“Yes, I should think I can find you a room,” said Madame Laporte, proprietress of the White Hart Inn by the bridge at the top of the village. She looked us up and down carefully. “We get many travellers staying with us,” she added in a voice that indicated that whilst we weren’t the kind of traveller she was used to she was prepared to be broad-minded. Besides, village gossip being what it was, she was well aware that we had spent most of the day up at the Chateau as guests of Master Ferdinand and that clearly carried some clout.
“Two rooms if you can manage it,” said Michael. “One for each of us.”
Madame Laporte eyed us carefully once more, for this undoubtedly obliged her to adjust her assumptions yet again, but eventually answered with a gracious smile, “Certainly.”
“I don’t suppose you could manage en suite,” I said, without much hope.
Madame Laporte looked at me blankly.
“My friend was wondering about the washing facilities,” explained Michael with a grin.
“Oh don’t worry, we have quite a reputation for cleanliness,” replied Madame Laporte cheerfully. “The maid empties the chamber pots every day and there’s a pail by the pump in the yard for all your morning ablutions. That’ll do you, won’t it?”
I sighed and reluctantly nodded. It was not like we had an awful lot of choice. The sun was already dipping by the time Master Ferdinand decided we could be of no further use in clearing up the devastation wrought by the volatile gold and gave us leave to be on our way and there was no other overnight accommodation available for miles around. I suppose we should have considered ourselves fortunate enough to be away from the Chateau for he had offered no such leave to Guillaume. Master Ferdinand had insisted he stay in case Le Comte and La Comtesse demanded a head in return for the damage caused to their Chateau. Despite the variety of ominous threats uttered I couldn’t quite bring myself to feel too sorry for Guillaume. Something told me he was the type of character who could manage to talk his way out of most trouble and in fact before we left he had already confided his plans to try and sell Le Comte a revised volatile gold recipe repackaged as an all new wonder weapon.
The White Hart Inn had clearly been built in stages over a lengthy period of time, extending around a central courtyard. Madame Laporte led us up a rickety staircase to a covered gallery running along the first floor. She stopped at a door on the side of the gallery, unlocked it and threw it open. “Here you are sir,” she said, waving a hand to indicate to Michael the broad, spacious room beyond. “One of our very finest rooms.”
She paused just long enough for Michael to offer a murmur of appreciation and then carried on along the gallery before unlocking and opening another door. “And we can situate you right next door Miss,” Madame Laporte said in what could only be described as a rather suggestive tone.
“Next door?” I said uncertainly, glancing briefly at the room indicated and then turning my gaze back along the gallery.
“Yes miss, right next door,” said Madame Laporte, stopping just short of giving me an outright wink.
“Then where does this door lead?” I asked, pointing to a plain dark door set directly between the two she had opened for us. For just a moment I allowed myself to hope that it might lead to some sort of forgotten bathroom.
At first Madame Laporte seemed to have some difficulty focusing on the door I had indicated, so much so that I felt obliged to step back along the gallery and knock sharply upon it to direct her attention. Only then did her eyes come to rest on it with a somewhat befuddled expression. “Oh, that thing,” she eventually said in a curiously languid tone. “Do you know, I often forget that’s there. Silly old door.”
“But what is it for?” prompted Michael.
“Oh, nothing,” replied Madame Laporte dismissively. “Well, I don’t know really. It just sort of appeared, out of nowhere.”
Michael and I exchanged a significant glance.
“When was this?” asked Michael.
“I don’t know, a few days ago I suppose. It doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t lead anywhere.”
“So you’ve opened it then?” I said.
“No, of course I haven’t opened it,” replied Madame Laporte quickly.
“But how do you know it doesn’t lead anywhere if you’ve never opened it?” I asked.
Madame Laporte considered this question for a moment. “Well, it stands to reason, doesn’t it?” she finally concluded with an exasperated shrug.
I turned to Michael. “What do you think?” I asked, a note of excitement creeping into my voice.
Michael stared thoughtfully at the door. It was just a plain, dark door with no markings on it other than a small wooden handle on the left hand side. Slowly he reached out and tried the handle but it would not turn. He pushed against the door, at first gently and then harder, finally giving it a hefty shove with his shoulder, but nothing moved. He took a step back and looked thoughtfully at the door again. “We don’t know for sure that it is the door we’re looking for,” he mused.
“What else could it be?” I asked.
Michael merely shrugged in reply.
With a sudden brainwave I reached down into my bag, pulled out the inter-dimensional travel drive and, ignoring Madame Laporte’s disapproving murmur, held it up against the door. “Look, it’s flashing,” I exclaimed, indicating the co-ordinates on the dial. “This must be the door.”
Michael noted the flashing co-ordinates, peered at the door for a moment more with a puzzled frown then leaned in close and pressed his ear up against it.
“Do you hear anything?” I asked eagerly.
“Not a thing,” conceded Michael.
“But the co-ordinates prove it,” I said. “This must be the door.”
“I suppose so,” conceded Michael. “So, what do we do now?”
“We’ve got to open it somehow,” I insisted.
“How?” asked Michael.
I turned to Madame Laporte. “Do you have an axe?”
Madame Laporte glared at me in alarm. “Here, what do you think you’re up to?”
“We just want to open this door here,” I explained patiently. “Don’t you want to know what’s behind it?”
But Madame Laporte backed nervously away, her eyes still fixed on the flashing travel device in my hand. “Oh no, I’ll have none of this,” she said warily. “I’ve heard all about those funny goings on up at the Chateau.”
“This is nothing to do with what went on at the Chateau,” insisted Michael soothingly.
“For all I know you might bring the whole place down around my ears once you get started,” said Madame Laporte, shaking her head. “This is my livelihood, don’t you know.”
