It was a little over half an hour later when Michael and I located the Café del Mar, which I approached rather more in hope than expectation. Inside we found a warm, bustling place with a vaguely Bohemian air. The clientele were a decidedly mixed bunch; young and old, male and female, down-at-heel and well-to-do, all maintaining a steady hum of chatter above the clink of cups and the rustle of newspapers. Despite a careful scrutiny of the various faces though I failed to spot anyone in the crowd bearing the faintest resemblance to Sturridge.
So Michael and I found an empty table near the rear of the café where we ordered a couple of coffees and settled down to wait. Ten thirty came and went. Waiters and waitresses bustled to and fro, customers departed and new ones arrived whilst the murmur of conversation rose and fell to its own enigmatic rhythm. But still no Sturridge. My coffee cup now empty, I was just beginning to ponder the chances of our still making that midday train to Madrid when my attention was distracted by an elderly couple in the centre of the room. In the midst of the general bonhomie these two sweet-looking old dears seemed to have rather suddenly descended into an almighty row.
Their strident voices struck a discordant note above the general hum and soon the whole café had stopped to observe the escalating dispute. Their words were so shrill it was impossible to grasp what the argument was actually about but there were cries and yells and wild gesticulations and then, just when it seemed the whole thing had reached a natural crescendo and must now inevitably abate, the old lady suddenly stood up and tipped half a pot of lukewarm coffee over her husband, sending everyone into a total flap.
Which was the exact moment at which Sturridge suddenly appeared as if from nowhere and slipped surreptitiously into the spare seat at our table.
“Sturridge!” I exclaimed.
“Hello Natasha,” said Sturridge smoothly. “And it is indeed an honour to finally meet you in the flesh, Mr Redgrave.” Turning slightly, he flashed a smile of distinct charm in Michael’s direction.
Unfortunately Michael was still rather too much distracted by the on-going commotion in the centre of the room to fully appreciate the greeting. “Ah, yes, hello,” was all he could manage in reply. At this stage the old gentleman was being simultaneously wiped down and restrained by a couple of waiters whilst his wife cackled triumphantly just out of reach. “Do you suppose we ought to help?” asked Michael in concern.
“Oh no, I’m sure it’ll all blow over,” Sturridge replied airily. “In fact, I confidently expect Mr and Mrs Zielinski to kiss and make up any moment now.”
Just then I caught the old gentleman throwing a swift, surreptitious glance in our direction. Sturridge responded with a barely perceptible nod of his head and, to my surprise, the old couple almost instantly calmed their violent gestures and resumed their seats. It seemed the hubbub had subsided every bit as abruptly as it had begun.
“You arranged that?” I said disbelievingly to Sturridge.
“A little distraction is always helpful when you want to arrive unnoticed,” answered Sturridge with a sly smile.
“Well I never,” murmured Michael half-admiringly as the café gradually resumed its steady hum.
It occurred to me, as I carefully studied the expression on Sturridge’s face, that this was the first time we had met in person since that night back in Bristol when he had first spoken of the landscape of the imagination. I found his presence, leaning casually back in his chair as though we met up for coffee most mornings as a matter of course, both reassuringly familiar and unnervingly strange. There was something in that quietly determined face that I couldn’t quite read.
I found I had a hundred questions I wanted to ask about all manner of things but in the end I opted to start with the matter that was currently foremost in my mind. “Just what is it with all this cloak and dagger stuff?” I demanded. “First that ridiculous messenger at the station and now this. Is this all really necessary?”
“Well, thanks to you two, I’d rather say it was,” returned Sturridge, a touch huffily. “You were supposed to be under the radar, my secret weapon. But then you go and do the one thing guaranteed to get the Explorer’s Club trailing halfway across the landscape after you.” Sturridge leaned forward and fixed me with an irritable glare. “What on earth did you mean by making an inter-dimensional leap like that? You couldn’t have picked a better way to get yourselves noticed, could you? And after I’d specifically warned you against using the technology.”
