little low life Hayward.”
Barely had I reflected that at least this identified our inter-dimensional travel pioneer for us when Hayward, springing nimbly back from Jake’s grasp, collided heavily with me. In the moment of impact I just noticed two playing cards dislodge themselves from Hayward’s sleeve and flutter gently to the ground before he somehow bounced away and staggered into Michael. Some instinct compelled me to quickly step over the fallen cards before anyone else had chance to spot them.
Hayward was still trying to disentangle himself from Michael when Jake managed to grasp him at the second attempt and hauled him forward by the lapels of his immaculately tailored jacket. “Where d’ya get that second ace from you no good little tick?” Jake snarled.
Hayward could only gasp wordlessly like a fish stranded on dry land. I forced myself to remain perfectly still, resisting an urge to look down and check the surplus cards were properly hidden beneath my shoes.
Unable to get a response, Jake let go of Hayward’s lapels and, almost wrenching his arms out of their sockets in the process, made a swift and brutal inspection of his sleeves. Hayward turned a sickly shade of green but, as much I imagine to his own surprise as Jake’s, the brusque personal search revealed nothing.
“What the…?” spluttered Jake, proceeding to shake Hayward violently back and forth, presumably in the expectation that the offending cards would thus be shaken loose. Whilst he was thus absorbed I surreptitiously dropped to my knees and, under the pretence of re-tying a shoe-lace, hastily slid the items in question out from under my feet and into my pocket. By the time I stood back up I could see that Jake had got hold of Hayward by the collar with the apparent intention of hoisting him upside down in an effort to tip out the evidence of his cheating.
He was halted by the low, authoritative voice of the bartender. “Alright Jake, that’s enough,” he instructed from his station behind the bar. “Put the boy down.”
“This low down sneak has gone and cheated me again,” growled Jake, clearly loath to relinquish his grip.
“Now, you ain’t got no proof of that, have you?” countered the bartender in a tone that suggested he was as surprised by this fact as anyone. “So maybe you’d best just chalk this one down to experience.”
Jake snarled for a few more seconds before reluctantly releasing Hayward with a sharp shove that sent him staggering back into Michael’s arms. “You stay away from me you lousy little cheat,” barked Jake, sloping away to another table.
“I resent that,” Hayward called out indignantly to the retreating Jake in a futile attempt to regain a little dignity now that the immediate danger had passed. “You ought to watch yourself, making false accusations.”
But Jake didn’t even bother to turn around. “Don’t push your luck Clarence,” advised the bartender wearily.
The entertainment clearly over, the other customers went back to their own business, leaving Clarence to scrape up the rest of his overturned winnings from the floor. Sensing an opportunity, I knelt down to assist him.
“Thank-you kindly Miss…?” said Clarence, giving me a rather frank once-over as I handed him the last of his spilt coins.
I made a concerted effort not to be offended. “Everingham, Natasha Everingham,” I replied.
“Very pleased to meet you. I’m Clarence M Hayward.” Clarence tipped an imaginary hat in my direction.
“These are my friends,” I added. “Michael Redgrave, Colonel Pendlebury.” Clarence noted the presence of my colleagues with noticeably less enthusiasm. “We wondered if we might have a word with you.”
Clarence regarded us with a suspicious eye as he tucked away his winnings but consented nonetheless to sit down with us at the nearest table.
“The thing is,” I said slowly, not quite sure how best to approach the matter. “We’ve heard a great deal about you and your work,” I eventually lied.
“My work?” echoed Clarence uncertainly.
“Yes, we’re very interested in learning some more about a particular invention of yours,” I continued.
“Invention?” Clarence momentarily wore a puzzled frown. “Oh, I get it. You’re confusing me with Pops.”
“My father,” Clarence explained. “Clarence Milton Hayward Snr – he did the inventing. I’m Clarence Milton Hayward Jnr.”
“Oh.” Several things suddenly seemed to make more sense.
“Where might we find your father?” asked Michael politely.
“In the cemetery behind St Saviour’s Chapel,” replied Clarence bluntly. “He’s dead.”
Michael and I automatically adopted an appropriately sympathetic pose. Colonel Pendlebury unfortunately rather spoiled the effect by loudly muttering, “Dead? That’s damned inconvenient.”
Luckily Clarence took no notice. “Just out of interest,” he said after a moments pause. “Which invention of Pops is it that you are interested in?”
“We were told he invented something called an inter-dimensional travel drive,” I said uncertainly. “And, well, we’d quite like to get our hands on one.”
