We stood in a row on the veranda of the Saloon Bar and gazed at the towering mountain that loomed in front of us. Under the lowering sun it appeared rather more grey than blue and it was difficult to pick out anything as definitive as a ridge along its craggy sides, suggesting that more than a little poetic licence had gone into its name. But then who would be interested in a place called Craggy Grey Mountain?
“Folk have been mining the Blue Ridge Mountain for generations,” imparted Clarence solemnly.
“Mining for what?” asked Michael.
“Gold of course,” replied Clarence. “What else could convince folk to live in a dump like this? Just about every man that ever set foot in this two-bit town was drawn here by the dream of striking gold in the Blue Ridge Mountain.”
“And did they?” I asked. “Strike gold I mean.”
“Well, there’s plenty a rich seam buried in that heap of rock,” replied Clarence thoughtfully. “But the only folk that ever truly got rich from that mountain are the Grisham brothers.”
“Who are the Grisham brothers?” Michael asked.
“They rolled into town about fifteen years ago. There were five of them originally. But one got his brains blown out in a bar-room brawl not long after they arrived. Well, that was the last time anyone laid a finger on a Grisham… And you don’t even want to contemplate what happened to that guy.” Clarence gave his head a little shake as though to dispel the unpleasant image this conjured up. “Anyway, the Grishams liked the idea of gold but weren’t so fond of the hard work involved in digging it out. So they got themselves some deeds cooked up by a no-good lawyer they knew with gambling debts. Claimed ownership of the whole mountain. Since then anyone has been welcome to go prospecting in the mines but the Grishams’ll take a 75% stake of anything you dig up.”
“Rotters,” murmured Colonel Pendlebury darkly. “Do people actually agree to this?” I said.
“What choice do they have?” shrugged Clarence. “They reckon there are about 20 miles of tunnel running through that mountain but there’s only one way in and one way out and that’s in the hands of the Grishams. Any miner caught trying to smuggle out gold without giving them their cut gets to go on mining with a couple of broken knee caps.”
“Doesn’t the law intervene?” complained Michael. He wore the vaguely outraged expression that naturally showed whenever his sense of fair play was offended.
“What law?” retorted Clarence. “This is frontier land and out here might is right.” I suspected his unhappy look was caused less by any fundamental disagreement with such an amoral principle and more by the fact that he was not endowed with any might of his own.
I gazed up doubtfully at the bleak rocky slopes. “It doesn’t seem worth all the trouble to me,” I muttered. “For what? A few chunks of precious metal.”
“Well, you clearly ain’t been touched by the gold fever,” replied Clarence. “But take a walk about the miner’s camp and you’ll find plenty that have.” He pointed to a forlorn cluster of tents that clung grimly to the lower slopes of the mountain. “I tell ya, it’s a deadly disease that’ll grind a man into the ground on the promise of the smallest fleck of gold dust.”
There was a solemn pause. “I don’t see what all this has got to do with inter-dimensional travel though,” I finally said.
“Ah well, there we come to the story of old Ratty McCulloch,” said Clarence, momentarily turning his back on the mountain.
“Who or what is Ratty McCulloch?” asked Michael.
“He was one of the original tunnel rats,” explained Clarence, leaning back on the veranda rail. “Been burrowing through that mountain for as long as anyone could remember. They say he dug further and deeper than anyone else in the Blue Ridge and he always did swear that one day he’d find the hidden seam that would have the likes of Midas himself spitting with envy. Of course, after the Grishams showed up he had to face the fact that any hoard he did scoop would mostly end up poured directly into their pockets. He’d be left with a pittance at best.” Clarence left a dramatic pause. “Unless, that is, he could find another way out of the mountain.”
“Like with an inter-dimensional travel drive, you mean?” I suggested, joining up the dots.
Clarence smiled. “Pops and Ratty used to play chess together in the saloon on Sunday afternoons. I reckon old Ratty’s eyes must have popped right out of his head when he heard Pops tell of his latest invention.”
“You think your father might have supplied this Ratty with an inter-dimensional travel drive?” said Michael.