“Whoa there just a minute,” I protested, slightly overwhelmed. “You never said anything about not using the inter-dimensional device.”
“Of course I did,” retorted Sturridge with a dismissive shake of his head.
I turned to Michael for support. “Did he tell us not to use the device?”
“Well, I certainly don’t recall anything of the sort being said,” Michael replied diplomatically.
“It was the very last thing I said to you before I signed off transmission,” insisted Sturridge firmly. “Whatever the circumstances, I said, don’t ever put the device to use.”
I cast my mind back to the café in Constantinople and the light slowly dawned. “Actually,” I returned, growing just a touch haughty myself, “I think you’ll find that what you said was, ‘Whatever the circumstances, don’t ever…’ and then the screen went blank.”
Sturridge slowly shook his head. “No, that can’t be right,” he muttered. “I timed that perfectly.”
“I’m afraid it’s true,” added Michael. “The screen really did just go black.”
Sturridge wrinkled his brow in recollection. “Well, these transmission signals can be very unreliable,” he finally said defensively. Then he looked up at us defiantly. “Besides, I should have thought it would be perfectly obvious that in using the device you would only be attracting trouble.”
“In our defence we didn’t particularly want to use the device,” Michael protested mildly. “I’m afraid circumstances rather dictated.”
“Exactly. If we hadn’t made that leap we would now be lying squished beneath about five hundred tonnes of mountain,” I pointed out. “As would your precious device.”
“We’d already been separated from Colonel Pendlebury through a tunnel cave-in,” added Michael. “And we don’t yet know if he survived.”
Sturridge, who had been deep in thought apparently re-assessing his broadcasting skills, suddenly looked up. “Oh no, Colonel Pendlebury is fine,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand.
“You’ve seen him?” I said in surprise.
“Not in person,” explained Sturridge. “But I managed to trace him to a settlement just a few miles from the spot from which you made your leap.”
“And you’re sure he’s okay?” asked Michael with concern.
“Oh yes,” said Sturridge. “He’s taken up a job in a post office. Portraying himself around town as an old codger who can scarcely remember what day it is, let alone what he was up to before he arrived there. It’s a very effective ruse.”
I looked dubiously at Sturridge’s blithely unconcerned face. “A ruse, you reckon?” I said.
“Well, of course. Clearly a scheme for throwing the Explorer’s Club off his back,” replied Sturridge. “And it’s working too. Very cleverly done – he’s most convincing.”
I exchanged a brief glance with Michael.
“Tell me, have you ever actually met Colonel Pendlebury?” Michael asked Sturridge after a moments pause.
“Well, no as it happens,” answered Sturridge. “We’ve always dealt through intermediaries. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, no reason,” said Michael quickly.
There followed a moment of awkward silence.
“Just out of interest,” I finally said, changing the subject, “why exactly did you want us to go and find an inter-dimensional travel drive if we’re not supposed to do any actual travelling with it?”
Sturridge looked up with a familiar excitable gleam in his eyes. “You still have it then?” he asked in somewhat hushed tones.
I hesitated a moment, casting my eyes anxiously around the café. But with the commotion of the Zielinski’s row now well and truly over all the patrons appeared lost once more in their own conversations. Nobody was paying the slightest attention to our table. So I reached down into my bag, gently slid out the device, which was still wrapped in its gingham cloth, and laid it on the table in front of Sturridge. He reverently unwrapped the layers and gazed down upon the gadget with an expression something like awe.
“I’m afraid the steering’s broken,” I explained apologetically. “It travels just fine but there’s no way of programming where you want it to go.”
Sturridge picked up the device and turned it over in his hands. “Hmmm,” he murmured thoughtfully. “Hopefully that won’t matter once we get it adapted for our purposes.”
“And what are our purposes if you don’t mind my asking?” said Michael curiously.
Sturridge paused for a moment and then held the device up with an excited smile. “In our hands this will become an excellent tracking device,” he announced. “You must have realised by now that any time anyone makes an inter-dimensional leap they leave a trail, a kind of echo across the dimensions. The Explorer’s Club think that as they control the technology they can move around with impunity. But if we can get this little gizmo properly kitted out we can turn the tables on them. When they finally make their big leap we can track them the whole way.”