Clarence struck his thigh in a gesture of frustration. “I knew that gadget of Pops was bound to stir up some interest. If only he’d let me handle the negotiations.”
“I’m afraid even if old Pops were still around you’d find the deeds to that particular little gizmo had already been sold off. Some guys turned up at Pops’ workshop one day out of the blue. Said they belonged to some club or other. The Expeditionary Club was it? Or the Expatriates?”
“The Explorer’s Club,” suggested Colonel Pendlebury with a shudder.
“That’s the one,” replied Clarence. “Anyway, they offered Pops a deal for the exclusive rights and he took it. I told him he was a fool.” Clarence shook his head sorrowfully. “I knew there was bound to be more interest. We could have really pushed the price up on the open market. But that was the trouble with Pops, he never really understood the value of money.”
“And you’re sure he sold everything?” queried Michael. “He wouldn’t have kept a set of blueprints for himself, would he? Perhaps if we could have a look round his workshop…”
“No can do I’m afraid,” replied Clarence. “It burned down just a day or two after those Explorer fellas left. With Pops inside unfortunately – that’s how he died.” Clarence paused and shook his head thoughtfully. “It was funny that – he was normally so careful when it came to working with anything flammable but the place just went up like a tinder-box.”
There was an awkward silence during which Michael and I exchanged a glance. Colonel Pendlebury said nothing but gave his mirrored epaulettes a hasty polish with the end of his sleeve.
“Is there anyone else who might know about your father’s invention?” I eventually asked, clutching at straws. “Someone who helped him out or with whom he discussed his work?”
“What? Out of this bunch of boneheads?” retorted Clarence, gesturing disdainfully around the bar. “No, there was only one person in this town who Pops really spoke to and he’s…” His words died away as he stared thoughtfully into the distance.
“He’s what?” prompted Michael.
But Clarence was still lost in a world of his own. “Could it be?” he muttered to himself. “Maybe, just maybe.” Suddenly he looked up at us with an excited gleam. “Do you know – there’s just a chance that something got overlooked when Pops made his deal. I wouldn’t make any promises but maybe, just maybe, there’s still a working prototype of his invention lying undiscovered in this very town.”
“That’s brilliant!” I exclaimed. “Where is it?”
But Clarence leaned back in his chair and tucked his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets. “Well now, that’s pretty valuable information I reckon,” he remarked with a sly smile. “I couldn’t possibly release it unless I could be sure of getting a good price in return. So what I need to know first is, just what do you have to offer?”
There were a sequence of uncomfortable glances exchanged on our side of the table. This was exactly the type of question we had been hoping to avoid. After all, the funds that had been keeping us going since our Pirate adventures were running disturbingly low and I didn’t fancy that Clarence looked like the kind of bloke who would settle for a dirty limerick or a Shakespearean recitation in payment.
“I’m sure we can come to some sort of amicable arrangement,” bluffed Michael.
“Ha! I thought as much,” retorted Clarence. “Well, I’m not such a fool as Pops. I’m sure you’ll understand if I choose not to disclose my information until I find someone with the means to pay for it.”
Whilst both Colonel Pendlebury and Michael spluttered unhappily I found I was able to smile. “Of course not,” I returned smoothly, dipping my hand into my pocket. “And I’m sure you’ll understand if I choose to show your one-eyed friend over there just what you were hiding up your sleeve during your poker game.”
Clarence gasped in horror at the sight of the two playing cards I had rescued from the floor earlier.
“So you did cheat,” said Michael in a tone of disappointment.
“Cheeky young pup!” remarked Colonel Pendlebury.
Recovering his poise, Clarence attempted to brazen out his unmasking. “I’ve never seen those cards before in my life,” he insisted.
“Of course not,” I replied calmly. “No doubt you’ll be able to convince Jake of that too. After all, he struck me as a pretty reasonable looking bloke.”
Clarence held out for a few seconds more but when I opted to call his bluff by rising from my chair he frantically grabbed my arm. “Alright, alright,” he conceded desperately. “I’ll tell you what I know.”
I resumed my seat but kept a firm hold on the playing cards whilst I looked at him expectantly.
Clarence sighed. “Not that it makes much difference anyway,” he said with an unhappy shake of his head. “Even if I share what I know it’s highly unlikely any of us will be able to actually recover the device anyway.”
“Why not?” asked Michael. “Where is it?”
“Well, if I’m right in my suppositions,” replied Clarence. “The only remaining inter-dimensional travel device is currently lying somewhere slap bang in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountain.”
To be continued…