They came upon the barracks of the Explorers Club in a clearing in the midst of a dense forest. The site covered a few acres and was encircled by a slender, razor sharp wire fence which glinted dangerously in the sunshine. That these were no ordinary barracks was immediately apparent from a quick survey of the buildings within the wire. Not for the Explorers Club the austere uniformity usually expected of any location bearing such a military title. Instead their compound was made up of the most extraordinary assembly of structures ever seen. There appeared to be specimens from every region and every era, as though it were the collection of an indiscriminate antiques hunter working on a grand scale. Stone huts lodged against modernist glass houses and medieval towers nestled alongside ornate wooden pagodas. In and around these buildings could be spotted an array of vehicles; cars, trucks, motorcycles. A small yacht sat, uncomfortably beached, in the shadow of…
“Oh my god, they’ve got a Zeppelin!” I burst out excitedly, catching sight of the nose of a large airship poking out from behind a church steeple.
I was getting to that.
“And isn’t that the apartment block they stole from Stafford Harcourt?” said Michael, directing my attention to a tall, narrow edifice standing slap bang in the centre of the site.
“So it is,” I replied thoughtfully. Amongst such an eclectic architectural assemblage the plain, unadorned structure seemed oddly out of place.
They continued to observe the site from the shelter of the surrounding trees for some time. Only slowly did it dawn on them that the one thing missing from these barracks were soldiers of any description. In fact the whole compound seemed to be as utterly devoid of any sign of life as the dark and silent forest which surrounded it.
“So what do we do now?” I eventually mused aloud.
“Sturridge’s instructions are that we should wait,” said Michael.
“Wait for what? And for how long?”
“That he doesn’t say.”
“We don’t even know for certain that Sturridge is in there,” I pointed out.
“We don’t know that anyone is in there,” responded Michael.
We both sank back onto the grass beneath the trees and were soon lost in wordless contemplation of the barracks.
“What do you think we should do Bob?” I finally said, breaking the silence.
I’ve told you before I will not respond if you address me like that.
“But how else am I supposed to address you?” I protested. “I’ve got to call you something.”
No you don’t. I’m a narrator – you shouldn’t even be acknowledging my presence.
“I’d just go with it if I were you,” remarked Michael casually. “She has an obsession with naming things. She called the goldfish we picked up Gerald.”
I am not a pet.
“Well then, Mr Narrator, what do you think we should do?” I tried again. “I mean, you’ve probably got a better view of this situation than either of us.”
My view of the situation is irrelevant to you. I’m here to commentate, not to drive the story. And how do you expect me to fix this narrative bleed if you keep on addressing me directly in this fashion?
“I’m not entirely sure I do want you to fix it,” I countered. “If you must keep up this running commentary I’d at least like to know what’s being said about me.”
“Couldn’t you give us just a slight hint as to what to do?” asked Michael, trying to restore the debate to a more practical purpose.
Certainly not. That would constitute a clear breach of the Narrator’s Oath.
“Fat lot of good you turned out to be,” I muttered.
The Narrator pointedly declined to respond and another period of frustrated silence ensued.
“Well then, I suppose we’re just going to have to wait and see what develops,” Michael eventually said with a sigh.
As you like.
The sun edged slowly across the afternoon sky as everyone settled in for a long wait. Michael lay back in the soft grass and idly played with a fallen twig. Natasha casually checked their meagre store of rations. Still there was no sign of activity beyond the wire fence.
“Oh this is ridiculous,” I abruptly groaned. “We can’t just sit here forever.” That dig about our rations had particularly hit home. Having carefully stocked up before leaving Marston we were now reduced to one small Tupperware box containing a couple of sandwiches and it was a while since we’d last eaten.
Michael turned to me. “Are you volunteering to scale the fence then?” he asked lightly.
I glared across at the tightly meshed wire without enthusiasm. “No,” I sighed. “But our provisions are running low and when that sun goes down it’s going to get bloody cold out here.”
“What choice do we have but to wait?” said Michael. “It’s either that or make a tactical retreat.”
“Hmm,” I mused thoughtfully. That option didn’t really appeal much either. “What we really need,” I added after a moment of further contemplation, “is a better idea of what exactly lies beyond that fence.”
“True,” agreed Michael.