“Their big leap?” I echoed uncertainly.
Sturridge leaned forward. “They’ve been very busy working on that apartment block they stole from Stafford Harcourt,” he said. “I think they’re almost ready to move it.”
“Move it where?” asked Michael.
Sturridge lowered his tone a little further. I was somewhat disconcerted to note that his face had taken on that messianic glow that usually indicated he was about to reveal something entirely fantastical. “I happen to know that they’ve been waiting on a report from one of their chief scouts for some time. And the indications are that he should be getting back to them with the coordinates any time now.”
“The coordinates for what?” asked Michael.
“You don’t think they’ve found it already, do you? The original idea?” I asked with some concern.
Sturridge shook his head. “No, they haven’t got that far yet. But they’re definitely making progress. I believe these coordinates they’re waiting for will take them closer to the heart of the landscape. As soon as they get them they’ll make their move.”
“So you reckon their plan is to move this apartment block to this place, wherever it is, nearer the heart of the landscape?” I clarified. Sturridge nodded as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. “But why?”
Sturridge looked at me impatiently. “Didn’t we already discuss the Explorer’s Club and their propensity for seizing and controlling important artefacts from the landscape? And aren’t we all aware that the original idea at the heart of the landscape might well be the most precious artefact within it?”
“Yeah, yeah, they want the original idea – we get that,” I said, displaying a little impatience of my own. “But that doesn’t explain why they need to lug a whole apartment block around the landscape to get it.”
Sturridge managed to stop just short of rolling his eyes in exasperation. “If they want to take control of something as precious as the original idea then they’re probably going to have to show up in force,” he explained. “Now, inter-dimensional travel is a tricky business. You start firing people off one by one they might end up scattered all over the landscape. What you need is some kind of vessel into which you can pack all your personnel and equipment. Then if you can conjure up enough energy it’s only one trip that you need to make.”
“So you’re saying the Explorer’s Club are using the apartment block as a kind of vessel,” said Michael in the slow tones of someone having as much of a struggle as I was to understand.
“Wouldn’t it be easier just to get a big truck?” I suggested.
Sturridge glared. “A building is sturdier and more secure than any truck. And when you’re travelling inter-dimensionally you have no need for wheels.”
There was a moment of silence whilst both Michael and I tried to work out where exactly on the scale of believability Sturridge’s latest pronouncements might fall. To be fair, I was finding that the line on that scale that separated the merely unlikely from the downright impossible was peculiarly hard to pinpoint in the landscape of the imagination.
“Look,” Sturridge finally said with a sigh, “all I know is that they’ve spent the last couple of months storing up enough energy to blast that block to the farthest ends of the landscape. So they clearly have some very big plans for it. And what else could they possibly want to do with a building of that size?”To this I could only shrug in reply. As Michael also failed to offer any alternatives we sat for a moment in puzzled silence.
“Anyway,” continued Sturridge, “the important thing is that if we can get this little gadget fixed up we will be able to keep tabs on them wherever they go.”
“And just how do you plan to go about getting the device fixed up?” I asked.
“If you were hoping to persuade the inventor to do the work for you then I’m afraid you’re out of luck,” put in Michael. “He’s no longer with us.”
“Mmm, I suspected as much,” said Sturridge thoughtfully. “Fortunately, I’ve been able to locate someone else I think will be able to carry out the work we need. Her name is Ash and she’s something of a technical prodigy. She’s resident in a town called Marksville situated in the sci-fi heartlands.” He carefully wrapped the inter-dimensional travel device back up in its protective cloth and laid it down again on the table. “You can catch a train direct from the station,” he added pointedly.
“Whoa there just a minute!” I said. “Who can catch a train direct from the station?”
“Well I can’t go,” protested Sturridge. “The Explorer’s Club will be onto me in a flash.”
“But we’ve only just managed to shake them off our tail,” Michael pointed out.