“I know he did,” replied Clarence. “It was just a prototype but it was built along the exact same lines as the ones that Pops sold off to them Exploring folk. Ratty took it down into the mine with him about two years ago and was never seen again.” Clarence turned and gazed wistfully once more at the mountain. “Which leads me to suspect that it must be still in there somewhere.”
“I don’t see how you work that one out,” I said, rather puzzled. “I mean, supposing Ratty did find his seam of gold. He might have used the device to whisk himself off anywhere.”
“Monte Carlo!” burst out Colonel Pendlebury excitedly. “That’s where I’d go. Ten to one you’ll find him in Monte Carlo.”
Clarence shook his head firmly. “Not a chance. The prototype was just a loan. Pops made Ratty swear that the only trip he would make would be straight back to Pops’ workshop. It was supposed to be a test, you see. That way, Ratty could then disappear with his gold and Pops would have a successful trial of his invention. And Ratty wasn’t the kind to break a promise.” Again there was a faint hint of disapproval in Clarence’s tone at the notion of such scrupulous honesty. “I recall Pops was quite upset when Ratty didn’t show. He thought for a long time it must mean his invention was flawed.”
“Perhaps that particular model was flawed,” I suggested.
“Perhaps,” responded Clarence with a shrug. “But it was certainly built to the same design and specification as the later models that did work. Which, as I say, leads me to suspect that it must be still lying somewhere in that mountain.”
All our gazes now went up to the vast forbidding slab of rock before us. “But whereabouts in the mountain?” Michael mused aloud.
“Now that’s the question,” said Clarence with a rueful smile. “Like I said, they reckon there are about 20 miles of tunnel running through that mountain and old Ratty might have left that valuable piece of technology lying around in any one of them.”
I gazed down dejectedly upon the rather meagre pile of assets assembled on the table. The sun had long since set over the Blue Ridge Mountain and Michael, Colonel Pendlebury, Clarence and I were contemplating the prospects of funding an expedition into the mines in search of the lost inter-dimensional travel drive. It was not an encouraging sight. By far the largest contribution was provided by Michael and I from the remnants of our pirate hoard and that didn’t amount to much. Colonel Pendlebury had thrown in a few tattered notes of uncertain denomination, Clarence’s contribution consisted of two silver buttons and a lace handkerchief.
“It’s not very much, is it?” Clarence said dubiously.
“Well your offering certainly isn’t,” I retorted. “What happened to all that money you won in the poker game?”
“Already spoken for,” explained Clarence hastily. “One or two insistent creditors to deal with.”
“Twenty miles of tunnel, four of us to search. That could take weeks,” mused Michael. “This little lot might just about cover us staying one night here but then…”
‘Here’ was Ma Estefan’s, the best and indeed only place in Romulus, we were reliably informed, for food and accommodation. A tall, narrow building nestling up against St Saviour’s church, its rough exterior belied the lush décor inside. We were greeted on arrival by Ma Estefan herself, a small round woman wearing a long silk gown and an excess of gold jewellery, and escorted into the main salon. This was a spacious room with a grand staircase that covered pretty much the whole of the ground floor and was swathed in an array of plush fabrics in every conceivable shade of red from pale pink to brightest vermillion. The effect was rather like wandering through a branch of Laura Ashley’s in varying stages of nuclear alert. Judging from the number of scantily clad young women darting up and down the staircase, board and lodging were not the only services the establishment offered.
“We cater for a whole range of recreational needs,” explained Ma Estefan smoothly as she guided us to a table on one side of the room. “I like to think we can provide anything a gentleman – or lady – might require to make them comfortable.”
We settled for the time being for four steak dinners and two bottles of red wine. The food was undoubtedly good and afterwards everyone was inclined to lean back in their chairs and relax. The salon certainly provided an interesting tableaux for the curious. With dining tables like ours down one side and sofas and chairs spread along the other, it provided a discreetly public place where all manner of wares could be sampled, assignations made and deals struck. In one corner a grey haired old man played the piano, intermittently accompanied by temporarily available ladies keen to catch the eye of a potential customer.