“If only there was someone here who could slip easily in and out without being seen,” I casually opined. “Someone, say, without physical form…”
You can save yourself the effort of dropping any more of your extremely unsubtle hints because the answer is no. To interfere in any way with the progression of your story is completely against…
“…your Narrator’s Oath. Yeah, right, we get it,” I muttered.
You may not like it but some of us do have standards to maintain.
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” said Michael after a brief pause, “but wasn’t our agreement that you would only follow our story until we got to the Explorers Club? Shouldn’t you be looking inside for a new tale to narrate?”
Well, yes, I suppose I could do that. But that’s not going to help you much. If I do find new characters inside then that leaves you two on your own.
“I suppose,” mused Michael. He idly swished at the grass with a twig for a moment or two. “Unless, of course, you were to pop back briefly for a quick farewell and fill us in on the lay of the land,” he added casually.
Forget it. I can’t hop from story to story, passing information from one to another. That would constitute a clear case of narrator bias and I, for one, always practice complete impartiality.
“Oh come off it, there’s no such thing as a completely impartial narrator,” I countered. “Every line you say, every phrase you choose colours the story you tell in some way or another.”
There is a whole world of difference between a little deft foreshadowing of important elements and advising your central characters outright what they ought to be doing.
For a moment there was nothing to be heard but a light breeze rustling through the treetops.
“I admire your loyalty to your oath, really I do,” remarked Michael after a moment. “But, given how we rescued you from being stranded on that bleak, dull moorland, I’d have thought you might have developed a bit more of an emotional investment in the outcome of our story.”
Resorting to emotional blackmail in times of stress is not an attractive character trait.
“Yes, but unattractive character traits do make for a more interesting story,” I commented with a wry smile.
We waited patiently.
Alright, fine. I’ll take a quick look just to get a bit of background detail. But I’m not making any promises. I reserve the right to withhold any narrative developments I come across which I feel might compromise the integrity of your story.
“If you say so,” replied Michael lightly.
“Entirely up to you,” I added cheerily.
Well then, for the time being I shall leave you. I cannot say when, or even if, I will be back.
“Bye then,” I said with a casual wave of my hand.
Michael and I sat in silence for a moment, trying to sense any change in the atmosphere that might indicate the narrator’s absence.
“Do you suppose he’s really gone?” I eventually asked Michael in a low voice.
“Hard to say,” murmured Michael.
There was another minute or two of silence. Then Michael abruptly turned and grasped my hand.
“There’s something I have to say to you Everingham,” he declared melodramatically. “Something that’s been on my mind for some time. I can remain silent no longer.” I looked at him dubiously. “Natasha, I love you!”
“I, er…” I spluttered incoherently in return. “What?”
Michael remained frozen in his absurdly theatrical pose for a few moments more before, with equal abruptness, he suddenly dropped my hand and leaned back on the grass. “Well, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have let that pass without comment,” he remarked cheerfully. “So I’d say yes, our narrator has finally left the scene.” And, casually folding his arms behind his head, he returned his languid gaze to the wire fence and the barracks beyond.
I sat frozen for a moment longer. “Ah right,” I eventually murmured. “Good thinking Redgrave.” I leaned back and wiped a surprisingly sweaty palm along my jeans. “Thank God for that.”
The sun was just beginning to dip below the uppermost branches of the tallest trees, casting long, slender shadows across the barracks, when Michael and I finally tired of waiting for The Narrator to return. Action, we felt, was needed. We weren’t quite ready to contemplate a full retreat through the darkening forest but to advance seemed still a daunting prospect, the narrow strip of bare ground between our position and the fence yawning menacingly. So, unable or unwilling to go either forwards or backwards, we chose eventually to go sideways instead. Skirting the edge of the treeline, we made an exploratory circuit of the barracks, trying to figure our next move.
Our tour offered a range of views of an extraordinary array of buildings but nowhere within or around them did we encounter any sign of life. We spotted a few security cameras fixed high up on several of the structures but of who or what might be looking through them there was no indication. And all the way round that bright, sharp wire loomed up high, forming an apparently impregnable deterrent to the curious. The only gateway was chained and padlocked and topped with a double layer of barbed wire. We were on the verge of conceding defeat when Michael spotted what appeared to be the only chink in the perimeter armour.