“Yes, but you’re still something of an unknown quantity to them,” returned Sturridge. “They’re hardly likely to risk following you to somewhere like Marksville.”
There was something in the way that Sturridge had casually tossed the word ‘risk’ into the conversation that immediately put me on alert. “Why? What’s wrong with Marksville?” I demanded.
“Nothing really,” Sturridge replied with an exaggerated air of innocence. “It’s just a regular town in the sci-fi heartlands.” He looked down, carefully examining the device’s gingham wrapping for a moment. “Only I may have heard that the town is involved in a slight conflict at the moment.”
“What exactly do you mean by conflict?” asked Michael suspiciously.
“Well, it’s the sci-fi heartlands – everyone’s at war with everyone else,” shrugged Sturridge blithely.
“You want us to go wandering off into the middle of a war zone?” I said incredulously.
“There’s no need for worry,” insisted Sturridge in a soothing tone. “They have very strict rules about warfare in the heartlands. As neutrals you’ll be perfectly safe.” Neither Michael nor I looked remotely reassured. “I mean,” added Sturridge, “if the trains are still running just how bad can it be?”
“I don’t know – you tell me,” I muttered, still far from comforted.
“Look, somebody has to stay and keep an eye on the Explorer’s Club and I’m the only one with an inside track there,” said Sturridge frankly. “And you know I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I wouldn’t be prepared to do myself.”
I continued to gaze suspiciously at Sturridge for a while. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe what he said. No doubt he would cheerfully dash off to this town of Marksville at a moments notice if he thought it would get him what he wanted. But that wasn’t quite the point. After all, what Sturridge might be prepared to do in his quest to foil the Explorer’s Club and what I was prepared to do were two very different things.
“And if we do go to Marksville how do we know this Ash will be willing to help us?” I finally said with a sigh. “Won’t she have other things on her mind, what with living in the middle of a war zone and all?”
“Ah, well, that’s why you’ll need to offer her this in return?” said Sturridge eagerly. Reaching into his pocket he took out a small, wooden box which he laid on the table. I couldn’t help noticing that despite its being no more than a few inches square the box was equipped with no less than three padlocks.
“Just what is that exactly?” asked Michael, gazing down upon it with intense curiosity.
“Something that I happen to know Ash has been hoping to get her hands on for some time,” replied Sturridge evasively. “Supplies can be quite tricky to get hold of in wartime.”
“You mean it’s contraband?” said Michael.
“Let’s just say I wouldn’t go declaring anything at customs,” replied Sturridge casually. He laid three small padlock keys on the table alongside the box. When I reluctantly moved to pick them up he quickly held up a warning hand. “Oh and you need to be very careful not to open the box at any point along the way,” he added quickly. “Just hand everything over to Ash when you get to Marksville and leave it to her. It’s just the contents can be rather, er, volatile if not handled correctly.”
“Oh brilliant,” I said sarcastically. “Now it turns out we’re smuggling explosives into a war-zone.”
“No, no, it’s nothing explosive,” insisted Sturridge. “I promise you the box poses absolutely no threat to you whatsoever.” I continued to glare doubtfully at him. “Really,” Sturridge added earnestly, “there’s no need to worry.”
I picked up the padlock keys and toyed with them in my hand, wishing I could find some reassurance in his words.
“You will help though, won’t you?” asked Sturridge after a moment. He gently pushed the inter-dimensional travel device a couple of inches towards me.
I hesitated, still not quite sure.
“Only there’s nobody else I can trust,” Sturridge added earnestly.
I sighed and glanced across at Michael but he was still peering closely at the box on the table with narrowed eyes as though he expected it to explode at any moment. I looked at the suspicious little wooden box for a moment or two myself and then I looked up into Sturridge’s expectant, almost pleading, eyes.
“Alright then,” I reluctantly acquiesced, picking up both the travel device and the box and slipping them into my bag. “I suppose you’d better tell us whereabouts in Marksville we can locate this techno friend of yours.”
To be continued…