“Now would you listen to that,” Clarence murmured, lurching forward in his chair and gazing lustfully across at a busty young woman embarking on a throaty rendition of a popular ballad. “Ah Matilda May, she’s the one for me. Dearest Matty.” He turned back to us, flushed with wine. “I know what you’re thinking but it’s not like that. We have a genuine connection. I plan to take her away from all this,” (he waved his arm casually in a manner that could be intended to indicate just the piano, or the whole room, or in fact the whole town), “just as soon as I get what I’m owed from that invention of Pops.”
“Of course, we have to find it first,” I pointed out. “Are you sure you don’t have any idea whereabouts in the mines Ratty McCulloch was digging?”
Clarence sniffed. “No, they kept their cards pretty close to their chests, them old tunnel rats,” he said. “Always frightened some other miner’d nip in and empty their seam when they weren’t looking.”
“But presumably you know enough of the mines to be able to tell us where to start,” suggested Michael.
“Not really,” shrugged Clarence. “I never go anywhere near them.”
“Never?” I said.
“Certainly not, it’s dangerous,” retorted Clarence. “Never go down in them mines boy, Pops always said to me, never go down in them mines. Why, they’ve had cave-ins, poisonous gases, tunnels collapsing without warning…” Clarence tailed off, having turned himself pale with his own litany of mining disasters. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence as we all contemplated just what we were letting ourselves in for.
“Nonsense,” Colonel Pendlebury eventually blustered. “It can’t be any more dangerous than the expedition I ran to the Hanging Jungle of Bunawayo when I was a young Major and I came through that alright.” He paused and took a sip of wine. “Of course we lost a few pack mules along the way… And one or two native guides… And my second-in-command was eaten by cannibals… But, all in all, it was a walk in the park.”
The conversation fell into another lull. The delightful Matty had finished her song and made way for another girl. Clarence, having polished off the best part of one of the bottles of wine by himself, fell into a doze in his chair. Colonel Pendlebury grew absorbed by the antics of a group of idle young women fooling around on a sofa not far from us. He stared out at them with the avid concentration of a wildlife documentary-maker who has unexpectedly stumbled upon a rare new species. Michael and I finished off the last bottle of wine between us.
“Are you really sure you want to do this?” Michael asked after a while. “Go down into the mines I mean.”
The answer I wanted to give was, “What? Go crawling about in a dank, dangerous mine in search of some dubious invention that most likely either doesn’t work or was never taken in there in the first place? Of course I don’t. Are you mad?”
But somehow I couldn’t quite bring myself to say that. What I said instead was, “I suppose we ought to be able to say to Sturridge that we at least tried to find his inter-dimensional travel drive.”
“You never know,” said Michael, dredging up an optimistic smile. “We might get lucky and stumble on it right away.”
“And if we don’t?”
Michael took a weary look at our pitiful collection of funds still sitting on the table. “Then I guess there’s always the miner’s camp,” he shrugged.
I shuddered. “In that case I’m going to make the most of a warm bed tonight,” I responded. “How about you?”
Michael leaned thoughtfully back in his chair and cast a mildly amused eye over the busy social scene across the room. “Oh, I might just take in a little more of the floor show before I turn in,” he casually replied.
I followed his gaze across to a scantily clad young woman chatting playfully with a stocky young man in chaps. “So, which one is it you’re interested in?” I couldn’t resist asking. “The young lass in the negligee or the cowboy she’s talking to?”
Michael merely smiled in reply and so I left him to it. Barely had I stood up from the table than Ma Estefan sidled up to me in her most ingratiating manner. “Anything else I can get you my dear?” she asked.
“Just my room for the night,” I replied.
“Of course my dear, it’s all ready for you. Would you be requiring any company in there with you?” she added, her lewd smile exposing a row of rotten teeth. “We can accommodate all tastes.”
“No thanks, I’m a bit tired,” I answered simply.
A sour look of disappointment flashed momentarily across Ma Estefan’s face before she once again assumed her leery smile. “As you wish dear.” She snapped her fingers in the direction of a couple of young women idly chatting by the piano. “Matty dear, show the young lady up to guest room 4,” she instructed sharply. And then, with a smooth, “Sleep well my dear”, she floated off in search of another customer who might be more amenable to her wares.