“We won’t do any damage at all to your inn,” I rather recklessly promised. “We’re just planning to remove an unnecessary and unwanted door from your property. Where’s the harm in that?”
Madame Laporte continued to regard me dubiously.
“We’ll make it worth your while,” offered Michael vaguely.
This gave Madame Laporte pause for thought for our connections with the Chateau had no doubt given her the erroneous impression that we were people of substance. She spent another moment or two studying us intensely whilst she weighed up the pros and cons before she eventually said, “Very well. Wait here.”
As she hurried away down the stairs Michael and I turned back to gaze upon the door once more. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” Michael finally said after a minute or two of contemplative silence. “Taking an axe to it, I mean. The Explorer’s Club will surely have put some security measures in place.”
“It seems to me its security is assured by its very transparency,” I argued. “They’ve clearly put some kind of hoodoo on it to stop the locals from noticing it. You saw Madame Laporte’s reaction, she barely knew it was there.”
“But that’s only going to work as long as nobody is actively looking for it,” countered Michael. “The Explorer’s Club must be aware of that.”
“As far as the Explorer’s Club are concerned nobody is looking for it,” I pointed out. “They think we were incinerated in a Zeppelin fireball and there’s nobody else to search for Sturridge.”
“Hmmm,” seemed to be the only response Michael was prepared to commit to at this stage.
At this point Madame Laporte returned, carrying a hugely impressive axe. She handed it over to Michael with some show of reluctance. “You will be careful, won’t you?” she said. “Any damages are going directly onto your bill.”
“Of course,” I hastily agreed.
Michael felt the weight of the axe in his hands as he stationed himself squarely in front of the door. Then he hesitated. “I just can’t help thinking there must be some sort of security field,” he said, turning back to me with a worried frown. “It would be just like those Explorer’s Club blighters to booby trap the bloody thing.”
“Look, do you want me to do it?” I said with a sigh, holding out my hand for the axe.
“I didn’t say that.”
“I can swing an axe just as well as you can,” I pointed out.
“I’m sure you can,” conceded Michael, keeping tight hold of the axe nonetheless.
“I mean, if you’re worried about getting hurt…”
“It’s fine. I’m happy to do it,” said Michael sharply.
He turned and took up his stance in front of the door once again. Madame Laporte, I couldn’t help noticing, had begun slowly sidling back towards the stairs. Michael tightened his grip on the axe and loosened his shoulders with a couple of practice swings. To my dismay, I suddenly found myself facing an urge of my own to duck back down out of the way but I forced myself to remain upright beside him as Michael took a deep breath, drew back his arm and brought the axe crashing down upon the centre of the door.
There was a loud crack, followed by a resounding hum which rolled right around the interior of the courtyard as though someone had struck an enormous gong. We both peered closely at the door. There was a mark in the centre where the axe had struck but the door held firm.
“Hit it again,” I urged.
Michael steadied himself and swung once more. There was another, louder crash and an even louder boom rolled around the courtyard, seeming to shake the very foundations beneath our feet. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Madame Laporte covering her ears and edging back still further down the stairs.
A large crack had now appeared where the centre of the door had splintered.
“Again!” I urged. “Harder!”
Michael drew back the axe and hurled it against this crack with all the force he could muster. The thud was now so loud that it appeared to roll right out beyond the courtyard and over the hills before echoing back to us. But when we looked at the door a bright sliver of light was now visible through the crack which had been made in the centre.
Michael didn’t need any further encouragement. He took another almighty swing and with a thunderous crack the door suddenly splintered in two.
For just a second I could swear I had a glimpse of a small bare room beyond the door before there was an intense flash of blinding light and a pulse of energy hurled both Michael and I back against the frame of the gallery.
For the second time that day I was obliged to blink ferociously to banish the flashes of light that danced before my eyes and shake my head to clear it of the dense ringing in my ears. When I was at last able to focus I found that the door that had momentarily splintered had now vanished entirely. All that stood in front of us was a section of bare wall.
Michael was able to scramble to his feet a few seconds before I was. Still holding his axe loosely in one hand he held up the other against the section of wall then turned back to me. “It’s just gone,” he rather redundantly announced.
I gazed intently at the unremarkable stretch of wall and then pulled out the inter-dimensional travel device again. “Those co-ordinates have gone,” I said, holding it up so Michael could see. “They’ve just vanished from the screen. It’s as though that particular room has just been wiped out of existence.”
Michael gazed thoughtfully upon the device for a moment. “I told you there’d be some sort of security field,” he finally remarked.
“I’m certainly glad that’s over.” Madame Laporte’s voice cut through the silence that followed as she emerged from her hiding place on the stairs. “I thought for a moment you were going to have the whole inn down around our ears.” Reaching past us she ran her own hand over the wall where the door had once been. “Well, I suppose that’s just as it should be,” she finally concluded with a satisfied nod. “No real harm done.”
I shook my head, still trying to dispel the last ringing effects of the blast. “I suppose it must have been some sort of self-destruct mechanism,” I mused to Michael. “I guess they figure they have enough rooms that it won’t matter if they lose one or two if the local conditions become unfavourable.”
Michael nodded thoughtfully. “The question you have to ask then is,” he said, “what happens when they run out of rooms?”
I stood, considering the question, for a moment or two. “There’s only one way to find out,” I eventually replied.
“Well then,” interrupted Madame Laporte briskly, brushing her hands down on her skirt before relieving Michael of his axe. “Now that’s done you can get settled into your rooms. I suppose you’ll be wanting breakfast in the morning?”
I glanced down at the long list of co-ordinates still remaining on the inter-dimensional travel device. “One down, 272 to go,” I muttered to myself before looking up and meeting her cheery smile. “Yes, I suppose we will.”
To be continued…