“Hey, look at that!” he said in an excited whisper. “Is that a hole in the fence?”
I edged forward as far as I dare under the cover of some low sweeping branches and peered hard in the direction he indicated. It wasn’t easy to see, lying as it did in the shadow cast by a crumbling Italianate palazzo, but careful study revealed that Michael was right. There was indeed a tear in the foot of the wire fence, opening up a narrow gap that might just be wide enough for a full grown adult to crawl through.
“Good spot Redgrave!” I murmured approvingly.
We both stood and stared at the hole for a while.
“Well, if we want to explore the barracks I guess this is our opportunity,” Michael eventually remarked in what was a notably wary tone.
“I guess,” I replied slowly.
Neither of us made a move.
“Does it seem a bit, well, convenient to you?” I asked Michael.
“You think it’s a trap?”
“I dunno,” I sighed. “It just seems a bit odd that somewhere that is clearly pretty security conscious – I mean, just check out the location – should fail to notice a gaping hole in their perimeter.”
“I wouldn’t say it was exactly gaping,” returned Michael. “But perhaps the site has been abandoned. There’s no sign of life.”
“Perhaps,” I conceded. “But if there’s no-one inside then why hasn’t The Narrator returned?”
“Maybe he got distracted by all that lavish architectural description,” suggested Michael with a half-smile.
I took another look across to the gap in the fence. There were about fifty metres or so of open ground to cover before we could reach it but there appeared to be no security cameras or visible alarms covering this particular section of the site. And if we did make it through the fence then at least the shadow of the palazzo should offer us some cover whilst we calculated our next move.
I sighed. “What do you reckon then? Creep across or make a dash for it?”
Michael thoughtfully surveyed the way ahead. “Well, there’s not much cover so we may as well make a dash for it,” he concluded.
“After you then,” I said graciously.
Michael rolled his eyes. “Another case of dead men go first, is it?”
“No, on this occasion it’s tall men go first,” I retorted. “That’s not a big hole and if you get stuck halfway through I want to make sure I’m not trapped on the wrong side of the fence.”
Michael gave me a distinct look of disdain in response to this well-reasoned piece of self-preservation. But, clearly unable to come up with any kind of convincing counter-argument, he eventually shrugged and turned towards the fence. “On the count of three then?” he said reluctantly.
“On the count of three,” I agreed.
We both took a deep breath.
In a circular room in the upper reaches of the Black Tower two men were waiting. The first, who went by the name of Valentine, was pacing the floor with a self-consciously thoughtful air. He strode ceaselessly with an upright, dignified posture from a small window on one side of the room to an identical window on the opposite side and back again. Though a little way past the prime of life he was still a strikingly handsome man. He had sparkling green eyes, sharp cheekbones and a tall, trim figure. As he paced, the tilt of his head added an intriguingly contemplative air to his attractive features. Here, inside the confines of the Tower, there were no passers-by to observe him but if there had been they would surely have felt compelled to pause awhile and admire the effect.
The second man, named Kenneth, would make no such claims on anyone’s attention. He was not perhaps what you would call downright ugly but his face lacked any strength of feature, being altogether too soft and spongy to be particularly pleasant to look upon. In fact his flesh as a whole had a disagreeably malleable quality to it, as though it had been moulded only temporarily into its present form and might melt at any moment into a shapeless puddle on the floor. Kenneth was seated at a desk in front of a confusing assembly of technological equipment. He tapped nervously on the table with nicotine stained fingers whilst his eyes flicked anxiously between monitors and dials.
This scene played patiently on for a not inconsiderable period of time before Kenneth suddenly sat back with a cry of suppressed triumph. “Val, they’re here!” he said, turning eagerly to his companion.
Valentine came to a halt exactly midway between the two walls, where the dwindling light from the two windows met in a shallow pool. “They’ve taken the bait?” he said.
Kenneth’s eyes flew back momentarily across his screens and monitors before he turned and gave an eager nod.
A flicker of intense satisfaction, like that of a tennis player who has just seen a perfectly executed lob land tantalisingly beyond the reach of his opponent, alighted for a moment upon Valentine’s face. “Well then,” he said with the merest hint of a smile, “I think it’s time we finally got this show started.”
To be continued…