The buxom young woman whose singing had so enchanted Clarence earlier stepped forward with a warm smile. “This way,” she said, heading towards the staircase.
“I like that song you sang earlier,” I said by way of polite conversation as we climbed the stairs. “You’ve certainly made an impression on a friend of mine. I think you must know him – Clarence Milton Hayward.”
I could see Matty’s memory flicking through a virtual contact book in her mind before she was able to place the name. “Oh Clarence, of course,” she finally acknowledged. “He’s a friend of yours, is he?” she added with a curious look.
“Well, more of a sort of temporary business partner,” I confessed.
“Don’t mind my saying but I’d be a little careful of any business dealings you might have with Clarence,” warned Matty with an air of genuine concern. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s a sweet boy, but he’s not what you might call reliable.”
“Don’t worry, I think I’ve got his measure,” I replied with a smile. But then an unaccountable urge to defend Clarence came over me. “But he did seem quite genuine in his feelings for you. He told us how he plans to take you away from here.”
“Oh they all say that,” responded Matty with a heavy sigh. “It’s best taken with a pinch of salt.”
“I suppose that’s probably the trouble with living in a place like this,” I said. “Everyone’s waiting for the day they hit the jackpot.”
“You ain’t wrong there,” agreed Matty with a sigh. “Gold fever. You don’t have to be digging down a mine to get infected.” We’d reached the top of the stairs now and Matty paused and gazed over the balcony at the room down below. “I seen too many girls throw their lives away waiting for some miner to strike it rich and carry them off into the sunset. Well, not me.” She gave me a conspiratorial look and lowered her tone. “Don’t tell Ma Estefan but I got a savings account at Henderson’s bank and I get a little put by every month. It may not be much but it’ll get me a ticket out of here before long.”
“Good for you,” I said. “I know I’ll be glad when we get done with the mines and are moving on again.”
“Oh honey, not you too,” protested Matty. “There I was, thinking you looked far too smart to get yourself mixed up with prospecting. I guess it just goes to show that anyone can get bitten by that gold bug.”
“Oh, it’s not gold we’re looking for,” I protested.
“What else could you hope to find down those mines?” asked Matty with a puzzled look.
“Ah, well, you see there was this old miner, Ratty McCulloch, and we think he took something down with him, a kind of device…” I faltered as I tried to think of a way to explain the intricacies of inter-dimensional travel but it turned out Matty had stopped listening anyway.
“Gee, there’s a name I haven’t heard in a while,” she murmured thoughtfully. “Ratty McCulloch.”
“You knew him?” I said in surprise.
“Lord yes, he was one of my regulars,” said Matty. “Now there’s another one who was always talking of riches when it was as much as he could do to scrape together the cash for a quick hand job. I remember the last time I saw him, he had such a look in his eye. ‘Just take care of my stuff Matty,’ he said, ‘and I’ll return with so much gold you could take a bath in it’.”
“What stuff?” I immediately asked.
“Oh just some papers of his,” replied Matty airily. “He always asked me to take care of what he called his estate for him before he went into the mines. He wouldn’t carry so much as a map down there for fear someone would steal it from him.”
“Do you still have his papers?” I asked hurriedly.
“Well, I guess,” mused Matty. “I mean, I don’t recall throwing them out so they must be still in my room somewhere. But I can’t see what anyone would want with Ratty’s old junk.”
“If they could give us a clue as to where Ratty was digging in the mines they might be invaluable,” I replied.
“Oh now you shouldn’t go thinking Ratty had the clues to any buried gold,” said Matty unhappily. “All that treasure map and ‘X marks the spot’ stuff only plays out in fairy stories. And even if you did find any gold you’d only end up tangling with the Grishams for it and you don’t want to get mixed up with them, believe me.”
“I promise you we’re not interested in gold,” I swore, uncomfortably aware that I was unable to keep a hint of desperation out of my voice. “But Ratty took something into the mines with him before he disappeared – an invention of Clarence’s father. And, well, it’s really important to us that we find it.” I gave Matty my most solemn, heartfelt look. “If those papers could help us…”
Matty looked at me keenly for a moment and then sighed. “Well, I guess it’s probably safe to say that they ain’t no use to Ratty himself no more.”
“You mean I can have them?” I said hopefully.
“I suppose so. That’s if I can find them of course.”
“Why don’t we take a look for them now?” I suggested eagerly.
Matty cast a wary look over the balcony. “Ma Estefan won’t like it if I’m away too long,” she said uncertainly. “Time is money, that’s her motto.”
I glanced down myself to see the bejewelled madam circling the salon in predatory fashion. “Just tell her I changed my mind about her offer of company,” I said. “She can always add it to my bill.”
Matty smiled. “Alright then.”
She led the way along the first floor corridor, past a sequence of red doors that scarcely muffled an exotic array of noises coming from the rooms beyond. The second floor offered a more hushed atmosphere, with candles flickering atmospherically into the distance. Finally we climbed a narrow staircase to reach the living quarters of Ma Estefan’s girls on the top floor. The veneer of lavish comfort was stripped away up here, leaving bare walls and heavy wooden floorboards that creaked painfully as we passed. Matty made her way along to a door at the end of the corridor and opened it.
The room beyond was scarcely large enough to accommodate the narrow iron bedstead and stained wooden wardrobe it contained. Matty reached beneath the bed and pulled out a large black trunk. I waited in an agony of suspense as she casually tossed aside clothes, toiletries and trinkets of all descriptions. Finally she pulled forth a tattered leather pouch. “This is it!” she exclaimed with obvious relief. “The late Ratty McCulloch’s estate.” She regarded my eagerly expectant face with an uncertain air for a moment before finally handing it over. “For all the good I expect it’ll do you,” she added with a sigh.
Whilst Matty began to laboriously replace all the items dislodged from her trunk I sat down on the cold stiff mattress and opened the pouch. It contained a sheaf of loose papers through which I began to eagerly flick. There was a widespread collection of old bills, some paid, some not, a few hastily written and no doubt worthless I.O.U.s from fellow miners and a small packet of faded love letters from a woman named Emmeline. Only when I got to the very bottom of the pile did I come across two pieces of paper that interested me greatly.
The first was a hand drawn map outlining what I quickly realised was the quite extraordinary network of mine tunnels running through the Blue Ridge Mountain. At first I found myself thoroughly disheartened by gazing at the spaghetti-like wriggle of narrow shafts and passageways criss-crossing through the rock. But then I spotted a tentative trail picked out in the finest pencil. Running from the entrance, it wound a tortuous way through what looked like several miles of tunnel before dividing and ending with an X in each of what appeared to be two small caverns deep in the heart of the mountain. It didn’t look like a particularly safe or easy route but it was a route nonetheless.
The second item made my heart beat a little quicker. Printed on thick white paper it was headed, ‘Operational Instructions for the CMH Trans-Dimensional Travel Modulator Mk I’. Underneath was an intricate, carefully labelled diagram of a mechanical device, followed by a list of step by step instructions for its operation. The instrument depicted in the diagram intrigued me greatly. Rather box-like and chunky and with a curious array of lights, dials and buttons, it looked a bit like an over-sized i-pod as designed by Heath Robinson. The list of instructions was signed with a flourish, Clarence Milton Hayward Snr.
I was so wrapped up in examining the picture of the strange invention that I failed to notice Matty finish her tidying. Leaning over my shoulder, she regarded the picture with a dubious expression. “Don’t tell me that’s what you hope to find down in the mountain?” she finally said.
I looked up rather sheepishly. “Yes, actually I’m afraid it is,” I confessed.
“Well goddamn,” murmured Matty with a shake of the head. “I never thought I’d find a loopier crew than them gold prospectors but I reckon this just about takes the prize.”
I would have liked to be able to offer some sort of plea in mitigation but as I glanced from the map to the device and back again I had a sneaking suspicion she might just be right.
To be continued…